In this interview, Estelle Ferrarese elaborates on her account of vulnerability and care
to highlight its political and social, as opposed to its ethical, dimensions. Drawing
on, amongst others, Adorno, Tronto, Castell, and Laugier, she argues that vulnerability
and care should not be understood ontologically, as an antropological exposure of the
body, but rather socially, as the normative expectations and material conditions under
which care work takes place. Situating her approach in anglophone and francophone
discussions on vulnerability and precarity, she discusses her approach to normative
expectations and how it informs her account of vulnerability of living at the mercy of
someone else’s agency, as well as the politicization of vulnerability. She also discusses the
political implications of her account of vulnerability and care with regard to a range of
contemporary issues, such as the Men’s Right Movement, the posthuman turn and the
Antropocene, and mutual aid and the neoliberalization of the welfare state.
Care, Vulnurability, Welfare State, Care Ethics,
Mutual Aid, Critical Theory
The Politics of Vulnerability and Care:
An Interview with Estelle Ferrarese
Estelle Ferrarese, Liesbeth Schoonheim & Tivadar Vervoort
Krisis 42 (1): 76-92.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution 4.0 License International License (CC
BY 4.0). © 2022 The author(s).
The Politics of Vulnerability and Care:
An Interview with Estelle Ferrarese
Estelle Ferrarese, Liesbeth Schoonheim & Tivadar Vervoort
Liesbeth Schoonheim & Tivadar Vervoort: In your work (2016a; 2016b), you sketch
various genealogies of the concept of vulnerability. You refer to the American strand
of Butler’s notion of grievable lives, which of course builds on a Levinasian notion of
ethics, but interestingly you also refer to a French strand that starts from the sociological
analysis by Robert Castel. Precarity, in this latter approach, indicates a process (rather
than a social position) that is shared by the precariously employed and unemployed,
that is, by the poor and the middle class. How would you position yourself in this
genealogy? And in addition to that, keeping in mind the topic of this special issue, could
you elaborate on your understanding of how vulnerability relates to care?
Estelle Ferrarese: At some point, maybe about seven-eight years ago, the very idea of
vulnerability was all over, and a lot of people were trying to deal with this concept. So,
I wanted to gure out where it came from and why it was so important at that time to
think in terms of vulnerability. More specically, I tried to identify the dierent lines of
thought that had produced this focus. My aim was both theoretical and political.
In addition to the lines you mentioned, there is a very old, Christian account of
vulnerability, to which I did not want to be bound. The history of vulnerability within
this tradition is actually very rich. But it also explains why there is so much reluctance
when it comes to vulnerability: although this concept has been met with success, it is
also met with some kind of allergy, especially from people from the left. My assumption
was that it was mostly because of this Christian past that the concept of vulnerability
was considered to be totally apolitical. With the gure of a merciful God who becomes
man, inasmuch as he assumes a vulnerable esh sensitive to suering, it casts vulnerability
as an anthropological feature. I wanted to address this issue. My aim was to identify and
to build on lines of thought where vulnerability was always-already political, where the
term does not only refer to a shared ontological precariousness, but to the exposure to
threats that are socially determined. This social determination encompasses our bodies,
that is, even when we talk about bodily vulnerability, there is something which is social.
And this socially determined vulnerability is not limited to a gradual dierence between
bodies, where some of us are much more exposed due to, for instance, disability or
race-based violence. The historical and social texture of vulnerability is not limited to
an ordering of bodies – some are more exposed than others because of a collective and
institutional past and present. This texture characterizes each singular body. We should
not understand our bodies as immutable, and instead our biology is completely histor-
ical and socially determined, technologized, and so on. This, more thoroughly social,
account can be found in Adorno. In other words, I was looking for these approaches
that conceptualized vulnerability in terms that were free from traces of ontology.
And I found some interesting possibilities. None of them completely satised
me. This is why I try to borrow from dierent threads. One of them, of course, was
Butler’s, especially because they were at the time trying to conceive of a politics of
vulnerability that would arise from bodies (Butler 2013 [1997]; 2016 [2009]). But I was
not convinced by what they proposed. Another possibility was care ethics. And as it
happens, I started to engage a lot with representatives of this tradition in France in the
mid-2010s. For some reason, there was a renewal of the idea of care in France, which
took place almost twenty or fteen years after all the developments in the States around
Joan Tronto and others (Tronto 1993; Held 2006).
This was a group of several feminist thinkers around Sandra Laugier, who came,
strangely enough, from an analytical background, primarily Wittgensteinean schol-
arship. They tried to think through, Laugier especially, what care means in terms of
ordinary life (Laugier 2020; Paperman and Laugier 2020 [2006]; Molinier, Laugier, and
Paperman 2009). And they started to invite me a lot to their workshops because I was
using this idea of vulnerability. In my discussions with them, I was assessing what I could
accept from care ethics and what I would need to abandon. So that was the second,
big trend with which I engaged. There are elements of care ethics that I found really
valuable, especially in Tronto. But I had a big diculty with her, and with care ethics
more broadly, namely that the issue of capitalism was completely out of sight. While
capitalism was not really considered, they were, of course, talking and thinking of care
as some kind of work. And hence this work did not seem to be determined by capitalist
imperatives, it seemed there was no inherent relationship between the distribution and
performance of care on the one hand, and the meaning of the market and of production
on the other hand. For me, coming from the Frankfurt School, it was of course not
possible to think about work as something that could be thought independently from
the capitalist form of life.
