Trauma and Vulnerability

  • Lauren Berlant, “The Subject of True Feeling”
  • Wendy Brown, “Wounded Attachments” in States of Injury
  • Judith Butler, “On Linguistic Vulnerability” in Excitable Speech

  • Berlant: Notions of citizenship, nationhood, liberty (privacy), and the law are so bound-up in sentiment that the impacts of oppressive structures have been formulated as “trauma” for minoritized subjects that can be repaired by new laws 🡪 But, this trauma/ pain/ suffering cannot be healed by the structures that have constituted the (lesser-) personhood of these subjects
  • Brown: In asserting one’s politicized (in other words, minoritized or de-naturalized) identity, one can reiterate the subordination of their identity within the dominant discursive formulation and, in a “disdain” for freedom, seek to avenge the pain, reversing the logics of liberal disciplinary bureaucracy 🡪 Instead, let’s consider the more radical formulation of “I want this for us” that can open up futures, un-fixity of identity
  • Butler: What is considered “injurious” speech can be resignified outside of the context of law / state censorship, as well as the liberal democratic notions of “sovereignty.” The stakes that motivate this move are that we are constituted through one another/in relation to one another’s bodies & speech and we are vulnerable & our speech acts are out-of-control (thus not easily codified)

Part 1: Berlant, “The Subject of True Feeling”


Argument: “This account of U.S. political culture to make a context for four claims:

  • (1) that this is an age of sentimental politics in which policy and law and public experiences of personhood in everyday life are conveyed through rhetorics of utopian/traumatized feeling;
  • (2) that national popular struggle is now expressed in fetishes of utopian/traumatic affect that over-organize and over-organize social antagonism;
  • (3) that utopian/traumatized subjectivity has replaced rational subjectivity as the essential index of value for personhood and thus for society;
  • (4) and that, while on all sides of the political spectrum political rhetoric generates a high degree of cynicism and boredom, those same sides manifest, simultaneously, a sanctifying respect for sentiment” (47).

“Thus, in the sentimental national contract, antagonistic class positions mirror each other in their mutual conviction about the self-evidence and objectivity of painful feeling, and about the nation's duty to eradicate it. In the conjuncture ‘utopian/traumatized’ I mean to convey a logic of fantasy reparation involved in the therapeutic conversion of the, scene of pain and its eradication to the scene of the political itself. (47-48).

Berlant will look at this issue via Supreme Court cases -in which the law stakes claims about universality or transparency of feeling (“privacy”)- to examine how decisions have been made according to “the redefinition of harm and traumatized personhood,” which can help us think about what might it look like to break the “sentimental contract” with citizenship (48).


Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) permitted married couples to purchase use birth control, because if the government were to forbid the sale of contraceptives to married couples, that would be a violation of their right to privacy. Sex between a heterosexual, married people was posited as sacred – not profane like adultery or homosexuality – intimacy that existed prior to the Bill of Rights and thus should not be interfered with by the state. This is a justification that Berlant refers to as “sentimental reason” (49-51).

Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972) extended the rights to purchase birth control / contraception to unmarried women, which Berlant argues is a shift from approaching sexual privacy as a “two-as-one utopia of coupled intimacy—into a property of individual liberty,” which shifted the focus from a sacred union to the woman’s body and the notion of self-sovereignty (52).

Roe v. Wade (1973) secured the right of a pregnant person [woman, in 1973] to get an abortion, which, for Berlant, maintained that a woman had a right to privacy (her private, individual decision), insofar as the state is interested in the potential “life” over the woman’s interests. Citing Justice Blackmun, Berlant notes that this ruling was an attempt at “post-emotionality,” in which the majority sought to counter the emotions surrounding the issue of abortion by holding onto Court precedent (52).

Planned Parenthood of Southern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992) – Overturned Pennsylvania’s abortion law that required notification of husbands by wives that were seeking an abortion, thus prohibiting this or any other “undue burdens” that stand in the way of a woman getting an abortion. The majority opinion cited instances in which women have been abused while pregnant as a reason it can be risky to be required to tell your husband you are planning on getting an abortion. The justices also argued that women too often suffer in private, and exercising control over their reproductive lives can allow them to participate equally (politically, economically, socially) in the Nation.  Berlant points out that this indicates that heterosexual femininity is both an undue burden and enobling, adding that this ruling can be considered the initiation of an era of “making pain count politically.” They argue that this ruling affirmed women’s sovereign citizenship while simultaneously upholding the authority of the court and the law to delimit the conditions in which a woman may seek an abortion (52-55).


