Kate HOLFORD - Care in the Age of Autonomy (collage) 2019

Care in the Age of Autonomy

Word Count: 5,560

by Polina Aronson
000: Archive

When we at Stillpoint Spaces Berlin first met with sociologist Polina Aronson end of Summer ’17, it felt like we had found each other: our explicit interest to bring out to a wider public deceptively simple concepts defining our everyday lives found, in Aronson’s personal and professional investments, a clear and passionate voice. Soon after, in Autumn of the same year, she lectured, to a packed room, on her perceptive sociological project on Romantic Regimes, titled Why Love is Not Free: How Social Structures Affect Our Emotions.

By picking out the obvious bits and shedding light into the motivating forces behind the dominant concepts of love in the West and Russia, she left the audience silently wondering what to do next, if anything.

It was her open discussion in March this year, titled Why Give a Damn: Rediscovering Care in the Age of Autonomy, that truly drew my attention. Unable to attend the discussion personally, I felt desperate to know more.

What follows is a long, thoroughly satisfying, interview with Polina that touches upon, and elegantly stirs into clarity, such hard-to-crack concepts and experiences as caring for, caring about, personal autonomy, parenthood, friendship, monogamy, to name a few, all of them being mutually constitutive and derivative of the one most important human experience, that of care.

~ Sokol Ferizi

S: You make a distinction between caring for and caring about. Could you elaborate on that distinction, and then lead us to why this topic is becoming more relevant nowadays?

P: Yes, I make this distinction analytically but empirically, I realize that it is a very artificial distinction. In the course of our lives, we are both caring for and caring about. And it’s very hard to say when are we doing what. Thinking in terms of this distinction it’s more like a mental exercise.

The reason I am trying to test out different analytical frameworks with respect to care is the fact that care has only recently became the focus of sociological research. For a long time throughout the 20th century care has only been studied at the fringes of research dedicated to other phenomena: gender studies, household surveys, welfare economics etc.  In the last decades, however, care has become really important as an independent subject. Partially, this happened because many (you could even say, most) traditional institutions which determined ways care was to be practised are undergoing fundamental transformations, or have fallen apart. Looking at care gives us a new angle to study the demolishing and transformation of core social institutions, like the family, like the the labor-market, traditional forms of co-habitance…

At the same time, when we talk about care we need to define exactly what we are talking about. Care encompasses very different phenomena, from providing for the frail and the elderly, to actually giving help and assistance to our friends, or participating in the lives of our romantic partners. These are very, very different things. So care is this kind of rubber phenomenon, there are so many things inside of it. The one common denominator, that it has for me from the sociological perspective, is that everything about care is about the transition from pre-modernity to modernity, and then, say, to post-modernity. For instance, one of the most general processes that is characteristic of caregiving in its different implications today, is the professionalisation of care and the delegation of caring tasks to others. We increasingly put elderly people in old-people homes, we send our children to kindergarten, we actually also often advise our partners to go to a psychotherapist when their problems amount to such an extent that we feel we can’t help them. So there is a general trend of professionalisation of care.

S: You think this is the quintessentially modern transformation of care?

P: I think so, yes. This is a very profound symptom of the transition from traditional societies to modern and postmodern societies. So many things are packed in there. What used to be done at home is now done by specialists. To a great extent this transition has to do with massive participation of women in the labor market. Obviously feminism has completely revamped the division of gender roles. Women are no longer expected to take care of the elderly and children. So a whole new lacuna opens up for professions.

However, gender inequalities within the profession of care itself still prevail. Those who provide care are still mostly female, because there are still expectations that women are better at care than men are. But we are moving away from domestic labour to professional labour, in all forms of care, from kindergarten supervision, or a psychotherapeutic help. And this, of course, is changing profoundly the way we are ready to deal with stuff on an everyday basis. Because we have a very different decision-making spectrum now, that is, a spectrum that encompasses much greater variety of formal and informal types of care than in previous generations. When do you decide that an elderly person is ready to go to an elderlies’ home, when is this moment? Is it socially acceptable, or not, to do it? When do you decide it is the time for a child to start going to the kindergarten, and whether this is acceptable or not? When is it okay for a child to stay in an after-school, with a professional supervisor, social worker?

