Caring too much (or not enough)? The virtue and vices of caring

I am trying to shift my attention away from care ethics for now. No, really, I am. I can’t help it that articles about care ethics just seem to find me. Like this one: “What feminists get wrong about family, work and equality,” which is part of a special issue, entitled Mothers who care too much, for the July/August 2010 issue of the Boston Review.  I found a link to it on twitter and I couldn’t resist reading (and now writing about) it. In this article, Nancy J. Hirschman reflects on how caring and an ethics of care are being used uncritically to justify irresponsible and uncaring actions by full-time mothers. She writes:

Significant trends within feminism, grouped under the label of care feminism, have long emphasized the socially important work that women do rearing children. I have pursued such arguments in my own work but lately I have grown worried that feminists such as me have exaggerated the importance of care, ignored the inadequate ways in which it is often performed. We have failed to acknowledge that the louder we applaud it, the more we enable its perversion.

In the article, Hirschman focuses on stay-at-home moms and how their care work has been overvalued (or at least too uncritically valued). She argues that not enough critical attention is given to how and when that care work is not performed responsibly–like when a mother, while claiming that she cares for her college-aged student, lies for that student so that they can get an extension on their take home exam or so they can plagiarize a big chunk of their paper (these are examples she gives at the beginning of the essay). We spend a lot of time vilifying rich women who exploit their nannies or working mothers who selfishly prioritize their jobs over their children, but we can’t seem to expand our critique to include women who are full time mothers:

We hear a lot about the evils of working mothers, how they are too busy or selfish to pay attention to their children. And everyone loves to pile on rich men’s wives who are obsessed with getting their children into the right preschool yet consign them to the care of nannies. But we don’t often talk—either within the academy or outside of it—about the comparable failings of full-time mothering, about the women..who devote their lives to caring for their families, while producing outcomes that arguably undermine such basic political values as freedom, equality, and engaged citizenship.

Is it just me or does her mention of “piling on rich men’s wives” seem a little too flippant? Hirschman’s response to this problem is to suggest that a feminist ethics of care might be a big part of the problem:

If the work of care feminists can be put to use for ends opposed to those for which it was intended, maybe something is wrong with the theory itself.

She wants us to examine the unexpected consequences of a promotion of care as a valued, public good (which is a move that many feminists, including her, have supported): 1. When we value care as a public good, we subject care work (in its many forms) to public scrutiny/regulation/judgment. This scrutiny has led to an increased hostility to welfare and those caregivers (i.e. poor mothers) who were unjustly and erroneously depicted as bad mothers. 2. Valuing care by providing caregivers with adequate resources and sufficient support does not guarantee that the products of care (children) will be responsible and good citizens. Hirschman writes:

…many parents with more-than-adequate resources do an atrocious job teaching their children the sense of social responsibility and community that care feminists see as the natural outcome of caring work.

Question: Do all care feminists argue that the natural outcome of caring work is that it produces good citizens and that all caregivers just know how to engage in proper and effective care-giving work? I am bothered by the use of natural here and its concealing of the difficult labor that goes into determining how/when care is effective. This might be a place to read care and care work through virtue ethics. Care as a virtue would require that we think about how to distinguish effective/responsible care (virtue) from caring too much (vice of excess) or too little (vice of deficiency).

Okay, returning to the list of unexpected consequences of an emphasis on care: 3. Thinking about care as a public good (one that should be valued and compensated as such) gets complicated when we think of the benefits that caregivers already receive from their care work. If mothers are compensated for the burdens of watching children, should they also be taxed for the love that they receive from that same care work? and 4. “The focus on care has done little to change the sexual division of labor” (this is her big point and the title of another article that she contributes to this special issue).

After offering an insightful discussion of the sexual division of labor and care’s contribution to keeping that division unequal (note: she makes some interesting points in this section which I don’t have time to mention here), Hirschman offers this proposal for how to rethink (or think beyond) care:

Care feminism wants to make us think more in terms of connection and relationship, but if men have no incentive to give up their power and follow the care model’s recommendations, then women continue to represent “the family” and men remain “individuals.”

Care feminism has long been critical of individualism; but perhaps the best way to achieve the goals of the care model is for women to become stronger in individualist terms by gaining and retaining economic clout and social status, thereby giving them leverage to get men to change, and to care more.

