Little did I realise that my life — shaped by marginalisation, illness, and privation — would prove ideal preparation for a global pandemic. But there you go. I have skills.
In light of my life experience, it has also been interesting (to say the least) for me to watch the impact of Covid-19 on my professional field of academic philosophy. Without doubt, everyone is trying their very best. Resulting in extraordinary efforts made, generosity shown, compassion given. Nevertheless, it appears to have opened up academic philosophy’s existing fault lines in deep and unexpected ways. Aside from the understandable general panic, as I see it, philosophers have been exposed as desperately unskilled, and more importantly, that many do not realise that it is skills — learned practices, techniques and strategies — that are needed, ‘now more than ever,’ to do the job. Unfortunately, that talent, our ‘first rate minds,’ alone will save us is a terrible lie we’ve long been taught to believe.
For the philosophers yet to notice, sorry but no, you cannot ‘talent’ your way out of a pandemic, nor, indeed, through everyday life. Talent, like any given human disposition, and like the accidents of circumstance, is just another thing dealt to us by luck. Skill is the way we can endure, understand, and flourish amidst our particular dispositions and circumstances. Nevertheless, academia, especially philosophy, is caught up in this lie and prioritises talent, which results in a model where the university’s job is to stuff ‘first rate minds’ with the matter of academe, without regard to what it takes to rightly grasp, handle, and form it. Getting these formal skills then becomes a matter of luck. But it need not be.
In my case, luck not only has given me a ‘first rate mind’ but also womanhood, a body carved out of pain and dis-ease, and an outlook defined by a lifetime of going without. Most recently, luck has given me a presumptive Covid-19 bacterial lung infection, very luckily, one that has not killed me. Still, throughout it, throughout all of this, it has been my skill (the fruit of long, challenging, purposeful cultivation) that keeps me safe and relatively comfortable, here, on my own, in my tiny top floor flat. Now, if you’re thinking, and especially if you’re now feeling the need to tell me, that I’m ‘just so lucky to be able to cope’ you can fuck right off.
Otherwise, if you are curious, this three-part post will give you a glimpse of how to be this philosopher during Covid-19. Each part will couple my life experience of, and skills grown from, being a woman, chronically ill, and poor with the exposed fault lines in academic philosophy of the notions of care, productivity, and precarity. (Yes, there will be fucking swearing.)
I begin with woman and care.
WOMAN (PART 1)
As time is presently accordion-like, a year of life squeezed into a day stretched out by living, it was a long-short few weeks ago that my twitter feed first erupted in response to the observation that academic journal submissions were up 50%, with the sharp increase made up near entirely by men (for reporting on this see here and here).
It provoked the right and reasonable response of anger and frustration by professional academic women. It has been argued that this mark of men’s productivity starkly exemplifies the enduring inequality of the gendered expectation of what counts as men’s and women’s work, even in a pandemic. Men are society’s professional providers; women are hobbyists who keep-house, proving care for those in it. The expression of angry frustration, and the terms of this expectation of woman as carer have almost exclusively been set out with respect to women caring for men and children. Instead, here, I want to highlight how women are expected to extend their necessary caring for to themselves, which does not simply deny them the same levels of professional productivity as men but potentially their lives.
On the face of it, I have the ideal lockdown conditions to be productive. I am readily single, purposefully childless, turning 40, and by luck live alone in an affluent, well-serviced, middle-class neighbourhood in the United Kingdom. Currently, perhaps atypically, then, I am a professional academic woman in philosophy who does not have men or children to care for at home. I only have to take care of myself. But that is the problem.
Since I self-isolated on 17 March with presumed coronavirus symptoms, and throughout the past long-short weeks of various levels of incapacitation and threat to life, mostly keenly written in the prescriptions for two courses of antibiotics to treat my infected lungs, the sole coordinator of my care, my safety, my comfort, my staying alive, has been me.
You rightly suppose that given the conditions of living alone during UK lockdown I have needed to perform most of my in-house care for myself — my own washing, cooking, medicating. Of course, I could not manage all aspects of my required care on my own. I have been managing with great support both professional and personal. I am grateful for the efficient, thorough, and serious assistance I received from NHS111 Covid-19 service and my GP. I am grateful for my regular virtual sessions with my therapist. I am grateful for many of my favourite and familiar local shops now doing online ordering and delivery. I am grateful for my two best women. Though both living many miles distant from me, thanks to the one sharing my time zone, who when asked, became the keeper of my contingency plan. She continues the regular checks to see that I am safe to be home alone and will call an ambulance/police if I am ever not. While half a world away, thanks to the other who gifts (via Whatsapp, mostly) virtual packages of care. I am exceedingly grateful to my neighbours. Although mere acquaintances, upon my somewhat random initial asking, they have been willingly collecting my antibiotics and various other essentials for me (especially when my lungs can’t do our building’s motherfucking stairs).
