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Overview

For the past several years I have been working on a book about caregiving and communities in relation to Victorian fiction. So it feels like I should have a lot to offer right now, particularly as I keep seeing statements in social media (or in media itself) about the heroism of caregivers. But for the first few weeks of the lockdown, I was feeling too stunned, too bludgeoned by the vastness of the change, to come up with any thoughts. And when I had thoughts, they were about the immense gap between lived experience and scholarly work on esoteric texts. Sometimes, however, I read something in the newspaper or on Twitter that bridged those modes. Sometimes an exhortation to reach out to others, or a praise of caregiving, or accounts of the writer’s yearning for community, resonated with the theories I had been reading and I recognized that behind what seemed like a tidal wave of inchoate personal need was, in fact, a structure. What looked like a feeling actually had the foursquare solidity of truth. There were things I knew. Those things granted a real framework to the way we lived now, and it occurred to me that I could share some of that information.

The following blog posts are short and somewhat impressionistic meditations. I’ve listed more scholarly sources at the end of each post for those who might want to follow up the issues.

Talia Schaffer, April 2020

 

Introductions to ethics of care:

Susan J. Brison, “Personal Identity and Relational Selves,” The Routledge Companion to Feminist Philosophy, ed. Ann Garry, Serene J. Khader, Alison Stone (NY: Routledge, 2017), 218-230

Jean Keller and Eva Feder Kittay, “Feminist Ethics of Care,” The Routledge Companion to Feminist Philosophy, ed. Ann Garry et al. (NY: Routledge, 2017)

Talia Schaffer, “Care Communities: Ethics, Fictions, Temporalities,” SAQ 118:3 (July, 2019): 521-542.

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1. A caring society

In the unimaginably long-ago time of 2015, ethicist Eva Feder Kittay imagined what a care-based society might look like. In such a world, she speculated, we would honor “those who were valiant in their care of others, as well as those who showed us the dignity of all lives, no matter the extent of the dependency” (“A theory of justice,” 68). Now, in the pandemic time of spring 2020, we do in fact honor medical personnel who are “valiant in their care of others” and ordinary workers, including grocery workers, bus drivers, deliverers, truckers, cooks – everyone whose humble everyday work makes it possible to sustain life. Now we look beyond the celebrities, the superstar athletes and the glittering pop divas, and what we notice is a network of caregivers, diffuse, humble, and necessary. Kittay is right: they are heroes, and worthy of honor. But they are not the only caregivers; they are just the ones who make caregiving most dramatically visible. The coronavirus is helping us recognize the omnipresence of care.

Care means ‘meeting another’s need.’ To ‘meet another’s need’ requires us to practice reciprocal, egalitarian, flexible relations of sensing what the other needs, often when the other can’t articulate it themselves, and acknowledging when someone else has tried to meet our needs, even if they didn’t quite guess right. As teachers know, good care requires meeting a real need, which is different from acquiescing to what the recipients think they want. In Middlemarch, Dorothea tries to curb an extramarital affair, compelling her own pain into silence for the sake of others (741). But as students know, an authority’s assumption of knowing what you need can feel paternalistic and require pushback. “You are thinking what is not true,” says Rosamond (749). This kind of sensitive, mutually responsive interactivity is the basis of good relationships, which includes teaching, parenting, friendships, families, neighbors, communities.

Lockdown makes it obvious how much of daily life consists of minor, intermittent, but continual exchanges of care. We give care every time we ask how someone is doing, make a meal for someone, clean a surface someone has to use, wash clothes someone has to wear. We get care every time others reach out to us, send a funny video, empty the dishwasher, sweep the porch, bake us treats. In pre-lockdown life in the public sphere (if we remember that), common care exchanges include holding a door open for someone laden with packages, greeting a customer, passing along advice, paying a worker, the thousands of tiny daily acts we rarely consider, and those care activities are intricately interlaced. In a restaurant visit, the dishwasher, cook, waiter, cashier, and customer are engaged in a complex web of mutual service; their “human lots,” to use the language of George Eliot in Middlemarch, are “woven and interwoven, [so] that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web” (132).

