June 20, 2023

CRITIQUE Interview with Maggie FitzGerald

An interview with Maggie FitzGerald on her book Care and the Pluriverse, by CRITIQUE Fellow Camilo Ardila Arévalo.

Hi Dr. Maggie FitzGerald. Thank you so much for accepting this short and informal conversation with CRITIQUE. I found your work Care and the Pluriverse: Rethinking Global Ethics truly insightful and fascinating. I think there are many relevant contributions to growing debates on the pluriverse as well as its implications for the field of global ethics. We have been reading here at CRITIQUE some of the recent works premised upon the pluriverse and its radical claims. Let me start by asking you: what is the motivation behind this book? How did you come up with the idea of bringing into conversation such apparently different literatures the pluriverse, global ethics and the ethics of care in the first place? It seems to be the case that, in principle, at least the pluriverse and global ethics are in tension. The pluriverse acknowledges and recuperates onto-epistemic differences from Indigenous peoples and Afro-descendant communities, for instance, while global ethics seeks to build up common grounds for collective action and normative judgments at the international level. What are the contributions of relational ontologies and embodied epistemologies when it comes to addressing global questions like climate change or racial capitalism? What is the material existence that we globally share in common even if we do not share the same ontological or epistemological assumptions?

First, please let me say: thank you so much for inviting me to this dialogue. It’s always a pleasure to have the opportunity to discuss themes that (clearly!) interest me: pluriversality, care, global ethics.

The idea for this book really began during my doctoral studies, where I had the great privilege to take a class with Dr. Cristina Rojas, an amazing decolonial political economist who has made important contributions to scholarship on the pluriverse in the context of international political theory (see, for example, Rojas 2016). Dr. Rojas included several readings in the course on pluriversality, and I was just very taken by the notion, and by how moving from a uni-versal to a pluri-versal framework necessitated a rethinking of many of the assumptions that (often implicitly) shape how we think of ‘the international.’

Most of my work up until that point had been focused on care ethics, and I was especially interested in the ethics of care in the context of global ethics (see, for example, Robinson 1999). Thus, bringing these literatures into dialogue with the pluriversal literature seemed an organic – and extremely fruitful – route for me. And certainly, I think that you are right to note that there does seem to be a tension in this weaving of literatures. But I’ve found that tensions often prove to be the most generative spaces for critical thinking and, hopefully, for moving towards social-political transformation.

For instance, and to respond a bit more concretely to your question, I think that the pluriverse, in foregrounding onto-epistemic difference, transforms the project of global ethics into a more complicated project of building solidarity and ‘experiments in living’ (Hutchings 2019). This is still a ‘project in common,’ in so far as we do share a material existence – we are intertwined in relations that hold us together, and there are systems of power, like capitalism and colonialism, that have shaped, and continue to shape, our interconnections. Yet, ontological and epistemological differences mean that we cannot assume that these interconnections are seen, experienced, and understood in the same way across different forms of life. From this vantage point, difference (or excess, as is often used in the pluriversal literature) may seem to impede the construction of a global ethical common project. But another way of seeing this difference is that it rather holds open space for experiments, for growth, for different connections, for better ways of doing things, for revision, for ‘mutual correction’ (Walker 2007, 257), and for creative ways to address terrible challenges like climate change and racial capitalism. I approach global ethics in/for the pluriverse from this latter perspective. Difference may certainly prevent a final common ground (which is perhaps a questionable goal to begin with), but it also is a starting point for learning from each other and creatively moving towards better ways of living in common.

Thanks again, Dr. FitzGerald. I would like to ask a bit more about your notion of modernity. Could you please explain more what you mean by this term? You develop a helpful distinction between modernity as thinking and doing.  Please correct me if I misunderstood this point, but it seems that your conception of modernity is inspired by decolonial thinkers and their critique of the European project they often refer to as modernity/coloniality. At the same time, the main characteristic of modernity in your book seems to be the human hyper-separation from and mastery of nature. While this is one of the central themes in authors like Arturo Escobar, most decolonial thinkers often identify the dualism between colonisers and colonised as the core of modernity, i.e., exclusions from the ontological realm of humanity based upon racial and cultural hierarchies. Is there perhaps a slightly different, and more environmentally oriented, emphasis in your understanding of modernity?    

