Volatility and Vulnerability

Global Intersectional Perspectives from the 20th Century to the Present  


How does our understanding of emotions change when we analyze them in times and places of the highest precarity? Which feelings and actors, which dynamics and power structures, beyond and among humans, come into focus? Can volatility and vulnerability – but also hope for redress and recognition – be illuminated in a novel way? And how does this shift in perspective affect the history of culture, politics, economics and emotions?

In a time of multiple – global, political, social, economic and ecological – crises, this collaborative project aims to interrogate human volatility and vulnerability through the lens of emotions. It aims, firstly, to contribute to the much-needed expansion of previous strongly human-centred notions of emotions and, secondly, to adopt an intersectional perspective. This project thus rejects all those exclusionary and oppressive concepts of humanity that have served white supremacy, patriarchy and racial capitalism. Instead, it offers a conceptual framework that transcends the boundaries between humans, the environment and technology by enquiring into emotions beyond the human, while at the same time constructively historicizing and critiquing traditional categories of social hierarchization such as race, class and gender.

Volatility and Vulnerability focuses on histories of emotions and structures of vulnerability in a wide variety of forms and manifestations, as well as on gestures of hope and breakthroughs that can arise from relationships between and beyond the human. In this sense, the project works with a concept of agency that, following Lauren Berlant, foregrounds the activity of maintenance, not making: a form of agency that is characterized by knowing when and how to cross over, to become somebody else, or by what Achille Mbembe termed this dizzy state of endless crossing and becoming whose end is simply to stay alive.”

Volatility and Vulnerability engages with a wide range of different historical junctures, geographies and source materials, from Soviet Russian science fiction to Zambian Africanfuturism and various narratives of violence and vulnerability at the turn of the twenty-first century. It is global-historical in scope and includes case studies from India, South Africa, Zambia, Russia, Turkey and Germany. All contributions are united by the insight that vulnerability and a frequently experienced lack of emotional, physical, material, legal and social well-being are among the basic constants of the emotional ecology of our globalized world. The aim of the project is to historicize and at the same time problematize this finding by innovatively examining the relationship between precarity, volatility and vulnerability, giving new momentum to an emotional history of humans, non-humans, environment and technology.

The Contributions

Feeling ViolenceLegal vulnerability and capitalist precarity in Germany

Feeling Violence
Legal vulnerability and capitalist precarity in Germany

Agnes Anna Arndt

How can violence, which is generated not only individually but also systemically, be overcome? Films like Die Rüden answer this question by saying, in effect, that we need non-human beings who can make us aware of our dysfunctional reactions. Based on this observation and on sources documenting domestic violence in Germany between 1990 and 2020, this chapter analyzes feelings and strategies of exclusion of the sexualized and racialized ‘other,’ as well as the legal and social attempts to contain them, in order to stimulate a critical discussion about the connection between capitalism, volatility and vulnerability.

Still from “Die Rüden” by Connie Walther © Tom Trabow
Feeling the “Monkeyman”Social hierachies and vulnerability in urban India

Feeling the “Monkeyman”
Social hierachies and vulnerability in urban India

Rukmini Barua

In 2001, a series of attacks allegedly committed by an entity known as the ‘Monkeyman’ generated panic across working-class neighbourhoods in Delhi. These incidents unfolded in a situation of contentious co-habitation between humans and monkeys, as Delhi’s urbanization led to an erosion of simian habitats. This chapter focuses on the emotions surrounding the Monkeyman encounters in order to analyze structures of precarity and vulnerability in contemporary Delhi and to explore the interaction of human and non-human actors in the constitution of the urban environment.

Collage of headlines in The Hindustan Times in May 2001 © MPIB
Feeling RaceA reading of Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift

Feeling Race
A reading of Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift

Stephanie Lämmert

Namwali Serpell’s highly acclaimed Africanfuturist debut novel The Old Drift (2019) spans the colonial history of Zambia, and narrates the entanglements of three families – one white, one brown and one black. This chapter traces how the characters in the novel navigate the terrain of feeling race and vulnerability by transforming their relationships with other humans, animals and technology. Can feelings of vulnerability shed light on the violence and contingency of colonialism and the contradictions of modern developmentalism, while at the same time offering hope?

Cristina de Middel, „Umeko“ from the series Afronauts (2011) © cristina de middel/Magnum Photos/Agentur Focus
Fishy FeelingsSwimming beyond the human in Soviet sience fiction

Fishy Feelings
Swimming beyond the human in Soviet sience fiction

Alexandra Oberländer

Aleksandr Beliaev's 1928 novel Amphibian Man depicts the rather melodramatic story of a young man in his early twenties. Due to an illness he had as a young boy, his father, a genius scientist, gave him shark gills in a surgical operation, enabling him to live partly on land and partly in the ocean. In the 1960s, this story was turned into an extremely popular film of the same name. How did Soviet science fiction venture beyond the human and which emotions were elicited?

Filmstill of Chelovek amfibiya/Amphibian Man (1962)
Feeling VulnerableVolatile bodies in the novels of J.M. Coetzee and Ayhan Geçgin

Feeling Vulnerable
Volatile bodies in the novels of J.M. Coetzee and Ayhan Geçgin

Esra Sarioglu

The novels of Ayhan Geçgin, a contemporary writer from Turkey, engage closely with novelist J.M. Coetzee’s explorations of colonial hierarchies. Through intertextual strategies, Geçgin narrativizes visions of what Frantz Fanon calls the “zone of non-being.” By foregrounding the corporeal dimension in the texts of Geçgin and Coetzee, this chapter discusses how vulnerable, relational and volatile bodies bring into view the potentials and erasures emerging from the zone of non-being.

© pixabay/kolibri5
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