Vulnerability Beyond Resistance

Jason Kerr, Brigham Young University

In her essay, “Rethinking Vulnerability and Resistance,” Judith Butler argues against the assumed disjuncture of vulnerability and agentic politics. If vulnerability for Butler sufficiently constitutes human social experience to render quixotic any hope of overcoming it, she casts this reality in a tragic mode that considers vulnerability as grounds for resistance against violent hegemony, but that also tacitly concedes the interplay of hegemony and resistance as an incorrigible structural feature of human social existence. In Amy Hollywood’s terms, Butler’s mode of critique is melancholic and therefore overlooks “the energy for efficacious action [that] comes … through joy, through a love of the world that, in love, demands change.” For Hollywood, the modality of life offered by Butlerian resistance proves inadequate: “we can’t live well—we can’t live—on sorrow and anger and rage alone.”

My paper investigates love that demands change by considering the relationship between kindness and critique in the vein of protest imagined by Butler. Superficially, the two terms seem antithetical, and yet kindness has a sharper edge than its sepia-toned reputation suggests. Kindness awakens powerful vulnerabilities in the people to whom it is directed, and knowing how to respond to these vulnerabilities can be difficult, even as they awaken the possibility of transformation through human connection. Kindness’s capacity to expose vulnerability thus marks it as a form of power, opening it up to a Butlerian suspicion that it nevertheless has the potential to elude.

To draw out these fraught qualities of kindness, I turn to King Lear, arguing that Cordelia’s actions in the play illustrate the difference between melancholic critique and kindness as agents of transformation. The opening scene finds Cordelia acting in the melancholic mode, challenging the premises of Lear’s love-test. Recognizing the game’s susceptibility to rhetorical manipulation, she responds with a cleverly deconstructive commitment to “love, and be silent,” gesturing apophatically toward a love that, under the circumstances, must remain unsayable. Through these proleptically postmodern maneuvers, she registers a protest against her father’s unjust actions. Even though she’s motivated by love, her tactics leave her open to suspicion, and that gives Lear an opportunity to avoid dealing with the vulnerability that her love occasions in him, thwarting any hope of transformation until he encounters the storm to which his other daughters abandon him.

Lear attempts to maintain invulnerability through both the love-test and his hundred-knight retinue, but whereas Cordelia critiques the test in hopes of opening him to the vulnerability of a more authentic love, Goneril and Regan critique the retinue to open him to the vulnerability occasioned by their own quest for dominance. Both are acts of power: the latter attempts to make vulnerability one-sided by denying human connection, while the former attempts to forge human connection through shared vulnerability. When Cordelia captures Lear in Act 4, he is in her power, and accordingly he expects her just revenge, but she replies with kindness: “No cause, no cause.” She speaks to his vulnerability from the memory of her own, and this brings about a transformation: “the great rage / You see is killed in him.” In this way, Cordelia’s kindness accomplished what her earlier protest could not. Granted, her kindness could not have worked had not Lear come to terms with his own vulnerability in the meanwhile. She showed him his vulnerability earlier, but he could not or would not see. Kindness is not magic: unlike power in the usual sense, it begins from a position of acknowledged vulnerability, and, as the play’s devastating ending shows, this means that the transformations it brings about are themselves imperfect and fragile. The transformations wrought by forms of power and dominion are no different: power may be everywhere, but so is vulnerability. Kindness, by acknowledging this, affords some hope of sustaining transformation against the prospect of lapsing, yet once more, into the decay of sorrow and anger and rage.