Reframing Care – Reading María Puig de la Bellacasa ‘Matters of Care Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds’

At the end of 2018, CEC researchers and devotees attended a reading group, discussing Matters of Care Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds (MoC) by Maria Puig de la Bellacasa (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017)

In four lively evening sessions the group performed a close reading guided by professor Frans Vosman. This article will give an overview of distinctive issues encountered in this reading, trying to explain them and raise some critical questions only at some points.

The first three chapters (i.e. Part One, Knowledge Politics) unfold a theoretical framework, more or less applied in the praxis of Part Two: Speculative Ethics in Anti-ecological Times.
To Vosman however, all chapters, not just the first three, seem part and parcel of a typical meta-ethical discourse, which aims at reframing care in a radical way. Comparable to a critical ethics of care, this discourse is mainly about ethics of care, discussing its outline and basic concepts and even more importantly its scope of perception. First, I will address the main arguments of this discourse as they stand out in the three chapters of MoC’s Part One.

Part One: ‘Ecological turn’ from Tronto to Latour and Haraway

In her discussion with care ethics, Puig de la Bellacasa starts from relationalist, material/empirical, and clearly feminist-oriented viewpoints, well-known to critical ethics of care ever since Joan Tronto.
In Part One, MoC contributes to current discussions with its elaborate reading of Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway, conveying their radical bio-ecological notions to care ethics, and vice versa, enriching critical (deep) ecology with notions of care.
Chapter 1, Assembling Neglected ‘Things’, draws inspiration from Latour, while in Chapters 2 and 3 (Thinking with Care and Touching Visions) Haraway is a major source for further development of this ‘ecological care ethics´.

After this ‘ecological shift’ in Part One the leading definition of care becomes, in keeping with Tronto’s definition as a point of reference:

Care is everything that is done (rather than everything that ‘we’ do) to maintain, continue, and re-pair ‘the world’ so that all (rather than ‘we’) can live in it as well as possible. That world includes… all that we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web (modified from Tronto 1993, 103) (MoC, 161).

Going along with Haraway, Puig de la Bellacasa fervently champions subversion of anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism, in favor of de-centered and distributed agencies in these ecological matters of care. Accordingly, these agencies are tantamount to a pluralistic, disseminated sustaining of co-existence, where human and non-human merge with one another, as Haraway illustrates so evocatively in her works. De-centering the human subject in more-than-human webs of care has the potential to re-organize human-nonhuman relations towards non-exploitive forms of co-existence (MoC, Introduction, 24)

From ‘Matters of Fact’ to ‘Matters of Concern’ to ‘Matters of Care’

Enter Bruno Latour: whereas humans are certainly related to and dependent upon each other, the fabric of their co-existence is also densely interwoven with things, every-body with (m)any-things.
In this vein, Latour turns ‘matters of fact’ into matters of concern – things are vital components of human existence and are to be concerned about, rather than taken for granted.

Subsequently, Puig de la Bellacasa intensifies Latourian ‘matters of concern’ into matters of care, in a life world (bios) where technosciences and naturecultures are inseparably entangled, their overall sustainability and inherent qualities being largely dependent upon the extent and doings of care. Caring for something is more binding than just being concerned; it requires active involvement, e.g. with respect to maintenance or improvement, just as caring for someone is more binding than just being concerned.

Against neglecting the ordinary

In Part One much effort is invested in arguing how human co-existence has to be regarded, in this day and age, as inseparably intertwined through and through with the non-human: every creature, critter and flora on the planet and beyond, and every-things created by technology and cultures. Preferably to be considered being matters of care rather than just matters of concern, since all lives and futures decisively depend on them: food and climate technologies, artificial intelligence, digital communication, and so on.

Turning point for Puig de la Bellacasa is the meaning of ‘matters of care’ in these contexts: to include everything and everybody involved, and not only those who pull the strings and are closest to the fore of attention, interests, power and investments. In a typical feminist vein, Puig de la Bellacasa foregrounds the invisible labour forces, daily strains of mothers, unpaid or underpaid cornerstones and pillars of ‘ordinary’ maintenance in households, families, factories, services, institutions, even more so in ‘underdeveloped’ societies and economies. Whereas this may seem well known territory to many care ethicists, MoC highlights the importance of the speculative as a critical compass in these fields, i.e. a speculative open-ended, non-predetermined mode of thinking to counteract universal claims about what care and ethics should look like ((1))

Speculative Ethics

Speculative ethics, according to Puig de la Bellacasa, has to replace abstract normative ethics, and should be responsive to changing exigencies of always situated bios, i.e. specific life-worlds running by virtue of specific relations and dependencies between humans, other lifeforms, natural and material sources and surroundings, instruments and structures of technoscience.
This responsiveness, however, is certainly not ready at hand just like that, but has to emerge from modes of thinking, perceiving and feeling, dedicated and even subordinated to their most essential common denominator: care.

