Issue 9 / Nature December 07, 2019
The history of philosophy is also a story about real estate.
Driving into Santa Cruz to visit Donna Haraway, we can’t help feeling that we were born too late. The metal sculpture of a donkey standing on Haraway’s front porch, the dogs that scramble to her front door barking when we ring the bell, and the big black rooster strutting in the coop out back — the entire setting evokes an era of freedom and creativity that postwar wealth made possible in Northern California.
Here was a counterculture whose language and sensibility the tech industry sometimes adopts, but whose practitioners it has mostly priced out. Haraway, who came to the University of Santa Cruz in 1980 to take up the first tenured professorship in feminist theory in the US, still conveys the sense of a wide‑open world.
Haraway was part of an influential cohort of feminist scholars who trained as scientists before turning to the philosophy of science in order to investigate how beliefs about gender shaped the production of knowledge about nature. Her most famous text remains “A Cyborg Manifesto,” published in 1985. It began with an assignment on feminist strategy for the Socialist Review after the election of Ronald Reagan and grew into an oracular meditation on how cybernetics and digitization had changed what it meant to be male or female — or, really, any kind of person. It gained such a cult following that Hari Kunzru, profiling her for Wired years later, wrote: “To boho twentysomethings, her name has the kind of cachet usually reserved for techno acts or new phenethylamines.”
The cyborg vision of gender as changing and changeable was radically new. Her map of how information technology linked people around the world into new chains of affiliation, exploitation, and solidarity feels prescient at a time when an Instagram influencer in Berlin can line the pockets of Silicon Valley executives by using a phone assembled in China that contains cobalt mined in Congo to access a platform moderated by Filipinas.
Haraway’s other most influential text may be an essay that appeared a few years later, on what she called “situated knowledges.” The idea, developed in conversation with feminist philosophers and activists such as Nancy Hartsock, concerns how truth is made. Concrete practices of particular people make truth, Haraway argued. The scientists in a laboratory don’t simply observe or conduct experiments on a cell, for instance, but co-create what a cell is by seeing, measuring, naming, and manipulating it. Ideas like these have a long history in American pragmatism. But they became politically explosive during the so-called Science Wars of the 1990s — a series of public debates among “scientific realists” and “postmodernists” with echoes in controversies about bias and objectivity in academia today.
Haraway’s more recent work has turned to human-animal relations and the climate crisis. She is a capacious yes, and thinker, the kind of leftist feminist who believes that the best thinking is done collectively. She is constantly citing other people, including graduate students, and giving credit to them. A recent documentary about her life and work by the Italian filmmaker Fabrizio Terranova, Story Telling for Earthly Survival, captures this sense of commitment, as well as her extraordinary intellectual agility and inventiveness.
At her home in Santa Cruz, we talked about her memories of the Science Wars and how they speak to our current “post-truth” moment, her views on contemporary climate activism and the Green New Deal, and why play is essential for politics.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Can you tell us a little bit about your childhood?
I grew up in Denver, in the kind of white, middle-class neighborhood where people had gotten mortgages to build housing after the war. My father was a sportswriter. When I was eleven or twelve years old, I probably saw seventy baseball games a year. I learned to score as I learned to read.
My father never really wanted to do the editorials or the critical pieces exposing the industry’s financial corruption or what have you. He wanted to write game stories and he had a wonderful way with language. He was in no way a scholar — in fact he was in no way an intellectual — but he loved to tell stories and write them. I think I was interested in that as well — in words and the sensuality of words.
The other giant area of childhood storytelling was Catholicism. I was way too pious a little girl, completely inside of the colors and the rituals and the stories of saints and the rest of it. I ate and drank a sensual Catholicism that I think was rare in my generation. Very not Protestant. It was quirky then; it’s quirky now. And it shaped me.
One of the ways that it shaped me was through my love of biology as a materialist, sensual, fleshly being in the world as well as a knowledge-seeking apparatus. It shaped me in my sense that I saw biology simultaneously as a discourse and profoundly of the world. The Word and the flesh.
