THE ECOFEMINIST SCHOLAR Donna Haraway has a remarkable talent for diving into new debates in the intellectual zeitgeist. She’s been doing it for decades. Her landmark 1985 “A Cyborg Manifesto” drew on feminist theory to critique prevailing ideas about science and gender, and helped launch the field of science and technology studies. Her 2003 The Companion Species Manifesto examined our deep connections to dogs and other nonhuman “critters” (a favorite Haraway word), and she became a notable figure in the emerging discipline of animal studies. Her training as both a scientist and cultural scholar has also extended her influence beyond academia, inspiring a generation of conceptual artists grappling with the ever-growing impact of technology.
More recently, Haraway has waded into the lively debates surrounding the Anthropocene, which she considers “both too big and too small” a concept to explain the perilous state of our planet. She has coined not one, but two words to describe this historical epoch: the “Chthulucene” breaks down the hierarchy between the human and nonhuman worlds, while the “Plantationocene” connects the climate crisis to specific economic and political practices of exploitation.
This is all quite an accomplishment for a theorist with a reputation for difficult and sometimes obscurant writing. From her perch in two University of California, Santa Cruz departments — History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies — Haraway has gained a celebrity status that’s rare for academics. She was even the subject of a 2017 documentary film, Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival, which sold out at its New York premiere.
Haraway’s blend of high theory with a poetic, almost digressive style of writing made me wonder how accessible she would be in an interview for my radio program. I didn’t need to worry. Haraway was charming and eager to connect. She’s also a fast talker who often speaks in run-on sentences that jump from one big idea to the next. I had the sense that her words can barely keep up with her fertile mind.
Our conversation flowed over a wide range of subjects, from her early career struggles to the interdisciplinary work she’s known for; how her love for a dog led her into a series of challenging research questions; and why she believes “making kin” with the more-than-human world is an urgent ethical responsibility. We talked during her visit to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she and her UC Santa Cruz colleague Anna Tsing spoke at a seminar on the Plantationocene.
STEVE PAULSON: Some scholars are very difficult to categorize because their work spans so many different disciplines, and you are one of those people. You have a PhD in biology, but I’ve heard you described as a philosopher, an ecological-feminist, a multi-species theorist, a science and technology scholar. How would you describe yourself?
DONNA HARAWAY: I think my work has been question-driven. It’s been driven by finding myself in a conjuncture of events, ideas, things, people, and other critters — plants and animals and microbes — that provoke needing to know something and finding myself in an institutional environment that encouraged that.
Is there a disciplinary category that fits what you do?
If I had to choose a single category, it would be as a scholar with skills in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences who tends to work in areas of science studies, particularly on questions of environmentalism, the well-being of plants and animals, and the interactions of diverse human cultures with what many call “nature.”
I’ve also heard you call yourself a “fabulator.” I’m not sure that means, but I love the idea.
I’ve been a reader of science fiction since the flowering of feminist science fiction in the ’70s, which is how I got started with books like Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, and the Tales of Nevèrÿon stories. From that reading of science fiction I have what I call my little skein of fibers for “SF”: string figures, science fiction, speculative fabulation, science fact, speculative feminism, and so far.
So you’re not really drawing a clear line between fiction and nonfiction. Does it all merge together?
It doesn’t so much merge together as foreground and background differently. I think the care and feeding of facts is a really important craft skill. Facts are made in human historical circumstances, but not made up. Fiction is more like a gerund, a making. Fiction’s imaginative boundaries are quite different. Its narrative rules are differently configured than the narrative rules in, say, evolutionary and ecological science, but there are so many contact zones. So I’m interested in the play, in the Cat’s Cradle game, between science fact and speculative fiction.
Clearly, you’re very driven by curiosity. Are you also driven by wonder?
I am very attuned to wonder. For example, when I was a biology graduate student at Woods Hole and we were studying marine developmental biology with embryos, we’d all get slightly stoned after dinner and then go skinny dipping off Woods Hole in the phosphorescent ocean.
Weren’t those the days!
Then we would go back to the lab for several hours slightly stoned, but really mesmerized by the critters, and watch the early cell divisions of an octopus egg, for example, through a 10 times magnification microscope. You move inside those cells. It’s not like you become one with the octopus egg, but just being brought into the otherness of it, you are struck by the fact that this is not yourself, the kind of wonder and beauty and technical virtuosity of a cell. Knowing something about how cells pull this off on in terms of their molecular mechanisms has just fed me as a person in the world.
