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Curating Theory, Mending Care

Lesia Prokopenko

This essay is featured in Radicalizing Care. Feminist and Queer Activism in Curating, edited by Elke Krasny, Sophie Lingg, Lena Fritsch, Birgit Bosold, and Vera Hofmann (Berlin and Vienna: Sternberg Press and University of Fine Arts Vienna, 2021).


Care, seen as an act of reciprocity and a practice of introspection, allows to reinvent the ways of subjectivity production and modes of co-existence.

The understanding of care, however, is usually split into two different vectors, that aren’t always being viewed in their necessary unity—for the reasons that we are to observe here. One of these vectors is what we would broadly name the realm of reproduction and preservation of life at its various stages. Another one is the realm of philosophical care for self and care as a tool of knowledge. This distinction is being introduced here only as something necessary to overcome—and we are going to see what role particular lines of feminist thinking have played in making it possible to look below it [1], as well as how the emancipatory decolonial project invites the reappropriation and repair of some pivotal elements of the Western philosophy.

Doing theory is an act of care itself

“Doing theory,” writes American feminist science scholar Karen Barad, “requires being open to the world’s aliveness, allowing oneself to be lured by curiosity, surprise, and wonder. Theories are not mere metaphysical pronouncements on the world from some presumed position of exteriority. Theories are living and breathing reconfigurings of the world. The world theorizes as well as experiments with itself. Figuring, reconfiguring.” [2]

When we call doing theory an act of curating, we acknowledge that we are dealing with a multiplicity of voices and possible directions, that we pick and assign concepts and planes, we shuffle and reshuffle them to see which assemblages may have the potency to open auspicious routes for the world’s unfolding. We acknowledge that doing theory is not a transcendental act of authoritative discourse-making—it is rather an act of care itself.

French philosopher and psychotherapist Félix Guattari emphasized that the treatment of psychotic patients is “not simply a matter of remodelling a patient’s subjectivity—as it existed before a psychotic crisis—but of a production sui generis.” [3] Similarly, the cure suggested here by curating does not imply returning to a state of non-existent initial integrity—it implies the ongoing process of reconfiguring that prevents stagnation and untangles repetitive impasses.

Proceeding with care

Care consists of being caring and being careful.

Being careful means slowing down, thinking twice, looking to your left, then your right, then your left before crossing the street on a green light, or moving fast enough to escape the falling brick and a flying bullet. It may also mean hiding, eliminating unnecessary noise. It means moving softly, so as not to spill what you are carrying, applying your sunscreen, keeping inflammable items away from fire. In Buddhism, the possibility of compassionate life begins with self-compassion. You may help all sentient beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering only provided that you learn how to stop suffering yourself. Those who claim they want to save the world need to save themselves first, and then their close ones. The world takes care of itself in many invisible ways, by many invisible hands.

Being careful is a fundamental guerrilla tactic: if, while on a mission, you are able to save your own life and stay safe, you are also able to secure the safety of your allies. Thus, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” as African American poet, womanist, and civil rights activist Audre Lorde famously proclaimed in 1988. With the understanding that this quote has lately become rather ubiquitous, let’s turn to it in spite and precisely because of this fact. As an act of political warfare, care is not what makes one win a war, which is, by definition, always-already lost—care is an act that overturns and exhausts the logic of warfare with the very choice to preserve life. “The foundation of virtue is that endeavour itself to preserve our own being,” wrote Baruch Spinoza. [4]

Care appeared in another curious conjunction with warfare some twenty-three centuries before Audre Lorde, in The Analects of Confucius, where it is claimed that “fasting, war and sickness were the things over which the Master exercised care.” [5] The notion D.C. Lau translated as “care,” in other versions also interpreted as “caution,” is 慎 (shèn). The character is composed of two other glyphs: 忄 (a version of 心, xīn), which stands for “heart” and “mind” or “heart-mind”, and 真 (zhēn)—“true, real, sincere.” 慎 implies being careful, cautious, prudent, and also quiet—it comes from subtle intuitive prehension that gives access to the genuine. It stands for concern as much as for delicate treatment. Like fasting and sickness, political warfare cannot be a perpetual state. It is a state that yields care in order to cease.

