Books, Exegesis, Reviews

Staying with the Trouble :: Review

Reading this book was difficult when I did it a year ago, and rereading it is difficult now. It feels like getting a direct view into Haraway’s brain. She has no qualm with making up words on the fly to illustrate what she’s talking about. There is a rawness to the text, as if thoughts were transferred verbatim from her stream of consciousness. Phrases and moments of text feel as if she’s talking to herself as much as she is the reader. Obscure academic language is mixed in with fancy. It took significant energy to make it through; and as it turns out, her stream of consciousness is profound. This book is incredibly difficult to quote in any sort of coherent fashion, but I’ll do my best.

Quotes

Like all offspring of colonizing and imperial histories, I-we-have to relearn how to conjugate worlds with partial connections and not universals and particulars. (pg. 13)

City kids, overwhelmingly from “minority” groups, learn to see despised birds as valuable and interesting city residents, as worth notice. Neither the kids nor the pigeons are urban “wildlife”; both sets of beings are civic subjects and objects in intra-action. But I cannot and will not forget that these pigeons and black kids in DC both carry the marks of U.S. racist iconography as unruly, dirty, out of place, feral. The actual kids move from seeing pigeons as “rats with wings” to sociable birds with lives and deaths. The kids transmute from bird hecklers and sometimes physical abusers to astute observers and advocates of beings whom they had not known how to see or respect. The schoolchildren became response-able. (pg. 24-25)

Response-ability is about both absence and presence, killing and nurturing, living and dying – and remembering who lives and who dies and how in the string figures of naturalcultural history. (pg. 28)

Nobody lives everywhere; everybody lives somewhere. Nothing is connected to everything; everything is connected to something. (pg. 31)

If it is true that neither biology nor philosophy any longer supports the notion of independent organisms in environments, that is, interacting units plus contexts/rules, then sympoiesis is the name of the game in spades. Bounded (or neoliberal) individualism amended by autopoiesis is not good enough figurally or scientifically; it misleads us down deadly paths. (pg. 33)

“More precisely, com-menting, if it means thinking-with, that is becoming-with, is in itself a way of relaying…But knowing that what you take has been held out entails a particular thinking ‘between.’ It does not demand fidelity, still less fealty, rather a particular kind of loyalty, the answer to trust of the held out hand.” (Stengers, “Relaying a War Machine?,” 134.)(pg. 34)

“It matters what ideas we use to think other ideas.” (Strathern, Reproducing the Future, 10) (pg. 34)

How can we think in times of urgencies without the self-indulgent and self-fulfilling myths of apocalypse, when every fiber of our being is interlaced, even complicit, in the webs of processes that must somehow be engaged and repatterned? Recursively, whether we asked for it or not, the pattern is in our hands. The answer to the trust of the held-out hand: think we must. (pg. 36)

Outside the dubious privileges of human exceptionalism, thinking people must learn to grieve-with. (pg. 38)

So much of earth history has been told in the thrall of the fantasy of the first beautiful words and weapons, of the first beautiful weapons as words and vice versa. Tool, weapon, word: that is the word made flesh in the image of the sky god; that is the Anthropos…. This is the cutting, sharp, combative tale of action that defers the suffering of glutinous, earth-rotted passivity beyond bearing. All others in the prick tale are props, ground, plot space, or prey. They don’t matter; their job is to be in the way, to be overcome, to be the road, the conduit, but not the traveler, not the begetter. (pg. 39)

With a shell and a net, becoming human, becoming humus, becoming terran, has another shape – that is, the side-winding, snaky shape of becoming-with. (pg. 40)

Searching for compositionist practices capable of building effective new collectives, Latour argues that we must learn to tell “Gaia stories.” If that word is too hard, then we can call our narrations “geostories,” in which “all the former props and passive agents have become active without, for that, being part of a giant plot written by some overseeing entity.” (pg. 40-41)

Latour is determined to avoid the idols of a ready-to-hand fix, such as Laws of History, Modernity, the State, God, Progress, Reason, Decadence, Nature, Technology, or Science, as well as the debilitating disrespect for difference and shared finitiude inherent in those who already know the answers toward those who only need to learn them – by force, faith, or self-certain pedagogy. Those who “believe” they have the answers to the present urgencies are terribly dangerous. Those who refuse to be for some ways of living and dying and not others are equally dangerous. Matters of fact, matters of concern, and matters of care are knotted in string figures, in SF. (pg. 41)

Gaia is not a person but complex systemic phenomena that compose a living planet. (pg. 43)

Gaia is not reducible to the sum of its parts… (pg. 44)