Care, then, is everywhere and nowhere; we all practice it, we all care for others and feel ourselves cared for; and yet our culture has until this very month prioritized quite oppositional values: competition, individualism, accumulation. Nothing could be less like care than toxic masculinity or narcissistic femininity, paradigms that measure success by others’ deference and adoration. Nothing could be less like care than discounting the needs of others due to racial or regional identification.  The pandemic has made it utterly clear that we are all intricately interconnected in networks that are both local and global, where our health is literally in each other’s hands. We are in these webs, in these networks, whether we like it or not, and indeed, whether we know it or not. “Any one watching keenly the stealthy convergence of human lots, sees a slow preparation of effects from one life on another, which tells like a calculated irony on the indifference or the frozen stare with which we look at our unintroduced neighbor. Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae folded in her hand” (Eliot, 88). Indifferently, we walk past our neighbor – but we breathe her breath, we brush her sleeve.

To become a caring society does not require us to do something new, but to understand ourselves differently. We are already a caring society, if we are a society at all. But let’s use the hard stop (hard in every way) of coronavirus to change how we understand our identity. We are not unique, isolated units competitively striving against each other for maximum market advantage. We are enmeshed, networked, part of what Eliot called a web, a metaphor literalized today in ways she could not have imagined. We should measure personal success not by who amasses the biggest accumulation of money, but by who best helps meet others’ needs. We should pursue our national interest not by increasing growth upwards, but by extending a safety net outwards, to sustain as many as possible. We should eschew the star system, the fetishization of certain chosen individuals, in favor of a recognition of the collaborative labor of a vast number that makes functioning possible. Eliot warned that if “we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence” (182).  One person can’t do it all, or do much of anything, but a society predicated on care, a “we,” can take care of all the grass and all the squirrels in the world. In coronavirus spring, when the pleasures we have are largely composed of feeling the grass and the squirrels, that means everything.

 

Sources used here:

Eva Feder Kittay, “A theory of justice as fair terms of social life,” Care Ethics and Political Theory, ed. Daniel Engster and Maurice Hamington (Oxford: OUP, 2015), 51-71.

George Eliot, Middlemarch, ed. David Carroll (Oxford World’s Classics, 1996, first ed. 1871-1872).

 

Read more on care’s relation to citizenship, justice, and economics:

Peta Bowden, Caring: Gender-Sensitive Ethics (Routledge, 1997)

Daniel Engster and Maurice Hamington, eds. Care Ethics and Political Theory (Oxford: OUP, 2015)

Daniel Engster, The Heart of Justice: Care Ethics and Political Theory  (Oxford: OUP, 2007)

Eva Feder Kittay, Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality, and Dependence (NY: Routledge, 1999)

Katrine Marçal, Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner (London: Portobello Books, 2015).

Nel Noddings, Starting at Home: Caring and Social Policy (Berkeley: U Cal Press, 2002)

Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist (London: Random House, 2017)

Selma Sevenhuijsen, Citizenship and the Ethics of Care: Feminist Considerations on Justice, Morality, and Politics trans. Liz Savage (NY: Routledge, 1998)

 

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2. Care is not the same as caring

In the spring of the coronavirus, people are yearning to help. I see this urgency as rooted in care’s identity as an action, rather than an emotion. ‘Care’ is something you do, but ‘caring’ is something you feel. It might be helpful to know that it is perfectly fine to experience one without the other, and indeed, sympathy may actually inhibit actions, since it tends to inculcate passive, leisurely specularity, while someone in the thick of the action may not have much time to commune with their inner self.

If you are too overwhelmed with dismay to feel you can do anything, that is sympathy. If you are feeling an urge to volunteer, donate, support, that is care. These are distinct, they run on different tracks, although they may come into the same station in the end. Caregiving can of course come from love, but quite often care does not begin in feeling at all, as in the case of professional nurses, who have to learn to sideline their personal feelings in order to do the job properly. However, repeated acts of care can eventually generate that feeling, for care is performative: reiteration makes caring happen. Those hired to take care of strangers, as a babysitter, nurse, nanny, teacher, home health aide tend to experience growing affection for their charges over time – an effect produced by enacting care over and over again. Repetition can intensify affection, an effect we experience when we engross ourselves in the same novels, shows, or songs multiple times.

