Matthew Pellegrino

Ethic of Vulnerability


In Tony Richardson’s film Mademoiselle, Marguerite Duras adapts a Jean Genet story of a chaste schoolteacher (Mademoiselle) who is apparently sexually frustrated in the confines of her rural Catholic French village.1 Mademoiselle is stern, and treats her young students severely. Late in the night while the town sleeps, or during the day while the townspeople participate in religious ceremonies, she begins to commit acts of awful destructio—lighting barns and houses on fire, or flooding animal pens by diverting a stream—supposedly to draw out the migrant Italian logger Manou and set the stage for his heroic acts of rescue while Mademoiselle watches with fervent admiration.

The turning point of the film is the final encounter between Mademoiselle and Manou near his worksite deep in the forest. In all their previous encounters, Mademoiselle had only tremblingly approached him while he fell trees by ax, fleeing his presence at the decisive moment when the longed-for contact would finally be made. But this time, as she approaches him cautiously, he reveals a snake about his waist. He bids her not to fear it. Though startled, and again trembling, she endures the snake’s arrival into her outstretched hand and, by the same stroke, the touch of Manou’s fingertips. After a series of flashbacks, this encounter leads to a stunningly beautiful love scene that unfolds in complete exposure in the forest, through the night’s torrential rain, and as the town mob’s frenzied manhunt nears.

The drama of Mademoiselle in many ways represents that of the intellectual laborer who searches for a relationship with her body, with bodies. Manou in this film is the body par excellence: a woodsman, strong, courageous, virile, lacking any trace of awkwardness in his gestures. The film draws attention to the interplay of violence and exposure, of abstraction and corporeality, that resolves itself uneasily: disturbed by the nascent sense of being drawn outside herself in desire, terrified at leaving her rigid intellectual security behind in desire’s achievement, she seeks simultaneously to fulfill and negate this desire through violence. Yet ultimately, as she finally makes the leap, letting her arm be enveloped by the snake – symbol of both Manou as the suspect Italian migrant as well as the suspect in general – she pierces through her abstract fear and opens herself to the possibility of communing with Manou in bliss.

How is it possible to commune with another? How does a particular ethical position structure experience and open new possibilities for acting and being? In New York City, I ask myself these questions often, wondering how I can or should relate with the homeless on the subway train, or with my neighbors in Bushwick, or with any of the thousands of people that I encounter every day. The following reflections attempt to understand the ethical conditions of community in terms of vulnerability. Vulnerability is a concept that I've used to trace how I am at different times with different people and in different spaces. And I’ve used the concept of vulnerability as a kind of spiritual exercise for enabling in myself the possibility of communion, as well as manifest a certain kind of presence: an ethics of vulnerability. These notes are an incomplete attempt to describe the different moments of the trajectory inherent to this spiritual exercise.

But I’ve found that these questions are also immediately applicable to our socio-political environment. How do I relate to the other that I never encounter fully or as such: the state? How can or should I relate to the state which administers fear through mass surveillance, violence, corruption, injustice, infiltration, entrapment, indifference to poverty, and outright sabotage? What does it take to finally step into the street, or dwell behind the barricades? In such a context, what does it take to achieve solidarity, to establish community?


What is vulnerability? Certainly, it’s the capacity to be wounded, as suggested by the etymology. But the concept of vulnerability would become too narrow if defined merely by the potential to be subjected to violence, as if this potential would disappear along with evil. We could go slightly further, and think of vulnerability as first of all rooted in the indelible exposure of being living bodies, of being exposed beyond ourselves by the fundamental passivity of our flesh. Vulnerability would thus be defined as the exposure not only to violence or the threat of violence, but also to joy and grief according to the unfolding of the course of events.

The unfolding of the course of events: the temporality of vulnerability is structured as fate. It is the anxiety of one’s subjugation to fate—that I am exposed to the unexpected arrival of the unknown. By fate, I don’t mean any cosmically determined plan or pre-determined course of events, but fate as the agnosticism of givenness, of both what is given and the fact that it is given. Fate remains stupefied by the event.

But where am I in this, in vulnerability? Standing anxiously before fate, I have the sense that I pre-exist my exposure to the unknown event. Being exposed implicates a me who already is in this exposure, that there is something there that can be killed or lost. I am in the junction of past and future, between myself as already constituted and the unknown event. I am opened to the flux of becoming, but not yet of becoming-other. And so I pre-exist my exposure in a double sense: as a body that can be killed, and as a world that can be dissolved—two aspects of death united in the threat of the unexpected, though anxiously attended, arrival of the unknown.

