Thinking about Donna Haraway’s latest book Staying with the Trouble prompted me to imagine a variation of a familiar conversation. ‘Have you read Donna Haraway’s latest book?’ I ask my imaginary interlocutor. ‘No, but I’ve seen her YouTube videos’, she replies.
Of course I frown at my friend. In the hierarchies of western knowledge it’s pretty clear that the reader occupies the higher ground in this exchange. This hierarchy applies to our culture more generally to the extent that it can inspire such impassioned musical compositions as The Rage of Thrones (aka I Read The Fucking Books). Given that this is a literary journal perhaps I should be coming down on the side of those who read the fucking books, but it’s not that simple in the fantasy genre, and it’s even less so when it comes to Haraway’s book and the many YouTube videos of the author speaking about things that matter.
What is clear from reading, watching and listening to Donna Haraway is that she is acutely aware of the different modes of thinking that are made possible through writing and speech; of the differences between the lecture and the book, the essay and the talk, and perhaps most crucially the monologue and the dialogue — both in its spoken, conversational sense and the dialogue of both literary and imaginary conversations. It is Haraway’s awareness of the possibilities for thinking in different forms and an ethical commitment to thinking with — as opposed to the myth of the thinker, doubting everything in order to really think for himself — that makes her thought so fertile and vital, in the sense of both embodying an overflowing exuberance and of being crucial to the moment that we are currently living.
I am not going to trace the lines in Haraway’s thinking that led to Staying with the Trouble. I haven’t read enough of her work to draw those lines. Instead my motivation to write this essay comes out of two broad affinities that I have with Haraway’s current thinking: a recognition of the importance of new knowledge from the biological sciences — knowledge that we might call the ‘Extended Evolutionary Synthesis’ — and an engagement with art that takes seriously the kind of thinking that it does. These two points come together in what I think is a third affinity: the idea that thinking with art and science can help us to articulate an ethics of ‘living and dying together on a damaged earth’. Haraway sums up these affinities in this clip:
While this essay focuses a little more on biology and politics I also want to make clear that I’m writing it as part of an art practice. This is a statement of disciplinary allegiance at a time when my discipline is under threat. Studios, galleries and art schools are being displaced because the market value of their street addresses trumps the maintenance of spaces for divergent thinking. I want to affirm art as a thinking practice that involves thinking with many different things; thinking with materials, thinking with space, thinking with images, thinking with people, thinking with the thoughts of other disciplines.
The decision not to read back through all of Haraway’s work isn’t just laziness on my part. It is more the product of what I take to be a disciplinary imperative to be wide rather than deep. I’m not advocating for the kind of shallowness that might come from skim reading social media feeds. Instead what I’m arguing for is the importance of grappling with the knowledge of diverse disciplines in order to think through the ecologies of knowledge that produce divergent thought.
Thinking with the thoughts of other disciplines has kept me busy enough reading journal articles about aphids, farming amoebas, photosynthetic bacteria, plant symbiosis and viruses. This mode of thinking has kept me busy enough editing microbiology podcasts into forms that help me to understand enough to think with this knowledge. I realise that I can’t know this material with anything like the depth of a microbiologist but I’m attempting to know it as best as I can in the hope that a broader perspective on how this knowledge speaks to my own discipline might lead to larger vistas. This practice seems urgent to me now.
Developing this sense of what is urgent and important now is one of the forces that moves through Haraway’s words in Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene — the subtitle of Haraway’s book — reinforces this point. It is tentacular webs of troubling relations that matter now and not the genealogies of an individual’s thought. Haraway most certainly isn’t one of those academics busily citing themselves in an attempt to generate more impact for their own research. She is, rather, concerned with articulating the dynamics of her thinking in a web of contemporary relations.
This is partly why the most pressing question for readers of Staying with the Trouble and listeners to Haraway’s recent talks is not, how does this relate to the cyborgs? (although cyborgs do get a passing mention), but rather, how do we make sense of all the critters that Haraway is thinking with now? Haraway discusses art, science and politics in a theoretical register for most of Staying with the Trouble but she also develops her own speculative imaginings of these subjects in the final chapter of the book. The way that Haraway thinks critically and creatively with art, science and politics is also an invitation for us to delve deeper — to follow some of the threads and find new string figures in the materials that she is thinking with. Haraway is fond of reminding us of Virginia Woolf’s phrase: ‘think we must’. This injunction urges us to keep going, to delve deeper into the mud, to really engage with the difficulty of thinking with and beyond the materials that she offers us.
