On Caring in a Technoscientific World

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On a sunny weekend last April, about 40 participants from a wide diversity of backgrounds gathered together for the Politics of Care in Technoscience Workshop at York University. The workshop took as a point of departure Maria Puig de la Bellacasa’s 2010 article “Matters of Care in Technoscience: Assembling Neglected Things,” which argues for a movement from matters of concern to caring and careful action within the material entaglements we are already in.

Charis Thomson (Berkeley) began the weekend with a public lecture on the politics of care involved in biomedical donation. Setting the tone, she suggested that we can understand care as epistemology, ontology, caring about or an affectively charged mode of attention. As the weekend progressed we explored landscapes as diverse as permaculture fields, courtrooms, hospitals, first nations reserves, and quantum fields.
As feminist scholars, the burden of care often falls to us. To care makes us vulnerable, to both suffering and critique. Often derided and devalued, care is the glue that coheres the fragments of experience, filling gaps with meaning. Care can be an obligation, a responsibility, a privilege, a mode of engagement; to care is both to nurture and to trouble. It can signify a movement of affective connection or an assertion of power over another. As such, care can be attached to both humility and control. Issues of care and responsibility closely track temporality, with the temporal locus of care falling in the present moment and as such, it can only be understood in its particularities.
The complexities of care were well represented over the weekend, and we were challenged to extend our concept of care beyond human concerns, not only to animals but also to insects, plants, microbes, soil and electrons. We were also called to think critically about what our practices of care might be excluding, eliding, obscuring, or obstructing. In contemplating the ethics of care, we were reminded
that ethics resides in epistemology, and what we care for will be deeply entwined with what we are engaged and relating with, like it or not. And we were given ample examples of objects of care that are indeed difficult to love: from landfill leachate to government funding boards, HIV to military drones.
Yet what made this workshop truly special was the way in which the subject matter, the format and the participants created not only a container for deep and careful discussion of care, but an experience of it. Each 2-hour panel consisted of three papers circulated in advance, opened by two respondents sharing brief but dense comments on the papers. Each author then responded for five minutes, and the
remaining hour and a half was devoted to discussion, a rare treat! As everyone had already begun thinking through the papers, we were able to jump right into intricate dialogue, reminiscent of a truly exceptional graduate seminar. A highlight was the animated and thoughtful exchange on the particularities and paradoxes of moving between the singular and the general that occurred between Karen Barad, Lucy Suchman and Lorraine Code, which was as intellectually generative as it was
punctuated by heartfelt laughter.
Opportunities like this are regrettably infrequent, as packed conference schedules rarely leave enough time for extended discussion. Even breaks were unrushed and allowed time for both decompression and individual discussion, which extended into a well-attended dinner together Saturday evening, where conversations further expanded into the personal. Again and again I heard participants of all career stages comment on the uniquely special atmosphere that was created. On Sunday morning, a baby graced us with gentle sounds from the lap of one of the organizers. What had been created was a safe container in which to share ideas still in development, to learn about and absorb ideas outside our usual areas of specialization, to share personal struggles and triumphs, and a space of support and healing.
At the end of the workshop the picture that emerged was far from simple, but returning to Puig de la Bellacasa, care can perhaps best be understood as a particular ethico-political “transformative ethos”, never innocent or simple, always layered and situated and indeterminate. It may not ultimately be a question of what one cares about that matters, but how we care. And despite the complexities and
troubles of care, we left feeling cared for, and newly inspired and energized to care... carefully.