And then nally, there is Castel, whom you mentioned and who is a sociologist.
As opposed to many of the other theorists that I mentioned before, and who are often
in between philosophy and the social sciences, or were completely in philosophy, he
was a sociologist who was recognized for his empirical work. In the period I am men-
tioning, around 2015, he had already passed away, but some ten to fteen years earlier
he had used this idea of vulnerability in regard to the question of poverty. That was his
prime focus, and he was arguing that vulnerability should not be thought of as a state
but as something that was to be grasped as a certain temporality, as related to time.
Vulnerability evolves and is the result of past events and must be envisioned in relation
to the future. I found that really interesting. The other thing I found intriguing was the
unusual way he was dealing with the idea of risks. When he was talking about groups
that are vulnerable to poverty, he was describing risks. He showed that if you have
previously been exposed to poverty, you have more chances to become poor again or
even become poorer. He would also think of risk in questions, such as, do you still have a
strong network of relationships, acquaintances, and family or not? In other words, he was
trying to list those dierent risks, suggesting that if you’re losing one asset after the other,
then you would become even more vulnerable. What I found most fascinating, however,
was that his purpose was not to assess vulnerabilities by calculating risks, which is part
of the mathematical way of thinking typical for sociology. His aim was not so much to
add one item to another to anticipate a kind of logical development of someone’s life;
what he was actually trying to think with this idea of vulnerability was some sort of
an existential condition: when you are vulnerable it actually encompasses your way of
dealing with the world. It transforms your psyche. It is really a total experience. I learned
from Castel that when we talk about risk, we should avoid thinking of that as something
that aects you from the outside and makes you the prey of dierent sociological logics.
It’s also something that becomes you, and as you become more vulnerable, you embrace
your own vulnerability, even if it’s against your own will, of course.
This is, in short, the constellation within which I developed my account of
LS&TV: Could you elaborate on your notion of the body as fully socially determined,
which is also central to your current research. If we understand you correctly, the issue
is not just a social constructivist point, such as Judith Butler’s, where the body is situated
beyond discourse and yet not accessible except through discourse. New Materialists
have criticized this position quite extensively, and brought to our attention specic
practices of care as transformation of the body. Some, such as William Connolly, have
suggested that an experimental, playful practice of self-care might alter our aective and
bodily reactions, which are initially sedimentations of power relationships (Connolly
1997). Would such a notion of care of the self as transformative, corporeal practice have
a place in your social-constructivist account?
EF: My point is that the body is not only determined, but it’s really constructed. I want
to avoid a dualism where a body is perceived as pure biology, that it encounters dierent
social items, where this encounter involves some kind of violence, and modies an
until-then natural core. My point is that actually our bodies are always-already historical
and socially framed, shaped, and formed because biology has a history – rst of all, a
species history but secondly also a personal history. Everything is interwoven from the
beginning. For instance, we have bigger bodies then 500 years ago. Most, if not all,
of our bodies are technically or medically modied right now: most of us have had
surgeries, many of us take hormones on a daily basis, etc. To speak about history of the
bodies does not amount to endorsing an evolutionary perspective, it is not a question
of envisaging a slow mechanical capitalization of an optimum, on the contrary, it is of
how practices and techniques modied the bodies, in ways which can be contradictory.
And it does not do any good to try to think of vulnerability as something that would be
related to a kind of weakness of the body with a big “B”, a body that would be without
protection, and where threats that are so-called external would activate or disactivate
exposure dierently according to the class or the gender you belong to.
So that’s my point. But you might be right that there is a way we can exper-
iment with our bodies. The history of individual bodies is also a history of self-care
in the Foucauldian sense. The late Foucault talks about self-care as what you owe to
yourself and which is related to the body, as the ancient Greeks used to think (Foucault
1986; 2012). So of course, you can modify your own body through some forms of care.
LS&TV: Could we go back to your genealogy and more specically the position of
Butler and Castell? Your combination of these two authors brings to mind Isabell Lorey’s
work on precarity. Lorey describes precarization as the neoliberal government of risks,
so drawing on a Foucaultian analysis of neoliberalism, but she also builds on Butler’s
account of precariousness as well as Castel’s sociological analysis of precarity and risk.
But whereas in your work there seems to be a tension between Butler’s work on
precariousness and Castel’s work of precarity, in Lorey’s work these themes are brought
together. More specically, Lorey seems to dier from you in that she claims to follow
Butler in understanding precariousness as “the term for a socio-ontological dimension
of lives and bodies” rather than “an anthropological constant, or again, “a transhistorical
state of being human, but rather a condition inherent to both human and non-human
being […] it is always relational and therefore shared with other precarious lives” (Lorey
2007, 11-12). So the question that emerges is that, if we understand precariousness
not as an anthropological constant but as a relational account of vulnerability, could
such a relational account prevent the abstraction of vulnerability into a trans-historical
anthropology? How, and if, can a relational understanding of vulnerability prevent vul-
nerability becoming an anthropological constant in your account?
