The word ‘Anthropocene’, defined as ‘the era of geological time during which human activity is considered to be the dominant influence on the environment, climate and ecology of the earth’, only made it into the OED in 2014. But doesn’t it feel like it was a billion years ago already? Benjamin Kunkel, writing in the LRB of 5 March, found the term all over recent books of natural history, art and poetry, and on a death-metal album, and concluded his study of what the word might mean for Marxist political economists with an attempt to project it into the eagerly awaited post-capitalist future: ‘In the political sense of the term, then, the question about the Anthropocene isn’t when it began but whether it ever will, and if so, where first. Godspeed!’
It’s easy to see why the word has become so widely used so quickly. It looks great, it has a luscious mouth-feel, and seems just the thing to bring new urgency and direction to all the tired old arguments about climate change, resource depletion, the future of the planet and so on, which is more or less exactly what Paul Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer hoped would happen when they first proposed it in the Global Change Newsletter in 2000. Crutzen is an atmospheric chemist; Stoermer, who died in 2012, was a freshwater ecologist. The nature of their work caused them to understand the urgency early.
As yet, however, the word has no formal scientific standing, and won’t have for a good few years. It’s the job of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the rock-dating arm of the International Union of Geological Sciences, to decide whether or not to add the Anthropocene as a unit to the geological timescale, and there is much to consider. For example, the OED, in its definition, calls the Anthropocene an ‘era’, maybe because its lexicographers don’t realise that in geology, an era is of a completely different order of magnitude to an epoch, which is the level at which most authorities think the Anthropocene works best. The Anthropocene would be classified as the epoch that follows the Holocene, in the Quaternary period, in the Cenozoic era of the Phanerozoic eon, which started around 542 million years ago with the evolution of multicellular organisms from single cells. There’s also a view that the Anthropocene works better not as an epoch but as a boundary, the layer dividing the Holocene from whatever comes next. At the International Geological Congress in South Africa last summer, 20.5 of the Anthropocene Working Group’s 35 members voted in favour of calling the Anthropocene an ‘epoch’. There were two votes each for ‘era’ and ‘age’, 1.5 for ‘period’ and one each for ‘sub-epoch’ and ‘none’; three members were ‘uncertain’ and four abstained. (It was an informal vote, I’m told, ‘only to give a sense of the measure of agreement’. The halves represent a single member, who at that point felt split.)
The working group has also been examining the fossil evidence pro and contra, most of it compellingly pro. An article from December 2015 by Jan Zalasewicz, its chairman, and Colin Waters of the British Geological Survey found plastics, smelted metals, novel radionuclides and raised carbon levels in every cranny of the earth’s crust, as well as new rock forms made of squashed-up toys and nappies and all the other stuff that ends up in landfill. The final ruling, Zalasewicz and Waters write, ‘will hinge as much on the perceived usefulness of having this unit on the Geological Time Scale (and for whom it is useful, given the wide interest in the concept) as on its geological reality. This is a complex question, the answer to which is hard to predict.’
No one really disputes that a shift is happening and/or has happened, and that it should be recognised by a proper name. As Kunkel explained, however, the left critique of the Anthropocene complex sees it as far too abstract and homogeneous, far too blaming of humans in general for depredations largely committed by certain classes: that’s the reason Jason Moore and Andreas Malm have proposed the term ‘Capitalocene’ instead. Donna Haraway acknowledges that both names have tactical uses in particular contexts, but thinks that neither carries as much complexity as it needs to in what she calls, after Ursula le Guin and her Carrier-Bag Theory of Storytelling, its ‘refurbished net bag’.
The problem with the Anthropocene, Haraway thinks, is that it is just too anthropocentric. The ‘human exceptionalism’ of the term misleads everybody as to the true nature of the problem, generating reactions that say a lot about the varieties of human bias but very little about what needs to be done. Optimists tend to have ‘a comic faith in technofixes, whether secular or religious: technology will somehow come to the rescue of its naughty but very clever children, or what amounts to the same thing, God will come to the rescue of his disobedient but ever hopeful children.’ And pessimists are even sillier, with their ‘odd apocalyptic panics’ and ‘self-certain and self-fulfilling predictions’. In any case, neither Anthropocene nor Capitalocene leaves room for all the other species with which anthropos shares the planet. The omission, Haraway believes, ‘saps our capacity for imagining and caring for other worlds’.
