Even more Haraway activity

The New York-based communist collective Red Bloom invited me to speak today as part of its Marxist-Feminism reading group and discussion series hosted in the pebbled garden at the wonderful bookshop Unnameable Books. It was lovely that there were bright green leaves fluttering immediately on hand when we got to the bit about “how like a leaf” the cyborg is. The event went so well, and it was standing room only. The discussion – in small groups – taught me a great deal about the uses of irony and the shifting valence of ‘science’. It was really great. I am thrilled that so many people are enlivened by cyborgicity right now and are doing critical bricolage with its conceptual arsenal. I am including my introductory remarks here.

[I then went on to read the first 2,000 words or so of my essay ‘Cthulhu Plays No Role For Me’.]

 

What I’m going to do in a minute is basically go through the beginning of my article about Donna Haraway in Viewpoint magazine. It is quite a euphoric take on this text, as you will see. That is partly because what I am doing in that article, in the second half, is uncomfortably like sticking the knife in my former hero. I am arguing there that Haraway has now abandoned the political soul of cyborgs and that, in her latest stuff, which I don’t like, she has abandoned the revolutionary perspective on becoming-human that we are all reading here today thanks to Red Bloom and Unnameable Books. The basic beef I have with her is that her 2017 call against making babies, she has (as I put it) “gone over to the goddesses” and lapsed into precisely the kind of ecofeminism she opposed decades before – the kind of ecofeminism that is predicated on an invisible whiteness and which lapses all too easily into misanthropy.

But that’s another story and it isn’t what we are necessarily gathered here today to discuss, though it is almost definitely worth scrutinizing this text also, for tacit tendencies towards the same. For my part, I read A Cyborg Manifesto as an antiracist text and am happy to remain a defender of it, as is probably obvious. To me it is elusive and wonderful and confusing and unsatisfying and exciting precisely because it is so many things. But certainly it is a refutation of white feminist and also Marxist-humanist figurations of the human. In this sense I think it is fundamentally in sympathy with the work of Haraway’s contemporary Sylvia Wynter. In fact I would suggest that Red Bloom might read some Sylvia Wynter next. For Haraway, as for Wynter in a different register, examining the social relations of science and technology in historic perspective necessarily makes a mockery of the universal ‘human’ so beloved of psychoanalytic feminists and Marxists alike. For them more so even than for liberalism it functions as a transhistoric value of bounded purity premised on original unity with “nature”. For Haraway, in contrast, the only real constant is the combined and uneven violence that constitutes human animals as chimeras. At the same time, paradoxically, she is delivering a universalist humanist message: Do you read and write? That’s a banal miracle of techno-organic virtuality. Eat cooked food? Your flesh is cyborg. As Haraway later said: “I never wanted to be a posthumanist.”

Given the aims of Red Bloom, I imagine that what we are aiming to do today is ask ourselves what the early Harawayian sensibility can do for us politically in the here and now and tomorrow. I hope it goes without saying that I am open to being challenged on the radicality of the Manifesto and greedy for conversation on it. I have been flatteringly billed as a ‘Haraway scholar’ on the event but, in true Harawavian spirit, I suppose, I am not totalizingly certain about being this. I am partial in both senses of the word; passionate, but not finally sure. I suggest we ask ourselves: what inspiration does this document contain – if any – for our consciousness building and our organizing – for coalitional praxis, affinity, unity, strategy? What in it remains apt – especially given the continued and resurgent popularity of technophobic humanisms and ‘goddess’ feminisms? And which bits – for instance its optimism about poststructuralist textual strategies, or its dig at bisexuality as just another ‘seduction to organic wholeness’ – are downright wrong?

