Elena Pulcini, Care of the World: Fear, Responsibility and Justice in the Global Age, trans. Karen Whittle. Dordrecht: Springer, 2013; 272 pages. ISBN: 978-9400774650.
Reviewed by Antonio Calcagno, King’s University College at Western University.
When reading social and political philosophy, one often finds an emphasis on the political rather than the social. Elena Pulcini’s Care of the World: Fear, Responsibility and Justice in the Global Age is an exception to this predilection for the political, insofar as she focuses not only on the centrality of the social for the achievement of justice, but also on the need for care rooted in love of the world and one another. This welcome and refreshing shift opens up a rich philosophical framework, in which one can think ethics on both the local and global levels. Pulcini deploys a care ethics approach, arguing that in order to think ethics globally, one has to focus on the communal bonds between individuals and groups, which are profoundly structured and conditioned by human emotion. Human affectivity may be mobilized in a creative and productive manner to make possible a more just, caring global society, by recovering a meaningful sense of the world in which we dwell, ultimately helping us to care for it and one another.
The introduction sets the stage by contextualizing our present situation. Pulcini accepts globalization as a fact, understanding it to consist of a global economic programme that aims at expansive free trade and economic profit. Massive world supply chains, international trade agreements on trade and tariffs, and the circulation and accumulation of capital (money and goods) all typify globalization. Although globalization has helped to improve material life in certain quarters of the globe (for certain classes), it has simultaneously caused fragmentation and exploitation on local levels. Globalization has had a profound effect on social relations, producing an overextended self- and us-obsession, in which exaggerated egoism and exclusive forms of community coincide. The social is polarized by a hyper-focus on the self and a we rooted in chauvinist nationalisms. Pulcini calls for a new form of sociality that stresses relationality—as opposed to the capitalist, societal ends that now drive global society.
Part I explores the pathologies arising from globalization’s reconfiguration of the social. Pulcini maintains that unlimited individualism and endogamous communitarianism mark contemporary sociality. She defines the new global self in terms of an unlimitedness:
I propose an idea of unlimitedness with a twofold meaning: on one hand the loss of boundaries (from territories to identity) and on the other the loss of limits with the individual’s hubris of omnipotence and endeavour for selfassertion that is intolerant of any containment strategies. In other words, the idea of unlimitedness incorporates the paradoxical coexistence of the Self’s insecurity, disorientation, loss of certainties and points of reference, and at the same time, his longing for the limitless expansion of his possibilities, expectations and desires. (28)
The self is the result of global capitalism’s transformation of the modern subject into a consumer, who defines the social world largely in terms of the accumulation of material goods. Also, the consumer is an individual who sees her or his relationship with the world in terms of ownership: things can be purchased and disposed of at will. In addition to being defined by global consumerism, the global self is also both a spectator and creator-self. The former refers to the fact that global changes and policies are so enormous in scope that the individual self can only stand by and watch these events unfold: the self is both “impotent and passive” (30) in face of these globalized changes. The latter refers to Günther Anders’s idea of homo creator, developed in his famous work The Obsolescence of Man. Here, we find the claim that the new global technologies have truly brought about the possibility of a self that is purely self-fashioning: we can create ourselves, and globalization is so powerful that it forms and shapes who and what we are, more so than the classical idea of fashioning nature. Pulcini observes,
What has happened since the second half of the twentieth century and the ‘Third Industrial Revolution’ is that the development of technology has taken on such a dimension that, as I said earlier, changes in quantity have transformed into changes in quality. As a result, technology’s function as a ‘means’ has been reversed and it has become a separate ‘end’, capable of making human needs subordinate to itself and its functional logic. (35)
“Endogamous communitarianism” refers to the formation of communities whose sociality is defined by strong racial or nationalist bonds, intimate forms of kinship. On one hand, the response to the fragmenting power of globalization is to form tight-knit communities based on the aforementioned forms of sociality, providing community members with some kind of identity and security in the midst of massive atomization. On the other hand, such communities exclude vast sections of society, especially minorities. Globalization has redefined the modern sense of community as solidarity by instilling an “us versus them” mentality. Pulcini observes,
In both its forms, the need for community constantly slides towards pathological and destructive configurations, in my opinion generated by the fact that the need for identity which lies at its basis is expressed in essentially reactive and self-defensive forms. As a result, this need gives rise to forms of self-referential and immunitarian closedness and reinvention and exclusion of the other that generate violence and radicalize conflict. (69)
Part II introduces the discussion of fear, which Pulcini sees as one of the primary affects engendered by globalization. Recapitulating the modern discussion of the passions and their importance for human life, she notes that they have both positive and negative capacities. The negative possibilities of fear manifest in scapegoating: communities will scapegoat the other in order to assert the vitality and superiority of the community. The current fear and anxiety brought on by globalization is overwhelming and destructive, but it also has positive possibilities. Here, Pulcini’s originality and creativity shine, for she mines the creative possibilities of fear to launch her own argument for the possibility of a renewed caring for the world. The fear of globalization is marked by the fact that we fear we are losing something, which Pulcini identifies as the world, its meaning or sense. The technologies and consumerism of globalization present the real fear that the world we care about and love, with all of its rich relations, things, and meanings, may soon disappear, especially because of the environmental crisis brought on by the growth of consumerism.
