Care. Liberation. Now.: Changing Shape, Shaping Change

By Belinda Ju

January 13, 2022, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Two women dancing
Photo by Belinda Ju. [ID: Two women dancing. Woman on right is crouching in squat, leaning forwards nearly horizontal. Woman on left is in side bend, leaning her weight onto other woman, head resting on her back, arms entangled in hers. One leg of each woman is touching side-by-side, both in deep knee bend.]
Dancing Care

In April 2021, right after we’d both been vaccinated, I began to meet weekly with a dancer friend and collaborator.  We met, keeping our masks on, in my living room, on my building roof, in the park.  It was the first time either of us was making dance with another human in over a year and it was thrilling to simply move our bodies, in the same space and at the same time.  Actually, forget about moving—it was profound simply to touch; I could count on one hand the number of people I had touched for a whole year.

We were both drawn to exploring the concept of care.  Yes, that ol’ thing.  Take care, we sign our emails.  We care about you, companies tell me in their ads.  Self-care, that luxury we can’t afford.  But also no, not that ol’ thing.  We were interested in real care: care that is powerful and radical, care that can uproot oppression and topple regimes.

In the pandemic, betrayed by those at the top, we did what we always did: we showed up for each other.  Amidst catastrophic suffering flowered a beauty and depth of our care, community, and solidarity for each other.  And yet, in the spring, as vaccines were opening us back up, all that started to crumble with the return of busy and FOMO and neverenoughness.  Because that’s what normal translates to in our hyperindividuated, neoliberal society.

We wanted to understand care: how could we harness the deep practice we’d exercised at such great cost for a more caring future for the long run, not just in times of crisis.  Real care — not marketing slogans and prosaic signoffs.

We structured our working sessions as a book club, grounding each session with a chapter from The Care Manifesto by The Care Collective.  We invented exercises for ourselves, inspired by what we were reading: what might an infrastructure of care look like?  How might we explore neither dependence nor independence but interdependence?  Skipping any easy manifestations of care as either physical (caring for) or emotional labor (caring about), how might we embody the notion of feminist Joan Tronto’s caring with,[1] where the care relationship is consistent with democratic commitments to justice, equality, and freedom?

In our movement explorations, our limbs both separated (pushing away) and connected (bringing together). Our points of contact varied from slip ‘n slide to deep pressure, localized to whole body. Rolling together on the ground necessitated full-body intimacy and support of each other’s weight. Being on the ground versus standing each prescribed different constraints, but also opened different possibilities.  We butted up against power, when either of us would throw out a ‘bid’ that the other did or did not turn towards. We added successively more rules to our score, making it harder for us to maintain continuity of phrase given physical constraints — much like continuing to care amidst less resourcing and burnout. We dissolved any lead/follow relationship, blurring our boundaries and engaging in a dynamic give and take: sometimes one of us needed more or less, sometimes one of us got to shine more or less; at no point was our relationship ever perfectly equal.

Dance movement and social movement. The gesture and the rupture. For me, care is the bridge.  And not only does it serve as the bridge between both, it contains the possibility and process of both — both the gesture and the rupture, the moving towards (ourselves, others, The Other) and away (from oppression, isms).  Care is not inherently “nice”[2] — it is political (gendered/racialized/classed) and it is survival (both as caregiver and care-receiver). Care can be conceived as the mending, after the tear. But it can also be the tear itself: etymologically, care comes from the Old English caru, which means “burdens of the mind.” That tear can then become the mending, unstitching what we no longer need and revealing our inherent whole and free self.  Care can be our practice of freedom.

What do I mean by that? The philosopher Michel Foucault distinguishes between liberation as a momentary act and freedom as an ongoing practice. He wondered what would happen the day after the Grand L. Turns out we’d still need to figure our shit out.  “Liberation paves the way for new power relationships, which must be controlled by practices of freedom.”[3] That work of freedom after the Grand L? It’s also the work we need to do today.

