Vulnerability, Violence, and the Political Uses of Frustration

by Joan Harvey

What made him a great poet was the unprotesting willingness with which he yielded to the ‘curse’ of vulnerability to ‘human unsuccess’ on all levels of human existence—vulnerability to the crookedness of the desires, to the infidelities of the heart, to the injustices of the world. —Hannah Arendt on Auden[i]

Sometimes we have to do the work even though we don’t yet see a glimmer on the horizon that it’s actually going to be possible. —Angela Davis

. . . something undaunted wants to move no matter how inauspicious the prospects, advance no matter how pained or ungainly. —Nathaniel Mackey

A man goes door to door, wearing his murdered son’s shoes, to ask voters to make him their state representative. His son, Alex, 27, had been gunned down in the Aurora theater shooting. The man, Tom Sullivan, is elected, even in a very conservative district, and shortly afterward sponsors an Extreme Risk Protection Bill to give law enforcement the ability to temporarily remove guns from people having a mental health crisis. He wears his murdered son’s leather jacket when he speaks on behalf of the bill. It’s too late for his son. But, he says, “I’m not doing this for Alex and my family, I’m doing it for yours. Watching your child’s body drop into the ground is as bad as it gets, and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that none of you have to do that.” The bill passes. And then comes the campaign to recall Sullivan, organized by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a group who claims the NRA is a sellout, and whose executive director will get a cut of every dollar that the group raises. Republican Patrick Neville, Colorado House minority leader, is helping to organize these recalls.[ii] And this is only one of nine recalls proposed in Colorado.

In the film Knock Down the House, the three women profiled along with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez all ran based on their experience with systemic violence. Amy Vilela of Nevada lost her daughter when a hospital refused to admit her because she didn’t have insurance. Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia lost many friends and family to cancer caused by coal mining. Cori Bush of St. Louis lived in close proximity to Ferguson. All these women ran tough campaigns against entrenched incumbents and all three lost their races.

“We are acted upon, violently, and it appears that our capacity to set our own course at such instances is fully undermined,” Judith Butler writes. “Only once we have suffered that violence are we compelled, ethically, to ask how we will respond to violent injury. What role will we assume in the historical relay of violence, who will we become in the response, and will we be furthering or impeding violence by virtue of the response we make?”[iii]

Butler asked this in the context of the Iraq war, and also the treatment of Palestinians by Israelis. But naturally it holds for other political situations. Today in America we experience the violence of environmental damage caused by global warming and by poor regulation of chemicals, we experience damages to our health due to an unaffordable medical system, our children now have to learn measures to take against rogue shooters, people of color experience the violence of racism every day, and violence to trans people and women is omnipresent.

“One insight that injury affords,” Butler writes, “is that there are others out there on whom my life depends, people I do not know and may never know. This fundamental dependency on anonymous others is not a condition I can will away. No security measure will foreclose this dependency; no violent act of sovereignty will rid the world of this fact.”[iv]

One doesn’t have to be a Freudian to know that our oldest and deepest experiences are, as infants, being dependent on others for everything. At our most basic we are vulnerable creatures. It is only in states of helplessness and frustration, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes, “that we can begin to imagine—to elaborate, to envision—our desire”[v] and “It is the absence of what we need that makes us think.” Rather than paying so much attention to our desires, Phillips suggests, it is important that we look instead at our frustrations and what they offer us. “Thought is what makes frustration bearable, and frustration makes thought possible. Thinking modifies frustration, rather than evading it, by being a means by which we can go from feeling frustrated to figuring out what to do about it, and doing it.”[vi]

On a political level people respond to feelings of frustration and helplessness in different ways: perhaps by moving toward some form of political action: joining Extinction Rebellion, for example, or joining a militia; running for office, or closing themselves off from politics altogether. Peter Schjeldahl, reviewing the latest Whitney Biennial, writes of the young artists that “strikingly, they are not, for the most part, militant, as if they had resigned themselves to ineffectiveness.” A friend sent me a podcast which urged people to stop paying attention to the news and instead devote time to personal pleasures. This constant attention to the news, the podcast said, is only a way for corporations to make money and it is destroying democracy. You can do nothing for all the suffering in the world, so why give it so much of your attention. Turn off your phone and go to bluegrass concerts instead.