Being careful stands for a particular type of attentive perception: one may listen carefully, read carefully. It requires being receptive and caring towards the material, entering into a relation of care. The knowledge of relations corresponds, according to Spinoza, to the second kind of knowledge that arises after one reaches beyond the inadequate ideas, beyond the totality of passive affections and passions: “It is the knowledge of relations that compose me and the relations that compose other things,” as Gilles Deleuze explained it [6]. This caring/careful knowledge paves the way to the third type of knowledge and mode of living: the intuitive knowledge or the knowledge of essence, from which “arises the highest possible peace of mind.” [7]

The world takes care of itself in many invisible ways, by many invisible hands

Musing on the ways quantum field theory changes the understanding of being and time, in the situation where “the philosophical terrain is rugged, slippery, and mostly unexplored,” Karen Barad suggests that “the question is: How to proceed with exquisite care?” [8] Care is what ultimately unlocks access to the “true and real.” It’s a conjunction of appropriate intensities, velocities, checks and balances, which allows theory to fix itself, to realign the fallacious knowledge, as the fallacies of knowledge are what interferes with the preservation of life.

“How to proceed with exquisite care?” Let’s embrace this question in its full iridescence, as an inquiry, a guideline, and a methodology, in order to think about care with care and carefully.


If we look closer at the mentioned split in the understanding of care, it becomes clear that it duplicates the split between body and mind—or matter and spirit. This separation implies consequent hierarchization: thus, as Luciana Parisi put it, the independence from matter becomes “the most classical of patriarchal dreams.” [9]

This separation can be considered both the defining gesture and the major aberration of the Cartesian tradition, but it would be unfair to say that modernity lacked in projects able to cure the philosophical discourse (which defines the practice of treating various phenomena in many other aspects). Needless to say, such projects were punishable—as in the case with Spinoza. His Tractatus Theologico-politicus (1670) and the posthumous publication of five works (1677), among which was Ethica, were all, of course, alleged to be “profane, atheistic and blasphemous.” What was it that made Spinoza face the sentence of excommunication with a curse back in 1656 and keep his ideas in obscurity up until his premature death in the Hague in 1677—and that connects him with the interests of feminist and decolonial agendas?

Lucian Parisi provides a concise summary of Spinoza’s main line and its context: “The Cartesian split between the mind and the body originates from the separation of the cosmos from matter, of the transcendent God (the power of the soul–mind) from nature (the power of the physical body). Baruch Spinoza’s concept of substance demonstrates that nature is not separated from the cosmos. The body originates in God as God corresponds to an intensive and extensive substance. God does not create matter, but is matter able to manifest itself through the ceaseless mutation of bodies and things in nature.” [10]

Stating that “the object of the idea constituting the human mind is a body, or a certain mode of extension actually existing, and nothing else” [11] and, moreover, that “the mind does not know itself except in so far as it perceives the ideas of the affections of the body,” [12] Spinoza reconnects spirit and matter in the non-hierarchical “world of ontological immanence” [13]—as Deleuze elaborated, “If substance possesses equally all attributes, there is no hierarchy among the attributes, one is not worth more than another.” [14] Body and mind are two possible attributes of the same entity: “The idea of the body and the body, that is to say, the mind and the body are one and the same individual, which at one time is considered under the attribute of thought, and at other under that of extension.” [15]


From here, we see that things may move in a very unequivocal direction, whether Spinoza would have liked it or not—and as it may be concluded from his Tractatus politicus, he wasn’t quite ready to take it there yet. But we can overrun the time-specific predicament and proceed to state that if there is no hierarchy between the attributes of substance, there is, therefore, absolutely no hierarchical difference between the attributes of masculinity and femininity. It is impossible to identify the female with the (lower) matter, while the male would be identified with the (higher) spirit born ex nihilo, as it was understood within dominant mythologies of the modern age. Seen as attributes, the male and the female, as well as a number of other dualistic characteristics, can refer to one and the same entity.

This situation is what queer and decolonial scholar Xiang Zairong describes with the concept of transdualism, which “furthers the critiques of dualism without relying on a dualistic model of critique, the modus operandi necessary for a critique against sexual dualism and hetero/cisnormativity.” [16] In particular, Xiang explores transdualism through the Daoist theory of yinyang: “It is true that yin and yang need to be understood in relation to each other and that their relationality enables yinyang to be nonessentialist, nondeterministic, and also nondualistic, at least in theory. However, it is also correct to insist that yin is not yang, although it might be and is in fact becoming yang (and the other way around).” [17] This enables him to address the discourse-matter debates of the feminist, queer, and trans theories in the following way: “the never-outside-language thesis could be seen as following a yang propensity, while the embodied-materiality-matters argument could be regarded as following a yin propensity. I hope it is clear by now that neither yin nor yang should be taken separately, nor should any side of the transdualistic pair dominate the stage.” [18]

“I only know myself by way of the action of other bodies on me and by way of mixtures”

Such relationality of mind and matter connects with Foucault’s relationality of care that makes possible the knowledge of oneself, [19] and Spinoza’s relationality, which consists in the possibility of the mind to know itself only through the ideas of the affections of the body. Deleuze takes it slightly further: “I only ever know the mixtures of bodies and I only know myself by way of the action of other bodies on me and by way of mixtures.” [20]