For Haraway naming the now is central to our ability to really think the ‘thick present’. This is the present indicated by Haraway’s take on the suffix –cene:
We’ll come to the broader problem of naming the present in a moment. We can think of this conception of a thick present as a means to articulate an ethics of temporality. When we expand our present to include those stories of repression and resistance that stretch back hundreds of years, when the present includes at least the next five generations of humans living on this planet, we have to rethink what it means to act ethically. It is in this sense that the thick present is an ethical timescale.
There is perhaps also a spatial ethics in Haraway’s work, a space of thought, action, movement and exchange. Haraway’s spatial ethics — or perhaps it would be better to say her ethics of scale — might be characterised by the use of the word enough as a qualifier.
It’s worth paying close attention to when and how Haraway uses the word enough. It marks an important limit that reins in the unconstrained growth and universalising tendencies that destroy diversity, whatever its forms. All of which brings us back to the naming of the present and the term Anthropocene, a term that for Haraway runs the risk of being both too big and not big enough. It also brings us — finally — to a quote from the book:
What happens when human exceptionalism and bounded individualism, those old saws of Western philosophy and political economics, become unthinkable in the best sciences, whether natural or social? Seriously unthinkable: not available to think with.
Or to put it slightly differently, how do we rethink a present that doesn’t have at its centre that man — the Anthropos, Homo sapiens, the special ape — separate and apart from the rest of the animals, the product of political economy, Western philosophy and Christian theology?
What happens when the best biologies of the twenty-first century cannot do their job with bounded individuals plus contexts, when organisms plus environments, or genes plus whatever they need, no longer sustain the overflowing richness of biological knowledges, if they ever did? What happens when organisms plus environments can hardly be remembered for the same reasons that even Western-indebted people can no longer figure themselves as individuals and societies of individuals in human-only histories? Surely such a transformative time on earth must not be named the Anthropocene!
Despite the emphatic end to this paragraph it would be a mistake to characterise Haraway as an anti-Anthropocene fundamentalist. Elsewhere she acknowledges the nuances of the term and that it might still be of some use in the context of other ways of describing the present.
Among the terms that Haraway offers us for rethinking the present are the Capitalocene and the Plantationocene:
All of which leads us to the Chthulucene of Haraway’s title, which I read as an invocation of alternatives to the monocultural, monotheistic logic of the Plantationocene and the Capitalocene. That is to say that the Chthulucene is — in one of its many extensions — the powerfully specific tentacular webs of relatedness that are crucial to our existence. It is a name for those who are bound to the earth with all of its troubles: critters of all types for whom escape from the trouble is a techno-fantasy and staying with it involves cultivating ethical response-abilities. This trouble is not a vague sense of menace floating above us, it is specific and situated. One of the footnotes in Haraway’s definition of the Chthulucene comes in the form of a quote from Thom van Dooren’s Flight Ways: Life at the Edge of Extinction.
The brand of holist ecological philosophy that emphasizes that ‘everything is connected to everything’ will not help us here. Rather, everything is connected to something, which is connected to something else. While we may all ultimately be connected to one another, the specificity and proximity of connections matters — who we are bound up with and in what ways. Life and Death happen inside these relationships. And so, we need to understand how particular human communities, as well as those of other living beings, are entangled, and how these entanglements are implicated in the production of both extinctions and their accompanying patterns of amplified death.
Yes we are all stardust but such observations are pretty useless at this point. Instead, as is the case with Haraway’s Chthulucene, we need to consider ‘who we are bound up with and in what ways’. We need to make new knots in those webs, new ways to be bound into relationships that matter. This is where art plays a role. It is one of the means that we have for making significant bonds between ourselves and the prospects of other critters, it is — in the forms that Haraway describes — a mode of response-able thinking and acting. One of the things that the art of the Chthulucene responds to is knowledge from the biological and earth sciences. In this mode art is a means to delve deeper into the specific modes of relation that science describes and studies.
Taking Staying with the Trouble on its own terms involves doing a bit of that Chthulonic delving into the art and science that Haraway is thinking with. One of the questions here is how these materials help Haraway to articulate an ethics of ‘living and dying together on a damaged earth’. A useful place to start this delving is in the third chapter of the book, ‘Sympoiesis: Symbiogensis and the Lively Arts of Staying with the Trouble’. It begins with a definition:
Sympoiesis is a simple word: it means ‘making with.’ Nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoetic or self-organizing… Sympoiesis is a word proper to complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, historical systems… Sympoiesis enfolds autopoiesis and generatively unfurls and extends it.