But as long as we are still allowed access to real news, I can’t help still believing that our opinions and our knowledge continue to matter. We’re not yet like Russia where, as Masha Gessen has so poignantly described, due to so much fake news and suppression and rigged elections, Russian citizens no longer have opinions. We don’t need to hasten the process by tuning out.

At least four recent books, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, How Democracies Die, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, and How Democracy Ends address the possibility of the collapse of democracy. One of the hardest things these days is to watch Democrats helpless to enforce the law. We want Congress to do something, and no doubt they also want to do something, and yet subpoenas are ignored, treaties and morals are abandoned, criminal behavior and racist views are no longer hidden but flaunted. “Democracies are fragile because they depend on competing parties accepting common norms,” writes Adam Tooze. When norms go, we move toward authoritarianism, and to a place where our opinions and actions will really no longer make a difference.

Often when reading about past wars, what I’m struck by is the helplessness of the populace to resist the tide of aggression, nationalism, and violence which many could clearly see happening, but could in no way prevent. Today, on a much more mundane level, I feel helpless when a friend says he ignores Trump’s misdeeds because the tax break he receives is good for his children. I feel helpless that nothing will make this friend consider instead the future effect on his children of increased global warming and quite possibly the end of democracy as we know it. This, of course, is not the kind of helplessness of people living in areas of the world devastated by war, drought, poverty, corruption, fundamentalism, and population growth. I’m not helpless the way people are who live paycheck to paycheck, or the way Jews were when violently murdered or shipped off to camps, or the way people are who live in war zones all over the world. I’m not helpless in the way refugees today in America are when they watch their children dragged away and caged.

It is, of course, possible that our belief in our agency and ability to affect change in the political sphere is mostly an illusion. There are many people in the mountains where I live who believe the whole system is rigged, and therefore find no point in engaging. Or on a more sophisticated level, there is Žižek, who advises, “Better to do nothing than to engage in localized acts whose ultimate function is to make the system run more smoothly. The threat today is not passivity, he says, but pseudo-activity, the urge to “be active,” to “participate,” to mask the Nothingness of what goes on.”

Lauren Berlant makes the point that “an optimistic attachment is cruel when the object/scene of desire is itself an obstacle to fulfilling the very wants that bring people to it: but its life-organizing status can trump interfering with the damage it provokes.”[vii] A crude interpretation of this might be when your desire for your relatively corporate candidate to win keeps you from noticing that he’s in bed with the pharmaceutical companies that hike up the price on the medicine you need. But your sense of participation by campaigning or voting for him makes you feel good and helps you go on day to day.

Fortunately we have also seen that when it is no longer possible to ignore injustice, change can actually happen. I was not and am not in Žižek’s camp, when he said he supported Trump, because Trump would save the Democratic party. But, as Adam Tooze writes, “Trump exposes starkly what the civility of Obama and his administration obscured—the subordination of American democracy to capitalism, patriarchy, and the iniquitous racial order descended from slavery.” Frustration with the course things have taken and injustice made visible have awakened a snoozing Democratic party.

In my state of Colorado, Democrats who felt helpless by having every bill they brought before the State Senate voted down automatically by Republicans, organized in the last election so as to turn every element of the state government blue. Now, with control of all the branches of state government, they’ve been rapidly passing progressive bill after progressive bill: reforms to oil and gas regulation, plans to reduce carbon emissions, automatic voter registration, transgender rights, National Popular Vote Compact, no gay conversion therapy, comprehensive sex ed, protection for mobile home owners, protection for public lands, and on and on. Are they changing the basic structure of capitalism? Obviously not. But, they’re making life more bearable for many, and many Coloradans are elated: everywhere I go people talk about how awesome our state government has become.

Yet with all this success we’re not out of the water. In the works are nine recalls of elected Colorado Democrats who support sensible gun measures. Hundreds of thousands of out-of-state dollars are pouring in to help fund these recalls. One threatened representative has already stepped down (though she had other issues as well). The recalls are expensive to fight and rigged so the vote takes place often when people are on vacation, and a fortune is spent on negative ads. Several years ago similar recalls were successful. So once more feelings of helplessness and frustration rise up, and once more people try to figure out what to do.

