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AN ONGOING INQUIRY INTO CARE

Mending together labor of love with collective responsibility.

  • Letter
  • Oct 10 2022
  • Thick Press
    Inspired by artists’ books and chapbooks, Thick Press publishes books that cross genres and disciplines. All our books relate to working or living in the thick of human experience.
    We aspire to a practice that is loving, reflexive, playful, and collaborative. We worry about reproducing oppressive structures, but we’re not really that interested in critique. Above all, we want to make unusual books with others.

Dear Readers of AWC,

Since 2016, Thick Press has been making and distributing books related to care. Here, we offer a summary of what we’ve learned about how to practice care. (The footnotes hint at the world of thinking and talking and reading and doubting beneath our assertions.)

Practice care knowing that you are the product of a world that sentimentalizes care on the one hand, and denigrates it on the other.(1) That bifurcation is not helpful, because it makes it difficult to commit to a practice that is often ploddingly thankless.(2) (We recommend that you seek recognition in other areas.)

(1) When we tell people who aren’t steeped in the world of social practice (also known as socially engaged or participatory art) about Recuerdos de Nuestro Pasado, we encounter very little curiosity. People often assume that the book is a way to “uplift the seniors’ voices” by “publishing their writing.” They don’t quite understand why we created such a rarefied container for the book; perhaps they even feel uncomfortable with the book’s “fanciness.” (Julie and her partners have noticed in the nonprofit world a hesitancy around art and design; it’s as if people think it’s frivolous to value form.)

We’ve observed that people rarely view the book as a process-oriented group project, or oral history as a complex practice. They think it’s “nice” that we took on this project—but they aren’t particularly interested in engaging with the book-object and discovering that it’s not all as straightforward as it seems. Did Recuerdos de Nuestro Pasado miss the mark, or … could it be that to work in the realms of kindness and care—in this case, in the context of a wellness center for senior citizens—is (often) to be dismissed?

We’ve also observed that, like so many keywords, care is a sticky concept, and what tends to stick to it are notions like innocence and sentimentality on the one hand, and drudgery and obligation on the other. When care work and care workers provoke either elevation or disgust, both reactions lead to dismissal—and dismissal keeps care invisible. As Joan Tronto shows in her classic text, the invisibility of care furthers the illusion that autonomy is feasible, which helps the powerful maintain their privilege. One antidote to this state of affairs, Tronto suggests, is to engage productively with the concept of care, exposing its centrality to all aspects of living.

(2) In order to continue exploring this difficulty, we turn to “maintenance vs. development,” a binary that has been a helpful, though incomplete, lens for our inquiry into care. We came to maintenance and development through the work of Mierle Laderman Ukeles, whose Manifesto! Maintenance Art — Proposal for an Exhibition. “Care”, 1969, sets up two opposing structures: development (“pure individual creation; the new; change; progress, advance, excitement, flight or fleeing”) and maintenance (“keep the dust off the pure individual creation; preserve the new; sustain the change”). As an artist and a mother, Ukeles’ intervention was to make maintenance work visible, to reveal “the sourball of every revolution”:

“After the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?”

Ukeles’ intervention is effective because it’s politically astute, yet playful. We try not to take her manifesto too literally, but we find ourselves stuck on the idea that “[m]aintenance is a drag: It takes all the fucking time.” On our bad days, this feels like the storyline of the working lives we’ve been lucky and/or foolish enough to choose. Both of us feel resentful that our breadwinner husbands spend more hours on the largely unencumbered work of “development.” So why, on top of it all, did we take on the careful maintenance tasks involved in sustaining a micro-publishing practice: Shipping books, scanning books to upload to our website, doing the paperwork to maintain an LLC, et cetera?

“It’s a labor of love,” we find ourselves saying. On bad days, that assertion quickly becomes what Lauren Berlant described as the female complaint: “Women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking” (2008, p.1). Born of love, our post-work ethos of care sometimes makes us feel like doormats. (And yet: We’ve come to see that we wear the female complaint as a badge of just how deep our affections run. Warm relationships feel good, so we decide not to reject our doormat-ness wholesale.) One could argue that, in entering into the institution of heterosexual marriage and the fields of graphic design and social work (as opposed to art and psychology), we both chose maintenance-rich lives. But the truth is that neither of us had any idea that our family lives and work lives would be so thick with the burden of feeling resentful about performing so many uninteresting tasks.

