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FRAGILITY AND VULNERABILITY
Fragility and vulnerability are two transversal categories in philosophy and the human and social sciences. Different dimensions of them have been identified, sometimes related to the question of personal identity, to relational aspects or to social, political or systemic components; these dimensions are often compared with partial overlaps, depending on the disciplinary field, e.g. economics or law, and so on. Generally speaking, both refer to a characteristic of human beings that is linked to their existential finitude, their mortal condition. It is clear, however, that the two concepts cannot be coincidental.
Fragility, as Nussbaum suggests, to give a non-random example, comes from frangere, to break, and refers to a characteristic physical property of the object, made in such a way that it is always subject to the possibility of breaking; fragility thus refers to a constitutive datum. Transposed from the physical realm, it refers to the character of uncertainty inherent in human nature, such that man is a creature of need and therefore not independent. The flourishing of a human life depends on factors beyond man's control, due to the fact that man, as a finite and mortal being, is subject to chance (as appears, for example, according to Nussbaum, in the ethical thought of the tragedians, Platonists, Aristotelians and Stoics); but also due to conflicts between values, relational goods and the most uncontrollable parts of the human interiority. Human frailty is due to the combination of external and internal contingency (cf. Nussbaum 1996, p. 35).
According to the meaning of the word, vulnerability refers to a concrete, bodily condition and at the same time to a bloody wound and laceration. It comes from the Latin vulnus and the Indo-European root -uel, which refers to tearing. We note that vulnerabilitas does not refer to what has happened (vulneratus), but to a possibility and a disposition. Overall, then, we have the double meaning of a singular body open to being wounded and of a predisposition to being wounded. Again by way of example, which is more than an example, for Levinas vulnerability means - according to a more phenomenologically detailed approach - the exposure of a naked body, the denudation of the body that is exposed in the most radical passivity; the inability to close oneself off and thus a preliminary openness, susceptibility to investiture and trauma (cf. Levinas 1985, p. 126).
But how to interpret theoretically the idea of human relationality based on the notions of fragility and vulnerability? In a relational perspective, the constitution of the self depends on a condition of exposure. From this perspective, however, vulnerability and fragility are not completely interchangeable. Fragility reveals a lack or limitation of the subject's capacities or capabilities, of its potentialities, as can be seen, for example, in Ricoeur's theory of the homme capable. It is the limits of the body, language and time in the constitution of the self, a self that is constantly confronted with different aspects of otherness, so that autonomy is never given but always to be achieved. On the contrary, vulnerability is the precondition for the opening up of identity (in the sense of opening up, of the self coming to itself); in this case, therefore, identity is not presupposed, but is to be made, out of open exposure. One could also say that while fragility is impotence, which power is called upon to recognise and regulate, vulnerability is unassumable passivity (in its most radical version, the Levinasian, while in other declinations of the same matrix, such as Butler's, the variant is significant). In this scheme, then, we would have, on the one hand, the dialectical pair of autonomy/fragility and, on the other, the conceptual dyad of vulnerability/identity, with a theoretically crucial inversion of the terms. In the second case, vulnerability represents the phenomenological and constitutive antecedent of the self, a self that is therefore only a posteriori such.
us, starting from the common idea of exposure to otherness, the correlate of fragility is autonomy, while that of vulnerability is identity. Different figures refer to the idea of subjectivity, either of the self or of equality. We found the category of fragility most often in Martha Nussbaum's capability approach, for example, or in Paul Ricoeur and his theory de l'homme capable. This is a double indication that fragility appears as a negative of human agency. In the logic of Ricoeur's discourse, the transition from the problematic of capacities to that of responsibility requires an identification of the capacities of the self, a grid of four concepts: je peux parler, je peux agir, je peux raconter, je peux me tenir conptable de mes actes.