Both terms, she proposes, should be replaced by a new one, Chthulucene, from the Greek khthon, ‘of the earth’, and kainos, ‘completely new’: ‘Kainos means now, a time of beginnings, a time for ongoing, for freshness … Living-with and dying-with each other potently in the Chthulucene can be a fierce rebuke to the dictates of both Anthropos and Capital.’ She also enjoys, in characteristic fashion, the closeness of her coinage Chthulu to Cthulhu, the demonic cephalopoid monster in the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft: ‘I imagine chthonic ones as replete with tentacles, feelers, digits, cords, whiptails, spider legs, and very unruly hair.’
When I tried outlining the Haraway critique to a couple of proper lab researchers, they were scornful. Words and feelings are irrelevant, only the data matters. Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene, you can call it what you like. And they are right, except that no one, not even scientists, lives just by rows of data: words and feelings are factors too. Which is where Haraway and her critique of science come in: ‘It matters what thoughts think thoughts. It matters what knowledges know knowledges … It matters what worlds world worlds.’ So here’s one bunch of people, going on about climate change. Here’s another bunch, talking about climate change, so-called. Two tiny words, one fiddly shift of nuance, and yet the consequences can be immense.
Haraway, who is in her early seventies, is a professor emerita in the history of consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she taught for many years. Her PhD, at Yale, was in biology. She had an interest in tunicates, which are commonly known as sea-squirts and look like colonies of pockets joined together by small tubes. She loved what she calls ‘the critters’ but she wasn’t cut out for lab work, and had another problem: she didn’t entirely believe in fundamental biological concepts, such as cells. ‘I was arguing that, in a very deep way, the cell was our name for processes that don’t have boundaries that are independent of our interaction … The descriptive term “cells” is a name for a historical kind of interaction, not a name for a thing in and of itself.’
There was no room in Haraway’s PhD for this sort of inquiry, but she didn’t want to give up on ‘the critters’ or with biology as ‘a way of knowing the world’. So she found herself a new supervisor, the great freshwater ecologist G. Evelyn Hutchinson, who helped her find a way of doing science and critiquing it at the same time. Vitalism, mechanism, organicism, what difference does it make to the science how the scientists doing it imagine life? This project became Haraway’s first book, Crystals, Fabrics and Fields: Metaphors of Organicism in 20th-Century Developmental Biology, published in 1976.
Haraway is best known for an essay published nine years after that. ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ stands, along with William Gibson’s Neuromancer novels, as a founding text of the late 20th-century cyberculture craze and of 1990s cyberfeminism in particular: ‘While the shiny screens … continued to present themselves as clean-living products of the straight white lines of a peculiarly man-made world, Haraway’s text excited a wave of subversive female enthusiasm for the new networks and machines,’ as Sadie Plant wrote in her 1997 rhapsody, Zeroes + Ones.
More recently, ‘the manifesto of Donna Haraway’ was listed by Elena Ferrante as one of the three books that has most influenced her as a writer (the other two were Tu che mi guardi, tu che mi racconti by the philosopher Adriana Cavarero, and Elsa Morante’s House of Liars).Lenu’s 1970s, gobbling her way through the feminist canon; Lila’s 1970s, teaching herself computer coding by night: both are great ways into the manifesto’s examination of how ‘the international women’s movements have constructed “women’s experience”, this crucial collective object’, which Haraway sees as ‘a fiction and fact of the most crucial, political kind’.