You’ve written about the notion of “making kin.” What does kinship mean to you?
Making kin seems to me the thing that we most need to be doing in a world that rips us apart from each other, in a world that has already more than seven and a half billion human beings with very unequal and unjust patterns of suffering and well-being. By kin I mean those who have an enduring mutual, obligatory, non-optional, you-can’t-just-cast-that-away-when-it-gets-inconvenient, enduring relatedness that carries consequences. I have a cousin, the cousin has me; I have a dog, a dog has me.
I first started using the word “kin” when I was in college in a Shakespeare class because I realized that Shakespeare punned with “kin” and “kind.” Etymologically they’re very closely related. To be kind is to be kin, but kin is not kind. Kin is often quite the opposite of kind. It’s not necessarily to be biologically related but in some consequential way to belong in the same category with each other in such a way that has consequences. If I am kin with the human and more-than-human beings of the Monterey Bay area, then I have accountabilities and obligations and pleasures that are different than if I cared about another place. Nobody can be kin to everything, but our kin networks can be full of attachment sites. I feel like the need for the care across generations is urgent, and it cannot be just a humanist affair.
How does this play out in your own life and your own thinking?
Lots of ways. One of them is in terms of personal family. All of my eggs are fried and before that were maintained carefully haploid, but I have a strong interest in being engaged with the care of young humans. Teaching is of course part of that, but I am also part of an extended family of a seriously close friend who adopted a child from Guatemala 20-odd years ago. My husband now, and my first husband and his partner, became a family — a kin group. We share in-laws, we have built a family without any of us ever having had a biological child, which doesn’t mean I’m against biological children but I am really for building households and families and kin otherwise.
I think LGBTQI people from all sections of society, as well as many Indigenous Peoples and African-American communities, have been the most innovative in the United States in terms of building and sustaining really interesting kinds of kin networks, often against great odds. There are lots of very practical issues, including housing and financial issues, and I’m interested in questions of inheritance and adoption law — various ways that people can build financial obligation into each other’s friendship networks.
You’re talking about redefining family.
It’s very materialist stuff. I’m talking about redefining family and I feel like my own family has been a tiny little piece of living that, including my biogenetically related kin. And my family has never been just human beings. To be any kind of animal at all is to be within obligate mutualisms with a whole range of other plants, animals, and microbes and living as a holobiont, not as a single organism or individual. It’s good science. And besides, I live with companion animals of the household kind.
You’ve written about one of those animals. Tell me about your dog, Cayenne.
Ah, Cayenne, dog of my heart! She died at about age 17. She was a purpose-bred Australian shepherd who came into my life when I wanted to play the sport of agility with another serious athlete. I became a much better athlete in order to be worthy of Cayenne. Picture a field 100 feet on the side, fill it up with weave poles, jumps, A-frames, teeter-totters, and tunnels, and put them in some diabolic pattern designed by an agility judge. The dog has to navigate the patterns at speed, in sequence, at the direction of the human being who has walked the course a couple of times but didn’t know it before. So the trust between the dog and the human being has to be really strong. You train for thousands of hours. You drive to state fairs and campgrounds and run all day Saturday and Sunday. If you’re a working academic and you’re doing that two weekends a month, it’s got to be your research project.
Obviously, you have to love it, but how do you have time to do this?
I actually got interested in it as a research question. I found coming to understand what motivated the two of us as a team was intellectually compelling. I got really interested in the way dogs think, in the way they perceive the world, in the way these two rather different social mammals nonetheless have long evolutionary and social histories with each other. I’m extremely interested in the history of dogs. I’m interested in street dogs, sports dogs, thrown-away rescue dogs, and the purebred dog scene. I took a fabulous online dog genetics course from Cornell University Vet School while I was working with Cayenne.
What did you learn about how dogs think?
It’s very hard to answer that question. Human beings think they know what motivates a dog, but it’s pure denial. It is a lie we tell ourselves. We are just learning how to pay attention to what a dog’s ears are really doing and what their eyes are really attending to, what range of color their eyes see, and what their range of olfactory perception really is. Or the ways they use their bodies in response to really small cues, or the way they exchange messages. If you’re going to play a sport well with a member of another species, you have to learn what actually motivates them. A lot of human beings shut their dogs down by not learning to hold themselves still long enough to figure out what their dog actually likes to do.
