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Story Telling for Earthly Survival

Donna Haraway is a prominent scholar in the field of science and technology, a feminist, and a science-fiction enthusiast who works at building a bridge between science and fiction. She became known in the 1980s through her work on gender, identity, and technology, which broke with the prevailing trends and opened the door to a frank, serious, and playful trans species feminism. Haraway is a gifted storyteller who paints a rebellious and hopeful universe teeming with critters and trans species, in an era of disasters. Brussels filmmaker Fabrizio Terranova visited Donna Haraway at her home in California, living with her – almost literally, for a few weeks, and there produced a quirky film portrait. Terranova allowed Haraway to speak in her own environment, using attractive staging that emphasised the playful, cerebral sensitivity of the scientist. The result is a rare, candid, intellectual portrait of a highly original thinker. A year later after shooting the film, Terranova and Haraway converse, among other things, about the relevance of emotions in collective thinking, the responses to global and political crisis, the renewed commitment towards feminism, and the multi-scale futures of this and more than worlds on the occasion of Concreta 09.

Fabrizio Terranova: The main thing with the reception of Story Telling for Earthly Survival (2016) is that it makes easy to get inside Donna’s world. And it makes you want to read more, to know more... It is incredible the storyteller you are. Sometimes people come to me crying a little bit, because there is a lot of emotion in your stories and in the film. I think one of the main remarks in regard to the feelings the film provoke is that it opens up a door to go inside Donna’s world.

Donna Haraway: Wow. That makes me feel really good, because I feel like you and I did storytelling together in that film. We provoked each other to think of the stories that mattered, and especially now, in the world that we are in. I mean, today of course, as a United States citizen I feel nothing but shame, just shame, in the face of closing the door to refugees. Even a month ago, I thought calling the Trump regime fascist was an emotional indulgence for me. That it was too extreme, that it was terrible, but he wasn’t frankly fascist. And I no longer think that, I do think he is frankly fascist. And that is not an emotional indulgence. He is making it a solid fact and the most vulnerable people are his targets: refugees, immigrants without documents in this country, people who need health care... He has, as you probably know, even given his Chief Domestic Strategist, Steve Bannon – who was the Head of Breitbart, the white nationalist news empire – a permanent place in his National Security Council, and removed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of the body of the National Security Administration. He removed the professionals and put the right-wing ideologue, in his permanent National Security Advisor core. It is just mind-boggling! Because as much as I might oppose the American military, it is made up of professionals. They are people who are trained. They are people who have studied international law. They are people who hold themselves accountable to the application of international law in the pursuit of war. They are people who have limits, and Steve Bannon has no limits. He is a homophobe who believes and has believed for ages in the legitimate war of Christianity against Islam. He gave a lecture to that effect to the Vatican a few years ago. He is an evil, dangerous man and he is the man who is directing Trump.

So I feel like what we were trying to do, Story Telling for Earthly Survival, that collective activity that all of us have to engage in – to do what Isabelle Stengers and Philippe Pignarre stressed in La sorcellerie capitaliste to avoid the infernal alternatives, the feeling that we have no choice but to move to a kind of violence in response to violence – the reopening of the imagination: that those are not the only choices, and that we can collect the forces of the earth and of each other, and propose and enact other kinds of worlding in resistance and invention, both resistance and invention. And now it is so difficult not to be despondent, to not see a way forward. And this is true all over the world. So I feel that what we are trying to do is more important than ever: deeply personal and deeply collective.

FT: Because you are a fast thinker, this brings me to my last question. I can feel you are affected about what is going on in the United States. But also here in Europe, I am really reflecting about something that has to do with micro-politics and change of scale. I would like to hear your opinion about this, because now you have Trump in the United States, but also terrible things are happening here in Europe... It is like fear: it is everywhere. And it is really hopeless. So how to change the scale to continue imagining other worlds? Is it part of your work? How is your feeling about this micro-politics? Because somehow I feel we cannot breath anymore.

DH: The first yes, I think we are all feeling that danger, feeling despondency often, and fear. The first thing I would do at the level of vocabulary is not use the word ’micro’ or ’macro’. Instead I think we should hold ourselves to the discipline of describing what we are talking about. For example, I was at the Women’s Marches in Santa Cruz and of course they occurred all over the world and they involved millions of people who came together in their towns, in their cities with each other, and they were millions in a kind of joyful, face-to-face, full of singing, full of costumes, full of slogans, full of anger, full of energy, full of astute analysis in some of the speeches, some of the propaganda in the speeches of the kind, you know, that helps us... It was real, and it was huge, and it has not stopped. So, growing out of that, this is just one thing, growing out of that is ongoing action.

