On Vulnerability

Vulnerability has become an important paradigm in our times. Today, the notion of vulnerability is used in very different contexts: health, climate and environment, crime, migration, military defence, computing, banking, human rights, urban development, education. It is an inevitable part of embodiment: all human bodies are vulnerable because we are dependent on each other and our environment to survive. Vulnerability is also relational and social, manifesting different forms contingent on variables such as gender, race, ethnicity, class, age, able-bodiedness, sexuality, religion, nationality, occupation, historical circumstance, geographic location, and so on.

Scholarship on vulnerability has flourished since 2010, including feminist perspectives that seek to recuperate vulnerability as more than a weakness (Butler 2004, 2009; Butler et al. 2016; Fineman and Grear 2013; Gilson 2014; Mackenzie et al. 2014; Koivunen et al. 2018). Leading feminist thinkers such as Judith Butler point out that vulnerability encompasses many paradoxes and tensions. On the one hand, vulnerability can feed a crisis mentality and legitimize the control of minorities such as women, migrants or LGBTs. On the other hand, vulnerability can become an important source of resistance and social transformation such as, for example, in acts of civil disobedience when unarmed citizens expose their bodies to police and army in a call for justice. Moreover, groups in positions of power commonly project vulnerability onto others, whom they seek to contain and exclude, such as when Norwegian and Swedish authorities launched aggressive assimilation policies meant to ‘civilize’ the aboriginal Sami at the end of the nineteenth century. The very same groups can, however, also use the language of vulnerability about themselves, for instance when Scandinavians today talk about their own vulnerability to Eastern European citizens begging on the streets of their cities.

In this book, we explore various forms of vulnerability as staged and mediated in contemporary Scandinavian art and culture. Internationally, postwar Scandinavia has been commonly presented as a haven for happy, affluent, equal, progressive, and design-interested people. Since the turn of the millennium, however, factors such as the increased popular appeal of neo-Right parties, terror attacks in all the Scandinavian capitals, significant demographic changes because of immigration, an aging population, environmental disasters, high levels of sick leave and suicidal rates are disrupting this image. In other words, new discourses of Scandinavian vulnerability are developing. These are cultured, speaking of Scandinavia’s specificity and uniqueness, but they are also closely embedded in global politics. Contemporary Scandinavian art installations, fiction and documentary films , TV series , literature, design, graphic art, radio podcasts and various campaigns on social media are important arenas for the articulation of such emerging discourses on vulnerability. Indeed, as post-Marxist theorist and critic Raymond Williams (1977) underlines, art in general and, we should add, social media, are particularly suited to capture social changes before they are rationalized, classified, and institutionalized. From this perspective, paying attention to cultural representations of vulnerability in Scandinavia will necessarily provide important insights into not only how established ideas of what it means to be Scandinavian are currently being renegotiated with new threats, but also opportunities on the horizon. Moreover, as Asbjørn Grønstad explains in his contribution to this book, because fiction harbours the dramatic as part of its core structure, it is well-suited to throw light on the complexities embedded in the condition of vulnerability as discussed by recent vulnerability scholarship. Fiction, then, and also art, can generate a vocabulary that we can use to talk about social change, as well as to obtain a critical understanding of vulnerability across disciplines, across media, across national borders. By bringing attention to examples from Denmark, Norway and Sweden, the chapters in this book consider why and how vulnerability as staged through Scandinavian art and culture matters to more than scholars of Scandinavian film, literature, media and cultural studies.

Engaging vulnerability as a theoretical lens is, in many respects, a risk sport. There are several reasons for this, of which we wish briefly to address four aspects of specific relevance to this anthology: the problem of ontology, the question of privilege, unease with the state, and the challenge of using a concept in motion. First, in the introduction to The Power of Vulnerability. Mobilising Affect in Feminist, Queer and Anti-racist Media Cultures, Koivunen et al. (2018, p. 10) point out that, at the forefront of media theoretical uses of vulnerability, there has been an understanding of vulnerability as an ontological condition shared by all humans. Koivunen et al., as well as other scholars, claim that this penchant to discuss vulnerability as an existential condition has resulted in abstract theorizing that loses sight of the fact that some groups and individuals are more vulnerable than others (Koivunen et al. 2018; Kulick and Rydström 2015). When various forms and degrees of embodied vulnerability are levelled out, specific political claims run the risk of being diluted into ontological arguments (Butler 2016).

