How does one imagine care for a post-anthropocentric world? Care for your software like you would care about yourself? Love your infrastructure? Such questions amuse as tongue-in-cheek versions of posthuman ethics, but lead also to discussions of, for example, political economy and political ecologies of technology. Why would you want to care for infrastructures that are installed by global digital corporations? What sorts and forms of care are there that actually link up to current discussions in the digital humanities, as well as in critical posthumanities?
Bethany Nowviskie gives important clues and cues as to where to go when considering care in the digital humanities. As she argues, referring to Steven Jackson’s work on repair and with a nod to feminist theory, there is a body of writing about care that needs careful revisiting. One direction relates to rethinking subjectivity, the seemingly most intimate center of agency that itself needs to be radically opened to account for more than the subject as an individual self. A second direction seems to point to scales relating to climate change and, when discussing technology, especially to distributed infrastructures.
What remains implicit in Nowviskie’s account can be elaborated with some more detail about what feminist studies of care can bring to the discussion. In such developments, the important steps have moved care from being a feminized and essentialized “skill” or “attitude” or moral theory to a political theory (Braidotti, Transpositions, 120). Joan Tronto’s definition from the early 1990s is a useful addition to the debate:
We suggest that caring be viewed as a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue and repair our “world” so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web. Caring thus consists of the sum total of practices by which we take care of ourselves, others and the natural world. (103)
Reading Tronto through Rosi Braidotti, one ends up on a vector that leads to a radical rethinking of the subject of care not merely as an agent in control but also as part of a wider milieu—as part of a web of care that becomes a collective, posthuman, and post-anthropocentric network that does not merely fold back on the human. Instead of a human-centered perspective, Braidotti claims that “animals, machines and earth ‘others’ can be equal partners in an ethical exchange” (Transpositions, 121). Care detaches from being merely a relation among humans and becomes involved in a wider, more radical political ecology (and hence also involved in questions about what sorts of power relations are embedded in the situations of care that are unevenly distributed across the social field).
Hence, another line of inquiry emerges—one in conversation with Nowviskie: How does one develop practices of care that deal with technology, particularly in the political economy in which we are involved? Practices of repair, and perhaps also work with media archaeology understood as an interest in the relevancy of so-called old or obsolete media in digital culture, offer some ways of doing so. Indeed, many of the practices and theoretical developments associated with media archaeology explicitly detach from the glamor of the new and the corporate rhetorics of the digital. Instead of merely the new and the recent, one can attach to the longer durations of technology in the humanities; this is to remind us of the importance of the multiple time levels on which media cultural—digital, even—time moves: to think of the new through the old, abandoned, and forgotten and to find ways that work against “psychopathia medialis” (Zielinski), the drive toward standardized, preordered media reality. Drawing on Deleuze and others, Verena Andermatt Conley develops the idea of “care of the possible”—a care attached to a future that works as a speculative ethico-politics too. Conley’s idea emphasizes care as a philosophical practice that interfaces with the context of posthuman theory. It develops through “responsibility, caution, attentiveness, concern, a willingness less to look after than to relate to and engage with” an account of the situated affects that goes far beyond an assumption of a contained humanist subject that often excluded many of the realities of race and gender from its core.
And there is more: we need to ask how the subject of care becomes concerned with more than isolated objects in contained settings; how to develop effective practices of care that scale up from tinkering with individual devices so as to address issues of infrastructure as they pertain to contemporary culture. These questions parallel some of the discussions in curating at the moment: curare, to care for the networks in which technology is an essential infrastructure, both for the increasing array of cultural/art artifacts and processes and as infrastructure for the cultural institutions themselves (see Krysa).
This is an issue of both scale and political economy; in other words, questions of infrastructure are strongly embedded in power structures of ownership, in the distribution of rights and responsibilities, and in the grim realities of digital economy as corporate culture. How much is this corporate infrastructuring the ground on and against which digital humanities must negotiate issues of care both as ethics and as political economy? Issues of infrastructural, distributed scale, and political economy indeed overlap. As Nowviskie hints as well, one has to reflect on what sort of subject will need to be involved in DH projects that are radically engaged with the wider global scope of planetary issues. Does digital humanities have things to say about, for example, postcolonial issues in digital culture and the strange planetary ties of digital infrastructures, whether those of satellite realities of visual culture, of supply chains of materials, of resource extraction, or of electronic waste as the residual level of dead media (see, for example, Bratton; Cubitt; Parikka; Parks and Starosielski)? And can DH develop its own contribution to the issues of nonhuman scale, non-anthropocentric modes of knowledge that are worthy of its time (see Braidotti, Transpositions, 18; Andermatt Conley)? One provisional response resides in the theoretical ideas and practical ties (including experimental practice in art and design) that the field might develop in conversation with the body of existing thought in postcolonial and race studies, environmental humanities, feminist and queer theories, and critical posthumanities (see Braidotti, “The Critical Posthumanities”). Care thus becomes a venture into methodological choices and radical thought.
Andermatt Conley, Verena. “A Care of the Possible: A Creative Fabulation.” Cultural Politics 12, no. 3 (November 2016): 339–54.
Braidotti, Rosi. “The Critical Posthumanities, or: Is ‘Medianatures’ to ‘Naturecultures’ as ‘Zoe’ Is to ‘Bios’”? Cultural Politics 12, no. 3 (November 2016).
Braidotti, Rosi. Transpositions. On Nomadic Ethics. Cambridge: Polity, 2006.
Bratton, Benjamin. The Stack. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2016.
Cubitt, Sean. Finite Media. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2016.
Krysa, Joasia. “The Politics of Contemporary Curating. A Network Perspective.” In The Routledge Companion to Art and Politics, edited by Randy Martin, 114–21. London: Routledge, 2015.
Nowviskie, Bethany. “Digital Humanities in the Anthropocene.” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities 30, suppl. 1 (2014), http://dsh.oxfordjournals.org/content/30/suppl_1/i4.
Parikka, Jussi. A Geology of Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
Parks, Lisa, and Starosielski, Nicole, eds. Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2015.
Tronto, Joan. Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Zielinski, Siegfried. Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means. Translated by Gloria Custance. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006.