Strangely, do I not also fear the very finitude of this unexpected event, perhaps more than the event itself? That on the other side of this event, I will be affected in unforeseen ways and that I will be subjected to a new set of forces that I’m not prepared for, or don’t want to accept, as if the very threat of this event contained in itself the echo of the future threat. In this we glimpse the infinite doubling of transcendence, a fear that redoubles itself, a future redoubling a future. It’s a long uncomfortable series assuaged by the thought that at some point, I will be laid in the tepid earth to rest, an inevitable finality of immanence that interjects itself into the desert of transcendence.


As co-constituitve of vulnerability, the being that I am pre-exists. When something happens, and I realize that, to my surprise, I had already been vulnerable, it is this same I that is implicated as in the preexistence within vulnerability recognized as such. But whether I am vulnerable or not depends on my ethics more than the necessity of my constitution. Vulnerability does not designate a metaphysical reality that I simply ignore but should finally remember, or my true self that I should strive to become. Vulnerability and its alternatives are distinct ethical constellations that unite figures of givenness with affective dispositions and structure our possibilities for acting. When I am vulnerable, as well as when I am surprised by my vulnerability, it is the domain of pride that’s at stake.

Pride should be understood as all the various forms of the ego’s self-positing that aim at securing itself and its own primacy, becoming thereby the measure of all things. This prideful self-positing is itself temporalized in the future, past, and present: the fear of death, the effacement of birth, and the possessive establishing of autonomy in the image of the causa sui. In each case, what is at stake is the self-subsistence of the ego, its totalization and permanence.

Pride serves as the ethical condition of ontology, making possible the elaboration of an ontology of beings that self-subsist, and that substitutes itself for being-given. But ontology equally gives back to pride in enabling the constitution of a world in which the prideful ego may originally secure and valorize itself. It was in this fashion that the ego first received its modern ontological status by way of the universal doubt that secured itself in the act of representation. Not even the Heideggerian privilege of Dasein escapes the domain of pride, which at best would push one to the limit of pride where pride finally becomes a question to itself. The prideful ego conditions vulnerability as the pre-existing in the exposure, and produces vulnerability by its very attempt at totalizing a self-positing and self-securing. Vulnerability and the prideful ego are two complementary moments of the same opening of pride.

We can read in the figures of the modern tourist the struggle of the prideful ego itself. As indicated above, vulnerability is also the condition for a certain kind of joy. A prideful joy is precisely the joy of re-securing an exposure, of surviving the event that had momentarily disrupted the secure territory. In tourism, the prideful ego seeks to expose itself while governing this exposure, and this exposure is usually justified by a determinate reward. But it also seems that the prideful ego attempts to accomplish its “exposure” while maintaining its security by locating the exposure within the fetishized concepts of remoteness and exoticism. Similarly, the pathology of the gambler intimates that, more than the potential payoff, it’s precisely the repetition of vulnerability that’s at stake, whether for the prideful joy of surviving fate, or for the heightened presence of the anxiety itself.

Ethic of Vulnerability

What happens when vulnerability becomes an ethic? What kind of life does one live when it’s the opening and dwelling within exposure rather than its avoidance and closure that becomes one’s guiding thread?

This ethic does not designate the mere repetition of vulnerability, or its future appropriation, as these would continue to privilege the primacy of the prideful ego. Of course, the phrase “ethic of vulnerability” implicates the prideful ego, but deliberately does so in order to recall a possibility that is, for me as the subject of pride, always available. Becoming explicitly vulnerable is always within my reach in a way unlike the many ethical tasks that, incapable of accomplishing them, instead measure my depravity.

The ethic of vulnerability does not seek to arrive at itself through a temporal projection, regardless of the way this exposure might be allocated. Instead, this ethic designates the kind of life one lives when one is resolved to be vulnerable now. A transitivity essentially structures this ethical position. This transitivity prevents the ethic from merely reproducing the experience of vulnerability as an anxious subjugation to fate. In resolutely being vulnerable, a transitivity carries me beyond myself. It displaces the prideful ego and fundamentally restructures experience to the point where vulnerability is sublated. In the ethic of vulnerability, my first sensation is one of reentry into my body. At nearly the same time, I sense the enduring opening of transitivity in its extension beyond the horizon: the prideful ego, as a mode of the past, is forgotten. And I slip just beyond time, understood as the event, into its backyard.

This transitivity is a becoming-other in multiple senses. Not only do I become other than the prideful ego, which is a superficial sense of becoming-other, but I am opened onto the other in such a way that I become it. Becoming-other operates on the level of affect and the continuity of sensation, and no forceful reassertion of the prideful ego intervenes to differentiate in this becoming-other. Here, I believe, is where empathy becomes possible: becoming-other opens me onto the body of the other and reestablishes the communal body.