Extending the notion of autopoetic life in this way is possible because we now have the genomic and molecular tools to study the relationships between microbes and multicellular life forms that make up holobionts. This term was coined by Lynn Margulis in recognition of the fact that what we once called an individual species is actually a set of symbiotic associations between a macro organism and the microbes that live on and in it. In this view we can see species as ecosystems and we can call that ecosystem the holobiont. The holobiont that we refer to as Homo sapiens is a ‘symbiotic assemblage’ that includes all of the bacteria and other microbes that help to make us what we are. All plants, animals and fungi come into being through a complex of associations with and between microorganisms. Multicellular life has evolved out of these associations and continues to depend on them.
The term sympoiesis is a way to get a handle on the complex relations that produce life. Haraway develops these ideas by discussing developmental biologist Scott Gilbert’s work. He talks about the importance of seven ‘model systems’ in developmental biology:
Namely fruit flies Drosophila melanogaster; a nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans; the mouse Mus musculis, a frog, Xenopus laevis; the zebrafish Danio rerio: the chicken Gallus gallus: and the mustard Arabidopsis thaliana.
These are some of the most intensively studied organisms on the planet. The reasons why we know these and other model species so well have a bearing on the production of institutional knowledge more generally and can help us to think about why and how we know and value certain things. Haraway’s treatment of model systems also returns us to the ethics of limits signalled by her use of the word enough.
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. A model is like a miniature cosmos, in which a biologically curious Alice in Wonderland can have tea with the Red Queen and ask how this world works, even as she is worked by the complex-enough, simple-enough world.
What constitutes a complex-enough, simple-enough world is itself a challenging question. Biology is a science that attempts to reveal something of the largely unknown complexity of organisms and ecosystems. The smallest model organism that might be added to Scott Gilbert’s list is Escherichia coli commonly known as E-coli. This bacteria has been put to work on everything from making insulin for humans to industrial fermentation and biofuel production. Despite all of the work that has been done with E-coli there is still much to be learnt about this organism within the frame of laboratory biology. Once we move outside of that frame to consider what E-coli is doing in diverse communities — like those in the wilds of our gut — we can only imagine much of the complexity of the interactions taking place. Here we can start to appreciate why what Haraway describes as ‘complex-enough, simple-enough’ models are crucial to producing knowledge in the biological sciences. Haraway develops her thinking in relation to the following quote from Gilbert:
The recognition that one’s organism is a model system provides a platform upon which one can apply for funds, and it assures one of a community of like-minded researchers who have identified problems that the community thinks are important. There has been much lobbying for the status of a model system and the fear is that if your organism is not recognised as a model, you will be relegated to the back-waters of research. Thus “model organisms” have become the center for both scientific and political discussions in developmental biology.
The politics of what becomes a model system is an important part of Haraway’s discussion. Models are never neutral. They each suggest their own webs of inquiry, their own ways of deciding what is complex-enough and simple-enough. All model systems gesture in different ways to what lies beyond them in terms of complexity that we are unable to grasp. Haraway identifies some of the problems with the seven model systems that Scott Gilbert lists:
Excellent for studying how parts (genes, cells, tissues, etc.) of well-defined entities fit together into cooperating and/or competing units, all seven of these individuated systems fail the researcher studying webbed inter- and intra-actions of symbiosis and sympoiesis, in heterogeneous temporalities and spatialities. Holobionts require models tuned to an expandable number of quasi-collective /quasi-individual partners in constitutive relatings; these relationalities are the objects of study.
Developing new model systems that are suited to the study of relationalities has important implications for both the politics and biological sciences of the twenty-first century — but building these new models is a tricky business. One of the overriding criteria for establishing a model organism is the ease with the which scientists can work with it in laboratory conditions. For every fruit fly or mouse that thrives in the lab there are many more species out there that don’t do so well. If we were to generalise about why these species don’t do well in labs we might say that they struggle to survive outside of a set of contingent ecological relations that produce them as a species or, to put it slightly differently, these species need their relationships with other species and their environment in order to survive. We might then argue that model lab critters are already those that have fewer relational dependencies and that this is one factor that has limited our understanding of how ‘constitutive relatings’ might become the object of study.