And this is precisely where, as Karen Barad demonstrates to us, one arrives at by means of quantum field theory: “In an important sense, in a breathtakingly intimate sense, touching, sensing, is what matter does, or rather, what matter is: matter is condensations of response-ability. Touching is a matter of response. Each of “us” is constituted in response-ability. Each of “us” is constituted as responsible for the other, as being in touch with the other.” [21] Again, this conclusion is based on the understanding that matter/body and mind/discourse/spirit can’t be viewed separately from one another. For Barad, “thought experiments are material matters.” Based on her exploration of Niels Bohr’s legacy, she claims that “the relationship between the material and the discursive is one of mutual entailment”, and bodies are viewed, respectively, as “material-discursive phenomena.” [22] Therefore, “practices of knowing and being are not isolatable, but rather they are mutually implicated. We do not obtain knowledge by standing outside of the world; we know because “we” are of the world. We are part of the world in its differential becoming.” [23]


Overcoming—nondualistically—the split between the matter and discourse (as well as “the dualisms of object/subject, knower/known, nature/culture, and word/world”) [24] may require quite a sophisticated overhaul of philosophical and political perspectives. To reject the independence from matter as a patriarchal dream, as Luciana Parisi shows it, means also to acknowledge the importance of mattering in feminist, queer, and trans theories: “As demanded by feminism, the female body is now free from the biological destiny of procreation. Yet, at the same time, the patriarchal dream of independence from nature and from the female body is also completely reached. The liberation from anatomy, from the identification of women with sexual reproduction, contrasts strongly with the liberation from the material body, the accomplishment of Cartesian disembodiment in the cyberspace of information.” [25] The liberation from the essentialism, that is, from the notion that a woman is defined by the reproductive function, happens precisely and only when we stop seeing matter as an empty malleable form or a lower realm and when we bring the procreating body to the conversation about reproduction—and to theory.

The etymological groundedness of “matter” in the Latin mater, “mother,” and matrix, “womb,” presents a complicated conjunction of outcomes. For Irina Aristarkhova, “this project of recovering the maternal from/in the matrix is not an etymological curiosity, but one of cultural urgency insofar as the question of how one imagines and therefore inhabits space and embodiment (maternal or not) with others will continue to remain a critical sociopolitical challenge.” [26] Locating, accepting, and welcoming the non-metaphorical maternal in discourse, in social and political dimensions, in a body, is a crucial step in undoing and mending the dualist patterns.

How is it possible to do that without falling into the trap of gender essentialism? “Becoming mother implies the realization of a potentiality to make space and matter (not ex nihilo). The maternal, thus, needs to be thought in relation to space and matter rather than as space and matter, insofar as the failure to understand this difference conflates the categories of woman, feminine, and mother.” Aristarkhova shows that it is “the nursing hospitality of the matrix” that enables generation (including the production of space): “I term the matrix effect that which enables the positing of space as hospitable, as in materializing and/or engendering space—in a way, providing ‘place’ to ‘space.’”

The liberation from the essentialism happens when we stop seeing matter as an empty malleable form

Importantly, Karen Barad reminds us that “entanglements of spacetimemattering are threaded through and inseparable from the infinite alterity of the virtual,” and thus, “ethicality entails hospitality to the stranger threaded through oneself and through all being and non/being.” [27]

The question of care, embedded in the concept of hospitality, comes to the forefront in the discussions around ectogenesis, that is, the possibility of gestation outside the maternal body. In the already quoted Hospitality of the Matrix, Irina Aristarkhova thoroughly analyzes the history of the “ectogenetic desire,” respective inventions, and interpretations of what it means to create an “artificial womb.” What all the models of incubators or “artificial wombs” have been lacking is, first and foremost, the possibility to nurse and to deal with waste products, along with the possibility to produce space according to the development of a fetus. The technology that, as of today, gets the closest to an “artificial womb” are neonatal incubators for prematurely born babies. Still, the survival of such infants fully depends on the round-the-clock intimate care of nurses.

