Not letting a quote hang in space

We often hear, or tell our students, not to just let quotes hang out in space. Sometimes we say that they should not end a paragraph with a quote, or that it’s important to explain why the quote is there, in the chapter or paper or whatever. This exercise is to warm up how to do that. So, pick a quote from something you’re working with – it could be an interview transcript or a text or a cultural artifact. Write the following four sentences in order. Don’t go back and fuss with each sentence after you’ve written it, just move forward.

1. The most obvious thing about this quote is (something that you think is really obvious)…
2. One could argue that (a contradiction or something that is not obvious about the quote)…
3. But what is really important to note/hear/understand in this quote …
4. And so/Thus/, “(Try to re-state a particularly poignant or important phrase from the quotation)”.

I think this is a useful exercise because it gives us some scaffolding for just getting an explanation out there about quotes we use – a subset of this exercise would be to look at several examples in your specific ongoing academic conversation and try to abstract out the general “moves” or implicit rules for unpacking quotes. When we feel like quotes are self-explanatory or just really brilliant, practicing laying out why they’re brilliant or what they’re saying is useful, because often we’re not conscious of just how much we’re bringing to the quote as writers. Bringing ourself to the quotes, and offering them to our readers, is really one of the things we’re trying to do as writers.

Containment vs Care

Against the Grain consistently offers incredible programming about social movements, history, books, ideas, and contemporary issues. They’ve been doing episodes on the politics of pandemics, including a number where they talked with experts who study pandemics and, latterly, people who more do analysis (like me). I was really happy to speak with Sasha Lilley last week about what I’ve learned from talking with long-term AIDS activists over the last six years. The episode is up in audio format, and because there’s a professor interested in including it in a class, my incredibly generous parents, who also happen to be speedy typists, transcribed the interview. I’ll paste that below. The episode aired May 4th, 2020.

Today on Against the Grain: The Coronavirus has laid bare the divisions and inequalities of our society. It has also exposed the stark differences and possible approaches to the pandemic. Radical scholar, Alexis Shotwell, argues that we need to frame our fight as one for collective care, rather than for containment and control.

SL: From the studios of KPFA in Berkeley, California, this is Against the Grain on Pacific Radio. I’m Sasha Lilley.

In the throes of the pandemic, it’s hard to see our way to the end of it, much less beyond, but my guest today argues that we need to be struggling for a better world in the future, as well as in the present. She points to how activists during the HIV/AIDS epidemic fought on behalf of the larger collective good, and that we should re-learn those lessons of solidarity. Alexis Shotwell is Professor in Carleton University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. She is also co-director of the AIDS Activist History Project.

It’s easy, Alexis, to think of the coronavirus simply as an infectious agent, to think of it simply in biological terms. But when we speak of what Covid-19 has wrought, we’re often actually talking about the political and social notions that have been created by human beings. What have you observed about how we are relating to the idea of the coronavirus?

AS: It’s a good question. So, one of the key things that I’ve learned about studying viruses, studying illness, thinking about how things manifest and what shape they take, comes out a lot in talking to people who do science and technology studies, that comes out in thinking about the social and political history of illnesses, and that’s to say that there isn’t a way to tell what an illness is or what a virus is without also telling a story about the social world that it comes out of and manifests. So this true when we look at historical examples, so thinking about even what it means to define a virus, to be able to put a boundary around it and know what it is, has always been a real question. One of the earliest kind of science and technology studies, books, was called “The Making of a Scientific Fact.” It looked at the ways that syphilis was something that was very hard to define, because it had lots of different manifestations, because of who it affected and how. So on the one hand, we want to be able to say: We know that this is a virus. We know that we can describe it. We can map it. But when we’re talking about it as a pandemic, maybe that’s an interesting way to make a distinction here—the difference between a virus and a pandemic, is largely about the social relations that come into being around what a virus is in practice.

SL: And you’ve written about how the notion of containment shapes our notion of the virus, but also shapes our notion of ourselves, of what policies should be taken, and of course we’ve seen this play out in pretty stark terms, in terms earlier on, with the notion that the coronavirus could be contained within the borders of nation-states.

AS: If we start thinking about viruses as relationships, then we can start seeing what kind of relationships are being practiced. And right away, when global responses to the coronavirus started, there was a tendency or pattern to say: We’re going to contain this virus in other places, in other countries. We’ll close our borders, and we’ll be safe if we do that. This is a reasonable, or we understand why that is a move. There’s this desire to be safe inside. Safe inside anywhere, really. Safe inside a country. Safe inside a neighborhood. Safe inside a house.

But the logic of containment has two problems. The first problem is that it doesn’t work forever and it maybe never really works, scientifically or in terms of transmission. So the practice of containment is never actually possible. It can have some good effects in terms of slowing down transmission of viruses, but pretty quickly, and certainly as soon as something becomes pandemic, it’s necessary to take on other approaches that mostly we talk about has harm reduction approaches, or approaches that look at what it means to say, given that this is here with us, how are we going to live with it, how are we going to try to protect as many people as possible from suffering and death. So the logic of containment, it never actually is possible to contain a virus through borders of countries.

The other problem with the logic of containment is it very quickly folds into policing practices, basically. So the idea that borders can be solid, that you can keep bad people out, and then good people won’t get hurt. And that logic of containment or policing the virus ends up moving through ongoing ways that people are practicing being in relation with this virus. So we see a turn using that same kind of approach toward asking people to police their neighbors, to call the cops on them if they are having parties, to put people in prison if they are endangering others.

So both of the ways that we think about the logic of containment as a sort of border guard or as a cop end up hurting the people who are already targeted by borders and policing. So both of those approaches, we can do much better than them, in terms of having different relationships with this coronavirus and with illness and viruses in general.

SL: So in terms of how we think of the actions we know we need to take, in terms of protecting each other, the kind of social distancing that is necessary, it is a complicated situation, of course. On the one hand, you’ve got people on the far right are saying no social distancing is necessary. Yet for us, the act of social distancing, which I think you could say is really an act of solidarity–I mean, it’s self-protection, but it is much more—also has other affects which are real and hard, and even have very direct health consequences, which is the kind of isolation that we need to take can be very harming to many people, or maybe to all of us. And how do you think about this question of social distancing as a collective action, because usually when we are acting on the Left collectively, it really means coming together physically, and we are, of course, doing the opposite.

AS: So the first, and I think the most important thing, is to really look at any of the times when we can be practicing social distancing as forms of community care. And absolutely, I think in North America that was really inspiring. Right? So right away, millions of people were substantially changing their lives, even before there were government orders to do this, in order to protect thousands of people. So a really profound and profoundly beautiful act of community care. That possibility is so clearly supported or disrupted by the kinds of social structures that are put in place as this pandemic goes on. So at this point, I think, and I’m speaking from Canada where things are not easy, but because of the money that the government is dispersing to people, they are substantially easier than things are there. And it also is substantially different that people have basic health care that is not tied to their workplace. So especially as this time continues, the question of what community care looks like past people able to do physical distancing, do so, is really something we need to think about and practice. A comrade in my political collective, Amanda Wilson, wrote one of the earliest pieces that I’ve seen about taking a harm reduction approach to physical distancing. There’s a number of ways we can hold this in mind if we say, we’re going to take an approach to this virus that is based on practice of community care, rather than a practice of containment and individualist, self-responsiblization to protect our own selves and our own family.

There’s a couple key things that I’ve seen coming out that feel really important and generative for us on the Left right now. The first I think is looking at the ways people like Sophie Lewis in her work on the abolition of the family. Michell O’Brian, as well,  thinking about the abolition of the family form. And also Kim Tallbear who has been looking at the ways that structures of dyadic monogamy set up a perpetuation of settler-colonialism that is organized around the idea that you have a family unit who is protected in a single-family dwelling, and they’re going to be the unit at which all care will happen. In so many ways, we can recognize that this is a harmful lie. The idea that everyone will just suddenly be able to do everything for their kids, and people who are vulnerable or that people who live alone are going to be able to just manage—right away then it’s really clear that this is an impossible situation to maintain for very long. We need to have social worlds in which we take care of each other. We need that for people who are in situations of domestic violence that they cannot currently escape. We need that for kids to have social worlds that aren’t just adults who happen to be with them right now. We need that for elder people. These approaches to thinking about a world in which there’s the possibility of social and collective care for each other, it matters more than ever that we continue to claim those spaces and advocate for them, and imagine them. It’s really vital, especially as we look at how some, and it’s really been interesting to see how sort of disaggregated the Right is about the approach to coronavirus, but very strong tendencies, as the person’s sign said that was circulating on the news: Sacrifice the Weak. So the kind of eugenicist mode of let’s open up the country, let’s let the weak die.

The way we’re going to fight that is having a version of this world where it’s visible and palpable that we all want to take care of each other. And just because people don’t have jobs, they are not going to lose, they shouldn’t lose health care.

There’s a number of approaches of practicing being with each other against the kind of death regime that we’re always fighting. We’ve been fighting it before this virus came out. And that fight is just intensifying and getting more difficult, as we move further into this. But it’s not going to work for us to just say, we want everyone who can to stay home. We have actually need to start building networks of solidarity that support people that have to be working right, that support the people that are front-line care-givers. We just beginning to imagine that stuff now.

SL: I’m speaking with Alexis Shotwell. She’s Professor in Sociology at Carleton University, and her writings on the politics of the coronavirus can be found on our website againstthegrain.org. I’m Sasha Lilley.

Well, Alexis, you have been deeply involved in documenting the struggles of Canadian activists in the 1980s and 90s against the criminalization and stigmatization of people living with HIV/AIDS and it’s telling how little the experiences and lessons of AIDS and the struggle around HIV/AIDS has been referenced by the mainstream media during these months of the coronavirus. I wanted to ask you what differences and similarities strike you in thinking of the two?

AS: I think about the question everyday of how this virus is different from HIV and how the response to the coronavirus pandemic is different than the response to the AIDS epidemic. One thing that is really remarkable is that it’s really similar between these, is the idea that somehow, rich people or mainstream, so that some people would be unaffected and therefore not need to take any kind of action. During the early years of HIV, the pool of people who were disregarded, who were related to as not being worth fighting for or defending were gay men, mostly. Although there was also the equally horrifying tendency to say also people who are injection drug users and people who were, there was this period of time in the early days of the epidemic, they were called The Four H’s—homosexuals, Haitians, heroin-users, HIV-positive injection drug users, and then hemophiliacs were the sort of innocents who were ones who didn’t deserve to have HIV, as the narrative went at that time.

