Life with Ms Cayenne Pepper
- Manifestly Haraway: ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, ‘The Companion Species Manifesto’, Companions in Conversation (with Cary Wolfe) by Donna Haraway
Minnesota, 300 pp, £15.95, April 2016, ISBN 978 0 8166 5048 4
- Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene by Donna Haraway
Duke, 312 pp, £22.99, August 2016, ISBN 978 0 8223 6224 1
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!’
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 39 No. 13 · 29 June 2017
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!
University of California, Santa Cruz
‘People need to eat,’ Jenny Turner remarks. ‘For humans to live in our current numbers, we need to go on killing animals.’ In fact, the opposite is true: to maintain our current numbers and mitigate the effects of climate change, we need to stop killing and eating animals. A UN report on agriculture and the environment from 2006 concluded that ‘livestock are responsible for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions,’ making the livestock industry a greater contributor to climate change than the entire transport sector.
Turner, following Haraway, represents vegans and vegetarians as sentimental animal lovers. On the contrary, they are pragmatic realists, and the only ones taking climate change seriously. Absurdly, Turner also compares ‘veggie-braggers’ to anti-abortion activists who force women to give birth to children they don’t want and can’t care for. It isn’t vegans who require the enforced insemination of billions of cattle, pigs, sheep and chickens, and neither are they responsible for forcefully incarcerating this mass of life in unimaginably horrific conditions. In his lecture ‘The Animal that therefore I Am’, Jacques Derrida said: ‘No one can deny seriously, or for very long, that men do all they can in order to dissimulate this cruelty or to hide it from themselves, in order to organise on a global scale the forgetting or misunderstanding of this violence that some would compare to the worst cases of genocide.’ Turner, along with Haraway, would like to carry on this dissimulation by reframing a relationship of violence and exploitation as chummy ‘companionship’. I ask you, who’s being sentimental?
Vol. 39 No. 14 · 13 July 2017
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.