Care and Repair
In “Thorns, Or the Things that Humans Do in the Name of Care that Are Something Other than Care” (Los Angeles Review of Books, 2023), poet Juliana Spahr begins her inquiry into care by tracking the several kinds of feces—human, canine, feline—that become the concern of adult children caring for their elderly parents. In the midst of her own caregiving saga, the liberal arts college where Spahr taught for many years was dissolved and then bought up by another institution. Her new employer, she writes, “tended to treat us less as faculty, and more like ghosts” (86). Spahr uses the humanities to confront the dilemmas of caregiving in overburdened households, university workplaces, and the lives of animals both far and near.
Care is patient, attentive, and abundant in sympathy. Care nurtures kinship—both inherited ties and co-created ones. Care can also be coercive, and care can even kill. Feminist and disability theorists such as Carole Gilligan, bell hooks, Audre Lord, Joy James, and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha have approached care as a form of resistance. Other thinkers such as political philosopher Nancy Fraser and anthropologist Carlo Caduff have pushed back against care as an ethic that naturalizes the servitude of women, immigrants, and people of color and shifts responsibility for care from public services to unpaid workers. For philosophers from Seneca and Marcus Aurelius to Heidegger, Foucault, and Nussbaum, care figures human beings’ primordial entanglement in the world. Care also involves the kinds of embodied skill and tacit know-how, including Indigenous knowledge and feminized labor, often not recognized or valued by scientific research methods.
Care for the self and others, care for objects and environments, and care for care as a concept and predicament infuse humanist research and pedagogy. Literature, history, and art history are disciplines that aim to listen with attention, conserve what is fragile, retrieve what is forgotten, and uncover what the official record won’t tell you. “The caring professions” include teaching as well as nursing and social work. Care is at the heart of affective and emotional labor, the performance of personality and the expenditure of attentiveness that artists and educators share with the healthcare and hospitality professions. Care is a key term in the health humanities, and the vocations of both curing and curating have care (Latin cura) at their center. In universities that require more and more care work from their employees, humanities centers often aim to be sites of care, as the UC Davis Humanities Institute explored in a series on care co-hosted with the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes.
Repair implies responsiveness to what is broken, frayed, mishandled, abandoned, or abused. Reparative justice informs abolitionist movements and calls to compensate the descendants of formerly enslaved people for generational harms. At UC San Francisco, the REPAIR Project (an acronym for REParations and Anti-Institutional Racism) addresses racial inequities in health care and its scholarship. In literary studies, reparative criticism promises to restore trust in art but risks blunting the hard truths delivered by critique. Repair cafés are community-based efforts to fight planned obsolescence by fixing broken devices. What would a humanities “repair café” look like? What is broken in our toolset and in need of retrofitting and replacement, so that we can do better by the past and fashion new structures that bear witness to trauma, memory, and prior efforts at healing rather than effacing them?
Environmental humanities and environmental justice movements are beset by questions of care, repair, and their limits. The humanities can bridge scientific and local ways of knowing through the arts of responsive listening and engaged storytelling, as UCHRI will explore through our partnership in WUICAN (Wildlands-Urban Interface Climate Action Network), a multicampus, two-year collaboration between UC scholars in the sciences, law, and humanities and local land managers, tribal leaders, and interfaith groups.
What does it mean to repair and take care of our objects of study, including texts and artifacts from the distant past as well as students, knowledge makers, and communities of concern in the present? To what extent do humanistic research methods and pedagogies inherit exploitative and extractive practices, and to what extent have humanistic forms of receptivity spurred the pursuit of epistemic justice?
Care and repair call to mind the following questions and projects:
- The vocations of care and repair in classrooms, research labs, humanities centers, archives, museums, hospitals, prisons, and parklands
- The ethics of care and the hermeneutics of repair in humanistic inquiry and traditional knowledge practices
- Frameworks for care and repair in feminist, Black, Indigenous, ethnic, gender, and disability studies
- Care and repair in the environmental humanities and environmental justice movements
- Care and repair in the health humanities and the post-pandemic world
UCHRI looks forward to exploring these and other issues with colleagues and students in the UC system in 2023-24.