There was a health official in Ottawa, Ontario, who said, actually on-record said, I don’t see what the problem here is. There’s HIV and there’s gay men, and the problems are going to solve each other.

SL: Wow.

AS: So this overtly death-cult quality of neglect. One of the things I think we can say happened also with Covid-19 is that some of the early narratives said, “This is a very serious virus, but don’t worry, it only affects the old and people who already have pre-existing health conditions.” So there was a nearly identical, but of course with very different content, move to say, “We do not need to commit social resources to this because the people affected by it are disposable.” And so that similarity, for me, has been, has cued me to think that one of the things we can do on the left is to say, “Let’s look at who is considered disposable and let’s orient our political response around deciding that they are not disposable.” So let’s start with the people who are in jail right now, let’s start with the people who don’t have houses to self-isolate in, let’s start with the people who don’t have money to live.

So if we begin with the people that are considered disposable, my research with the history of AIDS activism teaches me that that is a good footing for us to fight the intensification of immiseration that pandemics open for people who want to take advantage of them. The next thing comes back to something I was saying earlier about harm reduction. So during these years, as it became evident through peoples’ attention to their social world what practices were transmitting HIV there was a space where it became clear that it’s like, “Look, everyone could be HIV positive, and here are the practices that will quite potentially transmit this virus.”

And at that point some people did just stop doing all these practices, but there were quite a lot of people who took this different orientation and practiced a form of community care. So they said, “We are not going to give up the collective practices of having sex, of using drugs, of living with cats [laughs], we’re just going to assume that everyone we’re interacting with, everyone we’re have sex with, everyone we live with, everyone we use drugs with, they’re all positive. And so we’re going to have harm reduction practices that mean that that’s a safe enough thing to do.” So that meant needle exchanges, that meant getting latex into prisons, recognizing that people would still have sex, that meant eroticizing latex. So it was a massive community transformation that meant that you could have a whole lot of practices that were safe enough, and that that meant you had a lot of people who could continue the kind of collective life world that was so massively disrupted by HIV and AIDS.

Now, it is a totally different situation for us here. It doesn’t make sense for us to say, “We want to barbecue,” or like, “I want a haircut,” because this is a different virus. So we can collectively be asking, “What are the practices of harm reduction and care we can take that will not destroy everything that makes our life good, and lively?” And so that’s probably going to mean having really good antibody testing that we actually can trust, increasingly, and who knows in a month what the science will look like, but it does seem increasingly that if everyone is wearing cloth masks, transmission goes down measurable amounts that actually can make this a community-level survivable situation.

SL: One of the things of course that makes Covid different than HIV/AIDS is that although initially, as you say, there was in both cases you heard the voicing of sentiment that it was OK if some people died. But with the Corona virus we are now in a situation where most of the economy is shut down, so quite a different reaction than with HIV/AIDS. Not that that would have benefitted people during that pandemic, but there was no equivalent action taken. And certainly the massive harnessing of scientific research and medicine toward finding a cure that’s going on now, or finding a vaccine or anti-virals, again, nothing equivalent during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but you do, as you mentioned, have some populations who are really being left to be sacrificed.

And I’m particularly thinking here of prisoners, because there’s no way to social distance in prison, in the way that needs to happen, and the virus is spreading really rapidly. How do you see the plight of people in those kinds of circumstances, how people on the left should be addressing this, because obviously there has been work for many, many years around ending mass incarceration. But the fact is that that’s where we are right now and it’s quite difficult for us to protest and exert our collective power when we are all trying to socially distance.

AS: So thinking about the way that this moment can open space for us to transform social relations, which is one of things that I think is hopeful and that I want us to hold in view. Witnessing the ways that it has become more legible to people that right now prison is a death sentence really has been opening, I think, some spaces for people to say, Oh, mass incarceration doesn’t make any sense! So anyone who’s done work on this has been, Yeah, we need to de-carcerate massively. I feel like I’ve seen more people start to understand the absolute injustice and ridiculousness of people being stuck in prisons under conditions of this coronavirus, and seeing that actually open a window for them to contemplate that it was never okay that this many people were in these conditions in prisons. I’ve been heartened by that at the same time that it’s not, we’re not winning. The place that the prisons where the coronavirus is spreading so quickly and so terrifyingly, that didn’t have to happen. So looking at people like David Gilbert who was someone who did a lot of organizing around HIV and AIDS during the 90s and has now been working on how to protect people who are inside from the spread of Covid-19.

SL: And he’s a prisoner himself.

AS: He’s a prisoner himself, yes, sorry, I should have said that. He was involved in creating this very important project called PEPA, the prisoner’s education project on AIDS, which saved many lives inside. The difficult thing now is that this virus moves so much faster than any current institution is moving. Now, there have been some important wins on people getting out. But in the context of not a lot of social support, as they are moving to the outside and moving into where do you go? Where do you live? As you are transitioning out of jail or prison. So looking at what it means for us who are tracking who’s being made sacrificable, and how we can move on that when we can’t physically get together to protest? I feel like it’s one of these places where we can look at how we’re connected to the things that we care about, and that we can start leveraging and getting traction on some those things. So people who have lovers, friends, kids, parents in prison are really starting to amplify, I do not want this prison sentence to be a death sentence for them.

So some of the work that we can be doing is just starting to amplify where we are, but a lot of what we can be doing now is asking, What structures we can put in place that will build toward, as we move out of the current period into producing more collective care, less policing, more social support for one another. One of the things I heard a lot in doing this history of AIDS activism was this really important, amazing, brilliant man, George Smith, who was involved with a project called AIDS Action Now, his sort of tagline, which a lot of people took up, he said we need demonstrations and documents. So the demonstrations are how we manifest power, collective power. But we also want to move into any government office that’s making a decision about our lives and lay down for them the policy that we think they should put in place. So he was like, you can’t accomplish anything with just documents, but you can accomplish more with demonstrations if you also have the documents.

So I think that all of us are stressed out right now, so maybe it’s not the best time for us to be drafting policy and laying down plans for how things should go. But it is also not the worst time. It also is a time when we can set up some of the plans for the world that we want, so we’re ready. Because I think we know that people who make money off of other people’s misery, they are setting up plans for how to come out of the pandemic and make a profit. And I’d like us to come out of this as much as we can with plans for leaving the pandemic and changing the world, and making it a world where more of us can live and flourish. So we can’t do demonstrations, but I think we could work on some of the documents.

SL: This is Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio. I’m Sasha Lilley. I’m speaking with Alexis Shotwell. She’s co-director of the AIDS Activist History Project, which documents the struggles of Canadian activists in the 1980s and 90s against the stigmatization and criminalization of people living with HIV/AIDS. She’s the author of Knowing Otherwise and Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times. I’m Sasha Lilley. This is Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio.

The point that you were making about drafting visions for the future, it seems that if there is one clear lesson that can be drawn looking at the history of the Right over decades, it’s that they organized with the long view in mind. And it seems to me that there is the danger in the middle of this pandemic as we are documenting the horrors, as we are considering all the different dimensions of the pandemic, who it’s most affecting, the forms it’s taking, that we lose sight of what we should be demanding now. And also coming out of this pandemic, I think it’s instructive to know that following the 1918/1919 Spanish influenza which killed so many people, that in the 1920s many of the countries that we afflicted with the Spanish influenza ended up adopting universal healthcare. But none of that would have happened automatically. That obviously came out of the organization and activism of people. I think it’s easy to get caught up in pessimism in moment of crisis, I mean why not, on some level, things are dire. But that that can cloud the capacity to think about demands, start formulating them and figuring out how to make them. And I know that you’ve written about how we in some ways balance these personal struggles with our greater politics. Do you have any thoughts on how in the middle of crisis, in the depth of crisis, do we think about the long-term, and even think about things that are positive?

AS: I think this is so important because the pressure I think a lot of us feel is to protect ourselves or to become smaller and try to shield the people nearest us, the theoretical or technical word for a lot of what’s being suggested to us is, “healthism.” So this is, “healthism” is the term for when there’s a big social collective problem that individuals are made personally responsible for, where, like it’s morally your problem if you have diabetes and therefore you’re more vulnerable. There’s many interesting things that we could say about who is being named as vulnerable to Corona virus and therefore responsible in some ways for taxing our health system, or going to hospital, or all these things.

So, I think one thing that I’m finding useful is just to recognize that that mood that we might feel is a real feeling, and it’s coming from a neo-liberal approach that says, “Individuals are responsible for what are actually social problems.” So as soon as we feel that, like, “I’ve gotta have enough for my household,” we can actually name that as like, “Oh, this is a demobilizing, individualizing feeling that I’m having.” It’s a real feeling, but it’s just the beginning, because what we can turn to out of that feeling, instead of increased paranoia, self-protection, a feeling that we’re all alone against the world, we can say, “This is a terrible feeling. I want to be with other people in creating a different world, where no one feels this way.”

So there’s this, I think, it’s like a fractal situation, where every time we experience our own precariousness, vulnerability, fear, we can turn out of that toward asking what that says about the kind of collective world we would want to build. And I think I’m not alone in feeling so inspired by the incredible arising of a whole lot of mutual aid networks, both taking the form of Facebook care-mongering groups, endless Google Doc spreadsheets of places that people can get help, but also just like, people reaching out to each other. So again, that understanding that we’ve seen manifest over and over again and that I think Rebecca Solnit has been theorizing over a long time now. In another part of my academic work I go back to Peter Kropotkin’s work on mutual aid and the impulse help, the impulse to care, as a basic impulse.

And we can say look, in all of these places right now people are already dreaming of a world that is not this, and it’s not just a world that is not this in the sense of, “I don’t want to get this virus and die. I don’t want people near me to be sick and suffering.” It’s actually like, not this, but, “I don’t want to be in a society where we don’t have the resources to take care of people who need help.” So there is this fact, I think, of massive social devastation of the kind that we’re experiencing right now, that this is a traumatic experience, it’s an experience that is unbearably hard, that that hardness, that difficulty, is so massively and so obviously distributed along already-existing vectors of wealth and whiteness. But it shows us that there’s a lot of people who don’t want this world. And so the more of us that tune into and start thinking about what that means, right, like what the world is that we do want, there’s actually a lot of space here for something else to arise. I feel like the thing that I have learned most from studying AIDS activism, and I said this at the beginning, but maybe it’s worth repeating, is that it really does feel to me that centering the people who are most targeted or who are most rendered disposable in that future dreaming, allows us to be most adequate and most expansive toward what the kinds of social transformations we want would be. But it’s not something we have to imagine, in the sense that, it’s not like, let’s wait a year or three and then we’ll imagine what kind of social world we want. It’s actually like saying “no” to this one gives us already so much footing for what could be otherwise. And that feels very hopeful to me.