So what you I now need you to notice is that throughout this I have been necessarily, exclusively responsible for organising and ensuring that I received this care. In the absence of voluntary acts of care — no actual giving nor gifting of care arriving at my door, no spontaneous bringers of soup — without my existing skill and physical ability to coordinate my care, to ask, I risked getting too ill to get help and no-one noticing. For me to be cared for, I, woman as carer, am expected to be — wholly, divinely, humbly, responsible.
The gendered expectation to take responsibility for my own care comes clearly into focus with the language, the words, the phrases used by people who generally and sincerely care about me to express their care for me during this time.
Standardly, I am offered care as the statement: ‘now, you let me know if there is anything you need.’
No matter how well intended, this instruction forms the biggest non-offer offer known to human. It gives you, the offerer, a sense of generosity, altruism even. However, not only does it absolve you from needing to do any caring for me at all, but also requires that for me to have any chance of receiving any care from you, I’m entirely responsible for organising it. I first have to work out what care you might be able to genuinely offer me, and then I have to find the fortitude to ask you for it. Upon which you can always make your apologies; ‘really sorry but…, or how about … instead.’ Honestly, Deliveroo (et al) is quicker, easier, and probably cheaper.
The complimentary statement to the non-offer offer instruction that I regularly receive is the after-the-fact admonishment: ‘You should have told me!’ Often appended with the after-thought, ‘I would have [insert your tokenism here].’
Here you, the offerer, get to claim neglect; that in my needing care and not calling on you to offer me care, I have failed to care for you. Read that again, slowly. Maybe just give it one more read; yes, it does say that at the height of my need, when I simply have no energy to tell you, I have been neglecting your need to offer me care.
Also, I am repeatedly being told: ‘take care of yourself.’
Often pitched as a heartfelt plea, it again captures the tone of admonishment that I am somehow care-less — but really, why wouldn’t I be taking care of myself, you think I’m here trying to die? It equally captures that it is entirely my responsibility to be care-ful, i.e., myself caring for myself; while again demanding that I need to care for you by caring for myself, otherwise I’m threatening to carelessly ‘break your heart.’
And truly, fucked if I know how I am meant to survive on your ‘thoughts,’ ‘hopes,’ ‘prayers,’ ‘hopes and prayers.’ And, what the fuck is it with all the Whatsapp’ing of those inspirational quotes, animal videos, ‘humorous’ memes? Guessing, it’s so I don’t ‘get down’ while I take care of myself not dying? Sorry, I haven’t the time to ‘get down,’ I’m taking care of myself not fucking dying.
Finally, to best manage with Covid-19 requires access to up-to-date information, careful monitoring of symptoms, and taking practical measures in light of that information and those symptoms. I survive on FACTS. My requests for information are because I have reason to think you have access to facts I don’t; complex things that might draw on your expertise or simple things, like, is this shop open? when? Is it doing delivery? Is it properly socially distanced? By offering me your ‘reassuring’ intuitions to give me ‘peace of mind’ instead of the facts you just keep me isolated and at risk, you make me unsafe, uncared for.
The ubiquity of these turns-of-phrase give the impression that they are innocent, or throw-away. ‘It is just the sort of thing you say in this sort of situation,’ you reply, then perhaps you counter with, ‘it is how you act that matters.’ This would be fine, if it was actually true. However, as I hope my description of what these catch-phrases of care shows is that in the absence of voluntary acts of care (the blessed soup-bringers) they actually guide our action, or more accurately, inaction. I suggest this applies particularly in caring for women, where proffering such phrases is assumed sufficient. The thought is that as the natural givers of care, woman as carer, doesn’t really need caring for, and if she does, naturally she knows best how to take care of herself. I suspect that women will recognise similar patterns and attitudes towards their care in their own lives — the non-offer offers or no offers at all — probably in their own homes right now.
Sure, I accept that these same phrases are aimed at plenty of boys and men. But context is important. Think about when boys and men hear them, and from whom. The obvious, repeated cliche of ‘now you take care of yourself’ is a mother calling after her son, perhaps who’s returning to university, or the likes, undoubtedly with a packed lunch and a term’s worth of laundered pants. Notice, the instruction is subsequent to an act of care, the packing of lunches and the doing of laundry comes before any heartfelt plea. During this pandemic, in virtue of being cared for by women (again with the lunches and the laundry) it is these same men who can up the academic journal submissions by 50%. (I fancy that even the men living alone, when they really need it, are foremost being cared for by acts rather than catch-phrases.) In ordinary times, it also these men who benefit from the care of the academy.
