Chapter 40. Mothering Pieta and the Preferential Option

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Recently I’ve been thinking through – or perhaps revisiting – the notion of “mothering” somewhat, whilst preparing for a collaborative piece. (Also see earlier Madonna and Child)

Some of my own photography has helped me notice, more keenly, the dynamics of that very practice, if I may, that is called “mothering”. Here are a series of pictures of the visit to Grannies on Chinese New Year. There, in the middle, my wife buttons my son’s shirt, in loving care. But that is not all. My wife is constantly having to grasp the intelligibility of my son’s behavior – what it means, whether it is mere whim, and hence may be ignored, or whether there is something behind the tantrum. In the first picture he is seated obediently. The last picture captures him beginning to wrestle uneasily with mommy – even when given the liberty to watch TV, something which we ration: “he may be tired”. This interpretation, which comes with experience, proved correct. As it turns out he had missed his afternoon nap, and the crankiness was just about setting in. We went home soon after, before the tantrum breaks loose.

That idea of mothering has, for me, connected up with what I call a “preferential option for the poor”, which is relevant to but not in the same manner that Marxists or liberation theologians take it. But I see no conflict, and indeed grasp in this perhaps another “thomistic” or “new natural law” interpretation of the phrase, in order to champion the “poor” and their cause.

We can begin by interrogating with greater precision the connection between mothering and the gift economy that Genevieve Vaughan develops. For Vaughan the key characteristic in the gift economy is that there is giving without expectation of return, let alone the return of equivalence, or the return of investment in more than equivalent value, in its most adversarial form (Vaughan 2003:2). And this defining characteristic of gift exchange is most clearly visible in the mothering of a child by its (female) parent, a metaphor which Vaughan returns to consistently as an ideational first principle:

“Feminism allows us to look at mothering as a conscious and intentional practice. In indigenous societies as in market societies, the mothering practice is necessary for the survival of infants and young children. It cannot be done through an exchange of equivalent values with the child. Rather the mother cares for the child by unilaterally giving h/er the gifts and services that satisfy h/er material and psychological needs. I believe mothering is an important model for gift giving generally, and that gift giving creates relations of mutuality and community at all levels.” (Vaughan 2003: 4)

This account of mothering qua an economy of the gift meant as giving without expectation of return is no doubt an intuitive starting point, but it is not analytically complete. For a start, the talk of a gift economy, we should assume, supposes that what is given as a gift is something good or valuable. Some persons give, or put something out to be taken or received, but that which is put out is not a good thing, and rather than speak of them gifting, we might speak of them, more neutrally, as giving. Thus we say that a ruffian gave me a punch (without any intentional desire for one in return, much less one bigger than the punch given), or a smoker gives off a bad smell (without any expectation of exchanges of body odor with other persons), and in neither case would we speak of the agents gifting, much less enacting a gift economy. In any case this notion that gifting is not mere giving (without expectation of return), but the giving of some good needs to be presumed in mothering – how else ought a mother as mother relate to her child, except with every good gift? Of course to this we may also add the original observation that a mother gives freely, unconditionally, and without expectation of something in return.

As importantly, if we further unpack mothering to relate it with the economy of gifting, we can see immediately that, part of that economic dynamic is, besides the free donation of a good without expectation of return, that free and voluntary acceptance of the demands of the child. For what is involved in the phenomenon of a caring Madonna and her child that paradigmatically instantiates mother sense, besides the self-donating giving of the mother, is also her own responsive receptivity towards the child’s needs and demands, not easily intelligible because not communicated plainly, but through babble and wails. Indeed Vaughan herself admits as much: “[The child] is a giver because s/he gives smiles, cries, and gestures (as well as urine and feces), which are creatively received by the parent” (Vaughan: 2013: 62) Still because the mother wants to gift to the child what is good, and thus responsibly, this condition controls her own receptive engagement with the givings of the child. She must receive the child’s givings intelligently, and not willy nilly, lest her gifts to the child be ill-informed, and hence, risks being not good. She must struggle to make sense of the child’s givings, to grasp the information laden in the child’s givings that can be employed to guide how and what she would gift to the child, in order to only benefit and not harm the child. Such receptivity is at once a piety (pietà) – a painful struggle to grasp what is hard to understand, because given in its own terms without any effort on the part of the giver to make it any easier to receive; the mother acquiesces to those terms, like a pious man accepting the terms of the gods in bowing obeisance. Hence the mother’s reception is an attempt to make sense of the signals from the child, and to grasp, through motherly sense-making, his needs and wants. As mothers all know, there is so much frustrating and heart-breaking room for hits and misses, but that is the way the child will communicate.

