Book Review: Staying with the Trouble, Donna J. Haraway (2016)

Finished May 2021

environmental humanities, STS, multispecies thinking, anthropocene/capitalocene, posthumanism, ecofeminism

It’s really hard to review a work like Staying with the Trouble, especially for someone who is still so out of their depth and has not read even half of the references this book is bursting with. I think the way I have stored it in my mind is as a treasure chest of ideas and images that can help people working in the environmental humanities to shake up and shake out the way they see the world and their role within it. This is a book arguing in favour of hope as a tactic or strategy in tackling climate collapse. Donna spends time dwelling on the patterns which the environmental humanities can get stuck in, and advocates for an approach centred around the responsibility (“response-ability” in DJH’s words) which we have to non-human co-inhabitants of the earth; a responsibility to “make kin, not babies”; to become part of a global Terran interspecies community and to resist the urge to center human experiences above all others. This all works because it is also a book that is jam-packed with specifics.

My favourite set of specifics occurs in chapter one. This chapter follows a rather dense introduction in which a plethora of inscrutable terms and good intentions whirl around you as innumerable and confusing as flakes of snow in a blizzard, so it is with relief that I read the words “The details matter. [They] link actual beings to actual response-abilities” (29). DJH outlines how pigeons have been  enlisted as search and rescue employees, fertilising agents and messengers in LA, the Atlantic and Australia, using pigeon-human relationships to demonstrate what she means by multispecies storytelling and the practice of companions.

In chapter 2, then, you have a solid base of references (the pigeons and their people) to return to while bushwacking your way through what is ultimately a literature review (touching especially on Lynn Margulis, Thom van Dooren, Ursula K Le Guin and Bruno Latour) and a DJH lexicon. SJH critiques the terms ‘Anthropocene’ and ‘Capitalocene’ as being too anthropocentric, teleological, mechanistic, deterministic and defeatist, and offers up ‘Chthulucene’ (the first ‘h’ is important!) as a ridiculous alternative. I want to believe that she’s aware of how ridiculous the term is, but that her point is that it isn’t much less ridiculous than any of the other -cene words that are at play. They are all just attempts to corral the uncontrollable and frightening insanity and chaos of climate collapse into language that our human mouths and minds can handle. A lot of that discourse, however, “saps our capacity for imagining and caring for other [non-human] worlds” and all in all it’s “much Too Big” (50). In emphasising the ‘tentacular’, ‘chthonic’ character of the beings DJH sees inhabiting the world, she strikes “a blow to modern humanist … figurations of the forward-looking, sky-gazing Anthropos” (53) and imagines into existence/reveals a ‘cene’ in which “the Earthbound can take heart – as well as action”.

Trust me, it’s much easier going once you’ve read the pigeon chapter.

Chapter 3 is thick with case studies that demonstrate the forms that action taken in response to DJH’s call to arms can take. Chapter 4 invites us to think of the Anthropocene/Capitalocene as a boundary event ratherthan a period, and concludes on the double note that we should “make kin not babies” and that “all earthlings are kin”. Chapter 5 is more overtly eco-feminism, where DJH demonstrates a way of making kin between herself, her aging female dog, and the pregnant mares whose hormones go into menopause medication (I think? I sort of glossed over this chapter). Chapter 6 is a contemplation on science fiction, and how that can help us identify the stories used to tell stories. I don’t really recall Chapter 7 – something about Despret and Israel? Chapter 8 is the wackiest of the bunch, I kind of loved it and I kind of found it the most insane exercise in the book. DJH imagines what a world that follows the logics laid out in this book might look like. It’s basically a pitch for a sci-fi novel that I’ll hope she writes one day…

Let’s not beat around the bush here: Donna J Haraway is kind of a madwoman. I think that’s the appeal of her and her writing, but it does cause a kind of polarisation around her. Either you think that she’s pretentious, overhyped and a typical navel-gazing critical theorist whose participation in the environmental humanities is just a way for her to flex her intellectual and creative muscles without making any actual impact on the world  and that the people who like her writing and ideas must be in a cult… or you’re a signed-up member of the cult. Now, I’m not saying that Staying with the Trouble had me handing over my membership dues by the end of chapter one, but I did frustratedly write this note after reading a few chapters: “I hate that this is all starting to make some sense”.

As things currently stand, I think she’s an insane genius, albeit one who has definitely learned to communicate her ideas better since the days of the Cyborg Manifesto. Don’t get me wrong, Staying with the Trouble is still redolent with neologisms, sentences like “The chthonic powers of Terra infuse its tissues everywhere, despite the civilizing efforts of the agents of sky gods to astralize them and set up chief Singletons and their tame committees of multiples or subgods, the One and the Many” and paragraphs upon paragraphs about pregnant mare’s urine. And yet, something about the book really flowed. One thing that helped tremendously is Haraway’s constant repetition of some of the more inventive parts of her lexicon. It seems like she made an active effort not only to create a new way of perceiving the world and its connections, but to transmit that to her readership. In my case, she wholly succeeded.

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