On the existing university model of stuffing ‘first rate minds,’ it is once more luck that dictates who receives the support, mentorship, advancement that is needed to succeed in philosophy departments. Care comes about by chance; the right lecturer, advisor, or supervisor at the right time, relying on the accident of personalities that fit. The cultivation of collegiality and academic skill, then, is informal and ad hoc. It is the chances for pints, coffees, corridor conversations that underscore the building of networks of care in academic philosophy. Yet, receiving this care is not pure luck, men are regularly, naturally invited into these informal circles, whereas women regularly, awkwardly need to ask — repeating the gendered expectation to be wholly, divinely, humbly, responsible.
The gendered expectation that women in academic philosophy need to be responsible for their own academic care is not only shaped by the norm of woman as carer but also the norm of professional man. As such, it reflects the deep inculturation that men are first seen as professional colleagues, who will provide for the academy so it provides for them, a meeting of minds offering a world of friends; whereas women are first seen as hobbyists who play at worldly things, in my case philosophy, until they settle down to become wives, lovers, mothers, keepers of home and child. Believe me, it took many challenging sessions of polite and impolite disagreement with my therapist to come to really understand what is going on here for me. To see that as a woman, in academic philosophy and life, I am necessarily, sometimes dangerously, by-and-large completely subconsciously, seen first by my male counterparts as a potential fuck never friend. No meeting of minds, at least not initially. Though this strict heteronormative division of labour and relations is a thoroughgoing fucked up social standard to perpetuate, it is one we have, and it is the one that women disrupt every time we enter our professional world.
So under this social standard, relying on academic philosophy networks of care to develop informally, casually in corridors, cafes and bars, it’s natural to invite a man. ‘Hey, mate, wanna come for a pint?’ forms the innocent imperative of collegiality, the making of academic friends. However, to invite a woman colleague in the same way forms an impropriety; as upstanding professional philosophy gents, dear fellows, we ought not propose fucking our fair associates, even if deep in our souls we are most desirous, we might needs want marry her later. The phrasing harks back to the eighteenth-century but the general attitude, the underlying social gender division, persists. Moreover, it leaves professional philosophy women to entirely do the asking, for themselves, and often for other women. And in having to do all this asking, us professional women philosophers continually risk appearing to our male colleagues, as either needy (wanting a place in the world outside the home) or horny (since, we are for mating, not for mates). Last time, I described how this plays out for me with early academic career male equals, reprising my harsh yet real terms from there, I can’t help but come across as an all-round cock-sucker. If academic philosophy really wants to institute systemic change, to truly overcome these norms, then academic philosophy needs to stop assuming networks of care can be established informally, naturally. Stop assuming that the skill of caring is natural, altogether.
Importantly, I do not think you are an unforgivably bad colleague if you’ve been confounded by these norms; nor indeed are you an unforgivably bad friend if you use these catch-phrases of care with me or anyone else. My aim is not catharsis; it’s not one long, convoluted offended/offensive subtweet, nor intellectual revenge porn, I’m not shit-posting philosophy’s sex(ist) tape. Rather, I want to bring to light how we all contribute, ideologically and practically, to the social structures of care, in and outside the academy, and the norm of woman as carer. So if anything, I’m thinking that you’re human. And I fully realise I’m part of my own problem, I am completely complicit in advancing my own identity as chief carer, especially in managing my chronic illness, in contrast to being someone who is cared for. Hey, turns out I’m human, too! Yet, as I’m learning, care is not an essential womanly disposition, not our particular ‘talent,’ but a skill. One that is usually learnt by unacknowledged example from parents, teachers, mentors; and thankfully for me also formally from my therapist.
Luckily care, and caring well, is a skill that we can all learn, be informally and formally instructed in, for everyone’s benefit — men and women equally. So where to start? While I hope that the coronavirus crisis precipitates real institutional change, motivating the academy to properly reflect on its bad habits, mid-crisis no one of us is particularly well placed to do this (though, if any VCs, Provosts, etc do happen to read this, I’m happy to work as a paid consultant). Instead I propose we each make our aim small, nevertheless, it is by far the most important one of all. That we try to better care for those we already care about. Drawing on my Covid-19 pneumonia experience and my own efforts to learn how to be more skilled at genuine care, for myself and others, I have some suggestions you might want to try out with someone you love.
