The Kinship of Donna Haraway

By Audio Pervert - 11/01/2022

A "system of social organization based on blood based family ties..." (Encyclopaedia Britannica). That organization also exists within nature, culture, language, arts and interpersonal relationships. Numerous types of kinship, extended, temporal, living or dead.

Professor Emerita, eco-feminist and writer Donna J. Haraway has progressively amplified the concept of kinship, as a direction, leading us out of the Anthropocene (our current age). The missing kinship we need, to face the perilous state of the living planet. She’s been at it for decades now! Her landmark 1985 “A Cyborg Manifesto” was a bit of an "earthquake" within prevailing feminist theory. In 2003, "The Companion Species Manifesto" examined our innate connection to dogs, as well as other non-human “critters” (a favorite Haraway word). By early 2000, Donna Haraway was an emerging figure in animal studies, ecology and feminism. Her background as a scientist and cultural scholar, extended her influence beyond academia, inspiring a generation of artists, writers and new scientists. Haraway is insisting, with brilliant insight, backed by scientific power, that our relationship with nature has fundamentally gone wrong. And that broken status is getting worse, and is missing 'kinship'. Now think of "kin” and “kind” - etymologically they’re closely related. To be kind is to be kin, but kin is not kind. "Kin is often quite the opposite of kind. Not necessarily be biologically related but in some consequential way belong in the same category, group, species etc with positive and negative consequences..." says Haraway.

Kinship is one of the most important organizing components of society. Kinship has been part of our evolution, some argue even before the dawn of Homo Sapiens. What is referred as social, is an invisible but universal institution that ties individuals and groups together. Hosting relationships of layered complexities amongst us all. Haraway points out that some of these institutions, over millennia have failed to progress and hence elicit change. With a sense of emergency she explains "making kin seems to me, is most in need in a culture that rips us apart from each other, in a world that already hosts almost 8 billion human beings, with very unequal and unjust patterns of suffering and well-being. By kin I mean those who have an enduring mutual, obligatory, non-optional, you-can’t-just-cast-that-away-when-it-gets-inconvenient, types of 'relatedness that carries consequences'... as we relate to our children and they relate to us.. I have a cousin, the cousin has me; I have a dog, a dog has me; i have the earth and the earth has me..."

In her book Staying With The Trouble (2017), Donna Haraway insists on "stirring up" and "confronting troubled times". She compels us to feel the indigenous people's kinship to natural systems (rivers, mountains, forests etc). She describes how the Anthropocene has rapidly run off the rails. "We live in such mixed up times... made of so much unnecessarily killing... the ongoing mass extinction and severely impoverished ecosystems... society constantly fluctuating between anxiety, pain, speculation and momentary joy". Haraway insists that by making new kin, new relationships, "new trouble" and "clearing away past myths", we stand a chance to make way for a future, which will not be based on "salvation, magic or technological progress". She eschews, gradually divesting from the current epoch (the Anthropocene), moving into what she conceptualizes as the "Chthulucene". The book vividly describes a future landscape of unforeseen bio-mutation, not so far away, where the human and non-human are inextricably linked in "tentacular" forms and practices. "I imagine those replete with tentacles, feelers, digits, cords, whip-tales, spider legs and unruly hair... Multi-species with the ability to share ecosystems in harmony.. very different from the sky gazing Homo Sapiens 10,000 years ago...". Oh! sounds like another Hollywood 'alien mutation' meets 70s Sci-Fi? Actually far from it.

Influenced by the flowering of feminist science fiction of the ’70s and 80s, Haraway cites books which could be seen as radical, dark and beautiful, like Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, and the Tales of Nevèrÿon to name a few. Haraway went on to create her "little skein of fibers based on science fiction, like 'string figures, speculative fabulation, science fact, speculative feminism, and even so far". However Haraway is not merely amplifying nostalgia and science fiction. While on one hand she retains a clear kinship with the above writers, yet on the other hand she presents new horizons, based on emerging science and ecology, new ways of thinking to be precise. Her implications of kin versus family are vast. Revised, of kinship which encompasses all non-human relations.

That kinship which gradually removes the Homo Sapien from it's dominant position. She slams at the old farcical myths and idiotic notions of glory that we have held on for centuries. Haraway unboxes her ideas, with the objective to improve our relationship with the planet, at micro and macro levels. Haraway is no moralist. She is replacing 'human relations' with 'kin' which arguably brings about a transformation. A revolution of our hierarchies and priorities. The very definition of what amounts to a family and why kinship goes way beyond blood, race and language relationships. Why not care as much about a Mudskipper as you do about your niece or a Blue Whale or a Panda? Sounds too far out?! Perhaps we are struck down by our own limitations, unable to re-imagine and re-act.