For example again, in my own town, which is only one small city, one town. Its people are organising rapid response teams to defend immigrants. They are sending busloads of people to Sacramento converging from all over the State on Tuesday to press the California Assembly to strengthen their immigration protection legislation. People are making daily phone calls. They have their phone numbers programmed into their smart phones for keeping the phone boxes over full for both right-wing and left-wing, representatives. Those are small things but they keep us moving on a kind of daily basis. I know lot of people who have pledged themselves to do one thing everyday in resistance, just one real thing everyday in resistance, and to engage in one more face-to-face politics and less Internet politics. Or if not less Internet politics, to be sure that one’s politics re-emphasize face-to-face: meeting with people, making puppets, showing up at city councils, showing up at demonstrations... The spontaneous demonstration at the airports on Saturday and Sunday against the Trump travel ban were very interesting - very mixed people.

So on the one hand, I feel that the terrible situation that we are in, not just in the United States, as I am seeing what is going on in Europe, and in the Philippines and elsewhere, in Egypt, in Turkey... How could we not see what is going on? In Russia, in Syria... I am also seeing this is mobilising people at a level that hasn’t happened since the Vietnam War: a global mobilisation. And remembering the Vietnam War I think also helps us remember that as terrible as this is, the dark days of the Vietnam War and of the nuclear contest between the Soviet Union and the United States were very dark. The level of fear was probably higher, although I would say danger was at least this high, and the issues of racism, sexism, and xenophobia, and national security repression, all of that is in our recent history, and so I think we can do ourselves harm by thinking what is happening now is unprecedented. We don’t remember that we have fought these things before, and while the dangers are real we are also powerful.

There is such a thing as a ’we’. I think what Trump and people like Trump try to do is make us forget that we actually are a collective. We are in some disorganisation now, we have much to reinvent in our sense of strategy, and in our sense of movements, the labour unions are weak and corrupt, that was less true before. We lack certain instruments, which is a great pity. But we are in a majority, certainly in the United States we are in the majority, and I think that is true globally.

I am watching the artists among us. I am watching the filmmakers, yourself, but also I am thinking right now of a friend and colleague of mine named Gregg Mitman, who has been working in Liberia with Liberians. A graduate student of his, who is an agriculture student and a Liberian involved in land struggles and trying to get more just land law that primarily gave land ownership rights to customary land holders who have no legal rights to their land: 90% of indigenous people of Liberia. So he is been working intensely in filmmaking in support with Liberians and came and showed his film, which was marvellous, and talked about the people who were working together, that kind of long term struggle for finally getting decent land law, in what has been a terrible war zone area of Africa.

This is just one little example of an historian of science, an artist, people involved in land struggles... we can call up examples everywhere: the Dakota Access Pipeline demonstrations, the work in Northern Alberta in the oil fracking tar sands areas... plus a little thing I was reading before we talked today about a woman in Seattle who has dedicated herself to building wild life corridors for the tiny little native pollinator insects, not the honey bees — who are agricultural worker species — but for the native pollinators, and there are hundreds of species in the United States and elsewhere, who live in fragmented habitats and who are dying out because they can’t fly from one part of their population to the next part, they don’t have a corridor. And this woman has been organising people to plant in cities, beginning in Seattle, looked for strips of native plants in their yard, on their driveway, in their parkway, in the city plantings, in our car parks. She is organising corridors for the hundreds of species of native pollinators. I wouldn’t call that ’micro’, you know what I mean? It is real and it is taking action in the world to make the world a livable place for multispecies environmental justice.

FT: This point is very important for me. Maybe you can develop only this difference with the change of scale and not micro-politics? Because for the moment, in a way, I feel we need micro-politics because it is too huge... and I understand what you are saying and I would like to hear more about this difference.

DH: So without calling it ‘micro’, because that implies that is small and something else is bigger and I don’t think that is helpful, I think we work at many scales at the same time, and I stress the importance of working with people in real places, with real faces, with histories with each other, taking on new kinds of friendships and alliances. I think that working in place is fundamental... And ’place’ can be as small as a neighbourhood in Seattle or as large as a regional coalition trying to develop a refugee policy. ’Place’ is a complex idea but it is the kind of commitment to actually putting our bodies, our minds, and our emotions, putting our whole selves into working with other people for something we care about, and refusing a kind of “nothing but critique,” a kind of stepping back and criticising it all, instead taking the risk to actually do something with people. Especially when we are feeling despondent, because it gives each other heart. First of all, doing something in place, something as small as building a corridor for pollinators in Seattle.

