Interdependency, precariousness and the myth of autonomy

I think that Butler’s notions of precariousness, precarity and the socially constructed body are valid in disability discourse, although Butler does not actually broach disability head on and disability scholars do not tend to use her ideas in their disability theory work.

As she sees it, the body is vulnerable and exposed to influences from without:

the body is exposed to socially and politically articulated forces as well as to claims of sociality – including language, work, and desire – that make possible the body’s persisting and flourishing” (2009, p 3)

Recognizing this precariousness of our existence leads to an appreciation of the political imposition of ‘precarity’ – the unequal distribution of wealth and resources that work to protect part of humanity whilst dehumanizing the rest. This she sees as the first step towards rethinking a new leftist politic.

Subjects are constituted through norms which, in their reiteration, produce and shift the terms through which subjects are recognized” (ibid, p 8-9)

According to these norms, we are able to determine and recognize, differentiate between what is human and what is non-human, as well as to construct the Other. Butler acknowledges that these normative structures are not fixed, but shift through history according to more general systems of power, thus what may have been dehumanized in the past can be incorporated into the human, and vice versa. This mutability would seem to provide optimistic prospects for disabled people, who at the present time seem to be hovering somewhere on the margins of what is considered ‘human’.

Butler defines precariousness thus:

Precariousness implies living socially, that is, the fact that one’s life is always in some sense in the hands of the other. It implies exposure both to those we know and to those we do not know; a dependency on people we know, or barely know, or know not at all. Reciprocally, it implies being impinged upon by the exposure and dependency of others, most of whom remain anonymous” (2009, p14).

The fact that we don’t know or even have an affinity for those with whom we coexist, nevertheless this cohabitation necessitates certain obligations towards others, political and ethical responsibilities concerning the “conditions that make life possible” based on the understanding that “there can be no sustained life without those sustaining conditions” (ibid, p 23). Accepting this precariousness of human life, we understand that:

there is no life without the need for shelter and food, no life without dependency on wider networks of sociality and labor, no life that transcends injurability and mortality” (ibid, p 25)

We cannot exist as completely autonomous beings, and need to understand precariousness as “a shared condition” and precarity as a “politically induced condition” which operates through unequal distribution of resources, exposing parts of humanity to greater or lesser degrees of vulnerability.

the body is always given over to modes of sociality and environment that limit its individual autonomy. The shared condition of precariousness implies that the body is constitutively social and interdependent” (2009, p 31).

In this sense, Butler asserts that there is no singular human bodily form, no established morphology of the human body, and that bodies exist outside of themselves – the body is in fact the location of encounters with the outside world, subject to the influences of space and time which are beyond the individual subject’s control and so “the body does not belong to itself,

How I am encountered, and how I am sustained, depends fundamentally on the social and political networks in which this body lives, how I am regarded and treated, and how that regard and treatment facilitates this life or fails to make it livable… I am already in the hands of the other when I try to take stock of who I am. I am already up against a world I never chose when I exercise my agency,” (2009, p 53).

In order to exist, the body is thus reliant upon “social conditions and institutions” external to itself. Butler sees society as an interdependent community, where the individual is a precarious being who cannot be separated from the politics that support and sustain the bodily needs of food, shelter, and protection from vulnerability to injury and destruction. Since these forms of “social trust” are necessary for our existence, they cannot be relegated to the realm of the personal or private, and as such are “clearly political issues” according to Butler (2012, p 147). The fact is, as social beings we depend on one another for such things as shelter and sustenance, and state-enforced ‘precarity‘ puts us at constant risk of becoming stateless, homeless and destitute; we rely on systems of politics and economics to ensure the stability we assume to be a natural occurrence: “Precarity exposes our sociality, the fragile and necessary dimensions of our interdependency” (ibid, p 148). Butler suggests that the management of populations involves a “tactical distribution of precarity“, where certain groups are allotted more or less precarity according to dominant ideological paradigms (executed through state institutions), and these determine who does and who does not deserve “protection and sustenance” from society. Although Butler is speaking of those marginalized groups who are deemed abject and unworthy of protection (following on Arendt’s line of thinking) her proposition can equally be applied to disabled people. The bottom line for Butler is that we live together not out of any desire to do so, but simply because we are obliged to, and in order to “minimize precarity and establish economic political equality” we are thus required to “exercise freedom in a way that is necessarily committed to the equal value of lives” (p 150), which to my mind is basically a revisiting of the Golden Rule.