Many of my colleagues in the History of Consciousness department, which comes much later in the story, were deeply engaged with Roland Barthes and with that kind of semiotics. I was very unconvinced and alienated from those thinkers because they were so profoundly Protestant in their secularized versions. They were so profoundly committed to the disjunction between the signifier and signified — so committed to a doctrine of the sign that is anti-Catholic, not just non-Catholic. The secularized sacramentalism that just drips from my work is against the doctrine of the sign that I felt was the orthodoxy in History of Consciousness. So Catholicism offered an alternative structure of affect. It was both profoundly theoretical and really intimate.
Did you start studying biology as an undergraduate?
I got a scholarship that allowed me to go to Colorado College. It was a really good liberal arts school. I was there from 1962 to 1966 and I triple majored in philosophy and literature and zoology, which I regarded as branches of the same subject. They never cleanly separated. Then I got a Fulbright to go to Paris. Then I went to Yale to study cell, molecular, and developmental biology.
Did you get into politics at Yale? Or were you already political when you arrived?
The politics came before that — probably from my Colorado College days, which were influenced by the civil rights movement. But it was at Yale that several things converged. I arrived in the fall of 1967, and a lot was happening.
New Haven in those years was full of very active politics. There was the antiwar movement. There was anti-chemical and anti-biological warfare activism among both the faculty and the graduate students in the science departments. There was Science for the People [a left-wing science organization] and the arrival of that wave of the women’s movement. My lover, Jaye Miller, who became my first husband, was gay, and gay liberation was just then emerging. There were ongoing anti-racist struggles: the Black Panther Party was very active in New Haven.
Jaye and I were part of a commune where one of the members and her lover were Black Panthers. Gayle was a welfare rights activist and the mother of a young child, and her lover was named Sylvester. We had gotten the house for the commune from the university at a very low rent because we were officially an “experiment in Christian living.” It was a very interesting group of people! There was a five-year-old kid who lived in the commune, and he idolized Sylvester. He would clomp up the back stairs wearing these little combat boots yelling, “Power to the people! Power! Power!” It made our white downstairs neighbors nervous. They didn’t much like us anyway. It was very funny.
Did this political climate influence your doctoral research at Yale?
I ended up writing on the ways that metaphors shape experimental practice in the laboratory. I was writing about the experience of the coming-into-being of organisms in the situated interactions of the laboratory. In a profound sense, such organisms are made but not made up. It’s not a relativist position at all; it’s a materialist position. It’s about what I later learned to call “situated knowledges.” It was in the doing of biology that this became more and more evident.
How did these ideas go over with your labmates and colleagues?
It was never a friendly way of talking for my biology colleagues, who always felt that this verged way too far in the direction of relativism.
It’s not that the words I was using were hard. It’s that the ideas were received with great suspicion. And I think that goes back to our discussion a few minutes ago about semiotics: I was trying to insist that the gapping of the signifier and the signified does not really determine what’s going on.
But let’s face it: I was never very good in the lab! My lab work was appalling. Everything I ever touched died or got infected. I did not have good hands, and I didn’t have good passion. I was always more interested in the discourse, if you will.
But you found a supervisor who was open to that?
Yes, Evelyn Hutchinson. He was an ecologist and a man of letters and a man who had had a long history of making space for heterodox women. And I was only a tiny bit heterodox. Other women he had given space to were way more out there than me. Evelyn was also the one who got us our house for our “experiment in Christian living.”
God bless. What happened after Yale?
Jaye got a job at the University of Hawaii teaching world history and I went as this funny thing called a “faculty wife.” I had an odd ontological status. I got a job there in the general science department. Jaye and I were also faculty advisers for something called New College, which was an experimental liberal-arts part of the university that lasted for several years.
