Seminar with Talia Schaffer: "Critical Care: The Relational Ethics of Reading"
Guest Writer: Claire Barber

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

posted under by Unit for Criticism

Robert Braithwaite Martineau, "The Last Day in the Old Home" (1862)
[On November 19, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted a seminar with Talia Schaffer, Professor of English at the City University of New York. Below are reflections on the event from Claire Barber (English).]

"Being Care-ful Toward Books, Children, and Individuals with Disabilities"

Written by Claire Barber (English)

On November 4, 2013, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a review of Rachel Adams’s Raising Henry: A Memoir of Motherhood, Disability, and Discovery that prompted passionate discussion in its comments section and on disability-studies listservs. The author of this review, Cristina Nehring, frames two major criticisms of the book in terms of care—a key concept addressed by Talia Schaffer in her draft paper “Critical Care: The Relational Ethics of Reading.” Schaffer discussed this work-in-progress last Tuesday at a seminar that gathered about 30 Illinois faculty and graduate students from disciplines that included English, anthropology, geography, and communications.

In this paper, Schaffer extends an argument from her current book project, which relates “nontraditional unions” between or among individuals to traditional readings of the Victorian marriage plot. Such unions include the same-sex relationships depicted in Charlotte Yonge’s The Clever Woman of the Family (1865) and what Schaffer calls the “care communities” that develop around disabled individuals, such as Ralph Touchett in James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881). Such communities provide an alternative to the conventional dyad of caregiver/cared-for. As Schaffer analyzes these relationships, she positions relational ethics—theorized by Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings—as a field with an analogous power to “make same-sex love [and disabled bodies] perfectly unremarkable.” All people need care; however, it is receiving care that enables one to give care. Such “mutual dependence” is also visible in the relationship between surface and symptomatic reading, processes that take place simultaneously, according to Schaffer. With this connection, she enters discussions about surface reading that the Unit for Criticism’s Ends of History symposium also explored and gestures toward the implications that an ethics of care might have for academic reading and writing practices.

In this response, I read Nehring’s controversial review in relation to several of Schaffer’s central arguments. The individuals who participate in this conversation have complex affiliations, but according to Schaffer, all both give and receive care. In this context, I give care as a scholar and participant in Schaffer’s discussion by considering how Nehring (a book reviewer and mother of a disabled child) deploys an ethics of care while responding to the care that Adams (a mother and author) gives her son in Raising Henry. How can these individuals be “care-ful” (Schaffer’s language) when interacting with both people and texts? Is it actually possible to achieve the “motivational displacement” that will enable them to “grasp or receive a reality,” in the words of Noddings, rather than “impose it”? When should caregivers—including Adams, Nehring, and even myself—be criticized for the care they provide and the way in which they provide it? These questions are relevant to Nehring’s review because some readers have treated it as “a nasty, bitter, tiny-minded piece of work” (Michael Bérubé) while others have applauded it (geochaucer).

To clarify, my response deals with Nehring’s framing, not with the details of Adams’s book. For more information, I suggest that interested readers look to Raising Henry itself or other reviews (e.g., Jerome Groopman’s “Unlike Others” in The New York Review of Books or Glenn Altschuler’s “Up from Down” via Psychology Today).

Throughout the review, Nehring criticizes the way that Adams cares for her son, Henry, who has Down syndrome. Adams provides physical care for him in the events about which she writes and a more symbolic or figurative form of care in her textual representation of him. Nehring suggests that in this book “Henry remains alarmingly abstract,” indirectly proposing that this textual neglect mirrors a form of literal neglect that she sees Adams enacting as the latter

[…] subcontracts his care to a battery of experts—from the live-in nurse she and her lawyer husband hire to bottle-feed him in their Upper West Side home to the seemingly endless stream of consultants, therapists, nannies, day-care workers, literacy specialists, IQ testers, alternative-communication evaluators, and even a “pricey child photographer,” who file through these pages and whose conversations are minutely reported.

From this passage, it is obvious that Nehring has different expectations for the way in which Adams should care for her son; however, this description reflects a kind of care that is now quite common in the United States—particularly to provide support for children with disabilities. Though Schaffer might value it as an example of her theory in practice, Nehring criticizes the existence of this community. She makes this judgment even while suggesting that her daughter, who also has a disability, exists in a similar network of carers. Such networks have the potential to provide better care than an isolated carer, an argument that might temper Nehring’s outrage (if indeed she is concerned about the quality of Henry’s care).

