On Care

Denouncing Mothering

Abstract: ‘On Care: Denouncing Mothering’ is an essay investigating and exposing the limitations of patriarchal stereotypes which derive from grounding care on motherhood as a stoical archetype. By drawing from biographical experience as well as professional practice in the field of dialogic theatre, alternative modes of care are explored and proposed.

Keywords: Respectful care, care ethics, feminist ethics, consent, performance practices.


Care was never part of the landscape of my childhood. I’m not saying there was no care, but somehow, the word never found its way into my mother’s or grandmother’s mouths. There was talk about the necessities that needed to be takencare of, despite the crumbling of the Soviet Union; money that had to becared for, even though there was no produce in the stores to buy; and the endless war with my hair, which had a mind of its own, even in the moments when my mother had decided to care aboutit and complement my head with a stern up-do named ‘cabbage roll,’ which, in all honesty, never resembled the food I had learned to hate in kindergarten. So yes, care was never talked about, but it was there: my grandmother had given it to my mother, and my mother was passing it on to me while making it unavoidably clear that it is something practical used either to initiate a process that could keep us alive or stop another process that could kill us.This kind of rugged yet decisive upbringing in a country—which could also be called, ‘You have no idea where it exists’—has led me not only to question the care I received growing up but also to juxtapose it with the Western understanding of care. This has created an even bigger conflict in my personal and professional lives. Namely, I feel that Western care requires an emotional capacity that serves a different registry of society-building than the one I’m interested in. What I’ve arrived at proposing is an alternative framework of respectful carethat does not act as a corrective theory to Western care, which found its ethos in 1980s America.1 Instead, it is more of an alternative for those who are nostalgic for a home that they never had and may never have, but who are nevertheless interested in a long-distance relationship with common-spaced morality through shared values.

My own theatre practice offers a practical example, built as it is on abandoning motherhood as the archetypal reference for care. I employ ethical border play, where I often reach out for the momentum of a somewhat violent, yet consensual surprise in order to evoke a visit to darker margins of personhood; this cannot find its footing in something that may not bring about a larger moral relevance.

Motherhood is an idea that has been affiliated with Western care throughout the last 30 years. The work of Carol Gilligan, Sara Ruddick and Joan Tronto reaffirms that subservient traits mostly appointed to women are viewed as virtuous by the society. They also dispute that the act of mothering nurtures opposition to militarism and violence because the act of birthing is perceived to make a woman incapable of violence.2 However, I argue that even though such ideas were valuable in their time, they could nowadays be seen as dangerous because not only do they assert gender stereotypes, they also defend a patriarchally uniform myth of womanhood. These kinds of general, ambiguous and precarious concepts cannot be implemented in everyday life in the twenty-first century when establishing diversity, social justice and equity is essential.

Taking Care Of

In 2020, I invited an audience member to join me on stage during a practical dramaturgy module in my master’s programme. The invitation consisted of an introduction to myself and an attempt to establish consent for participation in the unknown. I did this by assuring the participant that nothing would happen on stage that the person was not interested in and that they would have a right to stop the action at whatever moment. After a nod and a somewhat crooked smile, which in the post-Soviet society could be decrypted as a hard ‘yes,’ but could also just signify a plain ‘OK’ in the West, I led them deeper into the room to meet a third person who was holding a camera transmitting our interaction live on the wall behind us, magnifying, amplifying, and pointing out details from our actions.

I sat down and my partner followed suit. I told them I was very interested in the story of their first sexual encounter and that if they agreed to share their memories, I would respond by sharing my own. I also proposed that we tell our stories through pointing at the places on our bodies that were touched back then, and the other partner could respond by touching those places again. I asked if my partner would like to go first. They agreed and proceeded to show me the first place on their body that I was allowed to touch in order to hopefully activate intimate physical memories. After showing me about six places on their body, they said they were done and that they didn’t want to share any more. I responded with my story, and they touched the areas of my body I pointed to. Afterwards, I thanked them and ended the performance by guiding them back to their seat.

