Critters, Critics, and Californian Theory – review of Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble



[This review was originally published on the blog of the Political Economy Research Centre as part of its Anthropocene Reading Group, as well as on the blog of Centre for Understanding Sustainable Prosperity]


Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene(Duke University Press, 2016)

From the opening, Donna Haraway’s recent book reads like a nice hybrid of theoretical conversation and science fiction. Crescendoing in the closing Camille Stories, the outcome of a writing experiment of imagining five future generations, “Staying with the trouble” weaves together – like the cat’s cradle, one of the recurrent metaphors in the book – staple Harawayian themes of the fluidity of boundaries between human and variously defined ‘Others’, metamorphoses of gender, the role of technology in modifying biology, and the related transformation of the biosphere – ‘Gaia’ – in interaction with human species. Eschewing the term ‘Anthropocene’, which she (somewhat predictably) associates with Enlightenment-centric, tool-obsessed rationality, Haraway births ‘Chthulucene’ – which, to be specific, has nothing to do with the famous monster of H.P. Lovecraft’s imagination, instead being named after a species of spider, Pimoa Cthulhu, native to Haraway’s corner of Western California.

This attempt to avoid dealing with human(-made) Others – like Lovecraft’s “misogynist racial-nightmare monster” – is the key unresolved issue in the book. While the tone is rightfully respectful – even celebratory – of nonhuman critters, it remains curiously underdefined in relation to human ones. This is evident in the treatment of Eichmann and the problem of evil. Following Arendt, Haraway sees Eichmann’s refusal to think about the consequences of his actions as the epitome of the banality of evil – the same kind of unthinking that leads to the existing ecological crisis. That more thinking seems like a natural antidote and a solution to the long-term destruction of the biosphere seems only logical (if slightly self-serving) from the standpoint of developing a critical theory whose aim is to save the world from its ultimate extinction. The question, however, is what to do if thoughts and stories are not enough?

The problem with a political philosophy founded on belief in the power of discourse is that it remains dogmatically committed to the idea that only if one can change the story, one can change the world. The power of stories as “worlding” practices fundamentally rests on the assumption that joint stories can be developed with Others, or, alternatively, that the Earth is big enough to accommodate those with which no such thing is possible. This leads Haraway to present a vision of a post-apocalyptic future Earth, in which population has been decimated to levels that allow human groups to exist at sufficient distance from each other. What this doesn’t take into account is that differently defined Others may have different stories, some of which may be fundamentally incompatible with ours – as recently reflected in debates over ‘alternative facts’ or ‘post-truth’, but present in different versions of science and culture wars, not to mention actual violent conflicts. In this sense, there is no suggestion of sympoiesis with the Eichmanns of this world; the question of how to go about dealing with human Others – especially if they are, in Kristeva’s terms, profoundly abject – is the kind of trouble “Staying with the trouble” is quite content to stay out of.

Sympoiesis seems reserved for non-humans, which seem to happily go along with the human attempts to ‘become-with’ them. But it seems easier when ‘Others’ do not, technically speaking, have a voice: whether we like it or not, few of the non-human critters have efficient means to communicate their preferences in terms of political organisation, speaking order at seminars, or participation in elections. The critical practice of com-menting, to which Haraway attributes much of the writing in the book, is only possible to the extent to which the Other has equal means and capacities to contribute to the discussion. As in the figure of the Speaker for the Dead, the Other is always spoken-for, the tragedy of its extinction obscuring the potential conflict or irreconcilability between species.

The idea of a com-pliant Other can, of course, be seen as an integral element of the mythopoetic scaffolding of West Coast academia, where the idea of fluidity of lifestyle choices probably has near-orthodox status. It’s difficult not to read parts of the book, such as the following passage, as not-too-fictional accounts of lived experiences of the Californian intellectual elite (including Haraway herself):

“In the infectious new settlements, every new child must have at least three parents, who may or may not practice new or old genders. Corporeal differences, along with their fraught histories, are cherished. Throughout life, the human person may adopt further bodily modifications for pleasure and aesthetics or for work, as long as the modifications tend to both symbionts’ well-being in the humus of sympoiesis” (p. 133-5)

The problem with this type of theorizing is not so much that it universalises a concept of humanity that resembles an extended Comic-Con with militant recycling; reducing ideas to their political-cultural-economic background is not a particularly innovative critical move. It is that it fails to account for the challenges and dangers posed by the friction of multiple human lives in constrained spaces, and the ways in which personal histories and trajectories interact with the configurations of place, class, and ownership, in ways that can lead to tragedies like the Grenfell tower fire in London.