This may mean that the vision of care that feminists promote—the kind of care that we produce—has to change as well, become less ideal, more pragmatic, without abandoning its commitments to progressivism or civic-mindedness: more like “tough love” than empathic giving. This may sound counterproductive to the ideals of empathy, responsibility, and connectedness that care theorists have advocated. It may seem overly sanguine. Some care theorists may claim that that is what they have been trying to do all along. But theorizing care from the perspective of the power dynamics to which we have inadvertently contributed is essential to its success. Because ultimately it is women’s power, not care itself, that will enable gender equality.

Hmm…I am trying to think about all the different ways in which her suggestions seem problematic to me. I bristle at the phrase “tough love”—is it possible that I might be taking it out of context and just remembering my recent critique of harsh criticism as tough love? Maybe. I am also surprised at her seemingly singular focus on gender at the expense of considering how the question of care and parenting is necessarily implicated in unequal power distributions based on race or class or sexuality or nation. In focusing only on the need for women (which women?) to get jobs or, more broadly, attempt to acquire power/status/money, we aren’t able to consider the important questions: Who (that is, which individuals) have access to economic clout and social status via jobs?

While much more could be said about the limits (or possibilities?) of her proposal,  that is not my goal in this entry. I chose to write on this essay because I was struck by the author’s engagement with feminist care ethics and her reinforcement of the popular and too-narrow idea of care as uncritically linked to the nurturing mother. As I hinted at before, I think linking care with troublemaking might be a way to get beyond (or beside?) this narrow framing. I also chose to write on this essay because I was struck by the title: Women who care too much. The idea of excessive caring makes me think of Aristotle and his ethical framework for cultivating virtue in relation to its vices (its excesses and deficiencies). Okay, I really need to stop thinking about care ethics right now. Time to think about one of my other blog projects.

blog mash-up #1, part 3: shifting my attention

Note: I last edited this entry on June 15 (but I had started it at least a week before that). As I indicated in this post, I have decided to shift my attention away from this mash-up and towards another one. Before I completely shift my attention, I want to post this entry. I am adding a few more ideas at the end…

So, my big issue in my latest blog mash-up is this: how to frame what I already have in relation to some of the literature within feminist ethics about care. In my last entry, I came up with a promising approach: focusing on “daring to be bad” and its connections to troublemaking/troublestaying and ethics. In that entry, I briefly discussed Marilyn Frye’s essay in which she rejects ethics and its call to be good by arguing that being good is too mired in a desire to please others/be seen as acceptable. Such a desire, she cautions, encourages “good little girls” to reinforce/support oppressive structures. For Frye, the solution is to grow out of this need and to stop looking to ethics for guidance.

It is interesting to note her word choice. She writes that we should grow out of ethics instead of grow up beyond ethics. Could we read her growing out instead of up as something akin to Kathryn Bond Stockton’s growing sideways, which I discuss here?

In encouraging us to reject ethics, Frye reinforces a popular understanding of ethics by many feminists (and those engaging in queering theory too): ethics, which is created by those in power, a. is based on rigid rules/structures that regulate behavior and reinforce oppressive structures and b. is in opposition to politics (and political resistance/justice). I like this idea and all day yesterday I thought about how it might work for this essay. Then, I stopped thinking about it. I realized that I am trying to do too much. I need to focus in, at least for this paper, on how I fit my thinking about troublestaying as care into feminist care ethics.

As I struggle to polish up some of my ideas for publication, I am struck by how much more difficult traditional academic writing is then blog writing. When I start to put together an essay, I think I panic a little. I think about all of the ideas that I should include and then worry about how I might be leaving something out or not exploring something else enough. How much of this anxiety is helpful (as in, helpfully reminding me to to be “rigorous” and thorough in my thinking/research/writing) and how much of it is damaging (as in, damaging to my ability to ever produce something of publishable quality? And, how much of this anxiety is just a necessary part of trying to really do something with my ideas (and produce something that is fixed and finished)?

