Accounting for material-orientated understandings of love: the business of child-rearing

Emma Waight

The material-cultural turn rejuvenated debates around more-than-human ways of being. Matter matters, but does it matter to love? Traditional sociological accounts of love have broadly approached love from the same structural framework, aligned with the individualisation thesis. This has been useful for thinking through family life and relationships in neoliberal societies, but tends to cast us apart as distinct beings, separated by a void. As sociological thinking has begun to recognise relational approaches to knowledge, what can we learn from a more-than-human way of thinking about love?

Having researched the consumption practices of British, middle-class mothers buying material items for their young children, a socio-material ethics of care came to the fore. I found that many of the consumption choices and rationalisations for these mothers came from a place of love and nurture. We talk about ‘loving’ things and becoming emotionally attached to things (there has been some fascinating work on memorialisation and cultural memory), but I want to talk about the way things may, or may not, love us back.

In A Theory of Shopping (1997) Daniel Miller argued that consumption could be conceptualised as an act of love (of care towards another). Miller disregards the reductionist approach that positions things as mere commodities or utilities, and instead considers shopping – in this case mothers buying groceries – as a sacrificial ritual where the householder has to decide how resources are spent, i.e. who gains and who goes without. The sacrifice, in this sense, comes from a place of maternal love. However, Miller’s pivotal claim that “the human subject cannot be considered outside of the material world within which and through which it is constructed” (Miller 1987) still positions the human as the central ontological agent. I wish us to go further than this to consider these socio-material networks as an assemblage in which love is a part. 

Zygmunt Bauman (2003: 9-10) said this of love: “love means an urge to protect, to feed, to shelter; also to caress, cosset and pamper”. In the case of parenting, love (“to protect, to feed, to shelter”) is experienced as a more-than-human phenomenon, as the objects themselves take on a caring role.  In a paper published with Kate Boyer, we consider the role of the non-human (material baby things) in networks of infant care. We develop the idea that caring-work is not an exclusively human practice, but rather one that is actualised through socio-material assemblages. Familial care, in this sense, is unreservedly tied to love. Like other aspects of social life, love can therefore be seen as a relational practice experienced through engagements with human and non-human others. The obvious examples are the symbolic significance of the wedding ring, family photographs on the mantlepiece, or taking flowers to someone you care about to celebrate, cheer them up, or ‘just because’. These examples all require active engagement from a human actor (the subject) to bring significance to the object. The latter, according to Marcel Mauss’s anthropology of the gift, is a social act purporting to reciprocity to bind two people together; in other words, for Mauss, there is no ‘just because’, as the object cements (or disrupts) the social relationship because of what it symbolising. But this doesn’t mean that the matter itself, the non-human agent in this act, doesn’t produce particular affects. To consider this we need to take a post-human approach to social relations, the theory of the New Materialisms being particularly constructive to this endeavour.

Love influences many of our life choices and actions. In caring for a child (especially infants), love is overwhelming and closely tied to fear. Marketers know and nurture this, and parents are bombarded with advice on creating a risk-free world through the products and foodstuffs they buy. In my own research I explored the myriad reasons mothers purchased or otherwise acquired material items for their young children, many of which were second-hand. Second-handedness is interesting because it gives each object more back-story; more vitality, even if the object itself looks well past its best. Safety and hygiene were key concerns when consuming second-hand goods (we don’t know where these goods have been or who has used them), but mothers were also acutely aware of being thrifty in order to make resources go further, just like the mothers in Daniel Miller’s account.

The way in which my mothers spoke about objects though, demonstrates the role that those objects play in networks of care. Blankets, mattress, bottles, toys, clothes (no zips!) are purchased as part of these networks of care. Infant commodity culture feeds into this politics of care by providing products that safeguard and monitor the young child, and alternatively, to bring peace of mind to their carer. The presumption is both that danger is a perennial condition of childhood and that the parent is insufficiently qualified to mediate such danger. Objects then, become active agents in the practice of parental love, as one of my mothers explained:

“For my first baby I was much more fearful. There is this tiny baby you want to protect . . . So much love towards that little person and people buy you stuff and I just wanted the best [stuff] that I knew was just for him” [rather than second-hand].

Objects that were considered more intimate tended to be the items mothers had clear rationalisations about in terms of what they chose to buy. For example, when asked what items she wouldn’t buy second-hand for her baby, one mother said (echoed by others):

“bottles I don’t think I’d buy second-hand. As long as things are nice and you can wash it you can make it good again, but I don’t really feel like the bottles perhaps would be a bit personal, I’d rather just have them new.”

Bottles, like teethers, which are left with “tooth marks on them”, and blankets that intimately swaddle the child, are active agents in the caring-work of parents to infants, and thus part of a socio-material assemblage of love.  The marks are visceral hauntings of the work these items have enacted. The care-work these objects have attended to cannot be ignored because the physical evidence is there, in the marks and traces those encounters leave behind. The work of caring has gone beyond the human. A baby bottle is not to be seen as purely functional, nor as symbolic, but rather, as an agent intra-acting with human and non-human parts (let’s not forget the milk) in order to achieve the work of caring.

The theory of the New Materialisms, can help us to grapple with these relational entanglements of everyday practice. New Materialism seeks to unseat the human subject as the primary or sole ontological focus by attending to the forces, intensities, and capacities of matter in the creation of everyday worlds. This approach would also allow us to consider other forms of more-than-human love, such as love towards animals and nature. Critically, more-than-human epistemologies also allow us to better account for technologically-mediated networks of care. As technology increasingly seeks to permeate all corners of the home, we need to find new ways to explore the role of the non-human in everyday family practices, including those involving love. Surveillance/personal tracking monitors, virtual assistants and other devices of technology prevalent in the home, are influencing practices of love and care in the family. The need to account for more-than-human ways of living and loving in the way we approach social life is pressing.

Emma Waight is a Social and Cultural Geographer and Course Director for MA Design Management at Coventry University, UK. Her research interests focus on the cultural economy, consumption, and parenting. She tweets at @Emswaight

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