It is also reassuring to remember that caregiving is a spectrum, not an on/off switch, and even inadequate care is better than no care at all. In coronavirus spring, we yearn for fresh air. A basic satisfaction of physical need would be to facilitate someone opening a window. But better care would also meet the other’s aesthetic and emotional needs. Opening a window is basic care, but taking someone to a place with a view of a garden is better care. Whatever you are doing, is good. If you want to make it better, think not of how many different actions you can undertake so much as how to enrich your current actions by layering physical, sensory, emotional, aesthetic, meaningful qualities onto the basic need-meeting.

If you want to make caregiving better, remember that you are always enmeshed in care, that all your interactions with others dart and dance among everyone’s needs. You give care when you reassure someone, when you offer a gift, when you reach out to a friend. If you are frustrated at being unable to help exhausted medical personnel, it might be useful to make yourself stop and notice the small acts of care you are doing for those in your personal or online communities. It’s still care, and its very modesty and omnipresence may end up making it all the more helpful than a showier act of singular heroism. You are fostering grasses that grow everywhere, not planting a single tree.

If – to keep up the metaphor – you are thinking about how to grow that grass better – here’s some advice to keep in mind. It’s important to listen closely to what the other is expressing, rather than assume you know this type of thing and you can solve the problem. Rather, as Joan Tronto has stressed, be as attentive, open, and responsive as you can. Care ethicist Nel Noddings argues that good caregiving requires “engrossment” in the other’s mindset, and “motivational displacement,” in which one shelve one’s own intentions to enact another’s.  Genuinely try to see things from the other’s point of view rather than projecting your own wishes onto the other. After all, as George Eliot notes, others have “an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference” (198).

This is a profoundly difficult act. “Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world, and leave only a margin by which we see the blot? I know no speck as troublesome as self” (Eliot 392). To imagine the self and its needs as a mere speck of dirt, blotting out what we ought to see, is a very advanced ethical practice indeed. We probably cannot maintain it for long, unless we have special training in holding our selves aside, as psychoanalysts do. But luckily for us, care is constantly ebbing and flowing, and the momentary suppression of our selves for another’s sake will be answered by the other doing the same for us, reaching out to ask about our elderly parents, our sick friends, our time, our work. And sometimes you can best give care to another by allowing them to reach out with care to you. Perhaps the tiny speck, the blot of dirt, can be changed – not something that blots out others, but something we can use to fertilize what we plant.

 

Source used here:

George Eliot, Middlemarch, ed. David Carroll (Oxford World’s Classics, 1996, first ed. 1871-1872).

 

Read more on the nature of care:

Susan J. Brison, “Personal Identity and Relational Selves,” The Routledge Companion to Feminist Philosophy, ed. Ann Garry, Serene J. Khader, Alison Stone (NY: Routledge, 2017), 218-230

Virginia Held, The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global (NY: Oxford UP, 2006)

Virginia Held, Feminist Morality: Transforming Culture, Society, and Politics (Chicago: U Chicago Press, 1993)

Jean Keller and Eva Feder Kittay, “Feminist Ethics of Care,” The Routledge Companion to Feminist Philosophy, ed. Ann Garry, Serene J. Khader, Alison Stone (NY: Routledge, 2017), 540-555.

Eva Feder Kittay, Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality, and Dependence (NY: Routledge, 1999

Eva Feder Kittay and Ellen K. Feder, eds. The Subject of Care: Feminist Perspectives on Dependency (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002)

Nel Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (U California Press, 1984)

Nel Noddings, Starting at Home: Caring and Social Policy (Berkeley: U Cal Press, 2002)

Joan Tronto, Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care (Routledge, 1993)

 

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3. Communities of care

We are living together while we are living apart. Though trapped in separate cells, we have never been more aware of how interlaced are our lives, air, bodies, hands, breath. We are both far too alone, and not nearly isolated enough.

