A few weeks ago, Jeremy Trombley brought up the idea of publishing an edited volume on vulnerability. The idea generated a lot of interest, and, since then, Jeremy and I have been working in the background to write up an abstract to submit to Punctum Books, and to share with others who might be interested. Our aim in this project is of an interdisciplinary nature, and therefore we welcome constructive suggestions from people working in the humanities, social sciences, ecology, and more. As we continue to improve upon and finalize our manuscript proposal we welcome feedback in the form of comments or emails. Your suggestions will help us to deepen and complexify the final form of this volume.
Editors: Jeremy Trombley and Adam Robbert
Since Ernst Haeckel first coined the term “ecology” in 1866 much ecological research has emphasized the interdependent nature of all beings on Earth. But if ecology implies interdependence then another truth is evident: Ecology is precisely what makes beings vulnerable to one another at the level of their existence; ecological vulnerability opens into ontological vulnerability. In other words, the flesh that surrounds an organism—enveloping, sustaining, in part defining—is also the rupture that makes it vulnerable to the outside. Flesh is permeable. We, as fleshy beings, are therefore vulnerable, precarious, and fragile—open to the world and the other beings with whom we share it. We feel pain and we recoil. We break, we bleed, we die. This is an essential feature of our existence. To be is to be vulnerable, and this vulnerability makes us dependent upon others for sustenance, support, healing, and care.
Part one of this book addresses the philosophical aspects of vulnerability. Since vulnerabilities imply the creation of complex, evolving boundaries between beings, they also play a central role in ontological, epistemological, and ethical discourses. How are we vulnerable? Is vulnerability an ontological category? To whom or what are we vulnerable? Who do we, as unintentional creators of a new geological epoch called “The Anthropocene,” make vulnerable? These questions foreground speculative and experimental inquiries into the nature of vulnerability, and form the central themes organizing part one of this volume.
Part two explores political, economic, and cultural issues from the perspective of vulnerability. All bodies are vulnerable in radically different ways, and attending to these differences is precisely what makes vulnerability so complex. A mountain is vulnerable in ways that an animal or plant is not, and the needs of each, we may discover, are mutually exclusive. What’s more, the ways we armor ourselves against our vulnerabilities shape our personal and social lives. These armoring techniques help define social boundaries and flows of energy—material, political, psychological, or otherwise. Vulnerabilities also effect capacities within our individual lives—how we are able to express ourselves, and the limits of our expression. Vulnerabilities thus play a substantial role in shaping who we are, and define many of our roles, responsibilities, and obligations in society.
Interwoven throughout the book are personal reflections, case studies, and stories circling the collisions of ontology, vulnerability, and ecology as they manifest in the twenty-first century. These stories illuminate theoretical and empirical dimensions of vulnerability in terms of lived experience. Our goal is not to develop a total theory or representation of vulnerability and its effects, but a series of fragments, an assemblage of thoughts, concepts, and affects about vulnerability and its significance in our lives and the more-than-human world. Through these “perspicuous representations” we hope to change the way we think about our personal, social, and ecological lives by bringing vulnerability into focus, and reflecting on its effects upon the complex ecologies within which we exist.
Vulnerability can be terrifying, but it can also be beautiful and provoking. It is this openness to the world—where bodies meet in risky entanglement with one another, bonding to become something new—that makes life so wondrous. Indeed, without such openness life would be static, dull. Without such openness, there would be no caring, or compassion. Being and vulnerability thus become essential points of contemplation for thinking ecologically in our contemporary moment.