Yes, I am very indebted to decolonial thinkers like Arturo Escobar, Enrique Dussel, and Cristina Rojas (to name but a few!), and in many ways, I follow their critique of modernity in the book. Rojas (2016), for instance, defines modernity as premised upon an ontological distinction between Humans and Nature, and my own chapter on modernity sort of takes that distinction as a starting point, and then traces, albeit in a limited way, how this distinction has played out historically in both the ‘doing’ and ‘thinking’ of the modern world.

You are also correct that often in decolonial literatures there is a special focus, when defining modernity, on the binary between colonised and coloniser. And certainly, I would not dispute this (nor do I mean to minimize this important point in my discussion of modernity in the book!). However, I think that I went with the perhaps ‘broader’ binary of Human and Nature because, as feminist theorists have long highlighted, the distinction between Human and Nature has been mobilized in all sorts of ways to create deeply harmful exclusions and hierarchies. Women in the modern world, for instance, have also been ‘located’ closer to nature and thereby excluded from the realm of ‘human’ (see, for example, Federici 2004). Thus, my claim is that it is this Human and Nature distinction that has resulted in numerous context-specific binaries and exclusions (e.g., ones that have been shaped by and deeply intertwined with patriarchal, colonial, ableist, racist, etc. relations of power). My hope is that in focusing on this binary, we might maintain an openness to seeing and critiquing additional ways in which the ‘mastery over nature’ logic has served, or might serve, to exclude and oppress other groups of people and beings with whom we are in relation (ecosystems, animals, earth-beings, etc.). Since the publication of this book, I have become even more concerned with this latter point. I’m very fortunate to be learning from writers such as Marcos Scauso (2021), Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui (2020), Lauren Tynan (2021), and Bawaka Country and interlocators (2022), who have emphasised our interconnectedness with beings and places that are often rendered invisible in/by the modern imaginary, and its stark distinction between Human/Nature.

Thanks for elaborating on this. I wonder if you could unpack a bit more the potential of the ethics of care when it comes to translating the pluriverse into modern frameworks. You are perfectly clear in your analysis in the sense that this book addresses mostly audiences that remain associated with the world of modernity. Why is the ethics of care, in your opinion, a more promising avenue for harbouring the pluriverse when it comes to modern audiences?

I think one of the great challenges for me, personally, in thinking in and with the pluriverse is grappling with the limits to knowing across different worlds. For example, in the book, I draw upon ethnographies by scholars like Mario Blaser (2018), Zoe Todd (2014), and Marisol de la Cadena (2015) which focus on earth-beings, more-than-human beings, or other-than-human beings. Importantly, however, while I discuss these beings, and how they are of ethical-political significance for other worlds (and therefore are implicated in our relations with other worlds), I also felt that it would be dishonest of me to claim to know these beings. I am not in deep relations with these beings, and if I am completely forthcoming, I still struggle with understanding what it means for a mountain to have agency, for instance. More simply, as a modern subject, my knowing across worlds is limited. And I think it is really important to acknowledge that. If I am not enmeshed in the relations from which certain knowledges emerge, claiming these knowledges as my own can be a form of violent ‘epistemic extractivism’ (Grosfoguel 2019; see also Hunt 2014; Watts 2015). Thus, while I suspect that numerous Indigenous ways of being and knowing are rich sources for building and maintaining a pluriversal ethics, I am also cognizant of the potential dangers that might arise if I were to try to access those practices and knowledges directly given my current positionality. (Although, I really do think the hope is to build better relations so that maybe I can meaningfully learn from different knowledges and practices as we together partake in the task of mutual correction – this book is my attempt at outlining an orientation from which to begin this difficult and ongoing work).

