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.)

Claiming Bad Kin

This is the first part of a talk I’m offering today at McMaster – access copy here.

Many white people I know have been sparked to reflection in the wake of the “not guilty” verdicts in the Gerald Stanley and Raymond Cormier murder cases. Some have been moved to ask what it means to be a white settler in this place currently called Canada, confronting the murders of Coulton Boushie, Tina Fontaine, and so many others. When we understand what is happening, wherever we notice it, many of us respond by wanting to distance ourselves from harm, or by denying that it’s really so bad, or by attempting to be firmly on the side of the angels. In particular, those of us who benefit from harm and wrong-doing may want to take the side of the oppressed, the murdered, the wounded. We may respond by disavowing our connection to the people killing the earth and its people, critters, and ecosystems. In some real way I love this response, this rejection of being complicit with harm. I think it signals a lively and laudable rejection of wrongdoing that we can all get behind, and a desire to transform or end the social relations that produce suffering. But precisely because the complicity-denial impulse expresses a wish to end suffering we ought to assess whether denying complicity is an effective political stance.

In this talk I’ll be primarily focusing on whiteness in its articulation with the past and present of colonialism, Black enslavement, and border militarism. But it is vital to mark that all of this takes place and is complexly entangled with environmental devastation, global warming, and the spread of industrial toxicants alongside everyday vitalized materials that capitalism renders pollutants. And all of this rests on a eugenic logic that dictates who deserves to live and who to die and that threads disability-hating throughout its narrative of fitness of species. People who benefit from social relations of harm frequently try to claim kin relations with the people who are targeted by racism or to reject kin connections with wrongdoers. Many white settlers respond to histories of colonization by claiming Indigenous ancestry, or to histories of enslavement by claiming abolitionist ancestry or by remaining ignorant of enslavers in the family tree, or we respond to histories of border militarism by naturalizing or celebrating contemporary state formations. Many white settlers mobilize individualizing and neoliberal logics, that is, to deny complicity with or benefit from ongoing social relations of harm that result from colonization, chattel slavery, and militarized borders.

Christina Sharpe’s piece “Lose Your Kin” came out shortly after the US election of Donald Trump. The article begins with a quote from Saidiya Hartman’s book Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Trade Route: “Slavery is the ghost in the machine of kinship.” Hartman’s project in Lose Your Mother is to trace what happens when someone cannot find the traces, the names, the histories of history they know is present and shapes their lives. Sharpe’s project in “Lose Your Kin” is to invite white people to refuse white kinship and to recognize that, as she writes, “One must be willing to say this is abhorrent. One must be willing to be more than uncomfortable. Once must be willing to be on the outside. One must refuse to repair a familial rift on the bodies cast out as not kin” (Sharpe 2016, para 10). She is right, I think, to argue that “Kinship relations structure the nation. Capitulation to their current configurations is the continued enfleshment of that ghost [of slavery]” (para 11). In this inquiry into what it means to resist the continued enfleshment of the ghosts and present hauntings of slavery, eugenic projects, the violence of borders, and colonialism, I pivot to ask if refusing to capitulate to current configurations might require acknowledging our social and political entanglement with them.

I am interested in what it could mean for white people and settlers more generally who benefit from historical and current effects of enslavement, colonialism, border militarism, racial distributions of environmental devastation, and capitalism to claim kin with the people producing these effects. If we are complicit in the pain of this suffering world, how might we take responsibility for our bad kin? I started thinking about this question in part through listening to conversations over the past several years about people who claim various sorts of Indigenous identities without being able to trace their family history to the lived, community experience of indigeneity. One articulation of why this move doesn’t work came from Kim Tallbear’s important work on why DNA tests cannot confirm or deny Indigenous identity. She says, “We construct belonging and citizenship in ways that do not consider these genetic ancestry tests. So it’s not just a matter of what you claim, but it’s a matter of who claims you” (“Sorry, That DNA Test Doesn’t Make You Indigenous” 2017). Audra Simpson, speaking of the case of author Joseph Boyden, wrote:

this conversation has never been about Indian status, or blood quantum, it is simply a matter of kin. Do settlers understand what it means to be a relation to each other? And the crucial relationship of this relatedness to one’s society, to politics, to land? The settler state does, that’s why it took our children from us and dismantled our kinship systems with the Indian Act in 1876. So we hold on to our kin relations where we can and we reclaim them as we can. We understand kin very well indeed. .. It is not shameful to ask who you belong to. It is not “lateral violence” or a lynch mob to ask who your relations are. It is the beginning of a conversation that unlocks who you are and how you shall proceed with each other.” (“Eksá:’a Onekwenhtara on Twitter: ‘Mic. DROP. All Hail the IroQueen. Https://T.Co/QedwCGBSAq’” 2017).