In the last fifty years traditional evolutionary trees based on the morphology of physical characteristics have been replaced by phylogenetic trees that take genetic markers as the basis for determining relatedness between species. While this shift revealed that the majority of life’s diversity is microbial, as well as helping to do away with old kingdom-based classifications by introducing the three domain model of taxonomy that is now widely accepted — bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes — it did not get us away from what microbiologist Elio Schaechter describes as the tyranny of phylogeny.
To put it simply the taxonomic preoccupations of phylogeny can blind us to the fact that organisms come into being through complex webs of constitutive relatings. While distinctions between species clearly exist they are far more blurry than simple tree diagrams would have us think. Even at a genetic level the interactions between species are turning out to be more complex that simple diagrams can accommodate. Science writer Carl Zimmer has suggested that at the microbial level the phylogenetic tree is better understood as a Gordian knot, with some compelling images to illustrate his point. I understand Schaechter’s ‘tyranny of phylogeny’ as something that operates both conceptually — scientists have the phylogenetic tree in mind as they go about their work — and at the practical level of the study of individual organisms under laboratory conditions where we might create the illusion that these organisms can be divorced from their ecological context. Let’s go back to Schaechter’s golden voice as he elaborates this point:
In this podcast Schaechter also taught me about an interesting quirk of bacterial taxonomy, one that helps us to illustrate how this tyranny of phylogeny — and the taxonomical distinctions on which it is based — plays out in the lab. For a bacterium to be given a proper name it must be cultivatable. Until you can grow it in isolation in the lab taxonomical rules dictate that you should prefix the name of the bacteria with Candidatus (the Latin word for candidate). For bacteria at least, what cannot be grown in the lab is a second order of organism. Many of our intestinal bacteria are uncultivatable precisely because they can only live in the presence of a whole slew of other bacteria. Studying relations of this kind clearly has another level of difficulty over and above the study of a model organism like E-coli or the mouse.
Aside from the technical challenges of studying relationalities such studies are also political even when they are couched in grant-friendly anthropocentric terms. The move from studying what once seemed to be clearly defined individual species to the study of how those species come into being through complex webs of relation — particularly with bacteria, but also with viruses, archaea and larger species — leads us to the perspective articulated by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis under the name of Gaia. If relation is key to both organismal and ecosystem functioning then no organism can be seen as distinct from those processes that cycle the nutrients and gases on which all life depends. No one object of study can be isolated.
The study of relation leads us from the smallest life forms — among them the photosynthesising, ocean-dwelling bacteria Prochlorococcus — to the largest biological scale of the earth system, with what are often startlingly specific connections between scales. Part of Margulis’ contribution to the Gaia theory was to articulate the significance of the role that microbes play in the non-equilibrium homeostasis of the planet. Microbes are responsible for making Gaia and are central to its metabolic functioning. On a simple and relatively tangible level half of the oxygen we breathe comes from the photosynthesising microbes in the ocean. Trees and forests are sometimes called the ‘lungs of the planet’ but microbes are every bit as important to the air we breathe.
Lynn Margulis looms large in Donna Haraway’s thinking and rightly so. Margulis was a remarkable scientist and thinker. Her many books — including the classic Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Evolution from Our Microbial Ancestors (1986), written with her son Dorian Sagan — do not receive the attention that is lavished on the books of her contemporary Richard Dawkins. This reflects a number of larger biases in twentieth-century biological and evolutionary sciences; the study of animal evolution over evolution in other domains, the study of the visible over the microbial, the study of competition over cohabitation, the study of vertically transmitted nuclear genes over hologenomic associations, and the gender bias that has privileged the views of men of science over their female colleagues. Even as the technical limitations that have led to some of these biases have been overcome, certain strands in evolutionary thought continue to overlook the importance of something as fundamental as the origins of the eukaryotic cells that make all visible life possible. Here Donna Haraway points to the important contribution that Lynn Margulis made to our understanding of this subject:
The good news is that many of the biases of twentieth-century biology are shifting. The new model systems of twenty-first century biology are capable of studying something of the incredible complexity of relations through which organisms and ecosystems come into being. In Staying with the Trouble Donna Haraway talks about a number of these systems including Nicole King’s study of choanoflagellates, aquatic filter-feeders that can live as both single cells and in multicellular forms.