  • We can think of subaltern pain as the sense that there is a universal distress among marginal subjects – an abstraction (55)
  • What Berlant calls “subaltern” pain, is not considered universal (because privileged subjects do not experience it), BUT it is deemed universally intelligible
  • Subaltern pain is intelligible because it is used as “evidence” of trauma reparable by law (56)
  • This “trauma” stands in for the “truth” – it makes a subject both specific and generic, when pain appears at juncture of a stereotype
  • Berlant’s argument: relying on the law to right wrongs (wrongs: minoritized pain/trauma) reinscribes the authority of the nation, because it is using the notions of personhood established by the state (58)
  • They assert that we should not think of pain as the affect of exceptional trauma, but as banal – it is embedded in minoritarian life and thus cannot be ameliorated in one-off legislative fixes (59)

“Coda: The Political Is Also Impersonal”

  • Concludes that the law is too often privileged as something that can relieve the pain of “specificity” and seeking justice under the law posits that judicial norms’ production of subjects are good (59)
  • Further, if we think that the “good life” is one without pain, this does not change hegemonic structures
  • “suffering” ends up standing-in for compound world of subordination in transnational conditions (60)
  • The reparative use of law is sentimental (61)


Part 2: Brown, “Wounded Attachments,” from States of Injury

Section 1 (pg. 52-56)

  • Argument: politicized identity is the production and contestation of liberalism, disciplinary-bureaucratic regimes, global capitalism, and flows of postcolonialism that constitute the contemporary North American political condition (54)
  • Goal: to examine selected contradictory operations of politicized identity within late modern democracy
  • Asks: When asserting one’s identity in an emancipatory mode, how does one avoid reiterating the totalizing or othering characterizations of identity? What kind of political recognition can identity-based claims seek that will not resubordinate the subject in that identity category? What kind of politicization and in what kind of political context could the subjugation of othered-identity be subverted? How and why does the desire for identity-recognition breed recrimination, suffering, and the disdaining of freedom rather than the practice of it? How can politicized identities invest selves in their own history of suffering among the need to give up these investments, and engage “forgetting” suffering to pursue emancipatory democracy? (54-55)
  • Outline: To answer these questions, Brown will provide a “discursive historical context” for identity politics in the U.S. and reconsider Nietzsche’s genealogy of “ressentiment” [wounded characterization of politicized identities’ desires] and “forgetting”

Section 2 (pg. 56-61)

  • The “I” in liberalism is sustained as long as “I” remains unpoliticized and is willing to subordinate self to the “we” [political universality] of the state (56)
  • This subordination works either by the “I” abstracting selves from political representation by trivializing their difference (e.g. “homosexuals are just like everyone else”), OR accepting their construction as a partial outsider (e.g. Jewish communal affiliation in an Anglo-Saxon country)
  • “Identity politics” of race, sexuality, and gender do not appear supplementary to class politics, but are tethered to formulation of justice that reinscribes bourgeois (and masculinist) ideals for politicized identities to measure themselves up against (59)
  • These people have upward mobility, relative protection against arbitrary violence (ex. girlbosses, Oprah, Obama)
  • Political purchase of these identities are achieved by the re-naturalization of capitalism
  • The middle class has been formulated as a “natural good” for “nonclassed” (raced, gendered, etc.) identities to measure selves against (61)

Section 3 (pg. 61-64)

Discussion of Foucault & Nietzsche:

Ressentiment is the core of “the slave morality” for Nietzsche. Wounded by the aristocracy, the slaves are vengeful and revengeful – and he says that this is a strange characteristic of slave morality, which exists only to make enemies out of someone else, the negation rather than an affirmation. The constitutive exterior, the unifying face of the enemy, to unify the self out of the Other’s evil. This morality has a revenge at its center; it finds one self to be better because of an others’ incompetence. This is utterly pervasive – the taking revenge for what the world has done to us. Schadenfreude: the taking pleasure in others’ pain. Priests are masters of vengefulness – they are committed to a God which will produce a grand revenge on the last day – God is the resentful, ressentiment of everyday living. This is not a revenge on others, but a revenge on the self – its goal is not to crush others, although that does happen – but it settles in a person’s soul (a bad conscience) where you take as much revenge on yourself as much as you do on the world. “The (Judeo-Christian) Fall” is the internalization of revenge against the fall. Nailing God to the Cross and worshiping it is the worship of an internalized resentment – it is a wish to die as though one were God. The highest good is induced in the negation of the body. The meditation on the destruction of the body as the expression of a slave morality, it is the ultimate description of the denial of the body, and the denial of bodily energies.

