Introduction: Reframing Vulnerability: “so obviously the problem…”?


Discussing Freud’s reflections on helplessness in “The Helpless,”1 the second of four small essays on what he calls, with a nod to John Keats, our “Negative Capabilities,”2 prominent British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes, “all of what we think of as our moral problems spring from the fact that we are helpless subjects. And helplessness, or our relation to it, is something Freud thinks we need to get right.” We do “the very worst things,” Phillips continues, “when we get it wrong; we start doing things like believing in God, or abiding by religious teachings, or adopting preposterous moralities. Or punishing/exploiting other people’s vulnerabilities or ideologies, or believing that we are exceptional creations rather than just another species of animal” (144). Given this rather bleak scenario, the stakes in getting helplessness right could hardly be higher. But what does it mean to get helplessness right? What does it mean, even, to be helpless? And are these in fact the right questions, the right terms, in the context of a special issue on vulnerability? Is being vulnerable the same as being helpless? Or have we taken a wrong turn already, in the opening paragraph, before we have even had a chance to get under way in our consideration of vulnerability?

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