In other words, what “Staying with the trouble” lacks is a more profound sense of political economy, and the ways in which social relations influence how different organisms interact with their environment – including compete for its scarce resources, often to the point of mutual extinction. Even if the absolution of human woes by merging one’s DNA with those of fellow creatures works well as an SF metaphor, as a tool for critical analysis it tends to avoid the (often literally) rough edges of their bodies. It is not uncommon even for human bodies to reject human organs; more importantly, the political history of humankind is, to a great degree, the story of various groups of humans excluding other humans from the category of humans (colonized ‘Others’, slaves), citizens (women, foreigners), or persons with full economic and political rights (immigrants, and again women). This theme is evident in the contemporary treatment of refugees, but it is also preserved in the apparently more stable boundaries between human groups in the Camille Stories. In this context, the transplantation of insect parts to acquire consciousness of what it means to inhabit the body of another species has more of a whiff of transhumanist enhancement than of an attempt to confront head-on (antennae-first?) multifold problems related to human coexistence on a rapidly warming planet.

At the end of the day, solutions to climate change may be less glamorous than the fantasy of escaping global warming by taking a dip in the primordial soup. In other words, they may require some good ol’ politics, which fundamentally means learning to deal with Others even if they are not as friendly as those in Haraway’s story; even if, as the Eichmanns and Trumps of this world seem to suggest, their stories may have nothing to do with ours. In this sense, it is the old question of living with human Others, including abject ones, that we may have to engage with in the AnthropoCapitaloCthulucene: the monsters that we created, and the monsters that are us.

Jana Bacevic is a PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge, and has a PhD in social anthropology from the University of Belgrade. Her interests lie at the intersection of social theory, sociology of knowledge, and political sociology; her current work deals with the theory and practice of critique in the transformation of higher education and research in the UK.


Zygmunt Bauman and the sociologies of end times

[This post was originally published at the Sociological Review blog’s Special Issue on Zygmunt Bauman, 13 April 2017]

“Morality, as it were, is a functional prerequisite of a world with an in-built finality and irreversibility of choices. Postmodern culture does not know of such a world.”

Zygmunt Bauman, Sociology and postmodernity

Getting reacquainted with Bauman’s 1988 essay “Sociology and postmodernity”, I accidentally misread the first word of this quote as “mortality”. In the context of the writing of this piece, it would be easy to interpret this as a Freudian slip – yet, as slips often do, it betrays a deeper unease. If it is true that morality is a functional prerequisite of a finite world, it is even truer that such a world calls for mortality – the ultimate human experience of irreversibility. In the context of trans- and post-humanism, as well as the growing awareness of the fact that the world, as the place inhabited (and inhabitable) by human beings, can end, what can Bauman teach us about both?

In Sociology and postmodernity, Bauman assumes the position at the crossroads of two historical (social, cultural) periods: modernity and postmodernity. Turning away from the past to look towards the future, he offers thoughts on what a sociology adapted to the study of postmodern condition would be like. Instead of a “postmodern sociology” as a mimetic representation of (even if a pragmatic response to) postmodernity, he argues for a sociology that attempts to give a comprehensive account of the “aggregate of aspects” that cohere into a new, consumer society: the sociology of postmodernity. This form of account eschews the observation of the new as a deterioration, or aberration, of the old, and instead aims to come to terms with the system whose contours Bauman will go on to develop in his later work: the system characterised by a plurality of possible worlds, and not necessarily a way to reconcile them.

