Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, October 7, 2016

"oddkin" and really odd kin

I’ve been reading Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, and like all Haraway’s work it’s a strange combination of the deeply unconventional and the deeply conventional. Conventional in that formally it’s a standard academic monograph, complete with all the usual apparatus, including not just proper citations and endnotes but also extensive thanks to all the high-class venues around the world where noted academics get to visit to give draft versions of their book chapters. Unconventional in that Haraway has some peculiar ideas and a peculiar (but often delightful, to me anyway) prose style. I find myself wishing that the form was as ambitious and unpredictable as the weirder of the ideas; the rigors of standard academic discursive practice serve as a kind of straitjacket for those ideas, it seems to me.

Here’s a passage that will give you a pretty good sense of what Haraway is up to in this book:

The book and the idea of “staying with the trouble” are especially impatient with two responses that I hear all too frequently to the horrors of the Anthropocene and the Capitalocene. The first is easy to describe and, I think, dismiss, namely, a comic faith in technofixes, whether secular or religious: technology will somehow come to the rescue of its naughty but very clever children, or what amounts to the same thing, God will come to the rescue of his disobedient but ever hopeful children. In the face of such touching silliness about technofixes (or techno-apocalypses), sometimes it is hard to remember that it remains important to embrace situated technical projects and their people. They are not the enemy; they can do many important things for staying with the trouble and for making generative oddkin.

“Making generative oddkin”? Yes. Seeking to become kin with all sorts of creatures and things — pigeons, for instance. There’s a brilliant early chapter here on human interaction with pigeons. Of course, that interaction has been conducted largely on human terms, and Haraway wants to create two-way streets where in the past they ran only from humans to everything else. “Staying with the trouble requires making oddkin; that is, we require each other in unexpected collaborations and combinations, in hot compost piles. We become-with each other or not at all.”

But here’s the thing: Haraway’s human kin are “antiracist, anticolonial, anticapitalist, proqueer feminists of every color and from every people,” and people who share her commitment to “Make Kin Not Babies”: “Pronatalism in all its powerful guises ought to be in question almost everywhere.”

It’s easy to talk about the need to “become-with each other,” but based on many years of experience, I suspect that — to borrow a tripartite distinction from Scott Alexander — most people who use that kind of language are fine with their ingroup (“antiracist, anticolonial, anticapitalist, proqueer feminists of every color and from every people”) and fine with the fargroup (pigeons), but the outgroup? The outgroup that lives in your city and votes in the same elections you do? Not so much.

So here’s my question for Professor Haraway: Does the project of “making kin” extend to that couple down the street from you who have five kids, attend a big-box evangelical church, and plan to vote for Trump? Fair warning: They’re a little more likely to talk back than the pigeons are.

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