All this opens up a whole new area of questions about our readiness to delegate emotional labor. Because  care is essentially an emotional labor. And emotional labor, just like any other form of labor, in capitalism is increasingly becoming professionalised, stratified and outsourced.

S: Do you think this is becoming inevitable, or has become already, within individualism as the principal mode of life in the West?

P: Yes, I think it is inevitable in the model of capitalism that the Western societies are living in. It might be completely different in capitalist societies of other kinds, though. If you look at Singapore or Korea, both being very developed Asian countries, they still have a very different model of care provision. While extremely developed, extremely capitalist, they still have a notion of care provision which is firmly tied to traditional filial obligations.

But in the European West, in the United States, and in the post-socialist countries undergoing neoliberalisation, this process is inevitable. It is built into the very structure of this process.

S: Do you think this stratification and outsourcing of emotional labor is, in the world we live in, also due to the deep-seated notion that, when it comes to caring for one another in its broadest sense, there are always those who can take better care than others? I have in mind doctors, who can provide better care than non-doctors, say for internal diseases, and this has extended to psychological and emotional care, for which traditionally the best care you could get was in the family. But now there are professionals even for this! So is there an idea of better care, that has influenced this outsourcing, so to speak?

P: Of course! Let’s specify, however, what constitutes betterness. So what makes some form of care “better” than the other? Productivity, of course.

Productivity is the queen of capitalism. And care, too, has to be productive, it has to be effective. This is part of our expectation. Friends and relatives often do not stand up to this expectation because they don’t have qualifications. We are observing how new professions are springing up in the field of care. Take life coaches: a new thing, a decade-old maybe. The division of labour in the realm of pedagogy and social work is undergoing an increasingly finer split.

Historically, it is not a new phenomenon that we outsource emotional labor and care-giving to other people. In the 19th century rich families, aristocrats were hiring nannies and entire staff that took care of the children. In classic Russian novels there’s hardly ever a mother attending their child! There’s always an array of nannies. So in itself it’s not a new thing. What is new is the availability of these services to an increasing amount of people, as well as the growing necessity to rely on them.

I think we are living in a transition, a very long transition, that gradually builds up from the end of the 19th century to this day, which is a transition from caring for to caring about. Caring for implies hierarchical primordial structures. It implies inequality of subjects of care. I care for you means I provide you with stuff that I think you need;  even if yourself you don’t think so, it’s my job to give you that. Caring about is a different thing. It’s about creating circumstances and a setting where a person can actually take care of themselves on their own.

S: Isn’t the tone of this latter structure set by the family structure at the heart of caring for?

P: It’s also changing very much, because we are moving away from hierarchical, top-down families, where parents were expected to care for their children, you know, not only providing everything, but also expecting stuff back. I feed you, and you bring the grades from school. Or some other form of input-output.

We’re increasingly living in a culture of…in the words of my husband’s PhD supervisor who coined this phrase…totalitarian laissez-faire. So we’re living in times of laissez-faire, which I think plays not only into the conduct of children, but of adults as well. So we just let them do their thing, and there is a totalitarianism of how we apply this: let them take care for themselves – and when this approach is failing, let’s bring in the professionals! We’re teaching our children that we’re not responsible for their happiness, and that they should teach themselves how to be responsible for their happiness. We let them do stuff!

S: I wonder where are the models picked up at that stage before the professionals of care are ushered in for whatever reason. The models come in from a variety of sources, TV, social circles, parents…

P: I should say I am not very familiar with this field of research, but what I can say from my own experience, and from what I read, is that parents are expected to give a good example, that parents are expected to be the model, but without directly passing on some kind of advice, knowledge, expectation; just sort of be there, as it were! Consequently, children learn from you. So there’s a lot of pressure for parents to be kind of perfect individuals nowadays, because, you know, in a traditional structure parental authority was a self-understood thing, nevermind what kind of a private life an individual parent was leading outside of home. You could go to a bordello and come home, and teach your child to pray five times a day, but these two wouldn’t contradict each other.

