Is it white shame?

Shame feels awful. It can feel like we want to crawl out of our skin, erase ourselves from the world, find someone else who’s the real problem. Feeling shame can be twisting desperately away from something that is inside us, having something on us that we can’t wash off, being something that we hate and that disgusts us that we can’t not be.

Shame is different than guilt. Guilt is the experience of realizing that we did something wrong – personally, we acted badly. This can be that we messed up, or we were mean, or not careful, or didn’t follow through on something. Some significant part of the time, when we feel guilty we can personally take responsibility and there is some chance that we can make things right or work on repair. Most of the time, shame is not about an individual action; it’s not some particular thing we did wrong that we could apologize for. Shame is more often about something we are. That’s why it’s so sticky and hard, and also why white people should embrace shame about whiteness. First, a few caveats.

Politically, mostly, we should burn shame down. We feel shame for things that are glorious and beautiful and not shameful at all. Think about when we feel shame for our fat bodies, our queer love, our working class culture, our disabled existence, our spiritual practices, our wrinkles, our not knowing something yet, our mistakes even though we’re trying hard, realizing we hurt someone we love. Probably everyone I know has experienced feeling shame or being shamed for something that is not shameful. We’re right to reject shame wholesale a lot of the time, right to say that we have nothing to hide, that we are good and worthy and deserve love and dignified existence and joy. Because that’s true.

Other experiences of shame congeal around heritage, history, family, religion, ethnic or racial group. People are shamed for where they come from, what’s happened to their people in history, who their family is, their language, their past. Suddenly, and this is hard to identify because of how bad shame feels and how appropriate it is so much of the time to refuse it, suddenly sometimes it’s absolutely imperative for us to stay with shame. So I’m talking now to white people in the US and Canada.

Feeling shame for whiteness past

The ghost of whiteness past is with us in the present. It’s our inheritance. We meet this ghost when we learn about the history of genocide and colonization on this continent; we meet it when we begin to understand how many people were murdered, how much land was stolen, how many Indigenous children were taken from their families and places and forced to not speak their language, how much water and soil was poisoned. We meet this ghost when we start to know how these places were built through the bodies and blood of enslaved people. Or when we ride a train through tunnels that still have the bones of indentured Chinese labourers who died working the railroad. Or when we understand what colonialism was, and how it connected with distributing money. I could go on nearly endlessly. Anywhere you look in the bloody past, you’ll find white people on the side of devastating and destroying other people for the sake of whiteness.

I know this isn’t simple. The people who became white through coming to what is now Canada and the United States often weren’t personally trying to do horrible things – they were often driven out of their homes and places, hungry, looking for a place to live and be. The people in the more recent past who defended or produced segregation or tried to abolish Indigenous identity or who tried to keep immigrants out of the country had their reasons too. This is one thing about whiteness; not being personally culpable doesn’t mean that we’re not involved and can’t be responsible. When I’ve taught classes about these histories, I’ve had students come up to me and say “I don’t know how to live in the world, now that I know these things.” Sometimes they say, “I feel angry to learn these things, because it’s not my fault. I didn’t do these things.”

White shame is the feeling we white people might have when we look back at the past and recognize all the horror that has been done for whiteness and by white people to others. We didn’t do those things ourselves, personally, so the feeling we have isn’t really guilt. But we recognize that we inherit their legacy, that those things were done by our ancestors.

That can feel really awful, and it is okay to feel terrible about the past. It was much worse for the people our people did these things to; shame about that might be part of the feeling we might have about whiteness past.

Feeling shame for whiteness present

Then just look out at the world right now. It is not only white people doing shitty things, so if you’re identifying a terrible thing that some racialized person is doing somewhere notice that that’s just another thing that white people tend to do when if we feel bad about whiteness – another exit strategy for white shame.

