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  • The Unpleasant Sight: Vulnerability and Bodily Fragmentation
  • Annette Weissenrieder

The peculiar beauty of human excellence just is its vulnerability.1

[Even] the sight is unpleasant, a painful spectacle even for the one who looks on. The terrible condition is incurable. [The sick are rendered] unrecognizable to their dearest mortals by the distortions. The prayer among the attendants … is that the sick be released from life and for release from pains and unpleasant evils that accompany his continued existence. Indeed, the physician, although present and looking on, cannot provide help for his life nor freedom from pain, not even against deformity.… he only feels distress/vulnerable with the patient.

(Aretaeus, De causis et signis acutorum morborum–9)2

In the first century CE, the Greek physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia draws his readers’ attention to the connection between sickness, vulnerability, and death, and to the fact that experiences of pain are felt not only by those who are vulnerable but also by those who attend to them. The use of expressions such as “the sight” and “looking on, being a spectator” represents vulnerability and pain as something that can be seen. The act of seeing is remarkable in itself: someone’s distressing emotions when viewing those in pain accentuate the language of spectatorship as do those of the self-contemplating patient—suffering, the feeling of vulnerability, and prayers that connect the sick and the viewer.

The current situation impressively displays vulnerability and pain as a primary characteristic of human life, given the pandemic and the lockdown in the wake of COVID-19, which makes our embodied vulnerability distinct, but also in light of war, flight, and death on the borders of the Fortress of Europe and elsewhere. While some are horrified spectators when looking at pictures from hospitals, the misery [End Page 619] in refugee camps in Europe and abroad does not affect them in the same way. And while some lives are highly protected, others will not find such support. The unpleasant sight of sick persons and fragile entities on the borders calls for a new way of dealing with the embodiment of vulnerability.

The starting point for an exegetical definition of an “em/bodiment” of vulnerability is the body: as a rule, (German) philosophers distinguish σῶμα with the meaning of “Leib” (i.e., living body) and “Körper” (body).3 The well-known contraposition of Leib and Körper traces back to phenomenological philosophy, specifically to Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Helmuth Plessner has taken it up with his own pointed emphasis when writing, “Ein Mensch ist immer zugleich Leib … und hat diesen Leib als diesen Körper” (a human being is always a living body at the same time, … and he has this living body as this body).4 Etymologically, the German concept Leib stems from lip, meaning “body” as well as “life.” Accordingly, this word points to a living body. It is fundamental for this perspective that a bodily self is always a relational subject, taking up actions, interactions, and communications and turning out to be affected by them. Therefore, the body is the quiet medium of our relations to the world. The German concept Körper stems from the Latin word corpus, “body” or “dead body,” describing a (lifeless) physical object. The living body becomes a (dead) body when it is used as an object. It may be used as an object for medical research or as an object for self-representation using clothing, cosmetics, brands, and tattoos or through disturbances of one’s conduct of life due to illness, injuries, or forms of body control. Human existence finds itself in a tension between the (living) body as a medium for some natural conduct of life and the (dead) body as a medium of foreign perception, which can then become an object of reflection.

In several publications, Judith Butler refers to this distinction. She argues that embodiment is first constituted from and in a principled vulnerability, a “new bodily ontology” which links embodiment and vulnerability.5 “The body [i.e., the [End Page 620] living body] is … vulnerable by definition,” and it is this fundamental receptivity for being affected by the other that...


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pp. 619-624
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