But in modern society, in a modern emotional culture, with its extreme focus on full transparency, on flat hierarchical structures, this is not possible. So there is an expectation that you can’t have a shadow life. What counts is how you ‘truly’ are, your authentic self. If your authentic self is not good enough, then your children will pick up the wrong things anyways. This puts enormous pressure on parents, as well.

S: You mention in your introductory text to the discussion on care back in March here at Stillpoint Spaces Berlin that caring for, in any long-term relationship of unequal terms, say, one who cooks and the other who provides financial stability, is untenable in the future. Isn’t that, however, still pervasive as a basic structure of relationships? Or put it differently, isn’t a certain degree of inequality in relationships, an in-built imbalance of sorts, a guarantee of harmony?

P: I agree with you. First, I should say that I’ve been thinking about it, and I realise that I fell into the very trap that I was trying to describe. That is, while back then I was trying to convey this idea that caring about is a better form of caring, now I don’t think so anymore. From a second consideration, having spoken to my colleagues, and talking to people like yourself, I realized this is a cultural ideal that is imposed on us to some extent. Namely, the idea that we have to give each other space to develop our own capacities to take care of ourselves, so that there is no need for one person to control and chip in for the life of another person all the time. This is an ideal that is extremely strong, not just on the private care relationships, but also in politics, in development aid, etc.

In reality, of course, life doesn’t function this way. We as human beings, we really long for being cared for. We really long for somebody to make us breakfast, to tell us what to do, to pick up our mess, to sometimes cover our responsibilities, etc. We really long for such things. I guess this is where long-term relationships truly develop their potential. If two people can do it for each other without feeling uncomfortable, then they are in a very good place. They have a future. Because they have a somewhat tacit— though sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken — agreement that they are unequal on some levels. One person does the bills, the other person takes on childcare.

Now, we can moan about it, we can see it as an unpleasant division but, in fact, this is a sustainable structure for many people. With all the downsides, we still manage to satisfy some very deep longing when we do that, when we accept this structure, and we remain very profoundly human. When we are longing for somebody to come and say to us, can’t you see that I’m tired, can you make me a cup of tea? This strikes more sympathy with me than a given advise, or reproach.

There is this general notion of cold intimacies that Eva Illousz has coined. There exists a debate on how intimacy is becoming colder because we rationalise it, we distance ourselves from it, because we perpetually reflect on it. So it is with care when it’s being outsourced, when it’s purpose is efficacy. Like in, what will be more effective: do I cook you a breakfast when you’re tired, or do I teach you how to cook a breakfast for yourself? Of course, it will be more effective, theoretically, if I tell you, you know, you can’t come home with a hangover three times a week, and then be unable to make your own breakfast, you better do something about it. Or, book yourself a therapist and I will show you how to make a breakfast. It’s very ‘professional’, very proper, but what does it mean for the intimacy of two people when they engage in a relationship like this? Is this still intimacy, or more of a contractual relationship? So this is the question, but I don’t have an answer because this is a really fine line to step on. What is better, what is worse? What I can say is that human beings have a profound need for being cared for, and we need to recognise it. And when we do so, we should be more explicit about it, talk about it, and identify, particularly with our significant others, where are these areas where we’re happy to have it. Where do we have the right to this childish, infantile, ‘unprofessional’, totally pre-modern behaviour, you know, I just wanna be mothered?

S: Coming myself from a cultural background such as South-East Europe, I must say that what you are describing as a potentially legitimate right (to be mothered, say) is actually a basic structure in many relationships. It’s something that my parents’ generation, and perhaps those a bit younger, wouldn’t even question this…

P: …well, because they had the gender structure, which, while being oppressive in some instances, at the same time helped them. Your mother knew she will be the one, and your father also knew he will be the one on some other fronts. Just ask your mother at some point where does she feel cared for…You see, in Russia, many, many women living in this structure are happy to delegate other stuff to their husbands, you know, you pay the bills, I don’t care about that. Giving-up of this part of responsibilities makes them happy, it’s okay for them. I don’t know if I would be able to live this life myself, or if any other quasi-emancipated Western woman would, but I think that if you’re within this structure —the rules being set from the outside— you can find certain happiness in being given a place, a status, and in knowing how to manage it well.