The ghost of whiteness present can arise when we learn about practically anything happening in the world right now. The triumphalist narrative offered so often in the US and Canadian contexts is that things may’ve been really bad in the past, that bad or misguided people may’ve done bad things in the name of whiteness, but that we’ve moved past all that now and things are all better. Slavery was abolished, wasn’t it? People can all vote, can’t they? And so on. So when we white people perceive a fraction of the racist bullshit happening, sometimes we just can’t believe that things are so bad. Learn about at the percentages of imprisoned people in Canada who are Indigenous or at the Canadian government’s commitment to indefinite detention for undocumented immigrants, or the US government’s imprisonment of Black and Native people, or police murders of Black women and men in both countries, or white vigilantes roaming the border to try to make sure migrants die instead of crossing, or where bombs built in our countries are being dropped, or who is poisoned with the run-off from mining, or a million other things, and see what comes up. Look at the next time an avowedly racist white person kills other people and see what happens. It’s harder for us white people to perceive some of the things that are less obvious to white people about whiteness as it happens right now – preferential hiring, not getting stopped for walking or driving, not having our kids taken away from us, and all sorts of other ways that being white makes our lives easier and smoother.

For a lot of us white people, there’s an urge to reject any connection to any of this, a wish to just not feel bad or responsible. White shame is realizing that we are implicated in and benefit from the harm being done to other people, right now. In the face of that, we might feel powerless and not know what to do.

As I write this, the Unite the Right conference has just happened in Charlottesville. White supremacists are marching in streets all over the continent, openly trying to gather white people in the cause of whiteness. People are being killed for not being white, they are in prison, they are dying because they don’t have a safe place to live. Fascists are marching in the name of white people; the white supremacist world they yearn for exists to benefit white people. And it does benefit white people. It doesn’t matter if we white people say we don’t like it; we still benefit from racism at every scale and in every way.

Over the last twenty years, there’s been vital work to identify and dismantle structures and social relations of white supremacy, to aim at the infrastructures that invisibly make whiteness the lowest difficulty setting, to not fixate on overt or obvious racists. If we’ve focused on structural critiques of whiteness we might be shaken by the rise of outspoken and self-conscious white supremacists. So it’s worth remembering that some of these fascists are coming out of their cracks because they feel threatened. Some of them are emerging because they feel like there’s an opening. The structural work matters as much as ever, and direct action to fight fascism complements that work.

Rejecting the shame of whiteness future

The best thing I know for us white people to do if we feel a terrible feeling about being white, if we feel white shame, is to fight to make this world a different world. When I say that we inherit whiteness and benefit from it, I mean that we may not have chosen it and we may not like it. I mean that we can’t personally reject whiteness, or pretend not to be white. Wanting to not be white is a response to white shame. Since whiteness is a relationship, not something we personally have, we can’t personally take it off, put it down, or divest from it. White shame shows us that even if we’re not personally responsible for something, we have a responsibility to do something. All we can do if we recognize the shamefulness of whiteness is change the world.

How we do that work will depend a lot on where we live and what capacities we have. I have thought about what remains for us in what used to be called Race Traitor politics, and their slogan, “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.” Some of the time, those politics expressed themselves in personal expressions or disruptions of white privilege, and I remain unconvinced that attempts at individual refusals will do much to transform this shameful. But, sparked by conversation with my friend Angus Maguire, I’ve been reflecting again about how treason might be vital for building collective movements for liberation.

If we can acknowledge the shameworthy histories we inherit, if we can see how they live in the present, we can ask ourselves: How can I reject this shameful world? How can I make a future that is different from this present? Instead of avoiding or denying how bad things are and how we white people benefit from them, we can name the feeling we’re having as shame. We can refuse to let our complicity and the ways we fuck up shut us down. We can fight fascism, we can stand with people targeted by racists, we can help transform our collective reality.



Whiteness as method in philosophy

Ah, whiteness and philosophy. I spent a lot of time thinking about the racialized boundaries of the discipline a long time ago – this thing I wrote came out seven years ago and I still agree with it:

“Significant occlusions structure philosophy as a discipline. They are not limited to racialized abstractions; partitioned social ontologies have also to do with ability and disability, heteronormativity, and gender formation – among others. But all of these categories are racialized, and in ways that bear the marks of the reproduction of whiteness specifically. Given the operations through which the specificity of white racial formation is made to stand in for general, universal experience, it is no surprise that work on race is rarely considered properly philosophical. Nor is it a surprise that it is so very possible to do work on subjects that are in fact deeply racialized – like individual liberty or citizenship – as though race had nothing to do with the question. This topical racialization extends, I would argue, into more structural characteristics of the whiteness of philosophy: only some questions will be possible to ask and only some methods understood as legitimate ways forward. And all of this will help to determine who ends up practicing philosophy – which subjects subsist in the discipline as philosophers.”

