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Matters of Care is a book about re-imagining posthumanist research and ecological ethics in a world under crisis. To explore these questions, Maria Puig de la Bellacasa frames the idea of care as a situated and committed form of speculation that simultaneously works to sustain the world we live in and opens it up to new constituencies and political stakes. The book opens by offering Joan Tronto’s (1993) definition of care as a conceptual anchor. For Tronto, care includes “everything that we do to maintain, continue and repair ‘our world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web” (quoted on page 3, emphasis added by de la Bellacasa). From here, de la Bellacasa presents a three-dimensional vision of care as entailing “labor/work, affect/affections, ethics/politics” (page 5). Understood as a vital part of sustaining worlds, care is continually appropriated by and entangled in powerful configurations, including those with ultimately destructive effects, from marketing discourses that call for commodity-driven self care, to justifications for armed international interventions, to the language of corporate greenwashing which substitutes ‘care’ for accountability. For de la Bellacasa, however, thinking with care offers a way to think both through and beyond these entanglements.
The first chapter builds on Bruno Latour’s (2004; 2005; 2014) famous distinction between ostensibly settled “matters of fact” and actively contested and constructed “matters of concern.” By reimagining the former as the latter, Latour suggests, we reveal the configurations of interest and agency that connect human and non-human actors and which give particular social realities their weight. In turn, we are able to constructively reimagine these realities. De la Bellacasa traces the radical democratic ambitions of this vision, its insistence on recognizing human and non-human others collectively both as agents and stakeholders in particular matters of concern. She points out, however, that this vision also has its limits: actors may be implicated in certain matters of concern and yet remain unable to make their concerns easily knowable or traceable. To make these silent voices heard, she advocates “thinking with care” as “an active process of intervening in the count of whom and what is ratified as concerned” (page 52). Here, “care” entails a committed, speculative sensitivity to discovering traces of those actors less able to make their stakes in an issue immediately apparent or to assembling “neglected things” that bring with them a range of other relations—of suffering, of exclusion—that are often invisibly but inescapably implicated in many matters of concern.
The second and third chapters of the book offer particular tools for tracing matters of care. Chapter Two draws on the work of Donna Haraway to argue that posthumanist scholars can think with care in three modes: thinking-with, dissenting-within, and speaking-for. In Haraway’s work, conflicting ideas are not treated as diametrically opposed but are held in tension and used to think through one another in uneasy but committed dialogues. This commitment to “staying with the trouble” informs de la Bellacasa’s call to “think-with” and “dissent-within.” These notions urge scholars to treat scholarship as an ongoing, open, and collective conversation that pursues transformation through engagement, appropriation, redirection, and reworking, rather than through critical disavowal or utopian flights. Meanwhile, de la Bellacasa’s notion of “speaking-for” attempts to provide a more honest framing of the stakes involved when scholars address issues from the perspective of the marginalized. She argues that while adopting such standpoints can be productive, the shift to an academic register always entails a displacement of voice and experience. Understanding this as a claim to “think for” acknowledges the appropriation at work and prompts scholars to question when such moves are worthwhile.
Chapter Three explores touch as a technology for producing caring knowledge. Building on feminist critiques of the objectifying potential of vision, de la Bellacasa explores how, in contrast, touch turns knowing into a mutual project. Touch confounds subject-object distinctions by flowing in both directions—what we touch touches us as well. Its ability to know is channeled through relational affordances, for what is learned through touch depends on the response of the other being touched. For de la Bellacasa, in other words, touch can be understood as a grounded, speculative practice, where knowledge unfolds between subjects whose ability to know is mediated by how they reach out, and by the receptivity of the other. It is also a modality that inflects other ways of knowing, including, crucially, vision. Here “touching vision” entails a form of seeing that is sensitive to its own vulnerable, subjective and relational grounding, revealing “a world constantly done and undone through encounters that accentuate both the attraction of closeness as well as awareness of alterity” (page 115).
Opening the second section on practices of care, Chapter Four develops a notion of “alterbiopolitics.” De la Bellacasa picks up on the pervasive role of biopolitics in shaping planetary life to argue for an ethical displacement of individual human subjects. When the possibilities for personal self-sustenance and those that shape collective outcomes across the planet can no longer be disentangled, she argues, the lines between private ethics and public politics, or between individual and collective, no longer make sense as a basis for ethical action. Instead, drawing on her own experiences in permaculture practices, she advances a vision of ethics where everyday experiences of interdependency inform a collectivist mode of ethics that does not require explicit intentionality, nor fixed principles, but which emerges in a speculative manner out of the mutuality of everyday relationships. The final chapter extends the book’s thinking with permaculture to encompass other practices of care for the soil. The slow, unfolding temporalities of care for the soil—and care in general—are contrasted with the rapid, innovation-driven imaginaries of popular technological visions of the future, and of market-dominated forms of care. Based on this contrast, de la Bellacasa argues that if dominant visions of futurity invoke care, they do so in an objectifying mode antithetical to the situated, careful unfolding of care practices themselves. A speculative commitment to the uncertain, unfolding temporalities of care, she argues, offers a way to prevent the reduction of soil (and other natural entities) to mere resources, and to recognize their caring capacities in kind. Finally, the book ends with a short coda that asks if thinking about non-human others as caring means risking anthropomorphizing them. Care, suggests de la Bellacasa, may offer a particularly human way of imagining our relations to others, but it nonetheless attunes us to the care-like work done by non-human others in sustaining our common world while prompting us to pay closer attention to the particulars of their existence. As a speculative move, it pays to imagine non-human others as caring.