Gaia is not about a list of questions waiting for rational policies; Gaia is an intrusive event that undoes thinking as usual. (pg. 44)

Shocked anew by our – billions of earth habitants’, including your and my – ongoing daily assent in practice to this thing called capitalism, Philippe Pignarre and Isabelle Stengers note that denunciation has been singularly ineffective, or capitalism would have long ago vanished from the earth. A dark bewitched commitment to the lure of Progress (and its polar opposite) lashes us to endless infernal alternatives, as if we had no other ways to reworld, reimagine, relive, and reconnect with each other, in multispecies well-being. (pg. 50-51)

This Chthulucene is neither scared nor secular; this earthly worlding is thoroughly terran, muddled, and mortal – and at stake now. (pg. 55)

Symbiosis is not a synonym for “mutually beneficial.” (pg. 60)

The core of Margulis’s view of life was that new kinds of cells, tissues, organs, and species evolve primarily through the long-lasting intimacy of strangers. (pg. 60)

A model is a work object; a model is not the same kind of thing as a metaphor or analogy. A model is worked, and it does work. (pg. 63)

Holobionts require models tuned to an expandable number of quasi-collective/quasi-individual partners in constitutive relatings; these relationalities are the objects of study. (pg. 64)

Every living thing has emerged and persevered (or not) bathed and swaddled in bacteria and archaea. Truly nothing is sterile; and that reality is a terrific danger, basic fact of life, and critter-making opportunity. (pg. 64)

The task of the Speaker for the Dead is to bring the dead into the present, so as to make more response-able living and dying possible in times yet to come. (pg. 69)

However, even though models of sympoiesis are expandable, it is critical not to once again raid situated indigenous stories as resources for the woes of colonizing projects and peoples, entities that seem permanently undead. (pg. 87)

Belief is neither an indigenous nor a “chthulucenean” category. Relentlessly mired in both internecine and colonizing disputes of Christianity, including its scholarly and civic secular forms, the category of belief is tied to doctrine, profession, confession, and taxonomies of errors. That is, believing is not sensible. I am talking about material semiotics, about practices of worlding, about sympoiesis that is not only symbiogenetic, but is always a sensible materialism. The sensible materialisms of involutionary momentum are much more innovative than secular modernisms will allow. Stories for living in the Chthulucene demand a certain suspension of ontologies and epistemologies, holding them lightly, in favor of more venturesome, experimental natural histories. (pg. 88)

Weaving is a useful practice, to be sure, and an economic one; but, fundamentally, weaving is also cosmological performance, knotting proper relationality and connectedness into the warp and weft of the fabric. (pg. 91)

There are so many losses already, and there will be many more. Renewed generative flourishing cannot grow from myths of immortality or failure to become-with the dead and the extinct. (pg. 101)

The edge of extinction is not just a metaphor; system collapse is not a thriller. Ask any refugee of any species. (pg. 102)

All critters share a common “flesh,” laterally, semiotically, and genealogically. Ancestors turn out to be very interesting strangers; kin are unfamiliar (outside what we thought as family or gens), uncanny, haunting, active. (pg. 103)

So, make kin, not babies! It matters how kin generate kin. (pg. 103)

Marx understood all about how privileged positions block knowledge of the conditions of one’s privilege. (pg. 111)

The last thing the hero wants to know is that his beautiful words and weapons will be worthless without a bag, a container, a net. (pg. 118)

Symbiogenesis is not a synonym for the good, but for becoming-with each other in response-ability. (pg. 125)

Sympoesis is a carrier bag for ongoingness, a yoke for becoming-with, for staying with the trouble of inheriting the damages and achievements of colonial and postcolonial naturalcultural histories in telling the tale of still possible recuperation. (pg. 125)

Visiting is not an easy practice; it demands the ability to find others actively interesting, even or especially others most people claim to know all too completely, to ask questions that one’s interlocutors truly find interesting, to cultivate the wild virtue of curiosity, to retune one’s ability to sense and respond – and to do all this politely! (pg. 127)

This is not so much a question of manners, but of epistemology and ontology, and of method alert to off-the-beaten-path practices. (pg. 127)

We must somehow make the relay, inherit the trouble, and reinvent the conditions for multispecies flourishing, not just in a time of ceaseless human wars and genocides, but in a time of human-propelled mass extinctions and multispecies genocides that sweep people and critters into the vortex. (pg. 130)

Kin making as a means of reducing human numbers and demands on the earth, while simultaneously increasing human and other critters’ flourishing, engaged intense energies and passions in the dispersed emerging worlds. (pg. 138)

Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene – Donna J. Haraway

Summary

The primary theme of the book can be summed up using Haraway’s custom terms; we must “make-with” through “response-ability.” Her emphasis is that humanity lives in an interconnected, emergent world which needs to embrace a variety of unconventional tools in order to be sustainable. To this end, Haraway provides various models and examples to encourage “making-with” through “response-ability.” She talks about infrastructure projects which try to incorporate urban animals like pigeons rather than repulse them. She talks about video games which immerse the player in “worlding” practices. She talks about stories which emphasize yonic metaphors like vessels and nets, rather than the common phallic metaphors of weapons and words. She talks about scientific studies which try to perform experiments with animal participants rather than on animal subjects. She talks about “making kin, not babies” which emphasizes participating in an interspecies community rather than increasing the human population (and therefore, human demand for resources). All these models and more work in the service of her bigger Gaia centered goal of functioning competently in an emergent, interconnected, and interdependent world.

Thoughts

In many ways this book is a companion to Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World. Haraway’s myriad examples and models feel like a nigh-inscrutable lightning round of Tsing’s book. Where Tsing gestures to “arts of noticing” as a mindset which will help us navigate the modern world, Haraway demonstrates what that mindset looks like in practice. My drawing a connection between the two authors is reinforced by Haraway herself, who quotes and references Tsing in the book. These authors are part of a community who are working hard to develop new magical tools for the modern world. In fact, it was from this book that I decided to use the word “terran.”


What is crucial about Haraway’s goals and models is that they are not utopian. They are responsive. They encourage principled action in response to “trouble,” or the needs of our worlds. Principles like inclusiveness, sensitivity, and rationality. She does not articulate an abstraction that should be manifested. Instead, she describes structuring worlds in response to what we learn, what has been destroyed, and what is needed. If you practice “arts of noticing,” you will gain the “response-ability” to “make-with.” This mentality is very focused on the present and the real.

Contrast this mentality to a reactionary one, where the present is a degradation of a utopian past. Trouble is met with an immediate comparison to Edens which were supposedly well established. All new things therefore, even that which tries to solve the trouble, are enemies to how things were and ought to be. Haraway remembers what the reactionary forgets; there has always been trouble. Trouble we have today is comes from solutions to yesterday’s problems, wise or misguided they might have been. The solution is not to demand a “simpler time,” to run backward, to remain in collective childhood. We must mature. We must be “response-able,” like a good adult.

I hope to use Terranism to teach this mentality.


The anti-natalist meme “make kin, not babies,” is a fascinating part of Haraway’s vision. It is unique from other anti-natalist thought because it’s emphasis is not on abstention from procreation, but rather on the care for multispecies relationships. This position does not pose to care for non-existent entities, a common shortcoming of anti-natalist thought. Instead, this meme emphasizes the value in “kin,” or the various living entities we are related to through evolution. In this way, “make kin, not babies” avoids using the logic of utilitarianism to reach its conclusion. Instead of trying to maximize pleasure or minimize pain, “make kin, not babies,” is about cultivating familiarity and knowledge with present, living entities. I find this inspiring. This is not a call for mass abortions or sterilization. This does not assert having babies is wrong. Rather, it is about choosing to care for those who already exist rather than creating someone new.

Practical applications of this meme could be to choose adoption over natural birth; especially for those of us who live in wealthy countries and have the means to do so. Choosing to care for animals, land, running community projects, or personal spirituality over having children. What’s more is that this is completely optional. There is nothing morally wrong with having children, it is a beautiful part of life. “Make kin, not babies,” reflects the need to care for what is already around us, and focus on “making-with.”


If I were to state an issue with Staying with the Trouble, it would be similar to the issue I had with Tsing’s book; it’s hard to read. In fact, this criticism is actually far more pertinent to Haraway’s book; at least Tsing didn’t make up words constantly. To be sure, I understand why Haraway wrote the way she did; in many cases the intuitive inferences made by her wordplay solicited conclusions in me that I doubt she could have accomplished otherwise. However, this text remains challenging, which severely limits its reach.

As I’ve asserted before, instead of trying to use esoteric language like “sympoiesis” I prefer saying, “I worship Terra,” and “We are Terra.” These statements are far more transmissible as memes. I wouldn’t change Haraway’s book, but I also wouldn’t bother sharing it on a mass scale. Instead, I hope to glean what I can from it and reduce it down to its vital models as guidance for my trajectory. For, in the end, Haraway’s words matter far less than the models she encourages. Her language was a means to the radical modes of thought and types of action which can help us “stay with the trouble” and “make kin in the chthulucene.”


Further Study:

Staying with the Trouble – Making Kin in the Chthulucene by Donna J. Haraway

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