Late 20th-century technoscience, the manifesto begins, was characterised by three big ‘boundary breakdowns’ (taking as read a fourth one, between science and technology, academia and industry, implicit in the word ‘technoscience’ itself). Humans are not distinct from animals; humans and animals aren’t distinct from machines; and the boundary between physical and non-physical doesn’t hold either, a situation both symbolised and actualised by the extreme smallness of the silicon chip: ‘Our best machines … are as hard to see politically as materially. They are about consciousness – or its simulation.’
Already in the 1980s, it was clear that these marvellous machines were more economically efficient than actual humans, who were ‘nowhere near as fluid, being both material and opaque’. Already in the 1980s, the new machines were eating jobs and homes and meaning and purpose, ‘a matter of immense human pain’. But Haraway saw lots of potential for people, especially women, if only they would overcome their Luddite anti-science defences and embrace their own cyborg nature. The ideas were bold, the ‘rhetorical swagger’ – as Cary Wolfe rightly calls it – even bolder. The article travelled far beyond the usual academic territories to become, as the text predicted, ‘an ironic political myth’.
Eighteen years after that, Haraway tried something similar with the human-animal parameter in The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People and Significant Otherness (2003). This starts from Haraway’s reflections on her own cross-species relationship with Ms Cayenne Pepper, the highly trained – and now deceased – Australian Shepherd she still refers to as ‘the dog of my heart’, then goes on to explore symbiogenesis and co-evolution, bioethics and biopolitics, the structures that determine who and what gets to live, and what sort of life. Manifestly Haraway republishes both these essays, plus a long interview with Wolfe in which Haraway discusses the insufficiencies of the Anthropocene and Capitalocene concepts, and proposes a third work, ‘a Chthulucene manifesto’, to explain what is really needed and why.
None of the essays in Staying with the Trouble fulfils that remit, although the idea of the Chthulucene is much discussed. Another problem with the Anthropocene, for example, is the way it contains the idea of impending apocalypse, which Haraway sees as a monstrously narcissistic self-indulgence. It’s certainly true that this is a time of mass extinctions, and that even the most optimistic projection of the future envisages many more. But to agree that we are currently living through what many authorities call ‘the Sixth Great Extinction Event’ is not to proclaim the impending end of everything. The world, and many of its species, will continue. The asteroid that finished off the dinosaurs did not kill all the smaller creatures. Life on earth is horribly damaged, but one way or another it will probably go on.
This is not at all to say that human beings don’t matter. To side with bugs or robots against humans is a ridiculous self-indulgence too. ‘Situated, actual human beings’ and their manner of ‘living and dying’ matter immensely, both to the humans themselves and to ‘those many critters across taxa which and whom we have subjected to exterminations, extinctions, genocides and prospects of futurelessness’. But humans need to get real, and to face up to their responsibilities, in order to allow life on earth to ‘live and die, and … live and die well … not without pain and mortality, but without practising double death’. This is what Haraway means by ‘staying with the trouble’, or ‘working and playing for a resurgent world’.
In the early 1980s the editors of the San Francisco-based Socialist Review asked Haraway to write a few pages on ‘socialist-feminist priorities … in the Reagan years’. Neither socialism nor feminism seemed equal to the Reagan challenge at that point: ‘The great hopefulness of our politics and imaginations needed to come to terms with serious troubles within our own movements,’ as Haraway said later.
She sees her first manifesto as a sort of intellectual autobiography, a ‘coming together of understanding that I had been formed’. She’d just moved from Johns Hopkins to Santa Cruz and was working on her second book, Primate Visions (sample chapter: the unexamined misogyny of the psychologist Harry Harlow and his famous wire-monkey experiments, still uncritically cited by attachment theorists). She was living with her second husband, Rusten Hogness, and her first one, Jaye Miller, and his partner, Bob Filomeno, on a piece of land the four of them had bought together, and would help nurse first Filomeno and then Miller through terminal Aids-related illnesses; Filomeno died in 1986 and Miller five years later.
