Care is one of those terms that seems to mean everything and nothing. I first became interested in the notion of care when I was doing research up in the Hunter Valley in Australia. And I was interviewing different people up there, and they all expressed care in different ways, in four different things. Some people were really concerned about their personal health, about health of bird populations, and health of the different environment and ecologies up there. But they were also concerned about the lack of care that the government showed towards them and to the impacts of open-cut coal mining on the different ecologies up there.
So what it really forced me to think about was how to care in these different situations and the role of care. Yeah, that’s a really fascinating example. I think what it highlights, though, is the contested nature of care. That’s something that’s really interested me, too, in my work. I first became interested in care while hanging around in captive breeding facilities for critically endangered birds. In these spaces, the intimate care for some individuals and species is often coupled with ongoing violence, suffering, and death for others. There are predators and competitors that get culled. Other animals become expendable to provide food or enrichment for the endangered. The list really just goes on and on.
Very often, care for the species, in the form of conservation, is the trump card that justifies away any and all other concerns. In this way, care can be made to do all sorts of violent work, but it can also be put to work to justify those violences away and render them invisible. There’s an obvious relationship here between care and ethics. How do you understand the relationship between those two terms? The Belgian philosopher, Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, is my guide here. She views care as simultaneously a vital affective state, and an ethical obligation, and a practical labour. Affective, ethical, and practical, and all of these facets really matter in her account of care.
As an affective state, caring is an embodied phenomenon. It’s the product of intellectual and emotional competencies, where to care is to be affected by another, to be emotionally at stake in them in some way. As an ethical obligation, to care is also to become subject to another, to recognise an obligation to look after another. And then finally, as a practical labour, caring requires more from us than abstract well-wishing. It requires that we get involved in some concrete way, that we do something, wherever possible, to take care of another. In short, I think in Maria’s work, care is an entry point into a very grounded form of embodied and practical ethics.
So, going back to your previous point about care and violence, how does one avoid doing further violence, or how does one attend to the potential to do violence within care practises? Yeah, well what I think follows, logically, from the really complex and compromised nature of our caring practises is the necessity that care involve an ongoing and really critical engagement with the terms of its own production and practise. So Donna Haraway, for example, has noted that “caring means becoming subject to the unsettling obligation of curiosity, which requires us knowing more at the end of the day than at the beginning.”
So I understand this obligation to know more as a demand for a kind of deep, contextual, and critical attentiveness to the objects of our care. So we might ask, for example, what kinds of emotional, political, and epistemic frames orient our caring acts? Or what counts as care, and why? Or how else might care be imagined and practised? In short, what am I really caring for? Why? And at what cost to whom? Together, I think that Maria Puig and Donna Haraway offer us the potential to understand care itself as a vital practise of critique. Yeah.
I agree, but only when critique is seen as a way of contributing to or intervening in an issue, rather than when critique is a means of just dismantling or disrupting practises or an issue without an obligation or a responsibility to what occurs during that process of critique. Absolutely. Care as a practise of critique needs to be grounded and constructed in just that way. It needs to be practical, affective, and ethical, engaged with the specificity of real bodies and worlds. In this sense, I think critique is an exploration of contingency. Refusing to take the world and our understandings for granted and asking, for example, how else might things be? What else might be possible here?
Through this kind of an engagement, care might be a really important mode for re-story— a commitment and a practise– a committed practise, if you like, that can ground scholarly and creative interventions for better worlds.