Making Kin In One Eco-Bantustan



Donna Haraway straddles a number of philosophical and scientific ideas. Deep ecology, posthumanism, Marxist feminism, and her own idiosyncratic syntheses and fabulations create an aesthetic and philosophical worldview that can be interpreted in many ways. The definition that this paper will pursue is utopian, in the Marxist sense of the word.

In “Socialism: Scientific and Utopian” Frederick Engels traces the history of socialism from the “extreme revolutionaries” of the French revolution to Marx and Engel’s own developments in socialist theory. Engels describes the failings of the utopians, those socialists such as Fourier and St. Simon who in the early 1800’s sketched out (or to use a Haraway-esque term, wove) new ways of living and organizing human society.

It’s striking how Haraway’s mission in “Staying with the Trouble” is almost identical to Marx and Engel’s definition of utopian praxis.

“It was necessary, then, to discover a new and more perfect system of social order and to impose this upon society from without by propaganda, and, wherever it was possible, by the example of model experiments. These new social systems were foredoomed as Utopian; the more completely they were worked out in detail, the more they could not avoid drifting off into pure phantasies.”

Haraway might resist the charge of utopianism by pointing out that her mission is not to find a neat ending to the capitalocene problems but to find ways of “going on with”, of navigating a messy, unpredictable, living world–but her mission is still utopian. The book is propaganda: it is an urgent call for change. “Staying with the Trouble” is divided into sections collecting essays previously published by Haraway. As a whole the book aims to lay out an ecological worldview where we can view the world as not quite a unified Gaia but as a kind of tangle (yarn and stringwork play a heavy role in Haraway’s imagery and analogies), a writhing mass of interconnecting tentacles. There is no unifying origin point where everything is connected but rather Haraway states ” the specificity and proximity of connections matters—who we are bound up with and in what ways.”

This concern for specificity of relationships is one of the few discernable traces of Marxist thought in “Staying with the Trouble”. Haraway cares about the nature of relationships and the inequalities within them. Haraway also cares that these relationships cross species line. There are strange “miscegenations”, exuberant descriptions of ants that rely on fungi and butterflies that live symbiotically with parasites.

The messy interconnectedness of life, life’s “tentacular” qualities of entwining, is a central theme of the book. The vision Haraway creates is compelling. It is not posthuman but “com-post”, as she playfully describes her view. It is of and beyond humanity, thinking ecologically in a way both global but also intensely local, down to a microcosmic level of earthworms and bacteria. Haraway asks us to see the delightfully sloppy mess that is our world and to be inspired to save it.

Throughout the book, she asks us, passionately and eloquently to feel in a new way, in defiance of despair at what has been lost or the horror that may still come. In the final section of the book, Haraway writes a science fiction story that shows how this world view might be lived. Haraway proudly ventures into “pure phantasies” in the tradition of the utopians.

Science fiction or SF is the banner under which Haraway writes and so the science fiction stories that form the book’s conclusion are perhaps the most illustrative of what her book is trying to convey. Life in the Chthulucene is described in broad strokes but with an aim toward inspiring action. It is utopian science fiction in the tradition of Ursula Le Guin and Samuel Delany, two authors Haraway frequently cites. The stories were written in collaboration with friends and colleagues of Haraway (possibly “kin”) and draw upon her exchanges with people such as the “eco-sexual” artists and utopians Annie Sprinkle and Elizabeth Stephens who live in the Southern mountain region that Haraway writes about.

Haraway’s science fiction scenarios are part of her “worlding”, the creation of another possibility,  a glimpse into a world that could be built. The stories are all entitled Camille followed by a number, chronicling the lineage of a person in an imagined future through five generations. The titular character is the offspring of a radical intentional community, the Children of Compost. Despite declaring a support for the Marxist feminist attack on the masculine nature of genealogy and her own slogan of “Make Kin Not Babies” the story still follows the familiar formula in literature of using a family to illustrate the passage of time.

Haraway and her collaborators flip the transhumanist obsession with apotheosis through oneness with machines to instead an empathy with nature. In the case of Camille, genes are inserted from butterflies to create a variety of new traits: a resistance to the bitter and poisonous milkweed that Monarch butterflies depend on, expression of butterfly-esque colors and patterns on Camille’s skin, and a heightened sense of taste and smell that puts Camille closer to the pheremonal world of the monarchs.