But we, outside of these structures, are in a position where we have to make up everything from scratch. This is the most difficult part of living in this fully emancipated world where everything is a choice, everything is a decision, everything is negotiable, and everything has to be effective. Because if you are making a choice—and it has to be a good one, right? Nobody wants to make a bad choice!—say, you want to choose a partner who will know how to provide you with good care, only you are supposed to know what your needs are, so…

S:…don’t you think the idea that we know what we need for ourselves is rather overestimated?…


S:…the most basic psychoanalytic lesson is that we never know for sure what we want, and that the best we can do is go on discovering what we might want. And that in itself depends on circumstances, and the social relations we find ourselves in, to say the least. Entering new relationships constantly— may they be one-to-ones, in groups, or other forms, including relations we might enter with a larger community leading up to something like a State—with a clear idea of what I, or we, need, is where the problems start, from my point of view. This brings me to the following question:

What about the refusal of care?

I might have come too hastily to this question, but I sense, from my own relationships to say the least, a tendency on my part where I feel compelled to help, to give an advice, to care about, but often that compulsion is first and foremost judged as obtrusive. Frowned upon as it may be, I find this dynamic of compulsion to care about, and its refusal in relationships, as very rich and worthy of study. I often wonder, however, if it isn’t exactly the type of caring about that is mostly refused among people in relationships the one that is actually needed the most!?

P: Interesting! This is a very good point…

S: …because assuming that both, or all, parties involved are educated enough, for lack of a better expression, to know that we act from a position of freedom of choice, then if one of them takes the initiative to offer something like care (be it for or about) to the other(s), then he, she, or them are probably doing so from a certain understanding that they need it. Yet, when we refuse care, though it might be ‘simply’ due to our in-built ego defences, I suspect it might just as well have a lot to do with an equally built-in, powerful ideal, if not fetish, which is that of independence and self-reliance. These refusals, so often encountered, observed, or portrayed in our lives and those of others, make me pessimistic about the concept of care. Obsessively upholding this ideal can make the experience of caring for, or about someone such a dead weight. Have you had access to a similar observation and/or experience, and if so do you have any notion as to why this might be the case?

P: It’s a really interesting point! I think what you’re describing [the refusal of care based on the ideal of self-reliance] is an issue that perhaps arises because it contradicts the very popular, very fundamental notion of personal borders. If somebody’s care trespasses personal borders, then it’s no longer good, not considered to be right. Care may be rejected because it contradicts one’s own understanding of oneself as a mature person.

In other words, the content of the care that is being refused is being tarnished by the way it’s offered. I think this is a view that doesn’t understand that real intimacy is impossible without personal borders being violated. My friend Julie Reshe, whom you met, wrote about how sex is a profoundly traumatic act. Our most pleasurable experiences, our closest intimacies, can be also our strongest experiences of trauma. It’s not for nothing that sex, in medical language, is called penetration. It’s an act of breaking into something. So I guess with care it’s a question of legitimacy of who’s allowed to do what, how close, and finding out where these personal borders are. Moreover, because the Western culture so strongly associates maturity with autonomy this is a really specific problem of our times.

However, in other times, in other contexts, in other epochs, maturity could be built up based on completely different visions. In Ancient China it was the opposite; it was not about autonomy, but rather about subjecting yourself to a position in a certain structure and actually staying put there. This is what a mature person did. If you tried to break out of it, you were immature. So it’s very volatile. It doesn’t have to be this way, but here and now, this is how most people see maturity, and therefore care is such a contested notion. We have so many problems with it, because we long for it, but it can’t really be accepted. We wouldn’t take it, in other words!