It is important to do critique, it is important to do analysis, it is important to name how powers are re-arranged, how inequality is being deepened, and the public and the collective is being further weakened by many apparatuses, and so on. It is important to conduct that critique, but it is important to conduct it in connection with a politics to address what is under critique and to use the critique to contextualise the sense of priorities with each other, which includes the priorities of giving heart to each other. I think that kind of giving each other the sort of joy where you know what you are working for, helps nurture a world worth living in. You are not just working to stop the terror; you are working for a world that is truly full of multispecies and environmental justice and that includes people but not only people.

You know, there is that song by Holly Near, the American folk singer whom I love, and let me read you this first verse because I read it to myself when I am feeling kind of down. She sings:

I am open and I am willing
To be hopeless would seem so strange
It dishonors those who go before us

So lift me up to the light of change

There is hurting in my family
There is sorrow in my town
There is panic in the nation
There is wailing the whole world round

May the children see more clearly
May the elders be more wise
May the winds of change caress us
Even though it burns our eyes

Give me a mighty oak to hold my confusion
Give me a desert to hold my fears
Give me a sunset to hold my wonder
Give me an ocean to hold my tears

The song is called ‘I Am Open and I Am Willing’. She is a California girl, about my age, maybe a little younger that I am. And she has been an important folk singer and political activist singer for a long, long time. Her song is much better than the one that you have been hearing if you have been watching American demonstrations, the one by Woody Guthrie, ‘This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land’. Every word in that song makes me cringe because it disregards indigenous land rights, because it celebrates that this land was made for you and me! Well, it wasn’t! It was taken. It is still being taken. And the most important permanent action in this country is at the Dakota Access Pipeline with the Standing Rock Sioux organised in multination demonstrations. At the pipeline to sing ‘This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land’ in the face of settler colonialism is embarrassing. It is worse than embarrassing... So we need to replace that song with the one like Holly Near’s.

FT: We will do that! When you talk about creating also joy and not only struggle in relation to terror, I am wondering what you feel with regard to the film after a year of the shooting? Because this kind of joy you are referring to is the kind of feeling that people who watch the film say they have... so what is your, let’s say, personal feeling about Story Telling for Earthly Survival? How does it work in your head in relation to time, even if you don’t see it everyday?

DH: The images do circulate from time to time in my head, little sections and images. I think maybe even more strongly because with Shindychew our the new dog, I and my partner Rusten are learning who we are again as companion species. A greeting with Cayenne (my previous dog) infuses that film, as a palpable being, and then finally as a ghost – an animating ancestor who comes forwards into the present and still gives you heart for going on. The presence of Cayenne in that film helps give me heart for going on in the way that our dead who had loved us, and who we have loved – it may be your mother, others’ friends, human and nonhuman – who give us heart to going on, who work hard as ancestors to remind us of the fierce beauty of being loved and loving. And that gives one the kind of joy that is not always fun, not always a cheerful kind of joy, though a kind of joyful energy. The scenes with Cayenne are certainly like that. But as you know the film is full of dying and living, both. There are scenes involving Jaye, my partner and Rusten’s partner. My kin, my family. There are many loops, many string figures. I love the way the film does time-loops and Jaye is dying as well as Jaye is living, and then the Gipsy King song, his favorite, crashes down.

Jaye is joy. The week before Jaye died he was dancing in the square in town, Healdsburg, with his intravenous bag attached to his arm, you know, dancing in the square to live music. That makes me think of Starhawk, the feminist witch who is so important to Isabelle Stengers, leading jailed activists in the anti-nuclear nonviolent direct action resistance in dancing, a kind of dancing the world in its liveliness to make us remember that that the earth is not finished. The sky God wants us to think the earth is dead, and it is not dead. Do you know the story of Chicken Little? Where Chicken Little runs around telling everybody the sky is falling, the sky is falling...

FT: No, I don’t know...

DH: Of course the sky is not falling, but Chicken Little, terrified, convinces everybody the sky is falling... and I remember in college I wrote a little story about Chicken Little where he finally was convinced that if the sky might be falling it has not fallen yet. So we’d better get to work! You know, you can believe the sky is falling if you want to, but it is not over...

I think the living world is opportunistic. The shared fact of the evolution of mortal critters on earth is because of the forceful attraction of molecules for each other, the forceful attraction of cells and substances, the invention of something new to get through the day. the invention of rhythms, of circadian rhythms, and day-night rhythms... The invention of living and dying on this earth is full of attractive, connective force, and I feel we have been so mesmerised by the sky Gods into thinking that thought is not passionate, thought isn’t forceful... And it is just simply not true.

FT: It seems generic to say that, but it is important for me to have your feeling about one of the big strengths in the movie that relates to your feminist position and your relation to feminism as a movement. I think in today’s world, it is one of the wonderful heritages we receive. What do you think about it?