She was reading for the first time about post-structuralism, deconstruction and so on, ‘using words in sentences just to see if I could’, and learning how to work with her first ever computer, a Hewlett-Packard. But she knew a lot about ‘leaky’ distinctions of all sorts, and ‘potent fusions and dangerous possibilities’. The task ahead, as she saw it, was to take ‘pleasure in the confusion of boundaries’ and ‘responsibility in their construction … to contribute to socialist-feminist culture and theory in a postmodernist, non-naturalist mode and in the utopian tradition of imagining a world without genesis, but maybe also a world without end’.
‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ finally came out in spring 1985, just after Reagan’s second inauguration. The other contributors to that number of Socialist Review wrote about predictable subjects, the ‘New Cold War’ or ‘Rethinking Feminism and Sexuality’. Haraway did something different. ‘Feminist and socialist theory are rooted in a hopeless nostalgia for homogeneous identities,’ the standfirst to her piece read. ‘The cyborg (part-human and part-machine) offers a new myth of political identity in a post-modernist world.’
‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ doesn’t really have any cyborgs in it, if it’s droids or the Terminator you are after. Haraway is a big fan of queer and feminist science fiction, but she likes it precisely because it doesn’t deal in cyborgs as commonly imagined: singular, usually male bodies encased in something strong and shiny-looking, with bits of flesh and wires and so on poking out. And although Haraway would, I think, completely agree with Paul B. (publishing then as Beatriz) Preciado in Testo Junkie (2013) that the category of the cisgender heterosexual female cannot exist without ‘the pharmacopornographic complex’ that manufactures the desires and hormones and clothes and mood-enhancing medicines from which it is built, her idea of ‘cyborg identity’ digs considerably deeper. ‘The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centres structuring any possibility of historical transformation … The cyborg is our ontology: it gives us our politics.’
‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, then, is itself a cyborg entity. It’s a dense scholarly essay that is also a polemical pamphlet, with ideas that both stand up thirty years later and are completely of their time. It is about machines and mechanisation and Star Wars of both sorts, and unlike most cybertheory in the humanities, comes from an author who is scientifically trained; it’s also about feminism and the women’s movement at a time of great peril.
Socialists and feminists are both needed and useful, Haraway’s argument goes, if only they’d quit it with all the feuds and splitting; in order to do that, they need to give up on the old humanist turkeys about unity and purity and so on. We’re all just cyborgs really, random clanking assemblages inserted in circuits way beyond our understanding. ‘It is not clear who makes and who is made … It is not clear what is mind and what is body … There is no fundamental, ontological separation.’
And yet , cyborgs cannot exist outside of the times that have made them. Cybernetics, as word and discipline, emerged in the US in the late 1940s, where it was used to describe the study of self-regulating information systems, the funding for which came from military intelligence and weapons research. Haraway herself is, as she says, a ‘Sputnik Catholic’, a first-generation university graduate from an Irish family, her studies funded by the National Defence Education Act of 1958. But, like so many of her generation, she graduated not into loyal cold-warrior orthodoxy, instead becoming an activist and a scholar of the socialist and feminist, pro-queer and anti-military left.
From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defence, about the final appropriation of women’s bodies in a masculinist orgy of war … [But from another], a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.
The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once.
The argument proceeds cyborg-fashion, you won’t be surprised to hear, in separate dimensions at the same time. One is ontological, to do with identity and essence. If women are indeed cyborgs, hybrids of organism and machine, it must follow that all that Woman, Goddess of Nature stuff that was around in the 1980s was total nonsense. Women possess no more ‘moral superiority, innocence … closeness to nature’ than men do. Nature, indeed, is not especially innocent or close to nature itself. Much of what seems obscure on a first reading of the essay quickly clears up when you realise that Haraway is trying to address the Women Only radical feminism of Adrienne Rich, Andrea Dworkin and other widely read writers of the 1980s while bending over backwards not to cause offence. She does complain, however, about ‘growing anti-science mystery cults in dissenting and radical political movements’, and proclaims in her resounding final line that she’d ‘rather be a cyborg than a goddess’.
It’s not that she thinks the socialists have the answer either. All they do is swap essential class unity and bonding for essential gender unity and bonding, when what they really need to do is to give up on essential unity and bonding in general. Not least because neither model has a place for the complicated loyalties of women of colour, except as an afterthought; whereas for Haraway, it is with just such complicated loyalties that politics has to begin.