SL: And yet it also raises the question of when we come out the other side of this, whatever that looks like, whenever that is, whether those memories, those networks that have been built up between people to look after each other collectively, will endure when things go back to whatever we call normal. Obviously, that begs the question, What’s normal? But is there not the danger that anything that goes back to a time that feels like it’s before the virus is going to feel sufficiently better, that people won’t necessarily struggle for more?

AS: Yeah, I think that’s a real danger, and I think that’s one of the reasons that I’m so interested in us really paying attention to the difference between logics of containment which produce call for more policing, and logics of care which produce a call for more care, more connection. So I think as we’re, and again, as you’ve pointed out, it’s not clear what it means to say that we reject or accept something. But we can look at what the practices are that we’re participating in or supporting. So if we’re saying we want more policing, we can know that that will predict we’re setting in place more patterns or policing, more infrastructure for policing. If we say, here are some of the ways that we’re planning to build lateral relations of support, or we’re directing our energy during this time toward keeping alive the people who are most targeted for dismissal or being considered disposable, there’s some sense that those practices build the possibility for the pattern, a kind of different path.

We can’t predict what will happen as things get back for normal, but we can do a lot of things that set us up for various directions. So for example, if we are going to move toward systems like contact tracing for increased movement, the people who are setting up those systems can ask, How are we going to set up contact tracing in such a way that we’re not intensifying social control over people’s movements? We can be alert to the ways that various shifts that feel unusual, or this is just going to happen for right now, can end up producing more constraint or control. So it’s totally coherent to be very, very concerned about Covid-19 and very, very concerned about state repression and control of liberties, and very concerned about everyone, how they are doing. Are they just hanging on because this is so hard? We don’t have to cede the ground of feeling very concerned about government over-reach to the Right. We can continue to hold that in an ongoing way and in the moment.

In other words, I guess what I really feel is that in a long crisis, and I think this is a long crisis, and this is something else we can learn from HIV/AIDS activism. So hopefully, we’re not going to be waiting and struggling and watching our friends die as long as people who were AIDS activists were. They held the line for years. And what they held the line on was, refusing the logic that they were going to render anyone else disposable, and continuing always to advocate for more people living and better lives for them. Maybe I could tell you just one story about that?

SL: Yeah, please do.

AS: So, in Ontario, there was this group, AIDS ACTION NOW!, and they were fighting to get access to drug funding, because many of the drugs that were available and showed promise for treating HIV and AIDS were, they were off-label. They weren’t covered by the drug plans. And there was a system in place. There was a rarely used thing that would allow this to happen, and the government just wasn’t allowing them to use it. So there were various kinds of activist work that obviously we can’t do right now. They did things like disrupt the Legislature. They burned an effigy of the Health Minister. They did a whole lot of different things. And one of the stories that we heard about this time was the Premier came to the lead organizer (there were two of them chairing it at that time), and he said, Okay, we’re going to do it. We’re going to give you funding for AIDS drugs, and you win. And they said, Are you going to give this funding for everyone. not just for AIDS drugs? Is it going to be for people who don’t have money to buy drugs that they need for illnesses that are not HIV or AIDS related? And the government said, Well no, we are just offering this for you. And one of the people who was negotiating this was himself dying and didn’t have access to the drug that he needed because it was like a $10,000 a month drug. And they said, No. We’re not going to accept this just for the people who are HIV-positive. This needs to be accessible for anyone who can’t afford the drugs that they need to live. So they refused to back down, although it was very hard, because there were people in the group that needed this desperately and right then. And they won. And there’s still a program in Ontario, the province where I live, called Trillium, that gives funding for anyone who doesn’t have money for off-label drugs or drugs that are being used in an experimental way that show use for their illness. No one really remembers that that was AIDS activists that won that. What I find so moving about that is that it’s often people who are directly at the friction points who are targeted for death or who are just on the edges who know best what social transformations that can happen that will change how the whole world is happening. They are often not remembered when they take that kind of stand. I feel like if all of us take the orientation toward coming out of the coronavirus pandemic that we’re always going to hold in view the most vulnerable, we might end up, as I am in this province, 30 years later continuing to benefit from that activity, although hardly anyone knows where it came from.

So that’s what we want to set up. If at every point where we’re struggling, we’re orienting in that way. We’re not just going to take it for our own group, even though we matter. But we’re always going to be thinking together. That’s how we build this kind of thing that holds more and more people’s lives as though they are worth living. I think there are lots of stories like that, and lots of points of connection, that people have—decisions that are being made to go toward a more conservative, self-protectionist, individualist way, or toward a more collective, opening, keep more people alive and see what they might do, kind of way. If we hold that, it’s better anyway. I don’t know if it will totally win, but we have a better chance.

SL: Alexis Shotwell, let me end by asking you about broadening struggles as you just described HIV/AIDS activists did, to be more inclusive, more collective. You have a recent essay that’s titled, “Survival Will Always be Insufficient, but It’s a Good Place to Start.” In that essay, you reference the slogan, from 1912, the Labor slogan that we want not only bread, but we want roses. Can you tell us what that meant then, and what that means now in the midst of the coronavirus?

AS: We’ve heard echoes and versions of that slogan, We want bread, but we want roses too. It comes from 1912 in Laurence, Massachusetts. The cotton mill workers went on strike. There were a lot of mill strikes  that were happening at that time. The Bread and Roses Strike that came about in response to employers trying to cut pay, was one of the places where people said we are not just looking for the basics, we’re not just looking for mere sustenance, mere subsistence. We actually want more and we deserve more. When I think about, and there’s so much to say about that strike that I’m not going to get into. But the thing that resonates down or that we can hold onto now, is that the tendency in times of crisis and deprivation is sometimes to settle for just surviving. We can also look back at labor struggles from that time and in ongoing ways. In that article, I also talk about the Black Panther Party’s survival pending revolution and the community programs they set up, to say when we start thinking about survival, we can always be also imagining or claiming so much more than survival. So the question, of Yes, we need to survive, and we need to direct support for the survival of the people who are targeted, people in jail, people who are living in poverty, people who don’t have houses to go to, people who have lost their job and health care, people who are declared killable, we should support and help them to survive. Thinking about roses means, we don’t just want to survive, we want to thrive, we want more, we deserve more. There’s this kind of rejection of a bare minimum as what we’re aiming for and what we’ll accept. It’s hopeful or it’s helpful for us to remember how long that struggle for roses too has been. How many years people have been working for more than just merely surviving?

SL: Alexis, thank you so much.

AS: Such a pleasure. Thank you so much for talking with me, Sasha.

SL: Alexis Shotwell is professor in Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University. She’s co-director of the AIDS Activist History Project, and author of Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times and Knowing Otherwise. You can find links to some of her writings on our website Againstthegrain.org. And you’ve been listening to Against the Grain. I’m Sasha Lilley. Thanks so much for listening and please tune in again next time.

Good Old Freewriting

I think Peter Elbow’s great book Writing Without Teachers was the first place I encountered a rationale for freewriting. Freewriting’s a really useful technology for academic writers in particular.

The how of freewriting is very simple: You set a timer, usually for quite a short time (5-7 minutes) and write without stopping, editing, reading what you’ve written, or making any corrections. It’s useful to cover the screen of your computer so that you actually cannot see what you’re writing, or to experiment with writing long-hand, or writing long-hand with your non-dominant hand.

  • The simplest form of freewriting is just to write whatever comes up for the set time, reading it afterwards gently and without judgement, and turning the page or deleting the file.
  • The slightly more elaborated form is to take a word or phrase and repeat it over and over if nothing is coming to mind until you jump out of the groove you’re in: “I’m thinking about I’m thinking about I’m thinking about…”
  • The more elaborated than that form is to take a key word or concept you’re working with our struggling on, and repeat it until something bumps up: “Bad kin is bad kin is bad kin is…”. With this form, you can go back, gently reading, and underline phrases that emerged that were interesting or generative and use them as key words or phrases that you repeat over and over for another freewrite.

When I’m guiding freewriting sessions in classes, I always start with the totally open, simplest version and then go into a more directed version. This seems important to the process. It’s also workable to do just the simplest version for five minutes and then go into regular writing.

The why of freewriting is more complex. I’ve seen a bunch of good effects of it, some of which make sense and others of which are kind of mysterious but real:

  1. It helps us disaggregate our creative self from our editorial self – both are really important, but because of the layers of pressure we academics have put on writing and ourselves as writers, we often try to edit at the same time as we’re writing. This shuts us down, and freewriting gives our creative self practice at saying to our editor self, “I really love you and think you’re important, but I need you to step back a bit so that I can generate some material for you to hone and refine. Could you stand over there for a while, and I promise I’ll bring you back in soon?”; it gives our editor self practice stepping back, based on affirmation that it is important and loved and that its care-giving in the form of critique and refinement is appreciated and trust that it will be invited back in when appropriate. Freewriting is like fighting with bamboo swords; you practice the moves and relationships in a safe-enough space.
  2. Freewriting is automatically successful. Did you write some gibberish for five minutes? You win! It’s a good productive procrastination strategy because it is a very low bar for doing some writing. You can almost always say, “I obviously can’t write my dissertation but I can ramble without editing for five minutes about my tea and my cat.”
  3. For some reason, even freewriting gibberish makes writing feel easier. This doesn’t really make sense but it’s true.
  4. Freewriting gives a palpable sense of the abundance of our writing. Usually we can write 200-500 words in seven minutes. They’re not, like, good sentences or very interesting, but there are a lot of them.
  5. Freewriting tunes us into a kind of vitality and directness that sometimes surprises us and allows us to see something about what we’re thinking that we didn’t know was there.
  6. Directed freewriting puts something on the page, so that you’re not writing into a blank sheet. This is very soothing, even if you just delete it later.
  7. It’s nice to have a form of writing that you don’t share with people – having this clarifies the difference between writing for ourselves and writing for others.

Anyhow, good old freewriting. I recommend it.