The four capacities return reflexively to the self; together they define a temporally modulated permanence to which it is possible to ascribe, or rather to attribute, words, acts and narrated history (se tenir comptable). For Ricoeur, the passage to the moral problematic implies the reference to a rule, a law, a norm or a code that indicates both an objective and a subjective preference of value, which means that I am bound not only as a de facto obligation, but also in the sense that I am affected by it; by virtue of this obligation I am motivated to choose, to decide freely. Here we have responsibility, which therefore presupposes imputability (the imputation of responsibility) and reference to the law (a general concept that sums up all the others). Given these premises, we can understand why human weakness, or the limit of capacity, turns into fallibility when confronted with the distinction between good and evil: weakness becomes the "capacity" for evil (Ricoeur 1970, p. 242); as Ricoeur writes, evil proceeds from this weakness, but it proceeds from it because it arises in the meantime. Therefore, in order to think of the bond that is both subjective (the capacity for evil) and objective (the positing of evil), we must not separate the concept of responsibility from that of guilt - "the three moments of guilt: impurity, sin, guilt" (ibid., p. 355) - so that the possibility of failure is morally dense. For this reason, the conclusion of the 1991 essay The Concept of Responsibility (cf. Ricoeur 1998) insists on the fact that without the reference to guilt, when the attribution becomes a mere attribution of an act to an agent, well, in this case, a demoralisation of the theme of responsibility is produced, a depotentiation of its moral meaning (the open criticism is of models such as those of Hart or Strawson, cf: Bagnoli 2019). In Autonomy and Vulnerability, a lecture given by Ricoeur in 1995, the need for a practical mediation of the paradox composed of the autonomy of being vulnerable and the vulnerability tending towards autonomy is reiterated, but with an important clarification: "I will compose, degree by degree, the paradox of autonomy and vulnerability. For the necessities of this analytical procedure, I will successively examine different degrees of the idea of autonomy and correspond to each stage a certain figure of vulnerability, or, as I prefer to say, of fragility' (Ricoeur 2007, p. 95). Ricoeur prefers to link responsibility and fragility rather than responsibility and vulnerability.
Where the model centred on ability, capacity or potentiality prevails, we have the modulation of the responsible choice, which is confronted with its structural limitation by the fragility, the powerlessness of the autonomous subject. We find this pattern of argumentation, for example, in the language of Nussbaum's capability approach. Again, in order not to get lost in the breadth of the philosopher's reflections on this, we will enter it from a particular perspective. Nussbaum begins a discussion with Iris Young on the problem of the relationship between collective responsibility and social justice (see Young 2011; Nussbaum 2009 and 2011). In view of the new forms of injustice that are produced as the combined effects of different but structural elements (structural injustice to which distant subjects unknowingly contribute), Young argues that it is necessary to move from a traditional model of responsibility, the liability model (based on the triad of guilt-fault-harm), to a model defined as shared responsibility. This is a collective but not anonymous responsibility, i.e. it is distributed according to certain criteria (power, privilege, interest, collective capacity); from the point of view of action, it is configured as a form of critical and political responsibility. In the preface to Young's book, Nussbaum emphasises that guilt and responsibility cannot be so neatly separated, and that it is also necessary to think of responsibility for the future, not just for the past (past responsibility as blame), It is a collective, but not anonymous, responsibility, i.e. it is distributed according to certain criteria (power, privilege, interest, collective ability); from the point of view of action, it is configured as a form of critical and political responsibility. In the preface to Young's book, Nussbaum emphasises that guilt and responsibility cannot be so neatly separated, and that even to think of responsibility for the future, and thus not only for the past (responsibility oriented towards the past as imputation), one must still retain the category of guilt. Otherwise, responsibility runs the risk of having no subject to lean on: "Young tells us that guilt makes people turn inward and focus on themselves, rather than outward and focus on others. Well, maybe so. But why can't sincere self-examination be an important moment in the process that leads to sincere orientation toward the other?" (Nussbaum 2011, p. XXIV). For Nussbaum, an alternative way of attributing general guilt is to recognise that we all participate in and practice an excessively wasteful lifestyle that creates injustice in the distribution of goods and prevents some from developing capacities and transforming them into real functioning. As we can see, the categories of capabilities and limitations of capabilities, of frailty, are again called into question. In a certain sense, argues Nussbaum, there is no responsibility even for the future if we do not also think of guilt, and no movement towards the other if there is not first liberation from one's own narcissistic closure, and this depends on the recognition of a duty to human dignity, the duty to put the other in the condition of being able to flourish of a fragile good; therefore at the same time duties of justice and material help, because responsible ethical action, to be such, crosses the impenetrable regions of the concrete sphere of life (cf. Nussbaum 2008).
