Living in a world of multiple crises makes human and nonhuman vulnerability salient, defining and remedying the consequent vulnerability integral to many social and political agendas. My concept of vulner—ability is of a different nature. I come to it through a posthumanist material feminist conceptualisation of the human and nonhuman that also offers a rethinking of human subjectivity and agency. I posit a dynamic, fluctuating subject, what Rosi Braidotti refers to as a “subject formation” or, more recently, the “zoe/geo/techno framed subject” or assemblage.[1] Likewise, for Stacy Alaimo, the subject is “subject to the agencies of the compromised, entangled world.”[2] This is so because the subject is radically entangled. The agent is as much the subject of its own action as subjected to other agencies. In this sense, its action is not really its own.

Posthumanist material feminism also emphasises becoming and interconnectivity or entanglement. The human is not an autonomous and discrete being but in perpetual becoming, grounded in fluctuating processes, and radically entangled both subjectively and materially. My concept of transjectivity—we are always transsubjectively and transmaterially interconnected—is grounded in these proposals. It combines the insights of existential phenomenology that are devoted to the subjective and intersubjective with the insights of material feminism that are grounded in an approach to bodies from a scientific perspective but also from the perspective of affect theory. It posits that we are assemblages of experiences, consciousness, materiality, and so forth.[3]

From the point of view of biochemistry, for example, all living entities are moved by the same biochemical processes, which means that the human is unexceptional as a material being. While making this case in Biocultural Creatures, Samantha Frost insists remarks on the permeability of membranes which allows for the traffic of molecules responsible for sustaining life. This porosity entails that we are permeated by our habitats, for good or bad: exposed to the oxygen we need but also to the pollutants and heavy metals that may enter our bodies and make us sick.[4] From the point of view of quantum physics, these entanglements are also fundamental. Karen Barad has most famously drawn the philosophical implications of this theory, explaining that “[b]odies are not objects with inherent boundaries and properties.”[5] Humans have dreamt of themselves as discrete and autonomous entities. But this is merely a fantasy.

Posthumanist material feminism also posits the expansion and deflation of the concept of agency. It is an expansion in that it attributes agency beyond the human. One talks of agentic capacity, which is sometimes much more powerful in the nonhuman than in the human, like the agentic capacity of a virus or a forest fire. Further, this agentic capacity is “intentless”.[6] It does not follow a plan or attempt to enact intended outcomes. It simply unfolds and simultaneously deflates human agency, which is no longer understood as special, but as intertwined with myriad agentic capacities and therefore not autonomous. Conceiving of humans as transjective beings entails a reconception of agency in terms of collective material agentic capacity. This necessitates a shift from humanistic hubris to posthumanist humility.

As transjective agentic capacities that are always entangled in a collective, we are vibrant matter, as explained by Jane Bennett. As she puts it, “all bodies are kin in the sense of inextricably enmeshed in a dense network of relations.”[7] The world is an effervescence of agency.[8] As transjective beings, then, we are permeated by and permeate the world and the multiple agencies and agentic capacities we encounter. We are thereby fundamentally vulnerable. But this vulnerability is not merely negative. It is also generative.

 This troubles our common understanding of vulnerability, “to be susceptible to physical or emotional injury” which, as Rosalyn Diprose points out, “assumes that the body is well-bounded and should remain so.”[9] However, the body is far from well-bounded and in fact, must remain open for its thriving. This is true not only of biochemical processes but of all types of interactions we are entangled with.

 Separating the word into two parts, “vulner” and “ability,” allows us to pay attention to each. “Vulner” means “to wound” or “to affect.” To speak of vulner—ability is to emphasise a body’s ability to impact another, to do and undo what it interacts with. But “ability” here is not the expression of a willful agency. Even when I intend something, my intention and agency are permeated and modulated by my entanglements. Using the strong hyphen in vulner—ability emphasises these points but it may be best to speak of affect—ability. There is a neutrality to “affect” that reveals the impact of our entanglements as both positive and negative, which may be more difficult to grasp if we use “vulner.”

This vulner—ability is ridden by ambiguity especially because our entanglements are manifold, subjective, and material, and we cannot unravel them. Not only must we understand and maintain this ambiguity but we need to fully embrace it. Simone Drichel points out that “[i]n seeking to defend ourselves, we—perversely—come to violate ourselves, or, to put this differently, what we preserve in ‘self-preservation’ is what makes the self ‘inhuman’ rather than human.”[10] We need to stop trying to be invulnerable … in fact we can’t be! Judith Butler, who has written extensively on precariousness and grievable lives, observes that “the ontology of the body serves as a point of departure for (…) a rethinking of responsibility (…) precisely because, in its surface and its depth, the body is a social phenomenon: it is exposed to others, vulnerable by definition.”[11] This is true of the body and the transjective being as a whole.