It was a good experience. Jaye and I got a divorce in that period but never really quite separated because we couldn’t figure out who got the camera and who got the sewing machine. That was the full extent of our property in those days. We were both part of a commune in Honolulu.
Then one night, Jaye’s boss in the history department insisted that we go out drinking with him, at which point he attacked us both sexually and personally in a drunken, homophobic, and misogynist rant. And very shortly after that, Jaye was denied tenure. Both of us felt stunned and hurt. So I applied for a job in the History of Science department at Johns Hopkins, and Jaye applied for a job at the University of Texas in Houston.
Baltimore and the Thickness of Worlding
How was Hopkins?
History of Science was not a field I knew anything about, and the people who hired me knew that perfectly well. Therefore they assigned me to teach the incoming graduate seminar: Introduction to the History of Science. It was a good way to learn it!
Hopkins was also where I met my current partner, Rusten. He was a graduate student in the History of Science department, where I was a baby assistant professor. (Today I would be fired and sued for sexual harassment — but that’s a whole other conversation.)
Who were some of the other people who became important to you at Hopkins?
[The feminist philosopher] Nancy Hartsock and I shaped each other quite a bit in those years. We were part of the Marxist feminist scene in Baltimore. We played squash a lot — squash was a really intense part of our friendship. Her lover was a Marxist lover of Lenin; he gave lectures in town.
In the mid-to-late 1970s, Nancy and I started the women’s studies program at Hopkins together. At the time, she was doing her article that became her book on feminist materialism, [Money, Sex, and Power: Toward a Feminist Historical Materialism]. It was very formative for me.
Those were also the years that Nancy and Sandra Harding and Patricia Hill Collins and Dorothy Smith were inventing feminist standpoint theory. I think all of us were already reaching toward those ideas, which we then consolidated as theoretical proposals to a larger community. The process was both individual and collective. We were putting these ideas together out of our struggles with our own work. You write in a closed room while tearing your hair out of your head — it was individual in that sense. But then it clicks, and the words come, and you consolidate theoretical proposals that you bring to your community. In that sense, it was a profoundly collective way of thinking with each other, and within the intensities of the social movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The ideas that you and other feminist philosophers were developing challenged many dominant assumptions about what truth is, where it comes from, and how it functions. More recently, in the era of Trump, we are often told we are living in a time of “post-truth” — and some critics have blamed philosophers like yourselves for creating the environment of “relativism” in which “post-truth” flourishes. How do you respond to that?
Our view was never that truth is just a question of which perspective you see it from. “Truth is perspectival” was never our position. We were against that. Feminist standpoint theory was always anti-perspectival. So was the Cyborg Manifesto, situated knowledges, [the philosopher] Bruno Latour’s notions of actor-network theory, and so on.
“Post-truth” gives up on materialism. It gives up on what I’ve called semiotic materialism: the idea that materialism is always situated meaning-making and never simply representation. These are not questions of perspective. They are questions of worlding and all of the thickness of that. Discourse is not just ideas and language. Discourse is bodily. It’s not embodied, as if it were stuck in a body. It’s bodily and it’s bodying, it’s worlding. This is the opposite of post-truth. This is about getting a grip on how strong knowledge claims are not just possible but necessary — worth living and dying for.
When you, Latour, and others were criticized for “relativism,” particularly during the so-called Science Wars of the 1990s, was that how you responded? And could your critics understand your response?
Bruno and I were at a conference together in Brazil once. Which reminds me: If people want to criticize us, it ought to be for the amount of jet fuel involved in making and spreading these ideas! Not for leading the way to post-truth. We’re guilty on the carbon footprint issue, and Skyping doesn’t help, because I know what the carbon footprint of the cloud is.
Anyhow. We were at this conference in Brazil. It was a bunch of primate field biologists, plus me and Bruno. And Stephen Glickman, a really cool biologist, a man we both love, who taught at UC Berkeley for years and studied hyenas, took us aside privately. He said, “Now, I don’t want to embarrass you. But do you believe in reality?”