In our analyses, the existential dimension of vulnerability is always discussed in relation to the politics of vulnerability. We show how the examples analysed resonate across the political field and how vulnerability is used as a specific political language. In that respect, we attend to various forms of vulnerability embodied by groups and individuals that have missed the safety net of the Scandinavian welfare state and fallen between the cracks: Romanian citizens begging on the streets of Scandinavian cities (Dancus), unaccompanied refugee minors (Lysaker and Oxfeldt), individuals who seek help from assisted reproductive technology (Gjellstad), women of whom images of their naked bodies have been shared online without their consent (Thomsen), high school dropouts (Tønnessen), young queers confronting reality TV’s fixation with heterosexual coupling (Ambjörnsson and Svensson), individuals who seemingly opt for assisted suicide (Bergenmar), and groups who are positioned and framed as vulnerable in participatory design projects (Björgvinsson and Keshavarz). Provocatively, these lives, experiences and voices are mediated in ways that often block compassion. This is intriguing given the common claim that spectacles of vulnerability call for compassionate responses that erase the power mechanisms that produce vulnerability in the first place. Power, then, is at the forefront of our investigations.

Moreover, we explore the relationship between vulnerability and power by setting the limelight not only on those at the margins, but also on those at the centre. This brings us to the second reason given: why vulnerability as a theoretical lens can be problematic when one loses sight of the fact that those in positions of power also deploy the language of vulnerability about themselves. To address this concern, several of the contributions in this anthology show how vulnerability becomes a particularly productive prism to explore questions of Scandinavian privilege. Vulnerability in such cases is unpleasant and awkward, pointing to random, undeserved, and even repulsive advantages and entitlements. It is the white woman who wants to do good by turning into a global mother of sorts (Oxfeldt), the white man who has an emotional collapse following an initial act of selfishness (Grønstad), the high school dropout coming from a well-off, highly educated family (Tønnessen), companies and institutions empowering themselves instead of the groups with which they collaborate and that they regard as vulnerable (Björgvinsson and Keshavaraz), or the Scandinavian art lover who is uncomfortably confronted with the pain of the Other in the museum’s white room (Dancus) and through multi-layered graphic art (Nielsen). The problematic connection between vulnerability and privilege becomes evident, while the ways in which Scandinavian privilege is thematized and staged open up for ethical reflections with regard to whose vulnerability counts and in what situations.

On the State

A third problem we need to address, particularly in the Scandinavian context, is the question of the state and its position with regard to vulnerability. American legal theorist and political philosopher Martha Fineman (2013) advocates that the state should take an active role in addressing social structures and conditions that acerbate individual vulnerability. Fineman’s vulnerability thesis thus builds on two pillars: the institutionalization of a responsive state that, in turn, recognizes the subject not as autonomous and invulnerable, as is the case in the neo-liberal discourse, but as inherently vulnerable (Fineman 2013, p. 13). The editors of the volume Vulnerability in Resistance remain sceptical of Fineman’s idea because, as they underline, the state has historically functioned as a paternalistic political and social institution (Butler et al. 2016, p. 2).

This unease with the state is intriguing to look at from a Scandinavian perspective. The Scandinavian welfare state can no doubt be referred to as a form of response to vulnerability, both in its original ambition to erase it, and in a certain ethics produced by it over the years; a set of values sometimes referred to as ‘Scandinavian exceptionalism’ (e.g. Pratt 2008). Despite the high standards of living in the Scandinavian countries, and despite Scandinavia’s investment in modernity and values such as equality and solidarity, there have been numerous discussions of its failures. These failures are, at times, framed as a question of institutional vulnerability, such as, for example, in the recent anthology Sustainable Modernity. The Nordic Model and Beyond (Witoszek and Middtun 2018), which discusses the sustainability of the Nordic welfare state in the age of globalization, cultural collisions, digital economy, fragmentation of the work/life division and often intrusive EU regulation. In Scandinavian art, the failures of the welfare state are commonly framed as a critique pointed at its impersonal, inefficient, inhuman, stiff and even discriminating bureaucracies. Moreover, as Per Vesterlund shows in his contribution to this volume, the critique of the welfare state has been more or less constant in Swedish TV drama since the golden age of the Swedish welfare state in the late 1960s, although it was the Scandinavian crime fiction of the 2000s, or what has been labelled ‘Scandi crime ’ or ‘Nordic noir’, that has made this critique travel far and wide through its international success.

