“Like lingering echoes, which afar confound themselves”
Charles Baudelaire (translated by Cyril Scott)
Towards the end of 2015, we came up with an idea of organizing a conference on Vulnerabilities. It was important to us that the conference should take place here, in Silesia. We did not dare to assume and expect, then, that this idea would evoke such generous responses, that it would transcend, as it were, its own initial ramifications providing conceptual parameters for Bracha Ettinger’s first solo exhibition in Poland. To say we did not expect anything of the kind is no false modesty. Eurydice and Pieta came to us unexpectedly: they emerged uninvited like Derrida’s returning specters.(1 To be honest, even now we have a feeling that this conference has, somewhere along the way, slipped out of our academic control and began to live its own independent life. We have been left standing by, watching in awe the budding forms this life assumed. Meanwhile, we continued our work.
What inspired the conference was a word of Latin origin: vulnerabilis is a language of those who are exposed (to an attack or other kinds of danger), sensitive (to pain), vulnerable (to danger or illness), or otherwise defenceless and/or powerless. It is a language of those whose position is uncertain, precarious, and thus at the mercy of others [precarious]. We were wondering whether it would be possible to liberate the meanings that come in the wake of vulnerabilis from their negative connotations; if so, then can we think new forms of social bonding on such fragile grounds? Does this fragile foundation whose fragility is what, paradoxically constitutes its strength, allow us to build upon it a more solid and just world?
The idea then was to recognize vulnerability as a human condition, albeit unevenly distributed, a condition which is shared by and with all people and non-human lives, often with some tragic consequences. Vulnerability is not something that makes us equal; it is shared differently yet the question we are asking, nevertheless, is: despite the differences it marks and embodies, can vulnerability become grounds on which to build acts of solidarity and togetherness in the face of these differences? Can vulnerability be seen as (expressing/giving rise to) resistance as it does in the work of Bracha Ettinger? The pain depicted in her work can only be glimpsed at because it explodes the parameters of living into which life is forced. It expresses a life that wants to be heard and to speak precisely because it is unliveable.
The power of Bracha Ettinger’s work lies in its manifestation of a space for a life which physically speaking is no longer there but which keeps returning in the incessant work of memory and mourning. Claiming this wound of life, summoning it up, invoking its ghosts and applying yet another layer of paint onto the photographs of the victims engulfed by the Shoah, Ettinger reminds us that we must constantly reckon and settle accounts with the lost life to preserve ourselves. Coming to terms with the non/presence which haunts us is the condition of subjectivity and good life in the relation between the individual and the collective.
Perhaps the condition of vulnerability has replaced the postmodern condition.(2 Anyway, it more aptly describes chaos and confusion as a preliminary condition for the thinking of new forms of social bonding in the world of “generalized proletarianization”(3 which encompasses “all classes of the population.”(4 Chaos provokes inquietude or restlessness, which is understandable. Yet inquietude is what gives rise to thought and liberates – as in Hegel – the reflexivity of reason and makes one think in the face of shame experienced in the confrontation with thoughtlessness which always leads to disaster(5. It is in the face of thoughtlessness understood as stupidity which results from lack of thinking that Bracha Ettinger offers her intervention beginning from and with one of the most painful manifestations of such stupidity. Her notebooks and paintings can be read as an attempt at a continual confrontation with such anxiety and, as a result, as an attempt at an unending fight with thoughtlessness which always returns. Today, when anxiety begins to paralyze thought and transforms into a systemic – yet also politically and economically exploited – fear which (to paraphrase the already cited manifesto) is haunting Europe like a spectre (a spectre of nationalisms), such fight is more urgent than ever before. Without it, we are left with what Gilles Deleuze, borrowing from Primo Levi, termed “a shame at being human.”(6
We must think, then, that is, speak and act and act while speaking in order to put this inquietude to a good use without allowing others to turn in into fear. Recognizing ourselves as ourselves and our own noetic function of inquietude leads to what Ettinger describes as worry-caring-wonder: anxiety which gives rise to care and concern, arouses wonder and enforces reflection. Here, to say the beautifully simple “I wonder” not only testifies to care and caring but also becomes a source of delight or wonder (miracle). Such are the stakes in the discussion of what is vulnerable today: how to use inquietude without capitalizing on it. We are truly grateful to the Silesian Museum, and its director, Alicja Knast, in particular, for such enthusiastic response to our initial idea. She has considerably widened the space for (our) thinking. We also wish to thank our colleagues from the Institute of Romance Languages and Translation Studies, Ewa Drab and Magdalena Łachacz, whose support and help have been more than generous and truly invaluable. Finally, we thank Anna Chromik from the neighbouring Institute of English Cultures and Literatures who joined our team in order to assume the responsibility of organizing and curating the exhibition of Bracha Ettinger’s work.
1) J. Derrida, Specters of Marx, trans. P. Kamuf, New York and London, p. 5.
2) J.-F. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, trans. G. Bennington and B. Massumi, Manchester, 1984.
3) B. Stiegler, States of Shock. Stupidity and Knowledge in the Twenty-First Century, Cambridge, UK, Malden, MA, 2015, s. 45
4) K. Marx and F. Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Manifesto.pdf , p. 18.
5) B. Stiegler, States of Shock, op. cit., p. 227
6) G. Deleuze, Negotiations, trans. M. Joughin, New York, 1995, p. 172.
Michał Krzykawski & Ewa Macura-Nnamdi
Institute of Romance Languages and Translation Studies
University of Silesia