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Emergency and Emergence

When the pandemic happened, I was on research leave. My plans to spend a month in the Hans/Jean Arp archives in Berlin fell through when my children, then two and four, could no longer go to preschool. At first, the children were anxious, and struggled to understand why their routine was being upended, and why they could no longer play with their friends until, eventually, we settled into different habits. Like many of us not on the front line of the pandemic, ours was a time characterised by absence and longing. We missed people we knew, of course: friends, grandparents, aunts and cousins in France. But another form of longing took us by surprise. Above all, we missed strangers: those we brushed past on pavements or stood in lines with while waiting for buses; those whose presence to us was only known as a near absence. In some ways, it seemed to me that the thrill of being among strangers, of meeting the new and unexpected, was similar to what I would have experienced in Arp’s archives, the excitement of stumbling on something of his that I hadn’t come across before. At a loss as to what to do with this new feeling, we played. Mostly, the children recreated the lives of those on the front line, those whom they quickly identified as being the most important actors in the pandemic. We diligently performed surgeries on dolls, inoculated teddy bears, and fed invisible babies. In so doing, we lost ourselves in their imaginary needs and felt connected and useful again. It occurred to me that our enjoyment of the imaginary illnesses we attributed to the toys surrounding us might be perverse, but far from enjoying their pain, it was their imagined connection to them that gave the children pleasure. The children’s gestures resembled a prayer, a hope for connection.

The act of caring was, for the children, a form of attention without linearity, without outcome. To care meant for them to abide by clear rules of communication entirely directed by the suffering of the patients: where does it hurt? How does this feel? The teddies’ vulnerability, their need for having their suffering exactly interpreted, was the very condition of their relation to these objects. To dwell in care through play was a way of intensely connecting with the invisible nature of the world around them based on a vulnerability that they themselves experienced every day. Slowly, the toys’ suffering became known to them through this form of care, but the dolls and teddies and invisible babies remained strangers: their names and identities unknown. With any illness cured, they would gently be sent on their way, their anonymity intact.

Watching them play made me wonder about the tension between care and indifference, but also between care and anonymity. What does it mean to care for strangers? What is the relationship between care and the impersonal and to what extent might the impersonal be necessary to a planetary ethics of care? My interest in these questions is the mother of all my concerns: with rich nations’ social contracts only extending to fellow nationals, or, at best, to fellow humans, what mechanisms are in place to care for unknown species and unnamed fellow human beings in the context of mounting climate and political catastrophe? This essay is an attempt to write (and mother) the mother of all my worries into a short theoretical reflection on art, care and national indifference.


Simone Weil and the Strangeness of Care

Whenever Simone Weil broaches the subject of strangers, questions of care are always involved. For Weil, strangers seem to be sacred in themselves in so far as what she deems sacred in human beings is not what makes them a person, but precisely what is impersonal in them. In a meditation on what prevents her from hurting a passer-by, she writes:

The cry of sorrowful surprise that rises up from the bottom of the soul upon the infliction of evil is not something personal. A blow to the person and his desires is not enough to make it burst forth. It always bursts forth by the sensation of some contact with injustice through pain. It is always, just as it is in the case of Christ, in the case of the least of men, an impersonal protest. […] What is sacred in a human being is that which is, far from the personal, the impersonal.[1]

To care well, and with attention to what is ‘truly’ sacred in a person, one must, according to Weil, care for their ‘impersonality’. As such, we are all equally strangers in the act of being cared for. Let us examine the importance of this indifference in more detail through what could be thought of as the children’s utopia of care.

It is a well-accepted argument, and one justly used by people fighting for free social-healthcare systems such as the NHS, that for care to be ethically conducted, it must be disinvested from financial or personal gain. But two further elective forms of indifference lay at the heart of the children’s performance of care. The first was the momentary detachment from the carer’s own needs and their complete investment and attention to the other being cared for. Paradoxically, the state of momentary self-indifference called for by the work of attention is only possible when the carer’s needs are being met. As such, in the performance of their imaginary world in which I was included as their carer, the children created what seemed to me to be a very sensible chain of care: they could perform acts of care because they were looked after. Secondly, and contrary to commonly-held belief, it seemed, in the children’s wisdom, that despite the need for the carer’s attention to be focused entirely on the pain of the sufferer, investment in the object of care should also bypass the need to know the official identity of those being cared for in order to be merely attentive to their propensity to suffer. Questions such as ‘Where are you from? What is your name?’ thus only entered their practice if it helped determine the source of suffering, or establish a connection with the sufferer, in order to provide better care. Lastly and importantly, in the caring utopia performed by the children, patients were equal to their carers. Their way of caring was not a triumphant decisionism, precisely because my presence as their carer and thus the reality of their own dependence on me for survival was not repressed. Theirs was an ecology of care – that is, a relational contract in which no one was triumphantly above care, and where everyone, including the carer, was equal in their vulnerability.