Several chapters in this anthology show how the Scandinavian states fail to be responsive to vulnerability in questions related to fertility and reproduction (Gjellstad), hate porn (Thomsen) or immigration (Oxfeldt, Lysaker, Björgvinsson and Keshavarz, Hyvönen et al.). They also make evident the differences between Denmark, Norway and Sweden, and how the various Scandinavian welfare states address vulnerability not as a block but, rather, according to specific national concerns, values and interests. In her analysis of the TV series The Bridge, Gjellstad explicitly reflects on the differences between Denmark and Sweden with regard to assisted reproductive technologies , and how these differences have led to reproductive tourism across the Scandinavian borders. Through an analysis of Simone Kærn’s portrait series of wounded Danish politicians and soldiers, Nielsen brings attention to emerging national discourses in Denmark that underline Denmark’s role in global politics as a warring coalition partner in the 2000s. This focus on war and Danish casualties stands in contrast to how neighbouring Norway and Sweden, respectively, continue to see themselves as peacemakers and neutral. Also when it comes to policies on immigration and integration, the Scandinavian countries differ a great deal, with Sweden accepting the largest number of immigrants in relation to its population (Karlsdóttir et al. 2018; Hernes et al. 2019). Several of the contributions in this volume indirectly address those differences by explicitly dealing with the cultural and political discourses pertinent in the national contexts from which they write. For example, Oxfeldt analyses two Norwegian documentaries (film and TV) about migrants; Hyvönen et al. use examples of Swedish public service radio podcasts about murders committed by migrants; and Björgvinsson and Keshavarz make their points partly by analysing a participatory design project that included a music grassroots organisation aimed at countering negative images of migrants projected by the mass media.

While all the contributions in the anthology focus on examples taken from the 2000s, they all reflect in various ways the transformations Denmark, Norway and Sweden have undergone since the 1960s. For example, several of the chapters in this book discuss how intensified mediation has impacted the ways in which Scandinavians make sense of their lives. Thomsen points out that freedom of speech has traditionally been highly valued in Scandinavia (freedom of speech has been constitutional in Sweden since 1809, in Norway since 1814, and in Denmark since 1849). She further shows how the advent of the Internet and social media has challenged traditional conceptions of this freedom, not least in connection to hate-speech and fake-news, but also in relation to revenge-porn and cyber bullying. Vesterlund reveals how depictions of the mass media in Swedish TV drama have changed since the 1960s, from the mass media being an alienating force to becoming a nostalgic object activating memories from the heyday of the Swedish welfare state project. Further, Ambjörnsson and Svensson show how watching a reality TV format such as Paradise Hotel gives queer feminist activists in the 2000s an opportunity to negotiate their own vulnerabilities while also resisting heteronormativity. Finally, Hyvönen et al. argue that radio documentaries on famous Swedish murders aired by Swedish public service radio channel P3 in the 2000s commonly rely on rhetorical mechanisms that endanger the public service aim of impartiality; for instance, when covering crimes committed by people with an immigrant background, or implicitly suggesting a politics of mobility aimed at women and female children.

It is evidently the case that the Scandinavian welfare states are in motion, incorporating ideas about what the welfare state is, what it does, and what its relation is—or should be—to its subjects. The same is true of the concept of vulnerability, which brings us to the fourth and final point we wish to address when reflecting on the deployment of vulnerability as a theoretical lens. As Koivunen et al. put it, ‘the language of vulnerability is clearly in motion’, and it is indeed hard to predict ‘where the language of vulnerability will go’ (Koivunen et al. 2018, p. 20). We find this stimulating and productive, and by no means do we want to fixate on the various meanings and uses of the concept of vulnerability. Instead, our collection of chapters shows how the language of vulnerability goes North, while also acknowledging that it comes from elsewhere and that it is still on the go, and will keep wandering. Moreover, inspired by affect theorists such as Sara Ahmed (2004a, b), this anthology tracks down how vulnerability moves us, not only towards each other, but also against one another. These push-and-pull movements, and the frictions caused by them, are at the heart of this volume. In other words, we show how vulnerability as a lens does something—it mobilizes, puts in motion, is generative, and is not merely referring to passive positions.