Vulner—ability is generative because embracing it initiates a new type of ethical responsibility, one that may lead to the enhanced flourishing of life in all its instances. Indeed, Jane Bennett’s Spinozist perspective warns, “in a knotted world of vibrant matter, to harm one section of the web may very well be to harm oneself.”[12] The acknowledgement of one’s manifold entanglements is a precondition of this realisation. Making ourselves aware of the existence and operation of these processes is key not only to a better understanding but to an active embrace of a better ethos—a transjective ethics—that immerses us in these processes rather than distinguishes us from them.

Acknowledging and nurturing our ontological vulner—ability yields ethical growth by allowing this striving to unfold for all beings. The ethics we need is not a set of rules but rather the embrace of an ethos, the adoption of an orientation toward being, whereby one understands oneself as a transjective being. Acknowledging and nurturing our ontological vulner—ability is an essential part of this. Understanding our vulner—ability as grounded in our manifold entanglements opens the way for embracing our being and an ethos that can lead to an existential mode of delight: that of living as entangled, which comes with both generative and not so generative affect.

Our task is to recover ourselves as the transjective beings we have always been. Alaimo calls for the performance of exposure, namely the embrace of permeability, which “entails the intuitive sense or the philosophical conviction that the impermeable Western human subject is no longer tenable.”[13] We must actively seek what has been construed as our ‘undoing’ in the humanist worldview since only then will we be thriving as beings that are constantly and dynamically done and undone.

This affirmative stance and ethos is joyful and delightful but does not evacuate tensions or pain. As Brian Massumi explains: “Joy can be very disruptive, it can even be very painful. What I think Spinoza and Nietzsche are getting at is joy as affirmation, an assuming by the body of its potentials, its assuming of a posture that intensifies its powers of existence. The moment of joy is the co-presence of those potentials, in the context of a bodily becoming.”[14] This joyful experience of the self as a radically materially entangled being, as a vulner—able being, also provokes pain. There are interesting issues to think through concerning such an ethics—or ethos. These have to do with responsibility and reciprocity, and also what I call “affirmative empathy”.

We must transform the ontological fact of our vulner—ability into an ethical stance through which we embrace this vulner—ability, open ourselves to the acts of violence and assaults on life so that we may better resist them. This openness may lead to affirmative empathy: saying yes to affects, whatever they may be and orienting our action accordingly. As Sara Ahmed says, “the very project of survival requires we take something other into our bodies. Survival makes us vulnerable in that it requires we let what is ‘not us’ in; to survive we open ourselves up, and we keep the orifices of the body open.”[15] It is not merely a matter of survival, however, but a matter of ethical thriving.

Ethical responsibility and reciprocity are intertwined. While there is widespread agentic capacity and multiple webs of interconnectivity, not all agentic capacity is the same, in its scope or strength. The relationality of transjectivity is manifold and asymmetrical. There is no such thing as a balanced reciprocity among beings. The asymmetry of relations implies that the agentic capacity of one being may impact another more than that other’s capacity would impact it. Since relations are never simply one-on-one, it may be impossible to determine the level of reciprocity. But does it matter? We ought not to engage in ethical relations because we might gain something but rather because we care. As the kind of being that can know and reflect on one’s own being as transjective, humans are duty-bound to exercise agentic capacity in the least negative way.

Because the range and impact of our deeds can never fully be predicted and because what was construed as a careful and respectful course of action might turn out wrong, we need to accept the idea that we cannot fully know and therefore cannot entirely predict outcomes. However, we still must accept the responsibility of our deeds, even when the outcomes differ from what we planned. This amounts to a relational ethics of care that rests on humility. In a world of transjectivity, responsibility is increased and our duty to care magnified because no being can thrive on its own. As Puig de la Bellacasa indicates, the carer is implied in a doing that affects her[16]. Ethical responsibility is in fact very limited in a world of autonomous agents who can look after themselves. The responsibility of the vulner—able transjective being, on the other hand, is an enlarged response—ability as it embraces affirmative empathy and performs exposure. The transjective self cares for itself as it cares multilaterally and collectively.


Brock University, March 2024


[1] See Rosi Braidotti, Posthuman Knowledge (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2019).

[2] Stacy Alaimo, Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press) p. 158.

[3] See Christine Daigle, Posthumanist Vulnerability: An Affirmative Ethics (London: Bloomsbury, 2023).

[4] See Samantha Frost, Biocultural Creatures: Toward a New Theory of the Human (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).

[5] Karen Barad, “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter,” in Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman, eds., Material Feminisms (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2008), p. 141.

[6] See Frost’s Biocultural Creatures.

[7] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 13.

[8] Bennett, Vibrant Matter, p. 29.

[9] Rosalyn Diprose, “Corporeal Interdependence: From Vulnerability to Dwelling in Ethical Community,” SubStance 42.3 (2013): 188.

[10] Simone Drichel, “Introduction: Reframing Vulnerability: ‘so obviously the problem…?’” SubStance 42.3 (2013): 22.

[11] Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2009), p. 33.

[12] Bennett, Vibrant Matter, p. 13.

[13] Alaimo, Exposed, p. 5.

[14] Brian Massumi, Politics of Affect (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015), p. 44.

[15] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2nd. Ed. (London: Routledge, 2015), p. 83.

[16] María Puig de la Bellacasa, Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), p. 120.