S: Today it seems like the concept of autonomy has matured far more than the recognition of the need for care. In my view, however, care is, or at least has the potential of being an experience, something that can transform you in the process; while autonomy is more of a concept, a kind of rational ideal. True, autonomy could lead to specific,unique experiences, but first and foremost I see it as a blind striving towards some elusive ideal of independent self, and at the same time a mining of the relational field with others. It’s not something you can fully live, in other words, merely by virtue of the fact that you live around and with others. You’re more often dependent than not, that is to say. I don’t know if this is strictly an offshoot of individualism and capitalism as prevailing philosophical and economic doctrines governing our lives. Seems like it, but it also seems like we are hooked on the ‘mature’, rounded, rosy concept of autonomy, while we are at the same time quite desperately in need of countless experiences that are fundamentally related to care.

P: Yes, absolutely! There is a contradiction between autonomy and attachment in our societies. These are two things that constantly clash with one another, and autonomy is certainly placed way up on top of attachment. This is where our problems come from. We are constantly being told not to recognise our need for attachment, to kind of just deal with it by perpetually structuring ourselves, changing ourselves, teaching ourselves to be autonomous. And, of course, care comes with attachment. When you care about someone, you grow attached to them, and the other way around, you care about people who you are attached to.

S: Wouldn’t you connect this tension between care and autonomy with gender and its structure in the society? Specifically, I have in mind the kind of clichéd notion, perhaps, that the drive for autonomy is a masculinised notion. Saying this it might seem as if I am automatically assuming that care, in turn, is a feminine quality. But I am fully aware that by saying this seemingly time-worn truism, I’m instantly entering a volatile, even vicious, territory. But I think it’s a kind of a basic assumption circulating always around…

P: I think it’s been considered as such. But it’s rather more…well, if you ask neuroscientists, they’d probably mention oxytocin, or other hormonal influences in  women, that make them more caring. But I do think that this is yet again another of the big social constructs about male and female propensity to care. Take a good army general, and their relationship to soldiers, it’s a relationship of care. Look at a good proper manager in a good company, which is very male-dominated…like an investment fund…there is care to be found.

S: I must say in both examples the potential for abuse is massive…

P: True, but we’re talking about good examples. Men are not incapable of care. And it’s not like they have to learn it from women. There’s a general capacity in humans to care for each other. It’s just that women are expected to do so, and told to do so. Men are told that they don’t necessarily have to.

One thing I would like to say here: there are very different kinds of feminism out there, as well. There is hard-core, Silicon Valley-style, third-wave feminism, you know, Hillary Clinton, or [Facebook’s Chief Operations Officer] Sheryl Sandberg-style women, do your thing, be assertive, girls rule, you know. It does operate on that level that simply takes up from men’s world. Be like a man, be assertive, or as a famous businesswoman said once, I am the one with the biggest balls in this building.

I think this is a really capitalistic kind of feminism, because it’s get more value, for your money; grow your own resources; lean in, make sure you get more. But if you look at post-Soviet feminism, it has a completely different agenda, and a completely different notion of care. It’s still very much about the question how do we women act to create something collectively good. It’s not about investing yourself, leaning in, and getting more power. It’s more about thinking in terms of structures, and asking where can we, as women, invest in relationships, and create resources for everybody, so that they can have a better life.

I have more sympathy for the latter, rather than the former type of feminism, I must say. I have colleagues in Russia who are thinking completely differently from those in the U.S., or Britain. It is collectivist, while also being equally enlightened, educated, clearly understanding the discrepancies between the genders. But they have a societal goal in mind.

S: I was wondering what would you suggest the study of care intersects with, for those who’d want to delve into it. For you as a sociologist, when you think about, or work on the concepts around the experience of care, what other fields of study circle around it?