The question I need to ask myself is, what original ideas do I want to present and how I can use the background literature to support/clarify/explain those ideas? I am interested in thinking about troublemaking/troublestaying as a form of care (or, if not a form, at least connected to it) and I want to think about it in relation to Foucault and his use of care in the essay, “The Masked Philosopher.” I want to think about care as a willingness to:

  • see the world strangely/differently
  • pay close (and serious) attention to what exists or might exist
  • maintain a critical awareness of limits/problems
  • act on what one cares about
  • question/challenge/reject traditional hierarchies

These descriptions all point to care as curiosity and making/staying in trouble. I want to read this vision of care in relation/against/next to Joan Tronto and Berenice Fisher and their definition of care. Here’s the definition:

On the most general level, we suggest that caring be viewed as a species activity that 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 (103).

In addition to their general definition, Tronto and Fisher offer up four different phases of care (which Tronto also discusses in greater detail in Moral Boundaries and which I discuss here): caring about, taking care of, giving care and receiving care. Tronto/Fisher are interested in giving serious attention to care and providing a detailed description of how it is practiced. I appreciate their efforts here and find their analysis to be very helpful as I try to think through what I mean by care and troublemaking as care. (In fact, I always really appreciate it when scholars develop clear, concrete and detailed definitions of terms/ideas. Clarity, what a concept!) So, I want to use this definition as a starting point and as something to work with and against.

In their definition of care, Tronto and Fisher emphasize care as being about maintaining, continuing and repairing our world. Where do I fit making and staying in trouble into this definition? Is staying in trouble a form of repair? Interestingly enough, I wrote about this problem right after posting my entry on Tronto. In that entry, I pose the question:

Is it possible to imagine making trouble–disrupting the status quo, challenging ideas that are assumed to be givens and emphasizing the brokenness of ideas/images/visions–as actually contributing to the sustaining and repairing of the world?

Since writing that entry, I have checked out and skimmed Elizabeth Spelman’s book, Repair.  Her book is really great. I especially appreciate her writing style which is fairly relaxed and less-academicky (and mind-melting) than most philosophy books.

For Tronto, the notion of care as repair is all about solving problems and fixing things/people/needy situations. While I agree that these are important activities (we do need to find solutions, even if they are temporary, for meeting the needs of various groups), I don’t think that this is the only way to imagine what we could do with care. What if care wasn’t just about identifying problems and then solving them, but about giving focused and careful attention to how those problems get created and why they are problems in the first place? Here’s where Foucault and his notion of care (and problem posing) could come in. And what if repair was not only about fixing things or restoring them to their former glory, but about reworking them in new ways?

My understanding of the implications of  repair as taking care of a problem (Tronto’s second phase) was enhanced after talking with STA about a computer/web problem he needed to fix. He wasn’t able to get rid of the problem (which was the desired, and potentially achievable, goal), so he had to work around it. This solution was less than ideal because he really wanted to finally and fully take care of the problem. Now this sort of language concerning repair–taking care as getting rid of–makes a lot of sense when you are talking about computer bugs or code breakdowns. But, does it make sense to use this language when we are talking about people and their needs? Is it possible to take care of their problems once and for all? How can we think about care-as-ongoing repair? Or, how can we think about care as tinkering and experimenting instead of solving?

When I return to this mash-up later in the summer, I want to make sure to start with Elizabeth Spelman’s idea of the tinkerer as one who repairs, in her chapter, “From Bricolage to Invisible Mending.

Agonism, criticism and the trouble with fault finding

Last night, I came across an article in The Chronicle Review that immediately caught my attention (yes, it made me curious). Entitled “In Praise of Tough Criticism,” this article argues for the value of tough, combative criticism over and against compassionate and supportive engagement with ideas. Even though warning bells went off in my head and one of my inner voices sang out (because my inner voices sing out, with lusty vibrato, of course), “Prrrroblemaaaatic!,” I kept on reading. Before getting to why and how I found this essay to be problematic, let me appreciate (as in, summarize) the author’s argument. Here it is, in a nutshell.