“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).

Grappling with the trouble & in the wake

In March, we took the ferry from Bellingham, Washington, to Haines, Alaska. Getting to Haines was the last link in a chain of intense, nourishing, lovely time with friends – a wonderful and a sad thing about this driving trip that we’ve been on from Ottawa looping around the continent is seeing the distribution of friends across the continent. Wonderful to see people, tragic to only have hours with people it would be nice to live near for years. The friends we stayed with in Bellingham talked about the ferry ride as being like a spaceship from the continental US to Alaska, and it is like that – a strange capsule that was supposed to retire twenty years ago but is still doing this long run up the coast, domestic animals unhappily in the hold with the cars, people in various stages of boredom in the main decks. Because it was early March, it was still very wintry and most of the people on the boat were not tourists – they were moving to Alaska, or going home, or going to visit people. I wondered how many of them were taking the ferry because they needed to have a car and had DUIs barring them from driving through Canada.

It was cold on the deck of the ferry, and there was no internet, and so I sat in the observation lounge mostly and book-glutted myself, reading one a day. I read Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, and Eli Clare’s Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling With Cure, and Donna Haraway’s Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. This was tremendously nourishing time; I felt as though I was growing new dendrites and new heart muscles. I spent a lot of time staring out the window, watching the water and the snow and the mountains pass by and trying to open myself to insights that felt – feel – beyond the near edge of my capacity to grasp them. I know that all of them will continue to feel that way for me for a long while. I’m on sabbatical right now, and just starting to come out of a kind of long tiredness at the end of nine years of teaching full time capped by writing a book while also trying to do a separate research project. I spent the early part of the winter as a research associate at UCSC, which mostly meant that I had an excuse to hang around and listen to smart people talk about things, and also that I spent a lot of time driving between Berkeley, where I was mostly living, and Santa Cruz, in heavy rain. It’s been a drought in California roughly since I left after grad school, and this winter was the rainiest it’s been in years. The soil was unused to taking in water, couldn’t do it quickly, and there kept being mudslides and floods. I felt a bit like northern California after years of drought, reading these books.

They each feel almost overwhelmingly generous, complex, unstinting, clear-eyed, warm, unflinching. They follow things through to their ends and don’t take excuses, but they are also somehow very forgiving and they hold space for fucking up and still carrying on. They are each intimate, personal books that are somehow not at all self-involved. This isn’t a book review, but there is something I want to say about reading these three books together.

Sharpe’s book starts with deaths, close family members dying in quick succession (sitting at a wake); it begins with racism, institutional racism and slavery and forced movement (the wake of a slave ship); it begins with consciousness, and getting woke. It approaches the “unfinished project of emancipation” (5). Sharpe says

In this work, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, I want to think “the wake” as a problem of and for thought. I want to think “care” as a problem for thought. I want to think care in the wake as a problem for thinking and of and for Black non/being in the world. Put another way, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being is a work that insists and performs that thinking needs care (“all thought is Black thought”) and that thinking and care need to stay in the wake. (5)

This idea that all thought is Black thought is a reference to Jared Sexton refracting Lewis Gordon’s provocation about what good critical thought might be.

Sharpe says

I’ve been trying to articulate a method of encountering a past that is not past. A method along the lines of a sitting with, a gathering, and a tracking of phenomena that disproportionately and devastatingly affect Black peoples any and everywhere we are. I’ve been thinking of this gathering, this collecting and reading toward a new analytic, as the wake and wake work, and I am interested in plotting, mapping, and collecting the archives of the everyday of Black immanent and imminent death, and in tracking the ways we resist, rupture, and disrupt that immanence and imminence aesthetically and materially. (13)

Recognizing that gathering and archiving, viewing and witnessing, that repeating the “quotidian and extraordinary cruel and unusual violences enacted on Black people” (116-117) doesn’t slow the violence down, doesn’t stop it, what can be enacted otherwise? “Such repetitions often work to solidify and make continuous the colonial project of violence. With that knowledge in mind, what kinds of ethical viewings and reading practices must we employ, now, in the face of these onslaughts? What might practices of Black annotation and Black redaction offer?” (117)

This book made me think about so many things. The most self-involved is related to my current scholarly obsession, which is about the specificity of the production of whiteness in a context of white supremacism: that specificity is the co-production of the material specificities of many forms of racialization. Critical whiteness theory requires reckoning with histories & presences of attempted Indigenous genocide, anti-Blackness and the inheritances of chattel slavery, and the continuing death-drive of forced migration, all entangled with the productions of disability, sexuality, and capitalism.

