The Philosophy of Care: an interview with Boris Groys


Samuel Kelly: How did care emerge as an area of interest for you?   

Boris Groys:  I have been writing about art for many decades ­– especially the museum system and the relationship between the museum and art. Artworks are treated by the museum as being, let's say, weak or ill objects. The museum is created for restoration of the artwork. So, the relationship between the museum and the hospital has always been in my work. The museum is to the artwork, as the hospital is to the human body. It's not accidental that people who are responsible for the works are called curator – from cure, cura.

On the other hand, I’ve had some health problems myself and I’ve had to spend a lot of time in hospitals being treated for this or that. I have a lot of experience of my body being treated by other people and the system, as a thing. As something that has no will, no reason, and no desires. The immediate impulse for me to write Philosophy of Care was sitting at home and watching demonstrations against healthcare and the vaccination. I wanted to understand why people were so nervous about being treated by the medical system. Partly because this is not a new experience; there is a long history of dissatisfaction with the medical system and hatred towards doctors, beginning in the Middle Ages. This is precisely because medical science treats the individual as a thing; as a living corpse and not as an autonomous desiring individual.

We live in a kind of double image of ourselves. One is an image of ourselves as the source of thinking and desiring. And the other is of some kind of strange, weak object in the world. This produces a conflict. So, I tried to describe this conflict. But I didn't want to give any solutions to this conflict or to privilege one image over the other. I just tried to show this double image and the conflict between those two images which we are living with and in.

SK:    Why aren’t you interested in trying to provide a solution?

BG:    I'm not very interested in solutions because, if I took the position of somebody who proposed solutions, I would be taking the position of a manager, an administrator, of somebody in power, who can decide how the medical system should be organized. But my position, as I said, was always a position of a patient. Not the position of an active doer but a position of somebody who is subjected to an action but does not act themselves.

The first thing you hear when you get into a hospital is “do not say anything, do not do anything. Don't be active. Just follow the rules, just follow the advice, just do what you are said to do.” I wrote the book from this perspective; I wrote the book from the perspective of the patient and not the perspective of the actor or the medical system.

SK:    It seems like your previous work on Russian Cosmism has heavily informed the more recent work. There's clearly a question of care and the institution in Cosmism. How did that precede this work? 

BG: Yes. If you read my collection of texts about Russian Cosmism, there is already an interest in the relationship, connection, analogy, between the museum and the hospital. Because at the end of 19th century, Nikolai Fedorov has already proposed to create a universal museum for all of mankind. Where everybody would receive a room that would be a space for his or her life, for memories, documentation and maybe some biological material that would allow for the person to be resurrected in the future.

We have this strange combination of art, science fiction and medical science on which very radical consequences were drawn from this analogy between the artwork and the human body. The body was treated as an artwork here; as something that should be kept for an infinite amount of time. It's not quite immortality which we understand as something different, but it is a kind of museum-like care for human bodies. 

SK:    You are using a very expansive notion of care in your work that goes beyond the medical sense of the term. Could you explain what that term means to you?

BG:   Yes, it seems to me that care is overlooked in our civilization because we tend to think of ourselves, our culture, our technology as very dynamic and maybe even destructive. The whole language of creativity is a partial language of destruction. At the same time, it seems to me that the ideal of safety, security and care is actually the ideal of our civilization. As I write in the book, we care for roads, for trains, for cars, we care for the supply of electricity. 

I'm already old, so I was confronted with the concept of the internet very early. As I was confronted with this, I became acquainted with language of infinite flows of information, infinite flows of signs, all kinds of incredible cyber punk possibilities about infinitely enlarging our consciousnesses and so on. But what actually impressed me, from the beginning, was that when we use the internet, what we are doing is relying on a steady and secured supply of electricity. And if electricity is not supplied in the amount that we need, we cannot do any of that. So, we believe our society, culture, science and technology be very dynamic, but the image of dynamism conceals the actual interest in a growing stability of the system.  It is only because of this stability that we can survive here, inside the system.

For me, care is the key word to describe our civilization. To do something, to produce something, is to create an object of care, because we do not want to create something that will disappear in the next moment. If we create something, we want it to be kept functioning. This means, be it a car, computer, or whatever, we start a process of care which secures the existence of this object. That is also the relationship we have to ourselves, as elements of this technological civilization. As objects, as bodies, among other technological and artistic objects.