With this point about ‘the limits to knowing’ in mind, then, I think that one important reason for why I put forward an ethics of care as an important avenue for building, maintaining, and nurturing the pluriverse, is that care is something that I am embedded in. For example, I may not know the more-than-human-being Gyack, who is a present and active entity in its relationship with the Wolgalu peoples (Slater 2021), but I can understand that the relationship between Gyack and the Wolgalu people is a caring one, and thus should be nurtured and maintained. I can humbly draw upon my own care-knowing, by which I mean the epistemological resources and practices I have learned through years of being cared for and giving care, to try and contribute to the task of caring for this relation.

Lastly, I also think that the ‘critical’ aspect of the ethics of care is one of the key reasons I put forward care ethics as a starting point for the modern world to think and act pluriversally. Starting with a relational ontology, the ethics of care asserts that we are vulnerable selves, constituted by sets of unique relations; by extension, care ethics asserts that the ways in which we make ethical claims are vulnerable and cannot be taken as unassailable. Rather, knowledge itself is always situated and thereby insecure (see, for example, Dalmiya 2016; Hekman 1995). The ethics of care thus encourages an orientation towards vulnerability in that the moral self must prioritize the limits of their knowing, the uncertainty of ethical claims, and commit to an ongoing interrogation of their own assumptions and biases, and how power operates in and through all moral judgments. I think this is again a really important starting point for those in the modern world who wish to ‘harbour the pluriverse’ – critical reflection on our own knowledges, relations and practices will be crucial as we try to learn how to live in better relation with other worlds.

Another truly interesting contribution in your work is the distinction, from the vantage point of the ethics of care, between vulnerability and precariousness in the context of the pluriverse. Could you please explain a bit more the implications of this distinction for global ethics and the pluriverse? How to decide whether we need to protect or recuperate some worlds rather others? This is one of the main questions about the pluriverse and its normative dimensions. How is that distinction perhaps providing some normative elements in the context of the pluriverse and global ethics? What remains more political or conflictual than normative or axiological in your account of the interplay between the pluriverse and global ethics?

As I noted in the question above, starting from a relational ontology, the ethics of care emphasizes that vulnerability is an inherent ontological condition of subjects who are embedded in relations of dependency (see, for example, Robinson 1999). Because we are embedded in and constituted by relations, we are inherently vulnerable – susceptible to others, to social systems, to the contexts in which we find ourselves. We are co-constituted by both personal and broader social relations and are thus always open to affecting and being affected. Further, as vulnerable selves, we must be reproduced and sustained; we require care (see, for example, Vaittinen 2015).

However, as Kelly Oliver (2002) argues, conceiving of ethics as premised on shared vulnerability is limited because it does not recognize that social and political conditions and relations of power render some more vulnerable than others. To help overcome this limitation, I put forth a conceptual distinction in this book between vulnerability and precarity, whereby precarity is enhanced or intensified vulnerability resulting from unequal distributions of power that render certain subjects more vulnerable than others.

Starting with this distinction, I then make the broader ontological claim that all worlds are inherently vulnerable and contingent given the relational nature of the pluriverse. At the same time, in the global political economy, certain worlds are rendered precarious through relations of power. Thus, while the ethics of care orients us towards the inherent vulnerability of all worlds, a lens of precarity allows us to consider the explicit effects of global material and ideational hierarchies of power on worlds as well as on the relations between worlds. I suggest that this framing redefines ethics in the image of the pluriverse, because it foregrounds the ways in which particular ethical dilemmas in the pluriverse always take place within a broader horizon of precarity, whereby certain worlds are rendered ‘more’ or ‘less’ vulnerable than others in and through the processes of ethical deliberation that cross worlds.