EF: That’s a good question. What I would like to highlight is that I, for sure, support
shifting the idea of vulnerability from a form of ontology to a relational form. However,
I am also a bit wary about focusing too much on this idea of relations because the
idea of relations brings to the fore the face-to-face model and it makes vulnerability a
matter of intersubjectivity: what can happen when someone is in the hands of someone
else. Instead, what I try to think is really the fact that this scene of intersubjectivity is
shaped by a lot of things, but mostly by normative expectations that make us vulnerable
to some set of threats. In other words, it is precisely because there exists some set of
normative expectation regarding what should be done on this scene that you are made
actually vulnerable. Vulnerability necessarily appears at the same time as a horizon of
obligations (fullled or not). Maybe this is a totally constructivist way of thinking, but
I would say that we cannot use that idea of vulnerability to think about the kind of
exposure that one might have experienced in other times. I think that is not the right
way to think about vulnerability. It does not acknowledge the fact that vulnerability is
instituted. Vulnerability materialises at the level of interactions and social interactions
but is instituted by normative expectations which are not mental phenomena but are
situated between subjects, and must even be conceived as institutions. And this is some-
thing that the focus on the relational does not allow us to think.
LS&TV: Like your work on care and vulnerability, Butler has taken up elements from
Adorno’s reections on morality in their reections on vulnerability. In their Adorno-
lectures (Butler 2005, 103), they interpret Adorno’s account of humankind as pertaining
to “a double movement, one in which we assert moral norms at the same time as we
question the authority by which we make that assertion. Still, Butler utilizes notions
such as relationality, precariousness, and grievability that seem to dene essential char-
acteristics of humankind. You have criticized Butler’s work for this tendency, as well
as for lacking an account of how the performativity of precariousness would imply
an emancipatory politics. Elsewhere, (2016, 152), you suggest that the denial of the
political importance of vulnerability in the literature (which you dene, very broadly,
from Foucauldians to other post-foundational thinkers such as Rancière and Badiou),
unfolds along four themes, of which its “possible anthropological character” is one. You
write that “the rearmation of the ontological, anthropological, or constitutive status
of vulnerability raises problems that are categorical as much as political, that is, are of
political pertinence: how could an ineradicable, universal phenomenon pertaining to
human nature become the object of a critique, or be the wellspring of emancipation?
How does the idea of a fundamental human vulnerability enable us to account for
socially produced or congured forms of vulnerability?” (ibid, 153). Could you elab-
orate on your account of vulnerability (and care) with relation to the anthropological
assumptions, and its consequences for a politics of vulnerability? This massive question
could perhaps be split into two: rstly, how does your account of care and vulnerability
relate to these kinds of anthropological assumptions, and what is your critique of these
assumptions?; and secondly, what does this mean for a politics of vulnerability?
My denition of vulnerability is a living at the mercy of someone else’s agency.
I use this denition rst because I think this idea of “mercy” is very important: it stresses
the fact that something actually might happen or might not happen, but either way you
are still vulnerable. It also encompasses the idea of a power, of a huge power, which is
placed upon you, which does not depend on you, while I insist that it doesn’t mean that
you don’t have your own agency.
It just means that on your own you do not have the eciency or the ecacy
to protect yourself from the risk of these threats. All the same, you can have very strong
agency in other parts of your life.
Now, as I said before, this idea of living at the mercy has to be understood as
something which is determined by normative expectations. And this is where maybe I
should mention someone who is also important to my work, and that is Castoriadis, from
whom I borrow some ideas, even though he is not at all a theorist of vulnerability. He
actually helped me to think about the strength and the density of normative expectations
again, which are not only shared beliefs, but something much more important. He has
this strong idea of institutions as something that is both instituted and instituting. This
is exactly what I have in mind when I talk about normative expectations as institutions.
They are instituted in that we receive them and they are in front of us. But at the same
time, they are instituting, as they institute the scene of interaction. And they institute the
subject, they make us subjects that appear on the intersubjective scene. I mean, we are
made of normative expectations and they create us as a subject.
Once you think about vulnerability in these terms, then politics becomes a
matter of making normative expectations explicit, making them reexive, making them
the object of debates, of perhaps also conicts and struggles in a society.
From this observation, you can go both ways. You can say that there are a lot
of exposures that should count as vulnerabilities, that should be taken care of by the
state, for instance. But you could also see that actually there are some vulnerabilities that
should stay under the radar and that should not be addressed because it is okay if they
stay in the private sphere. I think I mentioned that during our discussion in Leuven,1
when I was talking about love. Love is typically a form of vulnerability, where we are
exposed to the other’s lack of love for us. This vulnerability is terrible to the point of
being a threat to life, as some people commit suicide because they were abandoned by
their partners. But at the same time, as a society, we don’t want laws ruling the end of a
feeling or a relationship, and we don’t want the state to take care of this. So, if one thinks
about vulnerability as instituted by normative expectations, a politics of vulnerability is
about making them explicit, reexive, and being the objects of debate. I don’t necessar-
ily mean the polite and rational, Habermasian, debates, but really making them explicit
and then seeing what happens in terms of justications, critiques, claims, etc. It is about
making disagreement possible and visible.