‘The new political voice called women of colour,’ she writes, ‘has theorised a hopeful model of political identity called “oppositional consciousness”, born of the skills for reading webs of power by those refused stable membership of the social categories of race, sex or class’. This is a ‘self-consciously constructed space’, ‘a conscious appropriation of negation’, a thoroughly cyborg way of handling a cyborg world. Found your politics in essentialist labels and all you can do is flick race, sex, class, whatever, round the board in different configurations. Dump essential identity, accept there’s no such thing, and you can ‘act on the basis of conscious coalition, of affinity, of political kinship’ instead.
The manifesto also turns the cyborg viewpoint outwards, to economics and world history. Industrial capitalism, Haraway thought, was changing to what she called a ‘polymorphous information system’, in which the traditional boundaries between ‘home, workplace, market, public arena and the body itself’ were being ‘dispersed and interfaced’. This new industrial revolution was producing ‘a new worldwide working class, as well as new sexualities and ethnicities’. All the new jobs it created were curiously ‘feminised’, whether done by women or men.
By ‘feminised’, Haraway means ‘extremely vulnerable; able to be disassembled, reassembled, exploited as a reserve labour force; seen less as workers than as servers; subjected to time arrangements off and on the paid job that make a mockery of a limited workday; leading an existence that always borders on being obscene, out of place, and reducible to sex’. An example she gives of ‘real-life cyborgs’ are the women staffing electronics factories in Asia, ‘actively rewriting the texts of their bodies and societies’ as they do so. Unemployment and the threat of redundancy, meanwhile, are hideously efficient when it comes to ‘feminising’ – not the word I’d automatically reach for – men.
Much that seemed novel in the 1980s has now become, as Haraway said it would, ‘mundane’: gig jobs, zero-hours contracts, ever more overflowing and unmanageable boundaries between home and work. The collapse of unions, liberal democracy, welfare states, public life in general, replaced by ‘a strongly bimodal social structure’. Even – or should that be especially? – ‘the new communications technologies’ by your bed and in your living room, which explode completely the public-private distinction: games ‘heavily oriented to … the destruction of the planet’, a pay-per-view fantasy for the player showing ‘a sci-fi escape from the consequences’.
‘But it is not necessary,’ Haraway believes, ‘to be ultimately depressed.’ Two main lessons can, if we apply them, shift the balance towards hope. First, ‘universal, totalising theory is a major mistake that misses most of reality, probably always, but certainly now’: no more ‘identification, vanguard parties, purity [or] mothering’, no more ‘unitary identity’ or ‘antagonistic dualisms’ (self/other, mind/body, nature/culture). Second, science and technology are not the enemy, but will probably be what help us find a ‘way out of the maze’. And if, like me, you never learned much maths or science when you were younger? Well, it’s your responsibility to catch up.
These lessons are intimately connected in Haraway’s thought. Dualistic thinking – civilised/primitive, truth/illusion, whole/part are among her other examples – is merely a habit of Western human culture, one way of organising information, useful in the settings in which it is useful and not when not. The critters, however, are not much invested in it, and neither should we be. ‘One is too few and two is only one possibility … We are responsible for boundaries; we are they.’
On reproduction, for example, she sees sex as only one strategy among many. The boring old sperm-meets-ovum ‘reproductive matrix’ is compared to the ‘monstrous, duplicated, potent’ possibilities of reptilian regeneration. What cyborgs do is said to have lots in common with ‘the lovely replicative baroque of ferns’. The goal is ‘a knowledge tuned to resonance, not to dichotomy’. ‘One must think not in terms of essential properties, but in terms of design, boundary constraints, rates of flow.’