At the beginning of the essay, the author wants us to consider two typical ways in which to engage (or eschew) criticism in the academy. On one hand, we have Professor Jones. Jones is patient, friendly, compassionate, non-confrontational and, above all else, positive. Their mantra is: “If you don’t have something positive to say, then it is best not to say anything at all–at least not in public.” Jones is so invested in collegiality that they will decline to review a poorly written book by a colleague, rather than write anything “negative” about that colleague. Jones strongly dislikes (and avoids) harsh criticism–or criticism at all, for that matter; they understand it to always and only be harsh. On the other hand, we have Professor Smith. Smith likes to tell people they are wrong and has built a successful career doing just that. They understand criticism to be primarily concerned with both persuading others to agree with them and proving that ideas other than theirs are wrong. For Smith, criticism is about competition, being a brute and having strong (as in, not “wishy-washy”) ideas. They are very good at arguing. They like to say, “Public criticism is as valid as public praise.”

According to the author, we need to be more like Smith. While being compassionate and caring is nice, and could help foster more collegiality, it doesn’t encourage us to become better intellectuals (or critics). Rejecting the idea that compassion is an intellectual virtue, the author writes,

If a compassionate, caring form of criticism entails removing the “critical” from “critical exchange,” then I would rather see the field move toward a more combative, confrontational style–even if it means ruffling a few feathers.

The author’s big concern seems to be that compassionate criticism is not criticism at all. Academics like Jones “bend over backwards to praise books more than they deserve” and, when they do disagree, they are either quiet about it or offer only faint praise. This type of engagement is no serious engagement at all and leads to mediocre and banal criticism.

Towards the end of his essay, the author contrasts Professor Smith’s brave and brutal criticism with one other, seemingly inferior form of critique: anonymous blog/web comments. Drawing upon Foucault and his discussion of the “nameless voice” in The Archaeology of Knowledge, the author argues that unduly harsh comments posted anonymously on a blog are cowardly and “antithetical to critical dialogue.” He concludes his essay by encouraging critics (particularly literary critics) to stop being a Professor Jones and start being a Professor Smith:

We need to grow thicker critical skin. Why? Because critical behavior that always results in a chorus of affirmation is nothing more than conformity; because allowing views to persist that need to be challenged is nothing less than critical mediocrity; and because failure to tell our colleagues what we truly think about their work is simple dishonesty. A reshaped critical culture will help build a more robust, honest, and transparent academy.

While I agree with the author’s promotion of a robust, honest, and transparent academy and the need for scholars to be better (as in more seriously engaged and honest) critics, I disagree with both his approach to achieving this type of critical scholarship and his framing of the problem altogether. In presenting us with Professor Jones and Professor Smith, he offers two opposing options: either we are compassionate and eschew criticism in favor of supporting each other or we are combative and embrace harsh (but honest and responsible) criticism. Putting aside the extremely problematic gendered implications of the author’s favoring of the one position over the other (Professor Jones, the caring/nurturing/uncritical professor, is repeatedly referred to as a she and Professor Smith, the harsh, brutal, yet honest and full of intellectual integrity professor, is referred to as a he), I can’t help but wonder if these are our only options? Are we either compassionate or harsh, positive or honest? His articulation of the problem produces a very particular, and limited, vision of what criticism is, what it does and how it does it. Furthermore, it suggests that compassion, caring (and openness to other’s ideas) are all enemies of criticism. Here, let me elaborate. The author defines critique in the following ways:

  • Aimed at fault finding and pointing out how an idea or an author are wrong
  • Harsh, but honest
  • Negative, not positive
  • In opposition to compassion, caring, and nurturing support
  • Demands that we take strong (and firm) positions on a topic and that we diligently attempt to convert/persuade others to our ways of thinking
  • Demands that we stop being so soft and cowardly and develop courage and a thick skin

Wow, as I read over this essay again, I am struck by how much it seems to be a veiled critique of feminism and a call to return to a more “manly” (and, therefore, proper) form of critique. It’s not just that he refers to Jones as a she (and therefore, pins the “bad” behavior on the woman); it’s that his reference to Jones as a she further reinforces the already strong (and essentialized) connection between caring/ nurturing and women, a connection that is part of a dangerous hierarchy of reason over emotion and critical thinking over feeling. On top of that, his language of combat and courage in opposition to compassion and friendly engagement, immediately conjures up images of boys (the warriors) versus girls (the mushy, touchy-feely types). He almost (but doesn’t quite) seem to say: Come on men! Are you going to let those ladies strip us of our manly criticism? Of course not! Grow some thick skin (and a pair, while you’re at it) and start fighting! This is war!