Overview of the Book

The present volume consists of 13 chapters structured in four parts. Part I, Gendered Bodies and Scandinavian Privilege, contains three chapters that, in different ways and with different examples, analyse vulnerability in relation to Scandinavian privilege and gendered bodies. Although gender equality is one of the most often waved ideals of the Scandinavian welfare state , and indeed realized in many ways, there are still significant gender inequalities and issues in Norway, Denmark and Sweden. This can be seen, for example, in relation to the distribution of power positions, salaries, and domestic violence. In particular, the word ‘privilege’ refers to two things in this part of the volume. First, the privilege to live in a society where you are allowed to address all matters of gender inequality because of the law and a certain ethics. Second, a paradox to the first, the social privilege that comes from being able to perform a specific hegemonic (white) masculinity that is traditionally ‘strong’, but that is also supportive of the welfare state’s gender equality flagships. Examples of this are an active fatherhood and the sharing of household work (Gottzén and Jonsson 2012) or, of course, the privilege that still goes with respectable (white) middle-class femininity (Dahl 2014; Ambjörnsson 2019).

Filmic representation of the vulnerability of masculinity is addressed in Asbjørn Grønstad’s chapter on the films of the Swedish director and writer Ruben Östlund. With a particular emphasis on Östlund’s 2017 feature The Square, the chapter launches the concept of conditional vulnerability , defined as exposure to contingent forces that may threaten to undermine one’s social privilege. Among those is that of middle-class masculinity, which Östlund carefully scrutinizes in The Tourist (2014), where the main character’s failure to perform normative masculinity tears him apart. Appraising some of the current research on vulnerability in philosophy and related fields, Grønstad’s analysis zeroes in on the ways in which conditions of vulnerability are inscribed into the aesthetic fabric of fictional films.

Privileged femininity, but also a partly marginalized masculinity, is dealt with in Elisabeth Oxfeldt’s chapter ‘The Mother, the Hero, and the Refugee’, which analyses how vulnerability is framed by gender in Margreth Olin’s documentary film De andre (Nowhere Home 2012) and the documentary TV series Flukt (NRK 2017) hosted by Leo Ajkic. Both Olin and Ajkic have been particularly strong on the issue of contemporary war refugees. Oxfeldt’s focus is on the way Olin and Ajkic relate the vulnerability of the refugee Other to their own. Olin does this especially through the national trauma brought about by the Oslo Massacres (22 July 2011), while Ajkic activates his personal memories of fleeing from Bosnia in the late 1990s. In both cases, the child serves as a significant figure of vulnerability. Olin’s role as a postnational mother in relation to the child is explored in the chapter, as well as Ajkic’s hybrid masculinity .

A privilege taken for granted in Scandinavian feminism is freedom of speech. But how do young women master this in relation to bodily exposure on the internet? Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen’s chapter analyses vulnerable bodies in the light of the practice of sharing, shaming and archiving images. Thomsen explores the nexus of media, feminism and freedom of speech, and relates the vulnerability in cyberbullying and hate porn to historical questions on women’s liberation movements and the constitutional rights of free speech. Her reading of the interfacial exchanges in the TV series SKAM connects freedom of speech to the ability to master media. Young feminists both argue against sharing of images without consent and acclaim playfulness on the Internet. Thomsen discusses the intensification of affect in interfaces as a folding between feeling the body from within and seeing it from the outside, and thus the consent to have one’s image shared on the Internet is key to a freedom of expression in which vulnerability plays a creative role.

In the second part of the book, The Vulnerable Subject and the Welfare State, matters of the vulnerable subject and the welfare state are discussed in connection with examples taken from Scandinavian film and TV. How does the welfare state fail to respond to the call of some of its vulnerable subjects? To what extent should the state respond to individual vulnerability (Fineman 2013, p. 3) and to what extent should it back off, so as not to repeat a history of paternalism and social institutionalization (Butler et al. 2016, p. 2)? The three chapters in this part touch on these questions by discussing the state’s responsibility towards unaccompanied minors and people seeking help from assisted reproductive technologies (ART), as well as by flashing up the various interactions between citizens and state bureaucracy from the zenith of the welfare state in the 1960s to an age of accentuated mediation in the 2000s.

