A Queer Thealogy of Vulnerability (Part 4)

by Ciaran Hunter (he/him)

The links for all previous parts can be found at the end of this post

We’ve discussed, at length, the limitations and logical pitfalls that abound within the TERF conception of identity. However, I do think there is some merit to the attempt to come to a foundation upon which to build a system of liberation. It seems as if the vast majority of cultural upheaval we have experienced over the course of the twenty and twenty-first centuries has been due in large part to the search for a stable foundation. The nation-state or the pantheon no longer holds the same universalist sway over our identities, and nor can it truly hope to reign in the proliferation of identities and expressions of individuality that have abounded in recent decades. Religiosity is falling, our borders are becoming more and more porous in terms of our consumption of goods and culture, and the world is becoming more and more connected. In the face of this, in the face of so many pulling in so many directions, it is little wonder that many are fleeing to the old reliables. The seeming abandonment of the middle ground, small l liberalism for the extremes of political discourse, the polarisation between the ‘woke’ and the ‘anti-woke’, the competing culture wars and cries of cancellation all point towards crises of identity. Such actions affect us at a global, local, and even individual level.

Globally, a lack of stability can push states towards ever more reckless positions to ‘prove’ their strength, while others may lack the will to resist such moves due to their own uncertainty. Locally we see elements of domestic policies that seem only to serve the entrenched power or established citizens over the more marginalised. And individually, we may very well find ourselves unsure of ourselves, or our place in a global, multicultural community that has changed so drastically in some respects, yet stayed so stagnant in others. The temptation to raise the drawbridge, bar the gates and ready our defences is a natural response to this uncertainty, and I can’t truly fault anyone for such a response. However, I do think that there is an alternative path to be taken, one that can account for our own suffering as well as promote compassion for others. Not one where hierarchies of pain and grief can crystalise into yet another axis of power along which we are all ranked, but an eternally diffuse, uncomfortable, and intersectional mode of being.

I think the best way to present this is actually very similar to the concept of the Suffering Woman, but instead of a Thealogy of Suffering, I would propose an embodied Queer Thealogy of Vulnerability. Before I begin, a few words on vulnerability. I think vulnerability is done a great disservice, particularly in the mainstream societal consciousness. Vulnerability should not be viewed simply as weakness, or as the lack of external protection from harm. It is not something to be covered up or to be shielded from at all costs. I think that there is a great wealth of strength to be found in vulnerability, especially in facing up to how massively uncomfortable we have been conditioned into being with our own vulnerability and physical fragility. Instead, we chase after strength, stability, and comfort in a vain hope to stave off the inevitable suffering we all must face. Again, I do not fault the intention behind these goals, they are inevitable results of our evolutionary heritage, as well as our historical background. Our history has long been nasty, brutish, and short, with the biggest rewards often going to the strongest or most ruthless in society. And we perpetuate these cycles of viciousness in the vain hope we might one day land on top of the pile. However briefly.

But, in truth, these brief moments of supremacy inevitably bring about yet more suffering, and paradoxically more vulnerability. The higher up the ladder, the longer and harder the fall from grace. Strength fails, wits dull, and money depreciates. The one constant companion is vulnerability, something that we will always experience to varying degrees. And, indeed, our very identities are underpinned by vulnerability. We all exist within a framework of interconnected axes of power, each and every one of us representing a unique intersectional entity that is culturally and historically contingent. We owe much of our understandings of ourselves as selves to our upbringing, both parental and societal. But we also rely upon there being an Other against which we can self-actualise. Such intrinsically essential aspects of ourselves such as our ethnicity, sexuality, sex, or gender, things we think of as “having”, don’t actually belong to us in isolation. They are given to us and taken from others. We compare and contrast ourselves to the Other in order to better reflect on ourselves. Sometimes, the designation of the Other acts as a self-referential justification for what we always hoped we were in the first place. A way to naturalise and reify that which we wish to be natural and ‘real’. You may ask, what does this have to do with vulnerability? Well, it means that our selves are never entirely our own, that there will always be a piece of another within. We are penetrated by the other, just as we penetrate them. And while that penetration also forms the boundaries around the penetration, they call attention to the reality of these gaping holes in our sense of individualistic superiority.

