Kevin Ming, PhD.  Photo Credit: Hu Jian Hong, of her daughter and interlocutors

Let’s think with my four (at least) interlocutors here, small human, cat, insect (?), and the photographer. Each is in different ways responsive to other(s) even as they may also be unaware of others bound in relations of attention (and intention). The cat to the invisible subject (IS), the little human to the cat and the IS, the observer-mother photographer, another IS actually, or rather a camera wielded by a subject who is attentive to the attentiveness of the others, and who may herself be being attended to by unseen others, indeed who is being attended to here by me, and now you, as an absence in this still image of what we can assume was, in the event, all motion and the thick presence of life.

I want to attend to attention rather than intention, though there are intentions here as well. At least there is the intention of the cat towards its possibly potential prey and the intention of the mother to capture a moment of others’ attention to others. Intention is a sort of relation. The cat is bound up in relation to the IS by intention, presumably to catch it and perhaps kill it. The cat and the IS are linked by the intention of at least one of them, and possibly by the other who, if it is aware of the intention of the cat, may intend to escape.

If the cat and the IS are bound as links in a chain of different intentions, there is surely much more here. This is not simply the “and, and, and…” of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome – the cat and the IS insect and the child and the IS mother. It is also what the anthropologist Tim Ingold calls being “with, with, with…”. Attentiveness to the other means responsiveness. This is another way of saying the other is also, in that responsiveness elicited from me, not entirely distinct from myself.

This is similar to the way Anna Tsing uses the notion of Assemblage, in which, and in time, agents (and others) are in kinds of relations of which they themselves may be either aware or unaware, and in which all sorts of intentions and attentions, livings and deaths, and more, are at stake. Tsing has modified the notion of Assemblage to partly distinguish it from the more mechanical modes it is increasingly associated with – the “and, and, and…” of rhizomatic dreaming, the “more data points” of techno-social sciences cum marketing cum “techno-salvationists” (to paraphrase Donna Haraway).

The question then is only partly about response-ability, my main concern here, but it is most certainly about the kinds of arrangements that make livabilities, by which I mean good forms of living and dying, possible. If we are caught up in attentions, we are then caught up in responses to others. This is not, I think, merely a capacity that we possess. Rather this seems to be the fundamental condition of our Being in the world. If so, response-ability is a feature of life.

Sociologist Leslie Irvine’s decades-long work explores the profound and lasting bonds that form sometimes between homeless humans and street dogs. While based partly on mutual benefit – for example dogs acting as alarms during nights sleeping on streets, humans as providers of food – her work makes clear how such bonds are in no way reducible to just that. Irvine’s recent book, My Dog Always Eats First: Homeless People and Their Animals, demonstrates how vitally important is the need for affection, companionship, and mutual respect in order to sustain life and livability.

How strange it is, and what a testament to the advancement of techno-social sciences, that we have to be reminded of this. Without others who see and care for us, and who we see and care for, independent of other supposedly more necessary things, we literally wither and die.

The Hong Kong elite critters I sometimes interact with – concerned academics, lawyers, financiers, human resource officers, psychologists, and others – often exemplify dis-emplaced rhizomatic thinking. They wonder why disadvantaged nodes in chains of relations, namely poorer people, don’t act, think, and desire like they do. What is it, they wonder, that they lack? Then, how can we give that to them? Finally, why won’t they accept it?

Poorer folks understand elite folks better than the reverse. Poorer folks are forced to study elites if only to avoid accidentally offending them or getting embarrassed by them in a public place. Elite folks blithely cut a wide and clumsy path wherever they go, wondering at times about those others who sometimes inhabit the same spaces as they on streets or in buildings or as workers in restaurants or bars. Wondering is too generous. It is more often than not an uncomfortable noticing replaced quickly with pontification, if anything at all.

Let’s put aside the blinkered thinking of our various elites, which I am suggesting is not that different from the thinking in much of the contemporary social sciences and charity industries, and instead take seriously what it means to be in the world, which is to be in place and in relation with others. If arrangements of relation and ‘being with’ are necessary for life, what does that mean for efforts to “change their lives.” Or might we want to also listen?

One way of taking this seriously is by looking at limits. Philippe Bourgois in his now-classic ethnographic work among crack dealers and others in New York’s East Harlem poignantly traces the material and symbolic forces that prevent people from “getting out,” illustrating the social and moral logics that both enable survival in that neighborhood while at the same time excluding them from participation in elite, legal, or otherwise upwardly mobile realms of life in the same city. His ethnography traces the relationship between structural forces, neighborhood level cultures, which he elsewhere calls “risk environments,” and what he seems to think of individual agency.