As care is regarded necessary and indispensable for a co-existence together and alongside with the non-human, it is at the same time never self-evidently given and always at stake, its workings often obscured or unrecognized, its possibilities and potentialities to improve conditions difficult to discern. e.g. MoC pg 6:

That is, it makes of ethics a hands-on, ongoing process of recreation of ‘as well as possible’ relations and therefore one that requires a speculative opening about what a possible involves. And thus the thinking in this book is moved by a generic appeal of care that makes it unthinkable as something abstracted from its situatedness.

Modes of ‘thinking with care’

Thus in chapter 2, Puig de la Bellacasa radicalises Tronto by contending that existence is not only ontologically a ‘matter of care’, but also epistemologically, i.e. with respect to knowledge, and to modes of thinking and perceiving – or rather we should be aware of all that. Most of the time, however, we are not. This is another presupposition (which Puig de la Bellacasa is sharing with many care ethicists) – although fundamental to our co-existence and most of our life supporting abilities, actual and tangible care is never self-evidently ‘there’, but rather always and everywhere ‘on the line’.

Puig de la Bellacasa therefore regards ‘care oriented’ modes of thinking as interventions, edgy standpoints apt to re-framing contexts and situations against neglect or annihilation of care, in ever changing conditions and developments.

Touching Visions

Chapter 2 Thinking with Care is further elaborated in chapter 3 Touching Visions where Puig de la Bellacasa emphasizes the importance of ‘touching visions’ as blueprints for reframing contexts and situations where need for care is envisioned. These visions originate from being touched by or getting in touch with certain circumstances in these contexts, in which articulation of these feelings and impressions are unwanted or would make no sense. Therefore, modes of knowledge and thinking about care in these contexts first have to change – this is what Puig de la Bellacasa means by speculative ethics, resulting in different or modified ontological and epistemological frameworks with situational ‘ethicalities’ instead of general norms and rules.

What these visions that play with vision as touch and touch as vision invite to think is a world constantly done and undone through encounters that accentuate both the attraction of closeness as well as awareness of alterity. And so, marked by unexpectedness, they require a situated ethicality ( MoC 115).

The lure of the haptic – ambivalence of touch

Chapter 3 Touching Visions however, is difficult to grasp with its very metaphorical usage of nonetheless crucial notions like ‘touch’, ‘being touched’ and ‘in touch with’.
Puig de la Bellacasa actually does refer to the haptic, whereas she simultaneously refers to sensory, embodied knowledge, interactions and experiences of ‘being touched by’, ‘getting in touch with’, more generally: tactile, more bodily conditions which are also considered to be very important to the aforementioned modes of living and thinking attentive to care.
With respect to a deep ontological significance of touch amongst others French phenomenologist Jean Louis Chrétien is paraphrased: ‘I touch, therefore I am… touch is inseparable from life itself’ and Thomas Dumm:

Touching makes us confront the fact of our mortality, our need for each other, and, as Judith Butler puts it, the fact that we are undone by each other.

In the last quote, the other face of touching appears, as something overwhelming and not necessarily supportive. If touch could expose vulnerability, it could also aggravate vulnerability to its own sheer overload, its ‘too much’.
Chapter 3 is abundant with critical considerations about illusions and deceptive promises of direct contact and involvement offered by 21th century digital communications and technologies.

Like other feminist thinkers, to Puig de la Bellacasa the tension between material connectedness and abstract detachment is a very important theme, particularly in reflections about care, embodied patterns of co-existence and hidden or suppressed vulnerabilities. Attentiveness to touch seems quite significant in matters of reciprocity of care:

Thought through a politics of care, ‘intra-active’ touch demands attentiveness to the response, or reaction, of the touched. It demands to question when and how we shall avoid touch, to remain open for our haptic speculations to be cut short by the resistance of an ‘other,’ to be frustrated by the encounter of another way of touching/knowing. A sense of careful ‘reciprocity’ could therefore be another value for thinking with touch’s remarkable quality of reversibility (MoC, 120).

Part Two: Alterbiopolitics and Ethos

Discussions in the CEC study group clearly revived in reading Part Two with the ‘praxis’ chapters of MoC.
In the final chapters 4 and 5, essentials of preceding ‘theoretical’ chapters are addressed again, yet in more concrete ecological practices: permaculture (chapter 4) and soil politics (chapter 5). Permaculture is an international ecological movement dedicated to agricultural practices based on a fundamental commitment to care for the earth (MoC 125). Connecting permaculture with her notions of care, Puig de la Bellacasa invites us ‘to envision alterbiopolitics as an ethics of collective empowerment that puts caring at the heart of the search for everyday struggles for hopeful flourishing of all beings, of bios understood as more than human community’ (MoC 22).

Such alternative ecological modes not only make different use of naturecultural sources, but they also perceive and frame these sources differently. Notions of care as laid out in previous chapters play a major role then, yet now it becomes obvious that MoC is not so much concerned with clear definitions or descriptions of doings of care itself (we don’t learn a lot about these alternative practices of care), as it is with epistemological, ontological and ethical meta-conditions pertaining to ‘contexts of care’.

