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.’

How Will Surrogates Struggle? (at The Occupied Times)

Earlier this year The Occupied Times (which is consistently excellent) published a second – different – piece I wrote on gestational workplaces. Flagging this here so you can check it out. 

How Will Surrogates Struggle? (Sophie Lewis)

Excerpt:

The stark and ugly two-tier geography of surrogacy—boutique and mass, transparent and opaque, North and South, voluntaristic and desperate—can be mystified through the telling of new age spiritual stories, and the blogging of miracles, that pretend there is no difference. Infertility having become subject to wholesale pathologisation, a surrogate’s final pay-day (parturition) inevitably becomes the happiest day of a long-thwarted would-be procreator’s life. Women helping women: it’s beautiful – that’s the way the optimistic contingent of the pro-natalist liberal-feminist establishment would like to frame it. Curiously, there are few voices to be found from the garment factory slums of, for example, Bangalore – where surrogates are recruited – that chime with the breathless descriptions of unforgettable journeys, bonds, unlikely comings-together, and incredible reciprocal transformations, which the industry (and Oprah) likes to platform. As is doubtless palpable to those workers, in many ways the outsourcing of gestation is typical of post-Fordist labour trends. A growing suite of reproductive and intimate domestic ‘goods’ now enter the international market in services, marked by precarisation and casualisation and characterised notably by a rearrangement of risk (typical surrogacy contracts read like litanies of risk disclaimers). Indeed, to zoom in on this small subsection of twenty-first century work is not to argue that it is qualitatively unique.

Rather, the challenge for surrogates, the value of whose labour is literally embedded in their bodies as living things, is to generalise their struggle. The experience of bodily unity with a child destined for an ‘other’ family seems like a very good place from which to instigate a politics of reproductive freedom. It springs from the same subversive mediational subject-position occupied throughout history by wet nurses, governesses, ayahs, sex-workers and nannies. Surrogate struggle by no means demands a technophobic attitude against assisted reproductive technologies, which should surely rather be reimagined – made to realise collective needs and desires. Actually, those who work as surrogates are the technology profitably controlled by others; they embody not only the form-giving fire but the partially conscious primary components. And the woman who stood up to her boss, with whom this article began, points the way to a revolution that begins simply with naming the labour of surrogacy as labour; naming the not-fully-conscious, not-fully-human, body, in which the commissioned baby resides, as synonymous with the labourer herself. We might imagine this struggle as one aiming to overthrow all conditions of life that stratify and impede the flourishing and re-growing of already-existing humans. Starting, certainly, with global markets in reproductive tourism as they currently exist, intensifying patterns of neocolonial inequality. But doubtless also including the nuclear family, based, as it is, on genetic heredity, inheritance, and oppressive divisions of work that prop up the tangled relations of nation, gender and race. Surrogacy, in short, has the potential to make palpable to us how co-produced, worldly and interdependent our bodies are. In the years to come, a form of radical cyborg militancy is to be expected in the gestational workplaces of the world.