This essay is driven by these questions:

  1. Why is care so hard?
  2. How might we care more?  How might we expand our caring imaginaries, our notions of kin, of who “deserves” our care?
  3. Does care matter?  I mean, is it really going to fix anything?
  4. How do we get to the perfect there, when we’re in the broken here?

This essay is about why care is hard, and for that very reason, why care is the practice of freedom. I describe the care web as applied interdependence, and give three examples for scaled-up care neighborhoods that serve as models for societal transformation. Finally, I make the argument for why liberation is accessible to us—right now.

This work of care is in the present tense and not some far-off future. It is our work, not someone else’s to figure out.  And it will never be perfect.

But it is our practice of freedom.

 

Care as an Individual Practice of Freedom

What can care free us from? Here are three ways that either giving or receiving care can be a practice of freedom.

First, each time we ask for care, we’re chipping away at the tentacles of neoliberalism that have ensnared us, often without our knowledge or informed consent. Asking for help strips down the neoliberalist ideal of the self-made man: autonomous, resilient, and self-sufficient. It refuses the cultural value of independence as success, or even the possibility of any true “independence.”  We’ve been brainwashed by the notion that we have to do it all alone or else we’re considered weak. Even Henry David Thoreau of Walden is a case study for interdependence: he visited his mother’s home several times a week to eat her food, give her his laundry, and see his friends.[4]

Care can also become a practice of freedom by unhooking our worth from our productivity and believing in our inherent worth. Under neoliberalism, the individual is only valuable as a “productive member of society” (read: engaged in waged labor, because value must be measured, and money is our only currency).  But that’s just a story someone made up. We are worthy simply by virtue of being alive, full stop. That’s unconnected to what or how much we can produce, what our minds or bodies can do. Our belief in our inherent worth gives us a sense of enoughness that enables us to both ask for and give care by giving us a greater capacity to confront our human frailty.

Finally, care confronts vulnerability and dependence, sickness and death. We care for our (and other) bodies and minds both because of and in spite of their perpetual imperfections, the ways in which they may not behave the way we might want them to, the ways in which we have to relinquish control.  Care for our (and other) mortal bodies can also be an unsettling memento mori when our society tries so hard to ignore, deny, and hide death. The fundamental truth of death is a feature, not bug, of the human condition. Care can allow us to unlearn our shame around having needs and mitigate our fears of frailty and death, accepting all of them as part of the human condition.

Acknowledging our interdependence, inherent worth, and vulnerability — this is hard work that’s entangled in the already hard work of care, whether you’re the giver or receiver. When you’re really in the muck of it, care brings up a lot of feels: anxiety, fear, grief, anger, judgment, and more. But this is also the work of freedom, if we allow ourselves to open to the possibilities of liberation that care can offer us. In the words of meditation teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: no mud, no lotus. Let us feel the discomfort that care triggers for us, and begin to be in that discomfort so that the tightness might loosen, simply by virtue of our being with, our turning towards. If instead of fighting, we can dance with it: our shame, our fear, our anxiety.  We can shift our weight, bend our knees, relax into the natural curve of our spine.

Two women dancing
Photo by Belinda Ju. [ID: Two women dancing. They lean towards each other. Woman on left faces away from camera, woman on right faces towards. The heads perfectly overlap so neither face is visible. One straight arm up on right, two angled elbows left and below. Bent knees, in parallel and modified fourth position.]
Care as a Collective Practice of Freedom

Care is not just my practice for my freedom, or your practice for your freedom.  It’s our practice for our freedom, together.

What can care free us from?

Reconfiguring Family

One answer is the scarcity mindset that rations the provision and receipt of care to the family. In our neoliberalist world, there is no collective responsibility for care; it is relegated to the family — and when they’re not available, outsourced to the market. This is both unreliable and unjust: not everyone has available family or money.

How might we extend our commitments of care beyond the traditional family? What would it look like to construct family through choice and consent instead of chance?

The Care Web

Justice worker Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha describes the “care web,”[5] which applies the principle of mutual aid—a collective coordination to meet each other’s needs[6]—in the spirit of interdependence and community. It is from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.