I haven’t said anything about its substantive, its substance, which includes poetic method, grief work, witnessing, critical film readings, cultural analysis, political economic readings of supposedly humanitarian interventions, and much more. It is a model and a provocation for what it means to care, in the midst of harm and risk.

Care so often articulates with cure, but Sharpe is not looking for a cure for the past that is not past. She is certainly thinking toward what it would mean to transform the harm of that past and this present. Eli Clare works through some of this in his long-awaited meditation on the politics of cure. He says:

As an ideology seeped into every corner of white Western thought and culture, cure rides on the back of normal and abnormal. Insidious and pervasive, it impacts most of us. In response, we need neither a whole-hearted acceptance nor an outright rejection of cure, but rather a broad-based grappling. (14)

“Cure” is at the centre of a whole lot of what’s wrong and murderous about conventional approaches to disability. Clare’s book – like Sharpe’s – examines the police murders of Black people, looking at how that violence is entangled with ableism, fortifying “white supremacy by leveraging ableism” (25). Grappling with various desires for cure calls on us to confront the ways that “as a widespread ideology centered on eradication, cure always operates in relationship to violence” (28). As Clare unfolds it, recognizing this relationship doesn’t mean that we never pursue cure, that we never aim for less pain in our daily life – it means that we grapple with what’s really involved, refusing the route that reprises the narrative that disability is always bad and must be done away with.

Clare lucidly addresses what it means to oppose environmental destruction without leveraging disability-hating tropes. He asks, “[H]ow do we witness, name, and resist the injustices that reshape and damage all kinds of body-minds — plant and animal, organic and inorganic, nonhuman and human — while not equating disability with injustice?” (56). This is such a good question, one I want all of us thinking about so much more.

I was especially captivated by Clare’s depiction of “the trouble”. He writes:

“cure always revolves around the perception of a disease, infection, virus, chronic illness, dysfunction, disorder, defect, abnormality, or body-mind difference. For now, let me name this pivot “the trouble.”

At its most fundamental, the ideology of cure aims to eliminate the trouble from either a single body-mind or the world at large. This eradication can be as present-day and individual as removing an infected appendix or as future-focused and collective as research targeted at ending breast cancer. The goal is to ultimately ensure that the trouble no longer exists as if it had never existed in the first place. (70)

“The trouble” individualizes social relations, encourages us to take up the imperative to cure, to transform, to fix ourselves. And just as the medical-industrial complex can give us, sometimes, “comfort and connection” (183) – we can’t simply reject the trouble that “cure” brings us. We can say “no” to many, many of the worlds cure holds out for us, boxes us into. Always, I love Eli Clare’s evocation of worlds-to-come:

I catch glimpses of a world where many kinds of body-mind difference will be valued and no one eradicated; where comfort, pain, well-being, birth, and death all exist. Cure promises us so much, but it will never give us justice. In this world reconfigured, cure may not exist, but if it does, it will be only one tool among many. In this world, our body-mind desires will spread through us, as vibrant and varied as a tallgrass prairie in midsummer. (184)

Clare’s pivot of “the trouble” pivots again into Haraway’s book Staying With the Trouble. I’m supposed to be writing a book review of this book right now, clearly an impossible task, and all I’ve been able to do is think about its refraction patterns among these three books together. The book begins:

Trouble is an interesting word. It derives from a thirteenth-century French verb meaning “to stir up,” to make cloudy,” “to disturb.” We – 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. Mixed-up times are overflowing with both pain and joy — with vastly unjust patterns of pain and joy, with unnecessary killing of ongoingness but also with a necessary resurgence. The task is to make kin in lines of inventive connection as a practice of learning to live and die will with each other in a thick present. Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places. In urgent times, many of us are tempted to address trouble in terms of making an imagined future safe, or stopping something from happening that looms in the future, of clearing away the present and the past in order to make futures for coming generations. Staying with the trouble does not require such a relationship to times called the future. In fact, staying 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)

…and I should go write that actual book review that is due soon.