We were both kind of shocked by the question. First, we were shocked that it was a question of belief, which is a Protestant question. A confessional question. The idea that reality is a question of belief is a barely secularized legacy of the religious wars. In fact, reality is a matter of worlding and inhabiting. It is a matter of testing the holding-ness of things. Do things hold or not?
Take evolution. The notion that you would or would not “believe” in evolution already gives away the game. If you say, “Of course I believe in evolution,” you have lost, because you have entered the semiotics of representationalism — and post-truth, frankly. You have entered an arena where these are all just matters of internal conviction and have nothing to do with the world. You have left the domain of worlding.
The Science Warriors who attacked us during the Science Wars were determined to paint us as social constructionists — that all truth is purely socially constructed. And I think we walked into that. We invited those misreadings in a range of ways. We could have been more careful about listening and engaging more slowly. It was all too easy to read us in the way the Science Warriors did. Then the right wing took the Science Wars and ran with it, which eventually helped nourish the whole fake-news discourse.
Your opponents in the Science Wars championed “objectivity” over what they considered your “relativism.” Were you trying to stake out a position between those two terms? Or did you reject the idea that either of those terms even had a stable meaning?
Both terms inhabit the same ontological and epistemological frame — a frame that my colleagues and I have tried to make hard to inhabit. Sandra Harding insisted on “strong objectivity,” and my idiom was “situated knowledges.” We have tried to deauthorize the kind of possessive individualism that sees the world as units plus relations. You take the units, you mix them up with relations, you come up with results. Units plus relations equal the world.
People like me say, “No thank you: it’s relationality all the way down.” You don’t have units plus relations. You just have relations. You have worlding. The whole story is about gerunds — worlding, bodying, everything-ing. The layers are inherited from other layers, temporalities, scales of time and space, which don’t nest neatly but have oddly configured geometries. Nothing starts from scratch. But the play — I think the concept of play is incredibly important in all of this — proposes something new, whether it’s the play of a couple of dogs or the play of scientists in the field.
This is not about the opposition between objectivity and relativism. It’s about the thickness of worlding. It’s also about being of and for some worlds and not others; it’s about materialist commitment in many senses.
To this day I know only one or two scientists who like talking this way. And there are good reasons why scientists remain very wary of this kind of language. I belong to the Defend Science movement and in most public circumstances I will speak softly about my own ontological and epistemological commitments. I will use representational language. I will defend less-than-strong objectivity because I think we have to, situationally.
Is that bad faith? Not exactly. It’s related to [what the postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has called] “strategic essentialism.” There is a strategic use to speaking the same idiom as the people that you are sharing the room with. You craft a good-enough idiom so you can work on something together. I won’t always insist on what I think might be a stronger apparatus. I go with what we can make happen in the room together. And then we go further tomorrow.
In the struggles around climate change, for example, you have to join with your allies to block the cynical, well-funded, exterminationist machine that is rampant on the earth. I think my colleagues and I are doing that. We have not shut up, or given up on the apparatus that we developed. But one can foreground and background what is most salient depending on the historical conjuncture.
Santa Cruz and Cyborgs
To return to your own biography, tell us a bit about how and why you left Hopkins for Santa Cruz.
Nancy Hartsock and I applied for a feminist theory job in the History of Consciousness department at UC Santa Cruz together. We wanted to share it. Everybody assumed we were lovers, which we weren’t, ever. We were told by the search committee that they couldn’t consider a joint application because they had just gotten this job okayed and it was the first tenured position in feminist theory in the country. They didn’t want to do anything further to jeopardize it. Nancy ended up deciding that she wanted to stay in Baltimore anyway, so I applied solo and got the job. And I was fired from Hopkins and hired by Santa Cruz in the same week — and for exactly the same papers.
What were the papers?
