On the Intertwinements of Care and Temporalities. Shared Reflections on Some of the Conference Themes

This reflection piece on the conference is the product of a dialogue between the two of us at the EASST 2014 that was continued at lunchtime and coffee breaks. We are both currently working in projects led by Ulrike Felt at the Department of Science and Technology Studies in Vienna and went to the conference excited to present our projects, looking forward to getting some inspiration from the different conference talks and themes. While both of us work at the same department in Vienna, on a first glance our research is situated in quite different fields. Susanne just recently started her PhD in which she investigates how – in the case of Ambient Assisted Living (AAL) technologies – the collective good for aging societies is being negotiated in local research and development practices. Kay on the other hand is already in a well-advanced stage of her PhD in the area of health, biomedicine and public understanding of science. She worked with focus groups from the larger project “Perceptions and Imaginations of Obesity as a Socio-scientific Problem in the Austrian Context“ (led by Ulrike Felt between 2009 and 2012) and analyzed the role time – in forms of temporal narratives – plays in the ways people understand and perceive obesity and body-weight as matters of (non-)concern in their own lives as well as society.

While our topics do not seem to be related on a surface level, the conference inspired us to think about analytical similarities as well as certain kinds of sensibilities that are connected to both our topics. In Kay’s project, the ways people “care” and reflect on their and others’ bodies and lives, as well as how they understand things to be matters of concern is intrinsically connected to how people imagine pasts, futures and present temporalities to align. In preparation for the panel “Nonconcerns about science and technology and within STS“ Kay tried to push her reflection further in order to think about what this might mean for how temporalities and matters of concern are connected on a more general level. Reflecting through and with time was something that also Susanne felt is very much present in the ways Ambient Assisted Living is conceptualized and worked on. Similar to dominant ways of thinking about obesity, in her case too imaginations of a collective and endangered future give shape and meaning to the ways people think about solutions, problems and concerns. Thus we became interested in how similar analytical sensibilities in relation to time as “an integral part of the deep structure of taken-for-granted, unquestioned assumptions” (Adam 2003:60) take form in other themes and talks at the conference. This piece grew out of our dialogue, since we observed that care and temporalities were two notions being taken up and worked with throughout the conference.

When we attended the plenary discussion on Horizon 2020 we encountered a continuation of our own reflections in the ways the framework was discussed. Time and society are explicitly linked in Horizon 2020, since its key structural approach to research is challengeled: The outlined challenges are expected to be tackled proactively, which implies the normative demand to act now in order to care for the future. By linking our reflections to STS work on the performative role of time, we want to point out that within the Horizon 2020 framework the anticipated near-future of 2020 becomes not only imagined and discursively constructed but also “creates material trajectories of life” (Adams et al. 2009:248). Thus, the future-oriented ways in which we think about societal concerns strongly shapes our present and also how we can conceptualize our future as well as potentially affected collectives and individuals. Engaging with the challenges proposed in the Horizon 2020 framework in relation to our reflections on time, we want to point to the ways in which past, present and future always are linked and align in specific assemblages. We further argue that this can be understood as a process of not only formulating and constructing the matters we care about, but also how we want to take care of them and who we care about.

Thinking about these questions and inspired by the Horizon 2020 plenary, we started wondering what these considerations could mean for the concrete local contexts these challenges and frameworks might affect. How do these big promises get translated into local practice? How might this framework influence for example funding structures? How are understandings and conceptualizations of what we care about shaped by such frameworks and in what ways?

AAL is funded in Horizon 2020 under the Societal Challenge theme “Health, demographic change and wellbeing”. In addition to producing material artefacts, in AAL the exploration and production of future users and markets is linked through the establishment of project consortia that consist of research institutions, user organizations and business partners. User participation normatively is seen as key for the development of good systems for a well aging society. In practice, user participation has its own temporalities, since there are good and bad times for their involvement, and participation can lead to precarious results. What happens, if the users say at the end, that the initial project idea that has further been developed over the course of the project is not relevant for the future they care about? Can bad results be good results in this framework and can they feed into a ‘logic of care’ (Mol 2008) for the future common good?

One particular location, where temporalities of participation and diverse articulations of care became visible, was the remarkable presentation by Laura Navne in the panel “Practices of participation: Temporal alignments in life-and-death decisions in neonatology”. She presented one case of (parental) participation in decision-making in a neonatology intensive care unit in Denmark. Drawing on rich material from an ethnographic field study, she highlighted the distributed work of aligning different temporalities which are at stake in these life-and-death decisions and how they shape understandings of what good care means.

Questions of concerns and of care usually relate to things we find important, things we hold dear, and caring is especially related to finding ways to keep living things living (Puig de la Bellacasa 2011). Sometimes, though, some actors may find that at some point in time good care can mean quite the opposite. Good care can have a multiplicity of articulations, one of which might involve ensuring a good death (Law 2010). In Navne’s case, while the parents’ participation in caring for their terminally ill babies was for the longest time seen as essential, there was a point where the doctors felt the need to try and push the participation out in order to ensure a good death for the child. They moved from “getting the parents on board” to “hurry up slowly”, indicating, that they have to be brought on board in a different way, to redefine what it means to care well. So also here, depending on the timing, good participation (of parents) can become bad participation, from something enabling and valued to something disabling and hindering.

What it can mean to provide good care was also prominently taken up in the panel “Technological innovations in caring communities: New solidarities”. In her presentation “Networks of memory as caring devices for people with dementia” Lorena Ruiz explored networks of memory consisting of heterogeneous actors and materials and the role they play for good care for people with dementia and for holding their identity in place. Good care, here, meant to be made and remade by others which brings up the question of how (well) they hold us and the materials that too make us, and of what it means to find good ways of enacting the subjectivity of ‘the other’.

Dick Willems’ contribution “A caring community for things: Loving 404s together” sparked a heated debate. Willems read caring as a form of knowing and applied this to old collectors’ cars. One of his critics protested against the – from his point of view problematic – use of the notion of care that Willems was mobilizing or ‘caring for’. He was accused of sentimental and preservationist motives which, according to the critic, was starkly contrasted by the dense, moving account the previous speaker provided the audience with. Yet, this differentiation between the carer’s “giving memory to keep identity in place” and the practices of a collector of 404s, who cares to hold the car together, has one striking resemblance (the great apparent difference between a person in need of assistance and a car and one’s moral obligations notwithstanding): In both cases an identity, a configuration or an assemblage of materialities is held in place, in order to hold together, align and navigate the past, the present and, if possible, a future.

Coming back to our collective reflection on the conference themes and topics, we were reminded how human capacities to care and to imagine are deeply intertwined. In our piece we thus wanted to reflect on the conference against the background of “how questions of time and temporalities play an important role for understanding phenomena and for acting upon them in late modern societies” (Felt et al. 2014: 661). Tracing these intertwinements throughout the conference and the various presentations we saw was an inspiring exercise.