This is a complex book, and other readers are bound to draw other insights from the chapters than those highlighted here. Stylistically, the book commits to writing with care, and embraces the ideas of thinking-with, dissenting-within, and speaking-for. For instance, instead of arguing with or claiming to move beyond particular ideas, de la Bellacasa positions her own work as working in resonance with, or as a “displacement” of, those of others, drawing together disparate sources and ideas in an exploratory register in order to draw out new analytical and ethical possibilities. This speculative register, which endures across the book’s two halves, is likely to be a source of both inspiration and frustration for readers. On a quest to open up the constituencies of the world and to rethink “whom and what is ratified as concerned” (page 52), and to envision a practical politics that would give ethical voice and political sway to the neglected, the book continually reaches beyond the taken-for-granted epistemological and political frameworks that reproduce such neglect. Yet, in doing so, the actual materiality of the world—actually-existing patterns of inclusion and exclusion, of ecological interdependence and political struggle—shift out of focus. Without seeing how such patterns are addressed, it becomes hard to imagine how the book’s politics of knowledge and action can be taken up and situated.
For instance, empirical studies of care stress the deeply situated, embodied, and temporally-unfolding nature of relations of care (e.g. Joks and Law, 2017; Mol, 2008; Mol et al, 2010; Popke, 2006). These characteristics can give caring relations an intimate but often inward-looking spatiality. De la Bellacasa frequently acknowledges the situated nature of care in passing, but never fully unpacks its implications. While her reading of care as a speculative technique clearly extends the relations that caring practices might embrace, the question of just how encompassing care can be remains unaddressed. This, despite the fact that, modifying Tronto, de la Bellacasa valorizes care as “everything that is done… to maintain, continue and repair ‘the world’ so that all (rather than ‘we’) can live in it as well as possible” (page 161, emphasis in the original). The tension between particularism and universalism—between the situated, speculative commitment to keeping the social open to new forms of contestation and gathering and the commitment to imagining a politics for the betterment of all—goes unaddressed. At the heart of this tension lie neglected questions around the scope of caring relations, the just distribution of caring obligations, and the potential for care to generate incommensurable commitments.
Similarly, while Matters of Care is presented partly as a conversation between feminist thinking on care and posthumanism, key voices are absent. It cites, but does not deeply engage work in feminist theory by those who have worked prominently on care itself, such as Virginia Held, Selma Sevenhujisen, Eva Kittay, and Nancy Fraser, and almost exclusively dialogues with committed posthumanists, including Haraway, Susan Leigh Star, and Isabelle Stengers. Even Tronto is largely only invoked for her ‘generic’ definition of care, rather than for her deft considerations of care as a practical ethic that reworks the meaning of the political, despite the clear resonance between this reworking and de la Bellacasa’s own project. Absent too are many of the questions raised by these other thinkers about the connections between care, dependency, and inequality; the place of care within or beyond notions of equality or liberal orders; and the relationships between different dimensions of care. These elisions make it difficult to connect de la Bellacasa’s speculative exercise, not only to existing political orders, but also to debates beyond posthumanism.
Its speculative register allows Matters of Care to take ambitious strides. It offers a serious and thoughtful contribution to debates around the place of politics within posthumanism, connecting a radical openness to human and non-human others with an enduring concern for the excluded and marginal. In doing so it reimagines how we might know the world and places care at the heart of a hybrid practice of knowing, relating to, and sustaining worlds. It also serves as an exemplar of a different sort of academic writing, forgoing oppositional argument in favor of thinking through continuous entanglement with the work of others. The same speculative register that enables the book’s achievements, however, also suspends full engagement with the ecological and political challenges of the day, or with key dilemmas within feminist thought. Ironically, in its effort to extend certain entanglements, the book seems to cut others short. Dense and multivalent, readers are invited to follow de la Bellacasa’s speculation, wherever it might take them.
Bellacasa, María Puig de la. Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
Joks, Solveig, and John Law. “Sámi Salmon, State Salmon: TEK, Technoscience and Care.” The Sociological Review 65, no. 2_suppl (July 1, 2017): 150–71.
Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. OUP Oxford, 2005.
———. “What Is the Style of Matters of Concern?” In The Lure of Whitehead, edited by Nicholas Gaskill and A. J. Nocek, 92–126. University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
———. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2 (2004): 24.
Mol, Annemarie. The Logic of Care: Health and the Problem of Patient Choice. Routledge, 2008.
Popke, Jeff. “Geography and Ethics: Everyday Mediations Through Care and Consumption.” Progress in Human Geography 30, no. 4 (August 1, 2006): 504–12.
Tronto, Joan C. Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. Psychology Press, 1993.