This clip returns us to the difficulty of establishing this kind of relational model system. When King began her study of choanoflagellates it was known that they could form multicellular rosettes in the wild but these organisms lost their ability to do so when they were grown in the lab. In order to establish choanoflagellates as a model system for studying the development of animal multicellularity Nicole King had to get that rosette-forming ability happening in laboratory cultures. It took some time to work out that the presence of a particular bacteria is required for the formation of multicellular choanoflagellate rosettes.
The implication here is that the particular antibiotics used selectively killed certain bacteria while leaving relatively unharmed the one that causes the development of multicellularity. This is one of a number of stories that Haraway uses to illustrate the biology of sympoiesis, in this case the choanoflagellate becoming with the bacteria that induces multicellularity, a story that is big-enough to tell us something about the processes that make us what we are.
Haraway also discusses Margret McFall-Ngai’s work with the Hawaiian bobtail squid and Nancy Moran’s work on various aspects of aphid symbiosis. We might add Sallie Chisholm’s work with Prochlorococcus — the photosynthesising bacteria that I mentioned earlier — to this list. These women have been central to establishing the organisms that they work with as model systems for studying specific aspects of the relationships and interactions between bacteria and other life forms that are crucial to organismal and ecosystem functioning. Donna Haraway’s comments about King’s work are equally true of all of these new model systems.
I’d like to tell you a little bit about another example of a science of the Chthulucene, Nancy Moran’s work with aphid symbiosis. While there are anthropocentric reasons to study aphids — particularly those related to agricultural pest control — the kind of tentacular thinking that happens when we think into the intricate webs of species relation in our study of the aphid holobiont greatly diminishes the importance of our utilitarian concerns as a species. Our focus quickly shifts to the strange alliances and pressures that characterise the biological sciences beyond the narrow frame of anthropocentric priorities and predator/prey competition.
Aphids allow us to reconsider what was for Darwin a troubling wrinkle in the competition between species, the life cycle of the parasitoid wasp. These wasps are a diverse bunch, each adapted to parasitising particular insect species. They lay their eggs inside the body of the insect so that their larvae might eat that body from the inside out to become an adult wasp. Darwin was so concerned by this wrinkle that it caused him to question his faith in a creator God.
I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars …
I’d like to be able to better empathise with Darwin’s great crisis of faith, and the role that the parasitoid wasp played in it, but in the more secular world of twenty-first century biology it seems rather quaint. Aphids, like so many insects, are the victims of Darwin’s monsters. However, the evolutionary pressures created by parasitoid wasp predation are responsible for creating some unlikely entanglements and alliances that put into relief the wrinkle created by Darwin’s worries.
Aphids have an obligate symbiotic association with a bacteria that provides them with essential nutrients that they can’t get from the plant sap that is their only food. It turns out that aphids also associate with other bacteria that come and go depending on the threats they face from predators. One bacteria in particular helps them with their wasp problem: the aptly named Hamiltonella defensa. Aphids that carry this bacteria are largely resistant to Darwin’s nightmarish parasites. This in itself is kind of cool, but it is only half the story.
What actually protects the aphid isn’t the bacteria but a virus that infects it. It is this virus inside the bacteria that stops the wasp’s eggs from growing in the aphid body. The virus kills some of the Hamiltonella defensa cells that it infects — but without the virus Hamiltonella has nothing to offer the aphid. Aphid, bacteria and virus form this fragile alliance — what Donna Haraway might call complex a ‘natural-cultural’ assemblage — because of the presence of the wasp that threatens to wipe out all three parties. Carl Zimmer sums up this alliance in this excerpt from an interview that he conducted with Nancy Moran:
Here we might echo Haraway: of course competition exists but the unlikely alliances that it produces are surely the more interesting part of the story.
My discussion of the parasitoid wasp and the raising of Darwin’s spectre is not an attempt to retrospectively restore his faith. I described his theological concern with the wasp as quaint. That was a little unfair. Perhaps it is better to ask why Darwin’s concern persists in various ways. This might involve considering how the negation of belief — if it is secular at all — is only barely secular, operating as it does within a Christian frame of thought. In Darwin’s case his limited knowledge of parasitoid ecology and his Christian morality leads him toward the conclusion that a Christian God is unlikely to exist.
How would Darwin’s thought and the subsequent trajectories of biological thinking have been different if they were responding not to monotheistic faith but rather to a form of animism in which agency and spirit are thoroughly distributed? While I think this is an important question, I don’t have any immediate answers to it — but it does lead us to another way of approaching animism and our tenuous secularity, and that is via a discussion titled ‘The Challenge of Animism’ between Donna Haraway and Isabelle Stengers.
