Elodie Boublil / On Relational Vulnerability

“The world is there prior to every analysis I could give of it, and it would be artificial to derive it from a series of synthesis that would first link sensations and then perspectival appearances of the object together, whereas both of these are in fact products of the analysis and must not have existed prior to it. Reflective analysis believes it moves in the reverse direction along the path of a previous constitution and meets up with – in the “inner man,” as Saint Augustine says – a constituting power that it itself has always been. Thus, reflection carries itself along and places itself back within an invulnerable subjectivity, prior to being and time. Yet this is a naïveté, or, if one prefers, an incomplete reflection that loses an awareness of its own beginning.” (Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception)

Going against the paradigm of transcendental subjectivity, Merleau-Ponty contends that the vulnerability of consciousness, the vulnerability of the subject and ultimately the vulnerability of the lived world as flesh are ontologically and existentially prior to the subject’s constituting power rather than its default or failure. Indeed, ontologically shaped by space and time the lived body is animated by a kind of intentionality that is vulnerable and responsive to the transformations of our environment, history and relationships.

Borrowed from Husserl’s philosophy, the notion of operative intentionality actually helps describe the dynamics of openness and exposure that characterize one’s relation to the world. Merleau-Ponty explains that operative intentionality “establishes the natural and pre-predicative unity of the world and of our life, the intentionality that appears in our desires, our evaluations, and our landscape more clearly than it does in objective knowledge. Operative intentionality is the one that provides the text that our various forms of knowledge attempt to translate into precise language.”

Consequently, a phenomenological approach to vulnerability would consist in describing how these dynamics of operative intentionality manifest themselves. It would help uncover “vulnerability” as the “beginning” Merleau-Ponty talks about and that a naïve ethics of mastery promoted by Cartesian ontology has tried to annihilate. The cognitive and the affective levels are not only reconciled here. They are recast and intertwined in a dynamics that shapes our relation to the world and other.

Consequently, vulnerability could not only be defined in terms of susceptibility to be harmed, pointing to the experiences of violence and victimization that would threat subjectivity. Vulnerability would also function, as Erin Gilson puts it (in The Ethics of Vulnerability, 10): “as a transcendental condition”; “pointing to an openness and plasticity that makes possible transformation”. Vulnerability is relational in the sense that it always presupposes my openness and exposure to the world and to others; it is also relational in the sense that our very relations and bonds are in themselves vulnerable and precarious. The picture provided by Merleau-Pontian phenomenology through its understanding of operative intentionality could help reframe the notion of vulnerability.

During my stay at the Centre for Subjectivity Research, I had the opportunity to present and talk about my research work on vulnerability several times, including one joint-presentation with Dr. Robin Schott at the University of Copenhagen and one presentation at the Centre (phenomenological research seminar). I had then the chance to explore and discuss the following questions:

Does relational vulnerability necessarily entail radical passivity and substitution? Does the intertwining of ontological and situational vulnerabilities necessarily lead to power relations that ultimately rely on an ideal of invulnerability? What kind of reciprocal exposure is at stake in relational vulnerability? Does We-intentionality ultimately lead to identity politics? Is there a way to think the co-implication of ethics and phenomenology along the lines of the co-implication of self-constitution and interpersonal relations? Could there be a positive appraisal of vulnerability and what would be its impact on contemporary critiques of humanism and liberalism? How would the phenomenological picture – more specifically the one inspired by the works of Merleau-Ponty (relational ontology) – could help us rethink the dynamics of activity and passivity at stake in relational vulnerability? What are the relations between corporeal vulnerability and the constitution of values?

To explore these questions, I did theoretical research on empathy and we-intentionality and elaborated on applied research related to vicarious traumatization and emotional contagion. “Vicarious traumatization” or “compassion fatigue” confronts us with a limit-situation in which encountering the traumatized other can be as traumatic as being directly threatened or harmed. It exposes the caregivers and the patients to “relational vulnerability”. It raises ethical issues as it makes the relation between the helper and the person being helped vulnerable to conflict, distress and potentially re-traumatization. Yet, this relational vulnerability could also help achieve the ethical demands of community bonding by allowing one to access the singularity of the other and to set up a relation of mutual sharing. Fieldwork practitioners, humanitarian caregivers and human rights activists are indeed particularly vulnerable to vicarious traumatization as their work is triggered by the values and worldviews that motivate their commitment. Beyond empathy, vicarious traumatization could be avoided thanks to a certain sense of compassion, which links the sense of self to the sense of agency, the act of caring with the quest for justice.

I am very thankful for the time and dedication of the researchers and staff I met at the Centre, for the feedback I received on my work and all the interesting and thoughtful suggestions. Following my presentations and our discussions, I have written the draft of a paper on “relational vulnerability”, another draft on “vicarious traumatization” and started to work on a third paper, co-written with Dr. Gry Ardal Printzlau on the relation between vulnerability, individuation and victimization. Dr. Printzlau is a member of the Centre for Subjectivity Research and has notably work on phenomenological issues related to torture and selfhood and she has done fieldwork with humanitarian caregivers. I had the opportunity to conduct similar research in Paris and I am grateful to CFS for this fruitful and promising collaboration.

Working at the Centre has been wonderful, not only because this is a very supportive and stimulating research environment but also because of its friendly atmosphere and the passionate dedication of her administrator, Merete Lynnerup, who makes sure you always feel at home!

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