The subject of Odin Lysaker’s chapter is ‘particularly vulnerable’ child refugees in the light of UN human rights. Like Oxfeldt, Lysaker also addresses the documentary film Nowhere Home by Margreth Olin, but with a different philosophical purpose. In Lysaker’s view, the film primarily illuminates the vulnerabilities and injurabilities of child migrants subjected to prolonged waiting. The unaccompanied minors are only offered temporary residence. Olin’s film identifies why they can be characterized as particularly vulnerable by having their childhoods put on hold. Lysaker conceives vulnerability as an existential precondition in terms of something bodily and enabling. Because of their particular vulnerability, prolonged waiting can violate child refugees ’ inherent dignity, bodily health, life quality and human rights. In light of Olin’s documentary, Lysaker therefore introduces a ‘waiting guarantee’, which sets an ethical threshold level regarding such violations of their vulnerability.

While the Scandinavian welfare state fails in its responsibility towards unaccompanied minors, whose childhood is put on hold, it does better when it comes to assisted fertility treatment, even though the LGBT communities have not had the same rights as heterosexuals for a long time. ART transformed the treatment of infertility in Scandinavia and, in the course of a forty-year history, Denmark has become an international leader in the proportion of babies born via ART. Melissa Gjellstad’s chapter discusses vulnerability when fecundity fails as depicted in the Danish–Swedish TV series The Bridge (2011–2017). She analyses the fourth season, which includes a subplot of infertility and state responsiveness to the involuntarily childless, the fertile donors, and the donor-conceived children. Gjellstad outlines milestones in the development of medically assisted reproduction in Denmark and Sweden, including policy differences still present in 2019 regarding procedures such as surrogacy. She considers those states in an analysis of The Bridge from the perspective of the relationship between the vulnerable subject and the state.

A historical perspective on the Scandinavian welfare state is also present in Per Vesterlund’s comparative analysis between two eras of Swedish TV drama ; namely, TV series from the heyday of the Swedish welfare state project in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and TV series from the 2000s. In his chapter, Vesterlund argues that the interplay between vulnerable societies and vulnerable individuals is a key theme in the TV series he analyses. In particular, Vesterlund identifies two thematic clusters that are present in productions from both periods: health care and the mass media. In connection to the latter, Vesterlund argues that media users in the productions from the late 1960s and early 1970s are depicted as vulnerable victims of the effects of mass media while, in the productions of the 2000s, the mass media have become a nostalgic token of a welfare state that no longer exists.

The third part of the book, Societies of Perfection and Resisting Normalcy, presents close readings of literature and analyses of interviews with reality TV viewers. The chapters are interconnected through their investigation of and resistance to normativity and perfection. How is vulnerability distributed and how is it handled from positions (posed as being) on the outside, or in the margins of, normalcy? And furthermore—in societies where the performance of heteronormativity constantly leaks (Butler 1990), and where psychiatric diagnoses of different kinds are increasing—can vulnerability be used to include that which has traditionally been regarded as deviances in a wider human spectrum? In the first chapter of the part, Jenny Bergenmar explores how the concept of vulnerability can provide new perspectives on disability by analysing two novels of Nordic literary fiction: Linn Ullmann’s Grace (2002) and Sofi Oksanen’s Baby Jane (2005). The chapter consists of two parts—the first outlines the relation between vulnerability and disability in key texts in the field of literature and disability, and the second part uses the concept of vulnerability to explore disability in Grace and Baby Jane. The analysis reveals that a focus on vulnerability may help to disrupt the idea of ‘the disabled’ as a separate group and as a specific theme in literature. An acknowledgement of a shared—albeit not equally distributed—vulnerability may be used to challenge ableism and place disability on a human continuum of abilities.

Also the subsequent chapter in the third part of the book is a close analysis of a Scandinavian novel—this time an example from Young Adult literature: Miss by Synne Sun Løes (2017). In the novel, the main character, Ea, copes with being fat by resisting becoming ‘Little Miss Perfect’. Her other position is, however, more destructive—the feeling of being a misfit. Elise Seip Tønnessen analyses Miss from this dual perspective and asks two main questions: what has made this teenager from a well-off family so vulnerable, and how is her resistance expressed? Discussing vulnerability and resistance, Tønnessen explores how Ea positions herself as an outsider through bodily and social protest, which makes her both vulnerable and strong.

