The COVID-19 pandemic has placed care at the forefront of conversations internationally. Nonetheless, we have failed to adequately highlight how specific dimensions of care have been sidelined, especially those that operate through the collective realm. How do the histories, politics and ethics of care, as well as their collective legacies influence how care is understood today? With this two-part essay, I will flesh out the philosophical dimension of care in relation to its politics and ethics, and vis-à-vis the idea of collectivity, to see how they can inform cultural practice.
Care derives from the Latin word cura. According to strands of linguistic theory, cura arrives from the mythological figure Cura, a female goddess who created the first human figure using clay. In Ancient Greek mythology, the sky and thunder god Zeus (the Ancient Roman equivalent is Jove) arrived at the scene and Cura asked him to give the lifeless figure a soul that would carry her name. Zeus granted her first wish, but in true patriarchal fashion he insisted on using his name. At this point, Tellus, the goddess of earth arrived at the scene, demanding the figure be named after her, given that the body was created using her soil. The decision ultimately went to the fourth deity who appeared on the scene, Cronus (the Ancient Roman equivalent is Saturn), who declared that Zeus could have the spirit of the figure after its death, Tellus could keep its body and Cura would own it throughout its life. The name he decided upon was homo (human), given that the figure was made from humus (soil, which is also pronounced hous, χους, in Ancient Greek).
The myth of Cura is found in the book Fabulae by the Latin author Gaius Julius Hyginus, the oral histories of his time, including crudely told myths. (1) Originally comprised of some three hundred brief myths, very few manuscripts of Fabulae remain, with one surviving manuscript in Bavaria’s abbey of Freising having informed the first printed edition in 1535. During my research into care, I have found that monasteries often appear as care structures, both in terms of the profile of the monastery as a guardian of knowledge, but also as an early format of what today is known as “the commons”. Surprisingly, through the “care-full” practice of monks, such fragments of “other-than-Christian” or “infidel” histories and knowledges have survived, just like the myth of Cura.
In Latin, cura has many meanings: on the one hand it signifies worries and anxieties that arise from having to conduct chores in the name of care, more or less signifying the stress of having to care for things or people, and being burdened by those responsibilities. On the other hand, it signified what is commonly understood today as care, namely, the pleasure of caring for others, the word having a positive connotation of devotion. A third meaning deriving from Latin is “curing” – cura in many Latin-rooted languages meaning cure. Summarising this myth alongside looking at the etymology of “care” can reveal the roots of how it has developed as a concept: as a responsibility (labour), a pleasure and a cure (of both problems and ailments).
Care as Responsibility: Self-betterment
Care is discussed in philosophy through ethics. Today, the idea of an ethics of care is mainly explored through feminist theory. The concept of ethics has long occupied philosophy, bound by a split as ancient as time itself: emotion versus reason. One can blame the Ancient Greeks for this one: both Plato and Aristotle saw reason as superior to emotion, the sovereignty of which was consolidated in the Enlightenment by Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant among others, who established the theoretical strand of rationalism in the field. Affects and passions were considered illnesses of the mind, clouding judgement. However, in his 1739 book A Treatise on Human Nature the philosopher David Hume argued for emotion as a driving force in forming our understanding of what is ethical in the world. For Hume, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions” (2), meaning emotions were projected onto an act to determine it good or bad depending on how we feelabout that act. While many more philosophers sought further definitions, I would like to pinpoint one specific position, which addresses the ethics of care and taps into the myth of Cura. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger used the myth to highlight the role of Cura as a creator, which stood in opposite to what traditional Christian genealogies had proposed prior to this. Heidegger broke with the accepted and normalised conception of woman as being the second person to be created by God and, therefore, not one capable of human creation. Nonetheless, in relation to the questions of sexual difference and the feminine, this is arguably his only dynamically disruptive point; even Heidegger and his investigation into care seems beholden to the traditions of a white western patriarchal logic.
