Extending Judith Butler’s “Vulnerability”

Jonathan Ferguson

Jonathan Ferguson (Class of 2017) is from Williamston, South Carolina. He is majoring in English and hopes to pursue a medical degree after Davidson. He is passionate about literature, the education of children, and his faith in Jesus Christ. At Davidson, Jonathan is involved in RUF, an on-campus student ministry, and tutors fifth graders at Ada Jenkins LearnWorks Center in his spare time. His paper was written for Dr. Campbell in WRI 101: Reading Like a Writer.

We all see our lives swinging back and forth between senses of power and vulnerability, between moments of feeling completely in control, and moments when it seems that the rug has been pulled from under our feet. For social philosopher Judith Butler, this pendulum swing toward control is an illusion. For her, we are constantly and irrevocably vulnerable to the influence of others’ actions. Butler explains such vulnerability in “Beside Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy,” an essay that describes our unavoidable dependence on others, calling for a reshaping of the concept of the illusory concept of autonomy. Surprisingly, Butler describes vulnerability as a sense of ecstasy–being beside oneself–which can be prompted by passion or grief.1 When one is vulnerable, an inescapable attachment to others becomes clear so that rather than understood as a pathology, interdependence is newly valued as a condition of shared humanity. Autonomy, then, must be a concept denoting not simply a single person’s will, but an individual’s decisions configured in concert with others.  No doubt, vulnerability can be accompanied by weakness, invasion, and the possibility of pain, but for those who typically don’t think of themselves as dependent, a moment of new vulnerability can catalyze a new awareness of global others whose lives are, by nature, precarious. Butler urges us, then, to embrace vulnerability rather than delimit it, diminish it, or deny it altogether.

Butler turns to the vulnerability of persons who are neither male nor female and therefore do not fit into society’s preconceived standards of gender and sex. The intersex community consists of individuals with dual reproductive physiologies, which have typically been considered an abnormal manifestation which must be corrected by medical intervention. But, as the Intersex Society of North America suggests, intersex is not a black-and-white distinction, with maleness or femaleness easily differentiated. They liken sexual gradations to the color spectrum in which distinct colors inevitably converge at some point. Looking at a shade from the convergent area of red and orange, for example, two people may differ on which of the two colors is seen. Reproductive organs, says the ISNA, vary throughout the population “in size and shape and morphology. So-called ‘sex’ chromosomes can vary quite a bit, too. But in human cultures, sex categories get simplified into male, female, and sometimes intersex, in order to simplify social interactions, express what we know and feel, and maintain order.”2 Since methods for determining intersex vary, the statistics regarding the frequency of its occurrence are indeterminate. Individuals with not XX (female) nor XY (male) chromosomes are born 1 in 1,666, but individuals whose body morphology differs from the typical male or female are both 1 in 100.3 Butler’s goal is for us to understand these persons not as deviants, but simply as variant members of communities. She reminds us that a world where recognition is contingent on clearly demarcated male-female identities is an impossible place for intersex persons to thrive. The ideology she hopes to disrupt (that of male and female being the only acceptable identity positions) bears a similarity to the practice of racism in the antebellum South and its white-black deterministic binary.

Slavery should never be defended, but it pays to observe the conditions that made it conceivable. When reading accounts of slave owners from the early nineteenth century, it is horrifying to discover the commonplace manner in which the “peculiar institution” is discussed. In these diaries and letters, plantation owners seldom, if ever, question slavery’s underlying moral dimensions, so that beating a slave for bad behavior is considered as normal as kicking a horse in the side to make it move. Antebellum slaves fit Butler’s description of the vulnerable individual: they were under complete submission to the whites, their lives controlled by their masters’ whims. But the slaves were not pain2-150x150 Extending Judith Butler's "Vulnerability"exactly like Butler’s contemporary intersex subjects. To the plantation owner, the death of a slave meant the loss of property. A plantation owner would not look at a slave’s death in the same way that he would view a white person’s passing, for the slave was not granted the status of personhood. His death meant the loss of a laboring machine, equal to the loss of material property, like a burnt storehouse of cotton. Importantly, Butler associates the status of personhood to that individual’s “grievability,” and asserts that when one consciously or unconsciously disenfranchises a person or group–as has been done with intersex persons–they become unworthy of public recognition at death.  They are among the world’s ungrievable.4 The “distribution of vulnerability,” or the degree of concern and protection oppressed groups are afforded, is calculated, ironically, according to how worthy a life is to be publicly mourned.

Butler turns to French philosopher Michel Foucault, who argues that power delimits what counts as real, circumscribing the “limits of what is knowable”5 For Foucault, knowledge and power are inseparable and ultimately establish “subtle and explicit criteria for thinking about the world.”6 To understand a world in which slaves could be considered part of the plantation “family,” yet beaten for walking too slowly, or sexually violated as a matter of routine, more than simple adherence to social custom is required. One must push farther to understand what forces made such an ideology and way of life possible and what forces held so many Americans back from accepting a non-racist ideology during Jim Crow and beyond.