But seriously, I appreciate reading this essay because it brings up some very important issues concerning critique and, importantly for me, care. While the author positions care and critique against each other in this essay, I have been thinking a lot lately (especially as I attempt to write my blog mash-up about troublemaking, care and feminist ethics) about how we might link them together. In my own work, I want to argue that care and critique (as a form of making and staying in trouble) are connected and not in opposition. But, such a move requires that we rework our understanding of critique and criticism. I’m glad that the author brought up Foucault. I want to look briefly to him too in order to point to an alternative way of imagining what criticism is and what it can and should do.

In much of his later work, his “turn to ethics,” Foucault is interested in imagining a different way of engaging in critique. Since I am running out of energy (and time without the kids), I need to keep my description brief for now. Instead of providing much explanation, I want to offer a few passages from Foucault as a response to critique as agonism, antagonism, fault finding, and harsh/brutal honesty. I think, in some ways, Professor Smith is who Foucault imagines as the polemicist when he writes about critique in “Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations.” He writes:

The polemicist proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question. On principle, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person her confronts is not a partner in the search for truth but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong…For him, then the game consists not of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak but of abolishing him, as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning (Ethics 112).

I wonder, in his attempts to persuade others of his position, does Professor Smith leave time/space to listen to other perspectives? Is he willing to relent his position if proven wrong or must he steadfastly hold onto it as a matter of courage, fortitude and intellectual integrity?

Foucault contrasts the polemicist with the problem poser (or what I like to call dun dun duuunnn: The Problematizer. Right now FWA is in a camp where they talk about and create their own comic books. His super hero is “Fishy man.” I think mine is “The Problematizer.” I can already imagine the super cool comic book. But what would she wear and what would her super-hero powers be?). He writes:

…my attitude isn’t a result of the form of critique that claims to be a methodical examination in order to reject all possible solutions expect for the valid one. It is more on the order of “problematization”–which is to say, the development of a domain of acts, practices, and thoughts that seem to me to pose problems for politics.

In posing problems, one is not merely pointing out the faults of a system in order to judge that it is wrong and should be corrected. Instead posing problems, and giving serious critical attention to those problems, could enable us to engage in experimental (and potentially productive) conversations about what is being done and how we could not do it in this way or that way.

Now, Foucault is talking specifically about politics and political judgments (particularly in relation to what is to be done in situation x or y). So, my applying his words to literary criticism might not totally work, or even be fair. However, Foucault’s call to think about the implied goal of critique (winning a battle) and its implications for those engaged in critique, are helpful as we attempt to think about critique outside of the framework of either compassion or serious intellectual and critical engagement.

I want to conclude my list of Foucault passages with one that points to a different way of imagining critique and what it can or should do. This one is from “The Masked Philosopher,” perhaps one my favorite Foucault essays.

I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgments but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes–all the better. All the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightening of possible storms (Ethics 323).

I really like this passage. It speaks to me and what I want to do with my own critical thinking. Being critical can require that we point out the faults in an argument or an idea, but surely that’s not all that being critical does or requires of us. As Foucault suggests in this passage, being critical doesn’t mean we have to wage a war against others or their ideas. And it doesn’t demand that we shut down other possibilities, condemning them with our judgments about how/why they are wrong. Critique/criticism can open up possibilities and wake up new ideas. Instead of draining us and making us weary from battle, it can energize us and give us renewed strength by introducing other ways of being. For me, this type of critique is caring and compassionate and, most importantly, critical.

Note: This entry was helpful as I struggle to figure out what to do with my essay on feminist ethics, care and troublemaking. While this entry remains somewhat unfinished (and perhaps underdeveloped), it speaks to and connects many different ideas I have about caring. confrontation, critique, and troublemaking. These ideas, which have been brewing for years, first came up in my disseratation. This entry also gave me a great idea for a kids’ book: The Adventures of the Problematizer. Okay, I don’t like that title, but you get the idea.

