- Speculum of the Other Cene
A review of Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016). Cited in the text as sw.
We are discovering new ways of folding. … What always matters isfolding, unfolding, refolding. Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque
I have to put / up with these people who keep forming me. Alice Notley, Certain Magical Acts
In September 2017 the Oakland gallery Pro Arts featured Past Presence, a joint exhibition of separately produced but thematically linked works by the artists Indira Allegra and Christopher R. Martin. What tied the two artists' concerns together was precisely the question of the tie itself: the weave, the fold, the thread, and the tangle. As the description of the exhibition read, Past Presence was a "response to the politicized trauma in Black contemporary life through the medium of weaving," whether in Allegra's "digital weaving" of [End Page 233] audio and images of black families grieving for victims of police violence, or in Martin's large black-and-white cotton-based tapestries depicting symbols of trauma and resistance. Particularly striking were three of Martin's side-by-side tapestries that each depicted the knot of a noose, all tilted at an italicized angle so as to look like the Satanic number 666—evoking the long tradition of African American theology (both Christian and Islamic) associating white supremacy with the devil. At the heart of Martin's work seemed to be a material reflection on the violence of the tie, each knot of the noose haunted by its homophone not: the word of negation, exclusion, and violence. Allegra and Martin's remarkably powerful exhibition dealing with weaving, tying, and violence thus made its viewers reflect on their own various modalities of implication in structures of violence and exclusion—from the most abstract systematic sense of being implicated in something, to the most material and literal, where implicate comes from the Latin verb plicare, meaning "to weave" or "to fold."1 This was on my mind as I read Donna Haraway's Staying with the Trouble, which is similarly obsessed with the ties that bind and blind. As one of the book's many refrains declares, "It matters what knots knot knots. … [It matters] what ties tie ties" (sw, 12).
A leitmotif throughout Haraway's coruscating, baffling, invigorating, and frustrating book is the multivalent abbreviation SF, which stands for, among other things, "science fiction, speculative fabulation, string figures, speculative feminism, science fact, so far" (sw, 2). The most important of these is "string figures," which incorporates the many metaphoric uses of string words as figures for relationality—weaves, folds, ties, knots, threads, and so on—as well as literal uses of strings, as in the Navajo weaving practices of na'atl'o' that interest Haraway, or the Crochet Coral Reef collaborative art project she lovingly details. SF, we read, "is a method of tracing, of following a thread in the dark … the cultivating of multispecies justice. … SF is practice and process; it is becoming-with each other in surprising relays; it is a figure for ongoingness in the Chthulucene" (sw, 3). I will return to the rebarbative "Chthulucene"—boldly thrown in the title—and the language of the book in general, but this quote introduces us to the rhythm of Haraway's thought and her main [End Page 234] concern here, which is the main concern of all of her work: existence as an infinite—though always partially intelligible—welter of relationality. Indeed, she refreshingly refuses to shy from the ontological import of her claims: "Variously and dangerously configured relationality is just what is" (sw, 175n). Haraway has been one of our most important thinkers of relation, connection, and community for more than thirty years—and one of our most subtle and underrated metaphysicians, though she would probably disavow such a label—especially for reminding us that relation goes beyond humans, involving all beings of all kinds. The enemies in this book are less the usual suspects of principalities, powers, and rulers like capitalism and imperialism (though they are present) than the cynical attitude of "bitter defeatism" and the...