I was speaking before about Russian cosmism, but maybe, do you know an artist called Kurt Schwitters? He was a Germanist Dadaist in the 1920s. He created a work called Merzbau, when he was lying in bed of his room and out of the window he saw a neon sign, which said ‘Kommerz’, hence merz-bau (commercial building.)

This Merzbau was a complicated construction. He was living inside his construction, and he put inside of it everything that was related to his life. Beginning with his sperm and ending with his letters and artworks, and so on. This construction was closed. It was not a museum in the sense that I would be able to enter the space and see these objects. No. These objects were concealed and protected by the structure. And it promises something similar to Russian Cosmism: maybe immortality or resurrection. So this is some kind of avant-garde dream of reinscribing oneself into the artwork. Turning oneself into the artwork. In this way, prolonging one’s own life. That is something that fascinated me, and has fascinated me from the beginning, that's why I concentrate so much on the avant-garde in my research. I not just the Russian avant-garde, but in general.

SK: That reminds of the notion of ‘the material body and the symbolic body’ that you describe in The Philosophy of Care, in the first or second chapter, I think. 

Does that way of thinking about the self, make it easier to think across the museum and the hospital in a different way? Perhaps it also relates to what you were saying about the internet and the way in which our bodies extend beyond us in more complex ways than we take for granted. 

BG:  I was speaking about this double image of oneself. This conflict between our thinking, desiring, needing body and the body as an object for others. An object for manipulation by others, by technology, by medicine and so on. When I speak about the symbolic body, I am referring to a cultural body that is created by us, as an image of our desiring body. It is how we want to be seen by the other. We do things like art, writing, a career, even making money, if you want, just to improve our image in the eyes of others. It's all a means by which to change our appearance in the world.

That is the symbolic body I speak about. Especially with the internet, but also before, beginning with the birth of the printing press in the 19th Century. We have a double process. On the one hand we permanently describe ourselves. Even if you are just buying tickets. If you are checking into a hotel, you are asked to describe yourself. You have to present your CV, your photograph, all of a sudden. And actually, all the books we write, the career we want to achieve; it's all part of the description.

But at the same time, we are covered all the time. We are covered by media and we are covered by the internet. Mostly, we use the internet unconsciously without thinking about the effect that our actions produce in the eyes of the others. And the eyes of others are the algorithm, which covers us and analyzes us. Again, we have this conflict between my own will to appearance, in this or that particular way, and the gaze of the other in-which we may not appear in the way we would like to appear. The problem with medicine, with art, with the internet is a permanent confrontation with the gaze of the other and a growing dependence on the gaze of the other.

In medieval times we believed in what Lacan calls the big Other. One may say “Maybe I'm not liked by the others, by the crowd, but God understands me. In the eyes of God I'm okay, because I'm honest” and so on. Also, in the time of the underground, artists believed that despite being misunderstood by the public, which consists of idiots supposedly, in the future, the public would understand their genius. They projected the appearance they wanted forward onto religion, or to the utopian future.

Today we are skeptical about God and about utopian futures too. We do not expect the next generation to celebrate us as geniuses that were neglected by our own time. So, it seems that we live in a time where this conflict between the gaze of the others and my own desire to appear to the world as this or that, are in conflict. These two perspectives are in a crueler conflict then previously in history. Because there is almost no escape. There’s no physical escape, there’s no religious escape, there’s no utopian escape. That is why Sarte said that hell is other people. What does it mean to be in the hell? It means being unable to escape the gaze of the other.

I don't know if you have friends who are artist?

SK: I do

BG:  I’ve made a lot from writing about art. Everybody who knows artists has had the same experience of going into their studio and saying “ah, so that is what you are doing” and he or she would always say, “no, no, no, I am doing something completely different… maybe you can't see it, but it is something completely different.” This is the will to escape the gaze of another. It's still there a little bit, but we are less and less able to trust this escape into the future, or metaphysics.

SK:    Another thing that comes up in the book is the recreation of religious forms in medicine. And the handing over of certain roles of care from religious institutions to medical institutions. Why do those forms recur in the way they do?