Part III focuses on mobilizing the positive capacities of fear within a care ethics framework. This part opens with a discussion of vulnerability and the possibility of a loving fear that focuses on reanimating a care for the world through a relational (as opposed to a polarized) sociality. Fear can launch imaginative possibilities: what can be retrieved from Hobbes, I would stress, is the idea of fear’s productiveness, with some fresh characteristics. First of all, in this case, the fear is prompted by emotional work based on the imagination’s reflexivity; second, it concerns and involves not only single individuals, but the whole of humankind; third, its extension in time – namely, the human capacity to project it into the future – inevitably gives it a moral element that transforms it, so to speak, from “fear of” to “fear for”. This productive fear can help us reimagine our relations with others who are different from ourselves, outside of the traditional liberal paradigm of tolerance. Pulcini proposes an “uneasy recognition”:
In other words, it can only be what I would like to define as an uneasy recognition: which assumes for both subjects involved not only the ability to endow their identity with a critical-deconstructive gaze in the face of the inevitable presence of the other, but to expose it to the real possibility of transformation, change and fluidity, inherent in the comparison/clash with the other’s difference. All this is equates to averting all regressive desires to update the closed and ghettoizing Gemeinschaft – that is, the immunitarian community – in order to progressively point it towards the open and plural dimension of being-in-common instead. (160-61)
This uneasy recognition can potentially transform our relation with others, but it is risky, for the other challenges us and exposes our own vulnerability. We have to confront our own fears of losing control and ownership of our selves.
Part IV, the final section of the work, transitions from the discussion of the possibility of a new sociality arising from a productive fear that comes out of our encounter with others to the justification of a new form of global care, which ultimately exceeds justice and which is rooted in our responsibility for others and the world. This section begins with the distinction between justice and care. Drawing from Carol Gilligan’s distinction, Pulcini claims that her understanding of the emotions (i.e., fear) can help reconfigure the relations between care and justice. Justice, with its concomitant passions of indignation and compassion (as discussed by both Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen) can certainly serve to repair the unjust distribution of goods and to ensure some fairness among individuals but, for Pulcini, we need more. An ethics of care can be mobilized to create a future prospect—namely, care for future generations and the worlds in which they will dwell. She poignantly writes, and I quote at length the following revelatory passages:
Thus care goes ‘beyond justice’: not because it has the exclusive over the affections and emotions, but because it is based on emotions and sentiments – such as attention, love and generosity – that enable us to lay down different and equally necessary objectives to those that engage justice. These may be attention to everyday life and permanent commitment, the capacity in ordinary situations in life to create a diffused fabric of reciprocal belonging, and, above all, enhancement of the bond. This latter aspect appears particularly relevant if we go back to deal with a global perspective, which forces us to take further note of the insufficiency of the paradigm of justice. Indeed, as we have seen, the ethics of justice proves to be indispensable to respond to the new (material and symbolic) inequalities produced by globalization: both through the promotion of a criterion of equity in the distribution of resources, and through the recognition of the other’s identity and dignity. Nevertheless, this same ethics appears ineffective where we pose the problem of the destiny of future generations and the planet. Neither compassion, which always acts as a passion of the present, aroused from our being spectators of a current situation of suffering (however ‘distant’ it may be), nor indignation, which also arises from the immediate reaction to an experienced condition of injustice, can be mobilized to prevent the risks and damage to which the not-yet-born and the whole living world will be exposed in the future. This task – as moreover Hans Jonas had clearly sensed – belongs first of all to care, the inclination that arises from the fear of losing what holds value for us. However, as I have just repeated, this does not arise from a generic altruism but from the awareness, which can only belong to a relational subject, that we are part of a common and vulnerable humankind, of a generational chain that binds us to the fate of the future generations (251).
With care, we focus on the social bond that can exist between us, and when we frame that bond not in terms of our present material circumstances, but on the future possibilities that we genuinely fear we can lose, our relationship to one another can change for the better.
It is the awareness of the bond and the value of the bond that can push us to become liable for an ‘other’ with no voice or current and concrete existence, an ‘other’ who, therefore, cannot autonomously claim his own right to a life worthy of being lived. It is the awareness of the bond that induces us to respond to the other’s silent plea and here and now to implement practices and modes of behaviour that can prevent the catastrophic outcomes to which humankind is exposed, owing to its own action. In this case in particular, it would be a matter not only of mobilizing the basic passions of care – such as attention and solicitude towards the other – but also its characteristic quality of giving. Because it is only owing to a capacity for excess, a logic of superabundance, that today we can affect the destiny of tomorrow’s generations, who have neither name nor face, to whom we are not bound by any preconstituted or personal affective bond. (251–52)
Care of the World: Fear, Responsibility and Justice in the Global Age is a masterful work. Pulcini carefully builds her argument, mining the rich resources of care ethics and social and political philosophy. She justifies sociological claims with current empirical research and draws on them to help fortify some of her own philosophical positions. The originality of the work lies in the extension of care to future generations, to those who have yet to appear, to a world that we should care about in order that it may exist for future generations through a reworking a real fear of the loss of the world. Her discussion of the creative and productive aspect of fear opens up rich possibilities for a truly global ethics of care. Readers will find in Pulcini’s work not only a philosophical guide for reconceiving our sociality but also a blueprint for transforming our very relationship to the globalized world.