Haraway was not, of course, the only thinker of her generation to poke around at the innards of Western philosophy in this way. But the angle she brings is unusual and exciting, a characteristically cyborg combo of sophistication and plain talk. On Oedipus, for example, and psychoanalysis in general: ‘Post-Oedipal is one way of talking about it although what I want to do is discard the Oedipal reference altogether … It infuriates me that our psychic determinations have to somehow always be brought back to a familiar kind of family scene.’ Stick with Oedipus and you’re stuck with two genders and the nuclear family paradigm, with all its neuroses and wasteful consumer durables. Love, in Haraway’s experience, tends not to resolve itself into such neat little units. Others, too, may find it gets richer when it is let out.
Haraway never calls herself a cyberfeminist – she hates being seen as ‘a blissed-out technobunny’. She has no truck with the posthuman either, an idea she finds ‘absurd’. And she wouldn’t call her work post-humanist, though she acknowledges that it is ‘in alliance and disalliance’ with that of others who use the term. But nothing Haraway says has stopped cyberfeminists, post-humanists, accelerationists and technobunnies of all stripes from citing her as an honoured precursor-stroke-token woman: most recently, the authors of the vividly cunicular ‘Xenofeminist Manifesto’ (motto: If Nature is Unjust, Change Nature!). As the xenofeminists themselves point out, manifestos are good places to find dazzling displays of ‘maximal libidinal engagement’ and lend themselves well to online sharing. They tend, however, to be ‘scant on nuance’, and can also look cliquey and boutiquey – an object glimpsed through the window of a gallery you’re always too intimidated or annoyed by ever to go inside.
This may be one reason Haraway’s second manifesto completely drops the glinting, musclebound style of her first one, replacing it with something stringier and looser, full of anecdotes and journal entries and terrible doggy puns: ‘dogfights’ and ‘shaggy-dog stories’ and ‘I go happily to the dogs to explore the birth of the kennel’ and so on. There’s a photo of the beautiful Ms Cayenne Pepper jumping through a tyre; another of Ms Cayenne at play with a dog called Willem de Kooning. Swathes are given over to Zen-and-the-art-of-doggy-training notes. There’s a picture of Willem with Marco, Haraway’s human godson, who is also ‘Cayenne’s god-kid’ and she ‘his god dog’. As Haraway writes at one point: ‘Woof.’
Right from the start then, The Companion Species Manifesto goes out of its way to present itself as threadbare, scatty and besotted, the polar opposite of cyberpunkish cool: the work of an unglamorous middle-aged woman, white, post-menopausal, ‘over the hill’. Except that what it presents this author as doing is unsettling. She is letting Ms Cayenne Pepper plant ‘darter-tongue kisses’ in her mouth. Is this dog abuse, pack psychology, mere gambolling? Is it something so subtle and particular that we need to work to find the words? (‘We are training each other in acts of communication we barely understand.’) Later, Haraway observes Cayenne at play with Willem de Kooning as she ‘straddles her genital area on top of his head, her nose pointed towards his tail, presses down and wags her backside vigorously. I mean hard and fast.’ ‘Ontological choreography’ is one term Haraway comes up with. ‘They invented this game; this game remodels them.’
Companion species are, Haraway says, ‘cum panis, at table together … those who are at risk to each other, who are each other’s flesh’. The term applies not just to dogs, but to every life-form with which humans share the planet, ‘rice, bees, tulips and intestinal flora, all of whom make life for humans what it is and vice versa’, not to mention cyborgs, whom Haraway has come to see ‘as junior siblings’ in a ‘much bigger, queer family’: ‘I consider dog writing a branch of feminist theory, or the other way around.’
To recognise other species as our companions, however, is to acknowledge more, and more exacting, responsibilities than we thought we had. ‘How might an ethics and politics committed to the flourishing of significant otherness be learned from taking dog-human relationships seriously?’ That interspecies snog between Cayenne and the author, for example. It sometimes happens that genes are transfected, via viruses in body fluids, from animal to human and vice versa. It happens in swine flu, it happens in bird flu, and it’s perfectly possible, as Haraway teases, that something from Cayenne’s genome has become lodged in hers. This, as Haraway says, is the basic mechanism behind what evolutionary biologists call symbiogenesis – different life forms infect each other, and new ones emerge. Bacteria and archaea, for example, started merging in the Proterozoic eon, allowing for the development of multicellular life. Beings touch each other, leaving ‘molecular records’, among other traces. Both metaphorically and in actuality, the Cayenne-Donna partnership signifies ‘in the flesh a nasty developmental infection called love’.