A care web doesn’t mean that everyone has to do everything, but it means that everyone can give and everyone can receive: pooling both caring needs and caring resources. In this way, the care web is neither unidirectional nor hierarchical, unlike the standard healthcare-mediated relationship of the binary caregiver and care receiver that is unequal and non-reciprocal. And unlike traditional models of care for, say, disabled people or charity recipients, the care web subverts the model that they can only passively receive care. Instead, a person receiving care can also direct or give care. Finally, care webs have no center, paralleling the way in which the normative, institutional centers of life have failed its members — say queer and trans communities harmed by their families.[7]

Two things the care web is not: it’s not charity, and it’s not friendship. Members of a care web relate on equal ground instead of a hierarchical, moralistic, and often conditional relationship that characterizes charity. Care webs also don’t require friendship, generally characterized by reciprocity, which is not necessarily possible when people have different needs, capacities, and capabilities.

Caring for Care

Returning to Thich Nhat Hanh’s no mud, no lotus, how might digging into the challenges of care inform the ways in which care is our practice of freedom?

One of the primary ways the care web is hard is the improbability of reciprocity, and the unequal distribution of caring needs and caring resources within that web at any given time.

romham pádraig gallacher of the Radical Access Mapping Project writes about this eloquently:[8]

If interdependency is in our DNA, what does it mean when we fall out of whack with it? How do we handle the realities of our bodies and minds that need what they need when they need it? What does it mean when I can’t support you in the ways you’re supporting me? Does interdependency mean we do the same for one another at all times, as though there’s even such a thing as “the same” when it comes to this stuff? Is it a gentle ebb and flow? What if my ebb will never match your flow? What if it’s sometimes a torrential downpour and one of us is drowning? What do we do then?”

This notion of needing interdependence to just “magically work out”—and expectations for reciprocity and equality—is, I believe, one of the main reasons care webs are hard. Not only do we have fluctuating needs and resources over the course of even a single day, so too will we across the course of our lifetime — if we have children, when we are sick or recovering, or as we age.  And looking across a care web, different people will have different needs, capacities, and capabilities.

I don’t think our society gives us many models for, or opportunities to practice, engaging with others in ways that aren’t a transaction or equal trade; it’s how we are in so many domains of our life: commerce, employment, friendship. I think about the sticky challenges of shifting from what’s equal to what’s equitable.

Likewise, we aren’t well-equipped to handle variability or uncertainty. As when the rigid contracts of our expectations defer to the more dynamic fluctuations of our physical and mental health.  We want predictability and control. We want always, and if we can’t have that, never is better than sometimes.

We guard against disappointment — that someone else might not be able to show up for us when we need them. We guard against guilt — that we might not be able to show up for someone else when we said we would. The trying, the turning towards, the being with — how might we prioritize process over product? Even if, yes, sometimes someone might not get what they need.  Even if, yes, someone’s heart might be broken. Even if, yes, we might have to confront our own fallibilities.  This is, still, the practice of freedom. The practice of creating, still, a more loving, generous, and humane world.

I think about choreographer Doris Humphrey, known for her theory of fall and recovery: “Movement is situated on a tended arc between two deaths.” Dance—and life—exists between those two extremes. We are ever only falling away from and returning to equilibrium, but asymptotically, never reaching it. Let us fall, and embrace the fall, together.

And with that fall, the fail. Or what we think of as failure, recognizing that our normative logics of success and failure do not serve us. As gender and queer scholar Jack Halberstam writes, “Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world.”[9] Losing can be generative.

Care webs are as much about care as loss. Scholar Sara Ahmed writes that “in queer, feminist, and antiracist work, self-care is about the creation of community, fragile communities … assembled out of the experiences of being shattered. We reassemble ourselves through the ordinary, everyday, and often painstaking work of looking after ourselves; looking after each other.”[10] Trans and intersex scholar Hil Malatino describes his care web after top surgery as having been “delicately and elaborately woven for years, periodically (and always only partially) rent apart and repaired, made as much of loss as it is of sustaining linked threads.”[11]

Care creates loss, care is created by loss, care is created by that very care too. To continue to nurture our care webs is to see it through loss, to embrace holes and patches, sutures and scar tissue. How might we meet this with compassion? Alongside all the discourse about queering queer or cripping crip, how might we care for care — our imperfect selves, our imperfect care webs, our imperfect fellow weavers, our imperfect weaving, our imperfect loom and thread and the space between those threads that are the very reason for their resilience and stretch?