It seems to me clear that, indeed, it does not only matter what we claim about who we are; it matters who claims us as kin.

White nationalists claim me, as a white person, as kin. Though they may not know me personally and though they would likely despair of my politics, they are working for a world in which I and white people like me hold citizenship, reproduce “the white race,” and are safe and flourishing. Listening to Tallbear and Simpson, and reflecting on Sharpe’s work, I started to wonder what would happen if I claimed them back.

My argument here has three parts. First, I argue that Indigenous practices of relationality cannot be taken up by settlers, and that instead we must craft new practices of being in relation that can destroy settler colonialism and its articulation with anti-Black racism and border militarism. Second, I forward a conception of situatedness as arising from both the histories we inherit and the webs of connection that shape the social relations within which we exist; differential inheritance produces differential responsibilities. Third, I argue for a specific form of responding to whiteness that involves white settlers claiming rather than disavowing our connection to white supremacist people and social relations. I explore the potential of the roles of friends and comrades working as race traitors against whiteness and gesture towards the importance of directly confronting white supremacists.

“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).

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.

#Viral

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.

 

 

Femme identification & Stranger Things

spoilers for most of season 1.

I read, and appreciated a lot of Shannon Keating’s points about femininity and Hollywood horror conventions over at Buzzfeed. Its central point is a critique of the trope in pop culture requiring unfeminine girls to be made over, feminized, and rendered desirable in order to be worthy of regard. It’s true: this sucks. An attention to the way mythical femininity works (and is resisted) in the show helps us think about why the character of Barb has been widely taken up as awesome and stylish (which was not, I think, the intention of the Duffer Brothers, who seem like pretty much dudebros); it helps us think about the tragedy of Nancy snuggling up with Steve in episode 8.

At the same time, I worried about two things in the article; its typification of kids in sixth grade as necessarily not having sexuality and its dismissal of the ways taking up femininity can be good:

  1. Thinking strictly in the realm of consensual interaction: It is totally true that children don’t have adult kinds of sexuality; prepubescent kids – as are many of the characters in Stranger Things – in particular. It’s also almost always the case that when kids have sexuality imputed to them it is straight sexuality. So actual babies are rendered as “flirting” if and only if they are interacting with humans of the “opposite” gender, but they are talked about that way all the time. Usually, only queer kids are rendered as always and only non-sexual (and not in the liberatory ways that ace sexuality manifests) until we’re well past the age of majority. (If you want to reflect on this, look at all the sexual things that have different legal ages of consent if they’re done across or within gender lines.) It’s also true that there are forms of desire and interpersonal connection happening with people who are twelve, and it’s not disgusting or weird that Eleven and Mike might like each other and that within the fucked up and predictable gender norms of junior high that liking might express itself in wanting to go to a dance. In the totally TV context also of a kid who’s been raised in a basement as a cold war science experiment, a kid who’s depicted as being forced to assent to the experiments performed on her, a kid who’s depicted as rewarded with care and regard when she kills two of the men guarding her after refusing to kill a cat, I think it’s also worth reflecting on what Eleven’s desire for Mike means. I read both her openness to connection in friendship (“friends don’t lie”) with all of the D&D boys and the specific connection with Mike as a quite beautiful kind of resistance to, well, her entire life to date. It says: the entire US government tried to destroy my capacity to form lateral connections of warmth and trust in service of making me a world-breaking weapon, and I still like people.
  2. Okay, so I get that it’s technically not femme identification when Eleven (Elle, ha, it’s such a blunt instrument feminization, I see that…) puts on Nancy’s old dress and wig from the boys’ dress-up stash, having previously identified Nancy in a photo as “pretty.” I agree with folks that the whole show is very, almost queerly, trying-really-hard straight. And when the wig comes out, they’re just trying to disguise her as not a buzz-cut kid to get her into the school undetected. Keating makes awesome points about the many ways that, in the 80’s and now, masculine and tomboy girls are called to reform into girly girls in order to be rendered palatable. Maybe it’s because I agree with this critique so much that I have been dwelling on why it doesn’t completely scan for me in this show. I wonder if there is any way for us to receive the pleasure Eleven has in wearing the dress, wearing the wig, in being told she is pretty – pretty with the wig, pretty without it – as a pleasure that can be real, and not only a capitulation to traditional gender norms. Keating says, “The more we see women and girls embracing nontraditional gender presentations, the less vilified those presentations will become. Characters like Furiosa and Holtzmann represent the possibility that a woman could be masculine, or queer, or unattached, or some combination of the three without being forcibly feminized, given a boyfriend, or branded a monster.” I agree! And I wonder also if there isn’t some way that girl and women characters can embrace feminine gender presentations – can like being pretty – and still be complete ass-kickers.