And this may bring us to another point, since once you do that, or rather in
the process of doing that, new political subjects might appear. Subjects who transform
themselves by the very fact that they are putting forward some claims about the reality,
the scope of their exposure and the kind of collective organization it requires. There
is no politics without the birth of new political subjects. Here too, when a person or a
group excavates and challenges an existing normative expectation, we witness a polit-
ical transformation which is at the same time self-transformation. I do believe political
subjects can emerge from a condition of vulnerability, as opposed to what many authors
assume whom I mentioned at the beginning of my talk, such as Rancire or Badiou
(Rancière 2006). For Badiou vulnerability enables the substitution of politics for ethics
and blocks the path to all emancipatory politics (Badiou, 2001). I would say no, quite
the opposite, and stress that being vulnerable is also the possibility to make explicit our
own normative expectation, or the kind of normative expectations in which we are
entangled. Our political agency can be deployed against, on the basis of a vulnerability,
as emancipation can be a task engendered by the trial of vulnerability.
And if I could add a last part to my reection: there is also a threat inherent to
the place of vulnerability in politics; it sometimes seems that the use of the idea of vul-
nerability would per se suce to receive some kind of satisfaction for our claims. I mean
that vulnerability is such a strong focus in politics and philosophy that the argument
“I’m vulnerable” sometimes seems to be enough to prove or to justify some kind of
claim. For instance, there is a new masculinism that has now arrived in France, coming
from North America. I don’t know if you have that in Germany, too, but you probably
do. It is evidenced by the struggles of fathers who did not obtain the custody of their
kids. Which vocabulary do you think they use? That of vulnerability: they described
themselves as vulnerable fathers who are actually at the mercy of unjust states. And it’s
interesting that they actually use the idea of vulnerability to describe an exposure to
very old, patriarchal patterns that would not take into account their love for the kids.
That is why vulnerability not only has a political relevance, but must have
one: politics is a matter of disagreement, including strong disagreement. I think that
what politics allows is precisely an encounter – which can even be dicult – between
dierent discourses, and this encounter actually, and hopefully, might be necessary to
judge and assess all the claims.
That focus on disagreement produces another set of questions, because this
raises the whole issue of who is heard by whom in politics on the political scene. And
it is tragic for some people who cannot provide the proof of what they are exposed to.
It’s very complicated. But I want to stress that we need this movement of explication
and conict when we talk about vulnerability, because of this threat that vulnerability
becomes an argument per se. This is why we need politics.
LS&TV: The manner in which you describe how the language of vulnerability almost
directly invites a language of reparative justice, and how these can be co-opted by the
right, such as the Men’s Rights movement, is very instructive. Could you return, however,
to your discussion of love? Just to clarify, your position sounds almost Arendtian, in that
romantic love entails its own forms of vulnerability, and that it should be kept out of
politics and out of the control of the state (Arendt 2013, 242; 2003, 207–8). This is a
position, of course, that has been subject to feminist critiques of love, where there is
a long history of contesting, interrogating, and ghting the normative expectations of
romantic love. Love, we might argue, is always-already under the purview of the state,
insofar as they take shape in specic institutions – typically, marriage – that are sanc-
tioned by the state. Or, in a more Bourdieuian sense, we could say that love relationships
often take place between people with a similar social capital, which has been converted
in one way or another by the state. We might say that the assertion that love is to be
kept outside of politics and, perhaps more narrowly, outside of the state, runs counter
to the feminist critique of love that has brought about massive changes in civil and
criminal law with regard to the institutions in which ‘love’ takes place, but also to the
observation that love is always-already political.
Thank you for raising this question, which is indeed very important. When I
was talking about love, I was precisely thinking about the fact that discussing it and the
kind of collective organization it legitimates is political. The claim that the state should
not address all vulnerabilities arising from love is a political one. I was not saying it is
not political at all. Quite the contrary. I was saying let’s make this the topic of discussion.
And probably – that was my anticipation – most of us would say no, we don’t want the
prohibition of divorce on the grounds of the pain one can experience in a break-up.
But again, that would be the result of a discussion, which means that actually divorce,
marriage, partnership, etc., is political. We saw that in a dierent way in the last ten
years all over Europe with the same-sex marriages struggles. So, you and I agree about
love. I like very much Adorno’s notes on love, which you can nd in Minima Moralia
(§11, 21, 104, 107, 109, 122) precisely because he understands it not as the tumult of
an interiority, but as having from the start a content and social eects. He suggests
that love is pressing in the direction of something which is outside of the capitalist
form of life because it is completely external to any idea of commensurability, and it
coincides with some form of truly caring for someone etc. But at the same time, it
is something totally bourgeois. It is this hilarious aphorism in Minima Moralia where
he is discussing divorce. The truth of love is exposed in the pathetic divorce by
intellectuals and the way they end up struggling in a very petty way about, you know,
furniture and taxes.
So the political texture of love can be observed from dierent aspects, in addition
to feminist theories that have articulated a critique of love. We could think, for instance,
about the fact that the chances of loving and being loved are unequally distributed.
Patrick Pharo, a French sociologist, showed in the 1980s how it was complicated for
farmers to nd love because women didn’t want to live this very harsh life anymore – I
mean, the life outside on the elds, the absence of vacation, etc. In this sense too, love is
thoroughly social and political in the sense that the fact of failing in love is not only a
matter of contingency and bad luck, but can be the result of social determinations. We
should not reduce love to this pure feeling coming from nowhere that would save us
against greediness and violence and hate.
