Helen Hester on Xeno-Solidarity and the Collective Struggle for Free Time

Authors: Sasha Shestakova, Anna Engelhardt

Time is the very stuff of our lives, and as such should represent a key object of our collective fight, argues writer Helen Hester.

Helen Hester

Helen Hester is a feminist scholar whose research is mainly focused on social reproduction. She is a member of the feminist collective Laboria Cuboniks and a co-author of The Xenofeminist Manifesto. In her book Xenofeminism she developed the notion of “hospitality to the other,” as well as the notion of reproduction going “beyond biological procreation.” She is currently researching the politics of care and free time for her upcoming book After Work: The Fight for Free Time (co-authored with Nick Srnicek). Hester is also a faculty member of Strelka Institute’s The Terraforming education program.

Researchers Sasha Shestakova and Anna Engelhardt spoke to Hester about the xenofeminist take on care, politics of resistance, and emancipatory cultures of work.


A non-absolute, bottom-up universalism

Helen Hester: I think an attentiveness to the universal is a particularly crucial tool in any attempt to reckon (politically and philosophically) with climate catastrophe. Acknowledging that, however, does not mean letting all forms of universalism off the hook. In The Xenofeminist Manifesto, we begin from the position that attempts to articulate that the universal have typically led to the amplification of “bloated, unmarked particulars,” meaning that the “male is mistaken for the sexless, the white for raceless, the cis for the real, and so on.” We could include modernity’s conception of nature as an (infinite) resource to be a part of this legacy of universalism as well. Given this history, it is not surprising that any attempt to reassert the political utility of the universal has proved controversial; the dominant trend has been toward critiquing false universals rather than attempting to reassert the universal for emancipatory ends.

This targeting of false universals has been both important and helpful. For xenofeminism, however, the ongoing dominance of parochial universalism is not indicative of the fundamental infelicity of attempts to use the universal as a political tool, and nor is thinking the universal necessarily at odds with recognizing the existence of compound forms of discrimination and privilege. Instead, we suggest that the universal be thought of as that which cuts through particular localities (our bounded phenomenological condition) towards vectors of unanticipated and constructed solidarities. The manifesto does not reject the idea of universality, then, but seeks instead to contest and to re-engineer it; a commitment to problematizing false universals is combined with the idea that a non-absolute, generic universal can be constructed from the bottom up.

This is important because, without a universalism from below, the left will lack the requisite conceptual resources for confronting capitalism, ecological crisis, or complex, embedded structures of oppression. That is to say, if we are invested in countering both capitalism’s differentiating and universalizing tendencies, we need to be able to give an account of the universal—to intercede within debates about its operations and constitution. Otherwise, we will face “a debilitating disjuncture between the thing we seek to depose and the strategies we advance to depose it.”

Judy Chicago, Through the Flower 2, 1973, sprayed acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 in. © Judy Chicago


An ethical duty to enact xeno-solidarity

Hospitality toward difference—what I describe in my book as xeno-solidarity—is particularly important here. In the book, I call for an approach of outward-looking solidarity with the alien, the foreign, and the figure of the stranger, over restrictive alliance with the familiar, the similar, and the figure of the compatriot. The relationship between this position, abstract reasoning, and situated knowledge is not one I fully develop in the book, but I think the connections are profound and crucial.

The process of clearing critical space for neglected perspectives and alternative knowledge cannot take place without the operations of a self-transcending reason able to recognize that which lies beyond the immediate conditions of specific, situated consciousnesses. In other words, having the ability to engage in complex forms of abstract reasoning brings with it an ability to reach beyond the immediate realm of the same and into the xeno—to see things otherwise, and to be hospitable to difference. This has implications for the planetary perspective you mention in your question. Rather than seeing sapience as an invitation to species chauvinism, we can (and should) recognize that it is as crucial to any ability to deprioritize ourselves and our immediate concerns in favor of recognizing wider obligations to the environmental networks of which we are a part.