Blog Mash-up #1, part 2: Developing my Angle

Now that I have chosen the entries for my first mash-up and picked the general theme for the essay, feminist ethics: care and troublemaking,  I need to develop my angle or approach. In thinking about my angle, I am trying to get at the “why bother?” and “what’s my particular take on these ideas?” questions. Here are some of my thoughts:

Troublemaking is important for feminist ethics. If you haven’t already noticed on this blog, I am particularly interested in exploring the ethical value of troublemaking. Here are some of my preliminary thoughts (from an NWSA presentation in 2007 entitled, “Judith Butler and the Virtue of Troublemaking”):

The predominate understanding of troublemaking is that it is bad, improper, and/or counterproductive, performed by those individuals or groups who are “up to no good.” But, what if we twisted our understanding of troublemaking and thought about it as useful and productive? Instead of dismissing it as that which hinders or disrupts our actions, what would happen if we embraced troublemaking as that which is essential for mobilizing us to action, enabling us to shake our cynicism and ever-increasing hopelessness? Going even further, what if we thought about troublemaking as an important ethico-political virtue for feminism and its role as a democratic movement?

Now, thinking about troublemaking as important for feminism is nothing new; indeed, feminism as a radical social movement has been based on the practice of making trouble for the status quo and those oppressive institutions that deny or strip individuals/groups of their humanity. Feminists have embraced their role as “unruly” subjects and rebellious outlaws.

So, while there is clearly a precedent for emphasizing troublemaking within feminism, not enough critical and systematic attention has been given to troublemaking—how it should be performed and what ethico-political value it has for feminist individuals. Moreover, troublemaking is still seen as improper; when feminists make trouble, they dare to be bad (borrowing from Alice Echols). They are being rebellious, rejecting traditional norms and ethics. But, what if we rethink troublemaking? What if, when feminists make trouble, they dare to be good (borrowing from Ann Ferguson and Bar Ami)? What if troublemaking allows them to create new ethical norms or at least expand upon the old ones?

Even though this description is a little too vague, I like it. Perhaps I should use it in my essay–with a few tweaks. I could contrast this with the “classic” assessment of feminist ethics as nurturing, mothering, ethics of care….Here’s a few more lines from that presentation:

Troublemaking is a practice that many of us (inside and outside of feminism) have always already done but have been discouraged from doing; thinking about troublemaking as an important virtue enables us to claim and value it. Now, I am particularly (but not exclusively) thinking about this in terms of girls and women. As many feminists have argued, women (in a number of different ways) have been labeled trouble: we are a mystery, we are too much, we talk, think, and emote too much. And, if we dare to challenge or to question we are dismissed, discouraged, belittled as trouble (Butler discusses this very briefly in the preface to GT). The label troublemaker is used to silence us and, from an early age, we are taught that if we want to grow up to be proper women—women who are not spinsters, women who are successful, women who are beautiful—we need to learn not to do it. In the spirit of inhabiting, twisting and proudly claiming categories that have been used against us, I want to claim troublemaking as a valuable and virtuous practice. I want to promote it as something that we should do. In more personal terms, I want to claim it for myself and for my daughter—she is 15 months old and is always already making lots of trouble in the most virtuous sense of the word—I want to claim it for her so that her questioning and passionate spirit will always remain and so that it will be granted dignity and respect.

This passage above offers some of my earliest articulations of why troublemaking is ethically valuable. Finally, three years later, I actually feel able to push past my preliminary interest. I don’t think I will include this second part in my essay, but I wanted to archive it, so it wasn’t accidentally lost (it almost was; I had to dig for a while to find it).

As I review these early statements, I am starting to see how I might frame troublemaking in relation to feminist ethics and Horton Hears a Who. In my above descriptions, I indicate that troublemaking is seen as counter to ethics. There are all sorts of ways that I could approach this (indeed, I find myself struggling to stay focused and not get overwhelmed here). Here is one way I can imagine:

Daring to be bad: Rejecting rules, being improper, challenging the system, disruption, destruction, deconstruction. I should mention that Daring to be Bad is the title of Alice Echols’ book about radical feminism in America. While there are many sources from which to draw upon this idea of being bad as counter to ethics and as rejecting ethics/morality (so many that it is difficult to find/remember just one), I want to highlight one articulation of it by Marilyn Frye. In her essay, “A Response to Lesbian Ethics: Why Ethics?” she argues that ethics, which is primarily concerned with “our need to know what to do and our having confidence that we have acted rightly” (Feminist Ethics 53), is something that we need to grow out of. Our desire to be good stems from a need to be accepted and acceptable–to be privileged and have status as a dutiful daughter.