Note: in this very phenomenon we also see, and underscore, therefore, that there is a gift economy in the direction of child to the mother: the mother acquiescing to and being receptive to the child’s givings in the way the child wishes to give it, on his own terms. However, that the gift economy arises not because the child is gifting the mother; indeed the child may be neither gifting (since what is giving is neither something good, nor perceived by the child as such) nor exchanging (since the child may not rationally expect anything in return, but is merely instead quite ignorantly and helplessly reacting to felt discomfort or instinct), but merely giving (off expressions of distress, for instance). Nevertheless the mother is trying hard to accord with the child’s givings, trying to “tune in” to the child’s cries, trying to make sense of the child’s wailing signaling, and trying to relate that wailing phenomenon to some kind of meaningful signification. In other words the mother is constantly re-calibrating herself in creative, abductive conjecturing, and hypothesizing semiosis, to relate those wailing signals (sign vehicles) of the child with a certain meaningful interpretation (signified): “he is…hungry…or sleepy…or having a tummy ache…or he has an itch somewhere…” Each searching attempt at offering an interpretation of intelligibility to the phenomenon of a wailing child by the mother is contrasted with a quickly despairing judgment that “children just like to cry and there’s nothing to worry about”, say, of an uncaring, baby-sitting, part-time nanny. And the mother and the nanny’s reactions are in turn compared respectively to the art critique who stares fascinated at the Monet and constantly re-calibrates his distance until he begins to see the colors merge and the Water Lilies show, display or appear, (c.f. Marion) and the boorish museum tourist who walks past the Monet too close, and judges that there is “nothing here interesting, except an ugly, chaotic mess”, and quickly moves on to other pieces in order to consume the whole gallery and to make his day’s trip worth the money. Both the nanny and the tourist remain blind – not because there is nothing showing, but because they do not have the capability of receiving what is shown. Whereas in the mother and in the art critic, there is a kind of fidelity to the saturating phenomenon, which initially exceeds one’s epistemic capacities and thus bedazzles or befuddles them, but with patience, finally is grasped in its intelligibility. The child, like the Monet, cannot calibrate to the viewer’s viewpoint, and gives as it gives; however, the viewer constantly shifts her or his viewpoint, “tuning in”, acquiescing to the anamorphism of the given, until what is given can be received. Here the mothering agent receives something good, and thus a gift – in the case of the mother: some insight into the problem with her child; and in the case of the art critique: the beautiful picture. Because the receptive agent can abductively tune into and grasp the “showings” and “givenness” of the phenomenon, she is gifted by the otherwise poorly displaying, anamorphic givenness of phenomenon. Thus, when speaking of the gift economy, there is as much the phenomenon of being gifted, and thus of the transition of something good in the direction of the receiver, as much as there may also be the gifting movement from the gifter handing out – and thus directing outwards – something good. This mothering, abductive receptivity to being gifted is something that appears less developed in Vaughan. Indeed, without such mothering receptivity, one would quite quickly take the gifting phenomenon at and only at face-value: as (bedazzlingly or befuddlingly) empty; the gift passes by.

Now, the choice to take something at and only at face-value is not something which is self-evidently compelling; it is a willful act of faith, and thus a willful adoption of a normative stance. For this reason, the mothering that can receive showings as gifts is not merely a kind of epistemic skill, but also a kind of epistemic virtue or ethos. To be mothering is, I think, besides being able to searchingly abduce, also to be willing to searchingly abduce. It is a kind of application of the principle of charity to the phenomenon, and thus to decide that there is something there, even when it is not yet visible. It is to decide to give the poor showing a (second) chance to show itself. It is a fundamental option to help the poor showing along guided by a charity (caritas) for the poor display, rather than to reject it at first sight. It is an ethics of engagement with the givenness of the phenomenon.

