Friday, August 18, 2017

Sorry for giving you the trouble!

Staying with the Trouble may not be easy, but staying out of it is even more daunting as it amounts to denouncing the world in the expectation of an ideal world.

Trouble is what everyone avoids getting into, and yet it clings and endures. Be it small or big, transient or lasting, personal or social, local or global, there is one for each one (and at times more) at any given point in time as there isn’t any easy escape from it. Come to think of it, we are all tasked with making trouble as well as to settle troubled waters. It is said that without trouble there wouldn’t be any glory either. With most of us living in troubling, disturbing and torrid times, what sort of salvific future can we expect out of it?

Staying with the Trouble may not be easy, but staying out of it is even more daunting as it amounts to denouncing the world in the expectation of an ideal world. But is there an ideal world? Conversely, the world at large is metaphorically rooted in a bony pelvis (cover picture) that metamorphoses into a butterfly through a skeletal vertebral column that has fleshed appendages on the sides. Complicated as it is, the image is indeed transformational reflection of dying and living, that is equally disturbing and reassuring. It seems to be conveying that only through troubles can man becomes both adult and mature. As a feminist scientist with extraordinary credentials, Donna Haraway creates Chthulucene, a simple word aimed at replacing anthropocene (human influence on the planet) and capitalocene (influence of capital on humans), as a kind of timeplace for learning to stay with the trouble by taking responsibility to wipe it out too.  

As human numbers are almost certain to reach more than 11 billion by 2010, with 9 billion of those added over 150 years from 1950 to 2100, the dominant discourse oscillates between two troublesome extremes on account of impact of rising numbers on the planetary processes e.g., climate change. If there are those who are optimistic that technology will fix all troubles, then there are others who wonder if there is any sense in trying to make anything better. Haraway considers those who have answers to the present urgencies and those who don’t as equally dangerous, and uses the concept of Chthulucene to cut through human exceptionalism and the utilitarian individualism of classical political economies where possible pasts, presents, and futures can co-exist. In discussing our problematic relationship with the natural world, the author proposes the flattening of interspecies hierarchy to cultivate response-ability.

The Chthulucene is proposed as an idea of non-hierarchical multi-species world of thinking and working together. Haraway uses the spider’s web as a metaphor for a vision of the world in which there is no hierarchy between humans and nonhuman animals, where instead all lives are interwoven to guide us to possibilities of coexistence within environmental disturbance. The spider tentacles, which means ‘to feel’, help them feel attachments and detachments, and are both open and knotted at the same time. At the core of the thesis is the idea of individuality that the book challenges, and instead demands sympoiesis, making together, rather than autopoiesis, self-making. It is in new ideas and new ways of thinking, wherein lie possible solution to the old ideas that are failing as evidenced by the inequities and mania of our resource extracting economies.

Using a curious mix of cultures and mythologies, the book seeks to identify and cultivate capacity of specific bodies and places to respond to world’s urgencies with each other at the core. What finally matters is what ideas we use to think other ideas. “I am not interested in restoration, but in more modest possibilities of recuperation, and getting on together”, stresses Haraway, whose idea of rejection of rigid boundaries in A Cyborg Manifesto, separating ‘human’ from ‘animal’ and ‘human’ from "machine’, had rattled contemporary thinking when it was first published in 1984.  As a distinguished professor in the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Haraway dares to propose a process of living and dying together as an utmost urgency with the natural system on the verge of environmental break down.

The book investigates the work of interdisciplinary artists and scientists who are inventing new ways of working together, and with other species. Take the case of the pigeons, treasured kin or despised pests, which were engaged in an experiment to collect and distribute information about air quality conditions to the general public? Such gathering of data helps generate ‘imaginative action’ to enhance collective thinking to address complexities. These are not easy solutions but an array of possibilities. Staying with the Trouble is a work in progress on ideas which are aimed at developing new sensitivities and means to fostering collective response-ability. 

One reason some of the ideas seem esoteric has to do with our collective failure to view beyond the horizon. Having gone through a workshop on Narration Speculative, wherein the participants were tasked to fabulate a baby’s journey through five generations, the author could sense the melting of predicted events (ice-cap melting, sea-level rise, and species extinctions) on a piece of paper. Once through it, Haraway came out convinced to give a call ‘make kin, not babies’ in order to invoke and practice a deep responsibility to all earthlings. If we are interested in taking care of the earth then there is no way other species can be denied their right to environmental justice? Haraway thinks that we could be truly prochild of we practice kinship with other critters, as opposed to the crazy pronatalist but actually antichild world in which we live. 

Staying with the Trouble is a tough book to read, as it has long and convoluted paragraphs. It is somewhat confusing as it brings multidisciplinary aspects within a single narration. It is a work of scholarship nonetheless, one that models the world on the strength of generative ideas to avoid despair in the face of ecological destruction.

Staying with the Trouble
by Donna J Haraway
Duke University Press, Durham
Extent: 312, Price: US$26.95

This review was first published in Blink
, weekly supplement of the Hindu BusinessLine, on Aug 19, 2017.

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