Just like care itself, the German translation of the word is complicated. Heidegger is careful to make the distinction between Sorge (care/worry), Besorgen (care/concern) and Fürsorge (care/solicitude). In his 1927 magnum opus, Time and Being, he seems interested in a vague “moral” aspect of care as an individual characteristic. His famous concept of Dasein, the experience of being that is particular to human beings, is a being-with-others; however, my reading of his work sees him failing to escape the individualist idea of care as an act of duty, an act of individual labour in relation to others (or for the benefit of others), perpetuating “orthodox” academic legacies of a Eurocentric western philosophical canon. In this sense, the ethics of care is understood from the singular unit: the individual and her relationship to others. It is positioned as an impetus of concern, as labour, as “self-improvement” and even as the superior self of someone “civilized”. However, care is never conceptualised collectively: as a state of being, a state of society.
The individualist notion of care further developed the idea of self-care, which was widely propagated through the work of Samuel Smiles. Smiles was a government reformer from Scotland who authored a book in 1859, Self-Help; with Illustrations of Character and Conduct, and promoted the idea that progress would come from new attitudes rather than from new laws. A “lifestyle guru” before they existed, at the time his book was celebrated as the epitome of Victorian liberalism, proposing that any man can become anything, as long as they don’t depend on others. As the leading specialist on the Victorian era, historian Asa Briggs underlined: “Relying on yourself was preferred morally – and economically – to depending on others. It was an expression of character even when it did not ensure – or indeed, not offer – a means of success. It also had social implications of a general kind. The progressive development of society ultimately depended, it was argued, not on collective action but on the prevalence of practices of self-help.” (3)
This theorizing through “self-governance” and “self-care” from the 1800s onwards promoted a Western culture that deemed itself as self-sufficient and superior to any other. As such, care was used as an excuse to justify the colonisation of many countries. The colonizer was portrayed as the guardian, the one who cares to educate, to “civilize”, to introduce his subjects to a better world. Such was the cover for acts of violence – fast and slow – perpetuated in the name of the “good intentions” of “mother-lands” caring for their subjects (their “Others”, so far away). The systems of oppression that were used by colonisers under the guise of care were imposed, for example, through standards of hygiene and diet, which were forced onto indigenous populations to “teach” them what the West considered appropriate self-care. The end game of this was the prevailing idea of care as a responsibility to yourself and society, to better oneself and to educate the less fortunate: to “civilize” the “savage”.
Care: Neoliberal Pleasure vs. Indigenous, Civil Rights and Feminist Legacies of Collective Joy
“To us, as caretakers of the heart of Mother Earth, falls the responsibility of turning back the powers of destruction.”
– Chief Arvol Looking Horse, Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe (4)
Due to the necropolitical form of power perpetuated by the nation-state, Indigenous knowledges and philosophies of care have little presence in Western canons of academia. However, First Nations and Indigenous leaders and their communities the world over have been safeguarding these knowledges – against very violent resistance coming from white supremacy – for their future communities and generations. They understand the individual completely differently to the canons of reason in the Age of Enlightenment. Such positions are inspired by various legacies of non-patriarchal societal structures, many characterised by matriarchy, where care was shared at all levels of human activity as the way of understanding and existing in the world. In his brilliant book Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (2019), citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, Nick Estes, describes First Nations camp life as performing “another critical function: caretaking, or providing nourishment, replenishment, comradery, encouragement, warmth, songs, stories and love”. (5) However, Estes makes sure to break the romantic notions held in the West about Indigenous culture, which has been “aided by disciplines such as anthropology”, by echoing another Dakota scholar Kim TallBear, who specialises in racial politics in science and has argued that caretaking labour in First Nations communities was – and still is – gendered and seen as women’s work. (6)
