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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021



Parallel Papers Session 6
Sunday 7 July 11.00pm-12.15 pm, EEST
Paper Code: PP21

Journey to the South of Vulnerability: Abject Appearance in the subjective precarity of migrant professional Venezuelan women

Presenters: Matías Sanfuentes & Francisco Valenzuela

Immigration from one country to another is a highly demanding, multifaceted psychosocial process that significantly affects personal identity (Acktar, 1995). In this process, migrants must face the loss of their socio-cultural roots and the need to adapt to an alien and hard environment through "identity strategies" that help them cope with deep contradictions and threats (Rhim & Sharim, 2017). In this sense, migration can be both a traumatic experience with lasting negative consequences on the individual (Lijtmaer, 2001) and a psychosocial opportunity for creative and beneficial life improvement (González, 2016).

In this paper we study the notion of vulnerability, as elaborated by Judith Butler (2006, 2016) and several followers of her work in the field of organization and management studies, as it allows understanding the complex interweaving of ethics in and around precarization, concerning the overlap of aspirations to escape and reject marginalization, but also to adjust and conform to it at a performative level. Crucially, such ethical dilemma can be seen as inextricably linked to precarized subjectivities as they are embodied and gendered during efforts to ensure one’s own survival and that of family members, which usually involve moving between workplaces and domestic settings, or even migrating across regions. From this standpoint, precarity is approached from below, not as negativity, as an incomplete, unrealised reality, but as positivity, as a way of living that is actively and creatively produced (Gago, 2017). It is seen as the only way to get through the everyday, to keep life moving between inhabitable borders for the worker and their support network (Lorey, 2015).

In pursuit of a deeper understanding of the above, we present an analysis of a specific case, the migration of female professionals from crisis-ridden Venezuela to more prosperous and stable yet also highly-precarized Chile. Drawing from Mavin & Grandy’s (2016) and Tyler’s (2011) reading of the Kristevian-Butlerian notion of ‘abject appearance’, we account for the diverse, often contradictory ways in which vulnerability is embodied, hinging between efforts to display and disguise, and feelings of pride and shame, among others. By providing insights on how conditions of gender, race and class that pertain to a particular precarized group -migrant Venezuelan female professionals- become weaved into a dynamic of abjection in which subjects come to be recognized, and recognize themselves, as both fascinating and disgusting, we contribute to the discussion of a critical ethics of vulnerability.

Kristeva (1982) defines abjection as a process in which individuals are confronted with uncanny and toxic elements that disrupt their sense of self-cohesion, and thus cannot be assimilated within a system or framework. Kristeva associates the abject with phenomena that are ambivalently felt as repulsive and fascinating, distasteful and appealing, contradictory and paradoxical. Abjection engenders culturally and socially accepted bodies at the expense of others, such as migrants, who are marginalised as 'disposable' beings, forced to live and work under highly precarious conditions (Butler & Athanasious, 2013). We find that analyses of abjection are capable of alerting about the subjective grounding of precarity, and more importantly, of directing efforts of social transformation to the complex dynamic of perception, judgement and interaction that wrongly grant legitimacy to regimes of vulnerability and precarization at a local level.

Biographical Summaries

Dr Matías Sanfuentes. PhD in psychoanalytic studies, University of Essex, UK. He is an Associate Professor and academic director of the master’s in Human Resources Management and Organizational Dynamics and the Diploma in Coaching and Organizational Change at the Business School, University of Chile. He is a psychodynamic psychotherapist and organizational consultant. His research interests include leadership, organizational change, gender studies, organizational culture and identity, and the psychoanalytic study of organizations. He is an Associate Researcher Centre for Social Conflict and Cohesion Studies (COES) and Organisational & Social Dynamics journal Editor.

Dr. Francisco Valenzuela is Assistant Professor at the School of Business, University of Chile. He is Associate Editor of the journal Gender Work & Organization: his main areas of research are psycho-social studies, critical management and Lacanian psychoanalysis.


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