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.

Being Beside Oneself with grief, part 2

Right now I am writing about Butler, being beside oneself with grief and being/coming undone. For some reason, this section is giving me a lot of trouble. I think it is partly because it can be easy to get lost in Butler’s theorizing about the subject–I find myself struggling to determine when something is really important and compelling and when it is merely an intellectual exercise.

Here is what I have so far (note: my notes about this section are included in italics):

In Undoing Gender, Butler describes feeling so overwhelmed and overtaken by losing a loved one that we are beside ourselves with grief. Our feelings of sadness and loss become too much to contain and we cannot hold them in. We lose our composure and we can no longer easily or successfully control ourselves. Try as we might to deny it or to be in control of how we experience it, grief undoes our efforts to handle ourselves properly. Butler writes:

I don’t think, for instance, you can invoke a Protestant ethic when it comes to loss. You can’t say, “Oh, I’ll go through loss this way, and that will be the result, and I’ll apply myself to the task, and I’ll endeavor to achieve the resolution of grief that is before me.” I think one is hit by waves, and that one starts out the day with an aim, a project, a plan, and one finds oneself foiled. One find oneself fallen. One is exhausted but does not know why (18).

My use of the word “properly” is deliberate here. In keeping in line with my larger project on troublemaking, I am interested in what it might (or is supposed to mean) to grieve properly. What happens when we fail to do it in the ways that we are supposed to? What is the “proper” way? I am struck by how I feel, even as I constantly hear/read from others that “there is no one way to grieve” or that “everyone grieves differently,” that there are specific expectations–coming from whom?–about what grief should look like. It is important for me to think about the value of grieving improperly–this can be taken up in a lot of different ways, from “proper” rules of grieving etiquette to “proper” modes of caring for and loving the one who is dying/died.

There are all sorts of ways to interpret what it means to be undone and beside ourselves with grief. For example, we can read it as a temporary state, as something that exists fully outside of, or in complete contrast to, our ordinary existence. Or we can read it as evidence of how debilitating and damaging grief is. Or we can even read it as a challenge that is thrown at us in order for us to prove our worth and our strength of character. With all of these interpretations, grief is understood as something to endure, but to be gotten over, preferably as quickly as possible.

Butler’s invoking of the Protestant ethic is great here–makes me think of the idea of getting over it or just dealing with it. I just read, “Good Grief, It’s Plato,” a chapter from Elizabeth Spelman’s excellent book,Fruits of Sorrow. Spelman discusses Plato and his vision of proper grief as moving on and learning from that grief (as opposed to engaging in any excessive displays of grief–like crying or wailing–which is considered to be too womanly/feminizing).

Butler reads coming undone differently. She envisions it as “one of the most important resources for which we much take our bearing and find our way” (Precarious Life, 30) and argues that it reveals an important aspect of what it means to be human. Being beside ourselves with grief, in which sadness and a sense of loss, undoes us, reminds us how we are always already, by virtue of being human, “in the thrall of our relations with others that we cannot always recount or explain,” or, I might add, control, shape, or determine (19). In other words, grief reminds us that we are more than autonomous willful individuals who have complete control over ourselves–how we act, what and when we feel, and how we represent ourselves to others. It also reminds us that we are never just a self; there is always something or someone beside and besides us.

In continuing her description of how grief works, Butler speculates on that something/someone else:

Something is larger than one’s own deliberate plan or project, larger than one’s own knowing. Something takes hold, but is this something coming from the self, from the outside, or from some region where the difference between the two is indeterminable? What is it that claims us at such moments, such that we are not the masters of ourselves? In what are we tied? And by what are we seized (18)?

Butler’s language is significant here. In using tied and seized, she is interested in getting beyond the idea that we merely exist in relation to others, that we are connected to others. Right after this passage, Butler moves into her brief description of being beside ourselves and ecstasy as a better way (than relationally) for understanding how we exist in relation to others. In the interest of staying focused, I am thinking that I shouldn’t include this discussion in this essay. Still not sure…

This something or someone to whom we are tied and to whom we are seized indicates that we are vulnerable beings, always in the midst of others and always potentially undone by those others. We could, and often do, respond to this recognition of our vulnerability with varying degrees of violence: we deny that vulnerability and attempt to shore up our own sense of the invulnerable self, we lash out at those who remind us of that vulnerability, or we attempt to prove, through forceful acts, that we are not really vulnerable, or won’t ever be again. These are not the only possible responses to grief and coming undone, however. Butler wonders,

Is there something to be gained from grieving, from tarrying with grief…and not endeavoring to seek a resolution for grief through violence?…If we stay with the sense of loss, are we left feeling only passive and powerless, as some fear? Of are we, rather, returned to a sense of human vulnerability, to our collective responsibility for the physical lives of one another” (23)?

Here Butler is thinking specifically about the United States government’s response to 9/11 and their violent retribution which she mentions in her chapter in Undoing Gender but really gets into in Precarious Life. Just consider this quotation that is featured on the back cover of that book: “If we are interested in arresting cycles of violence to produce less violent outcomes, it is no doubt important to ask what, politically, might be made of grief besides a cry for war”

For Butler, recognizing our vulnerability and refusing to conceal, contain or get rid of it, is an important task of the ethical (and political) subject-self. It is central to her vision of the human and to her political and ethical projects for social transformation. And is is “one of the most important resources form which we must take our bearings and find our way” (23).

So, that’s it for now. My next section will be about why Butler’s vision/version of grief doesn’t fit with my own experiences.

By the way, I am currently writing this at Overflow Espresso Cafe–a coffee place not to far from the U of Minnesota. It’s pretty cool and relaxing, especially when school is out for the month. Check out STA’s review of the place.

Here’s one more thing I meant to add into this entry earlier. As I was writing this entry, I found myself wondering about semicolons and when and why to use them. STA directed me to this great poster. I think I want it for my office. I love these queer dinosaurs!

Linking care with troublemaking, part 1.5

Note: As I was reviewing part 1 of this series on linking care with troublemaking, I was struck by Tronto’s definition of care. Instead of adding in my reflections about the definition to part 1 (which is already too long), I thought I would post a part 1.5.

In Moral Boundaries (and earlier with B Fisher in “Toward a Feminist Theory of Caring” from Circle of Care), Tronto offers the following definition of care:

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).

Maintain. Continue. Repair. Those ideas don’t seem to resonate at all with making and staying in trouble. Or, do they? 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? What does it mean, from a feminist (ethics) perspective, to repair things or people? What are the differences or similarities between repairing and creating, fixing old ideas and constructing new ones? Perhaps I should check out (literally and figuratively) Elizabeth Spelman’s Repair at Wilson Library?