The Alterhuman Media Project

To Live and Die Well Together- A Review of Staying with the Trouble by Donna Haraway

Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene is Donna Haraway’s latest book, and a great read for humans and non-humans alike. Accessible and interesting, it revolves around the inter-relatedness of everything on Earth, and our “response-ability”- ability to respond to and be responsible for- as part of the ongoing story of life on this planet. Using the metaphor of string-figure games that intertwine many individuals, linking them and their actions together; as well as other “SF” words like Science Fiction and Speculative Fabulation (a type of fantasy writing, often feminist), Haraway deftly exposes human exceptionalism, colonialist oppression, and environmental exploitation as different but related burdens upon the earth and its panoply of critters.

A word on ‘critters.’ Haraway uses this word to include “microbes, plants, animals, humans and nonhumans, and sometimes even to machines.” (p. 169) In mixing humans in with all non-human nature, Haraway immediately calls ideas of human exceptionalism into question, leveling the field of existence so that all earthlings can begin to play well together.

Multispecies Cat’s Cradle, by Nasser Mufti- an illustration from the book

So, how can all critters live, play, and die well together on an increasingly damaged Earth? Haraway proposes ‘sympoesis’- which means “becoming with.” Humans- and alterhumans- must learn from “ongoing pasts” to work and become with other critters in “thick presents and still possible futures” (p. 133).

It is well enough to be “with,” but what must we “become?” Instead of being humans, lofty and above all the rest of nature, Homo sapiens must become chthonic, earthly. Instead of humans, we must be humus. This is not to say that humans must all die and decompose for the Earth to heal, to become literal compost. No, to become humus, or compost, is to become richly intermixed with all of life, to perform sympoesis and “become-with” the other critters living, taking, giving, and dying together on Earth. To enrich the earth, and Earth, again, compost we must.

These are the deeply interwoven thoughts that Haraway encourages us to think our thoughts with; and stories of sympoesis are what should inspire other stories. It matters what inspires us, what informs our worldviews, where our ideas and thoughts come from. And think we must! It is no secret that our planet is imperiled by uncritical exploitation by humans- of other humans, of other critters, of resources and habitats. To heal, we must heal together; becoming whole again with our fellow critters on Earth.

Haraway ends her book with some speculative fabulation of her own, a tale of a possible future in which humans come together as humus in Communities of Compost, working to voluntarily reduce human numbers to a sustainable number though lowered birth rates, and to further make “humusity” response-able to the world by making some of their children “symbionts” with imperiled critters.

With stories and thoughts like these, humans and alterhumans can fill our bags with tools for creating and becoming-with a present and future that is habitable for all critters. Instead of the old tale of exploitation, extraction, and inevitable ‘progress,’ we must tell a new story of symbiosis, sympoesis, and multi-species string figures. It matters how we approach change, and change we must.

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