The long one was called “Signs of Dominance.” It was from a Marxist feminist perspective, and it was regarded as too political. Even though it appeared in a major journal, the person in charge of my personnel case at Hopkins told me to white it out from my CV.
The other one was a short piece on [the poet and novelist] Marge Piercy and [feminist theorist] Shulamith Firestone in Women: a Journal of Liberation. And I was told to white that out, too. Those two papers embarrassed my colleagues and they were quite explicit about it, which was kind of amazing. Fortunately, the people at History of Consciousness loved those same papers, and the set of commitments that went with them.
You arrived in Santa Cruz in 1980, and it was there that you wrote the Cyborg Manifesto. Tell us a bit about its origins.
It had a very particular birth. There was a journal called the Socialist Review, which had formerly been called Socialist Revolution. Jeff Escoffier, one of the editors, asked five of us to write no more than five pages each on Marxist feminism, and what future we anticipated for it.
This was just after the election of Ronald Reagan. The future we anticipated was a hard right turn. It was the definitive end of the 1960s. Around the same time, Jeff asked me if I would represent Socialist Review at a conference of New and Old Lefts in Cavtat in Yugoslavia [now Croatia]. I said yes, and I wrote a little paper on reproductive biotechnology. A bunch of us descended on Cavtat, and there were relatively few women. So we rather quickly found one another and formed alliances with the women staff who were doing all of the reproductive labor, taking care of us. We ended up setting aside our papers and pronouncing on various feminist topics. It was really fun and quite exciting.
Out of that experience, I came back to Santa Cruz and wrote the Cyborg Manifesto. It turned out not to be five pages, but a whole coming to terms with what had happened to me in those years from 1980 to the time it came out in 1985.
The manifesto ended up focusing a lot on cybernetics and networking technologies. Did this reflect the influence of nearby Silicon Valley? Were you close with people working in those fields?
It’s part of the air you breathe here. But the real tech alliances in my life come from my partner Rusten and his friends and colleagues, because he worked as a freelance software designer. He did contract work for Hewlett Packard for years. He had a long history in that world: when he was only fourteen, he got a job programming on punch cards for companies in Seattle.
The Cyborg Manifesto was the first paper I ever wrote on a computer screen. We had an old HP-86. And I printed it on one of those daisy-wheel printers. One I could never get rid of, and nobody ever wanted. It ended up in some dump, God help us all.
The Cyborg Manifesto had such a tremendous impact, and continues to. What did you make of its reception?
People read it as they do. Sometimes I find it interesting. But sometimes I just want to jump into a foxhole and pull the cover over me.
In the manifesto, you distinguish yourself from two other socialist feminist positions. The first is the techno-optimist position that embraces aggressive technological interventions in order to modify human biology. This is often associated with Shulamith Firestone’s book The Dialectic of Sex (1970), and in particular her proposal for “artificial wombs” that could reproduce humans outside of a woman’s body.
Yes, although Firestone gets slotted into a quite narrow, blissed-out techno-bunny role, as if all her work was about reproduction without wombs. She is remembered for one technological proposal, but her critique of the historical materialist conditions of mothering and reproduction was very deep and broad.
You also make some criticisms of the ideas associated with Italian autonomist feminists and the Wages for Housework campaign. You suggest that they overextend the category of “labor.”
Wages for Housework was very important. And I’m always in favor of working by addition not subtraction. I’m always in favor of enlarging the litter. Let’s watch the attachments and detachments, the compositions and decompositions, as the litter proliferates. Labor is an important category with a strong history, and Wages for Housework enlarged it.
But in thinkers with Marxist roots, there’s also a tendency to make the category of labor do too much work. A great deal of what goes on needs to be thickly described with categories other than labor — or in interesting kinds of entanglement with labor.
What other categories would you want to add?
Play is one. Labor is so tied to functionality, whereas play is a category of non-functionality.
