I recently stumbled over a Tumblr post that made me pause.
I mean, yes. Tumblr is notoriously unreliable — is there any truth to the posts or are we going straight down the rabbit hole? But in this instance, I actually had some previous knowledge and was quite happy that someone else took up the topic and proliferated it.
Here is the post:
I think this post is incredibly important. Everyone will have different associations but my mind goes immediately to feminism and disability because to my knowledge those are two areas where these kinds of questions are vital.
As a disabled person, I am frequently annoyed by the fact that people without disabilities seem not to realise that their well-being is tied up in a complex network without which their lives would be much less smooth. From medicine that develops specialised treatments to the social support of friends and family (“We are aware that you have an illness and we will of course be fully supportive and care for you") to a bureaucratic machinery that has developed pathways to account for the fact that people fall ill occasionally. (Depending on the country and profession, this is already being made into a problem but from my perspective I am just continually baffled that there is a system for this in the first place; there usually isn’t a proper one for disability where I come from). Were it not for the network, comfort and health would suddenly be a completely different question.
From a feminist perspective, this interconnectedness and these (yes, I am going to say it) interdependencies reach even further, very much in the vein of the Tumblr post.
“Behind every great man there is a strong woman.”
I once had a terse exchange with my brother who took offense that my mother had placed a little plaque in her bookshelf saying: “Behind every great man there is a strong woman”. Our mother isn’t even that outspoken a feminist, and feminism has never really been a topic at the dinner table. But whatever. My brother felt offended that the plaque disregarded the achievements of men by placing emphasis on the work done by women in the background. Far be it for me to disrespect good work, this is not what the plaque means anyway.
The term “strong women” is a little jarring; one of my friends straight-out hates it because she feels it implies that women are not strong, which is why you have to explicitely state that these women you are writing about incongruously are. And what exactly is meant by this “strength” is also often not clear or so it seems considering its many puzzling uses by the Hollywood juggernaut.
The way that I understand it — and this is what I told my brother — is that there are a number of elements that go into making our day-to-day life work. Some we discuss quite openly, such as employment that generates the income with which we finance our lives, others, such as a roof over our heads, shoes on our feet or clothes on our backs are not discussed as frequently, often rather taken for granted. Even so, we pay for our dwelling, pay for our shoewear and clothes; what we need but don’t talk about and paradoxically mostly don’t pay for is for the cleanliness of our houses, for the preparation of food on the table and for childcare at home. These latter three can be professions and then they are (badly) remunerated but more often than not — and I think in Germany particularly — the tasks are done by women and then, of course, they are simply part of their being a housewife, not worth mentioning, appreciating or, you know, paying.
Incidentally one of my flatmates and I had a very puzzling conversation once where he said:
“When I get married, I have no problem with playing the house-husband [‘Hausmann’ in German]. I’ll have my friends over, we’ll have a barbecue and get drunk the entire day.”
I can’t quite remember what I said in response but I remember thinking: THIS is exactly not what taking care of the house means but it speaks volumes that this is your impression. I wonder what your future wife would say when she comes home after work and has to clean after “the boys” who have made a right mess of the house while she was gone. This is probably what my mother meant when she told me that working women have the pleasure of working and doing the housework because, paradoxically, this is what seems to be expected from them; or demanded rather I suppose.
As a student I have become very aware of the time taken up by cooking and cleaning; mostly because it will interrupt the work flow and you curse: “Nooo! I just had this amazing idea, why do I have to be hungry now, why do I have to interrupt my flow to cook, shoot!” And then I think of Albert Einstein, lauded, idolised Albert Einstein, who post-mortem attracted some (but only some) negative press when it came out that he gave his wife strict instructions as regards what she may cook for him, how she may behave in his presence (Internally *coughing*: how she may serve him). How would Einstein have fared had he had to take care of himself? God only knows.
Our greatest achievements are always built on the back of others.
I would like to write: “on collaboration with others” but I fear this would be incorrect for too many cases. As I sit here on my bed in the middle of the night, laptop on my lap, I ponder how much work went into making my mattress, my covers, the different technical bits of my device as I happily type. My brain supplies helpfully that the covers, at least, are probably woven by a machine, courtesy of the industrial revolution which ushered in our capitalist system (problems for another day); but as for my laptop, I think it was made in Taiwan? And I know that at least some of the precious metals inside its shell are probably mined in an African country where we scour the earth for finite riches, exploit African citizens; overally bleed both country and people dry. And I haven’t even started talking about transport yet.