A politics of imperfection, a politics of responsibility.

The kind folks over at the University of Minnesota Press blog posted this short piece, and I’m reproducing it here, too.

Lately it seems like every day brings a new bad thing for anyone not invested in white supremacy and capitalism. As the tweet went: “First they came for the Latinos, Muslims, women, gays, poor people, intellectuals, and scientists and then it was Wednesday.” And every day, I become more convinced that a politics based on purity will let us down. Let me explain.

Saturday, January 28, 2017, was early in the litany of bad. That weekend thousands of people converged on airports around the United States to protest the effects of an executive order imposing a ban on travel from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. Trump signed that order on Friday and by Saturday there were refugees as well as people with green cards from these countries arriving at US airports. They were then held in custody and denied access to lawyers. I was at the manifestation at the San Francisco airport. I have been at many protests, encampments, and manifestations over the last twenty years, and this one stands out; it was tremendously moving and powerful.

On the Facebook event page for the protest, someone posted: “So where was this when Obama signed a ban in 2011 against Iraqi’s and again in 2015 when he put a ban on Muslims?? Hypocrisy at its finest!!” Later he clarified that he didn’t actually care about the travel ban (he thought it was a good move for the US to protect its borders and not let anyone in). He was just pointing out the hypocrisy of protesting Trump’s policies without having had an equally explosive and massive resistance to Obama’s policies.

Conservatives, particularly the subspecies whose main political work is trolling people on the Internet, are fond of this line of critique. It can take the form that it did here, calling hypocrisy on people who now are saying something when they did not raise a protest in the past. It also takes the form of pointing out inconsistencies, as when trolls tweeted to a friend that she could not both oppose human-fueled global warming and drive her car. Or it could be arguing that if someone benefits from something they cannot protest it (as when people say that it is impossible to criticize the US military and enjoy the supposed peace that it is supposedly protecting). Conservatives also use this approach in response to people opposing bigots speaking on university campus—if we care about free speech, surely we mean free speech for everyone, and “everyone” definitely includes people who think that (as the T-shirts put it) “Feminism Is Cancer.” Each of these criticisms deploys what we can call “purity politics”: because the person expressing the desire for another world is complicit or compromised, they are supposed to give up. Conservatives use purity politics to try to close down critique and action.

Recognizing our involvement in and complicity with things we think are wrong, fully understanding the weight of wrongdoing in the history we inherit, or understanding the harms that have come from our failure to act can feel quite awful. The right uses purity politics against the left because we’re the ones who respond to being implicated in doing harm. They’re correct that we are involved in the very things that we want to stop, but they’re wrong to think that being compromised means we should stop protesting. If we stop working against them, terrible things simply continue. If we are to be effective, we who want to have a world in which many beings and ecosystems can flourish, we should reject purity for purely tactical reasons—it demobilizes us.

But we should resist purity politics for deeper reasons, too. Purity has long been the domain of the racist, nativist, and eugenicist right. It has been the technology through which laws about miscegenation were formulated, and it’s still the emotional hinge on which today’s alt-right argues that the white race is dying. Purity of the nation has been the rallying cry for tightening borders against the free movement of people; it is the engine that drives vigilante border patrols and murderous refugee policies. Purity of the species has been the scalpel that forcibly sterilizes disabled people, and that continues to support policy based on the idea that disabled lives are not worth living.

We do better to aim for a politics of imperfection. If we do not fit the mold of perfection—if we’re disabled, sick, young, old, not working, not productive—we are definitely beings who offer care, help, solidarity, and presence to the world. If we’ve failed to help in the past, if things we do are implicated in harm, if we benefit from something that harms others, or if we accord only some people access to a podium, we can still be of benefit to this world. Even people who have harmed others or the world, whose ancestors owned slaves, whose current government is actively pursuing genocidal colonial policies, who regularly make mistakes—even we can be useful.

