On Being Vulnerable, as Experience and Symposium

When I was eighteen and a freshman at UC Irvine, I was deeply unsure of what I wanted for my short- and long-term future. Of one thing I was certain: I did not wish to be a college student. Symptomatic of that wish to be elsewhere and otherwise, I made a weekly trip up to Burbank, where I enrolled in a class for aspiring actors. (Feel free to insert joke here. Sometimes, when I think I’m doing poorly at being an academic, I think of how bad I might have been in my job had I actually tried to become a professional actor. That thought gives me a strange, self-flagellating form of comfort.)

One day, the instructor had us discuss qualities we appreciated about successful Hollywood actors. The observations were fairly typical. Meryl Streep? Chameleon-like ability to get into character. Robert DeNiro? Riveting intensity. Robert Redford? Here I offered my two cents: “He always appears to be in control.” The instructor turned toward me – and, it seemed, turned on me. “Control is a dangerous word for an actor!” As he explained it – and he was right – the desire for control prevents an actor from channeling certain emotions and from opening herself or himself to fellow actors onstage or in front of the camera. Control destroys scenes, productions, and eventually careers. If you wish to nail a scene or a part, you have to be willing to open yourself, render yourself vulnerable; to find your life as an actor, you must be willing to lose it, to lose control.

Right, so I never became an actor, though I did, for a few short breaths, get an agent. But then, instead of taking parts in industrial films and reading for roles in soap operas, I decided to pursue a drama of a different order by serving an LDS mission. That experience changed me. Among other things, it awakened a fascination in humanity, an appreciation of its inscrutable depths (of culture, of history, of sublime goodness and/or depravity, and of its capacity for transformation) that I had never previously imagined. It planted the seed that would eventually compel me to pursue higher education and a life in the humanities. And it made me acutely aware of my vulnerability – as a “dumb American” in a foreign country and as an inept kid tasked with divine things. When I wasn’t overwhelmed I was simply unconscious; the experience was equivalent to a low-grade trauma born in small doses, bit by bit, day by day.

As I say, it changed me. And while it didn’t make me less instinctively desirous of control, it’s made me less satisfied when I realize I’ve obtained some measure of it, for that’s always a sign that something is missing, that the world has grown too insular. Those conflicting impulses to achieve and risk losing control are pervasive in my life, including my professional life: they help explain the trajectory of my scholarly work and my evolution as a teacher.

Doubtlessly, they also inform the symposium our BYU Humanities Center is organizing this coming September. Not that they are that symposium’s impetus; not at all, in fact. I attended a conference last summer and found myself in conversation with people who in varying ways expressed dissatisfaction with the tenor of academic culture and discourse. One grad student in particular spoke of feeling so much more alive to ideas before she entered her PhD program. She missed feeling vulnerable and open to life, she said, amid the endless posturing and striving for the appearance of indomitability. This sat with me. And over the next few weeks and months I thought about our moment in the humanities, and the threats to our disciplines’ viability – locally, nationally, and internationally. I thought about the institutional and public responses to those threats, and the ways our peers at other institutions tend, often of necessity, to draw battle lines (against administrations and legislators) and shore up defenses. I thought about the things that move me as a reader and thinker, and how different they are in mood and meaning from the rallying cry to modes of invulnerability and the affect of critique. (Rita Felski’s talk when she visited in February 2017 really resonated with me.) I thought about what inspiration feels like, mine and others’, and how it tends to accompany surprise – the antithesis of control. I thought about a great idea a former Humanities Center fellow (Brian Roberts) had had about the kind of event(s) we might host. I spoke with one of our Humanities Center guests (Amanda Anderson) who has organized such events as director of a humanities institute at her university. I chatted with Brooke Browne (our Humanities Center assistant coordinator), Holly Boud (our former intern), and other Humanities Center fellows about the thought of organizing a large symposium. And then I ran the idea past our very supportive dean.