It sounds like you had a deep and profound relationship with Cayenne.
It was a very profound, life-changing relationship. It was deep at levels of touch and smell and daily life. She and I were seriously embedded in each other. Cayenne was a dog who did not like inappropriate displays of affection. She was not a snuggle dog. So I had to learn to respect her boundaries as you would with another human being. Cayenne, a herding dog from the American West, also carried her own stories. I’m from Colorado, so I am acutely aware that I grew up as a young white girl on conquest territory on land seized from Comanche, Arapaho, and other Native American tribes, as well as land seized from the Spanish who themselves had multiple layers of conquest.
I’m aware that Cayenne, the dog I fell in love with, is one of the dogs enlisted in the work of herding sheep who are imported from Australia after the Gold Rush to feed the disappointed miners. I was working with a dog who, like me, inherits being white in a certain way in the ranching West and its practices of xenobiology and the claiming of the landscape — and the claiming of the fairgrounds. We played our sport in the fairgrounds with the railroads and the stockyards and quinceañera celebrations on Saturday and the NASCAR racing and the social history built into who we were. So I felt like when you touch someone and someone touches you, one question that emerges is, Okay, who are we? Who do we make each other? And that starts leading you into layers and layers and threads and threads of histories.
So through your relationship with Cayenne, you also learned something about yourself?
I learned a huge amount about myself, and I started caring in a different way about the history of ranching and the Rocky Mountain West, and the history of sport and the relationships of herding dogs to other dogs. My love affair with Cayenne was what brought me to the Colorado Plateau and my study of the Navajo Nation, the Black Mesa Water Coalition, Just Transition, Black Mesa coal mining, the Navajo Generating Station, and the sheep and wool market on the Navajo Nation and the relationship with the wool weavers in Massachusetts. What I’m saying is that Cayenne ended up leading me into worlds I knew nothing about and that my love affair with her led me to know how to care more. Sometimes people say loving a dog is petty and small because it makes you small. But my experience about loving anything — most certainly a dog — is that it makes you bigger and more worldly because all of a sudden you’re tracking threads that you weren’t curious about before.
And yet some animal advocates say we shouldn’t even have pets.
I have a tiny bit of respect for that opinion. This is not a relationship of equality. It’s a relationship based on control and necessarily so. Otherwise, you kill your dog with a fantasy of freedom not rooted in what it takes to live together. But if you are seriously against the bringing of any other organisms into relationships of obligatory exchange with human beings, you also could not really seriously domesticate plants. I actually regard pets as a kind of working animal. I think affection is a hard job and pets work really hard. These are complex relations of labor and play, love and violence, and to glorify them is illegitimate. But I also think that to be alive, to live and die with each other, is to be accountable for our forms of love and violence. The relationship with a pet is honorable but not simple.
Did you ever feel like you really got to know what Cayenne was thinking — her subjective experience?
No, I certainly don’t think I ever reached any seriously deep understanding, although I knew more than I did before. Some of it is research-based and some of it is interaction- and play-based. But I didn’t lose any sleep over that question. At the end of the day, it’s who you live with and care about. It’s about mutually felt and lived connection, and we had that, even in all of our ignorance.
This reminds me of a conversation I had with Jane Goodall, who said she would give anything to be inside the mind of a chimpanzee for a few minutes.
But we’re not inside anybody’s mind. We’re never inside another human being’s mind. We’re not even inside our own mind. The notion that if I can only kidnap for a minute my own self so that I can actually know who I am — that fantasy of full knowledge is a violent fantasy.
I think it’s a kidnapping fantasy. It’s a possession of self and other. I think it’s a lust for oneness. I understand Jane Goodall’s comment and I honor it. Of course, we wish we could know, if only for a minute, what makes the one we love really tick. But very quickly, particularly in the cultures I come from, it becomes a fantasy of perfect communication. And I think that’s a violent fantasy that leads us to murder and war. It leads us to violence against the other because the other remains other.
So there’s an ethics to honoring unknowability?
And otherness. If you take anybody seriously, one of the things you learn is not knowing. That’s one thing I learned from Cayenne and my other dogs. Not knowing is a quasi-Buddhist value. And the appreciation of not knowing and letting that be is something you learn in a serious relationship. It’s a kind of letting go. Not knowing and being with each other not knowing.
