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Title: Judith Butler and corporeal vulnerability : A new perspective on the public dimension of education
Authors: Vlieghe, Joris #
Issue Date: 8-Nov-2007
Conference: Research Community - FWO-Vlaanderen location:Leuven date:8 November 2008
Abstract: The starting point of my paper is the following question: how is it possible that one can interpret (and therefore institutionalise) social problems as educational ones. This presupposes that there is some dimension within education that is social, relational and public. A philosophical analysis of this dimension can thus contribute to a deeper understanding of the conference theme.
In order to elucidate the intrinsic public character of education I would like to analyse the position Judith Butler’s has developed in her most recent publications concerning bodily experience and its ethical, political and educational implications. When she states that “the body has its invariably public dimension”, how are we to understand the specific meaning of this body and why is it precisely the human bodily incarnation that obligates us to take responsibility for others and for the community we belong to?
The cornerstone of her argumentation is that the opacity constitutive of our individual identity forces us to take up public responsibility. We only have become who we are because others first addressed us, because we can only narrate our own life histories in terms that are not our own, etc. Butler demonstrates her point by referring to a great variety of experiences of “exposure”: the feeling of an irrecoverable passivity, of being exposed to an otherness in ourselves that singularises us. It is interesting to see that she characterizes this dimension further as vulnerability and as a bodily kind of vulnerability in special.
In working upon this intuition she confounds, in my view, two types of bodily experience that are not per se identical: on the one hand, she refers to our nakedness as embodied creatures who are exposed to the violence of others. On the other hand, Butler also wishes to point to the fact that the constitutive opacity is localised in our body. These are two very different conceptions of bodily exposure that are not easily harmonised: the former refers to our biological constitution (our conatus essendi, which is the condition of possibility for our willingness to embrace a subjectivation we didn’t choose ourself), the latter refers to an ontological dimension of our flesh that resist any final meaningful determination (in some of her formulations she comes near Merleau-Ponty’s and Klein’s identification of the body and the unconsciousness). Given that Butlers position wishes to be an elaboration of the foucaultian stance, the first interpretation of bodily exposure seems rather odd, because it reminds us of the analysis and critique of bio-politics, where it is precisely outside our own tendency to survive that liberation and humanisation has to be found. The second concept is also no without its own problems of interpretation: even if one understands why the fragility of our own existence is by definition an affair of the body, we run the risk of reinstating a universal feature of man, an anthropological essence, a new transcendental principle (something like a raw and immaculate experience that serves as the ground for critique of the existing social institutions in which we have become who we are now).
A further question, non unrelated, also has to be elucidated. What is the “public” dimension of our body Butler envisages? Does she mean that our vulnerability as incarnated human beings opens us to “something we have in common” (where we can further ask whether this something must be conceived as a fullness or as a radical nothingness: Butler seems to prefer the last answer)? Or does she want to speak about an opening where people can first come to appear to each other, or where precisely the impossibility of this is first revealed to us?
Anyhow I think that a clarification of these themes is of major importance before we can reflect on the question how social problems can in the first place become educational problems.
Publication status: published
KU Leuven publication type: IMa
Appears in Collections:Education, Culture and Society
# (joint) last author

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