But how to unfurl a politics that holds our imperfections? I suggest taking up a “politics of responsibility,” a concept from social movement scholar Gary Kinsman. He defines this as involving “those of us in oppressing positions recognizing our own implication within and responsibility to actively challenge relations of oppression.” A politics of responsibility recognizes our relative, shifting, and contingent position in social relations of harm and benefit; it enjoins us to look at how we are shaped by our place in history. We can take responsibility for creating futures that radically diverge from that history, seriously engaging that work based on where we are located, listening well to the people, beings, and ecosystems most vulnerable to devastation.

Listening well, taking responsibility, and acting even though we recognize that we can’t be pure is going to be much harder than disengaging would be. Two poems have helped me think about this. Johnetta Elzie co-founded an organization working to end police violence. Her poem “Where were you” addresses itself to people—largely white women—who participated in the enormous protests march the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. It asks a lot of questions, and on the surface many of those questions sound like our Facebook troll friend—the last line of the poem ends “We’ve been marching for years — where the hell have all of you been?” But Elzie’s questions are the opposite of trolling. She is calling her listeners in to responsibility for not having been there, asking us to reflect on how we are placed in history, and then inviting us to step up now. She asks,“What happens tomorrow? Will you march with us when we need you most?” Danny Bryck’s poem “If You Could Go Back” likewise calls us in to a politics of responsibility. Drawing on the fact that many of us in the present believe, looking back, that we would resist fascism, racism, and oppression with every fiber of our being, it points to things that are happening now:

“That’s King. And this is Selma. And Berlin. And Jerusalem. And now is when they need you to be brave.”

Let us be imperfect, for we are, but let us be brave too.


Last week, I participated in a conversation as part of the “undisciplinary” #(HASHTAG) series organized by the mighty team of Emilie Cameron, Danielle Dinovelli-Lang, Stacy Douglas, and Ummni Khan. These have been some of my favorite events at Carleton since they started a couple of years ago, since they always bring together an interesting set of speakers with short provocations, across disciplinary lines, and a really nice mix of grad and undergrad students and faculty of all sorts. It was a total delight to talk with Aubrey Anable, who does wonderful work on affect and video games, and Edana Cassol, who is an actual scientist and who was very kind around my untutored enthusing about things.

This is more or less what I said:

Since they’ve been understood as anything, viruses have mostly been seen as a hostile force, one that targets humans (or at least one that kills us along the way towards propagating themselves). Virus as a term comes from the Latin meaning a “poison, venom, or slimy fluid,” as Dorothy Crawford puts it in Viruses: A Very Short Introduction (3); immunologist Peter Medawar characterized them as “a piece of bad news wrapped up in a protein” (4). They’re a beautiful example of the co-production and problem closure of our measuring instruments and how we define the world around us (before the re-evaluation of giant viruses quite recently, our definition of them as small was based on the ceramic filter used in 1903 to take out things the size of known bacteria).

Viruses figure the threats of interpenetration between human and non-human animal realms (as in the various viruses transmitted among cattle, bats, swine, birds, and primates from H*N* viruses, to HIV, to older viruses like measles that seem to’ve been transmitted to humans from animal others 2,000 years ago). They signal the dangers of interconnection that deepen in relation to global warming, when viruses that used to be contained by weather or travel restrictions spread (I’m thinking of Blue Tongue Disease, carried by ticks that used to be killed off in the winter but that now flourish, which affects ruminants, or Zika and dengue, carried by mosquitoes that likewise flourish in the warming world and that affect lots of mammals but that humans care about because of the fear of and hatred for disability, which I’ll talk about in a sec.)

So it’s salutary to see the upswing of counternarratives from people like Eula Biss, Carl Zimmer, and Ed Yong, who examine the ways that we benefit from our entanglement with viruses of all sorts even as they can hurt and kill us sometimes (the prime example is how in many mammals, humans included, pregnancy is reliant on the a gene we’ve taken up from a virus, syncytin, which allows a fetus to draw nutrients through the placenta). Sociality! People who study viruses are learning exciting things about how viruses can help defend against viruses, how bacteria from black widow spiders could cut the spread of the Zika virus without a return to using insecticides to kill mosquitoes, and how many viruses in our gut may help shield us from bacterial infections through their useful mucosal production. There are lots of viruses that turn out to be incredibly common but that we’ve only recently discovered. I’m something like obsessed with the microbiome, and especially with the ways that the microbiome only exists in concert with an enormously complex macrobiome – the critters, ecosystem, and world we live among, within, and contain. Viruses are part of this in a huge and not at all fully understood way.