This kind of an intimate encounter, which includes putting an audience member into the spotlight, could be thought of as ethically dubious, but I would argue that the practice of respectful care that forsakes motherhood as its foundation is exactly what allows me to go through such conduct with delicacy and caution. Respectful care is built on the idea that all people have intrinsic dignity that is essential to our being and cannot be earned through any kind of action, birthing or otherwise. Although a lot more permissible to people who do not define themselves as women, respectful care defects the patriarchal care that is almost always constructed through the focus of the caregiver and very rarely the care receiver.

Instead, both partners are seen as equally capable of sharing the responsibility of whatever happens next. In the example above, I chose the practice of negotiating consent as a method of giving respectful care. Consent acted as a continuous negotiation of altering moral relations with very tacit outcomes. Moreover, through laying out the blueprint of consent, the possibility was also given to regulate or withdraw consent at any moment, which are inherent parts of establishing consent through the concept of respect.3 Looking back on this work-related example, another, more personal recollection comes to mind. When I was in my late teens, my mother asked me if I’d like to take control of own financial affairs. This could seem like an unethical step for a parent to put their child into a position where they could easily harm themselves because of inexperience. However, I see it as a similarly thought-out act of respectful care because it came from assessing my capability to understand the relationship between action and consequence, even though my mother’s action caused more than one sigh of disbelief from other adults in our extended family.

Caring for

Both situations—the one on stage and the one between me and my mother—could have been dealt with differently. I could have told my new stage partner in a detailed manner what was going to happen, just as my mother could have continued to make decisions on my behalf until I hopefully would have stopped her. However, this makes me ask: how could this have been better? These kinds of choices could seem like sincere acts of care and be therefore praised by the supporters of ‘taking care of.’ But I would counter that they could also be seen as very good examples of counterfeit care, which only happens because the caregiver sees care as a commodity that could be sold, bought or traded in return for something else.

I could have been praised by my peers for taking care of the chosen audience member if I had acted differently, and I’m sure that my mother would have been complimented for being a proper mother if she had chosen to take a lot more control over my life. Yet, in both cases, the outcomes could have also been very different: I could have lost a possibility to dig into memories usually hidden behind shame and stigma, and my mother could have lost the possibility to teach her child what it means to be responsible from an early age. Care would have been given not from a decisive intent but from the desire to please others in return for endorsement and approval.

I believe that such counterfeit care is an unfortunate by-product of capitalist thought that acts as a rich fertiliser for the idea of viewing time as a commodity, which in turn results in most of our private actions becoming something that are always in service of something else, be it approval or otherwise. The massive wave of privatising care-work in the 1990s4 that resulted in a continuously deteriorating value of human life is another example of commodification that makes care feel good, but not always do good. This brings me to the conclusion that the framework of respectful care relies strongly on Donna Haraway’s understanding of dissolving the binaries of good and bad, nature and nurture, right or wrong, in order to start considering other existing possibilities. I strongly agree with her that the world of convoluted realities of techno-culture5 is ‘messier than that.’6 If Western care is often assessed through the opposite notions of virtuous and sinful, then I would like to state that it is exactly the messiness of our global village that could help us move forward. I propose a concept of diffractive good as a possibility of dispersing the black-and-white understanding of morality. Diffractive good does not seek sameness but divergence, as it is nourished by the acceptance of difference.

Assessing what is morally good or bad through the concept of diffraction could help us escape a hierarchical methodology that sets different ideas and theories into a strong opposition. Moreover, thinking dialogically through manifold opinions could lead to unexpected and creative consequences where our scope of understanding familiar concepts of good and bad are expanded, as new materialist thinker Karen Barad made clear. Barad re-introduced the term ‘diffraction’ as a feminist thinking tool.7

If we go back to the earlier examples, it could be said that both my mother’s and my behaviours were unethical: I put a person into an uncomfortable position for my own gain and my mother stopped motherly care too early, resulting in her child being put at risk. Though if assessed diffractively, it becomes apparent that both behaviours might have been immoral, but they were definitely not unethical. After receiving consent from equal counterparts as a practice of respectful care, it would have been unethical not to respect that consent. Dismissing what was agreed upon based on the binaries of good and bad would have been not only a discard of respect but also a patriarchal routine of knowing better.