We can extend this idea by considering how a narrow positivist rationalism might wield the same powers of eradication and epistemicide that Christianity has in its various collaborations with colonial power. Haraway and Stengers do so here:
Hearing these two clips lets us reflect a little more on the kind of thinking that Haraway does in her talks. It is clear from listening to Haraway here and elsewhere that she revels in the possibilities for thinking with that speech provides, that speaking — as opposed to reading aloud — brings its own possibilities for sympoetic emergence through the immediate feedback that you get from paying attention to the way that others are attending to the words that you say. Improvised speech is a form of relational thought and intelligence in a way that scripted language can never be and part of this form of thought involves speculating on the thoughts of others. Listen to Haraway talk about Margulis here:
More broadly Donna Haraway takes great pleasure in the tangles of speaking, in the unexpected knots that unscripted speech can tie, in the fact that when we speak sometimes words don’t turn into sentences but instead have their own way with us. I say this not because I know Haraway well, or even at all in person, but because speculating on what others might think and feel is part of Haraway’s way of working. To do so is an ethical act precisely because our speculations might turn out to be wrong. In this mode, speculating on the thoughts of others is concerned with getting it right only to the extent that this sort of thinking is an exercise in empathetic entanglement. But it’s an entanglement that can fall apart and that falling apart can become the centre of the work. This is a kind of understanding that happens in the messiness and mistakes of thinking with and between.
There are many YouTube videos in which Donna Haraway engages in this sort of thinking with and between the thoughts of those who have helped to shape her own thinking. You can find Donna Haraway sharing a platform with Anna Tsing, Eduardo Kohn, Marilyn Strathern, and Isabelle Stengers, all of whom are part of the formal structure of reference in Staying with the Trouble. One of the things that we see in these conversations is Haraway’s determination to deal with those aspects of her interlocutors’ thinking that are most troubling to her and to do so without resorting to dismissive critique. There’s a recognition here that what troubles us — not those things that are easily dismissed because they are in such stark opposition to our own world-making but those things that we find genuinely troubling — that such things are productive, they are the fertile ground of thought. Engaging with what we find troubling becomes a means to make new knots in webs of relatedness. It is a way to be bound to relationships of thought that matter. In this sense staying with the trouble is a practice of Chthulonic thinking, of sensing and responding with the acuity of touch that we find in our tentacular cousins.
You can see Haraway grappling with one such troubling notion in a seminar called ‘The Challenge of Animism’ that we’ve already heard excerpts from here. Part of Haraway’s response to Isabelle Stengers involves trying to work out what Stengers might mean when she uses the phrase ‘thou shalt not regress’ in relation to animism.
For the sake of brevity I’ll skim over what led Haraway to the following statement in which she articulates how she understands Stengers troubling turn of phrase.
While I share Haraway’s concern with the phrase ‘thou shalt not regress’ her determination to figure out what Stengers might mean by the phrase has helped me see the important work that this imperative is doing in Stengers’ argument. By staying with what she finds most troubling in Stengers’ thought Haraway articulates a number of important ideas about belief and truth before moving to the importance of ‘experimental practices where consequences are at stake’. For both Haraway and Stengers this could equally be experimental scientific practices or the experimental practices of art and animism. What matters here is not just the worlds produced by scientific inquiry but also the other worlds produced by experimental practices of all kinds in which the problem — the risk, the danger, the mess — of an engagement with forces we don’t fully comprehend, of our experiments not turning out as we might want, hope or imagine, is fundamental to the practice. This has nothing to do with the lazy relativism of ‘post-truth’ but it is concerned with contingent truth produced by risky, experimental practices. These practices might involve gene editing, video games or sentient mountains, each in different experimental configurations, each with its own risks and each with an ethical commitment to avoiding pronouncements on what is really real.
In this clip I find another affinity between my way of working and Donna Haraway’s. I am wide but not deep and my only claim to expertise is in the visual arts — and even within that field I have no great depth of knowledge in any one area. The kind of practice that I’m schooled in, and which I engage with in my studio, does not occupy any of the old divisions in visual arts activity (painting, sculpture, ceramics etc.) but rather is a practice in which particular media are chosen based on their suitability to the task of thinking through particular ideas.
