Posthuman Scale and the Care to Come / Scalar Care / Sean Grattan and Charles M. Tung

Tall Forest Green Trees. Public Domain Images.

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FIGURE 1: Melania Trump in “I really don’t care, do u?” Zara jacket, June 2018

FIGURE 2: The Sound of Music variant of Zero Fucks meme circulating in the 2010s

The times we inhabit seem defined by the zero fucks that so many people have to give, or the depletion of fucks in store, and as a result, by a corresponding increase in care about care itself—its nature and its scope. The absence of care found its emblem or brand in the Zara jacket worn by the former first lady in June, 2018, on her way to McAllen, Texas to visit children separated from their parents by the president’s “zero tolerance” policy for undocumented people crossing the southern border of the US. For the members of the Care Collective in The Care Manifesto: the Politics of Interdependence, “I really don’t care, do u?” symbolized “the banality of carelessness,” the ordinary state of affairs produced by “decades of organized neglect suffered by our caring infrastructures and economies,” by “neoliberal capitalism’s near-ubiquitous positioning of profit-making as the organizing principle of life,” and the “dismantling [of] welfare states and democratic processes and institutions.”1 The jacket’s interpellative second-person address spread to the Covid 19 meme sphere in April 2020, when the vice president visited the Mayo Clinic unmasked, despite the medical facility’s policy on masking to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

FIGURE 3: Pandemic variant, April 2020

What should our response be to this crisis of not really caring? Is it to really care more effectively, or merely to care more? In order to exceed and get beyond the satisfactions of being good and of performing frequent acts of kindness, some kind of scalar operation is required. In their introduction to the recent special issue on radical care in Social Text, Hi‘ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart and Tamara Kneese recommend “strategies for enduring precarious worlds,” strategies that produce “positive political change by providing spaces of hope in dark times,” while also taking care to avoid care’s potential to be “used to coerce subjects into new forms of surveillance and unpaid labor, to make up for institutional neglect, and even to position some groups against others.”2 The imperative to survive the times requires a political action that redefines care from “an affective connective tissue between an inner self and an outer world” to a radical work that extends outward and includes what is often excluded from the affective connection—an attention to the processes defining “who is uncared for,” and the political calculations that determine “who receives care and who does not, and who is expected to perform care work, with or without pay.”3 To consider how care expectations are placed along gendered and racialized lines, which simultaneously establish who won’t receive care, is already to think about care at scale. Similarly, in The Care Manifesto, to “put care at the very centre of life” requires that one “understand care … across every distinct scale of life”: to move from the interpersonal relation to the interdependencies and interconnections among “global dimensions that have produced the climate crisis and economies that put profits over people,” “careless states and communities,” and the “banality of carelessness” that now infuses our “interpersonal intimacies.”4

This cluster originated in a roundtable that considered the ASAP/12 theme of reciprocity within the recent frameworks and problematics of caring as they overlapped with conversations about trajectories of the human-in-relation and relations after humanism.5 Like Hobart and Kneese, we were interested in the scaling up and scoping out of care—not only to inhumane systems and structures, but also to inhuman and nonhuman contexts. Our invitation to the roundtable was to engage the variability and multiplicity of the reciprocal relation that too often focuses on the individual who cares. For instance, the exhortation to care about the planet—to reduce, reuse, and recycle—often falls on the shoulders of individuals who are increasingly overwhelmed by, or precariously positioned in relation to, the enormity of the ecological crises buffeting the world. Yet individual care for the planet, without structural economic changes, does little to ameliorate the dramatic effects of climate chaos. Individual care often trades the satisfactions of focused effort for the frustrating sites of struggle at the right scales: in Caren Irr’s analogy, “Climate is in essence weather on an epic scale, and … mistaking weather for climate amounts to an inability to distinguish an episode from the narrative, a sentence from the story.”6 For this reason, Dipesh Chakrabarty argues for theorizing the planet in place of the earth, world, or globe. All of the latter are human constructs; however, “the planet is different. We cannot place it in a communicative relationship with humans.”7 In late capitalism, the increased focus on the individual—from narratives of wellness to personal responsibility—has winnowed down focus on public and social spheres and in doing so has worked to prioritize individual rather than structural changes. Deep time, slow violence, geological and interplanetary spaces, entanglements between the human and non-human: these are all multi-scalar ontological and epistemological reorientations that delineate complex lines of caring within the large-scale generality of the Anthropocene in our contemporary moment of climate crisis.