In his book, Estes discusses politicisation through Indigenous struggle, assessing how political subjectivity can be understood as part of a communal care structure. Such views are echoed in the words of Gladys Tzul Tzul, a Maya K’iche’ theorist and activist studying indigenous politics and gender relationships in Guatemala, who describes: “a collective and community one, not a liberal one in which an individual citizen exists, represented and protected by the State.” (7) Seen in this light, the self is not the one (individual) that can be with others, as articulated by Heidegger. This translates into how a subjectivity understands herself, and how she performs the politics and ethics of care: it is less about the burden of responsibility or the idealistic character of caring for someone – or something – to aid them, to make one a better person, but rather, the collective joy of enacting care together, and this being the only way to understand oneself in the world. In the words of Honduran environmental activist and indigenous leader, Berta Cáceres: “let us build societies that are able to co-exist in a dignified way that protects life. We come together and remain hopeful as we defend and care for Earth and its spirits”. (8)
The histories of colonialism, imperialism and the Industrial Revolution, as well as globalisation and its neo-colonial and neo-imperial tropes today – enacted by nation-states and their institutions – have always fought against care as a collective act. A vast part of Western society from the 1950s onwards firmly based its understanding of care as individual development and progress – a specific kind of social mobility and “self-betterment” that is tied to conservative politics. With the rise of commodity capitalism, care was translated into products: fridges, automobiles, even cocktail recipes made by seemingly smiley housewives aiming to provide the best care for their husbands. Self-care equalled high-maintenance hairstyles, complicated beauty routines and anti-anxiety pills. The counter-cultural fever of the late-1970s brought to the mainstream the appropriation of Eastern and South American religious and self-care practices via the new-age spiritualism of the hippie movement. This hippie self-care, which was further developed in the so-called “first-world” economies during the 1980s, saw industries relating to health, self-improvement and self-help skyrocketing. Jane Fonda became a fitness and health icon as a result of her home workout videos, propagating self-care in the comfort of one’s own living room – a far cry from her feminist rebel “Hanoi Jane” days of the 1960s. The cultural imprint of that period even continues to resonate today during the COVID-19 pandemic, not least for the author of a recent article in Women’s Health magazine, who described Fonda’s 1982 videos as being the “bright spot in my self-isolation”. (9)
The self-care industry has a projected global revenue that will exceed the current 450 billion US dollars it grosses today. (10) Research into the concept of care and its link to individualism shows that individualism is inextricably linked to wealth and GDP per capita, as demonstrated in the recent book by Ronald Inglehart published in 2018, Cultural Revolution: People’s Motivations are Changing, and Reshaping the World. (11) Regions of the world that are considered developed (“first-world”) economies, are the most individualistic, compared to partly individualistic regions such as Eastern Europe. The most collectivist cultures are found in developing economies, in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast and Central Asia and South and Central America.
The development of such individualist notions of care sparked a resistance in certain feminist and civil rights movements, which asked for a return to rethinking collectivist politics and ethics of care. Second-wave feminism, which began in the United States in the early-1960s and lasted for roughly two decades, contested that care should be an obligatory act of love. Marxist feminists demanded that domestic and reproductive care work must be fairly compensated, most famously in the Wages for Housework Campaign, which called for a Global Women’s Strike on 8 March 2000, seeking recognition of the labour inherent in caring for the home (house work) and payment for all caring work – in wages, pensions, land and other resources. One of the main figures of this movement was Silvia Federici, who argued, “by denying housework a wage and transforming it into an act of love [care], capital has killed many birds with one stone.” (12) Feminists stated that the material conditions of oppression within a household affected real relationships of care due to the economic, social and psychological dependencies of the caregiver – or in other words, such domestic strictures impacted how caregivers were able to care.
Feminist theory ardently addressed the ethics of care from the 1980s onwards. For example, the American psychologist Carol Gilligan suggested in her 1982 book In a Different Voicethat the moral outlook of women is different to that of men. While her thinking was very much criticised – even by feminists – it sparked a proposition for a distinctly feminist “ethics of care”, which was further discussed by the American feminist philosopher Nel Noddings, and her 1984 book Caring, which argued that the concept of ethics can only be understood through the idea of natural caring – as per the mother caring for her child. She questioned whether or not organisations that operate at a remove from caring relationships could be called ethical, proposing a realignment of education to encourage and reward not just rationality and trained intelligence, but also enhanced sensitivity in moral matters. Once again, such a proposition found resistance in parts of the period’s feminist movements, since a genderised notion of morality failed to encapsulate a-gendered and trans-gendered morals – indeed, it further feminised the ethics of care.
