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Sara Rushing

Jul 8, 2021

The Virtues of Vulnerability

Humility, Autonomy, and Citizen-Subjectivity

Oxford University Press 2020

Political Theorist Sara Rushing’s new book, The Virtues of Vulnerability: Humility, Autonomy, and Citizen-Subjectivity (Oxford UP, 2020), examines the very real experiences that individuals have in the context of healthcare, especially healthcare and medical approaches to the most human of all experiences, birth, illness, and death. Rushing’s analysis posits that the corporal bodies that we all inhabit are also sites of politics—not the problem for politics, as others have theorized, but rather a place and space where politics transpires. Instead of beginning an exploration from an abstract position, Rushing starts from her own experiences, since her encounters with birth, death, mourning, and grief engaged her thinking about how we as citizens, as individuals, engage and face medical experiences and all of the settings where these experiences take place. Rushing focuses the theoretical framework around these issues of humility and vulnerability, which is often how we find ourselves in context of these human experiences that engage the “medical-industrial complex.” We often consider humility as a quality associated with a religious bearing but Rushing urges a reconsideration of the concept of humility, as a means to embrace one’s vulnerability and thus move towards a redefined understanding of autonomy. This is the context into whichThe Virtues of Vulnerability then examines three distinct human experiences, birth, illness—in this case, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as suffered by American military veterans—and death, exploring how we encounter these life experiences and how politics essentially happens in these medicalized spaces.

A substantial component of the theoretical analysis in The Virtues of Vulnerability is wrestling with the way that choice and freedom are presented within the medical environment but are delimited in what we can actually choose and what we understand and know about these choices as well. This concept of freedom and choice are also connected to the way that neoliberalism frames our experiences, thus we perceive of our autonomy in these medicalized environments through the appearance of choices we get to make, or options provided to us, but often these are actually quite narrow in scope, constrained by the demands of health insurance and healthcare/medical marketplace. Rushing’s analysis gets at these many competing dimensions of healthcare and how it is operationalized, leading the reader to consider how we experience our interactions and how we might reconsider our autonomy within these environments by understanding how our vulnerability and humility can help us work more collaboratively with those who are engaging in this ethics of care with us.

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). Email her comments at or tweet to @gorenlj.

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Lilly Goren

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.

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