It is my contention that a capacity for abstract reasoning equates to particular possibilities for action, as well as to particular obligations and liabilities. It can be thought of as bestowing upon us a particular kind of responsibility, extending not only to other humans but to non-sapient forms of life and the ecologies that sustain us all as well—in other words, an ethical duty to enact xeno-solidarity. As a result of a capacity for complex and distributed cognition, those emerging from within our species are likely to be best placed to mitigate the manifold negative effects wrought by homo sapiens. By bringing hospitality and self-transcending reason into conversation in this manner, one starts to conceive of a possible philosophical approach to accepting an idea of reason and a general duty of care without assuming mastery, dominance, or custodianship. That which facilitates a recognition of our own particularity and situatedness is also that which enables us to see beyond these conditions and makes the notion of a “planetary perspective” possible.

Whilst it is certainly a form of care, the idea of hospitality also implies a degree of estrangement. It describes an approach taken to strangers, visitors, and guests; all acts of hospitality are, as such, acts of xeno-hospitality (although there are degrees within this category, of course). Hospitality is recognized as something to cultivate—an art or an effortful practice. This sets it apart from many of the forms of care that Nick and I discuss in our book After Work: The Fight for Free Time. In the case of hospitality, we are clearly dealing with caring as an activity rather than caring solely in the sense of a disposition. But beyond a certain degree of intimacy, caring practices cease to be perceived as hospitable and shift instead to another affective register of experience. Many of the forms of care we look at are entangled with “the family” in its various senses, and these tend to be naturalized as spontaneous expressions of the gendered personality, rather than understood as an art that can be learned. The book uses the idea of work as a tool for denaturalizing those forms of care that tend to be taken for granted and culturally invisibilized within the Global North at present.


Care and politics of resistance

Care is, of course, a recurring theme within a great deal of feminist theorizing—but it’s apparent that not all thinkers are working with the same understanding of this concept at all times. As I’ve mentioned, a substantial part of the new book is specifically anchored in problematizing care as the basis for a new and better society, given the ways in which this allows (highly gendered) forms of work to proliferate in unacknowledged forms, and on account of the tendency to downplay the (sometimes profound) difficulties and dissatisfactions associated with this work. Care has to be viewed as contestable, I think, and this is not always the case when it comes to feminist critiques of post-work, in which reproductive labor is frequently seen as a check on emancipatory ambitions, rather than as something which might itself be made subject to radical transformation. Care is too multifaceted to position as an absolute moral good or an unquestionable ethical norm, and it’s not always helpful to set it up as a perpetual obligation which is utterly resistant to change. It cannot be theorized in the abstract, but needs to be understood in terms of specific forms of situated, embodied practice. We should seek not simply to revalue care—to accept it, and fight for its recognition—but should also be open to redistributing and, under the right circumstances, refusing and reducing it. Negotiating between these responses requires attentiveness to the actual forms of care we’re discussing and addressing—distinguishing between those caring activities we pursue for ourselves, each other, and our communities, versus those we undertake in the interests of capital. This is a hugely complex task, but one that we cannot shy away from if we want all forms of work to be included within our efforts at emancipatory transformation.

Judy Chicago, Birth Trinity, 1983, needlework on 6 in. mesh canvas, 51 x 130 in. © Judy Chicago


