My favourite kind of reading, be it fiction or non-fiction, is the sort which feels a bit like your brain is being re-wired. While I was in Tywyn recently, volunteering as a guard on the Talyllyn Railway, the world’s first preserved railway and an all-round lovely thing, I was doing some diving back into old Ribbonfarms and came across this rather long post. I hadn’t watched the linked Donna Haraway Anthropocene/Capitalocene/Chthulhucene video the first time I read it, but this time I was moved to – and I’m glad I did. In fact, I found the talk so compelling that I decided to read the related book, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, which was published in 2016.
Staying with the Trouble is my first time reading Haraway, and I’ve found some very productive cross-pollination with other recent reading/listening around both environmental issues and community building. The book is bristling with ideas, drawing on Haraway’s philosophy and collaboration with other academics and artists, as well as a multitude of other intriguing voices, both human and non-. A major theme is disavowal of the term ‘Anthropocene’, and its failure to adequately describe the current geological epoch of human-influenced extinctions and climate change. Haraway also rejects the environmentalist’s alternative, ‘Capitalocene‘, with its Marxist implications of Modernity, Progress and History (note the capitalisations!). Haraway suggests that the humanity-focused narratives engendered by the above terms have a tendency to lead either to wild optimism in the possibility of technological fixes to our various predicaments, or to a profoundly nihilistic despair:
Alone, in our separate kinds of expertise and experience, we know both too much and too little, and so we succumb to despair or to hope, and neither is a sensible attitude.
Her constant refrain is for us to return to the networks we can see and feel, ‘staying with the trouble’ of living on a damaged planet, and doing the best we can – in the lives we build and the stories we tell.
Haraway is particularly interested in the notion of ‘sympoiesis’, or ‘making-with’, exploring a kind of ‘tentacular thinking’ through the work of pigeons and their handlers, and going on to work through various other case studies of human involvement in networks with humans and animals which are somehow more than the sum of their parts. Throughout the book, she echoes Virginia Woolf’s call in Three Guineas – ‘Think we must’, and proposes some very useful tools for further thinking. Drawing on the anthropologist Marilyn Strathern, she reminds us that ‘It matters what ideas we use to think other ideas’, and comes up with the uniquely wonderful formulation ‘It matters what worlds world worlds’. Presciently, in light of Extinction Rebellion, she also suggests that the correct response to the world as we find it is to revolt – but ‘of course, the devil is in the details – how to revolt?’.
There is so much more I could say, and to some extent I’m still digesting (or perhaps composting?) the book, and will likely find that it would be worth re-reading several times. The last chapter is a speculative fiction of sorts, imagining five generations of a human/monarch butterfly symbiont, living through a ‘great dithering’, and the eventual destruction of the species they have been made kin with, while the world changes irreversably. This touches on one of Haraway’s slogans for the times we live in, ‘Make kin, not babies!’, a suggestion deeply considered in light of the troubled history of racist and eugenicist attempts to restrict reproductive freedom, and arrived at in the hope that it can be an inspiration for dialling down humanity’s impact on the world in creative and sympoetic ways, rather than something coercive and negative. I’ll leave Haraway with the last word here:
The Children of Compost would not cease the layered, curious practice of becoming-with others for a habitable, flourishing world.
Related recent listening and reading:
Jared, Jason and Jess talking about Tech, Culture and Collaboration on the Both And podcast – discussing intentionally building communities of like-minded folk, among other things!
Timothy Roy on Rolling your Own Culture and (Not) Finding Community.