The point in time in which he writes lends itself fortuitously to the argument of the essay. Not only did Legislators and interpreters, in which he reframes intellectuals as translators between different cultural worlds, come out a year earlier; the publication of Sociology and postmodernity briefly precedes 1989, the year that will indeed usher a wholly new period in the history of Europe, including in Bauman’s native Poland.

On the one hand, he takes the long view back to post-war Europe, built, as it was, on the legacy of Holocaust as a pathology of modernity, and two approaches to preventing its repetition – market liberalism and political freedoms in the West, and planned economies and more restrictive political regimes in Central and Eastern parts of the subcontinent. On the other, he engages with some of the dilemmas for the study of society that the approaching fall of Berlin Wall and eventual unification of those two hitherto separated worlds was going to open. In this sense, Bauman really has the privilege of a two-facing version of Benjamin’s Angel of History. This probably helped him recognize the false dichotomy of consumer freedom and dictatorship over needs, which, as he stated, was quickly becoming the only imaginable alternative to the system – at least as far as imagination was that of the system itself.

The present point of view is not all too dissimilar from the one in which Bauman was writing. We regularly encounter pronouncements of an end of a whole host of things, among them history, classical distribution of labour, standards of objectivity in reporting, nation-states, even – or so we hope – capitalism itself. While some of Bauman’s fears concerning postmodernity may, from the present perspective, seem overstated or even straightforwardly ridiculous, we are inhabiting a world of many posts – post-liberal, post-truth, post-human. Many think that this calls for a rethinking of how sociology can adapt itself to these new conditions: for instance, in a recent issue of International Sociological Association’s Global Dialogue, Leslie Sklair considers what a new radical sociology, developed in response to the collapse of global capitalism, would be like.

As if sociology and the zeitgeist are involved in some weird pas-de-deux: changes in any domain of life (technology, political regime, legislation) almost instantaneously trigger calls for, if not the invention of new, then a serious reconsideration of old paradigms and approaches to its study.

I would like to suggest that one of the sources of continued appeal of this – which Mike Savage brilliantly summarised as epochal theorising – is not so much the heralding of the new, as the promise that there is an end to the present state of affairs. In order for a new ‘epoch’ to succeed, the old one needs to end. What Bauman warns about in the passage cited at the beginning is that in a world without finality – without death – there can be no morality. In T.S. Eliot’s lines from Burnt Norton: If all time is eternally present, all time is irredeemable. What we may read as Bauman’s fear, therefore, is not that worlds as we know them can (and will) end: it is that, whatever name we give to the present condition, it may go on reproducing itself forever. In other words, it is a vision of the future that looks just like the present, only there is more of it.

Which is worse? It is hard to tell. A rarely discussed side of epochal theorising is that it imagines a world in which social sciences still have a role to play, if nothing else, in providing a theoretical framing or empirically-informed running commentary of its demise, and thus offers salvation from the existential anxiety of the present. The ‘ontological turn’ – from object-oriented ontology, to new materialisms, to post-humanism – reflects, in my view, the same tendency. If objects ‘exist’ in the same way as we do, if matter ‘matters’ in the same way (if not in the same degree) in which, for instance, black lives matter, this provides temporary respite from the confines of our choices. Expanding the concept of agency so as to involve non-human actors may seem more complicated as a model of social change, but at least it absolves humans from the unique burden of historical responsibility – including that for the fate of the world.

Human (re)discovery of the world, thus, conveys less a newfound awareness of the importance of the lived environment, as much as the desire to escape the solitude of thinking about the human (as Dawson also notes, all too human) condition. The fear of relativism that postmodern ‘plurality’ of worlds brought about appears to have been preferable to the possibility that there is, after all, just the one world. If the latter is the case, the only escape from it lies, to borrow from Hamlet, in the country from whose bourn no traveller has ever returned: in other words, in death.