Haraway's argument and imagination is linked to the evolution of bio-science - made of ecology, genetics, marine biology, medicine, stem-cell research etc. For about forty years now, Haraway has connected analysis and activism. Staying With The Trouble (2017) transcends disciplinary boundaries. Traversing biology, science studies, art history and philosophy with fiction, political activism and new Etymologies. She insists that we learn to tell new stories, that strengthen ecological response-ability and individual resilience. She warns with duress, that a world characterized by ongoing environmental irresponsibility and irrevocable faith in technology, is both "appallingly murderous and leading us even closer to ecocide..."

Haraway questions our food and agriculture. The system of mono-cropping has yielded an epic disaster in slow motion. From America to China to Chile to India, the impact of modern agriculture resonates with Haraway's conclusion. "When you take the complex biodiversity of a given region, and you not only radically simplify its ecology, but you also rapidly reduce the kinds of organisms, flora and fauna that live there. Then, you displace the labor force that’s already there and import a new labor force, using various forms of force, contract, even violence and indentured servitude. You bring in new crops, seeds, fertilizers, chemicals and irrigation systems, that promise higher and higher yields, proffered by the global markets and economics... the state and private corporations also bring in a labor force that literally can’t run away... At the same time, we begin to notice how bankrupt the ecosystems have become.. And you call all that “agriculture”? questions Haraway in a recent interview.

Kinship is vital to the well being of a person and a community. Because different societies define kinship differently, they also set varied rules governing kinship. Given certain rules impose limitations, setting boundaries, fostering myths. Many times such kinship is detrimental, divisive to the way we connect (and view) others. 'Don't talk to strangers'! The "non-kin" such as other species, other races, languages, customs and cultures. Wild animals are not how the dominant culture frames them. Countless doltish animated 'Hakuna Matata' movies or lavish hi-definition documentaries enable such false narratives and myths to perpetuate. The loss is ours however, and not of the "critters". Haraway laments how generations of children have been force fed such detrimental narratives, while she opines on the need to challenge (and divest) such traditional forms of kinship.

At the heart of Donna Haraway's vision is a marriage of science, activism and art. A regenerative state between human beings and nature. In her numerous lectures and presentations, we begin to understand some of the practices for becoming "more worldly and less clan type". Especially in a time of unprecedented environmental destruction, mass extinction and exodus, ongoing war and a chaotic overloaded civilization. When asked if she is speculating a better future in the face of collapse denial? She replies "No! For one thing, I think that’s cheap... that I can just go on enjoying myself or suffer chronically in despair? Or join a closed group or embrace new green myths. It’s lazy. It's a dead end of sorts... I’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic. Those are but extremes...The book I wrote was called Staying with the Trouble on purpose, and yes I am against techno-optimism..."

As a distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California Santa Cruz, Haraway skipped over rigid academic definitions, while assimilating all that she could from the intersection of biology, ecology, contemporary culture and politics. Currently co-editing a book with Adele Clarke titled “Making Kin Not Population”, which addresses questions of human numbers. We as a species have gone way over the biophysical limits of the earth, now facing possibility of near-term collapse. The two writers are also addressing feminist anti-racist reproductive and environmental justice. Speculative or imaginative, radical or conceptual, they imagine the post-Anthropocene to be Multi-species. That human population will steadily decline in the next 150 years or so. Increased exodus of human and non-human survivors. Energy based empires will crumble. Further beyond the 22nd century, they proffer a world where man's domination will be replaced by mutation, bio-genesis, leading to an eventual dissolve of our current civilization. 
Hence making kin with plants, rivers, mountains, beaches, the bugs and the birds, or what-nature-have-you including all the "critters" makes sense? Especially now, as we are collectively heading for a precipitous fall, a complex outcome of really bad ideas?
How to navigate and challenge the waters of entrenched capitalism? What are the important questions which begin to expose the terrible consequences of our domination of the planet. Divesting from the dogma of constant growth and capital accumulation. Divorce from models that collectively contribute to the ongoing destruction of the very systems that sustain (and host) us. This blue planet, a very unique little dot inside the endless universe, will continue, yet it is us that need inspiration, new ideas and tools to survive. Donna Haraway sums it up as "we are living in the most unprecedented times, entering a century of change and loss, hence also collectively in deep need of new kinship..."

 'Staying With The Trouble'

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