In other words, this meta-orientation of vulnerability and precarity allows us to rethink global ethics in the context of the pluriverse with a focus on two specific and pressing ethical concerns. First, it provides a lens to analyze why some worlds are marginalized and made precarious in the pluriverse while others appear more stable or are more easily reproduced. Which relations of power render certain worlds precarious? Which relations of power mask the vulnerability of other worlds, allowing them to masquerade as unchangeable or immune to engagements with others? Second, because the configuration of the pluriverse, and the relations of power which shape the relations between worlds, comprise the backdrop against which particular ethical dilemmas and conflicts between worlds always unfold, this lens also allows us to understand this background, and thereby better understand ethical dilemmas across worlds. The ways in which we navigate ethical conflicts, in the context of the pluriverse, will have consequences that extend beyond the particulars of that dilemma: they will facilitate, or alternatively hinder, the very reproduction of the different worlds involved. They will shape, support, or prevent the unfolding of relations that constitute different forms of moral life. For this reason, I argue that building a pluriversal ethics with care demands that we attend to partial relations of care. These relations can only be partial, given that the ontological and epistemological differences between worlds create excesses that cannot be fully overcome. But they must, nonetheless, be oriented towards care, foregrounding how every moral thought, action, and deed contributes to the relations in and through which worlds are themselves alternatively changed or sustained. And furthermore, such an orientation towards care also demands a commitment to ongoing critical reflection of our own moral judgement, and the ways in which relations of power render certain moral voices, moral forms of life, less legitimate than others (as noted above).

Now, while in the book I claim that tending to these two ethical concerns is the task for global ethics in the pluriverse, it is important to emphasise that I do not suggest to be doing this work – that is, adjudicating which worlds, practices, and relations we want to live in and with – here. Instead, my goal is to put forth a meta-ethical orientation, a set of tools, which may help us do this work, which can, of course, only ever really unfold in the concrete messiness of being together (on this point, see also FitzGerald 2023a; 2023b).

As a final note, I hesitate to articulate what parts of this work might be more ‘political’ than ‘normative’, and vice versa. Indeed, I think once we are talking about adjudicating amongst different forms of life, the distinction between politics and ethics becomes much more tenuous. Morality is embedded in a form of life (Walker 2007), and power relations will shape the ways in which different forms of life, or worlds, together struggle in the task of mutual correction (e.g., struggle to learn from one another, revise our practices, or perhaps remain committed to the values and practices that we hold to be important after engaging with others and undertaking critical reflection). Thus, my claim is that ethical reflection and revision, in the pluriverse, unfolds in and through relations of power, and is therefore inherently political: the context in which we together partake in the arduous work of trying to ‘decide whether we need to protect or recuperate some worlds rather others,’ as you put it, is power-laden. And ultimately, this ethico-political work can only be done in our actual attempts to coexist in ways that are more liveable for all.

Finally, I would like to ask you about your future research. What does this book mean in your career? What are, in your opinion, the main contributions of this work to future debates on the pluriverse and global ethics? What are your intellectual horizons now?

In many ways, I think my response to the question above highlights what I believe is the main contribution of the book in relation to future debates on the pluriverse and global ethics, so I will leave that there for now. I would like to add, however, that this contribution is deeply indebted to the scholarship of many brilliant thinkers who have been committed to working towards decolonial horizons. For me, this book allows me to be in conversation with those who have taught me (either directly, or through their writing), and I am really thankful for that.

Moving forward, I have a very-nascent project forming where I hope to explore the relationship between love and freedom, and what this relationship might mean in and for a global/pluriversal ethics. I am also thinking more and more about the relationship between violence and care – this speaks more directly to your previous question, about adjudicating which worlds or practices we want to live in and with. If there are some practices we do not want to uphold, might violence be justified to end those practices? If so, could such violence be considered somewhat aligned with care? I’ve done some preliminary work on this later question (FitzGerald 2022), but there is much to think through there.



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