Caring for care: this is, again, our practice of freedom.

Care Neighborhoods

How might we scale up our care webs?  One that is sufficiently resilient to absorb both the downpours and the droughts? One that takes us closer to a vision of universal care where all needs are met? Where the primary role and responsibility of the government is to build and sustain infrastructures of care. Where the government isn’t the state as other, but a true collective governance. Where the value of care is infused across society, and society is many interweaving care webs.

I’m inspired by three case studies of residential, self-governed care webs that I call care neighborhoods: City Plaza, Occupy Wall Street, and the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. They serve as models for reimagining our society as one that centers care at every level.

City Plaza, an abandoned hotel taken over by a self-governed squat of refugees from 2016 to 2019 in Athens, is an exemplar of both the physical caring for and affective/emotional caring about. Run like a cooperative, residents took up “weekly responsibilities based on their individual capacities, from cooking meals to cleaning, group child care, and basic maintenance.” There were also numerous resident-run amenities like a clinic and library, and programming from English conversation to a nightly women’s dance party on the rooftop terrace.[12] Afghan woman Afaf said, “Solidarity and caring are mainly a way of thinking. Here we are discussing everything all together, what needs we have, what problems we face.”[13] Iranian woman Shamina said she felt such “social, personal and psychological safety and care” that she would turn down a UN-run apartment.[14] Often described as an “‘alternative family’ aiming to make City Plaza ‘home,’”[15] it serves as a model for what the provision of care — from basic necessities to individual and community development — can look like.

Occupy Wall Street, which began September 2011, serves as a model for the democratic caring with, offering a “radical politics of inclusion” exemplified by its nightly General Assembly that used consensus for collective decision-making. It was non-hierarchical and enabled a large number of people to participate. It also used a “progressive stack” by prioritizing the voices of women and people of color before white men. Although—and because—the movement was leaderless, its decisionmaking process was “highly structured, technical, and often laborious,” striving to not reproduce society’s violent power relations.[16]

The Dakota Access Pipeline protest from 2016 through early 2017 inspires with its capacious conception of kinship. For the Dakota, kinship extends to the land, water, and animals on whom they depend. As such, at Standing Rock, the protestors were protecting their relative, Mni Sose (the Missouri River), from threat of an underground oil pipeline. The water protectors’ camp also serves as a model for universal care. All were welcome as long as they abided by the camp’s values, including a commitment to protect the water and Mother Earth. “Free food, free education, free health care, free legal aid, a strong sense of community, safety, and security were guaranteed to all.”[17]

These three case studies inspire me because they bridge the care web with societal transformation. In each case, people learned skills and capacities such as collective problem-solving and governance, unlearned their conditioning, and literally manifested (not just imagined) a new society. They were empowered to take direct action rather than waiting for someone else to fix their problems and usher in the hypothetical liberation.

This is, perhaps, what is most compelling to me of all: confronting the ways in which we have been complicit in giving up our own power so that we can take it back. Realizing that change doesn’t come from the abstract “other,” someone more knowledgeable or expert, but us. Realizing that we don’t need to be saved — we can step up ourselves. Likewise, we don’t need the government to “take care of us”; we have the capacity for collective governance, to be the government, to care for all of us.

 

Liberation Now

So, how might we get there? That beautiful land where we all live in an abundance of care. Where care is the organizing principle instead of profit. Where we have nightly dance parties on the roof. Where we engage directly with our neighbors and fellow citizens so everyone’s needs can be met.

That utopia that feels so different from our present reality. But in the spirit of queerness, that’s a false binary. Liberation can be available to us right now. I invoke the following as our guides for liberation: Buddhism on awakening, the Dakota on kinship, and anarchism on prefiguration — moving from individual to family to society.

