Grounding in why we write – internal and external motivations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An updated version of this was published in The Arrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Responding Ethically to Complicity and Complexity”

Association for Practical and Professional Ethics – February 20, 2020

Slides for this talk are available here

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

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

Right now, the RCMP are simultaneously:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethical polyamory, responsibility, and significant otherness

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

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

—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

“Ethical Polyamory, Responsibility, and Significant Otherness”

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

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

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

This short essay will answer this question: Yes.

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


Defining our terms

There’s a t-shirt that says:

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.




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

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

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

[i] Haraway, 2003, 96.

[ii] Haraway, 2003, 3.

[iii] Haraway, 2003, 7.

[iv] Campbell, 2014, 123.

[v] Haraway, 2008, 70–71.

[vi] Campbell, 2014, 125.

[vii] Campbell, 2014, 126.

Misogynist trans-hating: Neither radical nor feminist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nobody lives everywhere; everybody lives somewhere.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kin making is making persons, not necessarily as individuals or as humans. …I think that the stretch and recomposition of kin are allowed by the fact that all earthlings are kin in the deepest sense, and its past time to practice better care of kinds-as-assemblages (not species one at a time). Kin is an assembling sort of word. All critters share a common “flesh” laterally, semiotically, and genealogically. Ancestors turn out to be very interesting strangers; kin are unfamiliar (outside what we thought was family or gens), uncanny, haunting, active.” (103)

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

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

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

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

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


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.

Against purity!

I just submitted the final edits on the book I’ve been working on, Against Purity: Living in Compromised Times. The last parts of working on a piece of writing are always a bit of a let-down, consisting as they usually do of checking references and correcting typos, and the stage I’m at makes me nervous because from now on I can’t make any more content-level changes to the text. But I’ve been happy to periodically like my own book as I’ve been doing the quotidian typo-finding:

“The “moves” involved in the not-simple “purity made simple” facewash, in NIMBY politics, in avoiding BPA, in eating organic (or vegan or paleo or sugar-free), or in doing monthly detoxifying “cleanses” may seem very different than each other. And they may seem very different in turn than other practices I explore in this book — practices of forgetting in relation to our implication in colonialism or the history of disease designation, for example. There are obvious real differences involved, but they are threaded together. Let’s call the line that links them “purity politics,” or “purism.” What’s needed, instead of a pretense to purity that is impossible in the actually existing world, is something else. We need to shape better practices of responsibility and memory for our placement in relation to the past, our implication in the present, and our potential creation of different futures.

I should say — since I try not to use the unsupported yet urgent imperatives so prevalent on the left (“we need,” “we must”), instead shifting from categorical to hypothetical imperatives — if we want a world with less suffering and more flourishing, it would be useful to perceive complexity and complicity as the constitutive situation of our lives, rather than as things we should avoid. The actions that come out of the rather undefined idea of wanting a world with less suffering is, perhaps needless to say, a moving target, and one that raises more questions than it answers. Less suffering for whom? How is suffering measured? Who has the capacity to perceive entanglement, and who has capacity to respond? To say that we live in compromised times is to say that although most people aim to not cause suffering, destruction, and death, simply by living, buying things, throwing things away, we implicate ourselves in terrible effects on ecosystems and beings both near and far away from us. We are inescapably entwined and entangled with others, even when we cannot track or directly perceive this entanglement. It is hard for us to examine our connection with unbearable pasts with which we might reckon better, our implication in impossibly complex presents through which we might craft different modes of response, and our aspirations for different futures toward which we might shape different worlds-yet-to-come.

In this book, I argue against purism not because I want a devastated world, the Mordor of industrial capitalism emerging as from a closely aligned alternate universe through our floating islands of plastic gradually breaking down into microbeads consumed by the scant marine life left alive after generations of overfishing, bottom scraping, and coral reef-killing ocean acidification; our human-caused, place-devastating elevated sea levels; our earth-shaking, water poisoning fracking; our toxic lakes made of the externalities of rare-earth mineral production for so-called “advanced” electronics; our soul-and-life destroying prisons; our oil spills; our children playing with bits of dirty bombs; our white phosphorus; our generations of trauma held in the body; our cancers; and I could go on. I argue against purism because it is one bad but common approach to devastation in all its forms. It is a common approach for anyone who attempts to meet and control a complex situation that is fundamentally outside our control. It is a bad approach because it shuts down precisely the field of possibility that might allow us to take better collective action against the destruction of the world in all its strange, delightful, impure frolic. Purism is a de-collectivizing, de-mobilizing, paradoxical politics of despair. This world deserves better.”