LS&TV: Your recent work centers around the tradition of Frankfurt School Critical
Theory on the one hand, and questions around the ethics of care and vulnerability
within the feminist tradition on the other. Taken at face value, the two traditions do
not seem to have much in common: recently, it has often been pointed out that the
writings of the rst generation of the Frankfurt School tend to neglect gendered forms
of social domination. Or even worse, as far as gender and sexuality are discussed, the
recourse of authors like Adorno to Freudian clichés can even be said to reproduce
rather than problematize gendered social norms. In The Fragility of Concern for Others
you develop a fascinating counterweight to these divergences by pointing out that both
Adorno’s “minimal” morality and contemporary theories of care ethics nd a common
ground in taking issue with the coldness and suering that is caused by subsumption
of the particular under the general. What implications do these resonances have for
emancipatory politics in general, and the tradition of critical theory more specically?
EF: These two theoretical constellations do have a few things in common. First, they
apprehend the body as the level or the reality at which morality should be thought
and envisioned. There is this strong idea of the body, of a materialist morality that you
have in Adorno, and especially in Negative Dialectics, when he says that what is left, after
Auschwitz, is only the kind of disgust that the body can experience confronting the
possibility of harming someone else. So, in Adorno, you have this corporeal moment
that would be the last resource in order to avoid evil. On the other hand, care ethics
is all about bodies that actually perform work for other bodies. Moral life is made of
the weary bodies of caregivers; the insistent or resistant bodies; the failing, heavy, or
repulsive bodies of care receivers; the sexualized bodies of both receivers and givers, etc.
Morality is to be understood in its materiality, and taking care of others has to do with
something which is very corporeal, even more so than in Adorno.
Secondly, and Adorno might even go further at the theoretical level on this
point, both traditions think about morality as something that is impure, which I nd
very enlightening. Morality and making moral choices is not a matter of a mental
experiment that you should and could have by abstracting yourself from the context in
order to determine what is just and what is unjust. Both Adorno and care ethics made
a great deal of criticizing Kant’s model of the categorical imperative and recasting the
idea of moral judgment, in its content and form, so that it is not measured by references
to general principles.
But more importantly, a judgment or a moral act is not invalidated because it is
born in a concrete situation, hindered, or determined, precisely because there is no such
a thing as an abstract moral judgement. For Adorno all the incarnations of morality, i.e.
all moral philosophies, but also all forms of moral life, are historical, and bear the mark
of a social group. So you can have forms of morality that are determined by a history of
violence. Freedom is not the condition of possibility of the moral gesture. Therefore, the
fact that certain moral gestures are born in and from a general organization – generated
by a reifying totality – of work and aects, is not enough to invalidate them.
And this is the case in the history of care. The point we can make with Adorno,
which is not totally explicit in the ethics of care, is the fact that the way you take care of
vulnerable others is something which was born in a history of domination of women
by men, but also, nowadays, the domination of women, and sometimes men, coming
from the Global South by men and women coming from the Global North. So you
have this completely unequal, unfair distribution of work and of an aect, which is
both the result and the tool of a system of domination. But that does not mean that the
normative content of care is wrong. I like that idea very much. In Negative Dialectics he
says that asking the question of the origin of something is a question of a master, that
“the category of origin is ‘a category of dominion’. It conrms that a man ranks rst
because he was there rst” (1990, 155). As a master, you are in the position to ask proofs
of a purity that suits your interests; the reference to origin reinforces the position of one
with a past that is neither shameful nor humble.
So care ethics and critical theory have some orientations in common, but I
also think that one can be used in order to highlight a lot of things that are completely
dismissed by the other. For instance, Adorno is not a feminist, and the moments when
he is most masculinist are precisely the moments when he tries to be a feminist. We nd
such clichés about women in Minima Moralia; also, he is talking about general coldness
as a characteristic of our capitalist form of life. He does not see that this coldness is also
intertwined with, and articulated by, forms of care that are produced by capitalism. Nor
does he see that the care produced by capitalism is gendered, so the logic of gender
remains completely out of sight in his analysis. This perspective can come from the
background of care ethics.
In the other way, as I mentioned at the beginning, care ethics does not really
think about capitalism. In this tradition, work is work, and is not examined as a labor
shaped by a particular economy. It thus misses the many ways in which the gender
order and the capitalist form of life are intertwined. So I think that you can build some
bridges, some of them might be complicated, but I think it is useful to do so.
LS&TV: They are both in dire need of each other.
EF: Absolutely. That’s a very good way to put it. Yes.
LS&TV: Your reading of Tronto in The Fragility of Concern for Others stresses the
gendered distribution of care as an aect (disposition) and activity, with occasional refer-
ences to other dimensions of oppression – an emphasis which is legitimately considered
the aim of your argument. What I found most striking in Tronto – and what makes her a
profoundly political or social theorist – is that she shows how the “morality” of care that
Gilligan essentialized in gendered terms, can actually be found among other groups that
have been coerced or expected to take up care work, for instance Black men. Drawing
on Black feminism, we could perhaps develop this insight in order to problematize the
link between disposition and activity, which is at the heart of the convergence between
Adorno and care ethics as being concerned with coldness and suering. I am thinking
in particular of the gure of the Black domestic as the “outsider within”, whose care
work and close attention to the white psyche enables them and their communities
with information crucial to Black survival (Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks). Could you
elaborate on the possible implications of this critique for your analysis?