According to Foucault, this way of thinking goes back to antiquity, the principles governing the conduct of citizens, and he cites the following example in the letters of Epicurus: “Teachings about everyday life were organized around taking care of oneself in order to help every member of the group with the mutual work of salvation” (Foucault 1988, p 21). Recognizing that ‘care of the self’ (concern for how one acts, according to Foucault) is essential not for personal goals, but for the good of the community; such an attitude acknowledges the importance of all individuals in the proper functioning of society. He also points out that this attitude was formerly acted out through self-exercise, and not externalized in laws.

According to Trinh T. Minh-ha, true interdependency requires the creation of a kind of no-man’s land; a territory that “belongs to no one, not even to the “creator“,” otherwise there is a risk of what she terms mutual “enslavement” (Trinh 1991, p 71).

Judith Halberstam (2011) points out the value of biodiversity, even within the animal kingdom, and that scientists have hitherto placed undue emphasis on the primacy of reproduction and competition (survival of the fittest) by viewing animal behaviour through the ‘human lenses’ of heterosexuality and capitalist competition, while dismissing examples of cooperative, adaptive or survival-oriented animal behaviour as ‘homosexual’ since they appear to fall outside of the realm of what is considered heterosexual and reproductive (normal). Halberstam illustrates the importance of interdependency in the natural world by citing the example of Emperor penguins in the Antarctic, where survival of the sub-zero temperatures is determined not by individual fitness but rather by the ‘collective will’ of the entire community:

the nonreproductive penguins are not merely extras in the drama of hetero-reproduction; in fact the homo or nonrepro queer penguins are totally necessary to the temporary reproductive unit. They provide warmth in the huddle and probably extra food, and they do not leave for warmer climes but accept a part in the penguin collective in order to enable reproduction and to survive.” (2011, p 41)

In order to disrupt the hegemonic notions of success in “heteronormative, capitalist society” Halberstam proposes embracing the concept of failure, since:

failure allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development with the goal of delivering us from unruly childhoods to orderly and predictable adulthoods” (2011, p 3)

This flies in the face of much positive thinking that is expounded in contemporary US society, where success and good health are considered to be the result of one’s attitude rather than environmental, economic or familial conditions. She suggests that failing and its attendant negative thinking has certain advantages:

Relieved of the obligation to keep smiling through chemotherapy or bankruptcy, the negative thinker can use the experience of failure to confront the gross inequalities of everyday life in the United States.” (ibid, p4)

Obviously Halberstam has feminists or queer activists in mind, but I think this approach can be equally applied to disabled people who after all, are generally deemed to be failures by society at large: celebrating the art of failure as an alternative to chasing after the chimerical ideas of lasting success and physical perfection. Halberstam mentions the work of photographer Tracey Moffatt, whose project Fourth focused on athletes who narrowly missed being in the top 3 during the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

What could be more tragic than coming Fourth in the final of an Olympic games race? It’s sadder than coming last because when you come Fourth you have just missed out on a medal. You almost made it, but you just missed out. Fourth means that you are almost good. Not the worst (which has its own perverted glamour) but almost. Almost a star!” (Moffatt, 2001)

The series is a profoundly moving exploration of human emotion, the feeling of disappointment that comes with realizing you almost made it but not quite:

Most of the time the expression is expressionless, it’s a set look, which crosses the human face. It’s an awful, beautiful, knowing mask, which says ‘Oh s…t!’

As Halberstam points out, the series reminds us that in every competition there are not only winners to be celebrated, someone has to lose:

Moffat tries to capture the texture of the experience of failure, the outside of success and the statistical standard that determines who loses today by a fraction of a second, a centimeter, an ounce, and who tomorrow is lost to anonymity.” (2011, p 93)

Although Moffatt says she wanted to say something about the greatness of competition, about the beauty of trying, Halberstam sees the series as documenting “desperate disappointment, dramatic defeat, and the cruelty of competition” (ibid, p 93). In a world that is built around competition and the concept of success as winning against others, I tend to agree more with Halberstam on this one. Although embracing failure may be one way of acknowledging disability, the notion of winning is too ingrained in society for it to catch on in a general sense, I feel.


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