This crucially ethical or normative stance essential to mothering was not sufficiently brought out by Vaughan, even if it was, one might argue, a suppressed premise hinted at in her descriptions of mothering. In any event: as Thomas Carlson shows well, when confronted by something apparently “empty” and thus for the moment substantively blind to the phenomenon’s content, the choice to carry on in further, searching abductive interpretation is an act made in faith, in a kind of second procedural blindness; after all nothing guarantees with certainty that there will be something that can be grasped behind the current invisibility, and nothing rules out the possibility that what appears empty may in fact really be empty. Since the choice to carry on in abductive search in the face of invisibility cannot be settled by rational choice, necessarily it is a willful act that chooses in favor of such persistent abduction. This means therefore there needs to be a fundamental option – because not settled by any warrant for or against – in favor of the poor display, to not immediately reject it, and to give it all the chances it needs to display, thus being charitable to the (currently invisible, but possibly be-dazzlingly saturating) phenomenon, and to have a basic orientation that adopts a preferential favoritism on behalf of the poor showing. Conversely, a choice not to carry on and hence to accept that there is “nothing here”, and to rest with and settle for that judgment is also an act of will and not just directed by an absence of abductive skill, since nothing confirms that what appears empty is truly empty, and that there is no further, concealed intelligibility that for the moment is invisible, but which with searching struggle can be known. And here also is an act of the will that is guided by a fundamental ethical option, because this option cannot be settled by a rational choice, except that this time, the option is to not give a poor display a second chance, to not adopt a preferential favoritism that treats the poor display with charitable love. It is to not be mothering – i.e., not merely to not have the skills of abduction, but also to not adopt a fundamental option to decide in accordance with a preferential favoritism towards the poor display.

Now, “development” defined in terms of the accummulation of countable, and hence visible money has many rhetorical advantages. One easily acquires the impression of being truly rich, simply by counting the huge amount of one’s money, and if being rich is thought of as good, then being really rich suggests that one enjoys real goods. Conversely, when the numbers don’t add up, one believes one is really poor. And if poverty is bad, then such real poverty – that is, monetary poverty – is a real bad, which can be taken seriously. Of course, the visibility of and the seriousness of the monetary does not by itself imply that the non-monetary is not visible or not serious – just because one takes money seriously does not mean one necessarily ignores other non-monetary goods. However, any Cartesian bias in favor of one will encourage the despising of the other. Thus Friedrich Hayek (1976:xx) spoke of what he called “Cartesian constructivism”, an mistaken attitude which does not merely privilege that which we can fully, rationally demonstrate, but also entails a growing presumption against that which we cannot as yet understand or demonstrate logically – a presumption which he felt was flawed for neglecting the history of the evolution of efficient systems that had never been designed by any intelligent understanding. The basic idea here is similar: a gravitation towards that which is evidently visible, and thus, along with that a prejudice against the phenomenologically poor.

Thus it is also such a Cartesianism that obscures the “poor” in all its multiple dimensions, when it endorses as evident or takes seriously only the concept of “poverty” defined along merely monetary terms. For: in the same way Vaughan asserts that “motherwork” is invisible because uncountable and visible only when it translates into something monetarily countable, so also the “poor” in its multiple, non-monetary dimensions is invisible, and ipso facto, unreal under Cartesianism. Thus those who lack money show up and exist as “poor” but those who have some money but nevertheless suffer serious deprivations of non-monetary basic goods constitutive of human flourishing do not equally show up, nor exist. These non-monetary basic goods are, amongst others, those which John Finnis (1980) has identified: truth, friendship, aesthetic experience, skillful play, religion and practical reasonableness, which is the freedom or capability to know and act reasonably in promotion of these goods in oneself and others. Thus there is a set of nullified “multi-dimensionally poor” who suffer the deprivation of these multiple dimensions of – Finnis would add: incommensurably different – basic goods, different to the visibly existent monetarily poor. Corroborating this, research suggests that the “poor” themselves acknowledge the enjoyment of various non-monetary goods separate from the monetary, and thus acknowledge that their own “poverty” is much more than monetary deprivation. Thus for instance, Sabina Alkire’s Valuing Freedom reports on a research by Oxfam in 1995 in collaboration with poor Pakistani women who had been given funding to cultivate roses, which were sold for profit. But monetary returns were not the only benefit; one participant “explained that while she values the income the rose project produces…she also mentioned her delight that the fragrance of roses permeates her clothing, her satisfaction from working together in a group, and her inner peace because the garlands are used in saints’ shrines and to decorate the Qur’an Sharif.” (Alkire 2002: 1)

If under Cartesianism, the countable visible gets more easily reified or recognized as real, one strategy is therefore to make the non-monetary as countable as the monetary in order to give multi-dimensional gpovertyh greater visibility, to improve its prospects for reification and thus recognition. It would not be enough to argue that somehow poverty in these various dimensions correlate with the lowering of monetary poverty indicators: like the case with mother-work, this rather betrays the significance of these dimensions and concedes that these dimensions of goods have no intrinsic value but take on significance only insofar as they are usefully relevant for maximizing the monetary. Much better is the the ongoing development of measures of multi-dimensional poverty alongside measures of monetary poverty, such as the Alkire-Foster multi-dimensional measure of poverty, ongoingly refined by researchers of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Institute (OPHI). These measures take these dimensions as significant in themselves and then suggest ways of scaling these multiple dimensions of poverty, and counting the instances and/or levels of deprivation along these dimensions, and comparing these counted measures across countries. Of course by making countable these dimensions one rhetorically and strategically helps these dimensions become more visible, and thus more believably real, and usable for policy makers who are typically for a variety of reasons inclined towards and thus persuaded by gevidence-basedh or gevidence-informedh data, with its narrow notions of gevidenceh notwithstanding.

