‘ON CARE’: Book Review

Joe Wood reviews ON CARE, edited by Rebecca Jagoe and Sharon Kivland (Ma Bibliothèque, 2020)


ON CARE, 2020

‘Send fruit’ is apparently what Chileans say over the phone on international calls. Like asking about the weather, this phrase acknowledges physical distance by requesting the specificities of far away. If you’re from South America, there is something reassuring about the country-of-origin labels on fruit in British supermarkets (‘Send Fruit’, Miguel Soto Karelović). As an idea, ‘send fruit’ embodies the concerns shared across ON CARE, an anthology of writing that engages with the personal and political resonances of looking after and thinking about.

Editors Rebecca Jagoe and Sharon Kivland are both practicing artists, as are many of the contributors (as far as I can tell from looking them up – there are no author bios or affiliations in ON CARE). The anthology is, in a literal sense, an artists’ book that collates responses on care from artists and writers. Some contributions are straightforward political essays or manifestos (Helen Hester, ‘Gender is a Workplace Technology’; Juliet Jacques, ‘Aphorisms on Self-Care’). Others creatively replicate the disorienting experience of needing or seeking care (Julia Calver, ‘Three Troughs’; Rebecca Lennon, ‘Eating the Wallpaper Collapses the Sharp Lines’). Some are personal essays evoking care as a relation of guilt (Maija Timonen, ‘Woman of Destiny’) or articulating generational differences in how care is expressed through vocabulary (Juliet Johnson, ‘Stop It, Dad’).

Although a few contributions seemed so self-consciously experimental in format or style that I was sometimes uncertain of their relevance to debates on care, all participate in the de-centring activities the editors set out to achieve. As Jagoe writes in the introduction, the book is a compendium of writing on care that ‘is not totalizing, it is not complete (it could never be complete), but it maps a constellation of thoughts around what care is or could be’ (p.12). The book accepts how ‘care’ encompasses practices of attention, resistance, love, vigilance, or (self-)protection. Care is for or about others in relations that are proximal or distant, voluntary or compulsory, affective or transactional, towards individuals or groups, humans and more-than-humans. In particular, the volume is against austerity (financial and emotional) and the outsourcing of all forms of care as emotional labour in liberal free market states. ON CARE is a sequel to ON VIOLENCE (Jagoe and Kivland 2018) and potentially inherits from that book an emphasis on how care can both resist and enable structures of capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, and violence. Accordingly, its broad approach lacks sustained focus on subjects close to my own understanding of care, such as child-rearing, chronic illness, or the climate emergency.

As the pre-script notes, ON CARE was completed in early 2020, so reading it in 2022 can feel uncanny. When Daisy Lafarge writes about the Black Death in Boccaccio’s Decameron as ‘a narrative wrecking ball, a colossal trauma’ (p.131), the words feel pressingly relevant. Discussions of systemic racism, like Alberta Whittle’s essay about being exposed to images of police brutality (‘How to Become/Avoid Becoming a Callus’), are now haunted by George Floyd. Even Megxit has stolen the hope from Rosa-Johan Uddoh’s short piece on feeling represented by Meghan Markle (‘Who We Are as A Couple’). In recognition of these shifting contexts, there is a post-Covid supplement to ON CARE (which I want to read) that responds to how the pandemic re-inscribed inequalities and insufficiencies in care. Developing attention in ON CARE to how and where care is lacking, CARE(LESS) includes contributions from members of the newly-formed Care Research Group at the Royal College of Art (Blackshaw and Kivland 2021).

ON CARE successfully fulfils publisher Ma Bibliothèque’s aspiration to solicit uncategorizable contributions to theoretical and art writing, and to showcase them through ‘unexpected juxtapositions’. An alphabetical ordering of entries by author surname makes for happy adjacencies: a piece on bedsores using found text (Nina Wakeford, ‘Skincare’) is followed by Whittle’s essay that uses the metaphor of hardened skin. The absence of many images, and the lack of author bios, mean some contributions stand apart from existing bodies of work. Victoria Sin’s piece about parental recipes for ‘Steamed Three Eggs’ beautifully uses food to evoke family inheritances of love and pain in a way that seems worlds away from the shapeshifting drag of their main artistic practice.

Many contributions will appeal to those interested in the intersection of care and artistic practice. Helena Reckitt explores care within curatorial work (‘Taking (Back) Care’). Artist Holly Graham’s ‘Be/hold/en – a Duty of Care’ describes how theorists like Christina Sharpe offer a vocabulary for her own reconstructive ‘wake work’ (p.84). Art historian Alice Butler’s ‘Looking and Touching, Desire, Closely’ examines the sensory veils of sexuality and materiality in Francesca Woodman’s photographs, always shadowed by the artist’s suicide at 22. Martina Mullaney’s ‘Sugartits’ emphasises the looking required by both care and visual artistic practice in a series of brief diary entries documenting the physical and emotional colour of chemotherapy: ‘Red. Cadmium Red Deep. Black. And Blue.’ (p.165).