We’re holding the symposium this coming September 21-22. We have some incredible speakers lined up – former guests, new guests, and our own faculty. You can read, below, the symposium abstract I sent to our own faculty a few months back, and to our invited guests: Amanda Anderson, Wai Chee Dimock, Laurent Dubreuil, Kevin Hart, Christopher Newfield, Ifeoma Nwankwo, L. A. (Laurie) Paul, and Mads Rosendahl Thomsen. These are excellent thinkers. They’ve given us some provocative titles and descriptions. It should be an amazing event.

We’ve never tried hosting anything quite this big. There are so many details, so many things – circumstances, ideas, outcomes – that are simply impossible to anticipate. It feels daunting, outside my comfort zone, a little out of my control. And that seems exactly as it should be.

This post was written by Matthew Wickman, Founding Director of the BYU Humanities Center


On Being Vulnerable: “Crisis” and Transformation

MLA explained its choice of theme, “Vulnerable Times,” for its 2014 annual conference by citing precarious conditions facing humanities disciplines: reduced funding, cutbacks in jobs, exploitation of non-tenure-track teachers, the bleak prospects facing language departments, and so on. Underscoring the pertinence of this subject—indeed, extending it beyond the university to include “political volatility, fluctuating financial markets, fear-mongering media, and increasingly hateful acts and rhetoric that contribute to a general sense of malaise” – the 2018 MLA conference is themed “#States of Insecurity.”

In 2016, Duke University Press published a volume titled Vulnerability in Resistance, foregrounding one potential response to vulnerable times. Judith Butler, Zeynep Gambetti, and Leticia Sabsay, the volume’s editors, contest the assumption “that vulnerability is the opposite of resistance and cannot be conceived as part of that practice.” Instead, they explore “what in our analytic and political frameworks would change if vulnerability were imagined as one of the conditions of the very possibility of resistance.” Accordingly, the book marshals a set of forceful responses that negotiate the complexities of vulnerability, opening important avenues of reflection through a principled dedication to the practice of critique.

While this approach provides a vigorous model of response to vulnerable times, it also reanimates the crisis to which the 2014 MLA theme drew attention. This is because, in some influential lines of thought, critique, a cognate of “crisis,” has come to designate a compulsive behavior as much as a mode of analytic engagement. Rita Felski, in particular, has divulged how critique often involves an affective posture of detachment and superiority, the antithesis of the openness and amenability to transformation that vulnerability also suggests. What is more, the compulsive quality of critique, its dogmatic insistence and predictability, has contributed to a sense of its seeming exhaustion. Narrowing the circumference of human experience by over-representing a particular type of response, critique contributes to a growing sense of the irrelevance of humanities disciplines to life outside or even within the university.

To be sure, critique continues to hold an important place in humanistic practice, and the critique of critique is not without contradiction and other problems of its own. Nevertheless, the recent turn in literary studies toward the multiple experiential modes through which we encounter and interpret the world opens a provocative space for reflection on the meaning of “vulnerable times” or “states of insecurity.” In particular, it enables us to contemplate vulnerability as an invitation to change. We take a cue here from Hannah Arendt, who argues in The Human Condition that only actions of the most vulnerable kind – self-disclosing, interpersonal, unanticipated, and hence lacking defense of precedent or certainty of outcome – achieve lasting effects. She associates such actions with speech and writing, drama, music – in short, with the arts and humanities – and contrasts them with displays of strength that fortify institutions and bolster economies but ultimately do little to cultivate the human spirit. In effect, she provides a model for the humanities after an era of “crisis,” when humanities disciplines are increasingly portrayed as indefensible and when their greatest chance for survival, ironically, may depend on how their proponents embrace that very trait.

With an eye on the state of the humanities in the US, but with an interest in expanding our purview beyond the US institutional context (and perhaps beyond the university altogether), this symposium will address ways in which humanities disciplines register and promote vulnerability. We will attend especially to the transformations – of our institutions, our research and teaching practices, our students, and even ourselves – that vulnerability suggests or makes possible.

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  1. Glen Cooper says:

    This looks interesting. I’d like to participate. I’m an expert on medieval crisis theory in medicine and astrology, so I’ll think about what my knowledge might contribute tot his discussion.

    1. Wonderful news, Glen — we’d love to have you join the discussion!

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