On not writing about what we love

I read a piece somewhere. I can’t find it now but I think about it often enough that maybe some of what I think about it wasn’t actually there. Anyhow, I remember that it made an argument for Peter Schjeldahl as a significant critic in part because of a pedagogical mode in his critical writing. The piece argued that he enacted for the reader the possibility of careful attention through the way he wrote about experiencing an artwork with careful attention. This was quite lovely. Reading Schjeldahl’s reports from the art world, I think of that piece often, because it in its turn enacted a kind of loving and careful attention to Schjeldahl’s criticism. Such an approach models and offers a spiraling loop of appreciation and a deepening capacity to attend that seems to me to be at the hopeful heart of aesthetics. [ETA: Thanks to the glorious and generous C. Thi Nguyen, who knew about the original post, which is even better than I remembered (please go read it now!).] In my first book I was obsessed with the question, coming from marxist aesthetics, of how we combat alienation and deepen our love for the world, or our living entanglement with it – and this question turns out (in that tradition, anyhow) to have a lot to do with the capacity for play, for putting our solid sense of self up for grabs, for being or becoming available for transformation.

This week, as the novel coronavirus transforms the world, it feels  ridiculous to think about how we appreciate the world. And yet, many people I know are thrown right now into the question of what use our work is, whether it’s a good time to write academic work at all. Some of us are answering those questions by deciding that we should write about the coronavirus, plunging ill-advisedly into writing hot takes about the pandemic. Another option is to write about things we love, or about things that are close to us. This is a long-standing feminist tradition, taking seriously the possibility that hobbies, domestic arrangements, various kinds of fandoms, and other perhaps small or particular things are worthy of serious attention. Some of my favorite philosophy comes out of such an approach, from Ladelle McWhorter’s incredible writing about subjectivity through understanding gardening and line-dancing as worthy of attention to Donna Haraway’s care for being with dog agility practice. And yet I’ve been practicing resistance, even before COVID-19, to writing about things I love.

Schjeldahl had a piece in a December 2019 issue of the New Yorker in which he reflects on his impending death, parts of his life, and his work as a critic. There are a number of lovely, heartbreaking, and incisive bits, often all of these at once, in it. I very much liked these paragraphs about how he selected art to write about:

I retain, but suspend, my personal taste to deal with the panoply of the art I see. I have a trick for doing justice to an uncongenial work: “What would I like about this if I liked it?” I may come around; I may not. Failing that, I wonder, What must the people who like this be like? Anthropology.
I assess art by quality and significance. The latter is most decisive for my choice of subjects, because I’m a journalist. There’s art I adore that I won’t write about, because I can’t imagine it mattering enough to general readers. It pertains to my private experience as a person, without which my activity as a critic would wither but which falls outside my critical mandate.

I’m fascinated by the idea of that which pertains to my private experience as a person but without which my activity as a critic would wither. It feels critically (ha) important that we critical theorists would have to maintain some conscious control over what we write about in order to maintain some reservoir that is not made available to others. Until reading this, I hadn’t had a way to think about the importance of having things in our lives, maybe lots of things, that we do not write about in our critical work, that doesn’t meet our critical mandate (however we have constituted it). Not everything should be written about because it is important to have a significant chunk of things that are personal experience – necessary to the liveliness of the critical work, but necessarily not included in it.

Schjeldahl is also generous here in offering a model of the critical endeavor as partially imagining that something could be otherwise, including our own response to a thing. I’m imagining now what would happen to my readerly attention if when I encounter theory I hate or disagree with I made a habit of asking “What would I like about this if I liked it?” Or what if I started asking about things I adore,  what would I hate about this if I hated it? I know that this is pretty basic, but I’m finding these useful in the overall project of offering attention to that which is uncongenial, the world that should not now exist, which is so much of the world right now. Aside from the prospect of holding some things as personal, as not available for translation into academic or scholarly currency, the question of significance helps me think about clarifying the stakes of what we work on and why. Not everything should be written about, because the resources of attention are political. I think we could benefit from better being able to assess something both for quality and for significance, and from having having an account of what makes something significant.

Fred Moten thinks about conceptual and theoretical terms or moves as toys rather than tools, as ways we can put ourselves into play. He says,

“In the end what’s most important is that the thing is put in play. What’s most important about play is the interaction… If you pick them up you can move into some new thinking and into a new set of relations, a new way of being together, thinking together. In the end, it’s the new way of being together and thinking together that’s important, and not the tool, not the prop. Or, the prop is important only insofar as it allows you to enter; but once you’re there, it’s the relation and the activity that’s really what you want to emphasize.”

So the idea of the personal, of making space for not writing about what we love, also comes back to play, to de-alienating our work, or refusing to alienate our love through writing about everything we love in an academic register or in a way we can count as part of research productivity. Not everything significant to us needs to be shared, especially not in academic writing. For those of us working as academics right now, we could productively resist speed-up as a response to the pandemic, not write for publication, but think and notice a lot, just like Schjeldahl.

 

Grounding in why we write – internal and external motivations

In my thesis writing class this term we discussed Joe Kadi’s brilliant piece “Stupidity ‘Deconstructed’,” which looks at the experience of working-class people in the university. I teach this piece alongside Eli Clare’s book Exile and Pride pretty much as often as I can, because I find them both incredibly nuanced, beautifully done, and useful for students in thinking about why they do what they do, as students. It’s useful to have such outstanding examples of what theory can do, if we think about theory as a technology for explaining something that matters to a life. Every class we had an “activity” part of the course, where we do some kind of exercise or skill-building thing, and this class about the uses of theory focused on articulating why we write. We talked about the difference between external and internal motivations for writing, which I find that sometimes we don’t think about enough in academia.

Questions of how to assess whether our academic writing is worth doing and why we do it are heightened during the coronavirus pandemic. I know a lot of people who are saying that their work feels meaningless, empty, parasitic, useless, or laughable in the face of the tragedies and hardships rolling down. As with many other things, before thinking about why we write I think it’s good to first think about whether we’re in a place to even think about thinking about academic work. While it isn’t news that a lot of academic work is irrelevant to transforming the injustice and suffering of this world, we might not be in a space to confront additional layers of existential doom right now. But it has been helping me as I consider whether the work of my life so far has been worth the life I’ve spent on it to think about external and internal motivations for the writing part of that work.

External writing motivations in academic spaces include credentialing (getting a degree or diploma), money (getting grants, merit raises, honoraria, prizes), and recognition (having someone like something you’ve written and acknowledge it in some way). Extrinsic motivations usually have some marker in the world and a yes/no answer: did you get or not get that grant, job, publication, conference invitation? Internal motivations include the felt sense of goodness or completeness – what Audre Lorde talked about as the erotic – that emerges through the difficulty of putting something down. There are craft pleasures of making a beautiful or effective sentence, and a particular satisfaction of formulating something new or documenting something that can offer information to the world. There are also kind of neurotic or repressed internal motivations, which usually don’t have such easy markers – proving to your fourth grade teacher that you aren’t in fact too stupid to go to school because look you got a PhD, or having a felt sense that you have done something well, or being present in office hours with a student having a hard time figuring out a knotty idea – these are not easy to measure from outside.

Intrinsic and extrinsic reasons for doing academic work are often conflated or cathected. This is only a problem when a disavowed intrinsic motivation, like proving to a disapproving parent that we are worthy of love, cannot be solved or met by the things we actually are dong, like trying to publish a paper. The editor is not our parent, so they cannot actually resolve the question of whether we’re worthy of love – and they may not be even able to adequately address whether we’ve written a paper worthy of publication. So, if we funnel all the feelings and needs associated with proving our worth to someone in the past, or trying to live a meaningful life in the present, into professional activities , there will be a misfit between what we need and what it is possible for the scholarly world to offer us. Extrinsic motivations, like getting a paper accepted at a conference, or getting a job, or getting tenure, will never perfectly address intrinsic motivations, like feeling that we’ve crafted a beautiful sentence, adequately articulated something important that one of our interviewees told us in our research, or taught a class in which students really understood something.

I think that academia as a structure and mode of being tends to shape us as people towards cathecting internal motivations onto external motivations – it’s a truism now that academics frequently tether our sense of self to our place in the university, and that universities extract quite a lot of labour from academics based on the idea that we are simply doing what we love. The extractive force of this pattern falls disproportionately, of course, on precarious workers in academia – contract instructors, adjuncts, graduate students. It is sometimes considered crass or opportunist to talk about money or a secure job as a motivation for academic work, and this makes it difficult for us to understand that thinking and writing is work, which deserves to be paid.

As with so many other things, it’s important to be rhetorically strategic about how we disclose our motivations. But we can reflect on what brings us to our writing in ways that can clarify what we can actually get out of it and perhaps that can allow more internal understanding of whether there are intrinsic motivations that will not be solved with the external rewards that are available to us. And internally at least, it can be useful to acknowledge without shame if we’re doing something simply to credential – such as getting an graduate degree. We can give credentialing (or needing to do work to fulfill the formal demands of our job) the dignity it deserves (because there are reasons to get credentials) without needing the degree or academic work to also bring meaning and beauty to our life or the world.

Existentially demanding self-inquiry aside, right now it’s also worth doing this delimiting work because most academics are in a triage situation, deciding what actually *has* to happen because we’re working at really low cognitive capacity. I am confident that the meaningful or useful or uselessly beautiful work we all were doing before the pandemic is still worth doing – but we might not need to do it right now.

Survival will always be insufficient but it’s a good place to start

An updated version of this was published in The Arrow.

Rereading Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven last weekend was strangely reassuring. The book toggles between the onset of a global flu pandemic and the lives of people living twenty years later, and honestly I’m not sure I’d actually recommend reading it right now. But I’ve often found post-apocalyptic fiction helpful for affirming the ongoingness, or the possibility of continuing, past disaster, and Station Eleven is explicitly organized around the proposition that “Survival is insufficient.” This phrase (tattooed on a character’s arm and written on the side of the traveling theatre and musical troupe’s vehicle in the twenty-years-from-pandemic plotline) comes from a Star Trek episode (interestingly about collectivity and individuality). In the book, “because survival is insufficient” asserts that people deserve art, and music, and other useless things. It’s a conundrum, of course, to assert that we need not only bread, but roses too (to reprise the 1912 labour slogan): If we need useless things, are they not then useful?