First up, I want to bring to your attention the fact that it is A cyborg manifesto, A Manifesto for cyborgs – not the cyborg manifesto, as it is almost always called. This implies from the get-go that there can and must be others. Other manifestos for today’s cyborgs. Because, if we look around today, we can see that the notion of cyborgicity still has a hold on the imagination of radicals – in particular, as far as I can see, for revolutionary transfeminism and antiracism. Trans people, decolonial feminists and antiracists surviving under white supremacy have, to differing degrees, taken on the account of embodied subjectivity given here in the Manifesto – taking it to heart to greater and lesser extents and doing bricolage with it towards their own ends. Many of you will know that The Transgender Studies Reader and other canonizations of trans history tend to include the manifesto as a crucial articulation of the unnaturalness and monstrousness of gendered existence and postgender becoming. The philosopher Joy James reads Haraway side by side with Fanon “in search of a Black Cyborg”. The theorist of black technopoetics, Louis Chude Sokei, suggests that Haraway was articulating creolization: a concept of the self that actually comes from previous Caribbean, Latin American and specifically slave traditions. Haraway herself pretty much inarguably underemphasizes the racial character of the cyborg, although as you will have noticed she does insist it is there. Chude Sokei is actually quite sympathetic to Haraway while noting that she has provided, in essence, “a theoretical abstraction of African-American slave subjectivity” through the lens of gender and technology. The animal and the machine were after all, as his book The Sound of Culture demonstrates, alternative names for the enslaved black sub-human. And on this note, an artist called Jade has just recently done a find+replace job on the whole text in which the word ‘cyborg’ is switched with the phrase ‘black slave’. I encourage you to look up that experimental document– it’s on google docs under the title ‘From the Cyborg to the Black Slave’ – and to consider (even right now, in your head) which aspects of the theorization of cyborgicity you’ve just read are likely to illuminate and be illuminated in turn by being cast in terms of enslaved blackness, and which aren’t. And so without further ado, here is how I introduced, glossed and historicized A Manifesto for Cyborgs in an essay last month…

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Chthulucene discussion continues in emails and in the LRB

My essay on the dangers of populationism in Donna Haraway’s latest work has touched a nerve. I’ve never had anything go viral like this. Some people (like Annie Koh) find generative things to say about the critique even if they felt like they had “read a different book” from me.

Haraway herself wrote to the authors of her forthcoming edited collection Make Kin Not Babies that:

Lewis’s essay—wonderful writing, smart analysis, an argument worth having, an argument necessary to have. Of course, I am over the moon with her amazing elucidation of the cyborg manifesto and under the weather for her complete repudiation of SwT. If she didn’t write and think so well, I would care less!  I do care.

 

Which is, needless to say, the most dizzying thing that has ever happened to me from an intellectual point of view.

Haraway is also angry and says she thinks my critique of her Chthulucene is ‘profoundly wrong’.

I insist that ‘make kin not babies’ is a position for anti-racist reproductive justice, including pro-child multispecies reproductive justice, and is NOT a re-enlivening of misanthropy and racism.

 

But, because she is none other than the incredible Donna Haraway, she does not just talk the talk of her own ‘staying with the trouble’ ethics, she walks the walk:

In conflict and collaboration, I am seriously grateful to Sophie Lewis for this essay, both the parts I love and the parts I hate.

 

I, too, am seriously grateful.

Meanwhile, Jenny Turner, writing in the London Review of Books, concludes her essay with very complimentary engagement with my Viewpoint essay:

 

‘I wrote this weeping (!)’ the human geographer Sophie Lewis tweeted by way of introducing the long, ferociously disappointed critique she recently published online with Viewpoint Magazine. Haraway, Lewis explains, was once her hero – ‘a trained biologist who analysed the swarming web of earthly life … and pursued a revolutionary’s desire for liberation in the same breath’; who ‘cared deeply’, in ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ in particular, ‘about human people in all their proliferating ingloriousness and … wanted post-gender communism for us’. But the essays collected in this latest book, as Lewis sees it, make ‘a decisive turn towards a primitivism-tinged, misanthropic populationism’, ‘apolitical’, ‘ethnocentric’ and dismayingly careless (‘In short, Haraway is trafficking irresponsibly in racist narratives’).

On the one hand, Lewis is lamenting Haraway’s drift, as she sees it, from ‘cyborgicity’ – fusile, human, fierce, dynamic – to a vague, hippy-dippy ‘multi-species feminism’. On the other, there’s the indisputable harshness of the maths. Haraway, Lewis writes, wistfully projects a future in which human numbers will have dropped from eleven to two or three billion over a couple of centuries: ‘One would be justified in expecting to get some elaboration on how the removal of eight billion heads … could be non-coercive – indeed, non-genocidal.’ Some discussion, for example, of ‘border-policing and population discourse’, some acknowledgment, perhaps, of ‘the class struggle already underway’ among ‘abortion activists, single mothers and commercial gestational surrogates’. Haraway, it should be said, does indeed mention ‘racial purity fantasies’ and that ‘fear of immigrants is a big problem’; but only in passing, taking such things as read. Lewis doesn’t think this is good enough, or enough to counter the overall anti-human creep.