To put it slightly differently, to be an artist in this mode is to make strategic decisions about media in relation to the imperatives of thought. Haraway is as finely attuned to these kinds of decisions as any artist who works in this way. This is partly what I’m getting at when I talk about the differences in Haraway’s thinking through writing and speech and this is one of the reasons why I find her discussion of art so compelling. Art is never a rarefied object of formal analysis in Haraway’s work. It is always situated in relation to other forms of knowledge and, crucially, its ideas and processes — the thinking it does and that we do with it — have the potential to disrupt other ways of knowing and create new ways of doing politics. Haraway’s discussion of Margaret Wertheim and Christine Wertheim’s Crochet Coral Reef project helps to illustrate this point:
Haraway’s engagement with art in Staying with the Trouble goes beyond this kind of discussion of the Crochet Coral Reef and the other examples of ‘science art worldings’ that she cites. Haraway’s Chthulucene involves describing the webs of ‘who we are bound up with and in what ways’ but also finding ways of making new knots in those webs. This really comes to the fore in the ‘The Camille Stories’; a series of speculative fabulations that form the final chapter of Staying with the Trouble. The Camilles – five generations of them – are syms; humans who have been genetically modified to enter in symbiosis with animals of various kinds. Camille 1’s symbiotic fusing with the monarch butterfly causes changes in the colouration of her skin that mirror various stages in the transition from caterpillar to mature butterfly.
All of the symbiont children developed both visible traits and subtle sensory similarities to their animal partners in early childhood.
Here the Camille stories reimagine how the technologies of genetic modification have been appropriated by humans. Haraway invokes the production of GMOs, herbicide resistant plants and pesticides that have destroyed the plants that monarch butterflies depend on for sustenance during their migrations. However rather than appealing to the myth of an unalterable natural order she offers us an alternative use of genetic modification, one that creates diversity among humans and aligns our fate with species whose ‘life ways’ we have disrupted or destroyed.
This is a vision that is more aligned to the way that genetic modification has functioned throughout evolution. The aphids that I mentioned earlier contain carotenoid genes – similar to the ones that make carrots orange – that they acquired from a fungus and that underlie changes in their colouration between red and green, changes that depend on the predatory pressures exerted by ladybeetles and Darwin’s favourite insects the parasitoid wasps. In both these kinds of complex natural-cultural assemblage and in Haraway’s syms acquiring genes from other organisms is a driver of diversity and novelty that expands the possibilities for living and dying together.
Those who celebrated the emancipatory power of social media in the wake of the Arab Spring are now finding fake news in their feed. In place of emancipation social media is producing a kind of illiterate writing that at worst involves the invention of fact; writing that produces the distracting noise of our rush to offer half-formed opinions on current events, opinions that cannot wait for the event to pass, that cannot pause to reflect, opinions that we must consume with the event. Social media in this mode places a premium on opinion over the gathering of stories, over thinking with and telling those stories, over developing those stories through many different kinds of work.
This is the kind of thinking that Haraway models in Staying with the Trouble and in her many YouTube videos, thinking that brings us to a broader point. While social media might be facilitating illiterate writing and thinking the internet also provides a platform for new forms of oral literacy and this is something worth celebrating. On a deep cultural level the production of new literate, oral cultures online is cause for cautious hope.
Haraway also provides us with the means to think about how the kinds of biological model systems that she describes might apply to thought in the humanities. In fact Haraway’s own methods are a kind of model that draw on the way that the new biological sciences produce knowledge. A single author paper in contemporary biological sciences is a very rare thing. The kind of thought that biologists do involves thinking with in a way that is foreign to many humanities scholars. Lab work and the publications that work generates are almost always collaborative. We might understand Donna Haraway’s work in similar terms. In this way Staying with the Trouble reads more like a series of interwoven multi-authored papers than a monograph aimed at filling a knowledge gap in a particular field.
Another way to approach the thinking that Haraway does in Staying with the Trouble, and in the spoken form, is to consider how she takes seriously the task of doing work with and through the relationships that shape her as a thinking subject among other thinking subjects. This involves showing how her thinking develops, rather than erasing the process that produces particular ideas. The biological systems that Haraway discusses can be thought of as modelling aspects of these constituative relatings among thinking subjects.
Here we can return to Nicole King’s work with her favorite choanoflagellate, S. rosetta. King and her collaborators have now found a suite of molecules that contribute to multicellular rosette formation and discovered that these molecules can come from many different bacteria. There are many consituative relatings that trigger the thinking in S. Rosetta that produces multicellular forms.
