Keynote of the Conference by Isabell Lorey: Starting From Care Changes Everything
The following text was the keynote for the opening conference CINEMA OF CARE – WHO LOOKS AFTER FILM CULTURE? of Berlin Critics’ Week – on the 15th of February 2023. It was followed by a case study talk with Elke Marhöfer and Julia Bee and a panel talk with Claire Denis, Marek Hovorka and Abby Sun, hosted by Devika Girish.
The Collective Artistic Direction thanks Isabell Lorey for being able to publish it in the 2023 edition of the Magazine.
Starting from care changes everything
During the pandemic, it became clear to a broad public – not least in Europe – that the jobs relevant to the “system” are to a large extent care and nursing activities. This became particularly obvious because we are dealing with extremely economized health care systems. They are so trimmed for profit that they are always close to collapse in the wake of a prolonged health emergency. The care crisis that has existed for several decades was once again evident. And it also became evident that care workers were exposed to the greatest contagion and stress.
This concerns especially the households: through home office and enormously increased reproductive work; most care work was the responsibility of feminized individuals and women. However, stress and strain arose not only from caring for many people in the household, but also from isolation, from the interruption of queer care relationships, from the pathologization of contacts beyond traditional families and kinships.1
From a feminist perspective, the existential importance of care activities and relationships has by no means only become “visible” with the pandemic. Care is not simply “relevant to the system”, it is systematically devalued and feminized precisely in this capitalist, patriarchal “system”. To focus on care therefore means to start from its existential importance without devaluing care activities and making them primarily the responsibility of women. Care must be radically moved out of patriarchal and capitalist logics. In queer-feminist contexts, the relevance of care has been inseparable from a radical critique of patriarchal relations of power and exploitation for many decades.
Care work has historically been enclosed in the private household of the patriarchal family, feminized; as “women’s work” it is considered unproductive. It is supposed to be private, apolitical, a natural female capacity. In middle class households, care work is often left to racialized migrant illegalized women, in whose own household care gaps are created: so-called international care-chains.
Marta Malo and others have drawn our attention to the fact that we live in social conditions in which care is permeated by various forms of violence: economic violence, in the sense of exploitation and poor pay; direct violence, mislabeled as “domestic violence”; machist violence in the streets and squares, in the light and in the dark, as violence against rebellious women who do not comply and care in this way, against queer and trans* people. Finally, the social organization of care is riddled with legal violence: such as the ban on abortion, as well as making it difficult, pathologizing and punishing lifestyles that are non-binary and non-heterosexual.2
By far, not everyone receives the same care. Care is unequally distributed. Those who do not belong to the norm, who are not considered normal, who are marked as strange, different and crazy, are denied the support and protection of the heterosexual white abled majority society, again and again also for racist, sexist, trans* and queer-phobic reasons. We tend to live in careless societies where care and support are hierarchized by gender, sexuality, class, “race,” abledness, age, and citizenship.
It is not only the pandemic that has made it clear that no one can live autonomously and freely without others.3 We depend on each other for support and care. No one can survive without mutual relatedness. We are vulnerable, interdependent beings. Care relationships are fundamental and primary. To exploit and abuse them is to violently interrupt the primary ties.4 Violence breaks with care. Care relations and dependencies are also interrupted, prevented and denied when people assert their individualistic freedom and autonomy, they only mind their own advantages and interests and refuse any solidarity. This ignorance of the concerns of others forms alliances with authoritarian developments and a growing right-wing populism.
However, another much older figure denies the fundamental interconnectedness and interdependence of care relations: the figures of the lone fighter, the lone performer, the solitary artist. They are thoroughly masculinist, white and colonialist figures who believe they can fight, create and win on their own strength and brilliance. The solitary fighter, performer, artist, “plants himself in life (…) by his own strength, without anyone holding, weighing, or feeding him, [he is] forever healthy and clean,” he plunders, conquers, and destroys “all others by his own strength (…) to found the world on this devastation.” This figure of the hero, however, loses all power, it “crumbles into ruins when we look at what surrounds us through the eyes of those who care for us – starting from the intertwined bonds of interdependence on which we rely.”5
To see from care, from existential relations of care, to put care at the center, means to politicize it; it means to question the ways in which it is socially and institutionally organized. Putting care at the center means a far-reaching critique of existing social, economic, ecological, and legal conditions.
Seen in this light, care means more than being there for someone else. It is more than a relationship between human individuals. Care relationships go beyond the bonds of individuals, they even go beyond human relationships. They include relationships with all living beings and environments. Care is ecological.6 To put care at the center is to understand our multiple dependencies on ecologies and to urgently address climate change; it is to invent new worlds grounded in every way in mutual relatedness, interdependence, and respect.
Relationships of care are transversal, boundless, encompassing, manifold. To assume that we all are interdependent is precisely not to assume that everyone is the same. A focus on care cares for multiple desires, allows for heterogeneity and multiplicity without categorizing and hierarchizing into identities. In Democracy in the Political Present, I proposed a queer feminist perspective on democracy that takes as its point of departure both mutual connectedness and care, and the struggles against neoliberal individualization, against patriarchal violence against women, queers, and trans people.7 It is about a transnational democracy, not based on the one people, the one nation, and it is directed against right wing and authoritarian populism.8 It is a form of democracy in the present that values multiplicity, not homogeneity. Such a transnational democracy needs a new understanding of citizenship: a care-citizenship.