Then I’m interested in the transition between something being a virus, in all these different ways, and something being viral. A virus is of course always a co-production, a kind of sociality between an entity that only activates in concert with cells that have things it doesn’t; it is instructions for propagating itself without internal capacity to grow or reproduce. But we can think of the “virus” as a biological entity, measurable, predictable, acting and acted upon, even as it’s entangled and reliant. Our topic today invites thinking about the natureculture of #viral as something always social, as a biological becoming that spreads through commonality and that can’t be thought about without understanding the social world that makes it a phenomenon. I come back again and again to two examples of the social making of a virus as it becomes viral, both of which show some contestations over the space between medicine and society: HIV and Zika.

Ada Jaarsma gifted me this summer with the wonderful book Proxies, by poet Brian Blatchfield. He renders a familiar trope about coming out as gay after AIDS:

But in 1988, if you privately understood you were gay and were capable of basic logical continuity, you had made the further implicit equation between your own attraction to men and the depthless suffering of AIDS victims stranded in their crisis on the nightly news – and not just their appreciable agony but also their leprous toxicity. Regularly, reports stressed their reckless, even willful communication of the virus to others. Sex between men that resulted in infection was in certain instances prosecuted as murder and manslaughter, and men were maximally sentenced for aggravated assault who spat on HIV-negative cops. For so much lethality the American imagination needed monsters to blame and to fear; likewise, to justify the paternalistic hard lines that might be drawn to keep its children safe. The corruption of the young innocent was to be avenged – until the moment he seroconverted, whereupon he too was hastened into villainy. Many of the men sick in San Francisco and New York were dying disowned by their families of origin. Programmatic mass quarantine was debated and camps – camps – were publicly contemplated. (Proxies, 113)

People responded to this political context in many ways, but often people who narrate the past of HIV and AIDS activism broadly group the responses into an approach focusing on HIV as primarily a medical problem and those focusing on it as primarily a social problem. Both approaches are ways to confront stigma, vilification, and moralizing, but they are different. This line is sometimes presented as what caused ACT UP chapters in various cities to split – if you think treatment access and developing more and better drugs is the most important thing you take different political actions than if you think poverty, racism, and queer-hating are the most important things to work on. What makes a virus viral, what makes it sicken or kill lots and lots of people who should not have died? My conversations with people who engaged AIDS activism in the early days of the epidemic has taught me that the only way to answer that question is to hold the medical and the social together as most important.

Consider Zika – a currently unfolding naturecultural crisis. It bears the marks of previous social panics (like Ebola or HIV) about a viral situation: transmitted by some bodily fluid, but no one clarifies which one or how easy transmission is through which route, socially coded along race-nationality axes, stigmatized, and without explanation killing more people who live in poverty. Now, there are things that can be known about all sorts of viruses and their methods of transmission. A piece of something becoming viral, though, might be that the virus gets tangled up with a social context. In the case of Zika, the main context is the belief that disability is worse than death; the threat the virus brings is microencephalitis, or a small skull, in babies born to people who have Zika while pregnant. So Zika as entangles a conception of reproductive futurity – putative concern for the child – with holding pregnant people personally responsible for the entire world that might affect their developing fetus, with the actual paucity and in some places illegality of contraception and abortion. This is a reproductive justice issue, for sure, but not one that stops at the supposed conflict between disability rights and reproductive rights. For sure, to say that all babies born with microencephalitis should have been aborted is to advocate a eugenic logic entangled with dense histories of colonialism: it’s a bad futurity. But it is also to ignore the fact that something like 30% of such babies live ordinary lives, go to school, get jobs, and generally have the same life chances as people with bigger heads. Importantly, they only have those manifestations and chances if their parents have social supports for that development, which is to say, if their parents are rich.

The more important question is how and whether people can live now. Are we crafting worlds in which entanglement and penetration across cell lines is livable, or a site for death? Who has access to those worlds? These questions animate the viral for me.