For Frye, to want to be good is to reinforce oppressive and unjust structures, which discusses in relation to white feminists and their shoring up of white privilege and racist structures.  She cautions white feminists to resist the call to ethics:

…it seems that it would behoove women who claim to abhor race and class privilege to give up the habit of pursuing them by being and trying to be good. The discovery that one is not good, or doesn’t know how to be good, might be welcomed as releasing one from the game of good and evil and thus from the will-bindings that keep us bonded to our oppressors (Frye 58).

I am struck by Frye’s rejection of knowing what’s good (she argues that certainty is not always possible and that we can’t wait for it to act) and feeling good (we sometimes do the wrong thing, even with good intentions; the need to feel good about ourselves leads us to seek acceptance by those who are unjust and oppress us). In my two entries on the kids’ books, Horton Hears a Who and We Care, I address these two issues. My discussion of Horton is very much about the value of uncertainty, or of troubling rigid, fixed notions of what is certain. And my discussion of We Care touches upon the problematic importance that is placed on caring = feeling good about yourself and how you have cared for others. What would an ethics that rejected feeling certain and feeling good look like? I think that my readings of both of these children’s stories (Horton as movie, We Care as book) enables me to think about the value of troublemaking/staying in terms of ethics and to envision a different understanding of care that is not about being careful and certain, but attentive and open to other ways of being and knowing. And that prioritizes feeling passionate about fighting against injustice over feeling good about oneself and the care that has been given.

There is something else that keeps nagging me about the Horton essay and its connection to an ethics of care: the mother figure (ha ha). In Horton, the mother figure, Sour Kangaroo, is the classic smothering mother who tries to stop Horton from caring effectively for the Whos on the speck. For critics of care ethics, the mother is a problem–caring for others frequently gets figured only in terms of the nurturing mother which reinforces the ways women have always already been limited to their supposedly “natural” roles as caregivers. And, it seems to prioritize women’s motherly nurturing over other potential visions of care.

Is there a way to connect these (Horton’s rejection of the smothering mother with critics of feminist care ethics rejection of the nurturing/caring mother)? What would it look like to have a Care ethics without the MOTHER? Or, maybe with a different sort of mother/mothering? More time is needed in order to think this through… I had a brief brainstorm about Horton as a different sort of mother…a queer mother (he did hatch an egg after all…).

Blog Mash-up #1: Troublestaying-as-care and Feminist Ethics

Over the past year, this blog has been incredibly helpful in enabling me to process, work through and archive my critical reflections on troublemaking and troublestaying. It has also enabled me to make productive connections between seemingly disparate topics: Eminem and Socrates; The Brady Bunch and Habermas; Hannah Montana and Judith Butler; Laura Ingalls and Bourdieu (hint: only briefly in the note at the end), just to name a few. When I began this blog last year, my plan was to use it as a writing tool. Here’s what I wrote about it on my about this site page:

The most important way that I am using this site is as a WRITING TOOL. I have been thinking and teaching about troublemaking for several years now and I thought that it was about time that I started actually writing about it (okay, I have written about it a little). I have talked for a long time (over a decade, sometimes) about certain ideas/theories/topics that would make a great article or book chapter. Life (kids, moves, PhDs, illness) got in the way and, for that matter, is still getting in the way. So, I thought trying out blog writing might help to get me writing again, especially with the limited amount of time I have (did I mention I have two very young kids?).

It has worked. I write a lot now. And on this blog I have stockpiled a large number of ideas, many of which are just waiting to be converted into articles (and maybe books?). So far, I have resisted this process. Academic writing tends to be boring and painful. And it takes time away from the writing that I enjoy; the writing that moves my spirit and that inspires me. But, I believe that I need to change my assessment of formal writing. This summer I need to take my ideas and do something more with them. I need (and not just for my cv) to write some articles and get them published. And I want to use the blog to help me do this by documenting my writing process (what I’m working on, what I’m stuck on, etc) and by posting parts-in-progress for review by others. I also want to use what I have already written, my archive of mini-essays on troublemaking and troublestaying, as the foundation for my manuscripts. In particular, I want to combine several entries, with similar or complementary themes, to create an academic publication-worthy essay. I have decided to call these essays blog mash-ups. I will write and submit as many of these mash-ups as I possibly can this summer.