Play captures a lot of what goes on in the world. There is a kind of raw opportunism in biology and chemistry, where things work stochastically to form emergent systematicities. It’s not a matter of direct functionality. We need to develop practices for thinking about those forms of activity that are not caught by functionality, those which propose the possible-but-not-yet, or that which is not-yet but still open.
It seems to me that our politics these days require us to give each other the heart to do just that. To figure out how, with each other, we can open up possibilities for what can still be. And we can’t do that in in a negative mood. We can’t do that if we do nothing but critique. We need critique; we absolutely need it. But it’s not going to open up the sense of what might yet be. It’s not going to open up the sense of that which is not yet possible but profoundly needed.
The established disorder of our present era is not necessary. It exists. But it’s not necessary.
Playing Against Double Death
What might some of those practices for opening up new possibilities look like?
Through playful engagement with each other, we get a hint about what can still be and learn how to make it stronger. We see that in all occupations. Historically, the Greenham Common women were fabulous at this. [Eds.: The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp was a series of protests against nuclear weapons at a Royal Air Force base in England, beginning in 1981.] More recently, you saw it with the Dakota Access Pipeline occupation.
The degree to which people in these occupations play is a crucial part of how they generate a new political imagination, which in turn points to the kind of work that needs to be done. They open up the imagination of something that is not what [the ethnographer] Deborah Bird Rose calls “double death” — extermination, extraction, genocide.
Now, we are facing a world with all three of those things. We are facing the production of systemic homelessness. The way that flowers aren’t blooming at the right time, and so insects can’t feed their babies and can’t travel because the timing is all screwed up, is a kind of forced homelessness. It’s a kind of forced migration, in time and space.
This is also happening in the human world in spades. In regions like the Middle East and Central America, we are seeing forced displacement, some of which is climate migration. The drought in the Northern Triangle countries of Central America — Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador — is driving people off their land.
So it’s not a humanist question. It’s a multi-kind and multi-species question.
In the Cyborg Manifesto, you use the ideas of “the homework economy” and the “integrated circuit” to explore the various ways that information technology was restructuring labor in the early 1980s to be more precarious, more global, and more feminized. Do climate change and the ecological catastrophes you’re describing change how you think about those forces?
Yes and no. The theories that I developed in that period emerged from a particular historical conjuncture. If I were mapping the integrated circuit today, it would have different parameters than the map that I made in the early 1980s. And surely the questions of immigration, exterminism, and extractivism would have to be deeply engaged. The problem of rebuilding place-based lives would have to get more attention.
The Cyborg Manifesto was written within the context of the hard-right turn of the 1980s. But the hard-right turn was one thing; the hard-fascist turn of the late 2010s is another. It’s not the same as Reagan. The presidents of Colombia, Hungary, Brazil, Egypt, India, the United States — we are looking at a new fascist capitalism, which requires reworking the ideas of the early 1980s for them to make sense.
So there are continuities between now and the map I made then, a lot of continuities. But there are also some pretty serious inflection points, particularly when it comes to developments in digital technologies that are playing into the new fascism.
Could you say more about those developments?
If the public-private dichotomy was old-fashioned in 1980, by 2019 I don’t even know what to call it. We have to try to rebuild some sense of a public. But how can you rebuild a public in the face of nearly total surveillance? And this surveillance doesn’t even have a single center. There is no eye in the sky.
Then we have the ongoing enclosure of the commons. Capitalism produces new forms of value and then encloses those forms of value — the digital is an especially good example of that. This involves the monetization of practically everything we do. And it’s not like we are ignorant of this dynamic. We know what’s going on. We just don’t have a clue how to get a grip on it.
One attempt to update the ideas of the Cyborg Manifesto has come from the “xenofeminists” of the international collective Laboria Cuboniks. I believe some of them have described themselves as your “disobedient daughters.”
Overstating things, that’s not my feminism.
I’m not very interested in those discussions, frankly. It’s not what I’m doing. It’s not what makes me vital now. In a moment of ecological urgency, I’m more engaged in questions of multispecies environmental and reproductive justice. Those questions certainly involve issues of digital and robotic and machine cultures, but they aren’t at the center of my attention.