Caring with

I’m aware there might be mistakes in the design I’ve proposed. For example, respect could be considered too individualistic and emotionless in a world that is already full of people who are separated by sociopolitical and economic injustices, contrary politics and full-blown pandemics. Diffraction is a concept that could seem hard to put into practice as it derives from a metaphor borrowed from quantum physics. The biggest critique could be built on the idea that respectful care does not take into account the relationship that the counterparts are in and how that could influence the practice of care.

I see the answer to all three of these possible critiques in the human factor, which is a focal component of the proposed equation. I see people as loaded agents, which is an alternative to the concept of moral agents who are expected to be rational and logical, with a focus on universal rules as explained by Immanuel Kant.8 Loaded agents have emotions such as compassion and empathy, but they also have apathy, selfishness and wickedness because they are influenced by their past experiences, relationships and affects. The concept is designed by the American feminist Nel Noddings with ideas about relational ethics in mind:

Contrary to Kant, who insisted that each person’s moral perfection is his or her own project, we remain at least partly responsible for the moral development of each person we encounter. How I treat you may bring out the best or worst in you. How you behave may provide a model for me to grow and become better than I am. Whether I can become and remain a caring person—one who enters regularly into caring relations—depends in large part on how you respond to me.9

However, the concept of loaded agents opposes Noddings’ other sentiment about people acting antagonistically if they deliberately shun away from their impulse to care or they care because they must care.10 As Haraway illustrates, it’s never as clear as that. People are never as clear as that. Although our abilities as people are often enhanced by technology, we are not mechanical machines fulfilling pre-programmed algorithms placed upon us by the Great UX Designer in the sky. Nor should we ever go with the idea of universal martyrdom through forgetting to care about ourselves first; that could have no consequence other than a lack of safety, resulting in self-projection onto others.

Instead, a loaded agent draws from pleasure activism, an idea by the feminist thinker Adrienne Brown that asks us to make sure that human desires are taken into account when designing social justice so that it is a pleasurable human experience.11 This kind of a change of discourse helps us to turn away from the narrative of suffering through finding pleasure where it could be hard to detect at first. A loaded agent sets boundaries to create an environment where saying ‘yes’ is authentic since saying ‘no’ is also possible. Remixing individual and relational experience with aspects of pleasure activism could help us shift the paradigm in which moral behaviour is built by serving and make it into a realm of satisfaction and joy that helps us bring about social and political change.12

Pleasure activism is built on respect for individual dignity as much as respectful care. Although this might be hard to conceive at first for someone like me coming from a post-Soviet upbringing of educationally useful hardship, it could bring about a necessary change through the practice of repetition. Detect the need for care, respect the other person enough to share the responsibility of care with them, and find pleasure in how to give that care. Assess the outcomes. Repeat.

The power to make light where there isn’t any is a superpower that can be learned through interest, resilience and practice if one only trusts themselves to do so. However, this does not mean omitting the presence of privilege to think in such a manner: there are situations where respectful care is overridden by the need for survival, safety or refuge.

Conclusion

With that being said, I’ve come to the awareness that the wrinkles on my mother’s, my grandmother’s and my face are there because of mistakes that have often been made within the discourse of care. These wrinkles are cherished—even if it can be hard to do in the crossfire of how things ought to be done and how thoughts should be brought to habits. These wrinkles form the archive of continuous blasphemy that I owe not only to my foremothers but also to such thinkers as Donna Haraway, Karen Barad and Adrienne Brown, who have used blasphemy as a feminist concept to go further than what is allowed. Being loaded with mistakes makes us feel armed when arguing against care that places people, regardless of gender, into a phallocentric mould in which they are categorised into binaries.

Such care does not unite or empower but instead produces sameness in different places. Such care annihilates motives of expanding the notions of right and wrong, good and bad, be it through making theatre and art or raising children. Instead, alternatives should be sought by abandoning the relentless drive for profit and finding truth in an exchange of differences that could bring a more balanced way of expressing our wants but also boundaries and limitations. Respectful care is not always moral, but it is always ethical through the methods that enrich the practice, be it consent or otherwise. Practising respectful care means acknowledging mistakes and growing through these mistakes to care not more or better but differently.

