Letters / one unpublished letter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