Frans Vosman’s ‘Survivor‘: five inspirations

Honoring Frans Vosman, editor Ivonne Hoen wants to share with you his ‘unspeakable’ legacy for her research regarding the ‘survivor with chronic suffering’. She also ponders about taking up the challenge to broaden his theoretical concept with lifeworld experiences in the political practice.

Frans Vosman ‘the inspirator’

In August 2020, I graduated as a care-ethicist at the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht (NL). My thesis is titled: ‘De overlever’ in beeld in de participatiesamenleving. Catastrofaal lijden als venster (Picturing the survivor in ‘the participation society’. Catastrophic suffering as a window) (Hoen, 2020). It testifies of an engaged perspective which I would not have chosen without being inspired by Frans Vosman. During his care-ethics lectures on the political social domain, I was touched by his inspiring unique way of thinking and subsequently he marked my critical social care-ethical commitment. This triggered me to bring my own critical experiences in the social domain into the scholarly debate.

Eventually this led to the topic of my thesis: portraying the survivor in a society which is not yet as participative as it is designed to be, a political practice of suffering ((1)). Frans elaborated his concept of the ‘survivor’ for care-ethics at the end of his career and I embraced it in my own way, intuitively and deliberately, sometimes reluctantly and flustered, but really just as a matter of means ‘proceeding, no matter what…’ ((2)), knowing that most likely ‘time will tell..’

Frans Vosman ‘the survivor’

Unfortunately, I was not able to share my research with Frans Vosman at any stage because of his recurrent illness and the distance he kept professionally towards my graduation because he was not my supervisor. I am grateful to Frans Vosman that shortly before his illness became manifest again, I was able to engage in conversation with him about his booklet De levensvorm van overleven (translated as: Surviving as a lifeform) (Vosman, 2018), which he called a ‘concentrated broth cube’ on that occasion. He used the metaphor for a highly concentrated text. It did help me tremendously to understand this condensed text better and to ‘spice my own brew’ with it, for which it was intended, as he might have said in his own ‘Frans Vosman idiom’. He had full confidence that his concept would survive in me as I was told by a mutual friend afterwards. This is a comforting thought, for which my special thanks to her and Frans.

Framing ‘surviving as intense suffering’

In the thesis, I increasingly focussed my ethic quest on ‘the survivor’, whom I have sought to make central to my research partly due to the perspectives listed below. When I was introduced to the perspective of ‘the survivor’ at Frans Vosman’s farewell speech in 2018, I was moved by it. His concept of the life form of surviving so aptly typified the plight of my clients in my work as a reintegration coach that it seemed made to serve as the lens for my empirical research as part of the Master’s in Care-ethics and Policy. ‘The survivor’ is a term, coined by Frans Vosman, for people:

(…) who have an issue or problem to endure and live this problem every day (…) are purely ‘carrying on’ in the ‘steepness of everyday life (…) Life itself is a steep good, (…) an arduous endeavour, not that which we strive for materially in life (…) they recognize to whom they turn out to belong (…) the actual ‘we’ as an ‘I in the We’ (Vosman, 2018, pp. 22-26 ((3))).

This then became my care-ethical reason for giving a voice to ‘the survivor’ in my thesis. More specific, I did this by zooming in on a few people I have encountered in my work. Due to a drastic event they were not able to perform under ‘normal working conditions’. They received help from me as a re-integration coach to try to participate in society again. I understood from them that this process of rehabilitation under the legislation of participation results in intense suffering which has a dominant impact on their bodies and day-to-day events.

On top of their bodily restraints, they also have to endure tensions regarding high expectations in their living environment.
On the one hand there were expectations they can hardly meet within personal relations.
On the other hand the institutions in the late modern participation society imposed the participation legacy on them.
As a result, in addition to the ‘steep good’ of ‘survival’ they also have to endure an imposed ‘material aspiration’.

