9 November 2016: “Dear Universe, we are sorry for everything. Love from the last humans.” This was my Facebook post the day after the US election and 5 days after the UK’s Daily Mail posted images and personal details of judges who were evaluating the legality of Brexit without a Parliamentary vote. The newspaper accompanied their photos with the politically dangerous headline ‘Enemies of the People’. Two more countries falling. My post is hyperbolic, in the style of social media. It also suggests that I am relinquishing hope. But in this article I hint that understanding ourselves as ‘the last humans’ may actually save us.
7 February 2017: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” This is how US Senator Elizabeth Warren was reproached, by the leader of the Senate, after her unsuccessful attempt to stop the appointment of Jeff Sessions. The three short sentences rather cleverly scold her for not obeying authority, for not making sense of the situation in a logical way and thus, for not being a sensible woman. Yet I was far from the only one to be inspired by these now ironized words; these remarks went immediately viral on social media, and the first slogan t-shirts appeared in my feed on 9 February.
The comment was of course meant as a rebuke. It simultaneously tells of the event and admonishes: the warning to desist, an “explanation” of a rule lending an air of rationality to the command. Yet, despite this call to conform, to be a ‘reasonable’ woman, she would not be guided and submit, “she persisted”. Although Warren was eventually hushed in the Senate, the symbolism of not immediately acquiescing became powerful: reimagined and set loose, “Nevertheless, she persisted” becomes a secular prayer of resistance.
The word ‘nevertheless’ is a caustic reminder of all those occasions when it seems almost pointless to protest. Living in the UK, part-way between mainland Europe and the US, many of my friends and colleagues would go further and argue that we are living in the end times of Earth, that the political upheavals in the UK and the US in the context of Asian and European wars and mass migration, in the deeper context of climate change, have taken us beyond ‘the less’ into a calamitous decline.
Since November the UK and US have seemed in free-fall, with a fast dismantling of many existing legal and social structures that developed from twentieth-century human rights and ideas of equality. Yet the cries of ‘freedom’ from the temporary ‘victors’ haven’t opened up either country, but been fodder for creating and dividing up categories of humans. To keep out refugees and other immigrants the US government proposes a Mexican wall, while the UK has already constructed a wall at Calais. Meanwhile, economic and social fortifications around health and welfare are grouping and corralling citizens: it’s hard to keep track as we are bombarded with notions of “post-truth” and “alternative facts”.
One-way of countering this is via systematic ‘fact-checking’. This is clearly necessary. Only lately have I come to understand how imagination becomes colonized by people who want to divide and control. It has proved difficult to challenge the fantasies of Brexit and the new US government with facts, as the power of belief and self-interest asserts itself again and again. Still, somehow, we need to retain a sense of how our current lives are being rewritten. Yet there’s a danger of these arguments becoming hardened into one between ‘mutable wishes’ and ‘solid facts’, as if ‘wishes’ and ‘facts’ were oppositional. I am wary of refuting dreams I disagree with only with facts. More than ever we must generate new ways of understanding our humanness.
We need wider visions of resistance, ways out of the to and fro of arguments which seem to move us closer to disaster. This is what thinkers can offer, as well as our bodies and our posters on the streets and our ideas and petitions on the net. Yet alternative visions that don’t just respond to and recycle the immediate, but try to open up new ways, can seem idealistic, frivolous even. But it is a careful, necessary task, as indispensable as the work of lawyers sitting on the floor in airports using their skills to help people pass the security barrier.
How do we cultivate visions of resistance? How do we even recognize them? “It matters what stories tell stories” writes Donna Haraway. She bypasses the taken-for-granted narratives of the world from which our truths and systems for living emerge. These systems might be political (democracy? fascism?) or legal (who regulates whom?) or more casual (rebellion? protest?) but, she hints, they are all based on the same kind of underlying narratives of individualism and struggles for control, however they might categorize humans. Haraway acknowledges that “the doings of situated, actual human beings matter” (2016: 55), though she doesn’t focus on immediate lives. Her method is to craft new stories, offering us something both symbolic and ‘real’. These are not stories of protest nor exactly of rebuilding, but a way of resisting by rethinking our place on and in the earth.
