Letters / one unpublished letter

I’m not really surprised that the LRB has had quite enough of the exchange – in its Letters section – on the subject of ‘Cyborgs for Earthly Survival!‘ My letter in response to Jenny Turner, Emily Witt and Donna Haraway wasn’t published in the latest issue. So, I’m posting it here (scroll down to the end).

I’m also reproducing the sequence of letters in chronological order.

First, In response to Jenny Turner’s essay ‘Life With Ms Cayenne Pepper’, Donna Haraway wrote:

I read Jenny Turner’s beautifully written review of my work as if on a rollercoaster, agreeing and disagreeing and wishing she had read more closely some things I’ve written that I care about most (LRB, 1 June). It isn’t the case that I indulged in an ‘ecosexual in-joke’ by naming Camille’s town Gauley Mountain; I had in mind Beth Stephens’s film Goodbye to Gauley Mountain, about her return to her hometown to fight against mountain-top-removal coal mining. And despite my explicit argument in Staying with the Trouble, Turner refuses to hear ‘chthonic’ (‘in and of the earth’) in Chthulucene, but instead the patriarchal monster Cthulhu in H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, which I haven’t read. Justly paying for an unconscious aural pun, I wish I had used the term Chthonocene.

But the most important issue raised by Turner’s review is what I call ‘the burden of human numbers’. My taking the numbers seriously seems to warrant the charge of ‘anti-human creep’ and, in Sophie Lewis’s words, quoted by Turner, ‘trafficking irresponsibly in racist narratives’. These are strong charges, and should at least be based on passages in my book rather than on another writer’s views. Even to mention the burden of human numbers (six billion more people on earth during my own lifetime – one rich white woman’s lifetime – and the optimistic demographers’ projection of well over 11 billion human beings by 2100, even if birthrates remain low) is, in ‘progressive’ intellectual circles, to be accused of being foolish, a racist and more. No matter that Staying with the Trouble makes clear the ongoing trouble of neo-Malthusianism, racism, coercive population control programmes, ongoing colonial capitalism, hyper and unequal consumption, genocide, the primary responsibility of rich nations and certain sectors of the population for extraction and consumption, the scandal of border violence and anti-immigration policies and ideologies, the depressing pro-natalist nationalism in countries that perceive themselves to be in the grip of a ‘low fertility crisis’, misogyny, the failure to introduce just and widespread adoption practices, and many more instances of unequally distributed pain and injustice.

I think that is part of the problem ‘we’ face. The subject is forbidden, no matter how carefully it is framed; it has been ceded to the right and to population professionals. To insist that seriously facing the burden of human numbers is not racist; but shutting up out of terror of the issue might well be. Fear of getting things badly wrong certainly doesn’t serve reproductive justice, even in human-exceptionalist terms, much less in terms of multi-species reproductive justice. Failing to think together anew is a scandal, a collective failure of courage. Population is the third rail of left political discourse. Too many of my people think that citing excellent critiques of neo-Malthusianism is all that is required. This is a touching sort of idealism, as if critique made the problem vanish. Instead we must find new ways to think and act with each other, in pursuit of multi-species (including human) environmental justice.

I take heart from the knowledge that every time I engage with those who call my arguments racist a real conversation results, in which no one has the answers, but everyone joins in love and rage to work together. Jenny Turner, Sophie Lewis and I are currently in just such a conversation on email. The slogan ‘Make Kin Not Babies’ derives from a panel that Adele Clarke and I organised at the meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science in Denver in 2015, to be followed by a short book now in progress, with Kim TallBear, Michelle Murphy, Alondra Nelson, Chia-ling Wu and Yu-ling Huang, her former student. We are not all in agreement, but we are, in Angela Davis’s idiom, in generative conflict and collaboration in overlapping but non-identical idioms and histories.

Sisterhood (intersectional and of all genders) is powerful! Cyborgs for Earthly Survival!

Donna Haraway
University of California, Santa Cruz

Emily Witt then wrote:

Jenny Turner, citing Sophie Lewis, says she didn’t know about the racist overtones of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos and is ‘shocked’ to learn that Donna Haraway would refer to Lovecraft at all in her idea of the Chthulucene (LRB, 1 June). The implication that Haraway is ‘trafficking irresponsibly in racist narratives’ mistakes Haraway’s intention and ignores the fact that in her essay she explicitly distances herself from the Cthulhu myth in describing her idea of the Chthulucene (note the spelling difference). She writes: ‘These real and possible timespaces are not named after SF writer H.P. Lovecraft’s misogynist racial-nightmare monster Cthulhu … but rather after the diverse earth-wide tentacular powers and forces and collected things with names like Naga, Gaia, Tangaroa (burst from water-full Papa), Terra, Haniyasu-hime, Spider Woman, Pachamama, Oya, Gorgo, Raven, A’akuluujjusi, and many many more.’

Haraway draws heavily on speculative fiction in her work. In ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ she questioned the machine nature of the cyborg, and instead applied the cyborgian ideal to the realm of human behaviour in an implicit critique of the machine bias of so much futurism. The Chthulucene similarly repurposes Lovecraft’s idea of cosmic horror to allow for ‘a vein of SF that Lovecraft could not have imagined or embraced – namely, the webs of speculative fabulation, speculative feminism, science fiction and scientific fact’.

Haraway isn’t alone in referring to Lovecraft as a way of renegotiating his influence. Recent science fiction has produced many subversions of Lovecraft, as writers, particularly writers of colour, grapple with the racist and colonial legacies of the genre. Examples include Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, John Langan’s The Fisherman, Kij Johnson’s The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe and Paul LaFarge’s The Night Ocean.