In their performance of care, then, the children seemed to understand that to reach the level of attention that suffering calls for, a certain form of indifference to information that does not serve its purpose must enter the practice of care. Weil articulates this point: ‘The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough.’[2] By this, Weil means that the practice of caring should not be confused with the sentimental feeling of caring. And there is both method and political intent behind Weil’s effort to differentiate between the two. By giving all their attention to their fictitious patients through their impersonal method, the children withheld their right to choose and differentiate who to care for. Rather than being centred around the carer’s ability to feel compassion for the other, their form of care was indifferent in so far as it was also a temporary renunciation of their own sovereignty for the benefit of the patient.

Like many women, care is a word with which I am uneasy: I have often apprehended it with suspicion as something outsourced solely to women while the key to social change remained firmly in the hands of those doing the outsourcing. The problem for me does not lie in mothering, but in what Adrienne Rich describes as the patriarchal ‘institution of motherhood’, with its ‘row upon row of backyard, in each of which women hangs out the wash’, while, Rich decries, ‘the laws which determine how we got to these places’ remain unexamined.[3] In her essay ‘The Ethics of Care’, Carol Gilligan analyses the thoughts of women whose feelings echo mine:

For many of the women I interviewed, the freeing of an honest voice followed the recognition that selflessness, often held out as the epitome of feminine goodness, is in fact morally problematic, signifying an abdication of voice and an evasion of responsibility and relationships.[4]

Care has so often been instrumentalised to confine women’s attention to the home that it is, for good reasons, tainted with suspicion. Weil’s strategy was to resist this with philosophical attention. For Weil, attention is opposed to the connection of affect solely existing or established by emotional attachment: ‘This is on condition that the attention be a looking and not an attachment’.[5]Attention, she writes elsewhere, must be an ‘effort without desire’; a form of affective asceticism is therefore necessary for attention to perform its caring duty.[6] As a Second World War refugee, Weil knew only too well the importance of impersonality in practices of care. As a woman, she also knew the danger of sentimental blackmail nested in the privatisation of motherhood. Care without attention, the form of care which is solely derived from self-identification, can be easily manipulated, instrumentalised, and directed. In order to avoid this pitfall, Weil turns care into a form of praxis: care is not only something to be felt, giving the illusion of an unmediated self-identification with the sufferer, but something to nurture through the practice of critical and political attention as care.


Hans/Jean Arp’s care for the unnamed

Figure 1: The playground, April 2020. Lancaster, UK. Photo: Delphine Grass.


During lockdown, the children and I would often wander to an abandoned playground near our house. Although we spent a lot of time there, we never went there on purpose. Instead, we always pretended to go to the pretty orchard adjacent to it. No sign banned us from entry, but we sometimes noticed that someone had taken the trouble to remove here a swing, there a plastic seat that had become a potential danger for the children. The many colourful shapes decorating the floor of the playground made this the perfect place for my eldest daughter E to practice her newfound passion for naming shapes.
‘What is this, Mummy?’
‘A triangle.’
‘And this one?’
‘A rectangle.’
And so our conversation went. On the ground, strange shapes which looked at once organic and abstract seemed to want to organize the playground into a map. ‘Et celle-là?’ asks E in French one day.
‘I don’t know… I don’t think it has a name.’
E rephrased the question for me so I could understand it: ‘Is it not a shape, Mummy?’
I had to admit that yes, it was a shape.
‘So why does it not have a name?’
My evasiveness made E withdraw into herself in search of a worthy explanation. E is not one to give up easily. She knows more than one name for every object around her: one in French, one in English. How could this shape be without one? Though born and raised in the North of England, her name at birth meant that she could only be granted French citizenship. Intuitively, she understood that to live without a name is to live dangerously, for who has ever travelled on a description? A name is already the beginning of a passport, our currency for walking around and among other humans.

In the accidental archive of my memory, the shape on the floor and my daughter’s questions took me back to my cancelled visit to Hans/Jean Arp’s archives. Born in Alsace in the first half of the century, in a borderland alternately French and German (which also happened to be where E’s grandparents are from), Arp has famously always refused to choose between having a French and German name. Mirroring the unstable identity of the place in which he was born, he called himself both Hans and Jean. Like Weil, he too had known exile and statelessness, his allegiance to either France or Germany under scrutiny on both sides. As an Alsatian and therefore multilingual borderlander, Arp also fell into the category of what Tara Zahra calls ‘the nationally indifferent’. In ‘Imagined Non-Communities: National Indifference as a Category of Analysis’, Zahra describes the nationally indifferent as ‘individuals who remained altogether aloof to the nation’s appeal’.[7] But the nationally indifferent, for the very reason that history has been ‘a faithful accomplice in nation building projects’, Zahra concedes, are hard to pin down historically:

Indifferent people are rarely well organized. Unlike nationalism, national indifference has not left much of a paper trail, since most state archives are devoted precisely to documenting the history of nation-states. National indifference was not memorialized with public monuments or celebrated with festivals, costumes, and songs. There was no association for the Protection of National Hermaphrodites nor was there a Nonnational’s people’s party.[8]

Too often, Zahra argues, historians and archives have been guilty of reinforcing nationalist discourse by aligning the boundaries of historical research with the spatial and ideological borders of the nation. Literary and artistic forms of creation, I would argue, seem to constitute a precious counter-archive to the official affective history of nationalism.