And what does it mean for us to fight for roses, for more than survival, when so many people already are not surviving? Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism as the “The state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production and exploitation of group- differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death” (Golden Gulag, 28) echoes through the current distribution of sickness and death from COVID-19. We could say, “But look, bankers and tech bros just back from partying in Miami, not to mention Sophie Gregoire Trudeau and Tom Hanks, are contracting this virus! It doesn’t discriminate!” But people do discriminate, and group-differentiated vulnerabilities to sickness and death show how people in power prioritize some lives over others. Governments are not valuing or protecting the lives of people in jail, migrants, people who do not have houses in which to self-isolate, people who cannot stock up on food because they never have that kind of extra money, who lost their job, who never had a formal job, whose benefits got cut off, who are driving for Uber or Lyft, disabled people, people working in Amazon warehouses, stocking grocery shelves, health care workers forced to work without protective gear.

So we should always start with survival, and with fighting for the lives of the people targeted by the death-cult of capitalism. Many of the Black Panther Party’s community programs (the breakfast and health programs are now the best-known, but there were more than 60 of these*) were organized around the idea of “survival pending revolution.” They saw that this world needed a fundamental, to the roots, transformation. But along the way toward that transformation, and in order for it to happen, the people targeted for death, or declared killable to keep the markets running, need to survive.

There are so many lessons we can take from AIDS activism as we respond to COVID-19. When I was doing interviews for an oral history project about the history of AIDS activism, over and over again interviewees would pause as they told us about someone who died because of prejudice and government inaction. They would talk about how that person was amazing – an amazing organizer, poet, dancer, date, scientist, artist, parent, and so much more – and they would say, “This world would have been better if they hadn’t died of AIDS.” I am thinking about this now, about all the people who are dying who did not have to die, and how much we are losing with their deaths. The grief of this is overwhelming. The coronavirus is, as many people have pointed out, illuminating the social relations of oppression and benefit that were already animating this society – those distributions of suffering and death were already here. The mutual aid and caremongering groups in my city are full of posts from people who were already forced to the edge of survival, and all of them deserve good lives. The novel coronavirus is not only illuminating existing oppression; it is actively deepening it. Fighting for more people to survive this is necessary work if we care about fighting oppression.

Fighting oppression, as El Jones and Harsha Walia have been pointing out, means not increasing policing or the power of the state to monitor and control our movement. As we support work to survive, we can oppose practices that deepen inequality. Such opposition involves imagining all the ways that instead of going back to normal, we could change the baseline. The reconfiguring that the coronavirus has begun, in which many among the worst-paid and most exploited workers are being recognized as essential to the basics of our lives, affirms that they all always deserved more than mere subsistence. But capacity to work, and being a worker who is more important to daily life than the ruling class normally acknowledges, itself isn’t enough. In Ontario, ODSP and OW levels have been below subsistence for decades now. Everyone deserves bread.

But survival is insufficient. We deserve roses too. While we’re supporting workers going on wildcat strikes because their working conditions are unsafe, while we’re participating in or advocating for rent strikes, while we call for better health infrastructures, while we keep in view the ways the Canadian state is using COVID-19 as a screen to continue earth-killing oil infrastructure projects, while we work to collectively turn the tide and convince people to stay home and cut transmission chains, we do well to remember just how insufficient it is.

I don’t know what roses mean for you – sometimes I barely know what they mean for me. As I imagine what world might come after what is going to be terrible suffering and loss, I wonder what would happen if we all started with affirming that we want everyone to survive, and immediately alongside that, that we want so much more for them, too. What does a good life look like? What if we asserted that everyone deserved such a life? What if we started from the points of connection we have with anyone who is suffering right now because they do not have money, and worked to create a world in which money was not the thing that lessened suffering? Maybe one of the most generous things about the idea that survival is insufficient is that there isn’t a political program that can lay out what comes after survival, or that precisely describes what “roses” mean.  We can begin to dream that for ourselves, because no one can do it for us.

Last fall at a science fiction convention, Jo Walton spoke about why we read SF. She said something like, We don’t read (or write) science fiction in order to imagine the future. We read it in order to imagine many possible futures. Imagining many possible futures builds our capacity to be more flexible and better able to meet the future that arrives, and thus we can be more intentional about what future we practice. I love this. I love it because, as we know, the billionaires and the fascists will take any crisis they can and try to use it to increase their death-grip on the world. This is a time for us, we who care for a world that can continue, to wrench their fingers off our planet and our lives. It’s a good time for us, we who do not align with capitalism, to take this crisis and open up to new futures, futures that we collectively orient towards, and that we work together to imagine.

Survival should be our starting point, always, but we deserve so much more.

*Here’s a scan of a book about the Service to the People Programs, opens as a pdf.

Access copy of “Complexity & Complicity” for the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics

“Responding Ethically to Complicity and Complexity”

Association for Practical and Professional Ethics – February 20, 2020

Slides for this talk are available here

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
― Frederick Douglass (died February 20, 1895)

As I write this, the Canadian state has deployed military force against Indigenous people for practicing relationship with the land they care for, and police have moved against locked-out union members who voted to strike to defend their pensions. Of course, I could be writing those words about Canada at many different points in history, since Canada has done precisely these things many times in the past. One gets the sense, following journalist Jon Milton’s tweet,

Right now, the RCMP are simultaneously:

➡️Launching a militarized invasion of Wet’suwet’en territory to clear land for a pipeline

➡️ Repressing Coop oil workers who are fighting to keep their pensions

The entire Canadian state is just three oil company CEOs in a trenchcoat.

Canada’s relationship with oil is not complex, except in the sense that it is multiply connected and overdetermined; as a state, Canada relies on extractive industries and the colonial land-theft that sustains them. Canada seems to be committed to doing anything and violating anything in order to continue current practices around oil (not to mention trees, uranium, nickel, and many other substances rendered as extractible resources for profit). My relationship with oil, as an immigrant to Canada, is complex. I believe Canada should respect the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and thus Wet’suwet’en law, live up to our commitments to address global warming and thus not build new oil pipelines, fulfill the explicit and implicit treaty agreements that founded the nation, end military interventions in other nations (including within our borders), and much more. As a Canadian, I pay into an unregulated pension plan that invests heavily in oil futures, as well as tobacco advertising, and migrant detention facilities on the US-Mexico border; I cannot change this investment. My taxes pay for military interventions and fund the politicians who ignore treaty relationships. I drive a car, turn on heat and lights, and fly to conferences. I’m complicit in Canada’s protection of resource extraction from pretty much any angle I think of, simply in virtue of the complex web of relations through which I live and breathe. I benefit differentially as a white immigrant mortgage-owner from histories of and present social relations of land theft and colonial oppression. In complex situations like, let’s be honest, just being alive, we make all sorts of compromises and become complicit in all sorts of things we would like to wash our hands of. I’m complicit.

When people, scholars and non-scholars alike, charge someone with complicity frequently the result of that charge is a particular kind of immobility; when we, scholars and non-scholars alike, are charged with complicity we might tend to turn inwards with shame, or an overwhelmed feeling of how impossible it would be to extract ourselves from currently ubiquitous relations of extraction. Often feeling complicit means that we give up on action. Indeed, as I’ll investigate below, frequently the charge of complicity is meant precisely to claim that if you are complicit in something you do not have standing to oppose that thing. This is worth investigating, because if calling out complicity is meant to prompt effective ethical or political action but instead it derails precisely that action, the charge of complicity may itself produce further complicity – or at least not help precisely with furthering the goal of reducing the relevant harm or wrong. I am interested in whether identifying complicity can produce collective solidarity, the kind of struggle that causes power to hear demands, instead of individual immobilization.

I’ll begin with a short section on why complexity and complicity so often evoke moral immobilization, which I think comes down to some problems with individualism. I’ll lay out my sense of when it is coherent to say we are complicit, and when we should reject the language of complicity. In section two, I’ll offer Elizabeth Minnich’s distinction between intensive and extensive evil, putting it in conversation with Elizabeth Spelman’s account of repair as a creative form of destroying brokenness. In section three, I’ll outline practices of relationality that offer moral traction for choosing which side we’re on, recognizing that we are frequently complicit without our own will or intent, but resolving to act anyhow.

… As is my practice, I’ve taken down the rest of the access copy of this work in progress a week after putting it up; if you would like a copy of the current draft I’m happy to send it to you – please just email me!

Ethical polyamory, responsibility, and significant otherness

Some kind comrades have made a printable zine version of a chapter I wrote about from a textbook on the philosophy of sex & love. Below also is the text of this chapter.

“A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”

—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

“Ethical Polyamory, Responsibility, and Significant Otherness”

From Desire, Love, and IdentityPhilosophy of Sex and Love, ed. Gary Foster. Oxford University Press, 2017

Chances are good that, if you’ve been in a sexual or romantic relationship, you have had the experience of holding implicit or explicit trust, where you and the people you’re involved with respect certain boundaries. Chances are also quite good that you’ve been in the position of betraying that trust or having your trust betrayed. Usually we call that “cheating,” and this paper assumes that fooling around on people is unethical and possibly evil, in the sense that it is almost certain to produce harm. Even though monogamy is a norm in our society, it is also certainly a failing norm, at least in the sense that it is enormously common for people to fail to respect it. The fact that monogamy seems to so often not work, in one way or another, is one reason that many people think about alternatives.

If you were interested in having ethical, consensual, multiple, sexual, emotional, or romantic relationships, you would find available to you (at least on the internet) a number of self-identified polyamants, swingers, non-monogamists, support groups, close to forty books on nonmonogamy, weekend workshops, and more. Depending on where you lived, the people you ran in to might not gape in horror if they discovered that you were both involved with someone and available to become involved with them. You might even be able to keep your job, your kids, and your apartment without conforming to monogamous models of romantic relationships. So many ifs. But the most important question, would be: “If I want to have the possibility of multiple relationships, is there a non-evil way to do them?”

This short essay will answer this question: Yes.

I examine the philosophical stakes behind core narratives of current polyamory. I begin with some provisional and contested (but common) definitions, and go on to situate these definitions in relation to accounts of how to meaningfully make and keep promises and to respect interpersonal boundaries. I supplement these approaches by drawing on Sue Campbell’s account of relational self-formation and Donna Haraway’s call for an ethics of alterity and “significant otherness”; both Campbell and Haraway offer us useful frameworks for understanding responsibility as a way of being in poly-relation.

 

Defining our terms

There’s a t-shirt that says:

POLYAMORY IS WRONG!
It is either Multiamory
or Polyphilia
but mixing Greek and
Latin Roots? WRONG!