Just for once, ask a fucking question. To identify if someone is in need of care, and to properly care for them, requires sentences with question marks at the end. Forget all this mind-reading bullshit, love does not equal mental telepathy. Beyond the generic ‘how are you?’ to find out how the person you care about needs caring for I suggest asking: ‘What do you need right now?’ Unlike the non-offer offer, this question focusses on the person being asked. It permits your friend in need every variety of answer; such as, ‘I need you to leave me alone,’ ‘chocolate,’ ‘an ambulance,’ ‘I don’t know’. All of which then allows you, the care-giver, to act accordingly. With real care you can then appropriately respond; such as, by saying ‘goodbye’ and perhaps that you ‘will check in later,’ deliver chocolate, call an ambulance, ask more questions to help work out what is needed. It can help if your further questions are specific and concrete. ‘Do you need bread?’ is a much easier question for the ill, overwhelmed, and vulnerable to answer than ‘do you need anything from the shops?’ As is, ‘I have soup, would you like me to drop some round?’ Only after you have expressed your care as questions, can you come to know how to care for those you care about. It is after these careful conversation can you arrive at simply stating your care, e.g., ‘I am coming round with soup,’ or ‘let me know if you need anything else.’
Shut the fuck up and listen. So you have managed to ask question, great! Now don’t think you know what the person you care about ‘really’ needs. (I repeat! Forget the mind-reading bullshit.) Take any answer they give seriously, and literally. It is not open to your interpretation, only further questions. If you’ve been asked to get Tangfastics, get the bloody Tangfastics, do not suppose it means any generic chewy sours. There could be good yet non-obvious reasons for the specific request (e.g., dietary requirement, genuine comfort from that preferred brand). If you can’t get Tangfastics, check if the other available chewy sours are okay instead. Similarly, if a request is generic, check which specifics count, as in ‘can the bread be white or brown?’ If you are worried that what the person is saying is not what they really need, especially if you are genuinely worried about their safety, then still ask more questions, do not immediately take things into your own hands. Ask, ask, ask. Real listening is care.
Stop making fucking comparisons, even in your head, it really isn’t about you. We all know that the last thing we want to hear when we are sick, tired, and/or desperate, is just how much someone else is sick, tired and desperate. Legitimate or not, we really just don’t want to hear it. Please remember this, when you are in the midst of caring for someone, you do not earn the right there and then to compare your lot with theirs. Definitely don’t say it out loud, but even if you are thinking it, in your head, your comparisons gets in the way of care. Although healthy, caring relationships are requited, in the moment of caring for someone it must remain unrequited. Your best acts of care are gifted, without conditions. Or thoughts of the returns.
All of us are prone to thinking ‘aren’t I a good friend for taking care of you, you don’t deserve me’ or ‘why don’t they care for me, I deserve some care, too.’ We rightly agree that we all deserve care; that we deserve to have our needs met, especially when we can’t do so for ourselves. But it is a mistake to measure someone’s need for care against what we think they deserve. True care is not, and never should be, the getting and giving of just desserts. Unfortunately, though, care is regularly made conditional, measured on who deserves what, when, and how much. ‘Well, that seems only fair’ you think, ‘those who need care deserve it, those who don’t, don’t.’ Among other things, the problem with this view is that it dangerously crosses its wires when it comes to the relation between having the skill to care for and being deserving of care. As I’ve tried to highlight here, in naturalising women as carers, we falsely inferred that because women naturally know how to do the caring for, they do not need the caring for. They can take care of themselves, naturally. So, it follows from ‘who needs care, deserves it,’ that women, who have no need for it, also do not deserve care.
On this measure, care is reduced to a cost-benefit analysis of needs vs. deserts, and the ways to prioritise its benefits. The utility of care is most clearly seen in how we (both figuratively and literally) are forcibly sold self-care. It is vigorously advertised as prioritising yourself over others. We have conveniently delivered to our devices ever more elaborately priced ways to build up our defences against those undeserving recipients of our care, all for our own benefit. In the end, it means all care has a price, and getting it depends on if you can afford to pay for it. Care, like coal and gold, is then traded like any another commodity, and the impact of Covid-19 might let us see if it is the money or the carers that run out first.
To free ourselves from all these measures and norms of care is deceptively simple. All it takes is to give our care freely, gift it indiscriminately, and to hell with the consequences (truly, you need to forget about the consequences, the returns, the checks and balances). Simple but far from easy. It takes courage to offer yourself up to the world, with all that potential for fucking it up and being knocked back. Again start small, if you’re wondering how someone you know is going, go on ask them, right now. If you think someone might like some of your soup, go on ask them, right now. And then just keep on asking, listening, learning, caring.