DH: I think I feel re-strengthened and renewed in my commitment to feminism. There was a period of time, no so long ago, when people became afraid of calling themselves feminists. It seemed sophisticated, or perhaps, you know, someone would say: "of course I am in favour of this or that for women, but I don’t need to call myself a feminist". I think people are letting go of that and remembering that feminism is finite, complicated, full of its own trashy moments. Feminism is a big flawed important world-changing movement, full of women and men and others making a difference in the world. The worldwide demonstrations and the women’s marches are an illustration of that. That was a very flawed organisation that began with white women who really didn’t think clearly about the critical obligation of initiating leadership with a diverse group of organisers from the very beginning. "You can’t just organise this, this is white women", so on, so on. They got called to account. The marches were flawed at their origin by the old heritage of white women’s unconscious racism... It was brought into the open very quickly; it was imperfect but nonetheless addressed. In other words, its flaws were evident and this is not a perfect thing. Feminism is so diverse. Think of the actions of the leaders of Black Lives Matter, the women who essentially started and animated Black Lives Matter who themselves belong to a rich and complex heritage of women’s movement and of feminism. It is not full of peace. It is full of conflict and collaboration – which is Angela Davis’s term – that is what feminism is about. And it is about a kind of affirmation of the possibility of flourishing without the dominations – centrally of gender, but gender interconnected with everything, requiring a strong intersectional analysis. You cannot talk about gender domination without talking about everything else too. You can foreground or background different kinds of goals at different times, you don’t have to do everything at once, but the connections are relentless. And I think feminism is a movement committed to connection in an anti-hierarchical in a way, more than most Marxism has ever been. Feminism has failed in this regard of course, but feminism at its deepest core is anti-hierarchical movement committed to the activation of people for flourishing. I look at the leadership of women in the world and, my god, it is everywhere. And I think it is for the most part not sexist, and it is welcoming to anybody who wants to participate. I see women taking the initiative. I listened to Angela Davis’s speech at the Women’s March in Washington ten days ago, and I was strengthened by her clarity of analysis and her ongoing heart for permanent struggle. And as I just mentioned the phrase "women in conflict and collaboration" is Angela Davis’s phrase. It was the term that she used to describe an organisation she started at the University of California at Santa Cruz when she taught here. You don’t expect to be without conflict in your movements but you expect to build with people who care about each other, and care for each other, in conflict and collaboration. So I think of feminism in that way. I also think that feminists are and have been absolutely the most outspoken about multispecies environmental justice. Environmental justice cannot just be a humanist affair. The wellbeing of earthlings with each other is a core feminist value.

FT: Now the question is also related to the review for Concreta and also related to my work. I have already asked you about this, but I didn’t leave it in the film, and it is about your way to use and work with some artists, kind of underrated artists, and the way you see that. Because I remember this sentence you told me when I asked you about using images in your presentations. You said: "I need to work with beauty".

DH: It is part of needing to work with access to joy. And beauty feels intrinsic to being a biological creature: the extraordinary patterning, and colouring, and connective patterning in the living world... I think the living world is astonishingly beautiful. Pretty and beautiful obviously are not the same thing. But the force of beauty in the living world has been very important to my life, and so I am drawn especially to biomorphic artists, to artists who make use of biomorphic patterns in various kinds of ways, as well as to artists who are committed to narrative, who engage in storytelling without shame, with no worry about whether it is unsophisticated, who aren’t afraid of narrative... I developed that position myself many years ago in the period of feminist film theory, when there was a very strong anti-narrative and anti-aesthetic trend. It seemed to me that everyone who came to give a paper at the various universities where I would travel or my home university, everybody wore nothing but black, as near as I can tell. They regarded colour as unsophisticated or something, maybe a dark red here and there was ok. I found myself, first angry... Who the holy hell do they think they are? And second, I found myself laughing, laughing at the theoretical pretention, about the anti-narrative theoretical pretentions and the fierceness and severity of commitment to a kind of cognition that felt anti-corporeal, colorless. Of course, there was a huge amount that went on in feminist film theory that was fantastic and smart, and I adopted it and everybody else adopted too, I am exaggerating about the clothing. But it became clear to me how much colour mattered to me and how much biodynamic and biomorphic forms mattered to me. And how I have always been touched by artists who are unafraid of narrative and of their love of the biological world. And for a long period of time those artists have not been regarded as the foremost artists. I don’t greatly care if someone is a foremost artist, although I do care whether their work is good. I am touched by powerful work, turned off by work that feels trivial. These are questions of taste but they are not random. It is a question of face-to-face and touch, most of the artists I have taken up in my own work are people whose work I have seen in person, and I have come to meet them with, had exchanges either in person or by email or both. We have come to collaborate on some little piece or something. The artists who touch me I end up knowing as people. Margaret and Christine Wertheim with the crochet coral reef, Lynn Randolph with the earlier paintings that were so influenced by the Texas-Mexico border and her working with Mexican retablos. The Passion of OncoMouse is a good example of this influence. Patricia Piccinini’s work, Shoshana Dubiner’s work all of these are people I ended up collaborating with, although it didn’t start that way. And it is because often I would write them for permission to use their image in a publication and then we would start an exchange and then we go from there. So, the art I most use is the art of people I come to know, and I use it because for some reason it touched me, often at first simply thematically. I am writing about something and I see a painting or a piece of performance art or... it is thematically relevant and so it gives me ideas. And if it is thematically relevant and also really strong, it does more than just give an idea, it starts engaging you at some kind of unconscious creative process level. And you find this work is changing you in some way that enables you to do something in a way you couldn’t do before. And then you make propositions again in Isabelle’s sense, that is a kind of proposition, a kind of offering, sometimes to the artist or from the artist back to me, a kind of proposing that ends up changing us both. It is that kind of process.