The discursive gravitational pull of the individual is the reason Seth Kahn and Amy Lynch-Biniek suggest that we shift “from caring to care work.”8 In the context of US higher education, the purpose of this rhetorical, conceptual, and organizational shift is to make visible the labor conditions of care, to produce solidarity and mutual responsibility, and to transform the agency of caring into the effort of organizing. Likewise focused on the university, Mariya Ivancheva, Kathleen Lynch, and Kathryn Keating point out that the neoliberal “entrepreneurial individualism” informing all university systems has produced “hidden doxa of carelessness underpinning successful academic careers,” a doxa composed of “the masculinist care-free norms of geographic mobility and the 24/7 availability of the ‘ideal academic.’”9 This norm of carelessness actively refuses to recognize the larger structural conditions of institutional work and family care work that continue to disproportionately affect women. Karen Cardozo adds that in a number of sectors beyond higher ed, the central labor of care is most frequently carried out by women in precarious positions, and thus effective caring about care work requires “intersectional alliances” among “among faculty, care workers in other industries, and members of society who benefit from caring labor.”10 Critical attention shifts from the interpersonal care relation to the variety of domains and institutions – “of family, community, market, and state” – that simultaneously demand and devalue care work.11 The crisis of care, and care work, is certainly not limited to the US; it is a feature of advanced neoliberalization, which has seen the rise of affective labor attended by the slashing of public institutions and services.

Moving through ever larger scales of care in the US raises questions about the place of intermediate levels and smaller spheres. For example, for Kim TallBear, care is congruent with “sustaining good relations among all the beings that inhabit these lands,” which is only possible with the rejection of “settler (property) relations.”12 Instead of dreaming of the nation-state, TallBear calls for “caretaking relations” that takes the very foundation of the United States to task. TallBear asserts that “this crisis or transition time in the United States and Canada, and globally, offers an opportunity to cease cultivating a misplaced love for the state no matter the party in power.”13 In other words, in this moment of crisis the possibility arises to refuse the catastrophic violences of the settler-colonial nation state. Flipping the horrifying quip that the settler has to “kill the Indian to save the man” on its head, TallBear asserts that the “twenty-first-century mantra must be to kill the settler to save us all.”14 Resisting ontological hierarchies of being sustained by the nation-state, care in the entanglement between humans and non-humans allows a more capacious and less destructive way of encountering the world. How humans imagine themselves in webs of relations between human and non-human carries ethical, political, and social weight. Radical imagination and hope are necessary for reasserting caretaking relations that reject the deleterious modes of being embodied in the insufficient imagination of the settler-state.

The scale question, as Gabriele Dürbeck and Philip Hüpkes point out in Narratives of Scale in the Anthropocene: Imagining Human Responsibility in an Age of Scalar Complexity, is now a key inquiry across a range of spheres, including our fields and subfields in literary and cultural studies. Quoting Stephanie LeManager, they observe that the question about scale “now begins every conversation in the humanities.”15 For Timothy Clark, scale is a “constitutive, unavoidable element of any representation, evaluation or literary reading …. A certain scale must make up the fundamental structure of any imaginable experience, or of any model of the world.”16 But every scalar solution reaches a point of counterproductivity in which the infrastructure supporting the size of an entity buckles under the weight of disproportionately heavy zones. For example, the proportionality of democracy to the scale of environmental problems caused by capitalism is now a stumbling block to anything but “managing the effects of climate change.”17 As Aysem Mert and Dougald Hine argue, just as “you cannot have a mouse the size of an elephant, because the weight increases as a cube of the animal’s size, and legs capable of carrying this increased weight would cease to have the recognizable proportions of a rodent,” so too must one examine the “size of the government [which] would have to match the scale of humanity’s transformative power over nature.”18 Since “nation-level democratic imaginaries hav[e] pervaded global governance,” it remains to be seen whether democratic “nation-state principles” can be replaced or at least reconfigured in order to foreground the “practices that provide fundamentally different relationalities and rationales than those which have culminated in the current ecological crisis.”19