Emerging from the rubble of early twentieth-century ethnic nationalism, Arp’s artistic process can be read as a reflection on the relationship between creating and naming, naming and caring. Arp’s works seek to give the impersonal a face, features that cannot exist individually, but that always remain unsettled between two linguistic systems, impossible to locate culturally, nationally or temporally. This refusal for personalisation in Arp was once the topic of rebuke from the audience during a conference presentation that I gave. Where is the notion of the person in Arp? Why this insistence on its loss? This question, which I could not answer clearly at the time, puzzled me all the more profoundly because it seemed to me that care was central to Arp’s works. Take, for example, this testimony of his creative process, which he describes in nurturing terms. He writes:

I work until enough of my life has flowed into its body. Each of these bodies has a spiritual content, but only on completion of the work do I interpret this content and give it a name. In this way my works have received names such as: ‘Black cloudarrow and white points’, ‘Plant escutcheon’, ‘Arabic eight’, ‘Plant pendulum at rest’, ‘Leaves arranged according to the laws of chance’.[9]

Arp’s works are famous for nurturing chance and randomness. The laws of chance are bound to the politics of natality also present in his works, where both navels and creatures half-emerging into existence hold an important place. To care for the impersonal, to care for the other indifferently, is to keep open the possibility of the new, of redemption only possible in the randomness and chance at the heart of political creation. Like Hannah Arendt, who placed natality at the centre of political freedom, Arp reconnects the essence of human and political freedom to biological life.[10]To care for life in ways that are indistinct from identity means to care for the new, for the possibility to begin again. In so far as Arp’s ecology of care and creation is concerned, to care is a revolutionary act of nurture of the new through indifference.

Eventually, at the end of the second world war, Arp’s statues found refuge in the serenity of Meudon in France, his sculptures resting on the grass like strangers visiting his home. His sculptures often remain nameless, or their names translate their status as strangers. When translated from French, for instance, the title of one reads Sculpture to be Lost in the Forest [figure 2]. A few years earlier, in 1936, Arp conceived a different horizontal figure, this time made out of national newspapers, called Maimed and Stateless [figure 3]. I now think that the loss of the person in Arp’s sculptures is an attempt to give a face and a shape to the nameless and the placeless, to resist describing that which does not yet have an identity by naming it. As such, these statues do not only bear the mark of their anonymity but also that of their maker’s. Arp’s creations are not only creaturely in the sense that they cannot be categorised semantically, but they are also a radical act of artistic decreation in the sense that they cannot be subsumed to their creator’s will and identity.

Figure 2: Hans/Jean Arp, Sculpture à être perdue dans la forêt, Sculpture to be Lost in the Forest, 1932, cast c.1953-8, bronze, 90 x 222 x 154 mm, Tate Gallery, ©DACS 2022. Photo: Tate.


Figure 3: Arp, Mutilé et Apatride / Maimed and Stateless, 1936, Newspaper and papier-mâché, 17.1 x 18.3 x 25 cm, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, © DACS 2022. Photo: Guggenheim.

Although Arp almost certainly had not read her works, he seemed, like Weil, to have come to the conclusion that ‘We participate in the creation of the world by decreating ourselves’.[11] To create, for Arp, is a radical act of attention and therefore of personal decreation of the artist – a form of withdrawal of the artist’s will on the created, rather than its imposition. Arp’s national indifference was not a form of escapism from the politics of his time, but an invitation for us to see anew the politics of sovereignty stemming from nationalism, a politics of exception which, at any moment, meant one could be jettisoned into the realm of ‘the uncared for’ based on their birth certificate. For Arp, who experienced the material consequences of nationalism through exile, to be named is thus to be exposed to the decisionism of a sovereign power that might cast you off by the handle of your identity. As such, his national indifference is a space of political questioning on the relationship between caring and identity which extends beyond the limits between the human and the non-human:

I wanted to find another order, another value for man in nature. He was no longer to be the measure of all things, no longer to reduce everything to his own measure, but on the contrary, all things and man were to be like nature, without measure.[12]

Arp’s form of care through art is profoundly post-humanist, but paradoxically, he also shows that only a care without human measure – that is, a care that is also inclusive of non-human creatures – is truly capable of caring for all humans.

Soon after the COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, the children and I took a trip to France to visit family. As we walked on a beach close to their grandparents’ house, the children noticed a decaying apartment block on the horizon. ‘Is it haunted?’, asked my youngest daughter. She was pointing to ‘Le Signal’ – a white, imposing Modernist structure built on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. The red tape surrounding it warned of asbestos while the broken windows and disintegrating façade signalled the coastal erosion that would eventually submerse it. I told the children that I had friends who used to lived right there, on the top floor. I told them that before they were born, their father and I would watch the waves from that window, before going out to surf. Now, nameless, the building crumbles in silence, and nobody lives there. The children and I walked on, attempting to interpret its maladies, imagining ways to communicate with it and to care for it, to lend it our voices.