Beyond the single-family home

There is a whole chapter about rethinking living spaces in the book, actually—the working draft we have currently stands at 50,000 words, but we’re endeavoring to cut it down to a fifth of that size! This was a chapter I found particularly interesting and inspiring to research, largely because there were so many concrete examples to draw upon. In its current form, it concentrates primarily on examples from Europe and America—New York apartment hotels, interwar social housing in Frankfurt, Sweden, and Red Vienna, the tract house of the American suburbs, and so on, up until today. That being said, we did have a chance to touch on some relevant local examples during the course of my time at Strelka; one participant in The Terraforming program mentioned the Narkomfin Building, for example, and its attempts to materialize certain ideas about collective living at the level of architectural design. Like many of the interwar examples we consider in the book, the building had a focus on communal facilities (from laundries to libraries), and paid explicit attention to the gender politics of domestic spaces. The lived realities of these would-be emancipatory designs often differ substantially from architects’ original intentions, however, and this is something that was also discussed; inhabitants resisted the imposition of somebody else’s ideas of the “good life,” and found workarounds to accommodate the spaces to their own desires. Additionally, areas that were designed to be generously proportioned, expansive, or communal came to be co-opted for other purposes, and so were eaten away at and eventually lost. That being said, such spatial experiments can nevertheless offer a helpful reminder that alternatives are possible; they encourage us to remember that the single-family home, as we know it today, is not the entire horizon of possibility in terms of living arrangements, and prompt us to wonder, “what could the home be, if it could be otherwise?” The potential denaturalizing role played by such historical examples serves an important purpose in the book, as Nick and I try to interrogate the ways in which spatial arrangements intersect with social arrangements to shape the conditions under which reproductive labor is performed.

When it comes to critical discussions of unwaged reproductive labor, and particularly to work challenging accepted ideas around the nuclear family, I’ve found that many of the most helpful approaches have been advanced by BIPOC philosophers and activists, and those directly in conversation with their work. Amongst the figures who have exerted a shaping influence on my thinking in recent years has been Hortense J. Spillers, Leith Mullings, Kim TallBear, María Lugones, and Xhercis Mendez. Their writings deftly explore the ways in which biological and social reproduction can be seen to be entangled with the imposition of particular working arrangements, property relations, and ways of knowing. Mullings, for example, is very acute when it comes to navigating the complexities of the uneven distribution of “the family.” It has been both a site of refuge and a site of control; barriers to the formation or cultural recognition of nuclear family units have provoked the emergence of rich and nourishing alternative forms of kin network, but these alternatives have also been tethered to conditions of violence, oppression, and compulsion. Her work is helpful in ensuring that, even as we look to these examples of non-nuclear reproductive units for inspiration—that is, as the basis of possible future models or as a denaturalizing force—we do not fall into the trap of uncritically romanticizing them, or severing them from the conditions of their emergence.


The collective struggle for time

It’s important to bring a post-work perspective to bear on issues of reproductive labor, I think—a perspective that seeks to counter the dominance of the work ethic as it applies to all aspects of our lives, not simply waged work. It is not necessarily helpful to struggle to extricate ourselves from one form of labor simply to further entangle ourselves in another. This applies whether we are talking about reducing the burdens of social reproduction in order to “free up” more time for wage work, or if we’re struggling against wage work to enable us to do more at home. This is one potential pitfall of articulating our resistance to long hours on the job in terms of a need for extra time to meet the pressing demands of family obligations. Where does the possibility of human flourishing fit into this agenda? How are unconventional forms of domestic and caring arrangements to be accommodated? Why must any fight for a reduction of drudgery in one domain equate to a capitulation to the proliferation of drudgery in another? Why are these struggles disaggregated and set in opposition to each other, rather than thought about as part of a single, integrated struggle?

The more emancipatory framing, in my opinion, would involve understanding our struggles as directed toward the maximization of free time. This is a return to the classic demand for “time for what we will”—though with an insistence on factoring in gender political concerns. It may well be that some people would actively choose to spend time engaged in caring activities, or in pursuits that we currently associate with forms of wage labor; when I imagine what autonomously chosen projects might look like for me personally, I’m very aware that I’d seek out additional unpressurized time with my gorgeous babies and my gorgeous partner-comrade, and also find it hard to imagine that I’d want to give up certain key elements of my extremely privileged day job (working with people to support the development of their projects, sharing my own projects with those who are interested, reading and thinking and trying to synthesize what I’ve learned into something new). That being said, we must not assume in advance what activities people might wish to pursue under radically different conditions. We do not yet know what lives freed from the disciplinary cudgel of work ethic and the heteropatriarchal family might involve. The abyss of freedom looms before us.