About 20 years ago, the queer feminist collective Precarias a la deriva brought to the discussion the proposal of a society based on care: a cuidadanía.9 Cuidadanía is a Spanish neologism meaning care citizenship. Cuidadanía stands for a new form of living together, in which connectedness with others is not devalued or shifted into the private sphere. In the midst of the neoliberal “crisis of care” and the “precarization of existence” that cannot be separated from it, there is not simply a call for more security. The obvious problem with the call for more security is that very quickly the authoritarians and reactionaries are called on the scene: those who “create order,” criminalize migration, and promote gender inequalities. Cuidadanía interrupts these orders of security and their logics of exclusion and defamation, and with them the fear of insecurity and vulnerability. In this way, a space is created in which – beyond neoliberal logics – one can think anew about safeguarding.
The cuidadanía is based on rights of care, such as a general “right to care and to be cared for,” which at the same time implies not being obligated to care work qua social positioning. The cuidadanía is based on this right, in which individuals are not understood as separated from each other, but as manifold interrelated singularities. It is a right that recognizes the precariousness shared with others.10
The cuidadania emerges, for example, in and through the queer-feminist care strike movements that have been taking place for several years, especially in Latin America, but also in many places in Europe, taking to the streets with large demonstrations not only on March 8. They are not suspending care, but striking against the ignorance of care.11 It takes many struggles to put care at the center and act from it.
Twenty years ago, when the Precarias a la deriva began to speak of the cuidadanía, they were acting in the midst of the transnational movement of the precarious: the EuroMayDay movement. It was a movement that was active throughout the 2000s in many different cities and countries, very much influenced by queer feminist activism, but also from the alter-globalization movements, that is, movements that were very critical of identity and representation. And very important: the EuroMayDay movement was very broadly anchored in the local and transnational very heterogeneous cultural field.
At that time, I myself was part of the feminist group kpD (kleines postfordistisches Drama / small post-fordist drama). We did a kind of artistic research, better: a militant research on the precarization of cultural producers, on their/our fantasies of freedom and independence.12 kpD was a group of four friends here in Berlin: next to me Katja Reichard from the bookshop pro-qm; Marion von Osten, whom we have been missing so much for more than two years and whose 60th birthday we celebrated a few days ago in her memory at the Volksbühne; and Brigitta Kuster who has invented “Cinema of Care” as a strong concept and elaborated it over the years.13
As kpD, we conducted long interviews with cultural producers and used them to make a film with drama students in a casting show setting. The film is called “Kamera läuft!”.14 But because we didn’t get an answer to the question about the organization of the precarious in the interviews, we took the film and showed it in many places in the context of the movement of the precarious, in order to initiate a common exchange about precarious working and living conditions, to show people that it is not a matter of individual precarization, and to show and expand commonalities and resistances. In the first years we refused to show the film in the art field and other contexts without having discussions.
Not by chance, I am mentioning kpD at the end of my short speech: I am trying to give a short answer to the question that Elena and Dennis asked me a few weeks ago, namely what role art plays in my reflections.
Artistic practices such as kpD’s film and the way we have worked together in mutual care have shown that critical analysis and thus understanding of the very social conditions in which we work artistically cannot be separated – neither from science and theory nor from activism.
1 See also Verónica Gago, Luci Cavallero, Der Haushalt als Versuchslabor. Feministische Kämpfe um Mieten, Haus- und Heimarbeit, Wien u.a.: transversal texts 2023 (https://transversal.at/books/der-haushalt-als-versuchslabor).
2 See Marta Malo, “¡Estamos para nosotras! Sieben Thesen zu einer radikalen Sorgepraxis“, transversal. blog, January 2021, https://transversal.at/blog/estamos-para-nosotras-sieben-thesen
3 See Isabell Lorey, “Corona Effects”, transversal. multilingual webjournal: “Around the Crown”, April 2020, https://transversal.at/transversal/0420
4 See Judith Butler, The Force of Nonviolence. An Ethico-Political Bind, London: Verso 2021.
5 Malo, “¡Estamos para nosotras!”.
6 See Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham: Duke UP 2016.
7 See Isabell Lorey, Democracy in the Political Present. A Queer-Feminist Theory, London: Verso 2022.
8 On “authoritarian populism” see also Stuart Hall, “Popular-Democratic vs Authoritarian Populism”, in Marxism and Democracy, ed by Alan Hunt, London: Lawrence &Wishart 1980.
9 See Precarias a la deriva, Was ist dein Streik? – Militante Streifzüge durch die Kreisläufe der Prekarität, Wien u.a.: transversal texts 2014.
10 See Isabell Lorey, State of Insecurity. Government of the Precarious, London: Verso 2015.
11 See Verónica Gago, Feminist International. How to Change Everything, London: Verso 2020.
12 kpD, “The Precarization of Cultural Producers and the Missing ‘Good Life’”, transversal. multilingual webjournal: “militant research”, June 2005, https://transversal.at/transversal/0406/kpd/en; Isabell Lorey, “Governmentality and Self-Precarization. On the normalization of cultural producers”, transversal. multilingual webjournal: “machines and subjectivation”, January 2006, https://transversal.at/transversal/1106/lorey/en
13 http://pro-qm.de; Marion von Osten: Once We Were Artists (A BAK Critical Reader in Artists’ Practice), Utrecht: BAK 2017, https://www.bakonline.org/basics/marion-von-osten-once-we-were-artists-a-bak-critical-reader-in-artists-practice/; Brigitta Kuster, “… I Care Because You Do. Towards a cinema of care | Für ein sorgetragendes Kino”, Open Gender Journal, 6, 2022, 6. https://doi.org/10.17169/ogj.2022.158; Brigitta Kuster, “We Fight Because We Care. Toward Doing Cinema of Care”, transversal. blog, Oct. 2022, https://transversal.at/blog/toward-doing-cinema-of-care
1214 „Kamera läuft!“ kleines postfordistisches Drama, Berlin/Zürich 2004, 32:31, https://vimeo.com/363605836