Care Ethics and Precarity; a precarious notion

On September the 28th and 29th, in Portland (Oregon, USA), the Care Ethics Research Consortium (CERC) , initiated by Joan Tronto and Carlo Leget, organised its inaugural conference entitled –Care Ethics and Precarity– at the Portland State University.

There was a large variety of international researchers, amongst them, participants in the Critical Ethics of Care research network (NL) Frans Vosman, Andries Baart en Guus Timmerman who presented their papers. Editorial member Tessa Smorenburg visited the conference, and wrote an impression.

Precarity; in the shadows

The skyline of Portland (USA) on both sides of the Willamette river are impressive, equally so the diversity of uniquely designed bridges which connects the east to the west. The architecture downtown, is diverse, and rich in shape, form and colour. The tall buildings loom proudly over the cityscape. At street level the city blocks boast an abundance of public art. Thematically, these works both narrate the history of the region, and embrace the daily life of the populous.

The streets downtown are spotlessly clean and well maintained. Both locals and visitors to the conference were taking advantage of the pleasantness of an Indian summer. At first glance, from the comfort of the sidewalk café where I’m sitting everything seems prosperous, orderly and sanitised. But the longer I sit the more cracks begin to appear in this utopian perception. Beneath the long shadows cast by the bronze sculptures I begin to notice a number of homeless people. Single or in groups, young and old, male, female, all hiding from the hot sun, away from the intense afternoon sunlight. Suddenly precarity is all around me, undeniable, incongruent and confusing, running contrary to my smoothed-over perception of the city . “How could I have not seen this glaring precarity? And furthermore how do we make the invisible visible?”.

Ethics of Care; a piece of the landscape

The inaugural conference of the Care Ethics Research Consortium (CERC) Care Ethics and Precarity, organised by Maurice Hamington, was the first of an every two years recurring event. CERC is initiated by Joan Tronto (USA) and Carlo Leget (NL), and was formed in 2015. The focus of this consortium is to form an international network for researchers who work in the field of the ethics of care, and to foster collaborative and interdisciplinary learning. It was a full, two day program, with many panel presentations of academics who were working on, or felt related to, the subject presented. Diverse views on the matter where shared, explored and discussed. The format was open, inspiring and sometimes overwhelming. The Arts had a small but prominent part in the scene, in the form of a collaboration with the Master of Fine Arts in Contemporary Art Practices at PSU. Notably the presentation of Deborah Smith Arthur and Lori Gruen, who used discussion, personal stories, live poetry (performed by ex-prisoners of a state prison in the state Oregon ) gave a moving insight into the lived experience of mass incarceration. Those personal narratives touched every listener, and exposed to us a hidden precarity “on the other side” albeit one behind walls.

“What’s the hardest part of your day?” Was an example of a question in the photographic dialogue between artists incarcerated at Columbia River Correctional Institution (Oregon, USA) and other prisoners from all over the world. The incarcerated artists worked together to create answers without words through the medium of photography, an insight into their lived experience behind bars.

Answers without Words (2018) by social practice artist Anke Schüttler.
(Photocredits: Guus Timmerman).

The conference gave an insight into the global academic landscape of Care Ethics, participants from as far afield as Japan, Europe and Hawaii gathered in Portland to share their knowledge and practices. In the course of discussion, it came to light, that when notions and critical insights of the ethics of care are used as single virtues, such as relationality and responsibility, we have to be critical that it won’t become normalising or moralising in perceiving practises of precarity.

Precarity; a burning issue

The president of PSU Rahmat Shoureshi introduced the subject in the very first moment of the conference. “At this university (..) one third is a first generation student, there are many single mothers, even some students are homeless -they have the choice: choose between paying your rent or register-”. This raises the question: “What is Precarity?”. Perspectives on the issue distinguish precarity from other form of vulnerability, a labour position (for example domestic work), or a position of constant reproduction of insecurity; certainly it is perceived as a political issue and a complex outcome of a late modern neo-liberal society. Different theoretical sources on the subject where cited, by such authors as Judith Butler, Pierre Bourdieu, Robert Castel or Isabell Lorey.

Precarity; need for empirical research

The Critical Ethics of Care (CEC) research network organised a three-paper symposium, called Empirically Grounded Ethics of Care and Precarity. Frans Vosman argued that in order to begin social analyses of the practice of living a precarious life, one cannot dispense with empirical analysis of the praxis. This conviction was reiterated and underscored by the research of Marieke Potma and Guus Timmerman, presented by the latter, concerning Dutch sans papiers. Andries Baart offered a critical insight for future researches, namely the empirically grounded notion of (the experience of) social redundancy for the experience of precariousness, precarity and precarisation.

Andries Baart, Frans Vosman en Guus Timmerman (NL) at the conference.
(Photocredits: Tessa Smorenburg & Guus Timmerman)

Furthermore, two key-note speakers presented their view on the matter of precarity. Eva Fedder Kittay (USA) argued in her paper Precariousness, precarity and disability that there is a stigma about precarity. One’s well-being is always precarious and the national justice system doesn’t take precarity as a precariousness. According to her, precarity is a sense of insecurity, and everyone is walking around in a state of precariousness, it is not only the reserve of people with disabilities, they don’t have a lesser life, all of our lives are insecure. The second key-note speaker was Fiona Robinson (CAN), who argues for a global care ethics. “Precarity is about the voices of the unheard”. She stated that “we have to embrace precarity”. Recognizing the inescapable consequences of our own precariousness can help us connect with the precariousness and actual precarity of others.

Precarity; calling for a spotlight

Precarity is a burning issue in the ethics of care. Precarity lingers and hides in the margins of our society, in the shadows of the visible, is the invisible. There is a division in understanding concepts when discussing this matter; differences in the definition of precarity, precarious or precariat create a different narrative. The conference highlighted the importance and the difficulty in defining precarity in the context of the ethics of care. Three generations of scholars contributed to the task of defining precarity, different schools argued their perspective and the debate on the epistemology proved ongoing. It appears that qualitative empirical research on precariousness, precarity and (the practice of) precarisation is needed for a better understanding of the matter. The narrative of the unknown, the shadow of the tall buildings, is calling for a spotlight.


About the author: Tessa Roberts-Smorenburg

Tessa Roberts-Smorenburg

Tessa Roberts-Smorenburg (1987) graduated as a master in Ethics of Care and Policy at the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht (NL) in 2015. She currently holds the double position of ethical consultant, and policy advisor in the Centre on the Quality of Life and Survivorship, at the Antoni van Leeuwenhoek hospital in Amsterdam (NL). This centre accommodates the physical/psychosocial, supportive and survivorship care for cancer patients. As a sociotherapist she worked in direct contact with patients in psychiatric clinics. Her previous experience at TAAK brought her in contact with visual artists and care institutions to whom she provided an ethics of care perspective during research and project development for the programme “Art & Care”.

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