Next to The Companion Species Manifesto, the range of Haraway’s cyborg investigations begins to look extremely small. The entirety of all technoscientific activity ever forms only one little subset of an entity Haraway is now calling ‘naturecultures’ and studying via a discipline she calls ‘biotechnopolitics’, which is particularly interested in a process she sometimes calls ‘GeoEcoEvoDevoHistoTechnoPsycho sympoesis’ – it’s ‘the name of the game of life on earth. There is no other game. Period’ – and sometimes ‘the bling of life’.
That said, however, the bulk of The Companion Species Manifesto really is about dogs and dog-human relationships. Evolutionary histories are traced from across the doggy diaspora: Australian Shepherds, Great Pyrenees, Scottish Border Collies. The ‘exuberant commodity culture’ of ‘contemporary dogland’ is both celebrated and critiqued: the manifesto is particularly good on the ‘racially tinged, sexually infused, class-saturated and colonial’ networks established by the Save-a-Sato foundation of Puerto Rico, which picks up street strays and flies them to carefully screened ‘forever families’ in the US. In place of a proprietary pooper-scooper, Haraway favours ‘the plastic film – courtesy of the research empires of industrial chemistry – that protects my morning New York Times.’
Haraway is careful not to idealise a relationship she describes as ‘not especially nice’ and ‘full of waste, cruelty, indifference, ignorance and loss’. She hates, for example, the modern habit of treating dogs like furry children – she considers it abusive and potentially harmful to both parties – and even more, the idea of pets as emotional hot-water bottles, ‘affectional slaves, in short’. She isn’t an animal libber, or a believer in abstract systems of animal rights. Instead of unconditional love, in her view ‘a rarely excusable neurotic fantasy’, human-animal partnerships work better when they aim for ‘disciplined attention and honest achievement’. There’s no such thing as true love or perfect partnership, between anyone of any species at all. Better always to expect to put in ceaseless effort, in ‘the permanent search for knowledge of the intimate other, and the inevitable comic and tragic mistakes’.
But most critters kept by humans do not live and thrive inside such partnerships, but survive, merely, unloved and uncared-for. Factory farms and animal testing – ‘the vast machines of forced life for purposes of extracting value … perhaps the greatest source of violence on our planet’ – don’t figure much in The Companion Species Manifesto, but they do in When Species Meet, the book Haraway published shortly after, in which she discusses chickens, lab-rats and human placenta, and has some nice suggestions about what Derrida should have been thinking about while standing naked, watched by his cat. And they figure too in the long interview that forms the third part of Manifestly Haraway.
What people need to understand about an ‘affirmative biopolitics’, Haraway says, is that there’s no point in trying to base it on an abstract love of or care for animals or nature or life in general. It doesn’t work, for one thing, as Jenny Diski noted in What I Don’t Know about Animals (2010). People need to eat, and even Elizabeth Costello carried a leather handbag, and anyway, veggiebragging is boring and self-obsessed. Worse than that, it’s sentimental – like pro-Life-ism, with which Haraway draws a parallel – and a cover for cruelty (forcing a woman to give birth to a child she doesn’t feel able to care for; forcing into life a child no one wants). For humans to live in our current numbers and conditions, we need to go on killing animals and smaller creatures, and we will go on doing so for many years, even if all of us vote tomorrow to embark on a global project to get everybody eating quorn. The least we can do is be honest about it, and exercise scruple as we discharge the awful responsibilities this puts on our shoulders. ‘How can we really live in non-innocence, because I really think we must?’