This makes ‘participation’, in addition to being a ‘difficult endeavour’ and ‘getting on with it’, also a vulnerable affair and makes them survivors as Vosman describes it. Survivors who somehow manage to keep going on, in and through moving within the tensions of suffering. The tension-filled suffering of these vulnerable people is central and I try to expose it.

The ‘embodiment of the survivor’

Choosing ‘the survival framework’ for my thesis offered me an opportunity to do justice to this chosen focus-group of suffering survivors. In addition to that it allows them to participate in a specific way in a care-ethics debate about the interpretation of the life form of survival. In anticipation of the results, I tried to establish from their personal perspective whether they see themselves as ‘survivors’ and as such could participate in the discussion.

“… Yes… it’s even worse than survival. I don’t choose it… I’m in it. Forced on you as it were … also by society … I think you are punished way too much. If you don’t feel like working … well … but I’ve always worked” (1:33; respondent 1).

“Yes … Yes … I’m actually just trying to … you learn to deal with it of your own accord, left or right, fall, choose. Doing something different. You don’t have a choice … to do something else … you have to … it’s not like others … I want to do my thing” (2:26; respondent 2).

“After I made that suicide attempt, a lot changed. My father, daughter, stepdaughter….. then they resent me for that…. Like everything became different. A different life. Like I don’t belong… That’s too bad. That I don’t get any appreciation. I have to accept that. That takes time” (3:56; respondent 3).

A ‘non-mainstream’ care-ethical debate

To be honest, I also use the survival- framework as a point of leverage to make my own voice heard in this debate; by making way for this concept and filling it in from practice. In my professional view, the concept proposes an alternative to mainstream thinking:
“… the form of life does not exist in spite of experienced tensions, but thanks to experienced tensions” according to Frans Vosman (2018).

This subtle nuance is heavily supported by the participants and ‘expert by experience’ readers of the thesis. When you remove these tensions, the life form of survival evaporates and the survivor falls apart. This is exciting in itself as an idea and it intrigues me how this works: I was eager to experience this in the research field.

Although Vosman has described the concept and provided it with theoretical meaning on the basis of defined tensions, it is not yet ‘finished’. “It is up to the care-ethics researcher to further use and add to the concept based on practical research …” Vosman invites (2018, p 55).
I picked up that gauntlet, albeit in a modest way within the scope of this master-thesis, but with the lifeworld of ‘the survivor’ very present in my workspace. I hope many of you will take up the invitation too after reading this blog, or maybe after taking further notice of Vosman’s booklet or my thesis.

The perspective of ‘the survivor’ appeals to me as an experienced view to which I can also relate personally. My motivation, to choose and portray the survivor, especially in these related COVID-19 times, is summarised in the following lead:

I want the survivor to be noticed, to be kept intact and to be allowed to be there (in his/her own place … in our society).

Notes

1. ‘Participation society’ is a term designed in 2017 in the Netherlands according to a legislation for a society in which everybody has to participate, contribute, to his/her own ability.

2. People with a disability often have to meet too high an expectation.

3. The word Vosman uses in his description is ‘dur doen’ (carry-on)
The booklet is recently translated: Survival as a lifeform not in print yet.

Literature

Hoen, I. (2020). De overlever in beeld in de participatiesamenleving. Catastrofaal lijden als venster. Master-thesis ZEB. UvH, Utrecht.

Vosman, F.J.H. (2018). Overleven als levensvorm. Zorgethiek als kritiek op het ideaal van het ‘geslaagde leven’. Utrecht: Net aan Zet; uitgave van de Universiteit van Humanistiek.

Picture on top: © Ellen Ruikes-van der Ploeg

About the author: Ivonne Hoen

Ivonne Hoen

Ivonne Hoen (1956) obtained her Masters degree in Ethics of Care and Policy from the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht (NL) in 2020. During her studies she also held a position as a coach, reintegrating into work people with chronic illness and disabilities.

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