My own work as a literary scholar addresses how we talk about ageing and dying, and this perhaps guided my reading of ON CARE towards issues of grief, loss and longing. Rachel Genn’s ‘Charms’ plays with the idea of losing an earring and an aunty, examining how object relations and human relations coincide. Lafarge’s ‘The Doe’ similarly charts the fallout of a toxic relationship using psychogeography and depictions of the goddess Fortuna. I loved Sophie Jung’s stuttering ‘A Weapon In Loops/A Weapon In Loops’ with its continuous wordplay that gestures towards the fraught categorical diction of medical diagnoses and care contracts, and Roy Claire Potter’s trippy evocation of caring for an ageing abusive man which brilliantly intercuts vulnerable old age with war film bravura (‘Only Two Kinds of People are Gonna Stay on this Beach…”’). Daniella Valz Gen’s fragmented ‘(Be)longing’ captured a sense, which chimed with my own research, that love and being-held are forms of gravity not unrelated to how our bodies will eventually return to the earth.

Eberhard Grossgasteiger on Unsplash, 2017

I was particularly struck by Tom Allen’s ‘Preliminary Notes After Care Homes’, which apes Marxist critiques through a speculative assessment of care homes as a failed technology. Allen suggests terms like fairness and dignity become merely ‘legalistic and recuperative’ terms in care homes, obscuring how residents feel obsolete within a system structured around working to achieve ‘just deserts’, a phrase Allen places against residents’ cries of ‘I do not deserve this’ (pp.19-20). Based on four years’ experience within the care sector, Allen’s style reanimates traditional gerontological analysis by cloaking personal trauma in analytic language, for example, the wry suggestion that denying signs of residents’ physical and social decline ‘seldom contains generative potential’ (p.22). The moment when Allen relaxes this cod-academic style, describing how ‘patience, love, and joy’ still feature in the lived experience of being a care worker, despite the ideal of waged care work containing none of these unmonetizable emotions, is strangely moving (p.23).

Cinzia Mutigli brings a similar playful/plangent voice to an essay examining emotional labour that centres on the Baudrillardian-fantasy-made-real of chat show host Lorraine Kelly’s court case. Kelly’s lawyers claimed she is a paid performer playing the role of ‘Lorraine Kelly’. Mutigli deftly plays off the social performance of affect with the cyclical nature of emotions associated with depression that rise and fall like tides or passing seasons, questioning how far each of us can control our bodies and identities (‘Cheery Like Lorraine Kelly Is Cheery’).

Lukas Souza on Unsplash, 2021

In a more conventional artist’s interview, Jagoe talks to Mati Jhurry, whose existing work examines the labour underpinning the ‘paradise economy’ of her native Mauritius, about her 2018-21 project in which she is employed as/performs the role of Emirates cabin crew (‘Fly Better–A Conversation’). The interview brings together many of the wider concerns in ON CARE around migration, gender, performance, and professionalism. Jhurry’s project exposes the underside of hospitality (a term with etymological siblings in hospital and hospice) through the attrition enacted on her body by care work. She describes an ‘over-saturation of touch’ (p.108) and a denial of personal feeling that resonates with clinical discussions of burnout or compassion fatigue. Together, Jhurry and Jagoe explore how caring work, of any moral value, invites compliance and resistance (sometimes as acts of self-care) alongside engagement with the caring role: against her better judgement Jhurry performs her professional tasks ‘because I care about the bloody work’ (p.115).

ON CARE challenged my own perceptions of what an academic contribution to the health humanities might look like. While some entries could work in a journal or edited collection (with references and a bibliography), others let their argument creep up on you through juxtaposition and implication, withholding evidence of the rigour of their thinking – and making space for affective reaction. Within my own field, I was reminded of Death and the Migrant by Yasmin Gunaratnam which combines theory, ethnography and archival research with something more personal and allusive (Gunaratnam 2013). Maybe this more elliptical style is just as good a way of presenting research on the subject of care which, as ON CARE so perceptively demonstrates, resists being explained or portioned out.



Joe Wood is a Research Associate at King’s College London working on the UKRI project The Sciences of Ageing and the Culture of Youth. He researches how we talk and write about ageing, dying and pain. Twitter: @JoeCSMH



Blackshaw, Gemma, and Sharon Kivland, eds. 2021. CARE(LESS). A SUPPLEMENT TO ON CARE. London: Ma Bibliothèque.

Gunaratnam, Yasmin. 2013. Death and the migrant: Bodies, borders and care. London: Bloomsbury Collections.

Jagoe, Rebecca, and Sharon Kivland, eds.. 2018. ON VIOLENCE. London: Ma Bibliothèque.

Jagoe, Rebecca, and Sharon Kivland, eds.. 2020. ON CARE. London: Ma Bibliothèque.






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