P: Care is a very interesting phenomenon since it lets us look at the general social transformations, it’s something that hasn’t been specifically on the focus of research for many decades. And suddenly it becomes a generic notion for everything that’s been left out. Everything that would describe human relations…so where would we have to look…? Queer Theory is really important because it’s where people really built things from scratch. You almost don’t have any pre-existing notions there, you just have to build, nothing is a given. Clearly, massive household studies would be very interesting to trace, it’s the very context of care. You have to know how households have changed. You have to look at big panel studies to see how people changed, moving from multi-generational households to nuclear families, in the course of time. Obviously, you’d have to look at the changes in the state welfare policy, how do states react, when do they start building houses for the elderly, when do they start building kindergartens?

S: The state has never been imaginative when it comes to recognising the need for care…

P: …the state is reactive, it’s not active…

S:..it has always taken for granted the family structure, the basic structure. You mentioned household studies, and I instantly thought, monogamy!  

P: Well it’s more about marriage than it is about monogamy. Marriage is kind of monogamy but, of course, how marriage has changed matters…People have indeed moved from one-time monogamy to serial monogamy, they change partners throughout their lives, and what about care then? Who cares for who? What kind of expectations are there?

Marriage is a social institution. I am interested in social institutions and everything that is attached to them by law. Monogamy is more like a form of cohabitation, and also a moral, ethical norm, that some people prefer to stick to. Monogamy and Western marriage are totally conflated. But they are two different things. There can be monogamy without formal marriage, and in that case certain relations of care won’t be written on paper.

As as you know, this creates incredible problems for gay people who can’t visit their partners in intensive care units. There’s a huge debate on it. You might have, in such cases, a monogamy, but not a marriage, and yet gay partners are prevented from  legally visiting one another in health institutions, for example. But in cases of straight people, you have a marriage, but maybe not a monogamy at all, but they’d have the right anyway to visit their married partner! So these are two very different things, and should be studied with such an understanding in mind.  

I think friendship studies are also really interesting.

S: I was going to bring that up next. Let’s move on to that, definitely. On top of my head, it just sounds right to state that all kinds of care that come from family-based structures are, in essence, different from the ones that are built outside of family structures, such as friendship. But I wonder if the difference isn’t such a big one after all.

Or, what about the adolescent growing up, asks my suspicious mind, having picked up the basic structures of relations which are family-based. Does that lead to a reproduction of these structures in friendship?

In this context, I’d like to ask you: is there a possibility of friendship outside of the predominant cultural values?

P: This makes me think of a concept called emotional refuge, which I’d guess is precisely what you’re talking about.

S: Could then friendship be seen as an emotional refuge?

P: In Soviet Union friendships were exactly that, you built an alternative State…it didn’t have to be dissident, just alternative.

S: A parallel system, perhaps! Personally, I see friendship as a respite from the established, normative social forms of being together. Including a respite from the assumptions of what friendship itself is, or should be, within these forms of togetherness. I sense a potential in friendship of always becoming something else, an unforseeable of sorts.

P: I think it does, sure. Clearly so! That’s why so many authoritarian states are even more likely to temper with friendship than with erotic relationships because they understand the potential power of it. Friendship doesn’t have to perform this function, though it can! It really depends on what is outside, what is at stake. For whatever reason, are we being friends against something, or are we being friends for something, or because of something? There are so many different types of friendship.

S: To end, does caring about a friend, or a partner, automatically translate into caring for them?

P: I think not immediately. But to some extent for sure. And this is where sticking to caring about as a cultural ideal is not fulfillable. So when we’re really close to somebody, I think we need to bear in mind that at some point we will be taken care of, and they will be taking care of us. These are relationships that imply some degree of it. When the entire relationship is based on this, however, I think then it is doomed, at least for me.

Every couple, and every couple of friends, in the course of life, builds up these pockets of dependance. Yet, while it is so natural to human beings, we remain so, so dismissive of dependance. That’s why I think we need to be explicit about our need for dependance. Rather than smash these pockets [of dependance], when they open up, and jump hastily to the argument of egalitarianism and personal independence in relationships, maybe the first thing we need to do is ask ourselves if caring isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Interview with POLINA ARONSON


Originally published SEPTEMBER 2018

Kate HOLFORD - Care in the Age of Autonomy (collage) 2019


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