I am not speaking metaphorically here. As Donna Haraway teaches us, ‘a model is not the same kind of thing as a metaphor or analogy’. While there are undoubtedly many who will want to hold on to thinking as an exclusively human activity, the thinking with that Haraway does, and models, goes beyond such conceptions. We don’t just think with S. rosetta in a metaphorical sense or as a kind of abstracted diagram but rather thinking with S. rosetta means attempting to get inside its thinking process, it means testing our capacity for empathetic projection, making a genuine attempt to think the thoughts of a choanoflagellate, not because we must get it right, but because we know that interesting work, and working out, happens in the messiness and mistakes of thinking with and between.
Anthropomorphising can be a problematic business but we might learn from Donna Haraway and others that a certain rigorous kind of anthropomorphic thought can help us to find better ways of living and dying together and can help us move beyond the wholesale death and destruction that we’ve created through our anthropocentric ways.
Humanities and social science modes of research that emphasise finding gaps in existing knowledge as the first stage in developing a project are modelled on a strange nineteenth-century scientistic ideal of knowledge production and ‘thinking one thinking practice at a time’. The promise of this kind of scholarship is depth of knowledge in one particular area. Just as biologists might study a clearly defined single organism – E-coli, the fruit fly, the mouse — literary critics might build their careers by specialising in a single author; a kind of model system for the study of literature.
While it is surely questionable whether scientistic ideals should apply to the humanities and social sciences at all, you would think that we might at least update our scientism to the twenty-first century. In her consideration of new model systems in biology and their relationship to art Donna Haraway’s work goes well beyond this modest aim. Her work brings together the arts and sciences in a web of thinking that could never come into being by trying to identify a gap in any one field, that could never emerge by thinking one knowledge practice at a time. In the context of universities that are increasingly driven by the dictates of the ‘knowledge economy’, dictates that involve quantifying all aspects of knowledge production, depth of knowledge becomes more and more embedded as a key value. Depth of knowledge is measurable. Knowing enough about a broad range of subjects to weave an interesting web of meaning is more difficult to quantify. For this reason this kind of thinking becomes a means to resist the quantifying drive of the knowledge economy. Staying with the Trouble shows us how we might do some of this thinking; it is chthulonic thinking, it is vital thinking, it is thinking that really matters now.
Given how I began this essay it would be a little too easy to end it with an emphatic imperative – read the fucking book – but this would be to undermine the argument that I’ve been making here. Instead — given the amazing knowledge that scientists, artists and thinkers of all stripes are disseminating in many and varied forms; given the urgency of the political, social and environmental crises that we are facing; given the array of tools available to us for exploring different modes of thinking and doing politics — I end by echoing the phrase that has echoed through the voices of Isabelle Stengers and Donna Haraway, the phrase penned by Virginia Woolf in the form of another imperative; think we must.
It falls to us now to go on thinking… Think we must. Let us think in offices; in omnibuses; while we are standing in the crowd watching Coronations and Lord Mayor’s Shows; let us think as we pass the Cenotaph; and in Whitehall; in the gallery of the House of Commons; in the Law Courts; let us think at baptisms and marriages and funerals. Let us never cease from thinking — what is this “civilization” in which we find ourselves? What are these ceremonies and why should we take part in them? What are these professions and why should we make money out of them? Where in short is it leading us…?
Food for thought
Donna Haraway, 2016 Anthropocene Consortium Series.
Donna Haraway and Isabelle Stengers, ‘Sawyer Seminar: The Challenge of Animism’ recorded 20 May 2013.
Nicole King, Nels Elde, and Vincent Racaniello, ‘TWiEVO 11: Microbial accomplices in multicellularity’, This Week in Evolution, episode 11, 27 September 2016.
Nicole King, ‘Choanoflagellates and the origin of animal multicellularity’, iBioSeminars, 2014.
Nancy Moran and Carl Zimmer, ‘The Incredible Shrinking Microbe’, Meet The Scientist episode 55, 4 August 2010.
Elio Schaechter, Vincent Racaniello and Michael Schmidt, ‘TWiM 34: Doing the DISCO with Emiliania’, This Week in Microbiology, episode 34, 4 June 2012.
Elio Schaechter, Vincent Racaniello and Michael Schmidt, ‘TWiM 61: The irony of probiotics’, This Week in Microbiology, episode 61, 7 August 2013.