Time is the very stuff of our lives, and as such should represent a key object of our collective struggles. In the book, Nick and I try to balance a more utopian approach with a practical exploration of steps we might take to actually build more emancipatory cultures of work (be that work directly or indirectly market mediated). Ultimately, we target our proposals around four key areas, each of which forms the subject of a separate chapter: the spatial relations of the home, the social relations of the family, technologies of social reproduction, and cultural expectations around “living standards.” Various suggestions—of varying degrees of immediate practicability—are included at the conclusion of each chapter. We’ve done our best to go beyond sloganistic demand making, even if my instinct is still to call for the destruction of the home and the abolition of the family, or to declare that “If I have to do laundry, it’s not my revolution!”


The emancipatory abolition of gendered labor

In terms of the feminization of labor, it might be appropriate to shift our attention to wage work. As you note, this idea of feminization suggests a qualitative as well as a quantitative shift; the term has been used to suggest not just an increase in the number of women in the labor force, but also the rise of a form of work associated with qualities traditionally coded as feminine. On the one hand, this has been used to discuss a supposed “becoming precarious” of labor; that is, the rolling out of working conditions (enforced flexibility, insecurity, mobility)—conditions once more particularly associated with women workers—across the whole of the working population. As Alva Gotby notes, in some “post-workerist writings, it appears as if feminized labor conditions are only politically relevant when they have become ‘generalized’—that is, when they affect white men”—a fact which might give us pause when thinking about this idea. We also need to be careful in terms of the way the notion of feminization is mobilized here, given that there has never been a single “feminine” experience of work. Class, race, and a myriad of other structures of oppression have always had an impact on the way women have engaged in and with work. The experience of the time-poor, overstretched parent who is in a position to alleviate some of her immediate difficulties by hiring in domestic help is of course radically different from that of the woman she hires to assist her—a woman who may be poorly paid, hyperexploited, and ensnared within global chains of care, and who cannot resort to the same strategies to manage the combined burdens of caring responsibilities and a need to “earn a living.” We must be careful not to subsume all difference beneath the banner of gender, then, and that means remaining critical of this notion of feminization.

On the other hand, the idea of feminization has been used to suggest a change in the character of work itself—the becoming hegemonic of “soft skills,” and an allegedly new emphasis on relationship building, emotional connection, communication work, and the propensity for care. Again, I think we would do well to question the process of gendering that’s taking place here, given that it posits a radical differentiation between “men’s” and “women’s” work at the very moment at which these spheres are supposedly mingled and at which their separation is compromised. The idea of a “feminization of labor,” in other words, risks essentializing and reifying particular ways of doing gender. It funnels certain kinds of activities into existing gendered paradigms, restricting possibilities for their redistribution even as it presumes to describe precisely this process of redistribution itself. The idea of a feminization of labor presumes what Paul B. Preciado calls “a metaphysics of sexual difference.” I’m more interested in what we might do to clear away discursive supports for the idea of a binary gender system marked by inherently feminine or masculine practices and abilities, and to clear a critical space for the emancipatory abolition of gender.

Cover image: Judy Chicago, Elizabeth in Honor of Elizabeth from the Great Ladies series, 1973, sprayed acrylic on canvas, 40 x 40 in. © Judy Chicago

Sasha Shestakova is an interdisciplinary researcher, currently based in Moscow. She holds an MA Contemporary Art Theory from Goldsmiths, University of London. Her projects include Constructing the Infrastructure of Future, the investigation in infrastructures’ construction through the agency of material labor; and symposium “Alien Processes: Reproduction and Time,” which she co-organized as a Certificate Student at the New Centre for Research and Practice.

Anna Engelhardt is a Russian artist and researcher who creates political projects as practice-based research by utilizing a variety of digital media. Her main interests are decoloniality, logistics, and feminist politics in post-Soviet space. Anna’s recent projects include Jewel, a video essay introspection on feminist oppositional politics in Russia, and Adversarial Infrastructure and Intermodal Terminal, web platforms that interrogate colonial logistics of post-Soviet space. She holds an MA in Research Architecture from Goldsmiths, University of London.

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