I was perplexed too by Turner’s description of Haraway’s fictional reference to Annie Sprinkle as a ‘smug ecosexual in-joke’ rather than a knowing homage to one of the great sexual experimentalists of our age. The legacy of mass population control is racist and sexist, but it is helpful, in the light of falling birthrates in so many countries, to have theories of family and reproduction that account for childlessness as a mass reality or even as a form of protest.

Emily Witt
New York

 

And I composed the following for consideration – now, sadly, destined to be exclusive to my blog!

Emily Witt implicitly dismisses the entirety of my analysis – quoted by Jenny Turner (LRB 1 June) – of the populationism in Donna Haraway’s recent book. Witt clearly feels that, in Haraway’s words, “an explicit argument in Staying With the Trouble” was missed: one that sharply distinguishes the “Chthulucene”concept from the imaginary realm undergirding Lovecraft’s “patriarchal monster” (or, as the book put it: “misogynist racial nightmare” – emphasis mine). Explicit or implicit, I contend that this argument – like the argument explaining how depopulating human cities could potentially not be racist – simply isn’t there. Witt patiently repeats Haraway’s many enjoinders to “note the spelling difference”, but beyond the orthographic tweak, my point is that the détournement of cthulhu for chthulhu hasn’t been substantively effected at the level of ideas.

Witt notes, persuasively, that science fiction writers, particularly writers of colour, have grappled with the racist and colonial legacies of the genre to which Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos belongs. But my point is not (nor did I understand Turner’s to be) that Haraway must not touch Cthulhu; or that deploying Cthulhu is in itself necessarily racist. On the contrary: the author’s odd, oscillating avowal/disavowal of Cthulhu (“Cthulhu plays no role for me”) is what caught my notice and prompted concern given its tie to a call for population reduction from 11 billion to 2 billion. Our contention over “the burden of human numbers”, the matter declared core by Haraway yet symptomatically hidden in her footnotes, goes unmentioned by Witt.

Since being challenged, Haraway once described the book’s title framework has an “unconscious aural pun” (emphasis mine). But a 2013 interview Haraway gave with Martha Kenney features a fascinating discussion of “the Lovecraft story”, which could be generatively put into conversation (as Witt implies) with afropessimist and decolonial scholarship on kinship, survival, and reproductive justice in the wake of actually existing genocides. Far more than whether Lovecraft plays a role; the point is, clearly, what role. Haraway is the one to have taught us that semiosis, like biology, is never innocent; that – borrowing from Marilyn Strathern – “it matters which stories tell stories, which concepts think concepts”. Haraway herself, meanwhile, now wishes she had instead have opted for “Chthonocene”.

In her reply to Turner and me (Letters 29 June), Haraway gracefully embodies the “response-ability” she has so powerfully theorised, expressing her frustration and even anger at “those who call [her] arguments racist” without however pushing us away. There are not many people on earth who could or would do that. In concert with Witt’s praise for childless as a form of protest, and in testament to my debt to the revolutionary power of Harawavian praxis, I am wearing a pin right now (a DIY labour of love by Alyssa Battistoni – author of an ennobling essay on Haraway’s oeuvre in n+1). It reads “Cyborgs for Earthly Survival”.

Yet I’d suggest that resistance to ‘Make Kin Not Babies’ might not be a case of “refusing to hear chthonic (in and of the earth) in Chthulucene” as Haraway suggests (Letters 29 June), but rather, of not being reassured in the first place by the adoption of ‘chthonos’ in whatever capacity – given the eco-nationalist land-and-blood commitments of other (extremely un-Harawavian, let me hasten to add) resurgent enthusiasts of autochthony – for example, Paul Kingsnorth’s recent reassertion of a populationist anti-globalisation in The Guardian. The “strong charges” against the book are supposed to be evidence of one of its core claims: that the mere “mention” of human population in “‘progressive’ intellectual circles” is verboten. I would not be so optimistic. I see overt eugenic, misanthropic and mob-fearing currents everywhere in establishment environmentalism and conservationism. So, I, too, stand my ground, at least for now. “Citing excellent critiques of neoMalthusianism” is, in fact, all that is required “to make the problem vanish” if you have not been persuaded that “human numbers” are a problem in the first place.

Sophie / lasophus / Saffu / lasophielle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.’

Klein vs Klein

I’ve recently joined the Out of the Woods writing collective so I’m flagging our review of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. We called it “Klein vs. Klein” and published it at the excellent The New Inquiry (@thenewinquiry) and re-posted it on OOTW’s home Libcom, where you should also check out the @out_woods offerings for @occupiedtimes on disaster communism and other eco-revolutionary themes.

>>>here<<<

A taster of what we had to say:

Cyborg Earth is not a foregone concession to evil technoscience but a site of struggles over the “commons” just like any other. A cyborg everything-ism reorients us towards practices that repurpose existing technologies and organisations of nature through bricolage—the art of making do with what is at hand. The minor Klein hints at a more hybrid, anti-austerity sensibility of this kind, that does not recoil from these “monstrous” entanglements of human, nonhuman, and technological natures. This Klein is doubtful about her desire for pregnancy and implies that if ecological crisis changes everything, surely it changes the institution of the family too. Disappointingly, the priority of incorporating a non-reproductive politics into the “regenerative” struggles of anticapitalism vanishes at the very moment in the narrative when Klein, at last, conceives a viable baby.


Out of the Woods's picture Out of the Woods

A collaborative blog investigating capitalism and climate change.

Behind this blog is a loose collective. We don’t have any agreed positions or perspectives, beyond thinking that climate change is a vital area of investigation. Some of us are scientifically trained, but none of us are experts in climate science or environmental policy. We are learning as we go.

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