This impasse is perhaps felt strongest in sociology and anthropology because excursions into other worlds have been both the gist of their method and the foundations of their critical potential (including their self-critique, which focused on how these two elements combine in the construction of epistemic authority). The figure of the traveller to other worlds was more pronounced in the case of anthropology, at least at the time when it developed as the study of exotic societies on the fringe of colonial empires, but sociology is no stranger to visitation either: its others, and their worlds, delineated by sometimes less tangible boundaries of class, gender, race, or just epistemic privilege. Bauman was among theorists who recognized the vital importance of this figure in the construction of the foundations of European modernity, and thus also sensitive to its transformations in the context of postmodernity – exemplified, as he argued, in contemporary human’s ambiguous position: between “a perfect tourist” and a “vagabond beyond remedy”.

In this sense, the awareness that every journey has an end can inform the practice of social theory in ways that go beyond the need to pronounce new beginnings. Rather than using eulogies in order to produce more of the same thing – more articles, more commentary, more symposia, more academic prestige – perhaps we can see them as an opportunity to reflect on the always-unfinished trajectory of human existence, including our existence as scholars, and the responsibility that it entails. The challenge, in this case, is to resist the attractive prospect of escaping the current condition by ‘exit’ into another period, or another world – postmodern, post-truth, post-human, whatever – and remember that, no matter how many diverse and wonderful entities they may be populated with, these worlds are also human, all too human. This can serve as a reminder that, as Bauman wrote in his famous essay on heroes and victims of postmodernity, “Our life struggles dissolve, on the contrary, in that unbearable lightness of being. We never know for sure when to laugh and when to cry. And there is hardly a moment in life to say without dark premonitions: ‘I have arrived’”.

Out of place? On Pokémon, foxes, and critical cultural political economy

Isle of Wight, August 2016

Last week, I attended the Second international conference in Cultural political economy organized by the Centre for globalization, education and social futures at the University of Bristol. It was through working with Susan Robertson and other folk at the Graduate School of Education, where I had spent parts of 2014 and 2015 as a research fellow, that I first got introduced to cultural political economy.

The inaugural conference last year took place in Lancaster, so it was a great opportunity to both meet other people working within this paradigm and do a bit of hiking in the Lake District. This year, I was particularly glad to be in Bristol – the city that, to a great degree, comes closest to ‘home’, and where – having spent the majority of those two years not really living anywhere – I felt I kind of belonged. The conference’s theme – “Putting culture in its place” – held, for me, in this sense, a double meaning: it was both about critically assessing the concept of culture in cultural political economy, and about being in a particular place from which to engage in doing just that.

 Cultural political economy (CPE) unifies (or hybridises) approaches from cultural studies and those from (Marxist) political economy, in order to address the challenges of growing complexity (and possible incommensurability, or what Jessop refers to as in/compossibility) of elements of global capitalism. Of course, as Andrew Sayer pointed out, the ‘cultural’ streak in political economy can be traced all the way to Marx, if not downright to Aristotle. Developing it as a distinct approach, then, needs to be understood both genealogically – as a way to reconcile two strong traditions in British sociology – and politically, inasmuch as it aspires to make up for what some authors have described as cultural studies’ earlier disregard of the economic, without, at the same time, reverting to the old dichotomies of base/superstructure.

 Whereas it would be equal parts wrong, pretentious, and not particularly useful to speak of “the” way of doing cultural political economy – in fact, one of its strongest points, in my view, is that it has so far successfully eschewed theoretical and institutional ossification that seems to be an inevitable corollary of having (or building) ‘disciples’ (in both senses: as students, and as followers of a particular disciplinary approach) – what it emphasises is the interrelationship between the ‘cultural’ (as identities, materialities, civilisations, or, in Jessop and Sum’s – to date the most elaborate – view, processes of meaning-making), the political, and the economic, whilst avoiding reducing them one onto another. Studying how these interact over time, then, can help understand how specific configurations (or ‘imaginaries’) of capitalism – for instance, competitiveness and the knowledge-based economy – come into being.