My own many years of ethnographic work among mainly female migrants who worked in sexual labor in Guangzhou and Hong Kong, and the last few years of work among young folks in the “out of the way” spaces of Hong Kong’s New Territories, traces similar though distinctive patterns of “soft urban apartheid,” in Bourgois’ phrasing, at the intersection of emerging regional political economies, local social and moral logics, and forms of agency that I don’t necessarily think of as individual.

I remember with haunting clarity the efforts of people like my friend Jing to “get out” of her rural roots, to pass in the city as a sophisticated urbanite, to be respected, to have dignity, and how her efforts repeatedly failed with devastating consequences. It was often in the glance that Jing felt this, what she described as the cold and dismissive way she was looked at as she moved about the streets of Guangzhou.

This is like what I heard more recently from a young man I’ll call D, who lives in Tin Shui Wai. We talked one day about why he doesn’t like to go to areas like Central or even Tsim Sha Tsui. D also talked about the way people look at him.

“People look at me coldly, like they are judging me. I felt always like people are looking at me. If I order a coffee at Starbucks, I can feel the pressure, and the person behind the counter is staring at me like I don’t belong and hurry up. I can feel the eyes behind me, like what are you doing here, get out of my way. The same on the street where if people even see you it is with cold eyes.”

D finds some areas of Hong Kong unwelcoming, even hostile. He felt, or was made to feel, out of place. This limited his movement to other parts of the city, common among the young folks I work with in the area. In a sense this “confined” him to the spaces and relations of Tin Shui Wai and other parts of the New Territories. Yet, there was more to D’s stories than just limitation and lack.

D described to me at length and on many occasions the importance of friendships, of chosen kin. His parents are separated and live far away, the mother in Shenzhen, the father he is not sure where as he moves around for work. He receives money from them and has lived on his own since he was a teenager, another common theme. In his early 20s, D describes a close-knit bond of friends dating back to primary school and for whom loyalty and mutual care is of great importance. He is critical of the folks in Central, who he sees as moral failures – greedy and lonely and who can’t really trust anyone, even their wife or husband or close friends. He sees coldness in them, an inhumanity. From his point of view, he is not confined to the New Territories, rather he is avoiding going to areas he finds hostile or unpleasant.  The bad parts of town.

While D narrates the vital importance of friendship and humane spaces, K describes her responsibilities to her mother. They share a flat in Tin Shui Wai, and both work in the restaurant industry, her mother as kitchen staff in a local restaurant and she, a young, attractive woman, as a frontline server in a relatively upscale restaurant in Yuen Long. She and her mother fight regularly, K says, and are often tired of each other in the cramped space of their small flat. She talks about how tired she is, and about long, dull hours of work. At times nowadays K will tell me how sick she is of her mother, but she takes some pride in taking care of her despite the difficulties, seeing herself as a good person and daughter. K wonders to me who else would take care of her if she didn’t, and what kind of person would abandon their own mother? I often leave conversations with K wanting to call my mother and apologize.

Like D, K also questions the desirability of what is the taken-for-granted condition of desire in Hong Kong – white-collar respectability and status. She doesn’t like what she knows of that life, its even longer long hours and cruelties, and what it means for leaving behind family members for someone like her, the moral compromises she believes it entails. K’s eyes light up though when she talks about traveling, meeting people and seeing other places, and especially tasting lots of delicious food! She is not afraid of hard work, as evidenced by her two, sometimes three jobs. She wants only to be able to earn enough to live decently and take care of her obligations…and to travel.

D and K narrate in different ways social belonging as potentially nourishing and as obligation, as chosen and not chosen response-ability. While they differ in their understanding and experiences of these, neither is particularly compelled by imaginations of bourgeois prosperity, or more specifically by the kinds of conditions and amoralities that they think achieving that would entail.

In some sense, as both have told me in different ways, they pity the folks who live and work on what we jokingly call “the dark side” of Hong Kong, even as they don’t want to have to work two or three jobs just to get by. The unlikelihood, structurally and in terms of their own moral and social lives, of moving into some sort of white-collar job, and in the absence of respectable and stable working class jobs, frees them in a way to think about other priorities and desires, other ways of imaging what a decent life might entail, while at the same time making the realisation of that decent life unlikely.

Let’s return again for a moment to our four interlocutors caught up in different kinds of attention and obliviousness, our little assemblage. While this involves in a sense life and death (at least for one), none of this involves the cold gaze that Jing and D describe. I hesitate to call this the inhuman gaze as that would make its opposite the “human”, which I do not mean at all.  I don’t think that D or K or Jing would have much complaint with the life and death-ness part. What I think they would object to is irresponse-ability.  In our assemblage we see the opposite – in the bending towards the other, we see the call of response.