In the 1980s, this white US scholar introduced ‘the cyborg’ as a feminist and socialist symbol of how technologies were changing the way humans do humanness, pointing to the way we are enmeshed in global networks of materials, relationships and knowledge. Since then she has moved away from focusing on flesh-machine connections and towards human affinity with non-human animals, assessing what it means for humans to share Earth with ‘companion species’ (aka significant other animals, aka pets). By the notion of ‘companion’ Haraway seeks to identify and draw out threads of (in her case) the history of dogs, wondering how humans might understand more clearly how we occupy Earth (take up space, use our environment for our own short-time gain) by taking these chronicles seriously. She seeks to displace the centrality of human. Her perspective is close to ideas of the posthuman, in the sense suggested by N.Katherine Hayles, as a creature “that understands human life as embedded in a material work of great complexity, on which we depend for our continued survival” (1999: 5). Yet Haraway distances her musings from the posthuman, finding it too restrictive a term, too species-reliant. And thus, her latest book pushes the notion of multispecies much further than ‘companion’ as she moves her thoughts, metaphorically but also with a sense of literalness, into the Earth itself.
So we enter the Chthulucene. The word is coined by Haraway partially to move away from two competing terms which try to describe and understand the Earth now: Anthropocene and Capitalocene. The former is concerned with how us ‘recent humans’ have changed the world over the past decades, or maybe centuries, through our exploitation of Earth’s resources. The latter concept is more promising, located in systems of power (capital). But Haraway rejects both these models as too pessimistic, and too much given to smoothing over differences in order to deliver one story, one grand, or perhaps not so grand, narrative.
Haraway’s Chthulucene is a way of thinking a new epoch that is predicated not only on difference, but also on hopefulness or, more precisely, on ‘staying with the trouble’ (the title of her 2016 book). It is a radical concept of politics as being not just for humans; it acknowledges Gaia and then goes wild. Haraway accepts that there is “a fine line between acknowledging the extent and seriousness of the troubles, and [. . .] succumbing to despair” (2016: 4), although her line is anything but fine; rather it is a deep, earthy, underground rumbling. Chthulucene forms, somewhat loosely, from the Greek ‘khthôn’ and ‘kainos’, suggesting a monstrous, continuing ‘now’, always in process, always relational – ‘becoming-with’, not becoming whole, or individual. Haraway’s rallying slogan for connection is “Make Kin not Babies!”. This connection is deeply biological, moving beyond families and formed across differences and affinities far more profound than those of human identity signifiers of race, gender, economic status, citizenship, sexuality, and so on. Yet it includes these markers as tiny, temporary tentacles of chthonic connection. By seeking kinship in the Chthulucene we might find a way to understand our activism differently, to ‘stay with the trouble’. The Chthulucene isn’t a welcoming place, it’s scary and unfamiliar, but maybe by recognising this story of our life alongside other Earth creatures we stand a chance of removing our veneer of human exceptionalism, and surviving.
This brings me back to Warren or, rather, to the meme she birthed via feminist kinship. Haraway argues that “[m]yriad tentacles will be needed to tell the story of the Chthulucene” (2016: 32). Though the chthonic rumble is a long way from Warren’s half-speech in Senate, hope grew from that moment of failure. ‘Nevertheless, she persisted’ is now part of the ‘trouble’, is, indeed, resisting by ‘staying with the trouble’. By recognising the failure of humanness we may yet find ways to survive.
Haraway, D.J., (2003) The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, people, and significant others, Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press
Haraway, D.J., (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene, Durham and London: Duke UP.
Hayles, N.K., (1999) How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in cybernetics, literature and Informatics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ann Kaloski-Naylor is Lecturer in the Centre for Women’s Studies, University of York, though she rarely lectures, but sits with people discussing stuff that matters – who we are as a species on this Earth, how we come to know and not know, how we might make a difference in the world – as we work with our props of feminist theory, everyday lives and each other.