Teaching the material: Trigger warnings, what it is, and the ontology-epistemology thing

I’ve just had some wonderful time out in BC, doing interviews for the AIDS activist oral history project I’m working on and starting to look into the history of AIDS criminalization legislation out there (did you know that BC passed legislation in 1990 to send HIV positive people to former leper colonies?). I felt really lucky to have some time with my friends James Rowe and Trudi Lynn Smith, in part for the joy of long friendships and in part because being and talking with them was incredibly rejuvenating. I had a crummy teaching year last year for a whole bunch of reasons, which has been hard for me because normally teaching feels engaged and sparky. This year, I’ve committed to reading and thinking about pedagogy in a way that I haven’t really taken the time to since working as a writing teacher in grad school; talking with James and Trudi about teaching was great on this front on a whole lot of levels that I’m still working through.

I started the school year off, as a lot of people I know did, with the latest round of debates on trigger warnings – this one sparked by the University of Chicago’s Dean of Students. (I liked this response on elitism in this debate, this one on what’s wrong with lay people thinking it’s good to spring traumatic things on people who’ve experienced trauma, and this one from last year’s iteration of this yearly flap about what’s wrong with thinking that giving content warnings somehow coddles students). I’m perpetually obsessed with the entanglement of how we know about the world and how the world is, which lately I’ve been thinking about in terms of what it means to think that “decolonization is not a metaphor,” as Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang put is, and what it means to see the ontological turn as of a piece with racist theory – and am I ever grateful that Zoe Todd has joined the department where I teach, because her work is so generative on this question. I come to this through Donna Haraway and Karen Barad too (I love how this interview kind of summarizes a lot of Barad’s massive book Meeting The Universe Halfway), and through Karl Marx, George Smith, and John Holloway in their engagement with the question of what the difference between understanding the world and changing the world might be.

ANYhow, I’ve been thinking that one mistake the people who critique content warnings in university contexts get wrong is that they think that what’s going on is just or mostly epistemological – that we teachers are giving information about what claims, depictions, and topics will be treated in upcoming material or discussion. If you take this view, all the criticisms about how some people are triggered by breakfast, therefore I shouldn’t have to flag a film where someone is raped or killed make a little more sense; it’s really not possible, within the field of knowing, to know all the things that our students may have experienced and thus what might hit them in such a way that they won’t be able to engage the material in the class (etc). But of course when the conversation gets going, that overlay – an epistemological concern about the limits of what it’s possible to know about and for our students – quickly shifts to an ontological refusal to be in the classroom with them in a particular way. That way is recognizing that we are not capable of predicting all the things that might interrupt our pedagogical commitment to working with students on learning, that learning is a fragile and vulnerable space for everyone involved including teachers, and that being together in the classroom involves caring for each other. The distribution of that care is not obvious (students don’t have a burden to care for teachers, but at the same time sometimes they can be nasty in ways they oughtn’t) and it’s definitely mal-distributed (racialized and Indigenous teachers, women teachers, queer teachers, precarious teachers, and disabled teachers all bear the bulk of affective care-giving pedagogical labour in the university). But thought of in terms of being in an entangled world, giving a trigger warning expresses a commitment to understanding that what’s happening between teachers and students is not merely epistemological but it is also world-making, and entangles being, knowing, and politics. That’s why I give them, and I wonder if that’s why people resist them – it’s so much harder to teach as though our bodies, feelings, and entangled being were always with us in the room.

On this, I’ve loved Ada Jaarsma, Kyle Kinaschuk, & Lin Xing’s piece on “teaching existentialism existentially” since it came out. Talking with Trudi about teaching resonated with some of what they raise, maybe in part because she’s an artist and an anthropologist, and maybe in part because of what and how she teaches. She loaned me a few books that I’m still thinking through but that feel generative: Lynda Barry’s books Syllabus and What It Is, Ivan Brunetti’s Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice, Michael Taussig’s I Swear I Saw This. These are such interesting books! I feel as though they’ll really help me think about what it is to teach more materially – that is, to teach the material while holding an understanding of how we’re all also materially entangled and implicated, but also to teach in a way that engages and grows students’ capacities. But this is difficult! I had an assignment in one of my sex & sexualities seminars riffing on Ladelle McWhorter’s brilliant work in Bodies & Pleasures about cultivating capacities for unexpected pleasures, in which they actually took up practices of various kinds. While it was amazing to see what they did I also felt out of my depth in a way that thinking about integrating drawing or hand writing into classes also makes me feel.