Does this principle of scalar proportionality apply to the conceptual realm, to the technologies of representation, to the act of care itself? Does the nature of conceptual or representational materials necessarily constrain the set of objects it can support or make visible? Can an expansive rethinking of care, care work, and caring relations produce a more care full relation with the world in these dark times? In Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha insistently questions what it would mean to “shift our ideas of access and care (whether it’s disability, childcare, economic access, or many more) from an individual chore, an unfortunate cost of having an unfortunate body, to a collective responsibility that’s maybe even deeply joyful.”20 By insisting on centering Black, brown, queer, and disabled experiences and voices, they articulate a generative and futural world in which care is mutually given and received, while actively resisting the neoliberal valorization of the individual subject and capitalist white supremacy. In thinking about care and relationality and their connection to a range of social, economic, historical, and planetary scales, what other radical reimaginings become possible?

The contributors to this cluster approach these questions in a variety of ways, all of them provocative and productive. Sean Grattan’s essay finds in popular imaginings of apocalyptic times a figure for misfit care. In the CW show Legends of Tomorrow, Beebo, the giant plush toy based on Tickle-Me-Elmo, raises questions about the fit of care to the scale of certain problems and emerges as an answer by figuring misfit, queer teamwork, a care not bound to the downscaled ethics of the individual. Caren Irr interrogates the small acts of kindness popularized by kindness rocks placed along walking paths as a site of conflicting relations to nature. The strife around reactions to kindness rocks illustrates differing ideas of how care arrives: on the one hand, in the form of the somewhat saccharine and often Christian-messaged painted rocks, and on the other hand, in conservationists’ messages decrying anything left behind in nature. Instead, Irr reads these rocks as public environmental art, or a modern petroglyph, that should be cared for as part of a non-romanticized version of nature. The scale of the rock found on the walk is both much smaller and much larger than the allegorical readings of conservationists or Christians.

In her piece, Heather Houser reads the narrow regime of care that constrains women’s lives against wider possibilities. Houser examines the Oaxacan photographer Judith Romero’s Otras Mujeres: La decisión de no tener hijos / Other Women: The Decision Not to Have Children (2014-2021) as a rejection of the “compulsory care” that ties women’s identities and life trajectories to children and motherhood. By refocusing the directionality of portraiture from the scale of the individual subject of the photograph to a non-anthropocentric scale of care, Houser’s reading of the otras mujeres of Romero’s photographs reveals the way they embody a refusal of filiative forms of collectivity and the filial futurism drawn from those forms. Rebekah Sheldon raises questions about the involvement of choice and will in acts of caring, investigating Tamsyn Muir’s epistolary new weird short story “The Woman in the Hill,” in which the string of disappeared women—or nested narrators—creates a brutal repetition where the past, the present, the future infect one another. Her reading reevaluates the linear temporality at the heart of neoliberal conceptions of the self, and her description of fate, repetition, intimacy, and creation, insists on the complicated and complicit relationships between women and the ecological queerness of the anthropocene.