So, here’s my first mash-up, all taken from the tag, “care”:
what does it mean to care? + defining care + horton the caring elephant who not only makes trouble but stays in it = an awesome article on feminist ethics

So here’s a summary of each entry:

what does it mean to care? In this entry, I critically assess how care is understood and articulated in a children’s book, “We Care, ” that is about a third grade class’s successful efforts to help/care for people in a homeless shelter. While I appreciate much of what the book is trying to do (encouraging students to care and linking care with specific and repeated practices), I ultimately argue that the book presents the reader (aimed at a 3rd grader) with a limited and problematic view of care. I suggest that the students are not encouraged to ask questions or think critically about why the shelter (or homelessness) exists and what kinds of care strategies and practices are most effective. I also suggest that the failure of the story to include the actual residents of the shelter (as characters or even as illustrations) reinforces a very problematic division between the care-giver as subject (student) and the care-receiver as absent object (shelter residents). My main point in this entry: this book offers a insufficient and ineffective definition of care, one that has potentially troubling consequences for readers as they develop their own moral vision of the world and how to treat/exist in the midst of others.

defining care: In this entry, I describe Joan Tronto’s definition of care as it is outlined in the fourth chapter of her book, Moral Boundaries. I also highlight her four inter-related yet distinct phases of care: caring about; taking care of; care-giving; care-receiving. I plan to use her definition as the starting point for my description of a feminist ethic of care. Throughout the entry, I ask questions about her phases and her definition of care. One question I ask is this: are trouble staying and curiosity-as-care only about paying attention? Do they offer other forms of care? Are they only valuable because they make us aware of a problem/need for care?

horton as troublemaker and troublestayer: In this final entry of the three, I write about how Horton, from Horton Hears a Who is a troublemaker who engages in productive troublemaking/staying not just because he pays attention to the voices on the speck that are crying out for help; he is a troublemaker/stayer because he refuses to ignore those voices, even when he is repeatedly told not to, that he is imagining them, and that he will suffer dire consequences if he continues to listen. The care he gives is focused on connecting his attentiveness to the world with his passion for social justice. In concluding this essay, I attempt to link Horton’s speech to the Sour Kangaroo (the “a person’s a person, no matter how small” speech) with a passage from Michel Foucault’s “The Masked Philosopher.” I really like this entry and I think it does a nice job of exploring the possibility for expanding what we mean by care/caring about and how it connects to trouble, both making it and staying in it.

But, wait. As I am writing this, I realize that I should add one more entry into this mash-up: another feminist response to horton hears a who: why is it always the mother’s fault?

In this entry, I discuss how the story (moreso in the recent movie, yet also present in the book) relies on the very problematic trope of the smothering mother: the mother who wishes to continue tradition/the status quo at all costs. The troublemaker (troublestayer) is pitted against the ultimate enemy: the Mother who sees change, curiosity and wonder as threatening. I like the idea of adding this in as well because feminist ethics of care is usually so closely linked with mothering and the mother-as-care-giver. In my own version of trouble-as-care, I am interested (as in J Tronto in her vision) in challenging this entrenched idea and of rethinking what care from a feminist perspective could mean.

So, there you have it: the key parts to my mash-up. Now I have to think through how to connect them, to mash them up, if you will. [Note: STA felt it necessary to remind me that mash-ups are played. I responded: Of course they are, they just had an episode about them on Glee! Regardless of how out-dated mash-ups are (and regardless of how ill-fitting they are for describing what I am trying to do with this blog and writing), I still want to use them. So there!] More on how I will use them in an upcoming entry…

I just spent a couple of minutes on youtube attempting to find a mash-up that I liked. I couldn’t find anything great…yet. I will keep looking. Any suggestions? In the meantime, here is the girl’s mash-up from Glee:

iPAD note: Because I have had some trouble in the past with the WordPress app, I decided to write this entry the old-school way: on my MacBook. About halfway through I realized that I liked how the app on iPad lets me see more of the entry at once while I am writing. So I switched to the iPad. I wrote the rest of the essay, switching back and forth between the two. Not ideal, I suppose. I will keep experimenting. Hey, have I mentioned that I love my new iPad?