Life with Ms Cayenne Pepper

Jenny Turner

  • 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!’

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.’

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[*] Jenny Turner wrote about Elsa Morante’s The World Saved by Kids in the LRB of 20 April.