Haraway herself lays claim to an alimentary ‘non-innocence’ that goes far back into her Roman Catholic childhood, to ‘the powerful experience of first eating Jesus when I was seven years old’. From that sacramental moment she took it that ‘semiosis and flesh are – what? – not one, not two … It’s not that something is made manifest in something else at some level deeper than symbol. There’s some radical structure of identity/non-identity; there’s some more radical structure of non-identity here.’
When Haraway talks about animals she often seems to be talking about humans too. Though to talk about animals is in some ways to talk about humans, because it’s only humans that talk. I don’t think Haraway would deny any of this. But she also insists that animals cannot be reduced to vessels or analogies for human meanings, ‘surrogates for theory’: ‘Dogs are not about oneself. Indeed, that is the beauty of dogs. They are not a projection, nor the realisation of an intention, nor the telos of anything.’ ‘Dogs are fleshly material-semiotic presences in the body of techno science.’ ‘They are dogs.’
The essays in Staying with the Trouble are full of GeoEcoEvoDevoHistoTechnoPsycho encounters: PigeonBlog, for example, is a network of racing pigeons with little GPS trackers on their backs. Ms Cayenne Pepper, old and incontinent, is prescribed DES, the notoriously teratogenic synthetic oestrogen, by her vet; the author, Ms Cayenne’s human, is prescribed Premarin, a cocktail of oestrogens from the urine of pregnant horses, at around the same time. She writes about linguistic networks among plant and animal communicators, in science fact and science fiction. There is an amazing speculative fiction about Camille, a child born into one of the Children of Compost intentional communities which, according to the story, began emerging around the world towards the end of the Great Dithering – that is to say, now. (The term ‘the Great Dithering’ is borrowed from the Kim Stanley Robinson novel 2312.)
‘Compost’ is one of the words Haraway favours over ‘post-humanist’, ‘post-capitalist’ and so on, using it to indicate the regrowth-from-the-ruins paradigm in which she is working. It’s better the way she pronounces it, with a long ‘o’ and stressed second syllable, com-post. So the Children of Compost settle in small groups around the most direly damaged places on the planet then let the land regenerate, allowing the human population to dwindle. Few children are born, but most of those who are have at least three parents, of any or all genders, and are genetically engineered to carry an animal symbiont: in Camille’s case, the monarch butterfly. Over time, the communities aim to let human numbers across the planet drop by around two-thirds.
Aesthetically – among other ways – this stuff can be difficult to take. Haraway has never been a minimalist writer – ‘I’ve always … felt we need more than one word at a time,’ she confesses, adding that she has been accused of ‘kitchen-sink syndrome’ by no less an authority than Bruno Latour. As well as Chthulucene and compost, new coinages in this latest book include ‘humosities’, ‘oddkin’ and ‘string figures’. I understand why Haraway feels the need for all this wordage. It’s material-semiotic, accumulatively particular. Every word adds a new detail, facet, nuance, reflection, to an infinitely detailed, faceted, nuanced reality. But it’s hairy, lumpy, fuzzy, bristly, unending. Tentacular, maybe; or what Haraway once suggested might be a ‘trellis’ on which to attach great ropes of problems and begin to sort them out.
The most practical tip to emerge from late-period Haraway is also the most radical and disturbing. Humans simply have to stop giving birth to babies in nuclear-family units, because the only way humans can help bring about a decent future for the planet is by letting human numbers decline. And the best way of doing that is to spread the responsibilities and satisfactions of childrearing among more adults than a mere two parents. As Haraway has it: Make Kin, Not Babies! She acknowledges that few people ‘on the left or whatever name we can still use without apoplexy’ want even so much as to brush up against the population question. The word is fatally tainted by the ‘neo-imperialism, neoliberalism, misogyny and racism’ its history contains. ‘But denial will not serve us … Blaming capitalism, imperialism, neoliberalism, modernisation, or some other “not us” for ongoing destruction webbed with human numbers will not work.’ She’s clear that her ideas do not involve any sort of ‘coercion’, but a more gradual emergence of a ‘new normal’ over many generations. This discussion comes mainly in a two-page endnote, as though Haraway herself isn’t quite sure of what she is saying.
‘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.’
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.