Aristarkhova notably suggests that the focus on nursing is, in fact, a means to overcome yet another dualism—that of seeing the potential of ectogenesis exclusively as either much desired and beneficial or menacing and delusive. In addition to that, the labor of care (including the matrixial gestational labor in case of surrogacy) is being habitually outsourced to lower-class and non-Western women—which, for Aristarkhova, reinforces the need to focus “current debates on ectogenetic technology” on the questions of nursing and care. [28]

Living, mending

In his notion of nature, Spinoza performed another yinyang twist: he described its intertwining and inseparable aspects of passivity, Natura Naturata, and activity, Natura Naturans. This is how Luciana Parisi sums it up: “Nature is a dynamical and collective ecosystem of intensive and extensive bodies — growth. Natura Naturans indicates the activity of nature, the intensive capacity to produce. Natura Naturata implies the passivity of being produced.” [29]

It takes courage and humility to accept one’s being produced. However, one is also responsible for producing oneself—and the world. As Karen Barad explains it, “‘human bodies’ and ‘human subjects’ do not preexist as such; nor are they mere end products. ‘Humans’ are neither pure cause nor pure effect but part of the world in its open-ended becoming.” [30]

One is responsible for producing oneself—and the world

Mending is a part of such becoming because growth produces ruptures and cracks: Guattarian cracks, from which sprout new social and aesthetic practices, [31] but also breaks and tearings that need to be healed for the becoming to go on and for life to be preserved. To care for the world we need to mend our understanding of care. To mend care means to produce the discourse that cares for bodies—for every body—and to treat bodies as the only existing carriers—and carers—of discourse: “All life forms (including inanimate forms of liveliness) do theory.” [32]

The world in its open-ended becoming needs care at all times, molecular care, intimate care, careful small-scale care. This care depends not on governments and social institutions: it begins with a plant being watered, a cup washed, food offered, silence kept, silence broken, anger dispelled, a word uttered, an utterance heard, a hand touched.

All the featured engravings come from works by Johann Daniel Mylius (c. 1583 — 1642). Copyright Adam McLean. Source: www.alchemywebsite.com.

All the featured engravings come from works by Johann Daniel Mylius (c. 1583 — 1642). Copyright Adam McLean. Source: www.alchemywebsite.com.


[1] Xiang Zairong suggests looking below, rather than beyond dualisms and the logic of either/or. See: Zairong Xiang, “Transdualism. Toward a Materio-Discursive Embodiment,” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, Volume 5, No. 3 (2018): 425–442.

[2] Karen Barad, “On Touching — The Inhuman that Therefore I Am. (v1.1),” in Power of Material — Politics of Materiality, eds. Susanne Witzgall and Kerstin Stakemeier (diaphanes, 2014), https://www.diaphanes.com/titel/on-touching-the-inhuman-that-therefore-i-am-v1-1-3075.

[3] Félix Guattari, Chaosmosis, trans. Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995), 6.

[4] Benedict Spinoza, Ethics. Translation by W.H. White. (London: Wordsworth Classics of World Literature, 2001), IV, Prop. 18, 176.

[5] Confucius, The Analects, trans. D.C. Lau. (Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 2000), 7.13.

[6] Gilles Deleuze, “Sur Spinoza. Cours Vincennes — St. Denis,” https://www.webdeleuze.com/cours/spinoza, lecture on March 17, 1981.

[7] Spinoza, Ethics, V, Prop. 27, 245.

[8] Barad, “On Touching.”

[9] Luciana Parisi, Abstract Sex. Philosophy, Bio-Technology, and the Mutations of Desire (London and New York: Continuum, 2004), 2.

[10] Parisi, 14.

[11] Spinoza, Ethics, II, Prop. 13, 56.

[12] Spinoza, Prop. 23, 69.

[13] Deleuze, “Sur Spinoza,” lecture on December 16, 1980.

[14] Deleuze, “Sur Spinoza,” lecture on November 25, 1980.

[15] Spinoza, Ethics, II, Prop. 21, 68.

[16] Xiang, “Transdualism,” 426.

[17] Xiang, 430.

[18] Xiang, 438.

[19] Michel Foucault, “Technologies of the Self. Lectures at University of Vermont in October 1982,” https://foucault.info/documents/foucault.technologiesOfSelf.en/.

[20] Deleuze, “Sur Spinoza,” lecture on January 24, 1978.

[21] Barad, “On Touching.” The following quote is from the same source.

[22] Karen Barad, “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter,” Signs 28, no. 3 (2003): 823.

[23] Barad, 829.

[24] Barad, 820.

[25] Parisi, Abstract Sex, 3.

[26] Irina Aristarkhova, Hospitality of the Matrix. Philosophy, Biomedicine and Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), e-book. The following quotes are from the same source.

[27] Barad, “On Touching.”

[28] Aristarkhova, Hospitality of the Matrix.

[29] Parisi, Abstract Sex, 30.

[30] Barad, “Posthuman Performativity,” 821.

[31] See Félix Guattari, “Cracks in the Street,” Flash Art no. 135 (1987): 82–85.

[32] Barad, “On Touching.”

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Lesia Prokopenko
Lesia Prokopenko