Theorizing Vulnerability (A Beginning)

Monday, 02 April 2012 18:11

With ICFA now behind me, I'm already looking forward to attending WisCon at the end of May. I will be presenting a paper as part of WisCon's academic track and I am hoping to get a conversation started about vulnerability in feminist SF. This paper actually heralds in the first stage of my next major research project. Even though I'm still putting together Technology as Cure? Representations of Disability in Science Fiction, I'm already starting to plan out a solo, book-length exploration of vulnerability (in science/science fiction). I have been thinking critically about vulnerability - in all contexts of the word - since I first picked up Margrit Shildrick's Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self (2002) during my doctoral research. Shildrick's evocation of the vulnerable self - and the measures we take to cover it up - became a guiding theoretical framework for my thesis.

But even after writing my dissertation, the complexity of vulnerability - in terms of ontology, epistemology, and corporeality - has persisted in my imagination. It bleeds into all of my academic thinking. I encounter it, suddenly and unexpectedly, in my daily life. Vulnerability refuses to be ignored. No theory, word, or concept has ever taken such deep root in my conscious before. I find it - both the word and its presence in my awareness - unsettling and inspiring. And like with most things we find troubling, I'm eager to examine and contain it. I can't say yet what the book will look like or how fast I will write it, but I know that it is coming.

Below is the abstract for the paper (still to be written) I will be presenting at WisCon. A (tiny) sneak peek into my on-going obsession with vulnerability:

Theorizing Vulnerability in Feminist Science Fiction

As the pace of advancements in prosthetic and other computerized assisted-living technologies quickens, we, as a culture, find ourselves faced with new possibilities for (dis)abled bodies and embodiments. In this paper, I want to explore the concept of vulnerability in feminist SF and begin articulating the ways that vulnerability of the body can open up new ways of understanding human being (both materially and ontologically). Drawing on both disability studies and feminist theory, I want to expand on the notion of vulnerability as theorized by Margrit Shildrick in Embodying the Monster (2002). Shildrick proposes that while “we are already without boundaries, already vulnerable” (6), normative subjectivity elides its own vulnerability by repositioning it as a quality of the monstrous other (68). Much traditionally masculine oriented SF (from the books of Isaac Asimov to Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek series) rejects vulnerability in favour of the technologically-fortified posthuman. Technology is positioned as a way in which to overcome the physical or mental limitations of the human body, but the quest to transcend the body ignores the lived realities of labouring, feeling, and suffering bodies.

I suggest that, regardless of the distractions and promises offered by technology, the body matters. Elizabeth Grosz reminds us that: “If bodies are objects or things, they are like no others, for they are the centers of perspective, insight, reflection, desire, agency” (Volatile Bodies, 1994, xi). It is those unquantifiable qualities – perspective, insight, reflection, desire, and agency – that uniquely define embodied vulnerable being. They are qualities that technology cannot reproduce or replace. By taking examples from feminist SF works (from writers such as Octavia Butler, Misha, Larissa Lai, and Nalo Hopkinson), I want create an open discussion about the ways that the genre stresses the importance of the body (both abled and disabled), asking us to recognize the shared vulnerability that defines human being.

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