My relationship to CPE is somewhat ambiguous. CPE is grounded in the ontology of critical realism, which, ceteris paribus, comes closest to my own views of reality [*]. Furthermore, having spent a good portion of the past ten years researching knowledge production in a variety of regional and historical contexts, the observation that factors we call ‘cultural’ play a role in each makes sense to me, both intuitively and analytically. On the other hand, being trained in anthropology means I am highly suspicious of the reifying and exclusionary potential of concepts such as ‘culture’ and, especially, ‘civilisation’ (in ways which, I would like to think, go beyond the (self-)righteousness immanent in many of their critiques on the Left). Last, but not least, despite a strong sense of solidarity with a number of identity-based causes, my experience in working in post-conflict environments has led me to believe that politics of identity, almost inevitably, fails to be progressive.[†]

For these reasons, the presentation I did at the conference was aimed at clarifying the different uses of the concept of ‘culture’ (and, to a lesser degree, ‘civilisation’) in cultural political economy, and discussing their political implications. To begin with, it might make sense to put culture through the 5W1H of journalistic inquiry. What is culture (or, what is its ontology)? Who is it – in other words, when we say that ‘culture does things’, how do we define agency? Where is it – in other words, how does it extend in space, and how do we know where its boundaries are? When is it – or what is its temporal dimension, and why does it seem easiest to define when it has either already passed, or is at least ‘in decline’, the label that seems particularly given to application to the Western civilisation? How is it (applied as an analytical concept)? This last bit is particularly relevant, as ‘culture’ sometimes appears in social research as a cause, sometimes as a mediating force (in positivist terms, ‘intervening variable’), and sometimes as an outcome, or consequence. Of course, the standard response is that it is, in fact, all of these, but instead of foreclosing the debate, this just opens up the question of WHY: if culture is indeed everything (or can be everything), what is its value as an analytical term?

A useful metaphor to think about different meanings of ‘culture’ could be the game of Pokémon Go. It figures equally as an entity (in the case of Pokémon, entities are largely fictional, but this is of lesser importance – many entities we identify as culturally significant, for instance deities, are); as a system of rules and relationships (for instance, those governing the game, as well as online and offline relationships between players); as a cause of behaviour (in positivist terms, an independent variable); and as an indicator (for instance, Pokémon Go is taken as a sign of globalization, alienation, revolution [in gaming], etc.). The photos in the presentation reflect some of these uses, and they are from Bristol: the first is a Pikachu caught in Castle Park (no, not mine :)); the other is from an event in July, when the Bristol Zoo was forced to close because too many people turned up for a Pokémon lure party. This brings in the political economy of the game; however, just like in CPE, the ‘lifeworld’ of Pokémon Go cannot be reduced to it, despite the fact it would not exist without it. So, when we go ‘hunting’ for culture, where should we look?

Clarifying the epistemic uses of the concept of culture serves not only to prevent treating culture as what Archer has referred to as ‘epiphenomenal’, or what Rojek & Urry have (in a brilliantly scathing review) characterised as ‘decorative’, but primarily to avoid what Woolgar & Pawluch dubbed ‘ontological gerrymandering’. Ontological gerrymandering refers to conceptual sliding in social problems definitions, and consists of “making problematic the truth status of certain states of affairs selected for analysis and explanation, while backgrounding or minimizing the possibility that the same problems apply to assumptions upon which the analysis depends. (…) Some areas are portrayed as ripe for ontological doubt and others portrayed as (at least temporarily) immune to doubt”[‡].

In the worst of cases, ‘culture’ lends itself to this sort of use – one moment almost an ‘afterthought’ of the more foundational processes related to politics and economy; the other foundational, at the very root of the transformations we see in everyday life; and yet, at other moments, mediating, as if a ‘lens’ that refracts reality. Of course, different concepts and uses of the term have been dissected and discussed at length in social theory; however, in research, just like in practice, ‘culture’ frequently resurfaces as a blackbox that can be conveniently proffered to explain elements not attributable (or reducible) to other factors.