The question is how to think about innocent responsibility while avoiding the twofold risk of the evaporation of the subject who bears responsibility, once the anchorage in the dimension of imputability - guilt has disappeared, and, together, the risk of the evaporation of responsibility itself in our current condition: all responsible, none responsible (see also Esposito 1993 or Cruz 2005). These doubts explain, for example, Nussbaum's reactive attitude towards Butler, the 'professor of parody' (cf. Nussbaum 1999), who, by dissolving subjectivity in the system, would renounce the seriousness of political and historical action responsible for social injustice from the outset. Where is the capacity to act or 'resist' if the person is nothing more than an effect of the power that creates and acts upon him? Again, how can one think of responsibility if not on the basis of the capacity-fragility binomial? But in this case it is clear that Butler herself comes down on the side of a different conceptualisation of the relationship between responsibility and exposure to otherness. In fact, she prefers to articulate her reflection on human relationality not from the category of fragility (behind which, as we have seen, lie those of capacity and guilt), but from that of vulnerability, which is the key to elaborating an idea of responsibility that directly involves and intensifies the dimension of opacity for the self that inhabits it: "I believe that the other in me is called into question in the very process of my constitution, and that this strangeness to myself is, paradoxically, the origin of my ethical bond with others. I do not know myself fully because part of what I am is the enigmatic trace of the other' (Butler 2004, p. 67).
The more general categories Butler brings into play are those of precariousness, precariousness and vulnerability. Precariousness, as precariousness, is the datum of our natural dependence, finitude and mortality; precarity is the social version of the former, produced by social and political systems; vulnerability, on the other hand, is understood as the condition of being predisposed to being wounded, but also open to the arrival of the other, to the unexpected. In this sense, vulnerability is not only the concrete phenomenon of the exposure of the body to the other, nor only the channel of the dual ethical relationship, but can also be thought of as a political resource. Through vulnerability we can return to our natural and social precariousness and transform it. In other words, Butler's theory of vulnerability takes up both the passivity of the subject's constitution and its activity. By taking up vulnerability, we can thus locate the position of the subject between ethics and politics: ethically, in the encounter with the other, in relation to which vulnerable bodies are freed from narcissistic centredness; politically, in the encounter with the other, when it becomes an alliance of vulnerable bodies: "In resistance, vulnerability is not punctually transformed into a form of agency: it remains the condition of resistance, a condition of life from which it emerges - which, when it is transformed into precariousness, must be resisted, as indeed it is.This has nothing to do with weakness or victimisation, since for precarious lives, resistance takes its cue from exposure to a life marked by abandonment and lack of support, but in turn mobilises this vulnerability as a form of conscious and active political resistance, an exposure of the body to power in the plural action of resistance' (Butler 2017, p. 289 and cf. ibid. 2005).If the greatest vulnerability of an individual or a social group is the misrecognition, the disregard of certain groups or categories of human beings, the so-called vulnerable categories, the greatest form of discrimination is the impossibility of accessing the political sphere as a visible subject claiming its rights, both as an individual and as a group.The body has a relational significance, but not only in the sense of a passive relationality: when a plurality of bodies collectively expose themselves, what happens is a political alliance of bodies.It is a form of agentivity that produces what Butler calls an 'ontological insurrection', making visible the existence of what a given order of discourse had de-realised.The vulnerability to be such can only be concrete.But, for Butler, the body is not just a physical or living body (Körper or Leib, according to the phenomenological tradition); we never have a natural body, but always bodies produced as social bodies, informed by different kinds of social practices, such as educational practices or legal practices, and so on.Thus the body cannot be separated from relational networks of support, from a structural or rather 'infrastructural' dimension.This is why we have to think of a body as both sustaining and acting at the same time, because freedom can only be practised under favourable conditions. Vulnerability thus emerges as a preliminary and constitutive bodily relationality of the subject, exposed from the outset to the other and thus to the open other, but not as a mere passivity towards the other (Butler's critique of Levinas, to whom she is also very close, on this point, cf. Butler 2006, pp. 118-119), but rather on the active-passive threshold between the one and the other. In order to think about responsibility, therefore, it is necessary to link it to vulnerability rather than to fragility.