We feel urgency to establish communities. Is a Zoom screen of tiny faces in boxes really a community? Can my neighborhood, my workplace, my organization, function as a community with its members forced apart? When most people think of ‘community,’ they imagine a vaguely mythic, harmonious, organic village, but that idea was invented in the 19th century as an antidote to industrialized, urban modernity. ‘Community,’ points out Zygmunt Bauman, is always a good word; it carries idealizing qualities that ‘company’ and ‘society’ do not (1).

But real communities consist of people sustaining relationships with each other, with all the messiness that that entails, and the ‘living’ often occurs at a distance. The virtual groups we have cobbled together in coronavirus time are real communities. People live in “personal networks,” small, fairly stable groups of close friends and relations, averaging about 18 people (see Pahl, 635; Fischer, 38; Spencer and Pahl, 46). These participants need not share a geographic space.  “Postmodern communities are nomadic, highly mobile, emotional and communicative,” explains Gerard Delanty (157). My favorite article on this topic has the memorable title,“Are all communities communities in the mind?” Perhaps even when people live in the same locale, we carry our relationships in our minds and our hearts.

So: your teammates, your classmates, your club members, your siblings, your family, your alumni group, your knitting circle, your colleagues, your neighbors, your religious-institution friends: they are communities. Most people do not live in nuclear families. But even when they do, they reach out to others like them. For these personal networks, these chosen families, constitute a major survival mechanism for our species – they predate the hegemonic nuclear family and extend beyond it. Our virtual communities are real and necessary, and we should not see them as stand-ins for some other, more real, in-person family configuration, or substitutes for some kind of golden-age village.

Indeed, I’d say that community members do not need to be human, or even sentient. All that matters is that they meet your need. They can be songs from your youth, soft ancient sweatshirts, great poems, immersive films, high-quality chocolate, affectionate pets, yoga routines, rocks warmed in the sun. If they offer you the feelings you need right now, they are giving you care, and if you are engaging with them and appreciating them, you are caring back again. It is entirely possible, although maybe not emotionally ideal, to create a community whose other members consist of music.

In a community with other humans, it is helpful to remember two principles. First, within the community, everyone ought to feel equally valued, regardless of their status in the outside world. Second, viable communities have conversations that shift fluidly among different people’s needs as members reassure and comfort each other, explain and resolve problems. Egalitarianism and fluidity: everyone is valued, everyone’s needs must be heard and met, as if we are all balanced in a web, and one person tugging on a filament attracts everyone’s attention, and another person can spin a countervailing support.

Being a good member of a community does not mean being a star. It might, rather, mean having an effect that is “incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs” (785). George Eliot compares Dorothea’s influence to rivulets soaking into the earth, diffusely fertilizing the soil. Our communities are not necessarily full of famous people, or brilliant people, or the people we were born to. They are the members that we have chosen. They are the people – or the art, or the growing plants – we keep choosing, day after day. All that online life: those diffuse rivulets enrich our soil, those data threads reaching across the distance to weave a communal web. In coronavirus spring, we are seeing, at last, that the “hidden life” is the real life we all already live.

 

Sources used here:

Zygmunt Bauman, Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World (Cambridge UK: Polity, 2001)

Gerard Delanty, Community (London and NY: Routledge, 2018, 3rd ed.)

George Eliot, Middlemarch, ed. David Carroll (Oxford World’s Classics, 1996, first ed. 1871-1872)

Claude S. Fischer, To Dwell Among Friends (Chicago: Chicago UP 1982)

Ray Pahl, “Are all communities communities in the mind?” The Sociological Review 53:4 (Nov 2005), 621-640

Liz Spencer and Ray Pahl, Rethinking Friendship: Hidden Solidarities Today (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006)

 

Read more about community:

Kenneth C. Bessant, The Relational Fabric of Community (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018)

Karma Chavez, Queer Migration Politics: Activist Rhetoric and Coalitional Possibilities (U Illinois Press, 2013)

Danielle Sered, Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair (The New Press, 2019)

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