In the noble soul, it longs for freedom (a tricky word, even for Nietzsche), it engages knowledge with a certain gaiety - to take things as contingent and changeable, that knowledge is transient, a predisposition to affirm life rather than to see it as something poisoned and rotten from the beginning. The soul has a reverence for itself, for its own existence, its own becoming. It is willing to shave things off – there is no revenge, a gaiety for its enemies. We do not fault the beast of prey for its love for the lamb.

The slave morality is characterized by self-denial, longing for an escape (Heaven, capitalism), its priests are ascetics – or ideal characterizations of self-denial, and how hateful existence is. It eventually turns on itself, it will eat itself, nailing itself to the cross. It is “the great sickness” characterized by a will to control the inner world, trying to apply stable concepts to it. The ‘soul’ is an expression of ressentiment. (Foucault’s plastic subject, the subject as an articulation of mechanisms of control) We do not fault the prey for its resentment of its predators. It sees all difference as evil, is not able to appreciate the complexity of difference. It only knows evil enemies and evil friends. It demands that all be weak, and that submission is freedom.

Deleuze’s assertion that ressentiment is a doubling of affirmation: “if you’re going to affirm everything, then you affirm the negation of the thing itself.” Affirmation of life is the recognition of its coming to being, and saying ‘yes’ to it, rather than inventing mythologies that declare our ‘fallenness’ – every, all life on the planet are ‘good’ from the beginning rather than in a fallen state. This is the affirmation of life. Ressentiment is when life turns against itself: it could be referred to as a doubling of the will to power, whereby life itself is seen as something that is diseased and must be transcended. It is a turning of the will to power against itself, and that appears in the figure of the ascetic. The long-term habituation of ressentiment is ‘bad conscience’. The world has been accused so much that now we live with the commonsense fact that the world is fallen, the body is ugly, that we are always and always have been sinners.

Section 4 (pg. 64-66)

  • “Put the other way around, politicized identities generated out of liberal, disciplinary societies, insofar as they are premised on exclusion from a universal ideal, require that ideal, as well as their exclusion from it, for their own continuing existence as identities” (65)
  • Brown uses the example of an anti-discrimination ordinance as an instance in which the language of recognition can become language of unfreedom, how identities’ articulation in language / liberal disciplinary discourse can become vehicle of subordination, posit themselves as normativizable by law (66)
  • However, this is not only a political desire of foreclosing freedom through its inscription in law, but can be considered imagining the future of power to make itself

Section 5 (pg. 66-76)

  • Nietzsche’s "ressentiment": the moralizing revenge of the powerless
  • Made possible by paradoxes of liberalism: 1.) individual liberty / social egalitarianism, 2.) individual that legitimates liberalism & cultural homogeneity requires political universality (67)
  • Ressentiment produces… 1.) affect that overwhelms initial hurt, 2.) a culprit, 3.) a site of revenge to displace hurt – these operations ameliorate & externalize what is "unendurable" (68)
  • Brown argues that politicized identities are a product of and reaction to conditions of ressentiment, end up participating in efforts to self-affirm but end up reinscirbing powerlessness; the extension of blame and revenge reenact injuries from within the liberal discursive order (69-70)
  • Brown, per Nietzsche, poses to transform these investments in more radically democratic, emancipatory political culture through "forgetting" (74)
  • This is not historical erasure or ahistoricism, but a reconstructed forgetting
  • Supplant "I am" or "I want" (defensive disclosure of ID, fixidity, and the equation of social/moral with a liberal express. of self-interest) with “I want this for us" (75)
  • Can reopen desire for futurity that would be foreclosed by ressentiment

Part 3: Butler, “Introduction: On Linguistic Vulnerability,” from Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative

Opening Section (pg. 1-13)

  • It is hard to identify a “total speech act” in which felicitous (illocutionary/perlocutionary) speech acts take place. Speech acts cannot be easily defined in spatial and temporal boundaries. To be injured by speech is to suffer the LOSS of context, what is unanticipated is not what constitutes injury (content or context of the words) but the sense of putting addressee out of control, opening them to an unknown future
  • Hate speech came to be understood both as a linguistic and physical “wound,” can only be metaphorized as physical pain
  • Argument: “One comes to ‘exist’ by virtue of this fundamental dependency on the address of the Other” (5)
  • Injury by speech disproves that there is a subject “prior” to speech, because otherwise, why would injurious speech instill fear of death / survival in a person?
  • Argument: Because speech is a bodily act, it is out of its own control
  • The body is an "instrument" of violent rhetoricity – the body of the speaker exceeds the words that are spoken, exposing addressee's body as no longer (not ever fully) in control (13)
  • This complicates Butler’s prior arguments that language constitutes subjects and there is not a subject prior to language – we also have to think about bodies