Both of us felt blindsided by the experience of being “given over” to caring for our families and, to a lesser extent, managing the needs (and sometimes strident demands and unchecked desires) of our clients and/or students. The concept of being “given over to the task of care” comes from Judith Butler (2020), who explains that it “may not be experienced as an act of deliberate will or choice. Care is not always consensual, and it does not always take the form of a contract: it can be a way of getting wrecked, time and again, by the demands of a hungry and wailing creature” (2020, p. 50).

Practice care knowing that when you try to stuff down your shadow, it always comes back to bite you.(3) Care cannot be everything: We all want to live lives that are variegated and dappled.

(3) Anybody who subscribes to anything about psychoanalysis knows that when you try to bypass unwanted aspects of yourself, they inevitably come back to haunt you. That’s why we probably need to deal with what the coaches with whom we work (selfcarefullys Gracy, plus a newer collaborator, lawyer, activist, and coach Deepa Iyer) call “the shadow.” In this case, Erin’s shadow is the competitive part of herself that craves recognition not simply in relation to a sublime flow towards liberation, but also because she wants to be the best. Julie’s feelings are similar, but less competitive; more oriented towards prestige and approval. Deepa tells us that indigenous activist friends have taught her about being in “right relationship” with the true voices deep inside ourselves. We like this concept, particularly because both of us experience a desire for integration and clarity. But, given our theoretical proclivities, we’re skeptical that one voice is more “true” than the others. If it is, we don’t hear it; instead, we find ourselves focusing on how difficult it is to mediate between our ambitious egos and the egalitarian aspects of our utopian feminist ethos of care. Dean Spade’s (2021) excellent primer on mutual aid organizing briefly addresses this problem of ego, but the proposed solution (creating communities where everybody feels valued for their unique contributions) leaves us cold; individualistic ambition dies hard.

As you practice care, do so knowing that you are part of a very long and ongoing story. (4) It’s okay that you feel like you’re the center of the universe—after all, you’re the center of your universe. Nevertheless, open yourself up to the sensation of liberation that arises when you step into the chorus of bodies in motion. (5)

(4) It’s no coincidence that our commitment to the long haul parallels a vision of caring feminist liberation work that distances itself from the neoliberal, rights-oriented feminisms to which many white and white-adjacent women still subscribe. The versions of feminist liberation thinking that speak to us most—decolonial (Vergès, 2021), care- and healing-oriented (Page & Raffo 2014), and emergent (brown, 2017)—all share the understanding that, for centuries, BIPOC and queer women have been engaged in perpetual, open-ended struggles that cannot be characterized by “waves.” Those feminisms also rest on a version of self that is decentered and relational, by which we mean that the self arises out of community, out of specific contexts. Organizer Mariame Kaba expresses some of those ideas when she says, in a transcribed interview, “And I don’t take a short-term view. I take a long view, understanding full well that I’m just a tiny, little part of a story that already has a huge antecedent and has something that is going to come after that.” That version of self-in-world is inconsistent with many of the “second-wave” feminist messages we received attending private high school together in the 1990s and pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees at elite institutions. Both of us were socialized to “think outside the box,” to “achieve,” and to be “leaders.” (Twenty-five years later, our children’s schools encourage them to be “social entrepreneurs!”) There was little talk of ancestral lineage, except with respect to “multiculturalism,” which was mostly about ethnic pride and rarely about systemic racism.

(5) Perhaps a juicier path to deindividuation resides in following cultural historian and writer Saidiya Hartman’s (2019) invitation to fall in step with the chorus. For Hartman, “to fall in step with the chorus is to do more than shake your ass and hum the melody.” It isn’t about “feeling grateful that a sociologist has pointed out the ‘revolutionary ideals’ in an ordinary black woman’s life” (p. 349). It’s about bodies in motion, leaderless, propelling transformation as dreams and desires fold into movement.