Such readings on the ethics of care nonetheless led to new approaches in professional fields such as nursing, education and house-care work. The political scientist Joan C. Tronto furthered this progress by underlining the importance of disengaging from the idea of morality and engaging, instead, with an ethics of care through a political context. For Tronto, care requires attentiveness, capability, responsibility and responsiveness. In 1990, together with her colleague Berenice Fischer they described care as such: “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.” (13)
The civil rights movement was another great force that promoted not only collective care, but also a different type of “self-care” through community care work. One profound example is the courageous, impressive and admirable community social programmes of the Black Panther Party, which remain under-recognised. These included free services, the best-known of which is their Free Breakfast for Children Program, but with countless more such as clothing distribution, classes on politics and economics, free medical clinics, lessons on self-defence and first aid, transportation to prisons for inmates’ family members, an emergency-response ambulance programme, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and many others. Thus, the idea of self-care as self-defence simultaneously became a form of care towards others – a fact that is clear in their founding name: Black Panther Party for Self-Defence. In the words of the co-founder Dr. Huey P. Newton:
“All these programs satisfy the deep needs of the community but they are not solutions to our problems. That is why we call them survival programs, meaning survival pending revolution. We say that the survival program of the Black Panther Party is like the survival kit of a sailor stranded on a raft. It helps him to sustain himself until he can get completely out of that situation. So the survival programs are not answers or solutions, but they will help us to organise the community around a true analysis and understanding of their situation. When consciousness and understanding is raised to a high level then the community will seize the time and deliver themselves from the boot of their oppressors.” (14)
For feminists and civil rights activists alike, the idea of care stemmed from thinking not of one’s individual relationship to an ethics and politics of care as a moral obligation, but oneself as one part of a much greater organism, namely, your community and its interests – echoing indigenous and first nations philosophies and knowledges about the ethics and politics of care. The collective joy of care then also becomes a means of self-determination: a political act. It is thus a way of bringing together the labour and pleasure of care to form a meaningful model of collective living.
This text was written by iLiana Fokianaki and was originally published at Gropius Bau Journal, 2021.
1. Mary Grant, ed., trans., The Myths of Hyginus (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1960).
2. David Hume, “Book II, Part III, Sect. III ‘Of the Influencing Motives of the Will’”, A Treatise of Human Nature, www.pitt.edu, https://www.pitt.edu/~mthompso/readings/hume.influencing.pdf (accessed 27 May 2021).
3. Asa Briggs, “Samuel Smiles: The Gospel of Self-Help”, History Today vol. 37 #5 (May 1987), pp. 37–43, (accessed 11 May 2021).
4. Nick Estes, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (New York: Verso, 2019), p. 75.
5. Ibid., p. 19.
6. Ibid., pp. 16–19.
7. Gladys Tzul Tzul, interview by Oswaldo J. Hernández, “Confronting the Narrative: Gladys Tzul on Indigenous Governance and State Authority in Guatemala”, www.upsidedownworld.org, 10 February 2014, (accessed 11 May 2021), http://upsidedownworld.org/archives/guatemala/confronting-the-narrative-gladys-tzul-on-indigenous-governance-and-state-authority-in-guatemala/ (accessed 11 May 2021).
8. For documentation of Berta Cáceres acceptance speech of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize please see the Disobedience Archive (accessed 11 May 2021).
9. Melissa Matthews, “Jane Fonda’s Workout Is The Bright Spot In My Self-Isolation”, www.womenshealthmag.com, 12 April 2020, (accessed 11 May 2021), https://www.womenshealthmag.com/fitness/a32111020/jane-fonda-workout/ (accessed 11 May 2021).
10. “Taking Charge: Consumers Grabbing Hold of Their Health and Wellness Drives $450-Billion Opportunity”, www.iriworldwide.com, https://www.iriworldwide.com/en-ca/insights/publications/self-care-trends-en (accessed 19 May 2021).
11. Ronald F. Inglehart, “Global Cultural Patterns”, Cultural Evolution: People’s Motivations are Changing, and Reshaping the World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), p. 40.
12. Silvia Federici, Wages Against Housework (Bristol and London: Falling Wall, 1975), p. 48.
13. Joan C. Tronto, Caring Democracy: Markets, Equality and Justice, (New York: New York University Press, 2013), p. 15.
14. The Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, The Black Panther Party: Service to the People Programs (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008), pp. 3–4.