“Unexpected Calls”

  • Hate speech: “hate speech is understood not only to its listener (an act upon perlocutionary scene) , but to contribute to the social constitution of the one addressed (and, hence, to become part of a process of social interpellation)” (18)
  • Butler’s question/intervention: What if hate speech doesn’t always work?
  • The reclamation of “queer” demonstrates speech can be returned to speaker in different form, cited against originary purposes, resignified, become unfixed & unfixable (14)
  • Gap that separates speech act from future effects (space where it may “talk back") helps us think of linguistic agency and “solutions” to hate speech other than those in the language of the law (15)
  • Speech is always, in some ways, out of our control

“Scenes of Utterance”

  • Arguments that collapse speech with conduct strengthen the case for state regulation; arguments that insist speech is speech rather than conduct favor suspending state intervention (20)
  • Example: Burning a cross in front of a Black family’s house was not considered “fighting words” by the court
  • MacKinnon: pornography is speech and conduct because it acts on women in injurious ways and represents women as inferior, thus calling for the need for state intervention (21)
  • By this formulation, burning of the cross was wrong but did not constitute discrimination
  • Something like “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” implies that naming or representing homosexuality is the same as acting on it/enacting it (22)
  • Issue: Strategies of progressive movements (for political correctness, anti-hate speech, etc.) can be turned against themselves by extending state power to determine what constitutes a harmful speech act (24)

“Speech Acts as Interpellation”

  • Austin’s “illocutionary” and Althusser’s “interpellative” overlap in that they use the ritual as a dimension for the moment of utterance, informed by prior & future moments, for constituting the subject (24-25)
  • Hate speech = exercises a ritual form of subordination
  • We sometimes claim injurious words directed toward us because they imply we exist (26)
  • Language conditions possibility for the subject, not just an instrument of expression
  • Excessive historicity of the speaking subject makes possible autonomy in speech, linguistic survival & death (28)

“The Injurious Action of Names”

  • Linguistic vulnerability: the power of being named in which a person is brought into a social location & time through being named; we are dependent on one another for the name (even though names are supposed to confer our singularity), having to share a name with others indicates our historicity (29)
  • Possibility of naming another requires that one first be named
  • The vulnerability of being named is the constant condition of the speaking subject – once you are named you can be named again (30)
  • Quote: “The proposals to regulate hate speech invariably end up citing such speech at length, offering lengthy lists of examples, codifying such speech for regulatory purposes, or rehearsing in a pedagogical mode the injuries that have been delivered through such speech. It seems that the repetition is inevitable, and that the strategic question remains, what best use is to be made of repetition” (37)
  • Butler: What is the intervention that can be made in this repetition/citationality?
  • Argument: There is no freeing language of its traumatic residue


  • The force of a speech act does not come from sovereignty of speaker, but the relation to another body whose force is deflected or conveyed through speech (39)
  • “Excitable” speech = the undeliberate or deliberate effect(s) of speaker
  • Legal discourse surrounding hate speech takes on its own performative exercise – it is applied inconsistently to reactionary political aims, ex. graphic representations of sexuality, being “out” in the military
  • Efforts to argue that speech and conduct are one is used by conservative courts to argue that sexual speech is the same as sex acts – this conflation is disputed when it comes to racist language (Ex. Anita Hill denied credibility as racialized & sexualized subject) (40)
  • Performativity: An ambivalent structure with its own sociality & temporality, enabled by concepts from which it breaks, where terms of resistance are spawned by powers they expose
  • Argument: we can misappropriate the force of injurious language to counter its operations – this resists solution of state-sponsored censorship as well as the impossibility of a sovereign, free individual (41)
  • To expand domain of linguistic survival, we must open up foreclosed & say unspeakable “offense”
  • Conclusion: the resignification of speech can open new contexts, speaking in not-yet legitimate ways can produce legitimacy in “new and future forms”

Discussion Questions

  1. Which quote(s) from each of the pieces stood out to you?
  2. How do the arguments of each of these pieces (1) support, (2) disrupt, or (3) complicate Foucault’s concept of resistance to [/within] power?
  3. How does Butler use Foucault to advance her argument?
  4. What other laws or types of laws (other than sexual privacy laws) operate through what Berlant calls “sentimental reason”? Are there any efforts have sought to subvert these formulations?
  5. What are ways we can rhetorically imagine and/or articulate “classed” identities without falling into the list-trap (the “race, class, sexuality, gender” formation that under-articulates class) described by Brown, instead capturing the role of global capitalism in the organization and mobilization of identity?