Buddhism teaches that we all have the seeds of awakening (also called enlightenment or liberation) within us. We all possess—or rather, are—Buddhanature: the awakened heart/mind.  Unlike Christianity’s doctrine of original sin, Buddhism believes that we are already awakened beings. However, our fundamental goodness is covered up by the three defilements of greed, hatred, and delusion. Becoming awakened is, then, a subtractive process. Through practice, we may come to know and be who we already are.

Awakening can be accessed by the most ordinary of activities: breathing. Something as pedestrian as noticing that you’ve been caught in thought is considered a “lowercase a” awakening by waking up to the present moment, gleaning a glimpse into the spaciousness of our Buddhanature. Buddhism teaches that liberation is available to us — all the time, because it is what we fundamentally are.

Indigenous scholar Kim TallBear argues that in Dakota culture, “making kin is to make people into familiars in order to relate.”  She gives the example of Little Crow, a Dakota chief who became an influential leader in large part from kinmaking: he built alliances across many Dakota communities through marriage, birth, and adoption.[18]

I am compelled by this concept of kinmaking both because it is a process not an inherited state, and because it invites agency instead of passive acceptance. Don’t know someone? Make them kin so that you can forge a relationship of mutual care and commitment to one another. It seems to sidestep or reverse our usual logic, but that’s the point: we need different thinking if we want to live in a different world.

In anarchism, prefiguration is creating the world you wish to live in, now. As one anarchist writes, “We cannot wait for ‘everyone’ to choose to live in non-statist, non-capitalist relationships, or we will very likely wait forever. Nor can we force socialism on anyone.… Hence there is no choice for those of us who desire to live differently but to begin to do so ourselves.”[19] Opposed to any form of coercive authority—and thus refusing to recognize state power, anarchists exercise the “defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free.”[20]

Like the Dakota concept of “making kin,” anarchism’s prefiguration feels so obvious that I wonder why I’ve never thought of it before. And the answer I arrive at is that I have internalized the oppression and control. Our primary limitation in ushering forth liberation is, in some ways, simply a lack of imagination. It requires us to uproot the forces of oppression we have unwittingly harbored, so that we may create a new way of being and relating and worlding.

Both anarchist theorist Gustav Landauer and philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about the humble relationship between two people as the front lines for changing large, institutional forces.  Landauer writes that the state is the relationship between people, and to destroy the state is to behave differently[21]—specifically, to acknowledge the humanity in each person.[22] Foucault writes that power is not an object to be owned, but exists in relationship whenever one person tries to control another. Power is everywhere — and so too, is its counterpart, resistance.[23] Landauer argues that the revolution must be conducted within ourselves and in our relationships.  Foucault empowers us to exercise resistance in our everyday relationships, not only in service of dismantling large, institutional forces.

I began my research with what felt like an unsolvable paradox: how can we get there when we’re here? It seems impossible. And yet, it’s not. The there is embedded in the here — we have, indeed, all the ingredients we need to transmute here into there. Like alchemy, there is magic involved. But it’s not the magic of chimera: it’s the magic of activating our imagination for what is possible. It’s the magic of refuting rules that do not serve us and rewriting new ones. It’s the magic of believing we are already free in our glorious humanity and luminous goodness.

 

Changing Shape, Shaping Change

To dance is to care. When I dance, I am caring for my body: giving it the permission to move as it would like to move, rest as it would like to rest, touch as it would like to be touched. When I dance, I am caring for my spirit: letting myself feel whatever it is I’m feeling, be however it is I already am. When I dance, I am caring not only for myself: I am caring for any fellow dancers who are with me, caring for anyone who might witness, caring for anyone who doesn’t witness but knows me, caring for anyone who knows whoever knows me.

When I dance, I am making and inhabiting a world, however ephemerally, that is not this one—and I am inviting you to join it. Where I, and you, get to release from the rules and beliefs of this world, and perhaps even (or rather, therefore) the rules and beliefs that are knotted up within us. Where we get to be and move in a different time, released from the fascism of the clock. And in this different world and different time, we get to be a different nervous system, a different mind, a different body. We can relate differently. We can create something different.

