Vulnerability in Resistance

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By: Judith Butler
Zeynep Gambetti
Leticia Sabsay , Editor

Durham, NC and London, U.K.: Duke University Press, 2016. 352pp. $94.95 (hardcover), $26.95 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0822362906

Volume: 5 Issue: 8

August 2017

Review by:

Sanford R. Silverburg, Ph.D

Catawba College

Salisbury, NC

A collaborative effort resulting from a workshop the theme of which was the “Rethinking Vulnerability and Resistance: Feminism and Social Change” held at Columbia University’s Global Center in Istanbul, Turkey in 2013. There are 13 essays representing a number of nationalities, but principally Turkish and Greek participants, with a sprinkling of American, British, French, Belgian, and Palestinian folk.  The editors are a professor of comparative literature (Butler), political theory (Gambetti), and gender studies (Sabsay).

The general focus is a feminist social theoretical approach and understanding of how women become vulnerable under a variety of circumstances and offer strategies within a self-designed concept of power.  There is an overall concern for how vulnerability is found in neoliberal societies. Vulnerability, the contributors here argue, is the product of a paternalistically-dominated social system using its hegemony to control the disenfranchised elements in society.  Women by their physical nature are subject to abuse by virtue of their perceived physical weakness vi-à-vis males whose dominance is often in evidence.  The emphasis of all the essayists certainly is concentrated on gender attribution. There is also a strong concern evinced on active participation in opposition to institutionalized governing systems especially ridiculing Turkey and Greece, but also to a lesser extent the Israeli occupation forces on the West Bank.  The theoretical approach relies heavily, but not entirely, on the opuses of Hannah Arendt and Judith Butler. The contributors seek to explore the many manners available, particularly to women, not only to object, but also to resist the many forms of subjugation that form the basis of the perception of vulnerability to such degradation.  The understanding of vulnerability here clearly reflects a gender sensitivity, rather than a public policy approach which takes into consideration a system that creates the potential for harm without the character of risk involved in any single incident.

The initial essay is by Judith Butler who introduces the idea that vulnerability is a socially induced phenomenon within which resistance is a response in effect to vulnerability and is understood by it as well.  The next installment is by Zeynep Gambetti whose experience with the Occupy Gezi Park protest in Turkey in 2013 as a form of performance that serves to educate one’s self.  A similar focus is found in the contribution by Başak Ertür who views the human barricades become a political symbol, again the Gezi demonstration, as the embodiment of unworthy resistance to state-initiated violence. Moving on with Sarah Bracke, the character of resilience to the nature of inequality and injustice leads to a willingness to cope with the precarity [sic.] of her life.  It becomes the essential responsibility of the individual themselves to deal with the question of social difficulties imposed by the system.  Marianne Hirsch, an artist, argues that her colleagues link vulnerability to trauma and memory and must, therefore, think about alternatives to events they have been forced to which to contend.  Elena Loizidou sees resistance was the basis of a link between sensual responses and exigent political action.  Elena Tzelepis reacts to the work of Mona Hatoum whose interest is the fate of Palestinians and whose art emphasizes the disfiguration of bodies as representative of the vulnerability faced. Again with Palestine taking center stage, Rema Hammami requires a connection of an informal network that would bring about greater gender solidarity.  The Turkish Kurds are the subject tackled by Nükhet Sirman who focus on the living conditions of this minority population.  Battered women is the subject of Meltem Ahiska, who argues that humanizing them makes them victims.  Faced with this condition, therefore, when faced with a forced gender identification, violence is then linked to sexuality. Moving onto the debate in France over [Muslim] women wearing the traditional Islamic veil forces women to be subject to hypersensitivity and unnecessary surveillance. Women in violent-infused Serbia serves as the subject of Athena Athanasiou, who notes that the common feature of mourning is a form of resistance. Leticia Sabsay writes a theoretical essay rethinking the nature of subjectivity when one views themselves within the context of the world.

The composite work is certainly a worthy one, a positive contribution to a number of subjects:  gender studies, social status, political opposition efforts, comparative politics, all of which are supplemented by an extensive bibliography. There is a great deal to appreciate by reviewing the cross-cultural examination of a single condition that women have faced in space and time. There may be some difficulty in absorbing the erudition presented because of the abstruse rhetoric that can only be appreciated by readers familiar with feminist political philosophy. Nevertheless, this is a book for anyone interested in feminist political theory or an understanding of the nature of political opposition movements.

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