EF: I was very much inuenced by bell hooks, even though I do not use her work at all
in the book on Adorno. And I totally agree that the unequal distribution of care work
relies on an unequal distribution of aects. Capitalism, including in its (post-)colonial
logic and in its gendered dimension, produces the subjectivations it needs. It is not only
that you are supposed to perform the gesture, you are also expected to feel, to experience
the moral feeling allegedly behind this gesture.
Someone with whom I discussed a lot in France is Caroline Ibos, a sociologist
who worked on nannies that bourgeois Parisian women hire to take care of their kids.
Her eld work shows the disappointment of these bourgeois women when they realize
that their nanny was actually only driven by money, for instance because the nanny
left and went back to West-Africa without further notice (in France many nannies
come from there). They feel betrayed, thinking “how is it possible that she left without
considering the wellbeing of my kids?” Despite the fact that the paid work hours have
been completed, there is a feeling that the contract has not been fullled. So I agree
that there is this pressure on aects which might also be the last stage of domination.
At the same time, I would also argue in a dierent direction. One could also
say exactly the opposite, that actually that it is easier for some groups to be good, to be
generous. This is something that Adorno talks about in Minima Moralia. When you are
rich, it is so easy to be benevolent and refrain from some forms of violence, pettiness,
and meanness because your form of life is so smooth that actually you are in the posi-
tion that allows you to be kind: “Wealth insulates from overt injustice” (Adorno 2005,
186). So, you have this kind of aect that is possible with no eort precisely because you
are protected from many kinds of resentment, powerlessness, etc., etc. Maybe we can
make things even more complex by saying that, sometimes, experiencing certain moral
feelings is the result of a privilege. Tronto sees only one part of the picture because she
only talks about the indierence of the privileged. For her, the only result of privilege is
indierence. But privilege can also produce some kind of concern, of decency, because
you can aord it. There is no price to be paid.
LS&TV: One of the new ways in which Tronto is taken up is through posthuman
approaches such as by Puig de la Bellacasa (2017). She explicitly builds on Tronto’s
suggestion that care “is not restricted to human interaction with others. We include the
possibility that caring occurs for objects and for the environment, as well as for others”
(Tronto 1993, 103). Care, in Puig de la Bellacasa’s reading, is no longer restricted to an
activity carried out by humans and towards humans but operates within and between
sympoetic systems. While this account runs the risk of making the concept of care
counterintuitively large, it has the great benet of extending care to some of the most
pressing contemporary problems – those connected to extractive capitalism such as the
depletion of natural resources and mass extinction. Could you elaborate if and how
your notion of vulnerability facilitates such a posthuman turn?
EF: Issues of care were and should be thought in ways that are related to non-humans
such as animals, ecological systems, etc. It is striking that most thinkers who use the idea
of care, concern, etc. always address it in a way of the question of non-human entities
that are entitled to our care; such as Tronto, of course, but it is at the core of a lot of
thinking, and again Adorno is an example of that.
I have been a vegetarian for twenty-ve years, so I am totally sympathetic with
what is going on in the younger generations and with this strong movement in the
direction of taking care of what is nonhuman.
Now I developed my account of vulnerability without explicitly dealing with
non-human exposures. They would t with what I propose in as much as I am talking
about vulnerability as something that cannot be disconnected from a set of normative
expectations, and about politics as having to do with making those normative expec-
tations explicit and rephrasing them. When it comes to the environment or animals
we also have normative expectations. But then I am well aware that the usual issue
arises: that we are confronted with entities with which we are in a relation of radical
asymmetry, meaning that we can discuss our normative expectations, but they cannot.
I am not sure whether you can solve the issue with ethics of care either. There
is an inherent violence in the act of care, because caring for someone is also dening
what she or he needs. If there is no way to counterbalance what you believe through
some kind of explicit claim that would be made by who actually benets from your
care activity, the violent moment of care will always be there. This is inescapable when
it comes to environment or animals.
Although he comes from a very dierent background, I remember that
Habermas tried to think what we would all owe to animals in Moral Consciousness
and Communicative Action. He was not convincing at all because he argued that we
owe some kind of consideration to animals because they are quasi-human beings that
are capable of intersubjectivity and even of a quasi-language. So he tries to give them
some kind of rights or entitlements to care because they are similar to us. But I think
this is the totally wrong way of putting it. There must be a moment where you think
about this entitlement in a way which is completely disconnected to what makes them
possibly similar to us. At least theorists of care are not trying to avoid or disguise the
problem of asymmetry.
Now how can you really engage in an activity of care without these radical
movements of violent authority? I don’t know. I really don’t know. In France Bruno
Latour advocates a parliament of things. But this parliament of things only works if
there are some spokespersons, and politically speaking we know what spokespersons
usually have made of the claims of the ones they are supposed to defend.