BG:    If you take the beginning of modern science to be the enlightenment, then the main principle of human reason is the principle of evidence. To accept what is presented to us, we need complete evidence. It can be rational evidence like two plus two is four, or it can be empirical evidence. I look out the window, I see it’s raining. But evidence was the beginning of the end for the struggle against religion. Because there is no evidence of religious truth or of God. Religion told us there is no evidence, but there is trust. You have to trust without evidence. That's what we are doing now with medicine because we don't have any evidence in relationship to our own bodies.  For example, I am antithesised and a surgeon performs surgery on my body. How can I control her? I have no evidence corresponding to what she is doing with my body. Everything that concerns my body, I have no evidence for.

It's interesting that we are speaking about media. Media is exploding and it's also something I don't have any evidence for. For example, when I look for the name of somebody, I rely on Google and Google is a machine, it's not a intellect. Google does not differentiate between between true and false. They asked Google to differentiate between true and false fool, but machine doesn't have evidence.  It doesn't have reason in a sense of being persuade or dissuaded of the fact that something is true. Google analyzes all these images and sentences in terms, of ‘are they here or not?’

We are living in a society that asks us to trust more, more and more. But we react with distrust. We distrust more and more. That is precisely what was obvious during the demonstrations against vaccination and healthcare. People were distrustful, but if they were asked, do you have an evidence that what you have been told is not true? No, they didn't have such evidence and they couldn't have such evidence because there is no evidence of this kind. This evidence does not exist.

They were asked to trust, but they didn't want to trust. And so again we have this conflict, which seems to be a conflict without any solution.

SK:    And is that mistrust the same as in the medieval period?

BG: No, it's different. Because in the medieval period you could say: I do not trust the church, I do not trust the Catholic church, I do not trust the pope, but I trust God. Like Luther did. You could even say that the Pope is Satan and the Catholic church is Satanic and it's against God. but I am with God. Or we can take the work of an avant-garde artist, everybody might say it's a terrible mess. But he will say no, because I am with the future and I know that the future is on my side.

In a traditional time and culture, as I said we had this escape. We had another time dimension, be it, eternal religious truth or the future. We could escape our time. 

Contemporary culture articulates itself increasingly in terms of generation. The concept of generation is related to technological generations. Generations of computers, iPhones, and so on. This means that we have no other time than the time that is given to us by our generation, by the fact that I'm born at a certain point and then I will die at a certain moment. The only reality I'm confronted with is the reality of my generation. My generation are the people who will judge me, who will like me, or hate me. I have to trust my generation, but how can I do that.

We have a broken relationship with our own time. On the one hand, we know that we have no reality beyond our own generation. On the other hand, we are distrustful. I think that it is legitimate and important to manifest this distrust. This distrust does not lead to any evidence. It is not something that leads to a new form of trust. It is simply distrust, as such. I feel a conflict and a distance from the things I am supposed to trust and maybe act as if I trust them because I cannot escape them, but I have this inner feeling of distrust. It is a contemporary subjectivity that I try to describe in the book.

SK:    Bataille’s theory of the "accursed share” is referenced throughout the book. It’s a way of thinking that comes with a slightly counterintuitive idea of what we might think of as health ­–– a health that is destructive and even self-destructive. Could you talk about Bataille’s theory and how it frames a certain idea of health? 

BG:    Sport is the stage on which the destructiveness of the health is performed all the time. We have different kinds of very addictive and dangerous sports. Every kind of sport is destructive for your health. That is a principle of sport. Manifestations of physical strength and the will to live always has to do with risk of death. That is the motive for criminality and wars. Look at our mass culture, beginning with restaurant and up to, I don't know, Star Wars. It’s all about extreme health, extreme energy, and this extreme energy actually manifests itself through the destruction of its bearer. Destruction of the human being who is a vessel and transmitter of this energy. Our whole mass culture is based on this myth of self-destructive health and our sports too.

I think this is also why arts are not so popular. Because people think that the artists do not risk, they're too comfortable. They may be maybe poor, but too comfortable. 

SK: And they're very often not, not that poor… 

BG: Yeah. Well, what people like to look at is Formula 1. This is precisely what I describe. 

SK:    In Bataille’s theory, the sun provides an excess of energy which must be spent, or used in some way.

For you, is there a difference in the political or moral value of one activity over the other? I mean, this might sound silly, but do you think it is preferable for someone to do sport than engage in war?