What is at the center of my attention are land and water sovereignty struggles, such as those over the Dakota Access Pipeline, over coal mining on the Black Mesa plateau, over extractionism everywhere. My attention is centered on the extermination and extinction crises happening at a worldwide level, on human and nonhuman displacement and homelessness. That’s where my energies are. My feminism is in these other places and corridors.
Do you still think the cyborg is still a useful figure?
I think so. The cyborg has turned out to be rather deathless. Cyborgs keep reappearing in my life as well as other people’s lives.
The cyborg remains a wily trickster figure. And, you know, they’re also kind of old-fashioned. They’re hardly up-to-the‑minute. They’re rather klutzy, a bit like R2-D2 or a pacemaker. Maybe the embodied digitality of us now is not especially well captured by the cyborg. So I’m not sure. But, yeah, I think cyborgs are still in the litter. I just think we need a giant bumptious litter whelped by a whole lot of really badass bitches — some of whom are men!
Mourning Without Despair
You mentioned that your current work is more focused on environmental issues. How are you thinking about the role of technology in mitigating or adapting to climate change — or fighting extractivism and extermination?
There is no homogeneous socialist position on this question. I’m very pro-technology, but I belong to a crowd that is quite skeptical of the projects of what we might call the “techno-fix,” in part because of their profound immersion in technocapitalism and their disengagement from communities of practice.
Those communities may need other kinds of technologies than those promised by the techno-fix: different kinds of mortgage instruments, say, or re-engineered water systems. I’m against the kind of techno-fixes that are abstracted from place and tied up with huge amounts of technocapital. This seems to include most geoengineering projects and imaginations.
So when I see massive solar fields and wind farms I feel conflicted, because on the one hand they may be better than fracking in Monterey County — but only maybe. Because I also know where the rare earth minerals required for renewable energy technologies come from and under what conditions. We still aren’t doing the whole supply-chain analysis of our technologies. So I think we have a long way to go in socialist understanding of these matters.
One tendency within socialist thought believes that socialists can simply seize capitalist technology and put it to different purposes — that you take the forces of production, build new relations around them, and you’re done. This approach is also associated with a Promethean, even utopian approach to technology. Socialist techno-utopianism has been around forever, but it has its own adherents today, such as those who advocate for “Fully Automated Luxury Communism.” I wonder how you see that particular lineage of socialist thinking about technology.
I think very few people are that simplistic, actually. In various moments we might make proclamations that come down that way. But for most people, our socialisms, and the approaches with which socialists can ally, are richer and more varied.
When you talk to the Indigenous activists of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, for example, they have a complex sense around solar arrays and coal plants and water engineering and art practices and community movements. They have very rich articulated alliances and separations around all of this.
Socialists aren’t the only ones who have been techno-utopian, of course. A far more prominent and more influential strand of techno-utopianism has come from the figures around the Bay Area counterculture associated with the Whole Earth Catalog, in particular Stewart Brand, who went on to play important intellectual and cultural roles in Silicon Valley.
They are not friends. They are not allies. I’m avoiding calling them enemies because I’m leaving open the possibility of their being able to learn or change, though I’m not optimistic. I think they occupy the position of the “god trick.” [Eds.: The “god trick” is an idea introduced by Haraway that refers to the traditional view of objectivity as a transcendent “gaze from nowhere.”] I think they are blissed out by their own privileged positions and have no idea what their own positionality in the world really is. And I think they cause a lot of harm, both ideologically and technically.
They get a lot of publicity. They take up a lot of the air in the room.
It’s not that I think they’re horrible people. There should be space for people pushing new technologies. But I don’t see nearly enough attention given to what kinds of technological innovation are really needed to produce viable local and regional energy systems that don’t depend on species-destroying solar farms and wind farms that require giant land grabs in the desert.
