Book Review: Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble

Donna Haraway's Staying with the Trouble

by Julie Poitras Santos

 

“Think we must! We must think!”
— Stengers and Despret, Women Who Make a Fuss1

 

It has never been clearer than now that we must “stay with the trouble” and actively seek possibilities for recuperation even as we are anxiously learning the great depths of the trouble we face. This is a book concerned with exactly that, with teasing out effective methodologies for moving forward in contemporary times through invention, collaboration, exploration, play, and a willingness to take on the risky business of “follow[ing] the threads where they lead.”2

Donna Haraway, radical thinker of A Cyborg Manifesto fame3, envisions the Anthropocene — along with its aptly named partners the Capitalocene4 and the Plantationocene5 — as a (brief) geologic boundary event, and encourages us to think of a bigger name encompassing all “the dynamic ongoing sym-chthonic forces and powers of which people are a part, within which ongoingness is at stake”.6 She terms this era the Chthulucene. Having nothing to do with Lovecraft’s “misogynist racial, nightmare monster” Chtulu, this Chthulucene (note spelling) is an era of multi-species worlding and “sym-poietic” thinking and making together. Anthropologist, multispecies feminist theorist, environmentalist, and distinguished professor emerita in the History of Consciousness department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Haraway proffers the action of reaching out and “making kin” as a way to establish new lines of “response-ability” between living beings. She draws actively on new thinking in the sciences and arts to present possible methodologies for inhabiting our world at present.

Already, you’ll see I’ve run through a handful of knotty neologisms; Haraway delights in language, bumping colloquialisms against high theory, breeding slang with scientific taxonomy — part of the pleasure of reading this text is her “bumptious” linguistic methodology: experimental, creative, rich, chewy, and rhythmically vital — thinking new worlds demands thinking new language. If you’re like me, you’ll want to follow and participate in these new inventions as you enter and occupy this terran text. Using the tools of what she terms “SF” — speculative fabulation, speculative feminism, science fiction, science fact, string figures, so far — Haraway imagines and invents new ways of “living and dying” in our multispecies world. Messy and imperfect, and actively generative, this co-fashioning methodology invites new perspectives on the depths of our connections to each other, our notions of independence, and the inseparable threads we must follow and affirm in perilous times.

Haraway delights in language, bumping colloquialisms against high theory, breeding slang with scientific taxonomy — part of the pleasure of reading this text is her “bumptious” linguistic methodology: experimental, creative, rich, chewy and rhythmically vital — thinking new worlds demands thinking new language.

For we are utterly and hopelessly entangled in this story. The first chapter looks at multispecies storytelling through the lens of string figures as metaphor and engaged games of giving and receiving, and at practices of recuperation via the possibilities of making something together (“sympoiesis”). String figures — the games of making patterns with loops of string between players — enact a rich history of storytelling through physical thinking enacted between two people. Haraway recognizes the complexities of this tool and the possibilities of failure — of dropping a thread, of getting caught in a story that doesn’t function — in the “risky comaking” practices of SF. Deeply challenging our ideas of individuality, the Chthulucene demands we engage sympoiesis, making together, rather than autopoiesis, self-making. Throughout the book, she investigates the work of interdisciplinary artists and scientists who are inventing new ways of working together and with other species, and who are developing new sensitivities and means to fostering collective response-ability.

For example, Haraway introduces her reader to PigeonBlog, the work of artist Beatriz da Costa, her students, and the racing pigeons that flew as part of a Seminar in Experimental Critical Theory at the University of California Irvine and in electronic arts festivals in San Jose, California. Homing pigeons, with their fanciers, artists, and engineers, were engaged to “collect and distribute information about air quality conditions to the general public.”7 Through the informed, careful, and pigeon-loving practices of their fanciers and interested others, a small data collection backpack was created for the pigeons that allowed the gathering of data in order to generate “further imaginative and knowing action” in multiple disciplines and beings. Da Costa “took seriously questions about the cosmopolitics and material-semiotics of collaboration for animals in art, politics, or science. Who renders whom capable of what, and at what price, borne by whom? But she asked ‘Is human-animal work as part of political [and art] action less legitimate than the same type of activity when framed under the umbrella of science?'”8 The project made visible the limited government collection data that focused its attention away from known pollution sources and thus pollution levels, often in working-class communities, near to the ground at the level where humans and other species live and breath.

In a later chapter, Haraway investigates the utter entanglement and disturbing truths regarding both the need of and the production methods for DES and Premarin: hormones for the changing female animal body, human and other “critters”. DES, now a known poisonous synthesized cancer-producing hormone marked unsafe for humankind is prescribed for her aging companion dog. And Premarin, a hormone she once took, is produced by the labor of countless pregnant mares (don’t ask what happens to the foals) via the “animal-industrial complex” and currently relied on by many menopausal women to ease the difficult passage through declining levels of estrogen. In each case, Haraway’s investigation navigates the webbed network of relationships between humans and other “critters” and refuses to turn away from the troubling implications, positive opportunities, and seeming infinite intersections infecting multiple beings. This lack of innocence might inspire new means to multispecies recuperation, she says. “Call that utopia; call that inhabiting the despised places; call that touch; call that the rapidly mutating virus of hope; or call that the less rapidly changing commitment to staying with the trouble.”9