No doubt, vulnerability can be accompanied by weakness, invasion, and the possibility of pain, but for those who typically don’t think of themselves as dependent, a moment of new vulnerability can catalyze a new awareness of global others whose lives are, by nature, precarious

The power held by early nineteenth-century slave owners wasn’t merely attached to business practices; it was personal. These men grew up under the instruction that the white race was supreme, that Caucasians were a higher species than blacks. In his fiery defense of slavery, “Letter to an English Abolitionist,” James Henry Hammond wrote in 1845, “I repudiate, as ridiculously absurd, that much-lauded but nowhere-accredited dogma of Mr. Jefferson that ‘all men are born equal’ [sic].”7 Along with like-minded contemporaries, Hammond argued that slavery was biblically justified, morally right, and the natural hinge upon which a true republic must turn if it hopes to survive. “No society has ever yet existed, and. . . none will ever exist, without a natural variety of the classes,” he argued.8 The idea of racial equality was a conceptual impossibility inflicted by a sense of power so ingrained in the slave owners’ minds that they thought their supremacy wasn’t so much “entitled” as it was “natural.” And so, slave-holding Confederates fought for what they believed was inherently right, fearing that (as Butler so aptly  puts this regarding the impossibility of intersex personhood) their very “sense of self [would] be radically undermined if such a being, uncategorizable, [were] permitted to live in the social world.”9 Still, for many European Americans, African Americans remain “uncategorizable” as fully human.

Though legal discrimination was outlawed in 1964’s Civil Rights legislation, and laws against miscegenation were repealed, only recently has the U.S. government permitted mixed-race citizens to accurately depict their racial background. According to the New York Times, the 2010 Census provided the option of selecting more than one race, but citizens that did so were “allocated to one or more of the five main groups,” yielding a “hybrid America of numerous nationalities. . . not reflected in the census.”10 Uncategorizability has shown up in the hostile and unfounded questioning of President Obama’s birthplace, which conspiracy theorists locate anywhere from Kenya to Indonesia. The plantation owners’ racist sense of power that allowed them to hold other humans in bondage is clearly anchored deep in the Caucasian psyche, so deep in fact that some contemporary white Americans still see themselves as the “we,” and African Americans the “they.” Any convergence between the two groups is met with hostility and disbelief.

Butler notes that when a government responds to crimes against humanity with violence–as she notes America did after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001–attempting to dispel fear of vulnerability, the violence simply changes hands, and someone else becomes the victim of fear. A better way to respond to vulnerability, she claims, would be to seize the pain2-150x150 Extending Judith Butler's "Vulnerability"opportunity to newly understand our mutual dependency and vulnerability, to step into the shoes of others across the globe (and across time) who have experienced similar fear.  There’s something to be gained, she reminds us, from “tarrying with grief.”11 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s response to racism during the Civil Rights Movement provides a powerful analog to Butler’s ideal. Though some fought fire with fire, Dr. King sought nonviolence that he hoped would one day bloom into racial equality: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness,” he contended, “only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”12

Much like the predicament of African Americans after the Civil War, contemporary intersex persons seek to convince society that they are fully human, with identities as distinct as anyone else. Just as the distinction of racial equality is vital, so too is Butler’s imperative to make intersex individuals represented, accepted, and understood. Butler pleads with readers to take the general misunderstanding and occasional persecution of intersexed persons as an opportunity to recognize vulnerability: to embrace it, to newly value it, and to grow from the experience of deep empathy. Her ideas may seem revolutionary, just as the abolitionist’s cry must have seemed novel or transgressive to some. Still, just as Dr. King’s efforts were catalysts to the slow progress toward racial equality, writers like Judith Butler, who seek to give a voice to those trampled by normalcy, bring America to a more evolved sense of equality.


Works Cited

Butler, Judith. “Beside Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy.” In Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. 10th Ed. Ed. David Bartholomae et al. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014: 114-38.

Hammond, James Henry. “Letter to an English Abolitionist, 1845.” In The Literature of the American South. Ed. William L. Andrews et al. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998: 78-95.

Intersex Society of North America.  “How Common Is Intersex?” http://www.isna.org/faq/frequency.

—.”What Is Intersex?” http://www.isna.org/faq/what_is_intersex.

King, Reverend Martin Luther, Jr. Strength to Love. Cleveland: Collins and World, 1997.

Prewitt, Kenneth. “Fix the Census’ Arcahaic Racial Categories.” New York Times. 21 August 2013.






  1. Judith Butler, “Beside Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy,” In Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers, Ed. David Bartholomae, Anthony Petrosky, and Stacey White, (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005), 116. []
  2. “What Is Intersex?” Intersex Society of North America, accessed April 14, 2014, http://www.isna.org/faq/what_is_intersex. []
  3. “How Common Is Intersex?” Intersex Society of North America, accessed April 14, 2014, http://www.isna.org/faq/frequency. []
  4. Butler, 114. []
  5. quoted in Butler, 121. []
  6. Butler, 122. []
  7. James Henry Hammond, “Letter to an English Abolitionist, 1845,” In The Literature of the American South, Ed. William L. Andrews, et al. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998): 90. []
  8. Ibid. []
  9. Butler, 127. []
  10. Kenneth Prewitt, “Fix the Census’ Archaic Racial Categories,” New York Times, 21 August 2013. []
  11. Butler, 118. []
  12. Martin Luther King, Jr. Strength to Love (Cleveland, OH: Collins and World, 1997): 53. []