Some people love the term “polyamory,” because it names the idea of having multiple loves, while others prefer “nonmonogamy,” because it says what it’s against. I understand both of these terms, which are the most common, to name the practice of consensually and with mutual interest negotiating desire for more than one relationship. Sometimes, polyamory names the fact of having multiple simultaneous relationships, but not always. This nuance is important: I don’t think people stop being polyamorous just because they are not themselves involved at the moment in more than one relationship – or any relationship, for that matter. An important bit here is the “consensual” part of that definition, about which I will say only that consent is going to be complex and negotiated in the context of overlapping power relations. A poly relationship that people are in just because they’re afraid their partner will leave them isn’t going to count as consensual and with mutual interest.

You might, if you got into nonmonogamy explicitly, eventually need to decide how to characterize your poly relationship(s), and you would need a little more negotiation, consent, and perhaps definition. The labels on offer include: “primary relationship,” “secondary relationships,” “polyfidelitous,” “closed group married,” “triad,” “quad,” “puppy pile poly,” and many, many more. These terms, and the clusters of concepts out of which they precipitate, are simultaneously ways to navigate the charges of irresponsible relationality attending non-monogamous practice and efforts to concretize in language heterodox relational practices. Extended, they map presumed practices for responsible polyamory and by extension give an account of the responsibilities involved in intimate relationships altogether.

The relationships these terms describe conform to and at the same time exceed their own bounds. This involves questions of power – who has it, who’s experiencing it, and what it’s doing. These terms are relevant not only to people who identify as polyamorous or non-monogamous. Intimate relationships matter to all of us: too often, it is through our most closely interwoven connections with others, at our moments of deepest vulnerability, that the racist, sexist, beauty-normative, ablest patriarchy hits us hardest. When we are naked and vulnerable with someone who says we are too hairy or too fat, or not hairy enough, or too skinny, precisely because we are naked and vulnerable we might feel that judgement more harshly than in everyday life. Even people who move through straight monogamous relationships with relative ease are shaped by the standards that cause friction to others. Feminist philosophical accounts of the importance of relationality to self-formation calls for fuller accounts of the everyday language of polyamory. The terms matter for what and how we imagine the world of intimate relationships, of intimacy, connection, and care in our lives.

 

What is monogamy, then?

On the way toward my main argument here, let me start with what I think is an uncontentious claim: Monogamy is a form of polyamory. It is “boilerplate,” or like a pre-printed lease agreement, and it seems ubiquitous. We usually think of monogamy as sexual fidelity to one romantic partner, often codified in legal recognition by the state and socially sanctioned, and most people assume that people who identify as married or stably dating someone are this thing called monogamous. But scratch at that assumption a little, and most monogamous relations are themselves built on a set of tacit and explicit agreements that express a more-or-less consensual navigation of possible or actual desire for multiple relationships. Does what happen in Vegas stay in Vegas? Can you gaze with delight on a non-partner’s luscious lips? Is watching porn and masturbating cheating? If you’re thinking about a friend who is not your sexual partner during sex, is that cheating? What if you’re thinking of a popular actor? An anime character? A dog? What about looking up a highschool flame and re-starting an exciting correspondence? Can you go to a strip club and feel turned on? Is it possible to be monogamously attracted to many people at the same time, so long as you never act on that attraction? Some people in monogamous relationships will answer “yes” to at least one of these questions, others would answer “no” to all of them. Sometimes people in monogamous couples talk about these things explicitly, but most don’t – and different expectations about what “counts” as cheating often produce friction.

Monogamous people frequently experience quite profound jealousy, betrayal, neglect, anger, pain, and other difficult feelings when they feel that their partners have not respected their implicit or explicit agreements around these kinds of questions. Sometimes jealousy is sparked not even by one’s partner having desire for others, but simply for being desired or desirable. Sometimes people feel jealous of their partner’s regard and attention toward close friends, pets, work, golf, and many other things. And it’s significant that monogamy arises out of quite troubling histories of the assumed need to control women’s bodies for the purposes of patrilineal (descent through the male line) property relations; the history of monogamy is a history of ownership, and so it shouldn’t surprise us that so many discussions of relational boundaries return to practices of property and control. Marriage and monogamy as we currently know them are not as ancient as many people think, and they’re certainly not as necessary as they’re made out to be.

A key thing to understand, here, is that monogamous and poly relationships alike meet the challenges that accompany being interested in people. People in all sorts of relationships work with the implications of making commitments to one another despite the potential for wanting something more or other than the commitment implies. All sorts of intimate relationships grapple with the question of how to respect loved others, and, in romantic or sexual relationships, how to be responsible in the face of a crush. Poly relationships frequently grapple more explicitly and with a less boilerplate approach, and because of that potentially more expansive mode they have something to teach us about responsibility and respect in relationships more generally.

 

Three common poly frameworks

There are three very common ways that poly people talk about and practice ethical nonmonogamy: 1) dyadic polyamory, 2) clear multiple roles, and 3) unbounded openness. Right off, it is important to stress this typification flattens the lived experience of poly negotiation; people’s practices overlap and exceed how I typify these styles of poly practice. However, all of us – poly and non – could fruitfully use a fourth, alternative ethical frame in understanding how to have multiple relationships, which I am calling “relational significant otherness.”

Dyadic poly practices often use a language of hierarchy and centrality: There are primary partners, who act more or less like monogamous partners on monogamy steroids – the primary relationship is so steady, so flexible, so strong, that it can accommodate each partner having relationships with people beyond the dyad. But that dyad is, well, primary. It comes first, it’s most important, it trumps all other connections. Then there are secondary relationships, which might open up spaces the primary partnership doesn’t treat. In strong versions of this style, even the spaces opened by the secondary lovers are encompassed and claimed by the primary dyad, because it is the main reference point in terms of which the secondary relationship takes place. Hapless others who enter the matrix of the primary dyad take warning: you are secondary. Your desires are subordinate to the needs and desires of the authentic pair – even if that pair is something less than exactly a “normal” couple.

Non-dyadic practices that maintain clear roles and boundaries use language of practical accommodation to the realities of carving out a new practice of relationality in the context of a hostile, heteronormative imperative to monogamy: everyone has people who, for contingent/natural reasons, are closer and more central to their lives. They are long term partners, co-parents, people living together and otherwise in intentional close proximity. It is responsible and necessary to name these relationships what they are, however that naming is negotiated. Clear boundaries and ethically adhered to agreements are only practical. People new to a given poly configuration must both understand and respect the boundaries and agreements necessary to healthy multiple relationships operating among sometimes many different webs of relationship. When new loves and lovers enter the picture of already existing relationships, they can enter with maximal autonomy when the terms and habits are obvious. By extension, people in ongoing relationships must take responsibility for communicating the terms and conditions on which they might become involved with others – it is deceptive, too utopian, and disingenuous to act as though the power involved in committed relationships, however defined, is not in play. Trying to resist naming something a primary relationship, for example, is politically and ethically irresponsible and sets everyone up – particularly potential new lovers – for painful disillusion.

A final important – though contested – discourse in today’s polyamorous circles unfurls in a language of limitless possibility, opening a radical space for respectful and ethical relationship, unbound by the strictures of orthodox relationships. On this account, in their very being, poly relationships undermine the oppressive framework of normative monogamy. This means that even when poly people appear to function in relationships legible to the straight norm – passing as monogamous – the facts of how they live and love destabilizes utterly that norm. It is more than possible to have responsible multiple relationships without rendering them in terms of rigid hierarchies. People who advocate this kind of understanding of poly relationships might argue that to call these relationships “primary” or “secondary” or many other labels based on rigid agreements degrades and disrespects them. Just as we have multiple friendships, they say, we can have multiple loving or sexual relationships – without labels, fluid, flexible, moving like a flock of birds or a school of dolphins. Axes of responsibility fall organically along lines delineated by contingent circumstance. The main thing standing in our way is habits of naming that recreate hierarchies.

Each of these ways of talking about poly relationships, of contesting or accepting the language of bounded agreements (“primary”, etc) attempts to settle the messy, thick, tangled weave of the actual practice of being in relationship with others. Monogamous couples smooth out this weave by deciding not to act on whatever desires they might have for people outside their relationship, by sublimating sexual energy into heightened friend-crushes, or by cheating on their partner (in which case they’re non-monogamous, but profoundly unethical, and so I think we should be profoundly uninterested in them). Polyamorous people do different versions of these things, but I would suggest that in many cases they are still constrained by a troubling relational continuum.

On one end of this continuum are boundaries so constraining that the agreements made in the context of primary or central relationships take priority over other connections to the extent that secondary or other lovers are categorically shut out – their desires and needs have no weight in decision making, and people within a relationship might have power to end their partner’s or lover’s relationship with someone else. On the other end, any and all desires and relationships are on the table, and no one in a given configuration has ethical standing to make demands or set limits on the timing or type of relationships their lovers take up.

Consider the end of the continuum we might think of as monogamy on steroids. It seems to me that to call something nonmonogamous, or polyamorous, while agreeing to end other relationships at a partner’s whim is to pretend to the throne of liberatory relationality while retaining the forms of monogamy in holographic colour. Granted, there are whims and then there are reasons, and the latter can be ethical. But it is crucial for many poly relationships that take the label “primary” that the central pair has ethical priority in any relational matrix. When something is threatening the dyad, especially if it’s a newer relationship, the primary partnership gets priority. Often this manifests in already set agreements, to which any third or fourth person has to accede. There is also the question of labeling: the primary partnership comes first – usually temporally, but ostensibly also in one’s consideration. The objects of secondary relationships – sometimes happy to evade the responsibility implied by primary-ness – are expected to accept their lot, to not demand too much, to understand when they can’t sleep over, or shower with their lover, or be called a particular endearment, if those things are off limits within the primary relationship. Other considerations are, well, secondary. As are the people who might hold them. And even when the person in question is happy with that status, it troubles me to relate with people as something less than full constituents, with ethical rights, in decisions that involve them.

In contrast to the highly bounded and negotiated agreements that delimit some poly relationships, there are models that reject boundaries and agreements because they are seen to endorse ownership models of relationality. Many proponents of these approaches imply or take it that proper polyamory admits of no boundaries at all, that negotiated agreements are concessions to an oppressive and hierarchical model that poly relationships ought to categorically reject. Practitioners of polyamory on this end of the continuum might or might not tell their lovers about new partners, and might have agreements about safer sex, for example, but current connections are given no first pass priority over new relationships. While it might resist certain forms of oppression associated with ownership models of relationships, particularly as such models are predicated on men’s sexual access and dominion over women’s bodies, labour, and affective availability, this form of poly relationship – call it “no holds barred” – is troubling for different reasons than the “all holds negotiated” form above. Its refusal to consider ethical claims arising from relationality puts commitments to treat others with dignity and respect on the butcher’s block of self-righteous political purity.