FT: Yes. A little remark about that because I am very interested. Sometimes I think there is something wrong with the use of powerful thinking connected to art. I think there are a lot of references to your work into contemporary art . I think with contemporary art, it could be great of course, but it is also a way to keep the shape but not the substance, they mention your name but do not enter your work. Do you know what I mean? Do you feel that too? Maybe not in terms of good or bad but somehow the relation between your thinking and the work of others can be compromised.

DH: It is hard to answer that in a general way, because for me these things are so specific. It is coming into contact for a particular show, or a particular artist, or a short story, a poem. Then it becomes infectious; it leads me to places I didn’t know I was even going. I have been relatively untouched by modernist art but not completely. It depends. But also there is another aspect for me that if somebody I know and care for loves something I learn to love it too, even if before I had no idea of how. The passions of friends, and colleagues, and co-workers, and thinkers infect me. I think all human beings have this capacity to one or another degree and I think is one of the things that I got maybe more than some other people. I can really, very quickly inhabit others’ people desires and loves. They make sense to me very fast and that has influenced everything I have done. And I think that is part of why I do the kind of citation work I do. It is not just to be correct about giving credit, but more about honoring the way other ways of working in the world is infectious for me. But also, I hate it when my name is cited or used, but as a kind of decoration, not as an engagement of the work. I don’t want to do that to the artists who have come so deeply to shape what I do!

FT: In this situation with this emotion with the Trump team but also the joy, the film, what is your little appendix to Camille, the new fictional character you proposed at the end of your book Staying with the Trouble? You created this speculative fabulation as part of a writing workshop within Isabelle Stengers’ colloquium on gestes spéculatifs in Summer 2013 and described Camille as a keeper of memories in the flesh of worlds that may become habitable again. She is one of the children of compost who ripen to the earth to say no to the posthuman of every time.

DH: My friend here at UCSC, Rachel Cypher, a graduate student in anthropology started writing her own stories about a community of compost set in Argentina with another character. And I am beginning to realise that if people start writing about the other communities of compost and start populating them with symbionts in addition to Camille, wonderful things emerge. After the third generation of the Communities of Compost there were millions of symbionts alive on planet earth from many kinds of combinations, and they all practice complex multispecies socialites. So I am thinking the way that Camille story will have to go is to enlarge the players, enlarge the stories.

And also part of the appendix... well, it is not really an appendix. The Camille story has many purposes and many threads but one of them of course is the imagination of how to step down human numbers over a couple of hundred years to a level that would be less deadly for both people and more than people, and this whole question of the numbering of the earth. I am continuing to work on that. Not so much about Camille as the main character, but I have been trying to write about two groups that I call "the born" and "the disappeared". "The born" ones include the post World War II generations, the industrial animals, the explosion of high consuming pets, the explosion of the extractionist high consuming human populations of the earth, and the immiseration of the poor, on one hand. On the other hand are the vast numbers of "the disappeared", the missing generation of those who experienced genocides, the disappearance among the species whose numbers have been so reduced or who have been simply wiped out, the billions upon billions of the disappeared... I don’t think the born can be thought apart from the disappeared. So thinking about population can’t just be a statistical number game, but it is thinking who lives and who dies and how, in this world of forced growth. Because we live in a world of forced growth named capitalism. In a regime of force growth, who are the born and who are the disappeared?

*This conversation took place on January 24, 2017.


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