The kinds of conversations around technology that I think we need are those among folks who know how to write law and policy, folks who know how to do material science, folks who are interested in architecture and park design, and folks who are involved in land struggles and solidarity movements. I want to see us do much savvier scientific, technological, and political thinking with each other, and I want to see it get press. The Stewart Brand types are never going there.
Do you see clear limitations in their worldviews and their politics?
They remain remarkably humanist in their orientation, in their cognitive apparatus, and in their vision of the world. They also have an almost Peter Pan quality. They never quite grew up. They say, “If it’s broken, fix it.”
This comes from an incapacity to mourn and an incapacity to be finite. I mean that psychoanalytically: an incapacity to understand that there is no status quo ante, to understand that death and loss are real. Only within that understanding is it possible to open up to a kind of vitality that isn’t double death, that isn’t extermination, and which doesn’t yearn for transcendence, yearn for the fix.
There’s not much mourning with the Stewart Brand types. There’s not much felt loss of the already disappeared, the already dead — the disappeared of Argentina, the disappeared of the caravans, the disappeared of the species that will not come back. You can try to do as much resurrection biology as you want to. But any of the biologists who are actually involved in the work are very clear that there is no resurrection.
You have also been critical of the Anthropocene, as a proposed new geological epoch defined by human influence on the earth. Do you see the idea of the Anthropocene as having similar limitations?
I think the Anthropocene framework has been a fertile container for quite a lot, actually. The Anthropocene has turned out to be a rather capacious territory for incorporating people in struggle. There are a lot of interesting collaborations with artists and scientists and activists going on.
The main thing that’s too bad about the term is that it perpetuates the misunderstanding that what has happened is a human species act, as if human beings as a species necessarily exterminate every planet we dare to live on. As if we can’t stop our productive and reproductive excesses.
Extractivism and exterminationism are not human species acts. They come from a situated historical conjuncture of about five hundred years in duration that begins with the invention of the plantation and the subsequent modeling of industrial capitalism. It is a situated historical conjuncture that has had devastating effects even while it has created astonishing wealth.
To define this as a human species act affects the way a lot of scientists think about the Anthropocene. My scientist colleagues and friends really do continue to think of it as something human beings can’t stop doing, even while they understand my historical critique and agree with a lot of it.
It’s a little bit like the relativism versus objectivity problem. The old languages have a deep grip. The situated historical way of thinking is not instinctual for Western science, whose offspring are numerous.
Are there alternatives that you think could work better than the Anthropocene?
There are plenty of other ways of thinking. Take climate change. Now, climate change is a necessary and essential category. But if you go to the circumpolar North as a Southern scientist wanting to collaborate with Indigenous people on climate change — on questions of changes in the sea ice, for example, or changes in the hunting and subsistence base — the limitations of that category will be profound. That’s because it fails to engage with the Indigenous categories that are actually active on the ground.
There is an Inuktitut word, “sila.” In an Anglophone lexicon, “sila” will be translated as “weather.” But in fact, it’s much more complicated. In the circumpolar North, climate change is a concept that collects a lot of stuff that the Southern scientist won’t understand. So the Southern scientist who wants to collaborate on climate change finds it almost impossible to build a contact zone.
Anyway, there are plenty of other ways of thinking about shared contemporary problems. But they require building contact zones between cognitive apparatuses, out of which neither will leave the same as they were before. These are the kinds of encounters that need to be happening more.
A final question. Have you been following the revival of socialism, and socialist feminism, over the past few years?
What do you make of it? I mean, socialist feminism is becoming so mainstream that even Harper’s Bazaar is running essays on “emotional labor.”
I’m really pleased! The old lady is happy. I like the resurgence of socialism. For all the horror of Trump, it has released us. A whole lot of things are now being seriously considered, including mass nonviolent social resistance. So I am not in a state of cynicism or despair.
An excerpted version of this interview originally appeared in The Guardian.