When we change shape, we shape change. Dance is an act of prefiguration: creating the world we want, right now. This is our practice of freedom, together.


[1] Tronto, Joan. Caring Democracy: Markets, Equality, and Justice (3/13/13 ed.). NYU Press, 2013. Pages 22-23.

[2] Pirate Care, a syllabus. https://syllabus.pirate.care.

[3] Foucault, Michel. Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. Edited by Paul Rabinow, Translated by Robert Hurley and others, The New Press, 1994. Pages 283-284.

[4] Schulz, Kathryn. “The Moral Judgments of Henry David Thoreau.” The New Yorker, 12 October 2015, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/10/19/pond-scum.

[5] Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018. Page 32.

[6] Spade, Dean. Mutual Aid. Verso Books, 2020. Page 7.

[7] Malatino, Hil. Trans Care. University of Minnesota Press, 2020. Page 2.

[8] gallacher, romham pádraig. “what happens when we can’t live interdependency all the time?” radical access mapping project, 9 November 2015, https://radicalaccessiblecommunities.wordpress.com/2015/11/09/what-happens-when-it-feels-like-we-cant-live-interdependency-all-the-time/.

[9] Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, 2011. Page 2.

[10] Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press, 2017. Page 240.

[11] Malatino, Hil. Trans Care. The University of Minnesota Press, 2020. Pages 1-2.

[12] Baker, Aryn. “Greek Anarchists Are Finding Space for Refugees in Abandoned Hotels.” Time, 3 November 2016, https://time.com/4501017/greek-anarchists-are-finding-space-for-refugees-in-abandoned-hotels/.

[13] Tsavdaroglou, Charalampos, et. al. “Acts for Refugees’ Right to the City and Commoning Practices of Care-tizenship in Athens, Mytilene and Thessaloniki.” Social Inclusion, volume 7, issue 4, 2019, pp. 119-130, https://doi.org/10.17645/si.v7i4.2332.

[14] Ibid.

[15] The Care Collective. The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence. Verso Books, 2020. Page 39.

[16] Maharawal, Manissa McCleave. “Occupy Wall Street and a Radical Politics of Inclusion.” The Sociological Quarterly, volume 54, issue 2, 2013, pp. 177-181, https://doi.org/10.1111/tsq.12021.

[17] Estes, Nick. Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. Verso Books, 2019. Page 252.

[18] TallBear, Kim. “The US-Dakota War and Failed Settler Kinship.” Anthropology News, volume 57, issue 9, September 2016, pp. e92-e95, https://doi.org/10.1111/AN.137.

[19] Day, Richard J.F. Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements. Pluto Press, 2005. Page 126.

[20] Graeber, David. “Occupy Wall Street’s anarchist roots.” Al Jazeera, 30 November 2011, https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2011/11/30/occupy-wall-streets-anarchist-roots/.

[21] White, Stuart. “Making anarchism respectable? The social philosophy of Colin Ward.” Journal of Political Ideologies, volume 12, issue 1, 2007, pp. 11-28, https://doi.org/10.1080/13569310601095580.

[22] Kuhn, Gabriel. “The State as a Social Relationship: Gustav Landauer Revived.” Interview by Dov Neumann. PM Press, 25 June 2010, https://blog.pmpress.org/2019/07/13/the-state-as-a-social-relationship-gustav-landauer-revived/.

[23] Foucault, Michel. Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. Edited by Paul Rabinow, Translated by Robert Hurley and others, The New Press, 1994. Page 292.


This article appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of In Dance.


BELINDA JU (she/her) is a coach, writer, dancer, and convener of a meditation community. As a dancer, she has performed, including original work, at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Judson Memorial Church, Dixon Place, and Bates Dance Festival. As a writer, she has shared her writing at readings around New York City, including at Carnegie Hall, and is currently completing her memoir. When not pursuing artistic endeavors, she coaches founders and leaders in tech and runs a meditation community she started in early 2018. You can learn more about her and say hello at belinda.io.

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