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Binding Vulnerability: Representing Foreignness and Migrancy in the 21st Century.

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Organizer: Sharon Marquart

Co-Organizer: Manuel Chinchilla

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Current tensions in Europe and North America over migrant, immigrant, and minority populations have given rise to a variety of representations of vulnerability appealing to a wide political spectrum. Activists and artists seeking to defend the civil and human rights of victims of these humanitarian crises may appeal to a notion of vulnerable bodies deserving of empathy and shelter. On the other hand, right-wing populist and national ideologues may reverse and exploit this very notion of vulnerability to advance xenophobic, misogynistic, and exclusionary agendas by invoking  a vulnerable self that must defend itself against violent, invading “foreigners”. These conflicting deployments of vulnerability suggest the need to examine the discourse of vulnerability itself and its intersections with social and economic precarities produced by the contemporary global order. We are interested in discussing (i) how critical and feminist theories of “vulnerable” concepts such as precariousness, empathy, community, biopolitics, trauma, testimony, and epistemic injustice can--and should--be reimagined in light of the global migrant crisis and its competing appeals to human vulnerability, and (ii)  how these very concepts and theories might help to combat  white supremacy, nationalist anti-humanitarianism, and other intolerant views and political movements.
This seminar seeks to understand and critique the mobilization of vulnerability in aesthetic, theoretical, journalistic, and political discourses about foreignness and migrancy. We set out from the notion of “binding” performed by representation in linking “vulnerability” to different attitudes and practices: from expressions of intercultural compassion and shared desires for justice, to opposing feelings of threat and self-defense. Our aim is to understand how depictions of vulnerability can inform senses of belonging to diverse forms of association (racial, ethnic, social, national), but can also cultivate solidarities across such divisions. In what ways are vulnerable bodies used as bridging metaphors for solidarity with foreign “others”? How are depictions of suffering instrumentalized by the global Right? What sort of reading and viewing strategies are we allowed or required to exercise when witnessing such representations? How is meaning created through vulnerability? How might the discourse of victimhood be reimagined to account for conflicting appeals to the vulnerable self?
We welcome papers on the themes and questions mentioned above. While we find it useful in stating our topic to concentrate on the cases of North America and Europe, we encourage explorations of migration and vulnerability focusing on other regions (e.g., Venezuelan migration throughout South America, or Syrian resettlement in Lebanon), and on other historical periods (e.g., the Second World War, Indian Partition, decolonization) as long as they engage with the seminar’s conceptual framework.

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