It is in this direction that Levinas expresses the basic position referred to by the protagonists of the implicit debate that we are trying to bring to light. Vulnerability is the bodily experience that binds us to otherness in a broad sense; as otherness of the physical elements and objects we encounter in the world, but also as otherness of the other human being:"The immediacy of the sensible, which is not reduced to the gnoseological role assumed by sensation, is the exposure to the wound and to jouissance, the exposure to the wound in jouissance; it is what allows the wound to reach the subjectivity of the subject that is complaisant in itself and posing for itself [ce qui permet à la blessure d'atteindre la subjectivité du sujet se complaisant en soi e se posant pour soi]" (Levinas 1983, pp.881 and Bernasconi 2018, pp. 96-98).The wound - as can be read in this atteindre - affects, reaches and achieves the subjectivity of the subject.It produces it, invites it, or, phenomenologically speaking, constitutes it: passively, in the complacency of jouissance (se complaisant en soi), and then as a reflexive position of the self (se posant pour soi) due to the distance from which the self emerges through the subtraction of the complacency in itself by the other.This is why the essay on vulnerability in Humanism of the Other Man is entitled "Without Identity" (1970). Vulnerability does not belong to a subject (as, for example, fragility marks its intrinsic and extrinsic defect or limit), but the subject, without identity, is produced on the basis of vulnerability.In Levinasian texts devoted to vulnerability, the argument is developed by sequencing three concepts: sensibilité, vulnerabilité and proximité. Starting from sensation and bodily sensitivity, Levinas wants to acquire the moral meaning of sensibility (sensitivity to the pain of other human beings), which is called proximité, the ethical movement towards the other, thanks to which and for which we are responsible. Vulnerability is thus the bridging concept between sensibility and proximity, because it contains the idea of passivity.
The subject is passively open, from the other, to the other, and thus established in its position as a responsible subject (one understands, given the different premises, Ricoeur's critique, which focuses precisely on the idea of preliminariness or diachrony of otherness, on which Levinasian responsibility is based in Otherwise Than Being, cf. Ricoeur 2007).A quick analysis reveals the reduced presence of the themes of guilt and sin in Levinasian texts (cf. Ciocan and Hansel 2005, pp. 170, 557-558).They are scarce in the major philosophical works, but have relatively more space in the Talmudic readings.In the earliest writings, the theme of felix culpa also appears, then fades away, only to reappear isolated one last time in Totality and Infinity, but linked to the theme of forgiveness; after that, when the question of original sin and guilt appears a few times, for example in Altrimenti che essere, it is in the logic that the more I find myself responsible, the more guilty I am.In this case, responsibility is dissociated from guilt and, if the latter appears at all, it is only subsequently, because of my inadequacy in the face of the task, because of my limitations in relation to the infinity of the other who awakens my freedom.Again, innocent responsibility, and yet, in this case, it does not dissolve the subject, but provokes it.The subject is thus finally rediscovered as a subject for others, in the sense that it is subject thanks to the other and that it is dedicated to the other; not in a regime of communion, but of separation, because the skin of the body simultaneously separates me and relates me to the other.The vulnerability is of the body.