As I mentioned above, and as many feminist/anarchist theorists have pointed out (think of Emma Goldman and Voltairine de Cleyre, or Simone de Beauvoir) the Western system of coupledom and marriage is rooted in patriarchal ownership models, in which women moved from one man’s house (her father’s) to another’s (her husband’s), holding the status of property. In North America, female monogamy also references purity of parentage – knowing who the father of children is – and since race is always involved in parentage monogamy has also been intertwined with a racist imperative to keep the white race pure. Perhaps surprisingly, anxieties about polyamory are not only racialized: they also relate to keeping structures of capitalism stable. This is because current economic arrangements are based on a model of a two-parent family; taxes, health insurance, mortgage and rental agreements, and much more assume a monogamous couple as their base unit. These things combine to make many poly people feel that simply not being monogamous is enough to make a person a revolutionary. However, if polyamory ends up replicating other unethical tendencies along the continuum I outlined above (ranging from too much control to too little respect), it cannot be genuinely interesting as a relational practice. I aspire for a revolutionary, loving practice of relationships that is: about rebellion against bad norms and also accountability to others; about violating boundaries that support a racist capitalist patriarchy and also being kind to others and respecting their boundaries; about challenging our deepest fears and also keeping ourselves and others safe enough to flourish.

 

Relational selves and significant otherness

And so I turn to Donna Haraway’s conception of significant otherness and Sue Campbell’s conception of relational co-constitution. Together, I think of these theorists as offering us the idea of relational significant otherness. Haraway might herself resist the torquing back toward the human I am about to do. She is attempting to think seriously about contingent, non-reductive, co-constitutive relations between humans and other species. She riffs on the term “significant other,: writing: “Except in a party invitation or a philosophical discussion, ‘significant other’ won’t do for human sexual partners; and the term performs little better to house the daily meanings of cobbled together kin relations in dogland.”[i] In contrast, she suggests the idea of “significant otherness” as a way to talk about valuing difference. This term points us beyond one single significant other, into an envisioning of what an “ethics and politics committed to the flourishing of significant otherness might look like.”[ii] Polyamory might, very imperfectly, be one move toward this kind of flourishing.

“Significant otherness” points toward partial connections, in which the players involved are relationally constituted but do not entirely constitute each other. This is “vulnerable, on-the-ground work that cobbles together non-harmonious agencies and ways of living that are accountable both to their disparate inherited histories and to their barely possible but absolutely necessary joint futures.”[iii] The significant otherness I imagine as a guiding aspiration for responsible polyamory is both a dilution and an ardent affirmation of this statement. Clearly, the success or failure of people cobbling together non-harmonious agencies and ways of living – something we do with everyone we are committed to working with – is not productive of absolutely necessary futures between those two or more folks. There are forms of significant otherness, which might involve seeing the disparate histories we bring and the futures we might cobble together with them. When we perceive the on-the-ground work involved in attempting polyamory, it frequently looks like this revolution is too messy, tiring, grinding, and boring to be worth it. Disparate inherited histories are individual – our stories written deep in us, the relationships we come along with – but they are also much broader. There is indubitably something wrong with a politics tied to heteronormative monogamy. And there seems to be something also wrong with a polyamory tied to rigid classifications of “primary” and “secondary” relationships; in the context of thinking significant otherness, these classificatory schemas show up as ways to tame non-harmonious agencies into something smaller.

Sue Campbell’s understanding of relational self-construction is useful here. Campbell argues that it is profoundly inaccurate to imagine that we as selves are separable, stably-bounded individuals. Rather, she attends to the many ways we are formed in and through mattering relations with others – from the earliest childhood throughout our lives. I am interested here in her account of how our practices of being responsive to others shapes the kinds of selves we are. For Campbell, being relationally shaped means that we are dynamic and contingent beings shaped in part by what commitments or responsibilities we take up. Campbell writes: “Taking responsibility is part of the expressive behavior that constitutes our emotional attachments to others …One does not form emotional attachments with others and then find oneself assigned responsibility on this basis. Taking responsibility brings us into relation with others.”[iv] I am thinking of “taking responsibility” in this sense as connected in lively ways to Haraway’s claim that “entities with fully secured boundaries called possessive individuals (imagined as human or otherwise) are the wrong units for considering what is going on. That means not that a particular animal does not matter but that mattering is always inside connections that demand and enable response, not bare calculation or ranking. Response, of course, grows with the capacity to respond, that is, responsibility.”[v] Campbell’s conception of responsibility also refused any idea of a bounded self, which she argues “obscures the generative role of taking responsibility in commitments and relationships.”[vi] The generative role Campbell envisages here, one I endorse, is the idea that through practices of open-ended being-in-response, holding response-ability, we become different kinds of beings. Understanding this in the context of work on memory and relationality, she writes, “requires a shift in focus from a self-sovereign individual who is secure in her or his identity to a self who lives with the tensions, instabilities, and possibilities of time consciousness and a concomitant uncertainty about boundaries and responsibilities.”[vii] Perhaps one reason that people aim for monogamy, or –equally – take up any of the pre-set forms of nonmonogamy on offer, is to try to manage the felt threat of their lovers being in relation to others. Perhaps it is most frightening to us to think of ourselves as constituted in unbounded and uncertain relations of significant otherness toward which we have relations of responsibility-in-the-making.

Starting from a view that we are selves shaped in relations of responsibility toward non-reductive otherness, I want something far more nuanced and far more risky than the labels “primary” and “secondary” touch. I want everyone – monogamous and polyamorous and other – to understand relationality itself as a deep, life-changing risk. What poly relationships have revealed to me is the utter contingency of relationships altogether. The fact that we will all lose people we love is really, really obvious and really, really hard to hold in our mind. We are going to die, or they are, or they’ll split up with us, or we’ll split up with them. In the everyday course of life, when our lovers fall for other people we suddenly see the ways they are strange to us: they have whole realms of experience we cannot access, and ways of flourishing we can’t encompass. Understanding every relationship in terms of significant otherness brings these facts into nervous light. In addition to refusing the shorthand of “primaryness”, we might explode the categories of monogamy and polyamory themselves. Beyond the dichotomy of “being poly” only when you’re actually having multiple simultaneous sexual relationships, we could begin to see relationality altogether as a commitment to the flourishing of significant others and significant otherness.

Significant otherness, always relational, in ardent affirmative mode, signals the possibility of joint futures that extend beyond the framework of the two or three or several relationships any one of us can reasonably maintain. This significant otherness yearns to flourish, it delights when others toward whom we are in relations of response-ability flourish, and it may recognize that humans are not the most significant actors in that flourishing. The kind of absolutely necessary futures I find here relate to liberatory politics broadly construed, in which human and nonhuman actors might seriously and playfully act with respect toward mutual flourishing. Power is here, of course, but it’s complicated. There are, then, bonsai versions of relational significant otherness that we manage to carve out of serious flourishing – sites of respect for our lovers and partners where we can take seriously their disparate histories, our partial connections, the ways that overlapping networks of relationality tug at us and free us, alternately and simultaneously. These small, halting, often-failing attempts might prefigure a pattern we hope will ripple out, roots and branches untrimmed and tangled.

 

Bibliography

 

Campbell, Sue, Our Faithfulness to the Past: The Ethics and Politics of Memory (Oxford University Press, 2014)

Haraway, Donna J., The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (Chicago, Ill.: Prickly Paradigm, 2003)

—-. When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008)

[i] Haraway, 2003, 96.

[ii] Haraway, 2003, 3.

[iii] Haraway, 2003, 7.

[iv] Campbell, 2014, 123.

[v] Haraway, 2008, 70–71.

[vi] Campbell, 2014, 125.

[vii] Campbell, 2014, 126.

Misogynist trans-hating: Neither radical nor feminist.

Some people want us to stop using the term “TERF” (“Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist”). I think there are indeed good options for replacing “TERF.” I suggest perhaps we should go with “Misogynist Trans-Hating Person” which we could shorten to “MTraHP” if we need to say it out loud. This solves a core problem in “TERF,” which is the idea that trans-hating is either radical or feminist.

I’ve been arguing with people who hate and distrust trans women for longer than the term “TERF” has existed. Many of those arguments were during the decade in which I was heavily involved with community radio, because I programmed women’s music shows and was part of a feminist radio collective that did interviews and news. That decade happened to coincide with some of the conflicts around whether the Michigan Women’s Music Festival should exclude trans women. If you cared about music, culture, and gender oppression, there was not a way to be present in those scenes and not participating in those conversations.

I came into feminism through radical feminism as it was articulated by Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, and there are still so many things I value about my foremothers’ insights. First, I value the understanding that people experience harm because we are socially organized into groups, or classes, in ways that have real material consequences; women are oppressed as a class, and men as a class benefit from gender oppression. Second, the insight that there is no such thing as an innate gender remains really vital to me – women are not more nurturing, delicate, kind, or whatever because of some internal or biological command. Third, I will always love and find inspiration in the insight that we can fundamentally transform social relations, that the world does not have to be this way.

I moved away from the kind of feminism espoused by MacKinnon beginning from learning more about her role in the anti-pornography case R. v. Butler, and its effects on lesbian and queer erotica. I spent a lot of time thinking about the definition there of pornography and its results, and then reflecting more deeply on the question of how sex and sexuality play out if we define masculinity as violating women and eroticizing it and femininity as being violable. The debates about excluding trans women from women’s spaces were clarifying, and I began to worry about the ways that people calling themselves feminists allied themselves with conservatives and the religious right. Directly allying with people who wanted to control women’s bodies and movement seemed to contradict the political force of what I understood as radical feminism. Now I have criticisms of the ways that those early feminist texts were extremely racist, and the ways that the politics have aligned to materially harm sex workers. Those are longer and more complex stories, though they’re connected.

The current manifestation of trans-hating billing itself as “radically feminist” is both evil and internally incoherent. It is internally incoherent because it simultaneously argues that there is no inherent femininity or masculinity and that the roots of male supremacy lay in biological sex. It argues that gender is imposed on us as a social relation with material realities and that biology determines our place in those social relations in ways that we can never transform. It argues that gender relations can and must change and that no one ever assigned “male” can be part of liberation. It is evil because hurts people as a necessary outgrowth of its view.