LS&TV: We indeed could deploy a similar move as Habermas does, starting from the
observation that there is this specic form of inter-species intersubjectivity in attend-
ing to needs. That step can be made quite easily, to say that there are some forms of
normative expectations between so-called higher developed animals. But what Puig
de la Bellacasa does is more radical. She takes Tronto’s denition fairly literally, under-
standing any activity, including the activities of worms and of fungi, as care. So, she not
only addresses the care of humans towards nature but also the care that is exerted by
nonhuman nature. It is really interesting in its radicality, as it questions the conjunction
of aect and activity and opens up the concept of care. Still, we end up with the same
problem that you highlighted with reference to Latour: it is not so clear anymore what
the concept means and entails politically.
EF: In some reections on capitalism, in particular in Jason Moore’s work, something
similar is done in terms of work instead of care: we are invited to think about and
measure the work which is performed by forests, inasmuch as that they clean the air,
that they make our environment breathable. Or the work which is performed by bees
insofar as they reproduce owers and things like that. So there is the idea that what
should be named “work” is not limited to what humans can perform. But that does
not encompass the question of aect that you just mentioned. I don’t think you can
claim that bees have some kind of aect, at least when they take pollen from one ower
and bring it to another. Even if something like an aect is involved, it is probably not
directed towards human beings.
In order to act as a spokesperson, we might need to make a kind of mental and
theoretical adjustment to translate what is done by non-human entities into categories
that are human. Talking about care and work when it comes to some kind of non-human
activities might help us in order to think about what we owe non-humans. But that
does not solve the political problem of the very existence of a spokesperson, because in
the end the only ones who speak – who discuss normative expectations – are us.
LS&TV: In conclusion, could we talk a bit more about how you situate care as a collec-
tive, political praxis within the context of the privatization of the welfare state? Emma
Dowling, in The Care Crisis (Dowling 2022), shows very astutely for the British context
how the neoliberal de- and underfunding of public services leads to crises, where care
work is increasingly relegated down the “care chain”, such that underpaid and unpaid
care work is done by those who are marginalized based on residency and citizenship
status, ethnicity, race, and gender. Dowling is quite critical of what she calls “care xes”,
under which she also subsumes mutual aid projects, suggesting that public refunding is
the only desirable solution. Yet there is a longstanding critique of the kind of normal-
ization and coercion exerted by the welfare state, which we nd in feminist analyses as
well as anarchist-Marxist approaches. In fact, if we look at the discussion of mutual aid
by someone like Dean Spade (Spade 2020b; 2020a), mutual aid is a political praxis that
generates knowledge of social relations and transforms them from the bottom up. In fact,
it might illustrate quite well your understanding of politics as having its own movement
and immanent eect, as an “activity of transformation of relations to others and to the
social world, and insofar as the subject of praxis is constantly transformed through the
experience in which she is engaged, an experience that she forges but that also forges
her” (Ferrarese 2018, 39). Could you position yourself vis-a-vis this discussion?
EF: I come from a French background where the welfare state was and still is quite
strong compared to other countries. We tend to think that the State has a burden when
it comes to taking charge and taking care of some kind of vulnerabilities, disasters,
social threats. And I too regard the State as assuming a primary responsibility to prevent
or compensate for the harms individuals might suer. To put it like Castel, beyond the
intersubjective forms of care that render possible the exercise of an autonomy, every
individual depends upon a “‘social property’ made of sucient rights, resources and
protections” (Castel 1991) and which should be oered by the State. Mutual aid can
be, to be sure, very ecient. But their responsibility for the care of vulnerabilities is a
responsibility by default, which raises if and when the State is decient. I agree that
experiments of mutual aid can be the place of some kind of personal transformation,
some way of reorganizing communities and of giving voice to silenced groups. But they
might completely jeopardize the whole idea of the welfare state, for two reasons, one
is purely political, the other one is moral and cultural. First, forms of self-organization
that seek to build their own care system can be counterproductive because they suggest
that people can take care of socially produced injustices and social pathologies by them-
selves. By substituting themselves to it, they make State intervention unnecessary.
Second, there is also a slippery slope vis-à-vis what we owe each other within
a political community. When we self-organize, do we still have collective discussions
about who should take care of what?
Let me take the counter-example of nursing homes that actually are not real
nursing homes, but places where elderly people organize care between each other. I think
this is problematic. In a way it is really nice that people take care of each other, but on the
other hand, it means that taking care of the elderly is an issue for other elderly. So in a
way, they unburden the rest of us of a kind of work and concern that we should also carry.
LS&TV: There seems to be a tension between mutual aid projects that substitute for
the state on the one hand, and quite the opposite, namely practices of mutual aid that
do not replace the welfare state, but are a place where new forms of community and
political consciousness emerge which could formulate demands towards the welfare
state. With recourse to Rahel Jaeggi’s work, Daniel Loick has called such projects the
politics of forms of life (Loick 2017; 2018, Jaeggi 2018). Take, for instance, the care
work done within the gay community when the state did not help those suering from
HIV/AIDS. To what extent can forms of care become a political project demanding the
transformation of existing institutions? Or to what extent are practices of mutual aid on
the contrary depoliticizing these very institutions and no longer demanding anything
anymore? Perhaps geographical dierences matter a lot. When we look at the US, UK,
or even the Netherlands, the neoliberalization of the state is in such a stage that it has
reached its apex and not much welfare state is left. Hence, the danger of mutual aid
depoliticizing existing institutions seems minimal as the state already retreated from the
realm of care to such an extent that mutual aid projects oer more of a hopeful per-
spective for reestablishing something of a welfare state from the bottom up. In France,
where there is still something of a welfare state, the opposite might be true. Still, I had
to think of Édouard Louis’ Qui a tué mon père (2018) which tells the story of Louis’ dad
who cannot work while the state already took away so many of his social benets and
forced him to apply for jobs he is physically incapable of doing. I wonder, whether even
in France, we can still defend the existing welfare state. Should we instead aim for new
projects of social transformation that start out from everyday practices of care? What
should be our political wager?