Care was never explicitly part of the landscape of my childhood. However, the soil fertilised with respect and the acknowledgement of human dignity created a situation where I felt cared about much more than any of the Disney movies that my cousins and I used to hungrily watch from VHS cassettes that had been illegally reproduced in our neighbour’s garage. The kind of care that I experienced was there because of unguarded time still belonging to ourselves, which created a feeling of freedom. This, of course, was a twisted outcome of the socialist era that otherwise rarely manifested anything but pettiness and violence. Taking part in that care and fortifying it with the modern understandings of respect and consent could be something that Svetlana Boym, one of my favourite writers, would call a ‘guilt-free homecoming.’13

Barbara Lehtna

Barbara Lehtna has worked as a theatre maker for just over seven years. In 2019, she started her M.A. in Home of Performance Practices at ArtEZ University of Arts in the Netherlands. Her research topics consist of ethics, agency, and personal stories, and her practice is built through different performative genres: spoken word, physical theatre, and performative storytelling. Over the years, Barbara has had a chance to work with artists such as Doris Uhlich, Julian Hetzel, Christiane Kühl, and Chris Kondek among others, which has led her to distinguishing her own style of inquisitive theatre.

In the last four years, she has started to make her own work that has focussed on the culture of memory, sharing responsibility and negotiation of power. She has been interested in different issues, such as the influence of Industry 4.0 on everydayness or the challenges that appear with societal norms in post-Soviet society. Barbara believes that art should impact, and it should therefore always be politicalandalsotry to reach the person who denounces politics.

Bibliography

Bibliography

  • Barad, Karen, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, N.C. and London: Duke University Press, 2007.
  • Boym, Svetlana, The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
  • Brown, Adrienne, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. Stirling: AK Press, 2019.
  • Gilligan, Carol, In a Different Voice. Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. London: Harvard University Press, 1982.
  • Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, in Practical Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996 [1785].
  • Kunzru, Hari, ‘You Are Cyborg.’ Wired. February 1, 1997, https://www.wired.com/1997/02/ffharaway/.
  • Mahnkopf, Birgit,  ‘Privatisation of Public Services in the EU: An Attack on Social Cohesion and Democracy.Work Organisation, Labour & Globalisation 2, no. 2 (2008): pp. 72-84.
  • Miller, Franklin and Wertheimer Alan, The Ethics of Consent: Theory and Practice. New York: Oxford Press, 2009.
  • Noddings, Nel, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
  • Noddings, Nel, Educating Moral People: A Caring Alternative to Character Education. New York: Teachers College Press, 2002.
  • Penley, Constance, Technoculture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991
  • Ruddick, Sara, Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.
  • Tronto, Joan, Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. New York and London: Routledge, 1993.

References

Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice. Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (London: Harvard University Press, 1982); Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989).

Gilligan 1982; Ruddick 1989; and Joan Tronto, Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care (New York and London: Routledge, 1993).

Franklin Miller and Alan Wertheimer, The Ethics of Consent: Theory and Practice (New York: Oxford Press, 2009), pp. 3-14.

Birgit Mahnkopf, ‘Privatisation of Public Services in the EU: An Attack on Social Cohesion and Democracy,’Work Organisation, Labour & Globalisation 2, no. 2 (2008): pp. 72-84.

Techno-culture refers to the interactions between technology and culture. Cultural discourse which focuses on the experience and conciousness that concludes from the interaction between people and technology (Penley, 1991).

Hari Kunzru, ‘You Are Cyborg,’ Wired, February 1, 1997, https://www.wired.com/1997/02/ffharaway/.

Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, N.C. and London: Duke University Press, 2007), pp. 25-30.

Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, in Practical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996 [1785]), pp. 440-461.

Nel Noddings, Educating Moral People: A Caring Alternative to Character Education (New York: Teachers College Press, 2002), p. 15.

Nel Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 115.

Adrienne Brown, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good (Stirling: AK Press, 2019).

Brown 2019, pp. 3-22.

Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), p. xiv.