But because neither of us are Black, and because neither of us are domestic or service workers, we are unsure whether we could ever join Hartman’s chorus authentically or respectfully. Furthermore, Erin, who tends more towards asceticism than Julie, feels strongly that her desire for a transformed world is, quite frankly, at odds with her desires for seamless living and nice things. It’s hard to know what to do with her not-so-wayward desires, because they seem so inconsistent with a future that is liberatory for all. Julie feels a similar dissonance, but has trouble untangling her wants and dreams from the struggles and trauma of her immigrant parents and community. In that context, she recognizes some of the girls in Hartman’s stories, but knows that she cannot join in either. It seems unlikely that either of us will ever unknot our many desires, all bound up with obligations. Our best bet is probably to hold it all in tension as we keep on keeping on.

Coalitional politics requires conflict, which is difficult for sensitive souls who want interpersonal interactions to feel good. Those of us who orient towards care need to make sure that our social change ecosystems(6) include people who are inclined towards staunch fighting.

(6) In all of those spaces, resilience resides in the ways maintenance work gets spread around, yet is sustained through real relationships. The different spaces nurture one another, creating what our collaborator, Deepa, calls a “social change ecosystem,” where different entities play different roles that contribute to transformation: For example, storytelling, caregiving, frontline responding, disrupting, weaving, and so on. Roles are fluid and entities are porous: They adapt and move together.

Our social change ecosystems must also contain people who can tolerate the messy, tiring work of building power and changing policy. Again: practice care with others.(7) That’s how the concept of CARE and the act of CARING will move us towards a more caring world.

(7) The concept of relationship also came up in a conversation between three members of the Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective (whom Thick Press collaborator Richael Faithful convened to record a conversation that appeared in Together at the Edge of the World: On Healing Justice [2021], the seventh pamphlet in our book, emerging series.) The three orga- nizers root their work in the Black Southern Indigenous tradition and in a political analysis that centers queerness and disability. After discussing the story of how they came to infuse their organizing work with various non-medical model modalities intended to heal trauma, Paulina Helm-Hernández Gómez explains that there’s no silver bullet, no “one thing” that sustains movement work. “[S]ome of this stuff,” she said, “is just the things that we’ve learned through shared struggle, and that people will not internalize until they go through struggle with other folks that they care just about, whose liberation they care about just as much as their own, your community.”

As Erin’s 88 year-old father-in-law recently ended his memoir: That’s enough,

Erin Segal & Julie Cho

Washington DC/Los Angeles CA, Spring 2022

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  • Footnotes
    BOOKS AND ESSAYS MENTIONED:

    - Lauren Berlant (2008), The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture.
    - adrienne maree brown (2017), Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds.
    - Judith Butler (2021), The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind.
    - Angela Celaya, Sergio Guzmán, Jose Lovos, Gloria Revelo, and Erin Segal (2018), Recuerdos de Nuestro Pasado.
    -Richael Faithful (2021), Together at the Edge of the World: On Healing Justice.
    - Saidya Hartman (2019), Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals.
    - Deeper Iyer (2022) Social Change Now: A Guide for Reflection and Connection.
    - Mariame Kaba (2021), We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice.
    - Gracy Obuchowicz (illustrated by Maria Habib, with Louise, Leo, and Elsa), selfcarefully.
    - Cara Page and Susan Raffo (2013), “Healing Justice at the US Social Forum: A Report from Atlanta, Detroit, and Beyond.”
    - Dean Spade (2021), Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (And the Next).
    - Joan Tronto (1993/2020), Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care.
    - Mierle Laderman Ukeles (1969), “Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!—Proposal for an Exhibition “Care.””
    - Françoise Vergès (2021), A Decolonial Feminism.

    RELATED BOOKS AND ESSAYS RECOMMENDED BY THICK PRESS:

    - Cherry-Ann Davis and Nina Palm, (2021) “Does Design Care?”
    - Lauren Fournier (2021), Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism.
    - Donna Haraway (2016), Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin with the Chthulucene.
    -Robin DG Kelley (2002). Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.
    -Stefano Harney and Fred Moten (2013). The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study
    - Mark A. Hernandez Motaghy (2022), Rehearsing Solidarity: Learning From Mutual Aid.
    - Cathy Park Hong (2020), Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning.
    - Rachel Kauder Nalebuff (2020), Stages: On Dying, Working, and Feeling.
    - Ursula Le Guin (1986), The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.
    - Maggie Nelson (2021), On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint.
    - Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (2018), Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice.
    - Kathi Weeks (2011), The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries.

    Image:
    From Thick Press Website.

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