Book Review: Matters of Care, by María Puig de la Bellacasa

Posted by on Apr 2, 2018
Book Review: Matters of Care, by María Puig de la Bellacasa

Puig de la Bellacasa, María. Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017. 280 pp.

María Puig de la Bellacasa’s Matters of Care sets out to explore what a more-than-human ethics could—and needs to—look like. She draws on critical scholarship on “technoscientific knowledge production” as well as experiential research with “natureculture practices,” specifically agricultural practices. Care, decentered from human agency, is the primary pivot around which she reads the ethics possible within such technoscientific and natureculture realms. For readers interested in meticulously traversing the topic of more-than-human ethics, Matters of Care offers a dive into an always-political ethics that is inspired by agricultural practices and the more-than-human beings wrapped up in them.

As reflected in its subtitle, Matters of Care intervenes in two main ways. First, it displaces the human by foregrounding more-than-human worlds and defining care as a distributed agency among more-than-human things and beings. Second, it enacts a speculative—i.e., open-ended and non-predetermined—mode of thinking, refusing any universal claims about what care and ethics should look. Indeed, Puig de la Bellacasa’s main definition of care draws from feminist scholar Joan Tronto’s “generic” care, positing care as a “generic doing of ontological significance… [that] includes everything that we do to maintain, continue and repair ‘our world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible” (3). Following Tronto, Puig de la Bellacasa works against a notion of care as simply a warm affection or feel-good attitude, and mobilizes it instead analytically. Punning care, she both argues for care as an analytic as well as performs a careful, caring analysis that avoids an abstracted “view from afar.” Puig de la Bellacasa explicitly details three dimensions of care: affect/affection, labor/work, and ethics/politics. The distribution of and tensions between these dimensions vary in different contexts, which again necessitates a speculative, generic approach. Driving the book is attention to care’s third dimension, ethics/politics, often sidelined to the other two dimensions in literatures addressing care.

Part One brings care into a discussion of the politics of knowledge, specifically technoscientific knowledge, with the aim of elaborating on the ethics/politics of care. The first two chapters are contrasting readings of Bruno Latour’s and Donna Haraway’s work on the politics of technoscientific knowledge. In Chapter One, Puig de la Bellacasa takes up Latour’s notion of matters of fact as matters of concern (2004, 2005), asking what would happen if we instead considered these as matters of care. This allows her to inscribe care in the more-than-human things of the objects and instruments of knowledge production. She also argues that care here offers a critical edge, a stronger ethical connotation, that concern doesn’t quite achieve. Chapter Two explores what a caring thinking looks like. Drawing on Haraway’s work on situated knowledges (1991, 1997), the chapter introduces the notion of “thinking with care” to argue how thinking and knowing both necessarily require care in the way they are always already relational processes in a thickly interdependent world. In Chapter Three, Puig de la Bellacasa considers haptic metaphors of knowing, originally posited against the pervasive visual metaphors of knowing, as a more helpful way to think about caring knowing and the way in which caring knowing is a “proximal, intimate knowing” (20). Such haptic metaphors also make more explicit the forms of ethical obligation entailed in thinking and knowing: touch’s exceptional quality of reversibility (“being touched by what we touch” [20]) points to the role of reciprocity in caring thinking, which is again always relational.

Part Two takes the discussion of care from technoscientific knowledge politics to the objects and products of such knowledge practices, what Puig de la Bellacasa refers to, after Latour and Haraway, as naturecultures. She draws on “experiential research,” reading it through the lens of feminist analyses. Chapter Four considers the alternative ecological movement known as permaculture, which aims to promote relations of sustainability and care between humans and their environment, particularly around practices of farming. Puig de la Bellacasa, looking to the explicit ethics in the permaculture movement, explores a decentered concept of ethical obligation as a means to move away from the idea of moral principles driving ethical living, and toward the idea of ethical relations as necessarily embedded in the more-than-human, interdependent relations that constitute and maintain ordinary life. The final chapter builds on her research with soil scientists advancing a conception of soil as a living thing, with its own microbiome and ecologies, rather than merely as a receptacle for plants. The chapter introduces the idea of the temporalities of care, through which Puig de la Bellacasa argues that the multitudes of time required for care of/with more-than-human worlds sometimes conflict with the chronopolitics of technoscientific innovation—but that this gives care the potential to disrupt and challenge these latter temporalities.

Is it even possible to have an ethics that truly brings in the more-than-human, without actually losing the ethics, without discharging humans from their particularly human responsibilities, and without simply anthropomorphizing the nonhuman? These are the crucial questions with which Puig de la Bellacasa closes her book.

Responding to these questions, she reiterates how care, for her, offers a start to thinking about more-than-human ethics in the way care is a doing that isn’t necessarily intentional in the conventional way. She explains she is in fact “ready to risk the charge of initiating an anthropomorphist ethics of more-than-human care” because speculative thinking will be necessary for imagining more caring worlds, and anxieties about anthropomorphizing cannot be allowed to “paralyze our ethical imagination” (219). She says we can’t let charges of anthropomorphism prevent us from acknowledging how nonhumans do shape us, how the “cared for coforms the carer too” in cases when it seems humans are the main ones doing the caring (219). Ultimately, one path suggested by this book is to find openings where the more-than-human is not just squeezed into existing ethical frameworks, but in fact pushes one to reformulate those frameworks in the first place. In these terms, the question will be not how we can put the more-than-human into ethics, but how we need to refigure ethics to account for the more-than-human.

References

Haraway, Donna. 1991. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, 183-201. New York: Routledge.

Haraway, Donna. 1997. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleMan©_Meets_Onco-Mouse™: Feminism and Technoscience. New York: Routledge.

Latour, Bruno. 2004. “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2: 225-48.

Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.