And this is how current manifestations of trans-hating are neither radical nor feminist. The notion of “radical” names the possibility that we can fundamentally transform the deepest structures and the most ordinary manifestations of oppression – we can go to the root. It’s not radical to drivel away about patriarchy, dominant ideologies, and systemic class oppression and then to pivot to examining my genitalia as a way to determine my reproductive capacity. That’s exactly what sexist conservative patriarchs do! And it’s not feminist to say that gender oppression is immutable and comes down to what genitals we have and how the people around us when we were little kids treated us. Indeed, that’s one beautiful thing about feminism. Feminism allows us to understand that no matter what people who hate us told us we could be, we can be so much more than they can ever imagine.

So, yeah. I’m totally happy to take back the “radical” and the “feminist” from people who ally themselves with conservative bathroom bill writers who were happy to prevent lesbian fiction crossing the Canadian border in the 90s. Maybe we can just call them what they are – misogynist trans-hating people. So much less confusing.

***I have edited this post to connect only Catharine MacKinnon to the Butler decision, after hearing a clarification about that from Andrea Dworkin’s life partner, John Stoltenberg. He also shared with me three articles which I found illuminating, in part because they show that anti-trans currents cannot legitimately claim that radical feminism implies being against trans women. I’m sharing them here.

These are a memoir-style reflection, “Andrea Was Not Transphobic,” and an essay opposing biological essentialism: “Biological Essentialism: Radical Feminism’s Most Diversionary and Counterrevolutionary Idea.”

And this is an interview with MacKinnon in which she clearly supports trans people. (This interview is, per MacKinnon’s view, strongly negative about sex work, so heads up on that content included in it.)

“Nobody lives everywhere; everybody lives somewhere.”

I am tasked with writing a review of the book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Not feeling able to actually do that, I have written this instead.

This is because of course, it is impossible for me to write a review of anything Donna Haraway writes; it would be like a jellyfish coming to a firm decision about how the ocean tastes, or a bird grading the wind, or a spruce root deciding whether to recommend taking in minerals from ectomycorrhizal fungi. This book is no exception; one wants to just float, just fly, just receive. Not very useful as a way to explain to someone else what they might encounter.

Staying With The Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene is (in contrast) tremendously useful and generous in offering a space for encounter and response to the critters, texts, and conversations it treats. Starting from the understanding that “Nobody lives everywhere; everybody lives somewhere. Nothing is connected to everything; everything is connected to something” (31), Haraway invites us to participate with her in weaving a carrier bag for the kinds of ideas and practices we need now, on this suffering planet, if we earthlings want to survive, nourish each other, or flourish. The book is playful, enticing, challenging; it will irritate most analytic philosophers.

One of the things I love most about this book is its insistence on grounding every theoretical “move” in the world as it unfolds. It is hopeful and generative in part in this refusal to abstract and in this commitment to being in-the-mix. Since I’m not capable of writing a review that honours this mode, I’ll start with the theoretical. One way in is through the title’s three strands, which open a way in to the substance of the book: “staying with the trouble;” “making kin;” and “the Chthulucene.”

The Chthulucene cues this iteration of a career-long attention to the material-semiotic practices necessary for understanding and living as situated beings in a connected world. This stance rejects the individualism and attachment to a certain sort of utilitarianism so commonly refracted through political economics and carves out a conception of relational ethics. Haraway is also literal, here, turning resolutely away from a view from nowhere (the view of the “sky gods”) and thinking in relation to beings who are entangled and interpenetrated with the world – from jellyfish to trees to IT networks to wormy compost to corals. And she is mythic, drawing on the long histories of the tentacular and connective ones – Medusa, Gorgon, Gaia. Calling the era we’re in the Chthulucene, for Haraway, opens a hospitable imperative, a speculation that we could go on with: “What if the doleful doings of the Anthropocene and the unworldings of the Capitalocene are the last gasps of the sky gods, not guarantors of the finished future, game over?” Staying with the connected and partial beings of the earth offers a different option:

The unfinished Chthulucene must collect up the trash of the Anthropocene, the exterminism of the Capitalocene, and chipping and shredding and layering like a mad gardener, make a much hotter compost pile for still possible pasts, presents, and futures (57).

Placing ourselves in the Chthulucene means being in relation to generative monsters, and it requires us to understand ourselves as vulnerable to the world. Haraway argues that we “all of us on Terra — live in disturbing times, mixed-up times, troubling and turbid times. The task is to become capable, with each other in all our bumptious kinds, of response.” While our impulse may be to flee this trouble we meet, to resolve it into cleaned-up future, she recommends instead staying with it. “[S]taying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings” (1). One technology for learning this capacity to be present in a perpetually unfinished process is the concept of sympoiesis.

Haraway is resolute, in this book as elsewhere, in tracing for her readers the threads of conversations that have brought her to the matters of concern she offers to our shared regard. It is sad how striking it is to find a knowledge worker of her stature citing graduate students and intellectuals in the precariate. Here, she connects this term to M Beth Dempster’s 1998 MA thesis. (I think that Dempster is now a wilderness guide and intellectual in Victoria BC, something I wish I’d known when I was there recently). Haraway quotes Dempster’s framing of the concept as naming “collectively-producing systems that do not have self-defined spatial or temporal boundaries. Information and control are distributed among components. The systems are evolutionary and have the potential for surprising change” (61). Haraway says:

Sympoiesis is a simple word; it means “making-with.” Nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoietic or self-organizing. In the orders of the Inupiat computer “world game,” earthlings are never alone. That is the radical implication of sympoiesis. Sympoiesis is a word proper to complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, historical systems. It is a word for worlding-with, in company. (58)

Starting from sympoiesis also keeps us in the trouble, which is to say, cues our capacity to respond in ethical and political ways to living and dying in the context of sympoiesis. And not every sympoiesis is friendly! Haraway tells knotted stories of the production and consumption of the (synthetic) estrogen diethylstilbesterol (DES) and (extracted from pregnant mares’ urine) Premarin. Each has terrible human and non-human bodily effects; each is useful in certain ways, for certain things; each ties beings together. As Haraway says:

There is no innocence in these kin stories, and the accountabilities are extensive and permanently unfinished. Indeed, responsibility in and for the worldings in play in these stories requires the cultivation of vital response-abilities, carrying meanings and materials across kinds in order to infect processes and practices that might yet ignite epidemics of multispecies recuperation and maybe even flourishing on terra in ordinary times and places. Call that utopia; call that inhabiting the despised places; call that touch; call that the rapidly mutating virus of hope, or the less rapidly changing commitment to staying with the trouble. My slogan from the 1980s, “Cyborgs for Earthly Survival,” still resonates, in a cacophony of sounds and fury emanating from a very big litter whelped in shared but nonmimetic suffering and issuing in movements for flourishing yet to come (114).

The details and the differences matter to this understanding of staying with the trouble, Haraway argues. It is through attending to them that we might begin to find how we are situated in relation to the world that we touch, and how much capacity we have for response. She writes:

The details matter. The details link actual beings to actual response-abilities…Each time a story helps me remember what I thought I knew, or introduces me to new knowledge, a muscle critical for caring about flourishing gets some aerobic exercise. Such exercise enhances collective thinking and movement in complexity. Each time I trace a tangle and add a few threads that at first seemed whimsical but turned out to be essential to the fabric, I get a bit straighter that staying with the trouble of complex worlding is the name of the game of living and dying well together on terra, in Terrapolis. We are all responsible to and for shaping conditions for multispecies flourishing in the face of terrible histories, and sometimes joyful histories too, but we are not all response-able in the same ways. The differences matter — in ecologies, economies, species, lives (29).

Telling stories of sympoiesis, even and maybe especially when they are unfinishable and without a simple moral teleology, might strengthen our understandings of relational responsibilities arising from our co-constitution.

Doing justice to such responsibilities is one part of what Haraway calls “making kin.” Kin here means something “other/more than entities tied by ancestry or genealogy” (102-3).

Kin making is making persons, not necessarily as individuals or as humans. …I think that the stretch and recomposition of kin are allowed by the fact that all earthlings are kin in the deepest sense, and its past time to practice better care of kinds-as-assemblages (not species one at a time). Kin is an assembling sort of word. 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 was family or gens), uncanny, haunting, active.” (103)

This move queers how we might think about and practice making kin; it is no longer at all about fruitful heterosexual pair bonds producing babies. As she argues: “Queer here means not committed to reproduction of kind and having bumptious relations with futurities” (105). In the context of our impending destruction of much of the planet, Haraway’s suggested slogan provokes: Make kin, not babies!

If lineal and genetic descent is no longer the arbiter of who we are responsible towards, we are called to make decisions. “Who lives and who dies, and how, in this kinship rather than that one? What shape is kinship, where and whom do its lines connect and disconnect, and so what? What must be cut and what must be tied if multispecies flourishing on earth, including human and other-than-human beings in kinship, are to have a chance?” (2)

Haraway ends the book with a set of SF stories imagining this sort of kinship and response – Communities of Compost and Children of Compost in a decomposing and recomposing future. It is too complex and delightful for me to summarize; I recommend it to you.

Topically, Staying With The Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucenemoves from the air, to the earth, to the sea. It offers speculative fabulation, string figures, significant fictions, science fact. Chapter 1 departs with pigeons – carrier pigeons, working pigeons, racing birds, and pigeons participating in art projects connecting to air quality testing. Chapter 2 offers a critique of bounded individualism, grounded in an invocation of those mythic tentacular ones less-mythic spiders and octopi. The third chapter is long and dense, and perhaps my favourite; it looks at how people, critters, and worlds enact sympoiesis in the context of Navajo and Hopi land struggles and sheep, lemur habitat work in Madagascar, arctic Iñupiat world-games, and much more. Unsurprisingly, complex and non-reducible Indigenous ongoingness is the main event in this chapter. Chapter five analyses the complexities of urine mentioned above, enfolding horse workers in the production of Big Pharma’s profits alongside DES health activism and much more. Chapter 6 beautifully weaves together Ursula Le Guin’s fiction with ecological evolutionary biology in a net bag holding capacious stories from acacia seeds to ants to the language of lichens and rocks. And the last two chapters lift up the work and approach of Vinciane Despret, with a direct discussion of what makes her work so generative and also through the example of the book’s conclusion, “The Camille Stories: Children of Compost” (which, again, please go read).

As Haraway says, ending her introduction, “Lots of trouble, lots of kin to be going on with” (8).