The symbiont children are the Homo Novus (Humus Novus?) of the Children of Compost, the ethos of passionate fascination and empathy with nature made flesh. Camille’s childhood is lonely, as being among the first of new species, but she forms bonds with Kess, one of her siblings who has been bonded to kestrels. The birds eat monarch butterflies, and this ecological closeness creates an emotional closeness between the two symbionts (and perhaps indicates the wider, less personal view Haraway is suggesting – not a sympathy for individuals but rather for species, for the processes and exchanges at play).

The symbiotes are science fictional but the imagining of novel species is not a recent development in utopian thought. In 1799 Fourier dreamed of seas of lemonade and docile anti-lions who lived off of grain. Anti-hippos would pull boats and humans would develop long tails. His utopian community which he called Harmony was rooted in a strange aesthetic of erotic idylls and furious industrial activity. It was peopled by children who lived as “imps” and men and women given noble titles according to their passions for enlightened acts of sexual generosity.

The impassioned strangeness of Fourier’s vision is far different from Haraway’s but they are both idiosyncratic and passionate evocations of other worlds, of new possibilities. Engels was critical of the utopians but also praised them: “we delight in the stupendously grand thoughts and germs of thought that everywhere break out through their phantastic covering, and to which these Philistines are blind”. It is politically useful to be bold and to be strange.  Haraway definitely presents grand thoughts yet she also has some elements to her thought that are truly troubling.

Haraway’s SF utopia is a deeply Malthusian one. Throughout the book, she tells us that the human population must decline, and rapidly if we are to avoid a worse catastrophe for all the “critters” that populate the muddy, ichorous, life laced world she describes. At the start of each chapter of Camille, there is a population at Camille’s birth and another at her death. Bridging the first and last chapters: “Born 2025. Human numbers are 8 billion…Died in 2425. Human numbers are 3 billion.” This incredible decline in population is one of the primary goals of the Children of Compost. Their goal is to stave off future catastrophe.

Haraways’ Malthusian catastrophe is different from the catastrophes typically described. She does not devote many words to possible disasters affecting human beings via climate change: starvation, massive floods, the loss of cities–rather her attention is focused on the loss of biodiversity and the ramifications human life would have on “other-than-human” species.

Marx called Malthus a “baboon” who could not think in an historical way. Malthus did not calculate that the requirements for life change and that the means of producing requirements also change. In the Grundrisse Marx mocked Malthus’s insistence on an unchanging humanity incapable of providing for itself, doomed to increase the population beyond the point of survival.

He transforms the immanent, historically changing limits of the human reproduction process into outer barriers; and the outer barriers to natural reproduction into immanent limits or natural laws of reproduction.”

Haraway seems to be firmly on the side of Malthus. The human population will continue to climb, possibly even above projected limits as she darkly warns us in the introduction.  For Haraway human population growth is a grave crisis, that “cannot be explained away by blaming Capitalism or any other word starting with a capital letter”. Haraway essentializes human population growth just as Malthus did.

Humans are “critters”, Haraway’s favorite term for living things, but they can’t be trusted to live in large numbers apparently. Population reduction is such a focus with so little explanation as to why it’s inherently disastrous that it seems as if a decentering of human agency requires a blood sacrifice to achieve.

If we can be generous, Haraway’s concern can be interpreted as being rooted in the classic leftist and feminist desire to support the Other, the ones who were previously voiceless or marginalized. Speaking on traditional stories of conquering heroes, Haraway points out that in these stories all who are not the hero “props, ground, plot space, or prey”.  Marxist Leninist Maoists call first world workers “labor aristocrats”, pointing out that a union worker in America is a useful functionary in imperialist countries like America. Haraway seems to see the human race in general as species aristocrats, always in danger of trodding on the true, “chthonic” subaltern.

Beyond ethical obligation her concern seems to have a strong aesthetic component. Why is the biodiversity of bacteria, squid, worms and other oozing, crawling, and writhing things so precious? Because it offers a kind of beauty, specifically a kind of science fictional beauty of strangeness that is counter to traditional forms of beauty. Haraway calls her world the Chthulucene, a reference to the horror and SF writer’s Cthulhu mythos.