Some committed people organize fundraisers. Others organize postcard writing campaigns to get out the vote to support the threatened candidates. Postcards. So silly and so small. A return to something non-digital, handwritten; old-fashioned material objects sent through the antiquated postal service. The writing goes on in gatherings of mostly women, women talking politics, drinking iced tea or beer, letting ink flow, addressing cards to individuals, signed by individuals. In these old fashioned interactions friendships are formed, stories are told, bonds are created. Berlant writes: “one ‘does politics’ to be in the political with others, in a becoming-democratic that involves sentience, focus, and a comic sense of the pleasure of coming together once again. Achieving and succeeding are not the measures for assessing whether the desire for the political was ridiculous: a kind of affective consonance is, amidst the noise of ongoing antagonism and debate.”[viii] Are these actions effective? It’s not entirely clear; there are no good studies, though there is evidence that, because the postcard campaigns aren’t designed to convert voters, but rather to get out the vote, they do make some difference.

The vulnerability of our bodies and the fear of violence lead many to a belief that we need more guns, more border control, a more authoritarian government to keep a strict eye on things. Clearly fear and frustration can either lead to weaponizing, or to reaching out to others in a desire to find a way to stop the violence. The attempted recalls of fairly elected officials who support more sensible gun laws brings these two groups together. What form, Butler asks, should “political reflection and deliberation . . . take if we take injurability and aggression as two points of departure for political life.”[ix] How do we handle our frustration, how do we handle our fear and rage and helplessness at the violence done against us?

Gun owners claim that guns make them safe, and they hope guns will give them a way out of vulnerability. But, as it turns out, guns mostly kill the people who buy them for protection. Two thirds of all gun deaths are suicides. Firearms are the most lethal form of suicide with a fatality rate of 85%. People in states with a high rate of gun ownership are almost four times more likely to die by gun suicide than states with fewer guns. White men represent 87% of all gun suicide victims. The weapon that supposed to be protective is lethal toward those who believe in its protection.

So do we act? How do we act? One can only imagine the enormous courage of a man like Tom Sullivan, who not only lost his son, but is under attack for wanting to prevent others from losing theirs.

Berlant suggests the possibility of approaching the political sphere in a slant way; in performances that shake us out of our normal perceptions and dulled participation in a culture that often works against us. As an example she gives the Surveillance Camera Players who perform before security cameras, using technology against itself. “Now as in the past, these actions emerge in an atmosphere of belatedness and outrage at not mattering. The model of anarchist/DIY performativity aims to revitalize political action. . . by valuing political action as the action of not being worn out by politics.”[x] Of course, Berlant says, this may just be a distraction that inflates “the relative importance of the sense of belonging in relation to dealing with the hard questions of distributing resources, risk, and vulnerability in politics.”

Writing postcards, or the more difficult, even more intimate process of going door-to-door, having face-to-face encounters with citizens, is not the anarchic process Berlant advocates, but is, in its own way a slant counteraction to doing nothing, as well as a contrast to the clicking and liking lives we live on screens, and to the corporate funding of vicious attack ads designed to work against people’s real self interest. In the last election we saw how people going door-to-door for candidates helped radically change Colorado politics. Senator John Tester of Montana, a Democrat elected in a Trump-loving state, said going door-to-door from the beginning was what got him elected. In 2018 progressive groups were reported to have knocked on 155 million doors. While many men are involved, it is primarily women who are willing to do this low-tech, low status, unpaid, physical, time consuming, face-to-face labor. We don’t know in advance what will succeed, but frustration leads us to thought and thought leads to action, and the acknowledgement of our universal vulnerability leads us to each other.



Angela Y. Davis, Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement, (Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2016).

Nathaniel Mackey, Splay Anthem, (New York, New Directions Books, 2006)



[iii] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, (New York, Verso, 2006), 16

[iv] Ibid. xii

[v] Adam Phillips, Missing Out, (New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013), xx

[vi] Ibid. 24

[vii] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, (Durham, Duke University Press, 2011), 227

[viii] Ibid. 260

[ix] Butler, Precarious, xii

[x] Berlant, Cruel 261-262