That’s so hard!
It’s very hard. But that kind of relationship is also deeply joyful. It takes a lot of restraint, and it takes forgiving each other. It takes forgiving yourself for imposing yourself on the other, for thinking you knew when you didn’t, for not paying enough attention to know when you could have.
I want to pull back from the animal-human connection to our larger relationship with the planet. With climate change, we’re on the cusp of a potentially catastrophic historical moment. The “Anthropocene” has been used to describe this period in history, but you don’t like that word, do you?
I resisted the term Anthropocene because it centered the Anthropos — Man — as if the multiple crises and destructions that merit the term Anthropocene were a species act, as if we did it by virtue of being human, as opposed to being in situated historical processes rooted in systems of a world-changing operation four or five hundred years ago, with the invention of the slave-based plantation and the emergence of capitalism. The creation of wealth through these systems has brought us into our current situation. I don’t think it’s a species act.
So you’ve coined a new word, the “Plantationocene.”
I threw out that word in a conversation with Anna Tsing and others in Denmark precisely because we wanted to foreground the world-changing importance of our relations to plants. In formulating the Plantationocene, we needed also to pay more attention to the work of mainly Black scholars on plantation slavery and its ongoing consequences, such as Katherine McKittrick, Sylvia Wynter, and Dianne Glave. The Anthropocene refuses to name the political and economic apparatus that drives the practices that are so destructive, and it treats the dilemma we’re in as if it’s our own natural evolutionary trajectory. That’s simply not true. We act that way in historical conjunctures and systems that can be changed. It’s not human nature that’s the issue, but a situated historical metabolism with the planet in conditions that nurture extraction and extermination. Not all people have lived on the Earth that way, and it doesn’t have to be that way. It can still change.
A lot of people would say the plantation was abolished with slavery more than a hundred years ago. So why use this alternative concept of the Plantationocene?
That is not true. The Plantationocene has if anything expanded. Probably the best contemporary example would be the oil palm plantations that take over mangrove forests and large tracts of land all over the world. Southeast Asia is a good place to think about this, with the destruction of multi-species forests and everybody who lives in them, including people, and the clearing of the land, dislocated and extracted labor, and the planting of a single industrial factory crop.
Do we still live in a plantation economy?
We live in a system of forced monocropping. With forced monocropping, you take a complex area of the world, and you not only radically simplify its ecology, but you also radically reduce the kinds of organisms that live there. Then, you displace the labor force that’s already there and import another labor force, using various forms of force, contract, and indentured labor. You bring in new crops that will produce at high rates, preferably for global markets, and you bring in a labor force that literally can’t run away. And you call that “agriculture.”
That system, which is four or five hundred years old, breaks the tie to place. But people still manage to care about their farms, their cows, their trees. People are astonishingly gifted with the capacity to care, so that even in the worst circumstances that capacity to love is still there. But breaking those ties to place and — here is the real linchpin — breaking the capacity to care for generations, across generations, so that plants, microbes, animals, and people are in a state of disordered reproductive entanglement for wealth creation and extraction of value. I call that the Plantationocene. I don’t want to get rid of the Anthropocene, but I think we need more than one word.
As you look at all these trends, particularly in this era of climate change, do you despair?
No! For one thing, I think that’s cheap. Then you can just go enjoy yourself or suffer in despair. It’s lazy. I’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic. The book I wrote was called Staying with the Trouble on purpose, and I am against techno-optimism.
By techno-optimism, do you mean geoengineering?
You know, “They’ll fix it.” There will be a techno fix down the line. I think technology can solve some problems, but not others. Technology is part of the mix. But we need to reconsider what we’re about. As Anna Tsing puts it, we need to figure out how to live well on damaged land. We also need to figure out again and again who “we” are. We’re not going to get back to the status quo. But this does not mean we can’t fix some things. To live well with each other in a thick present means environmental, multi-species, multiracial, multi-kinded reproductive and environmental justice. We can’t control whether this all works in the end. I think futurism defeats us. Our job is to live in a thick time of caring for and with each other. That’s neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but it involves cultivating the capacity to keep a kind of love and heart with each other. Pessimism blocks that out.
Steve Paulson is the executive producer of Wisconsin Public Radio’s nationally syndicated show To the Best of Our Knowledge. He’s the author of Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science.