Lewis also picks up on references I missed. On the Chthulu/Cthulhu wordplay, for example: ‘A cursory scan of scholarship on Lovecraftian literature suggests a stable consensus that the Cthulhu Mythos was (and remains) the vehicle of genocidal fever-dream and obsessive racism,’ meaning that Haraway’s use of the word is ‘a joke that misses badly; a lapse in judgment that is also slightly shocking’. I didn’t know about Cthulhu, but now I do, I’m shocked too. I also didn’t know that Gauley Mountain in West Virginia, the setting for Haraway’s ‘Children of Compost’ story, is in real life the place where the performance artists and queer-sex educators Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stevenson have settled, making them ‘presumably the template “compostists” in question’. So the Camille stories started life as a smug ecosexual in-joke. Oh dear.

In her book, however, Haraway expressed hopes for the Children of Compost project that would reach far beyond such dull beginnings. ‘Every Camille story that I write will make terrible political and ecological mistakes,’ she announced, ‘and every story asks readers to practise generous suspicion by joining in the fray.’ At the time of writing, she seemed to be envisaging a future for the project as ‘a collective digital world for story posting and gaming … designs, images, animations … histories and critiques’. So far, Haraway has confirmed, this is ‘a plan and not a reality’. If it ever does go up, I hope to see Sophie Lewis’s piece in pride of place on it, with an open Comments thread.

Because there’s another way of looking at the Children of Compost project, and the Staying with the Trouble book in general. Is it not perhaps that Haraway is a lot older now than she used to be, and withdrawing somewhat from the clamour of humans, so much more draining to deal with, as one gets older, than animals and plants? And if so, isn’t that just part of a fairly common life-pattern among ‘human people in all their proliferating ingloriousness’, and as such, just another dimension of human desiring behaviour for humanists to embrace?

It seems to me that Haraway is probably as aware as a writer can be that what she has to offer at the moment is nowhere near enough to engage with all the ‘trouble’ that needs to be engaged with. All she can do, she seems to be saying, is to stay with it a while, worrying at the very edges of her capacity, and then pass it on. ‘We need each other’s risk-taking support, in conflict and collaboration, big time,’ is how she ends that infamous two-page endnote. ‘The answer to the trust of the held-out hand’, as she also puts it. ‘Think we must.’

Cash and Carry: the surrogacy industry shows how difficult it will be to make new reproductive technologies benefit all.

I published a thing. It’s increasingly clear commercial gestational surrogacy is my ‘beat’ at the moment. So, if you will, please go to Jacobin Magazine and >>read my article<<

It’s called “Cash & Carry“, which I didn’t come up with personally but which I like, because it’s funny and more than mildly crass, in relation to gestational labour (but that crassness is kind o the point). In this article, I survey Assisted Reproductive Technology and surrogacy in particular, somewhat historically, in order to talk about how we could be imagining a communist repro-techno-utopia and embracing unnaturalness, to that end. Here’s an excerpt:

A vast number of women gestate babies for free; those few women whose pregnancies are waged, much like paid caregivers and sex workers, occupy a position that speaks to millions of potential allies. Though many Marxists didn’t think of it, being in labor is labor. Mounting a “wages against pregnancy” campaign could thus refuse the difference between surrogate and normal pregnancies as a jumping-off point for questioning and denaturalizing the prevalent mode of social reproduction more broadly.

What else might this politics look like? The only documented case of the collective bargaining power of surrogates being put to the test is one where a worker was denied leave to visit her dying father, on which she and others threatened to “drop” — willfully miscarry — their babies.

Grim and unpalatable as it may be, most of all for them, this kind of leverage is essentially what the striking workforces of embodied labor have at their disposal. As workers in the field of reproductive vitality, mothers on strike can only really bargain with their ability to extinguish life — a prerogative we must support, as with struggles over abortion access.

At the same time, struggles for reproductive justice from below are incomplete if they fail to speak to the other side of the relation: to the thwarted desire to be a parent. In particular, advancing queer and trans people’s access to the pro-family medical and legal benefits and services of the (admittedly dwindling) welfare state is vital to re-envisioning reproduction. But striving beyond the state for our reproductive justice also entails the freedom to not reproduce at all, and raises all-too-often buried questions: not just “how to reproduce,” but “why”?

As Nina Power puts the problem: “What would it mean to refuse to perpetuate the ongoing processes that constitute and maintain capitalism while refusing to give up on care and other human relations that sustain us? Is it possible to separate the two adequately or at all?”