In the last chapter of this part, Ambjörnsson and Svensson analyse queer feminist activists watching the reality show Paradise Hotel. Inspired by feminist research’s interest in consumers, the reality TV format is seen as centred around intervention, participation and emotionality, rather than merely representation. The viewers’ emotional reactions of approaching and distancing themselves from the programme are used to explore ways of handling and managing vulnerability. A specific queer feminist viewing position is localized, where the viewers’ feminist identification with female subordination is paired with a camp attitude towards the despised and failed. Thus, through embracing and exposing themselves to the excessive, shameless and often sexist and homophobic representations in the show, they negotiate marginalization, subordination and a longing for inclusion in mainstream society, as well as their own potential middle-class advantage.

Sara Ahmed’s (2004a) thoughts on orientation through emotional reactions are important to the last cluster of chapters in this book, Mobilizing the Pain of Others. In various ways, all four chapters in the fourth part deal with the mobilization of the pain of others. Adriana Margareta Dancus’s chapter, ‘The Art of Begging’, discusses how artists initiate collaborations with migrants from Romania who beg on the streets of Scandinavian cities. It analyses two art projects: a performance for which the theatre group Institutet paid two migrants begging in the Swedish city of Malmö to pose as ‘beggars’ inside the Malmö Fine Arts Museum , and a multiplatform project led by the cartoonist Sara Olausson in collaboration with Felicia Iosif, a homeless woman in Stockholm. In both projects, vulnerability as a condition commonly projected onto migrants is deployed in a tactical field, with unpredictable changes and results. Dancus shows how the migrants involved in the first project were not merely passive and exposed, but partly active when lending their bodies to artists at Institutet. It also sheds light on how Olausson and Iosif shared vulnerability in ways that provoked angry reactions in a political climate that is increasingly hostile to begging migrants.

Scandinavian participatory design projects also collaborate with vulnerable groups, as is discussed in Björgvinsson and Keshavarz’s chapter. The authors start out in the welfare state of the 1970s, and engagement with trade unions, and bring the reader forward to the local communities of today. The claims of participatory design in initiating bottom-up change, democratic engagement and overcoming the vulnerabilities of marginal groups are questioned, and so are the presuppositions in relation to vulnerabilities associated with different groups. The analysis of a participatory design project in Malmö makes clear how the call to, and the process of, participation always happen in an already partitioned world. Participation does not necessarily give equal voices to the parts but, rather, produces new ones, ignores others and lifts up particular parts depending on the power relations. It is shown that participatory methods can generate less-recognized vulnerabilities and ignore the resistance against uneven participation made by vulnerable groups.

While collaborations with the Other build on direct contact, warfare relies on the opposite: distance. Ann-Katrine Schmidt Nielsen’s chapter, ‘Facing War: On Veterans, Wounds, and Vulnerability in Danish Public Discourse and Contemporary Art’, analyses the two entangled RAMT portrait series by the controversial Danish artist Simone Aaberg Kærn. Nielsen places the portraits in a Danish media and political context characterized by a dominant focus on the wounds and scars of Danish veterans, and the effective effacement of the Other, the Afghan, Iraqi, Libyan and other victims of war. The chapter traces the multiple layers of Kærn’s portrait series to analyse how they play with the in/visibilities of vulnerable bodies, and how the series may lead us to a haunting encounter with the vulnerable, distant Other of contemporary Danish warfare.

In the final chapter, Hyvönen et al. focus on P3 Documentary, the most popular pod radio format in Sweden with 600,000 listeners (in a country of 10 million people). The majority of the programmes stage crime and are most commonly famous murder cases. Of the murder documentaries, 19 are analysed in relation to the choice of cases; the use of victims, perpetrators, families and experts; the horror genealogy and the increasingly suspense driven and stereotyped dramatic form that has developed over the years. Hyvönen et al. show how listeners are vulnerable to the circulation, invocation and mobilization of emotions in the programmes, and that the format does significant political work. A politics of mobility—aimed mainly at women and children—is distributed, and, in cases involving migrants, the pain of the Other is used in processes of othering that complicate the public service aim of impartiality.