EF: In France too, there is a neoliberalization of the state, and a lot of things that
were obvious before are not anymore. I too think, and deplore the fact, that not only
Macron, but before him the governments of the past thirty years, including the socialist
governments, have dismantled a lot of systems of protections, have considerably impov-
erished hospitals, schools, universities. Now, compared to other countries, we still have
maternity leave and relatively correct nursing homes (although very recently there was
a scandal about some of them). We still have non-conditional minimum help benets.
They are very low but do still exist. Universities are still almost free.
But most importantly, the pandemics have changed a few things in the sense that we
saw a strong return of the State, both in the good and in the bad way. The way the State
did take care of vulnerabilities shifted, and I think we cannot have the same unilateral
“neoliberal” reading of the political evolution that we had two years ago. In France, the
state suddenly had money for so many things; whereas before it was impossible to get
any kind of help and the budget was so constrained, in the last two years, anything was
possible. Macron had this strange motto where he said “no matter what it will cost”. And
a signicant part of the population got its normal salary while not being able to work for
months and months, thanks to State funds. We were not in the situation of many neo-
liberal countries where millions of people just lost their jobs from one day to the next.
There is a lot of discussion about where that money was before, but the point
here is that there is a strong return of the State. That is not to say that now we are back
to a full welfare state (strangely, in the midst of the pandemic, the number of hospital
beds continued to decrease), but that focusing on the withdrawal of the State from some
spheres of society is to leave out new trends that are just as damaging from the point of
view of the care of vulnerable people as from the point of view of gender.
As everyone has noticed, the return of the State could not do much about
the gendered distribution of work - quite the opposite. Everyone was forced to stay at
home, and everyone (or at least a signicant part of the population) was paid, but in the
end, care was performed in a very traditional way by women who were burdened with
helping the kids with school, cooking, etc.
I would say that there is a strange kind of dialectics here. The return of a quite
strong welfare state did not prevent, and in a way triggered, some kind of a neo-tra-
ditional distribution of care activities. And it did so not because of a certain neo-pa-
ternalism which would have conditioned state aid on certain practices but because it
made the household exclusively an economic unit. Women were in a way both forced
and abandoned in their households. As soon as they were no longer in public spaces
in the broad sense, such as companies, associations, etc., they lost the protections they
used to enjoy thanks to the laws, norms, and public policies that framed their activity in
the economic and political spheres, and even in the street. They had strong protection
by the State in economic terms, and at the same time, large aspects of their lives were
just left to agreements that would happen in households. But those agreements were
not agreements, they were just reenactments of very old and oppressive forms of life.
Hence, they were both super-protected and totally underprotected. Here again, you can
see the limits of any kind of state organization of care as a collective activity as long as
normative expectations are not politicized.
LS&TV: This brings us back to the politization of love, maybe not of romantic love
but of parental love, which is another taboo that we still have to look at. We might
have to distinguish between mutual aid projects that are some kind of neoliberal
communitarianism set up by privileged social groups, and those forms of mutual aid
which are galvanizing political consciousness. The typical example is the Black Panther
Party which started a breakfast for children program that the FBI considered the most
dangerous political action in the US. Still, it is often cited as the reason why there is a
breakfast program in the US today. So, the very aim of taking up this need was not the
collective change of ideas of what needs should be met, or what vulnerability is, but
basically an eort to undermine the possibility of political consciousness. Might we say
that the vulnerability of kids at the mercy of the Black Panther Party is preferable to
the vulnerability towards a state-run program with its own risks, such as breaking up
collective consciousness, or the paternalism which Tronto also highlights?
I totally believe that those kinds of non-mixed meetings, practices, and caregiv-
ing organizations have the potential to give rise to new claims, and to allow members
of these groups to rethink and reformulate their own identities, to dene what a threat
is for them, etc. – this is what Nancy Fraser called subaltern counterpublics.
But then comes the second moment of your question, because at some point
you need to assess between vulnerabilities. You mentioned kids, who might indeed
be vulnerable to the way a group performs a certain form of care. How do you assess
vulnerabilities? Well, I think there are no criteria. There is not one and only way to have
a discussion about that. I don’t think that there are ultimate principles that should be
found out in order to say: if we go past this threshold, then it is not taking care of some
vulnerability anymore, but pure violence or paternalism. It is always a matter, again, of
normative expectations and normative expectations cannot be discussed only inside a
group, notably because even the normative expectations of the group are shaped by
something which is broader than the group, because the group was socialized within
a larger political community; but also because claims must go through the trial of
In short, I would say that when it comes to politicization, the moment of closure
of the group upon mutual aid can only be thought of as a temporary step. It cannot be
regarded as an emancipatory horizon. It is the tool, not the end.
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1 Estelle Ferrarese gave a talk at the Institute of
Philosophy, KU Leuven on November 18, 2021.