In Science and Technology Studies the invisible connections and interdependencies of objects (and processes more generally, too) are expressed in the concept of the black box. If my laptop works, I hardly notice how many parts of hardware and strings of code go into making it work; if Corona doesn’t delay the delivery of my laptop I hardly realise that the presence of my device in my lap depends on people transporting it to me. But say the SATA cable is broken and your laptop can no longer connect to the internal storage, or the BIOS of your device does not work properly, or say a world-wide pandemic paralyses undervalued yet essential services like postal deliveries. Suddenly your precious, inviolate laptop is out of working order, or has not been delivered to you, and you don’t have the power to easily fix it just by yourself. The horror.
Bruno Latour describes this moment as the opening of the black box, the opening of Pandora’s box if you will: our realisation of the fragility of the objects we own, of our own fragility.
Questions of humanity
Much has been made over the last centuries about what makes us humans “human”, what makes us so successful evolutionary-wise. (Does destroying our own habitat count as evolutionary success? I doubt that but then again I am not a Darwinist, so what would I know.)
Ruth Hubbard, who was a professor of Biology at Harvard, once said that our explanations of how the world works are strongly influenced by our own background and biases. Which is why it makes sense that Darwin who was part of a competitive Victorian society with scarce resources envisaged the animal kingdom 1) as a kingdom and 2) as a constant competition between animals where only the fittest survived. By contrast, Russian prince Peter Kropotkin, who had a very different background and circumstances than Darwin, saw and theorised about cooperation in the world of animals. Presumably there is truth and merit to both visions — have you ever seen a Capybara lounging around with at least three different types of birds comfortably perched on its belly? Seemingly no particular reason, Capybara’s are just really chill. Check it out and then tell me that relations between animals are fundamentally, exclusively about competition for survival and resources.
Of course, speaking of backgrounds and perspectives, there is an anthropologist idea about what makes us human that I have a particular liking for: we differ from animals in that we care for our wounded. If someone broke their bones, they would not be abandoned by their tribe and left behind but cared for and patched up. (Admittedly, I wonder if apes might not not abandon their sick either.) This theory would make compassion and caring the basis of our “humanness”, collaboration the source of our evolutionary success. While I treasure compassion and caring but fully accept people who pretend not to need it and decide — because they are so ‘strong’ — not to give it to others, I think it is indisputable that our society and our well-being rest upon cooperation and collaboration.
We humans are not bigger, or stronger, or more resilient than other species; but what we are is inventive with an ability to organise ourselves in groups and thus become truly terrifying (for all the good and the bad that this entails).
More mildly put: our codependency makes us thrive.
Dependency denialists, otherwise known as individualists
The world is a scary place, oftentimes not properly controllable; both humans and environment are frequently random — or at least we haven’t found an abstract pattern to describe it yet — and we can never be certain about things that are important to our well-being and our sense of identity.
I think this is where the denialists come in, those people who don’t only believe in rugged individualism but also firmly defend ideas of autonomy and autarkic independence when they are confronted with the fact that they cannot control everything in the world, that success does not simply rest upon assuming a particular mindset but that they — and that we all — are vulnerable and in need of support and care. How can you justify your rightful dominance and exploitation of other people if it becomes known that you are dependent on other people too, not just the other way round; that you have fears and weaknesses and are not inassailable in your tyranny? Scary thoughts indeed.
All of this connects heavily to the stigmatisation of disability; the reason why one is suddenly considered less valuable, less desirable if one is reliant on love and care; love and care that is not properly established yet for your cases it needs to be said; generally even staunch “tough people” make concessions for socially accepted “weaknesses” like cancer. Most probably not for disability-related dependencies however.
I grew up in a family where the strong rule, so it has been very hard for me to admit when I am dependent on my friends or that I feel better if people are compassionate or caring towards me. I have been so ill that rugged individualism was no longer a fitting explanation for the world; the attempt to relate the experience of uncertainty and dependency of “pain is not the end of the world as long as you are listened to and cared for” has been rather unsuccessful so far; in part because I have tried to convince people of the undeniable presence vulnerability who have built their self-image, nay their entire lives, on ideas of their own invincibility.
This pretend black-box invincibility is a real problem. Both in terms of the destruction of our planet and in terms of how we treat one another. It is scary to admit that we are not all-powerful and independent.
But it is the truth and in the end, only the truth will set us free.