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Precarious gait, or how to care

January 3, 2011

If in looking back at the year that was I had to choose one word which lurked behind every intention and action, from the minutely personal to the monumentally historic, it would be care. It canvassed everything with its subtle, shadowy sheen, but for the first time since I had a conscious understanding of care (or as David Foster Wallace would say, capital-C Care) as an ontology, a modal way of being, it truly started showing up everywhere, from the phenomenon of Wikileaks to crippling perfectionism. Let me explain.

The word ‘security’ or sine cura is an etymological composite in Latin meaning ‘without care’ (I relate security to Omar Little’s character in The Wire here). To be secure means to be without care, i.e., I’m a citizen of X liberal democratic state living my life in relative harmony because I know the capital-S State cares for me, the police ‘care’ for me, the city/town/municipality ‘care’ for me, my representatives ‘care’ for me, and so on and so forth. But that’s the wrench in being secure—I am free from care because a political proxy always cares for me.

If one has a serious desire to understand the concept of security, i.e. care-less or without care existence in the private or political realm, it’s important to take a comparative etymological, non-commonsensical approach. I honestly believe that it’s difficult to tackle it otherwise, such as through a poli sci or international relations or least of all through a Newsweek/Time national security approach without taking it apart through its own etymological history. That history stems from/through Aristotle to Sophocles to the Renaissance (Lorenzetti’s Good and Bad Government frescoes in Siena) to Hobbes to Martin Heidegger and in the most enduring, sinister and probably most important modern form, Carl Schmitt. I’ll spare that history for the sake of brevity—but the point is that it’s a very living, dynamic, clarifying history, not a mere philological word tossed around for the sake of jargon or obfuscation. It is there; one merely has to be curious enough to dig around for it to make some observations about how we conceive of our own experience of ourselves, the government and the State.

I bring up the revolution of Wikileaks (and it is arguably a revolution: governance, at least in the world’s most armed superpower, is not going to be the same since its emergence) because it reveals this normally invisible system of Care to us. It’s amassed the kind of global response and resonance that it has because it’s thrown a wrench into a system that we’ve normally lived through rather than looked at. Wikileaks’ main concern is how governments care for their denizens, in the etymological sense: how do they ‘care’ when they conduct occupational wars, illegal helicopter strikes, cloaked diplomatic business, official spying (official Care?), etc.? One of the most underused sources that could be used to explain both political Care and Wikileaks’ watchful and intrepid care of that Care is a 2002 essay by Steve Mann called Sousveillance. Mann’s prophetic piece does its own etymological investigation, to fruitful results:

I derive the term "sousveillance" from surveillance, which is defined by Merriam-Webster (summarized) as follows:

French, from surveiller to watch over,
from sur- + veiller to watch, from vigil
from Latin, wakefulness, watch, from vigil awake, watchful;
akin to Latin vigEre to be vigorous, vegEre to enliven
2 : the act of keeping awake at times when sleep is customary;
3 : an act or period of watching or surveillance : WATCH

Thus, loosely speaking, sousveillance is watchful vigilance from underneath.

The endeavor of sousveillance of government makes its normally invisible systems of Care visible again. Wikileaks’ About page uses the word ‘transparency’ eight times (‘transparency creates a better society for all people’). Julian Assange has often characterized the organization with that phrasing:

We are transparency activists who understand that transparent government tends to produce just government. And that is our sort of modus operandi behind our whole organization, is to get out suppressed information into the public, where the press and the public and our nation’s politics can work on it to produce better outcomes.

In other words, transparency as the visibility of invisible Care should be understood as such, etymologically, as an underwritten system of caring about Systems That Care, enlivening security by making its operations extremely visible.

Now to the second, more day-to-day part. The flip side to being hypo-/without care is being with too much care, exhibiting a hyper-vigilance that can lead to witless, obsessional and unproductive behavior. We’re told that one must be detail-oriented and attentive to details to be productive, successfully developed social creatures, without much more in the way of useful commentary about that actual development.

And that’s precisely where the concept of care is useful, because tucked deeper in its linguistic history is the realization that perfectionism and over-cautiousness must be eliminated if one is to live with care. Costas Constantinou (‘Poetics of Security,’ Alternatives Issue 25, No. 3 (2000): 287–306) traces security back to the Greek word asphaleia, a rising up or standing as a way of securing. One cares by not eliminating care, by proceeding cautiously but assuredly, expecting danger, threats and disdain but rising up in their tide just the same.

Experience, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson’s poem of the same name, is stepping from plank to plank, always a precarious gait. To care—to develop, to grow, and maybe even to live—is to walk with a precarious gait.

The picture above seemed like the perfect paradox to this problem of living. The weathered older man in the humbly worn clothes wears an aged face, van Gogh shoes and a stress cigarette. The brightly painted kid with arms raised in supplication is heavy-lidded with a strangely premature sorrow. It’s hard to know exactly how to live in the space of experience between these two figures but to live without eliminating care is one beginning.

(Photo: Tehran. Art by Ghadyanloo, via Wooster Collective.)

One Comment leave one →
  1. @carwinb permalink
    February 13, 2011 03:14

    This was a fantastic and enlightening read. Thank you.

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