Still, someone might object that stopping there equally concedes too much to the Cartesianism that fallaciously endorses the countable visible, and prejudices what is less so, and so compounds the suspect Cartesianiasm into one’s own theoretical edifice in defense of the multi-dimensionally “poor”. Better: bridle the Cartesianism altogether, precisely by reining in that presumptuous epistemological hermeneutic with mothering and its preferential option for the poor display. Mothering (see above) contrasts with the Cartesian hermeneutic, which too quickly disregards and nullifies that which does not display well. Indeed Cartesianism can be likened to the installation of a kind of exchange mentality, in which the exchanger sets the terms of engagement: I will not take that in exchange unless I get this or that in return. Whereas a mothering preferential option for the poor display seeks with patient diligence to acquiesce to its terms of display, and to grasp its givings. And why not? Why need we be so confident that when a phenomenon does not give as we demand to be given, then there is nothing there being given? Such hasty epistemological despairing of any gifting lacks warrant, and therefore fails to defeat the will to adopt the epistemic virtue of charity instantiated in abductive, sense-making mother-sense.

Such a mothering/preferential option for the giving poor display is precisely that hermeneutic, contra exchange-Cartesianism, that can be receptive to the existence of the multi-dimensionally “poor”. Because: the multi-dimensionally “poor” are “poor” because they are, by definition, “deprived of one or more of the various incommensurably different ‘basic goods’ ”. Logically, the notion of multi-dimensional “poverty” presupposes the existence and intelligibility of these “basic goods”, without which the said “poor” also lack intelligibility, and thus existence; the intelligibility of the multi-dimensionally “poor” and the ‘basic goods’ are conceptually intertwined. But if conceptually, then also: fatally. Now the “basic goods” are shown by the natural law; these first principles of practical reason identify these choice-worthy basic goods to be sought and done as aspects of human flourishing. It follows that if the natural law’s display of the basic goods is poor, so also will the intelligibility of multi-dimensional “poverty”. And in a certain sense, unfortunately, the natural law’s display of the basic goods can seem very poor. For a start, the natural law is not deduced from prior precepts, and is hence self-evident. In that respect, it suffers from the epistemological insecurity of not being demonstrable. Instead, receptivity to the showings of the natural law, or the basic choice-worthy goods, is a kind of abductive insight, rather than a kind of deductive conclusion. To abduce the natural law, one has to be put into the practical mode of thinking which experiences free-choosing evaluations between open-ended alternatives, rather than rest in the theoretical, demonstrative mode of thinking (c.f. Finnis XX). However, especially under exchange-Cartesianism, which sets the terms of engagement, it is not difficult to imagine how often the terms are not always set in favor of the anamorphic showing of the natural law – say the commitment to logical positivism, or the insistence under analystic philosophy that unless something has demonstrative foundational warrant it should be subject to skepticism, or other such notions of what constitutes “evidence”; if so then equally often the claims of a natural law theorist that there are basic goods worth seeking will come across as befuddling-ly empty and vacuous. This immediately leads to problems of “visibility” for natural law and the ‘basic goods’ it prescribes, which in turn implies problems of visibility for the “poor”. The “poor” is hence at risk of being dismissed, first as invisibly unintelligible, and then as non-existent.

At this point, what tips the scales is that we adopt an anti-Cartesian stance, namely: a mothering/preferential loving favoritism towards the “poor” conceptualized multi-dimensionally, which now displays poorly. But such a preferential love of the multi-dimensionally “poor” is in turn realized though a preferential option in favor of the poor display of the basic goods by the natural law. It is through patiently and piously acquiescing to the terms of showing of the natural law, that we can grasp these intelligibly choiceworthy basic goods which give on their own terms – and thus, be gifted by these abductive insights into good and evil – and it is then that the notion of multidimensional “poverty” acquires intelligibility. Put another way a mothering/preferential option for the poor display implies a mothering/preferential love for the display of the natural law and the ‘basic goods’, which entails in turn a preferential love for the poorly displaying multi-dimensionally “poor”. And it is this latter mothering/preferential love of the “poor” that resists the nullification of the existent multi-dimensionally “poor”, and gives them voice alongside the monetarily poor, and gives policy makers reasons and a discourse to address their “poverty” in a plurality of dimensions.