Reading Donna Haraway
I am reading Donna Haraway’s new book for an interview we will do together for Theory, Culture and Society and it is always remarkable to rediscover in her work both the enduring prescience of her analytic work and the sheer pleasure of reading her exuberant style. As anyone who has heard her speak will know, Haraway is an exhilarating speaker who reliably delivers a unique kind of oratory that is based on notes and meticulous preparation, but is performed with great spontaneity and creativity. Incredibly, she also speaks very much the way she writes: those spellbinding sentences are how she normally thinks as well as communicates.
The new book, Manifestly Haraway, published by the University of Minnesota Press (2016), combines Haraway’s 1985 ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ with the more recent 2003 ‘Companion Species Manifesto’ and an interview with the Editor of Minnesota’s Posthumanities Series, Cary Wolfe. The most noticeable thing about ‘The Cyborg Manifesto’, which is undoubtedly one of the most influential essays of the twentieth century, is how many times you can reread it and still learn something new. It is a phenomenally prescient piece of writing that is now more than three decades old but reads as if it were written to describe the politics of today.
The idea, for example, that communications technologies and biotechnologies would radically reinscribe our bodies, identities and communities and necessitate a politics based on multiple belongings, fractured categories, and local-global connections could not be more relevant today. Similarly, Haraway’s advice that a strategic ambivalence toward political alliances is far preferable to an over-investment in any discourse of solutions or cures may explain in part her own personal and political resilience over time. She sees failure as a crucial part of any human activity – including just being ourselves. Like many feminists of her generation she has been profoundly influenced by the historical materialism of both Marx and socialist feminism, but she has also always been suspicious of politics based on any single model of either consciousness or change.
Above all, she has been one of the most important theorists of technology and even refers in ‘The Cyborg Manifesto’ to ‘the odd circumlocation’ she has chosen to describe what is at stake in cyborg politics, namely ‘the social relations of science and technology’. No one thinks that phrase is so odd any more!
Of course one of the questions I want to ask Donna is about the role of reproduction in her work over time, even though I know this is a term she does not like. For Haraway, ‘reproduction’ in the sense of making new people is much too conservative. She would prefer symbiotic lateral substance transfection or almost anything except the samey-boring business of making babies ‘the old fashioned way’ (or any way...). ‘Make Kin Not Babies’ is one of her current political projects, and she is famous for rejecting ‘bloody kinship’ as the source of many of the most intractable forms of colonising practice.
At the same time, reproduction was a crucial component in Haraway’s early critique of the feminization of poverty in the New World Order brought about by the IT revolution that began in Silicon Valley in the 1970s. ‘Reproduction’ in this sense referred to labour – always a crucial part of Haraway’s analytics. Women’s work to reproduce the labour market is itself one of the most important but invisible forms of labour in an ironic twist at the heart of capitalism. That is because capitalism relies on the very differences it sows: it needs patriarchy to help keep the assembly lines running, it needs racial and ethnic conflict to fuel competition and create new markets, and it needs a global division of labour in order to maximise the output from the proletariat.
‘Reproduction’ has also always been crucial to Haraway because of its deep mythological resonance. The biblical myth of the Garden of Eden, like the modern discourse of Manifest Destiny, and the universalist ‘Family of Man’ all rely crucially on a narrativised version of reproduction that could be described as the foundational origin myth for all of Western culture. This is why Haraway turned from her interest in embryology in the 1970s to primatology and evolutionary discourse in the 1980s. It is why her magisterial analysis of biology-as-mythology in Primate Visions: gender, race and nature in the world of modern science (1989), has such lasting power. If you have not read ‘Teddy Bear Patriarchy’ recently, about the dioramas in the American Natural History Museum in New York, and their unsubtle messages about who is at the top of the totem pole, and why, go back and read that chapter. It is scarily contemporary.
Finally, reproduction has been a crucial resource in Haraway’s definition of politics – indeed much of her work could be described as a lengthy redefinition of the phrase ‘reproductive politics’. And although in some ways it might appear that the politics of reproduction are more evident in Haraway’s socialist-feminist inspired 1980s critiques of global capitalist patriarchy, it might equally be suggested that her more recent concern with the Anthropocene foregrounds the struggle between mass death in the age of extinction and the struggle for a survival that will include nonhumans as well as the Anthros. This, of course, is the biggestbattle over reproduction ever waged.
‘ The Companion Species Manifesto’ offers a quotidian primer on ethical relations in all their messiness based on Haraway’s deep and loving connection with her recently deceased companion animal Miss Cayenne Pepper. Instantly bonded in a dog-human love story, Donna’s work on the companion species project over many years was dedicated, among other things, to the questions of day-today human-animal relations that remain under-attended to, andunder-valued. From the micro-tactics for fine-tuning agility performances with Cayenne, Haraway insistently trained her attention on herself and her own inabilities. ‘I believe that all ethical relating, within or between species, is knit from the silk-strong thread of ongoing alertness to otherness-in-relation. We are not one, and being depends on getting on together’. For Haraway, successful naturecultures will only emerge out of relational labours that enable both parties both understand – and not to understand – each other, as in dog training.
A somewhat surprising analogy for the importance of reproduction based on ‘significant otherness’ in the interview with Haraway that closes her new book is that of compost. ‘Compost is Hot’ reads the slogan of a badge produced by two of Haraway’s Santa Cruz colleagues Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle. I will definitely be talking more to Donna about compost. After all, compost is hot because decomposition resulting from the activities of billions of bacteria interacting on the basis of ‘significant otherness’ give off energy. This decomposition also releases elements that would otherwise remain trapped, which is why fermentation has been used for millennia by humans to prepare food and drink as well as medicine. Compost is also hot because it is a hot topic: if you care about reducing waste, shrinking your carbon footprint, recycling, and in general helping to offset the catastrophic effects of global warming, you should compost your food waste – which if you have room, you can also convert into fertiliser for your garden. However, many people do not have room and the amount of food waste in our society is ethically and politically scandalous. Finally, compost is hot because it’s sexy. Compost is cool: it is a political ethical labour of love, and part of a turn toward older rural lifeways as a rejection of the literally sickening global industrial food complex.
At the end of her interview, Haraway explains with characteristic force and clarity why she no longer uses the term ‘Anthropocene’ – it has too much anthro in it. ‘It’s not a “species act”: we’re not doing this as a “species.” What is happening that gets called the Anthropocene is a situated complex historical web of actions – and it could be, might have been, otherwise’. The term Haraway prefers is ‘Capitalocene’ – a term that better describes the long emergence of global migration, markets, trading and industrial development that dates back to the Middle Ages. Her model for biopolitics today is not biocapital, biomedicine or biotechnology: it is the eighteenth century plantation described by Adam Smith, and the complex historical material conditions that depend upon an intersectionality of race, class, property, kinship, nation and empire.
This model, along with compost, also suggests that in returning to the concerns with capital, the reproduction of labour power, and the tight integration between economies of production and reproduction, Haraway’s writing has come full circle – right back to the 1978 articles in Signs about the animal body politic, the politics of biology and the discourse of evolutionary progress. One way to write about Haraway’s work is simply to ask: how does Donna Haraway argue reproductive politics are related to global capitalism? We might have to set an exam question on that!