Continuing the temporal inquiry about the impacts of care, Kate Haffey examines scales of care and reading in Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, locating in Hartman’s reading practices a methodology for interrogating the multiple scales at work in contemporary ecological climate chaos. Haffey argues that reading for collectivity that includes both the living and the dead defies the temporal boundaries of the human and might be a way of understanding the long overlapping scales of the present. Meanwhile, Charles Tung scopes out to the imagination of knowledge-spreading institutions in North America across long durations, focusing on the ways that they have failed to care at a systemic level for those imagined to be beneficiaries of care. Landing on the vision of the “scyborg university” as the educational machinery at the end of the world, Tung argues for the possibilities of structural agency in learning scenarios and transmission technologies that span larger temporal and planetary scales. Finally, going far beyond the timescales of past and present lives and institutions, Aaron Jaffe’s contribution, “A Habitable Zone for Criticism,” and his four-and-a-half-minute video, “Extreme Deixis,” considers Richard McGuire’s Here alongside Vilem’s Flusser’s reflections on perception through technical means in order to explore an “inhuman communicology.” In scaling up referential scope beyond the limits of worlds and worldness (to which and to whom far away and temporally distant objects can be rendered in familiar accents), Jaffe points to a paleofuturist pointing and gesturing—a “here” that turns correlationism inside-out and transports indexicality beyond the frame of the human, an arche-deixis.

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This is part of the cluster Posthuman Scale and the Care to Come. Read the other posts here.

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  1. Andreas Chatzidakis, Jamie Hakim, Jo Litter, Catherine Rottenberg, and Lynne Segal, The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence (London: Verso, 2020), 2–3.
  2. Hi‘ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart and Tamara Kneese, “Radical Care: Survival Strategies for Uncertain Times,” Social Text 38, no. 1 (142) (March 1, 2020): 2.
  3. Hobart and Kneese, 2, 8.
  4. Hobart and Kneese, 6.
  5. Our roundtable also drew inspiration from Rebekah Sheldon’s analysis of the figure of “the child to come” as a site that, like care itself, invites a shift of focus from the foreground to the “the increasingly visible agencies of the nonhuman surround,” Sheldon, The Child to Come: Life after the Human Catastrophe (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 184.
  6. Caren Irr, “Contemporary Ecocriticism and the Weather,” Contemporary Literature 59, no. 2 (2018): 262.
  7. Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Planet: An Emergent Humanist Category,” Critical Inquiry 46 (2019): 3-4.
  8. Kahn and Lynch-Biniek, “From Activism to Organizing, From Caring to Care Work,” Labor Studies Journal 0.0 (2022), 2.
  9. Mariya Ivancheva, Kathleen Lynch, and Kathryn Keating, “Precarity, Gender and Care in the Neoliberal Academy.” Gender, Work & Organization 26, no. 4 (2019): 451, 450.
  10. Karen M. Cardozo, “Academic Labor: Who Cares?” Critical Sociology 43, no. 3 (May 2017): 405.
  11. Cardozo, 407. While our context in this cluster is primarily the US, it is worth mentioning the strike action happening currently in countries such as the UK, in which NHS nurses, junior doctors, teachers, and university staff have come together in what might be seen as “care strikes.” We are grateful to the editor Alexandra Kingston-Reese for this point.
  12. Kim TallBear, “Caretaking Relations, Not American Dreaming,” Kalfou 6, no. 1 (2019): 38.
  13. TallBear, 34.
  14. TallBear, 38.
  15. Gabriele Dürbeck and Philip Hüpkes, eds. Narratives of Scale in the Anthropocene: Imagining Human Responsibility in an Age of Scalar Complexity (New York: Routledge, 2021), 10.
  16. Timothy Clark, Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept, (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 73.
  17. Aysem Mert and Dougald Hine, “On Being the Right Size: Scale, Democracy and the Anthropocene,” Narratives of Scale in the Anthropocene: Imagining Human Responsibility in an Age of Scalar Complexity, edited by Gabriele Dürbeck and Philip Hüpkes (New York: Routledge, 2021), 166.
  18. Mert and Hine, 161.
  19. Mert and Hine, 170, 173.
  20. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018), 33.