Lovecraft was a notorious racist and anti-Semite,and so Haraway distances herself from H.P. Lovecraft, the inventor of Cthulhu, firstly by removing the h from Cthulhu (H as in H.P. perhaps) and then by reframing Lovecraft’s god of horror and madness as some more positive entity. The tentacle faced god is turned into a heraldic symbol of Haraway’s slime and dirt covered worldview, one that wants to see the world from the bottom up – not in the old anarchist or socialist sense of trying to see the world from the worker’s perspective but rather from the perspective of worms, of squid, of the boneless things without eyes as we know them that may provide some view of the Earth we have never known before.

In this pursuit of new sensations and information Haraway demands a break from “secularism” materialism. “It is very hard for a secularist to really listen to the squid, bacteria, and angry old women of Terra/Gaia”  To replace secularist materialism Haraway proposes a “sensibile materialism”, that can allow for a “a certain suspension of ontologies and epistemologies, holding them lightly, in favor of more venturesome, experimental natural histories.”

She calls this materialism an animism. Matter is inhabited by bacterial life and complex processes in flux. Death is generative, bodies are “humus”, they provide mediums for other things to grow and die. The “energistic” world of Pepperell and other posthumanists is evoked but without the aesthetic touchstones of AI and machines but rather with moist soil and wet tentacles. Her play with words, her neologisms (kinnovate, symb, oddkin, etc.) is evocative of not so much a vision of the world but another texture of a world explicable through senses other than the ordering, light-based cameras of human eyes. In chthonic darkness, with “Ctulhu” and the tentacular ones, Haraway sees salvation for the planet.

In Camille 5, the final Camille story, Haraway describes the fifth Camille as a “speaker for the dead”, a term borrowed from the science fiction author Orson Scott Card. As a speaker for the dead Camille sings and story tells about those that vanished from the Earth. “Crucial to the work was not to forget the stink in the air from the burning of the witches, not to forget the murders of human and nonhuman beings in the Great Catastrophes named the Plantationocene, Anthropocene, Capitalocene”.

If the goal of the Children of Compost was to reduce the human population than one can’t help but interpret this mourning song as also something triumphant, or a warning not to allow so many humans to exist again.

In 1913 Lenin wrote about “The Working Class and Neo-Malthusianism”. Lenin described neo-Malthusianism as an ideology arising out of the weakness of the petty bourgeoisie, the little bourgeoise always in danger of being proletarianized and joining the ranks of the toilers. The champions of neo-Malthusianism “whisper in scared voices: ‘God grant we manage somehow by our selves. So much the better if we have no children.’”. Lenin’s counter to neo-Malthusianism is, unsurprisingly, Communism. The working class will fight while the petty bourgeoisie live in retreat. Their approval of population control and reduction is an act of despair, even if it is masked in humanitarianism.

Haraway writes as a leftist academic in a world that is fully in the grips of capitalism. The Capitalocene devours the world and there seem to be no ways out. Rather than supporting neo-Malthusianism because of the children’s potential suffering, Haraway supports it because of the suffering those children may inflict. Haraway seems to wish there were fewer humans to share in our shame at having destroyed so many species, and fewer humans to displace other species in the future. Pessimism and despair disguised as optimism for the future of slime mold and jellyfish.

Haraway is waving a banner (“SF”) to signify a retreat, waiting, then re-emerging to colonize and “infect” the world is something pulled straight from the millenarian tradition. Modern American “preppers” who dream of surviving the apocalypse in their bunker and emerging to find a new world share something in common with Haraway’s fantasy of an intentional community that lays down the pattern for the entire human race. Again, Haraway has a disclaimer. The Children of Compost are aware that the idea of a post-apocalyptic world as tabula rasa are ” powerful, destructive fictions of settler colonialism and religious revivalism”, yet this is still what she describes.

Utopian socialism always misses the mark according to Marx, and at its worst is a type of reactionary socialism, a medievalism that is afraid to go forward. Haraway may suggest that her fabulations offer a way forward but her vision precludes struggle and displaces the source of oppression and misery to humanity at large. Human existence becomes an enemy. Cthulhu’s place as a god of the apocalypse seems appropriate in a way that Haraway may not explicitly approve of.

“Staying with the Trouble” is a unique aesthetic masking Malthusian terror and reactionary fantasies of utopian communities that somehow become models for the world.  “Staying with the Trouble” is a book that despite its stated aims manages to be anti-Marxist, anti-communist, anti-socialist. It is an ecological vision that despite its laudable celebrations and explorations of queer theory and indigenous thought is neither reformist or revolutionary but is instead a strange mixture of wishful thinking and defeatism.

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