BG:    Well, it depends. For example, you are also motivated by humanistic and moralistic ideals. And there are two ways, to react to that one way is to write a book about that [Boris laughs] and the other is to go to Africa and risk your life in the context of civil war and on. I think the problem of the way in which you use your vital energy is connected to the political and moral choices you make. But do not define them.

You can use your health for criminal purposes and you can use the same amount of energy for saving somebody. What I would like to draw the attention to is that in all these cases you neglect the care of your own body. In neglecting the care of your own body, you practice a certain revolt against the society we are living in.

First, the society we are living in tells us “Your life is the highest value.” That is what irritates me, if your life is the highest value, then we lose it with absolute certainty. It is a very strange kind of value that has no value. Second, precisely because of that we are able, and even tend to, risk our life for a higher purpose or important purpose, but also for no purpose at all. 

SK:  Another way to phrase the question might be to ask, how do you know the difference? How can one know the difference between self-destruction in service of a higher purpose and self-destruction not in service of a higher purpose? Or perhaps, when is it a form of revolt against the system and when does it reaffirm the system?

BG: Every kind of risk in your life is a revolt. It is a revolt because it makes you unreliable for the social system you are living in. When we are speaking about why electric energy is secured, why trains are secured, why cars are secured and so on – it is because they are supposed to be reliable. Our political system is also based on the reliability of the citizen.

Does the citizen behave reasonably? Do they brush their teeth? Do they use drugs? Do they go out in the morning and sleep in the night? Do they practice a regular way of life? If you don't do that it always, in a certain way, undermines the system because it makes humans unreliable for the system. In our system humans are precisely the most unreliable, dangerous point where the system can collapse. 

SK: The final thing I'd like to ask you about is about Russian Cosmism. There is a tension between your fascination with Russian Cosmism and the total biopower required in their utopia, and the untrusting quality that you are describing in contemporary subjectivity? How do those two go together?

Your writings on Russian Cosmism came out before the COVID-19 pandemic, and I wonder if the idea of a total biopower, an all-consuming biopolitical force, is less appealing? How do you reconcile the distrust and the fascination with a utopian image of a total biopower? 

BG: Well, this fascination has to do with the ability of biopower to accumulate all the dreams and projects of human history. Everything that was said and done in the name of the spirit, in the name of reason, in the name of God is all accumulated in the medical system. It gives a promise of physical wellbeing that substitutes a promise of spiritual wellbeing. From time to time, I read advice columns, and one interesting piece of advice that I read couple of months ago was that you have to think at least half an hour per day, because it is good for the chemical processes in your body. It makes no difference what you think about and to what concludes you come. But some chemical processes function better.

Everything that was ever sold and created in human history is now interpreted in terms of physical wellbeing. That is fascinating because it is a true metaphysics of our time. It is a metaphysic in a sense that our own body is a meta-object to us. I am not talking about this metaverse. The metaverse is not a meta-object. Because we can look at it, it's part of our experience. But our body is not a part of our experience. We cannot take our body a part of our experience. We are living in a new religion and a new metaphysics of wellbeing, physical wellbeing, this is something that we have to trust, but we cannot control it and we cannot experience it with any kind of evidence. This fascinates me because I am fascinated by every kind metaphysics.

But at the same time, the reaction to this new metaphysic is neo-romantic or neo-decadent. That is what I describe in the last chapter, concerning Alexander Bogdanov. He was also part of Russian Cosmism. He describes his hero committing suicide, for nothing else other than a romantic, decadent protest against the metaphysics that totally controls his life.

I have always had this ambivalent feeling in relationship to the new metaphysic and to this new system. This metaphysic goes much further than Foucault describes it, because Foucault still describes it in managerial terms. But what is interesting for me is not how to organize biopower, but how I live in the biopower. As a patient and a as citizen, I'm not interested in church, but I'm interested in what it means to be a believer. I'm not interested in science, but I'm interested in what it means to be a scientist. What does it mean to be a patient? Because the basic ontological metaphysical mode of our existence in our society is to exist as a patient. We are not a believer, not creator, we are patients.

Samuel Kelly is an independent writer and researcher based in London. He is the host of Red Medicine, a podcast featuring interviews with writers and academics exploring radical politics, medical anthropology, and the sociology of science. This interview originally appeared as an episode of the podcast.

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