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Issue 183


Donna Haraway takes on the Anthropocene

BY Robin van den Akker in Profiles | 20 OCT 16

In her book, Haraway rethinks the history of man by telling a plethora of ‘geostories’, in which, as she puts it, species ‘become-with’ (flourish and evolve together) as bundled threads in sympoetic assemblages (and not as separate entities). Crucially, these narratives should be ‘big-enough stories without determinism, teleology and plan’. It is an ingenious – and, to me, eye-opening – twist on Peter Sloterdijk’s aphorism that the grand historical and theoretical narratives of the past were not too big but, rather, too small. In fact, Haraway insists, they should have been somewhat smaller, as well as fuzzy around the edges and open-ended. In the book’s most impressive section, she relays such accounts from four environmental ‘critical zones’: the Great Barrier Reef, Madagascar, the Arctic and the Navajo and Hopi lands in Arizona. These sites demonstrate both the methodological richness of what she calls ‘string figuring’ (picking out and unpicking the manifold threads through which species are tied together) and the potential of such ‘string figures’ for the cultivation of the ability to be both responsible and responsive, enabling sustainable co-existence.

All of this should translate into a migration from the Anthropocene to what she terms, in distinction from H.P. Lovecraft’s monster, the Chthulucene: ‘an elsewhere and elsewhen that was, still is and might yet be’. Migration, here, should not be seen as moving in time and across space lured by the promise of a better future. Rather, we should get in touch – mentally, affectively and practically – with a timescape in which becoming-with each other enables all species to flourish and allows for the mourning of those already extinct.

Fabrizio Terranova, Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival, 2016. Courtesy: the artist and Studio Graphoui, Brussels.

Staying with the Trouble is a vast philosophical toolkit that overflows with clever concepts, witty inversions and urgent interventions to fill our travelling bags for the long road ahead. It is structured by what Haraway calls ‘tentacular thinking’ and rooted in the ‘SF’ mode: ‘science fiction, speculative fabulation, string figures, speculative feminism, science fact, so far’. This results in a procession of concepts informed by thinkers such as Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers, as much as by science-fiction writers like Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia E. Butler. 

Haraway’s engagement with sci-fi even extends to the inclusion of a short story of her own. With it, she underlines the utopian possibilities of SF: ‘Blocking the foreclosure of utopias, SF kept politics alive.’ She sketches the trajectory of the central protagonist, Camille, across five generations, starting in the present and stretching into the 25th century. These stories are focused upon self-directed communes that take it upon themselves to battle population growth and terracide under the slogan ‘make kin, not babies’. They self-impose birth control, abandon the model of the nuclear family and appoint companion species threatened with extinction to newborns who, over time, are genetically altered to match the appearance of, say, the monarch butterfly. Work and play, rituals and rites are used to cultivate responsiveness and ongoingness.

Staying with the Trouble is a vast philosophical toolkit that overflows with clever concepts and urgent interventions.

Science fictions and utopias indeed belong to the same literary tradition structured around the imagination. This shared generic trait implies, as the theorist Fredric Jameson argued, that they are not so much about the future as they are about the present. SF stories – of all kinds – are not anticipations of a world to come; they are interventions in the here and now. This means that the utopian imagination is a hostage of our historical moment and ‘serves the negative purpose of making us more aware of our mental and ideological imprisonment’ that characterizes our social situation. Understood in this way, the ‘Camille Stories’ are problematic on two accounts: they single out self-organizing communities as the way forward and they project their trajectory well into the 25th century. The story’s ideological blockages belong to a contemporary anti-statism that distrusts big government and a long-termism which presupposes that we still have time on our side. As Naomi Klein shows in This Changes Everything (2014), these may be luxuries we can no longer count on. Since the window to prevent catastrophic environmental and social tipping points is closing sooner rather than later (in ten, 20 years), massive state intervention based on some kind of ecosocialism – regulating economies, mobilizing resources, educating people – is needed to supplement self-directed communities and transform personal politics into political collectives. Let’s call it big-enough government.

Staying with the Trouble is a timely book that resonates with a present culture in which we can observe a return of historicity and a proliferation of utopian desires. Many, including theorists of the Anthropocene, are currently attempting to think of the past, present and future as a meaningful whole. Haraway teaches that these attempts are still too anthropocentric and that we need to cut across the history of man by foregrounding big-enough geostories about many species at once.

Main image: Fabrizio Terranova, Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival, 2016. Courtesy: the artist and Studio Graphoui, Brussels. 

Robin van der Akker is Lecturer in Continental Philosophy and Cultural Studies at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. He is co-editor of Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect, Depth (forthcoming June 2017).