As Nehring criticizes the kind of care Adams provides, she exhibits serious concern about the economics behind such communities. In fact, she argues that the book is “less about raising a child with Down syndrome than about the privileged lives of some New York City professors.” Nehring’s emphasis on the economics of care draws attention to an aspect of Schaffer’s argument that is as yet underdeveloped: the ethical practices that the latter promotes are “far too often blind to modern global economic conditions,” in her own words. It is important to recognize that the care community that Adams depicts (as summarized by Nehring) is not organized solely around care; it is mediated by the complex realities of paid labor, along with a multitude of other factors. Most likely these therapists and nurses receive a wage—whether from the Adams family, their insurer, or another public or private entity—which means that they do not provide care for the purely altruistic reasons Schaffer values; nor should they be expected to do so. This may be where Schaffer and I differ, though perhaps monetary compensation could be treated as a form of care.

Visible in Nehring’s attention to economics is a desire to expose hidden threats contained within Raising Henry, a practice that sounds like symptomatic reading. The review’s author invokes Adams’s veiled ableism, her “egocentrism and hollowness,” as reasons to warn readers against the book. She even goes so far as to call the author “a master of ressentiment and a monarch of malaise.” This book is dangerous, according to Nehring, who is intent on revealing Raising Henry’s negative potential. Her reading of this care community thus contrasts strongly with Schaffer’s theorization, which centers on ideal examples from Victorian literature. For example, Schaffer argues that “Disabled men are lovable in Victorian fiction partly because they offer the opportunity for a network of care, attracting the isolated figures who covet that sociality.” It is not that this reading seems wrong but that the frame Schaffer applies to this analysis only gestures toward the insidious affective current that can run through such networks (i.e., Munchausen syndrome by proxy) without confronting its reality. Nehring takes the opposite approach, exaggerating this negative potential without recognizing the many opportunities provided by care.

One of Nehring’s most remarkable criticisms (in that it borders on a personal accusation) is that Adams “understands her own child as another academic project.” By comparing Henry to a “project,” Nehring is likely implying that Adams is distant from him, invested only intellectually (and not emotionally) in his care. Perhaps Nehring also means to suggest that Adams treats Henry as an abstract idea rather than a person with real wants and needs, that she has a specific outcome toward which she molds his development. These are very real concerns, but since Nehring doesn’t support them with examples, I can only speculate and ask another question inspired by Schaffer’s arguments: Is it terrible to liken a person to an academic project? Can we approach this comparison from a different and less instrumentalizing perspective?

Academic research is a collaborative process in which we read arguments made by others and enter into actual and imaginary discussions with those whose work we read. Schaffer explores this situation in her paper. It is rarely the case that we have a detached relation to our research projects since sustained intellectual interest is intimately intertwined with emotional investment.

We often choose our projects because we want to do justice to an idea, text, person, or group of people. In the effort to do so, we read hundreds of books and articles, spend thousands of hours thinking about the questions that they raise, and write innumerable pages as we flesh out and nuance our thoughts. Our emotional investment can be so intense that we have nightmares about the welfare of the projects themselves and the people to whom they relate. Characters in the literary and historical texts we analyze can become as significant a part of our lives as family members. The level of care that we give to these projects, along with the real and fictional people with whom they are involved, is sometimes greater than that which we offer to those we encounter in our everyday lives. Is there a way, then, that Nehring’s comment—which seems calculated to wound—could reflect what Schaffer calls a “care-ful” relation between a mother and a son, a researcher and her project?

To close, I want to consider the kind of care that Nehring might imagine she provides in this review. As it stands now, this review could be read as care-less. Nehring seems to care little for Adams’s response (unless she cares to produce a negative one, which she has) and for the book itself—that is to say, she does not like it and neither does she spend much time with it in the review. However, she does provide some kind of care here: for her readers, warning them away from this 'dangerous' book; herself, as a parent who has (purportedly) taken a different path than Adams; and her daughter, whom she introduces briefly into this written piece. Indeed, the paragraph Nehring devotes to her daughter Dice stands out as the only point at which joy—an affect that seems central to Schaffer’s argument—enters the conversation. If Nehring had articulated more clearly how Dice fits into her critique, her review might have provoked a less contentious reaction from its readers and, ultimately, been more productive. In the end, she leaves it to the community of readers to care for Adams’s book and her review, to negotiate the appropriate response amongst themselves—as many have tried to do on the DS-HUM listserv, for instance.

In my discussion of Nehring’s review, I have tried to highlight the complexity of care networks and indicate how easy it is both to locate injustice and to participate in it. Though I welcome Schaffer’s idealism, Nehring’s review raises many practical concerns regarding the application of an ethics of care. Schaffer recognizes that like people, texts “can so easily be misread, misunderstood,” and this review exemplifies the disagreements and negative feelings that emerge from attempts to care for both. If “[c]are has the capacity to remake political ties and social goals,” according to Schaffer, it can also cause irreparable damage, as theorists including Nietzsche and Lacan have already recognized. Though I disagree with Nehring and her approach, I have tried to care for her and it. In this case, however, the best decision may have been to direct my care and attention elsewhere. I leave it to the care community in which I participate to decide.


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