In the times of “The Dithering,”10 this is a call to arms: the many tentacular arms of the octopus and spider, the chthonic sea creatures, and the webbed, interconnecting rhizomic roots of mycelium. The Chthonic beings of the Chthulucene are beings of the Earth whose living and dying are all very much “at stake” together. “Coral and lichen symbionts11 also bring us richly into the storied tissues of the thickly present Chthulucene, where it remains possible — just barely — to play a much better SF game, in nonarrogant collaboration with all those in the muddle,”12 she notes. This collaboration demands we join forces and make kin in order to rejuvenate refuges that allow species continuance and possible flourishing. Haraway draws on the “science art worldings” of new Inupiat story making practices, Navajo weaving at Black Mesa, Arizona, and the Crochet Coral Reef project coordinated by the Institute for Figuring, among others, to seek new models for staying with the trouble and recuperating spaces of refuge. Her call to “Make kin, not babies!” is a call to extend the web of connections beyond those ties of ancestry or genealogy in order to invoke and practice a deep responsibility to many others; she reminds us, “all earthlings are kin in the deepest sense.”13

Haraway’s investigation navigates the webbed network of relationships between humans and other “critters” and refuses to turn away from the troubling implications, positive opportunities, and seeming infinite intersections infecting multiple beings.

“What happens when human exceptionalism and the utilitarian individualism of classical political economics become unthinkable in the best sciences across the disciplines and interdisciplines? Seriously unthinkable: not available to think with.”14 Throughout the book, Haraway urges us to think. Referring to the work of social anthropologist Marilyn Strathern she notes, “it matters what ideas we use to think other ideas with.”15 We need new ideas and new ways of thinking, new kinds of stories to think with, because the old ones are failing us as is evidenced not only by the inequities and mania of our resource extracting current economies, the Great Acceleration, and radically increasing human population numbers16, but also made visible within the day-to-day laboratory models of contemporary scientific practices that no longer sufficiently address contemporary conditions. Haraway affirms that speculative fabulation, speculative feminism, and science fiction help us think anew.

The final section of Staying With the Trouble entails a work of feminist speculative fiction, created together with filmmaker Fabrizio Terranova and science philosopher Vinciane Despret, concerning a human-butterfly symbiont. The task entertained by the text is to think ahead five generations, something you immediately sense the gravity of as our predicted event horizons for ice-cap melting, sea-level rise, and species extinctions continue to shrink. In this work, SF inventions are woven into the fabric of a story that imagines our reality based from within current knowledge and experience, culling potential from our current stories to create new ones in stark contrast to the excesses of neo-colonial resource extraction methodologies on a shrinking planet. Cobbled together, and eschewing notions of easy futurist saviors or various head-in-the-sand technofixes — “we cannot denounce the world in the name of an ideal world”17 — Haraway’s inventions take a functional, sited, materialist viewpoint on future possibilities based on working intently with the present moment.

We need new ideas and new ways of thinking, new kinds of stories to think with, because the old ones are failing us.

This is a book that focuses on processes, on possibilities, and on methodology as a commitment to “ongoingness”. It also focuses on situated imaginative revisions to working within the present: staying with the trouble. Outcomes are unknowable; the story is not yet written. This is praxis: engaged “tentacular” thinking; working together with an understanding that it is all unwritten. Embracing our collective conditional futures — our multi-species futures — and thinking together towards something that seeks possibilities for recuperation and rejuvenation, a process of living and dying together in a deeply stressed system evidencing massive extinction events and cascading systemic environmental break downs — is of utmost urgency. This is a text that embraces presence and alert attention to this moment — sticking it out in the here and now to trouble the waters of entrenched capitalist models that collectively contribute to ongoing destruction of the very systems that sustain us in all their rich and challenging complexity.

Inspiring, to say the least. And we are in deep need of it.

 

 


Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, by Donna J Haraway. Duke University Press, 2016, 296 pages, paper, $26.95, ISBN# 978-0-8223-6224-1

  1.  Used throughout the book, via Isabelle Stengers and Vinciane Despret (Women Who Make a Fuss), via Virginia Woolf (Three Guineas) and through Maria Puig de la Bellasca, (“Politiques féministes et construction des savories)
  2.  Staying With the Trouble, pg 3
  3.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Cyborg_Manifesto
  4.  Some feel it is more apt to call our era the Capitalocene rather than the Anthropocene, calling into attention an “historical era shaped by relations privileging the endless accumulation of capital.” (John Merrick, http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2360-jason-w-moore-anthropocene-or-capitalocene)
  5.  A term for the “devastating transformation of diverse kinds of human-tended farms, pastures, and forests into extractive and enclosed plantations, relying on slave labor and other forms of exploited, alienated, and usually spatially transported labor.” Scott Gilbert, https://studylib.net/doc/13485101/anthropocene–capitalocene–plantationocene–chthulucene-…
  6.  Staying With the Trouble, pg 101
  7.  Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble; Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016), 21.
  8.  Haraway, Trouble, 23.
  9.  Haraway, Trouble, 114.
  10.  Haraway, Trouble, 102. A term introduced by Kim Stanley Robinson in his book, 2312 in 2012.
  11.  symbiotic interpenetrating ecological assemblages
  12.  Haraway, Trouble, 56.
  13.  Haraway, Trouble, 103.
  14.  Haraway, Trouble, 57.
  15.  Haraway, Trouble, 12.
  16.  Human population (currently 7.3 billion) predicted to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, and 11.2 billion by 2100 by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs in 2015. http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/2015-report.html
  17.  Haraway, Trouble, 12.

Julie Poitras Santos

Julie Poitras Santos

Julie Poitras Santos is a visual artist based in Portland, Maine. Also a poet, her research interests involve areas where art and language intersect. She works as a professor in the MFA program at Maine College of Art.

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