This is important not only for theoretical but also, and possibly more, for political reasons. Culture is often seen as a space of freedom, for expression and experimentation. The line from which I borrow the title of my talk – “When I hear the word culture” – is an example of a right-wing reaction to exactly that sort of concept. Variously misattributed to Goering, Gebels, or even Hitler, the line actually comes from Schlageter, a play by Hanns Johst, written in Germany in 1933, which celebrates Nazi ideology. At some point, one of the characters breaks into a longish rant on why he hates the concept of culture – he sees it as ‘lofty’, ‘idealistic’, and in many ways distant from what he perceives to be ‘real struggles’, guns and ammo – which is why it crescendoes in the famous “When I hear the word culture, I release the safety on my Browning”. This idea of ‘culture’ as fundamentally opposed to the vagaries of material existence has informed many anti-intellectualist movements, but, equally importantly, it has also penetrated the reaction to them, resulting in the often unreflexive glorification of ‘folk’ poetry, drama, or art, as almost instantaneously effective expressions of resistance to anti-intellectualism.

Yet, in contemporary political discourse, the concept of culture has been equally appropriated by the left and the right: witness the ‘culture wars’ in the US, or the more recent use of the term to describe social divisions in the UK. Rather than disappearing, political struggles, I believe, will be increasingly framed in terms of culture. The ‘burkini ban’ in France is one case. Some societies deal with cultural diversity differently, at least on the face of it. New Zealand, where I did a part of my research, is a bicultural society. Its universities are founded on the explicit recognition of the concept of mātauranga Māori, which implies the existence of fundamentally culturally different epistemologies. This, of course, raises a number of other interesting issues; but those issues are not something we shouldn’t be prepared to face.

 As we are becoming better at dealing with culture and with the economy, it still remains a challenge to translate these insights to the political. An obvious case where we’re failing at this is knowledge production itself – cultural political economy is very well suited for analysing the transformation of universities in neoliberalism, yet none the wiser – or more efficient – in tackling these challenges in ways that provide a lasting political alternative.


Later that evening, I go see two of my closest friends from Bristol. Walking back to the flat where I’m staying – right between Clifton and Stokes Croft – I run across a fox. Foxes are not particularly exceptional in Bristol, but I still remember my first encounter with one, as I was walking across Cotham side in 2014: I thought it was a large cat at first, and it was only the tail that gave it away. Having grown up in a highly urbanised environment, I cannot help but see encounters with wildlife as somewhat magical. They are, to me, visitors from another world, creatures temporarily inhabiting the same plane of existence, but subject to different motivations and rules of behaviour: in other words, completely alien. This particular night, this particular fox crosses the road and goes through the gates of Cotham School, which I find so patently symbolic that I am reluctant to share it for fear of being accused of peddling clichés.

And this, of course, marks the return of culture en pleine force. As a concept, it is constructed in opposition to ‘nature’; as a practice, its primary role is to draw boundaries – between the sacred and the profane, between the living and the dead, the civilised and the wild. I know – from my training in anthropology, if nothing else – that fascination with this particular encounter stems from the feeling of it being ‘out of place’: foxes in Bristol are magical because they transgress boundaries – in this case, between ‘cultured’, human worlds, and ‘nature’, the outer world.

I walk on, and right around St. Matthew’s church, there is another one. This one stops, actually, and looks at me. “Hey”, I say, “Hello, fox”. It waits for about six seconds, and then slowly turns around and disappears through the hedge.

I wish I could say that there was sense in that stare, or that I was able to attribute it purpose. There was none, and this is what made it so poignant. The ultimate indecipherability of its gaze made me realise I was as much out of place as the fox was. From its point of view, I was as immaterial and as transgressive as it was from mine: creature from another realm, temporarily inhabiting the same plane, but ultimately of no interest. And there it was, condensed in one moment: what it means to be human, what it means to be somewhere, what it means to belong – and the fragility, precariousness, and eternal incertitude it comes with.

[*] In truth, I’m still planning to write a book that hybridises magical realism with critical realism, but this is not the place to elaborate on that particular project.

[†] I’ve written a bit on the particular intersection of class- and identity-based projects in From Class to Identity; the rich literature on liberalism, multiculturalism, and politics of recognition is impossible to summarise here, but the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has a decent summary overview under the entry “Identity Politics”.

[‡] I am grateful to Federico Brandmayr who initially drew my attention to this article.