And yet, there is a real beauty in this framing of the world. Instead of every man existing as a castle on an island, we exist as brief moments of cohesion in a vast cloud of difference created and maintained by the differentiation of power and experience. Simultaneously penetrating and being penetrated; defining and being defined. There is a freedom and a boundlessness to be had, a refusal to tie oneself down concretely to the shackles of identity and the neat check-boxes of statistical analysis. And, without the isolated silos of existence, we can better understand ourselves through a kaleidoscopic lens that can fully encapsulate our own existence without butchering it to fit our expressions in language. Translating our experience into intelligibility places boundaries around our experience that simply divorce ourselves from this experience itself. We translate our innermost selves so that we may understand ourselves on the terms of another. We make ourselves intelligible so that others can recognise us, often contorting our physical bodies in order to fit a framework neither party has created yet both are beholden to.

None of this is anything new for Queer people in the last few decades. We have often had to try and draw down our multifaceted prismatic identities and experiences into the boundaries of political activism intelligible for the heterosexual and cisgender majority. Trans people especially have had to both interpret their experience through a heavily cis-centric lens of gender identity itself and translate their translation into an embodiment of an ideal that is understandable and intelligible to a heterocisnormative world. Is it any wonder that so many Trans people feel such a deep and abiding discomfort with their own bodies, that dysphoria digs its claws so deeply into their psyche and their physical form? But a movement away from these false dichotomies, from the comfort and familiarity of stability and strength towards a more diffuse, thrilling, unstable, unbounded experience is already growing through Queer embodiment.

We are, increasingly blurring boundaries and highlighting the interpenetrative nature of identity itself. Gender, sex, and sexuality all blur and shift and melt together to produce something that feels quite outside of feeling itself. It is a movement, a way of life, a political fight, an academic tool, and an identity for millions and for one. A wonderfully embodied experience of difference itself, running and pooling together into a myriad of fleeting but beautiful mosaics of identity. Free from the demands to account for ourselves, to make an account of ourselves, to separate our identities from our experience and our bodies in order to lay them out, logically and ordered on the table of intelligibility. Of course, such creative chaos would not be without tension, without struggle or the unequal distribution of power. But it is a far better ground, or lack of ground, from which to account for our positionality when we recognise how utterly undone we are by contact with one another, and how much the cohesion of our identities relies on one another. From here we can recognise that our dominance results in our reliance on arbitrariness, our logical structures become increasingly reliant on the illogical and the strongest are utterly dependent on the weak. The suffering of one is the suffering of all, and it becomes illogical to try to carve out the particular from the universal.

Where the TERF ideology goes wrong is in the assumption that in order to be protected one must be uncompromising, strong, and strictly identifiable. The Suffering Woman stands apart from the rest of society, bound by its interactions with her and vice versa. While the Queer Body finds itself unbound, unidentified, and alive with unending creative potential. It is not defined and expressed for anyone other than itself, mutually incomprehensible and yet stronger for this incomprehensibility. For it is in this creative tension between experience and existence that our identities can spill out into our lives. And once we find stability in instability, the childish need to assert and dominate ceases to hold such a strong fascination.

About the Author:

Ciaran is a graduate of religion (BA Hons) and Gender Studies (PGDip) with a particular interest in, and focus on, ideas of embodiment in queer theory, particularly how non-binary gender identities can illustrate our relationship to gender itself. He is also extremely interested in ‘Third’ Gender identities from majority world cultures, Queer themes in mythology and contemporary religions, and any opportunity to critique heterocisnormative assumptions. Forever striving in vain to find a book that collates Queer Myths into a single reference source.

All previous parts of this series can be found here:

Part 1: https://www.queerdisrupt.com/index.php/2022/07/14/thealogy-of-suffering/

Part 2: https://www.queerdisrupt.com/index.php/2022/09/05/when-suffering-isnt-enough/

Part 3: https://www.queerdisrupt.com/index.php/2022/09/05/suffering-and-the-woman/

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