If fragility is the limit of a self that does not discover itself in self-control (i.e. a fragile identity with the self), vulnerability is the preliminary relationship with the other, that is, the very genesis of the self or of a subject whose origin is an absence of identity; in other words, it is not impotence, but preliminary passivity.It is not, therefore, a question of accepting the limit, but of referring to what is prior to the limit, to the pre-limitation of the other.The consequences for the question of responsibility are then logical.It is perhaps quite clear in what sense - as we have seen with the exemplary cases of Ricoeur and Nussbaum - thinking of responsibility from the category of capacity or ability, of potentiality, means developing the theory of action further; in this case, the theory of responsibility is more focused on the question of how to answer for what has been done, for the act, and to what extent, according to what gradations (again the limit).From this point of view, in these more refined versions compared to the more linear theories of attribution of the analytical matrix, responsibility for oneself takes on the component of otherness that contributes to the definition of the self; ultimately, responsibility must take on a dimension of opacity of the self that is intrinsic to the act itself.In this sense, then, we have an appeal to the strong ideas of imputation, of making oneself accountable, or directly to the personal dimension of guilt.This makes it possible, on the one hand, to avoid the risk of demoralising the notion of responsibility, that is, to remove from it the weight and gravity of risk, decision and choice in the face of evil.In this way, the link that links guilt to human frailty prevents responsible action from being deprived of its moral meaning; but on the other hand, despite the correctives, it still massively relates responsibility to the fallen nature of man, rather than to the register of ethical investiture by the other.
If, on the other hand, responsibility is conceived from the category of vulnerability, it is not the figure of the limit or the conditions of responsible action that comes to the fore, but the idea of the preliminary nature of the other in relation to the freedom that is decisive.The exposure to an unconditionality that makes the encounter with the other person an immediate ethical relationship.The perspective changes abruptly, and yet, here too, it is not proposed to adopt an exclusive attitude, that is, to replace the model of imputation with that of expropriation of the self by the other.Rather, it is to show how the self responds on the basis of the investiture of the other, but this responsibility is not limited to this investiture, which makes me responsible, because it is only revealed as such in the response. We thus have an antero-posteriority of the antecedent (a paradoxical diastasis or diachrony), so that the relationship between the two is irreducibly a broken relationship.
As can be seen, these conceptual schemes recall some typical elements of responsive phenomenologies (cf. Waldenfels, 1994 and 2008; Chrétien 1992 and 2007; Menga, 2003; Vergani 2015, pp. 153-158). The conceptual catalogue of responsive approaches is sophisticated: the 'pàthos-response' scheme, the distinction between appel and demande, exigence and revendication, answer and response, in some versions the distinction between the passive (receptivity-affizierbarkeit) and active (responsivity) sides of the phenomenon, or the creativity component that response always implies.Such a theoretical battery makes it possible to clearly distinguish responsiveness from mere reaction (remember that the term "responsiveness" comes from the neurological studies of Kurt Goldstein, who understands it as the ability to respond neurologically to stimuli in the environment, despite the traumas experienced).However, it is very clear how, in Waldenfels, responsiveness resonates but does not coincide with responsibility.If we mention the category of responsivity here only briefly, it is to highlight how the hypothesis of emphasising the vulnerability-responsibility nexus generates a double and symmetrical risk with respect to that generated by the excessive tightening of the fragility-guilt couple; responsivity is in fact too broad a category to understand the sense of responsibility, diluted in a state of primordial relationality.The theoretical premise of responsive phenomenologies is the responsive correlation, not only according to the linguistic register, but according to all possible registers of our being in the world in an embedded experience.To be responsive means that there is always a response, according to the all-too-familiar adage that even non-response is a response.But responsiveness and responsibility do not coincide (Waldenfels' debt to Levinas is constant and acknowledged, but with a decisive variation precisely with regard to the "ethical one-sidedness" of the Levinasian perspective, see e.g. Waldenfels 2008, p. 104). Vulnerability as ethical openness is indeed exposure, but not in the sense of a continuous and all-encompassing relationship, but rather as a relationship that is from time to time finite and determined, that passes through separation, or rather, precisely insofar as it is separation and interruption that makes an answer a responsible word. Not always the answer, but the answer as an experience that preserves and protects the unanswerable.
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