Politics of Care in Technoscience

What does it mean to explore the politics of care in technoscience?  After three stimulating days attending “The Politics of Care in Technoscience Workshop at York University last weekend, I have a preliminary idea: It is about grappling with practical ethics in a messy world.  Since science, technology, and medicine are inextricable from contemporary ways of living and dying, part of caring in the world is engaging critically and creatively with new and old forms of technoscience.  The term technoscience draws attention to the inseparability of science and technology; the papers at the workshop showed how science and technology are not only inseparable, but historically and socially situated within complex institutions like universities, heath care systems, legal systems, militaries, and NGOs.  

In 1970s and 1980s feminist theorists began to use care to think about ethics in a different way.  Philosophers have always been fond of using abstract modes of ethical reasoning.  For example, utilitarianism argues that one should act so as to create the greatest good for the greatest number.  While this is a good general principle, it doesn’t take account the “particularities of particularity” (as Lorraine Code nicely put it in the workshop).  “Care” offered feminists a way to talk about “the good” in the messy specificities of everyday life.  As feminist theorist Maria Puig de la Bellacasa argues, it is impossible to care “in general”; the practices that are life-sustaining in one situation might be deadly in another.  The question of “how to care?” must entail a detailed understanding of the context.

As a Canadian who has been living in the United States for the last five years, I was appreciative of the papers that examined care in the context of contemporary Canadian issues: the Attawapiskat housing emergency (Naomi Adelson), the criminalization of HIV non-disclosure (Eric Mykhalovskiy), and the question of whether “advocates” can act as expert witnesses in Canadian courts (Lorraine Code).  The discussions around these papers gave me the opportunity not only to get a more fine-grained understanding of recent political controversies in Canada, but also showed the difficulties and ambivalences with thinking about care when powerful social and governmental institutions set the terms of engagement.  For example, Adelson shows how Chief Teresa Spence was able to make Canadians care about Attawapiskat through savvy use of internet journalism; but the spectacle created by the “state of emergency” also hides the everyday conditions of poverty of many First Nations communities and could perpetuate the harmful image of Aboriginal people as victims in need of paternalistic care from outside. 

Care can be dangerous if it is complacent, if we think we know in advance how to care.  Care can be paternalistic, especially when histories of colonialism and social inequality are not taken into account.  Pre-fabricated modes of caring can be detrimental to others, even as they make us feel generous and kind.  From the beginning of the workshop, with Charis Thompson’s keynote lecture, it was clear that that care is not a panacea.  We can’t simply add care to technoscience and stir.  On the other hand, this does not mean that “care” is bankrupt.  All of the things we (might) believe in:: care, justice, democracy, love, equality, freedom, community, (pick your favourite) ::  have fraught histories and have been used to justify acts that we do not agree with.  The key, I believe, isn’t to find an innocent term, but to “stay with the trouble” (as Donna Haraway puts it). 

As Michelle Murphy argued in her workshop paper, care must be continuously “unsettled.” Always a question, never a simple prescription.  Being unsettled is a condition of living in a profoundly unsettling world and part of learning to remain responsive to the mundane complexities that we encounter in our lives and in our work.  For scholars (and others!) interested in staying with the trouble and thinking with care, there are compelling questions to explore.  What kinds of stories can we tell (in our writing, our classrooms, and our conversations) that strengthen care in the technoscientific worlds we live in and study?  How can our research practices also be care practices?   What modes of attention do we need to cultivate to learn about the contexts of care and respond well?

If these questions are interesting to you too, I hope that you join our conversation and continue to create community around care in technoscience .  I’m not advocating a new “turn” to care.  (The last thing we need is a new turn).   Instead, I feel that care is something to sit with (however unsettled) for while and see how it permeates and re-orients our everyday practices. 

At the workshop I was inspired by how care brought together so many topics, methods, and approaches.  I found myself inhabiting sites of anxiety like leachate in landfill sites (Myra Hird), un-manned military drones (Lucy Suchman), and deformed leaf bugs near Chernobyl (Astrid Schrader), alongside sites of wonder like the sensual encounters between orchids and insects (Natasha Myers and Carla Hustack) and quantum field theory (Karen Barad).  Seeing these “matters of care” gathered together at our big square table, moved me.  They made me think and feel in new ways.  Perhaps the most promising aspect of care is the way that it pulls our passions to the surface, allowing us to affect one another and be affected.  Overflowing with contagious passions, this workshop demonstrated the value of coming together to share situated insights, questions, and troubles, as we struggle to participate meaningfully in the world around us.

Note: The thoughts and phrases above are not only indebted to the papers and conversations at the workshop, but also to Maria Puig de la Bellacasa’s article “Matters of Care in Technoscience: Assembling Neglected Things.”  If you are interested in care, this is an excellent place to begin.

Martha Kenney is a PhD Candidate in the History of Consciousness Department and a Fellow at the Science and Justice Research Center at UC Santa Cruz.