When manuals and prescriptions for ‘good care’ are always bound to specific situations, never fixed or ultimate, as most care ethicists will agree upon, is it still meaningful then to outline meta-ethical principles? To Puig de la Bellacasa, the way we think, perceive, frame ourselves in the worlds we live in, particularly in relation to every-body and every-thing in these worlds, is decisive for the ways we care. To her, Ethics as the general discipline dominating most academic, governmental and corporate discourses, is quite the opposite of ethos, as concrete ways of life holding together a bios, entailing the whole network of often concealed dependencies and interrelations supporting co-existence of humans and more than humans together and alongside each other.

Ethical obligations as situated constraints

CEC attendees particularly discussed MoC 151-157, passages focussing on care, ethos and obligation. Transposing ideas of Isabelle Stengers about scientific practices to contexts of care, Puig de la Bellacasa sees ethical obligations of care only emerging from situational constraints, marks of possibilities and impossibilities in given situations and practices, relative to the material continuation of the ‘bios’ to which these practices and situations belong (MoC 154).
This is reminiscent of late-modern pragmatism à la Richard Rorty, advocating pluralism of knowledge and values, dependent upon local practices and interests. Critique of this pragmatism points to fundamentally different, conflicting and even incompatible perceptions of the same ‘practice’, with respect to its meaning, telos and definition of the world it is situated in.

Latour beyond meta-ethics

Now interestingly enough, it is Bruno Latour in his recent work, who contradicts the meta-ethics of Puig de la Bellacasa. According to Latour, people live in at least seven fundamentally differently perceived worlds (‘planets’), each of which would entail a different interpretation of a practice, situation or even bios. (Latour, 2017, 2018).
Without even agreeing with Latour’s model of seven planets, I do believe that the same situation or practice, even within the same ‘bios’, is more prone to conflict and disagreement, than to univocality and un-ambiguity. Certainly, Bruno Latour and Puig de la Bellacasa are fellow travellers with respect to their ecological concerns, but I presume the passage from concern to care is far more difficult here than MoC would have it (151-157).

The disruptive pace of care

The final chapter: Soil Times – The pace of ecological care is particularly interesting with the notion of different ‘timescapes’, alternative paces and time frames involved in a more dedicated and attentive caring for soil as part of shared bios. Soil should no longer be perceived as ‘dirt’ but as endangered segment of ecology in need of care (see also Monbiot, 2015). As this caring is not exclusively a business for humans, yet a web of processes where many agents, human and non-humans are involved, it seems important here to look for alternative definitions of ‘care’, not as a human privilege, but also as something even worms can do – Puig de la Bellacasa is suggesting this in several ways, though never explicitly. In this last chapter, my comments made about pragmatism seem to lose some ground, because here she appears to make a plea for a more combative attitude against less ecological and uncritical modes of caring for soil, as indicated by the final paragraph of MoC: The Disruptive Pace of Care.

Admittedly, Puig de la Bellacasa often mentions the disruptive and critical character of Care throughout her book. Emphasis on aspects of struggle and conflict involved with care in a more systematic and consistent manner, rather than in separate, dispersed comments, is something one could wish for, in further publications by this inspiring author.

Note 1:
This definition is adopted from another MoC review by Katy Ulrich


Barad, Karen 2012. ‘On Touching—The Inhuman That Therefore I Am.’ differences 23, no. 3: 206–23

Chrétien, Jean-Louis.2004. The Call and the Response. Translated by Anne A.Davenport. New York: Fordham University Press.

Dumm, Thomas. 2008. Loneliness as a Way of Life. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Haraway, Donna 2007. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Haraway, Donna. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham:Duke University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2005 ‘What Is the Style of Matters of Concern? Two Lectures in Empirical Philosophy’ Spinoza Chair in Philosophy Lectures at the University of Amsterdam, April–May 2005.

Latour, Bruno 2013. An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Latour, Bruno 2017 Facing Gaia: a new enquiry into natural religion, S.I. Polity

Latour, Bruno 2018 ‘A Tale of Seven Planets – An Exercise in Gaiapolitics’ at Zuiderkerk Amsterdam November 16th

Monbiot, George. 2015. ‘We’re Treating Soil Like Dirt. It’s a Fatal Mistake, as Our Lives Depend on It.’ Guardian, March 25.

Isabelle Stengers, 2010. Cosmopolitics I. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Tronto, Joan C. 1987. ‘Beyond Gender Difference to a Theory of Care.’ Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 12, no. 4: 644–63.
——— . 1993. Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. New York: Routledge.

About the author: Richard Brons

Richard Brons

Richard Brons (1950) graduated in philosophy and literary studies at University of Amsterdam and VU Amsterdam (NL). At the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht (NL), he completed a NWO PhD research on J.F Lyotard's ethics of Differend, about the injustice of speechlessness. Since 2012, he is responsible for the final editing of Waardenwerk Magazine, a continuation of the Journal of Humanistic Studies. Currently he is interested in confronting postmodern critical voices of male protagoniists like Lyotard and Foucault with the different voices of feminists like Gilligan, Benjamin and Butler.

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