Becoming-other introduces the non-event into the constellation of the ethic of vulnerability. In this, the event undergoes an anticlimactic sublation and the anxiety characteristic of it is transformed into a kind of contentment. The reminder of the ethic enables perseverance against strife, as if I had already accepted any possible strife in advance, and the transitivity that extends me beyond the horizon does so in such a way that any conceivable event has already been survived. This contentment that emerges within the ethic of vulnerability is neither placid nor nihilistic; rather, it is the unity of joy and suffering experienced together in the face of becoming-other. The affective transformation undergone within the ethic unites the previously differentiated affective tonalities within the figure of vulnerability that we understood as allocated according to fate.


Empathy is a deeply ambiguous concept. Most often, empathy is regarded either as fantasy or as simply impossible. In these cases, the prideful hermeneutic at play of the solipsistic ego deploys a schema of inaccessibility, producing the other as such. Bracketing this deployment, empathy offers a the possibility for a productive reframing of social relations in its process of dis-identification. The ambiguity of empathy is identical to this process of dis-identification, of feeling a feeling which no longer clearly belongs to myself or to the other: the pathos belonging properly to neither of us. In the experience of empathy, prior to any reduction, I inhabit a becoming-other. To reiterate, becoming-other is not the overdetermined and superficial sense of alteration, but the continued tension of my de-centering, dis-identification, and extension beyond the horizon that nevertheless remains submerged in the affective flux. The difficulty of maintaining this position consists in resisting the reduction of empathy by a hermeneutic to a position in which I would decidedly gain or lose access to the other as other.


Nous entrons dans la barbarie. Certes ce n’est pas la premiere fois que l’humanité plonge dans la nuit.

We are entering a period of barbarism. Certainly this isn’t the first time that humanity has plunged into night.

        —Michael Henry, La Barbarie

The question of access to the other or of social relations in general obviously cannot be dissociated from the forces at work in our socio-political environment. As critiques of these forces are plentiful, I’ll limit myself to simply mentioning two: technology and precarity.

Michel Henry’s critique in La Barbarie, published in 1987, focused on the role of technics and technology in the automatization of social life and their effects on humanity’s relationship to truth. Franco Berardi extends the problematic of automation through an analysis of the virtual auto-generation of financial capital and the reductive and hegemonic effects of technology in pre-determining the modes of social interaction that are possible.

Bifo also develops an extensive critique of the social production of a global precariat, i.e., the precarious class. For Bifo, neoliberal subjectivation has wrought havoc on the social body through the fragmentation of labor relations and the virtualization of the place of labor, through the progressive infiltration of the ethics of capitalism (of competition, calculation, and acceleration) into every aspect of social life, and the endless opening of labor directly to the intensified demands of the market. The precariat also faces an increasingly militaristic police force, universal surveillance, mass incarceration, and the specter of state violence at every point of resistance—threatening both the murder of my body as well as the dissolution of my world.

The production of a global precariat is undoubtedly a contemporary mode of accumulation. But it’s also important for us to recognize here that precarity, the material, social, and political conditions that threaten existence, is produced and allocated unequally according to a host of structures of exploitation and oppression. At the theoretical limit of current socio-political processes, where the global “99%” would become a fully radicalized precariat, there will still be an inequality in the social allocation of precarity and vulnerability, for example, the queer subject and the colored subject who would find themselves already in heightened positions of vulnerability. And it would seem that these these subjects pose a challenge to the above critique of pride that could be read as centered around a white bourgeois western subjectivity.

Yet the critique of pride was not developed originally by a ruling elite. This critique, in a seemingly paradoxical fashion, was elaborated by a minority group of Christians under persecution and took aim at the authority of the Jews as well as the philosophy of the Greeks. But this paradox would seem resolved when, according to the above analysis, we realize that vulnerability, even if ontological in the sense of being coextensive with the opening of pride, is not a primary and indisputable reality. Vulnerability is a form of exposure that a certain ethic establishes. The ethic of vulnerability is the movement of vulnerability’s sublation.

At the limit of the production of a radical precariat, what is the possibility for the realization of autonomous spaces, of the recomposition of the social body, of resistance? As the ethical condition of empathy, through the de-centering of the prideful ego and the dis-identification of pathos, the ethic of vulnerability enables the commencement of the recomposition of the social body as an affective community of the living. The other’s struggles are recognized as my own struggles. But in our work to build a just society, it appears inevitable that we will need to encounter the threat head-on, and so it would seem that, in the night of social barbarism, the ethic of vulnerability names the winter solstice.

1With gratitude for the critical comments of Rick Moreno, Luis Brennan, and Jessica Spraos on earlier drafts of this essay.

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