Ethics and Troubled Kinship in the Wake of Still-Unfolding Disaster / Jesse A. Goldberg

“No Justice, No Peace,” Eric Garner Protest, December 4, 2014, New York, NY, via Wikimedia Commons

Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke UP, 2016.

Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham: Duke UP, 2016.

Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene and Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being were both published by Duke University Press in 2016. While the texts differ in their historical archives and objects of analysis, theoretical frameworks and conceptual terminology, and disciplinary fields and citational practices, both insist on thinking squarely within—as opposed to around or through—the overwhelming and perhaps immeasurable scale of contemporary problems that exceed possibilities for overcoming or redress. Sharpe notes that “there is a before and an after to the earthquake: but there is no before the ongoing event of the disaster. How, after all, to split time?” (130). And Haraway writes that “staying with the trouble does not require such a relationship to times called the future. In fact, staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present” (1). Both authors are thus attuned to the excessive weight of the present moment of catastrophe, which includes the acceleration of climate disaster and the proliferation of anti-black violence. While Haraway’s book reaches limits in its (non-)struggle with histories of racialization, Sharpe’s text offers ways of deepening and widening what it might mean to truly “stay with the trouble” as a form of what Sharpe calls “wake work” (17-22).

Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being is a refreshing intervention into contemporary work in black studies on the afterlife of slavery. Moving through four chapters whose titles signal her cornerstone theoretical terms—the wake, the ship, the hold, the weather—Sharpe synthesizes the work of Saidiya Hartman, Dionne Brand, Toni Morrison, M. NourbeSe Philip, Hortense Spillers, and others as she analyzes literary texts, films, photographs and daguerreotypes, television series, newspaper accounts, and personal narrative for the ways in which Black being is both subject to gratuitous violence and remains in excess of such violence. In Sharpe’s words, “to be in the wake is to live in those no’s, to live in the no-space that the law is not bound to respect, to live in no citizenship, to live in the long time of Dred and Harriet Scott; and it is more than that. To be in the wake is also to recognize the ways that we [Black people] are constituted through and by continued vulnerability to overwhelming force though not only known to ourselves and each other by that force” (16). It is in this sentence that I find Sharpe’s work offers a precise, concise formulation that is both and neither optimism and/nor pessimism, offering a possibility for work in black studies to not need to declare a “side” of this binary.

As the four chapters of the book flesh out this central claim, two strands that emerge as the most vibrant as I read In the Wake alongside Staying with the Trouble are Sharpe’s articulations of an ethics of care and her sense of a time that refuses periodization. Throughout the book, Sharpe refers to “the past that is not past,” signaling how standard formulations of English grammar fail to articulate the non-pastness of what is called the past. This grammar fails to signal the afterlives of “the ship” in the stories and lived—and deadly—environments of refugees, earthquake victims, and prisoners. The grammar of time is itself a site of capture, though Sharpe theorizes how blackness exceeds this capture through “anagrammatical blackness that exists as an index of violability and also potentiality” (75). At this meeting point of violability and potentiality—“blackness anew, blackness as a/temporal, in and out of place and time putting pressure on meaning and that against which meaning is made” (76) —is perhaps Sharpe’s most crucial term: wake work. “In short,” Sharpe explains, “I mean wake work to be a mode of inhabiting and rupturing this episteme with our known lived and un/imaginable lives. With that analytic we might imagine otherwise from what we know now in the wake of slavery” (18). Wake work denotes the hard task of building the world anew without stepping outside of it and all of its terror.1 Wake work happens when one occupies the present’s imbrication with the past that is not past, the continuously unfolding event of the disaster of slavery, and imagines an otherwise future. That imagining, though, as Sharpe emphasizes in the word “work” and in her account of Michael Brown’s family’s annotations of his autopsy, is a practice of worldbuilding such that the otherwise she names does not get relegated to an elsewhere or an other-time. The otherwise happens in. It stays, even as it cannot literally rescue, save, or revive the dead it defends and cares for.

Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble similarly resists the impetus to escape the world’s troubles in its intervention into climate crisis discourse. The introduction opens with Haraway sharing her frustrations with two common binary responses to the realities of climate disaster: “a comic faith in technofixes” on the one hand, and a pessimistic conclusion that “the game is over, it’s too late, there’s no sense trying to make anything any better” on the other (3). Eschewing these two utopic and dystopian positions, she posits “staying with the trouble” as a “messy” task of response-ability. Drawing on the work of Anna Tsing, Bruno Latour, Marilyn Strathern, Isabelle Stengers, Ursula Le Guin, Vinciane Despret, and others, Haraway proposes that living and dying well in the Chthulucene, which she defines as “a kind of timeplace for learning to stay with the trouble of living and dying in response-ability on a damaged earth” (2), necessitates engaging in the process of making kin across species, knowing that such a practice will not be ethically pure and will require attending to the particular differences of place, power, and histories of exploitation that we bring together as we make “oddkin” (2, 221).2

Haraway’s book is challenging to review in detail, as each chapter reads as a stand-alone essay (indeed, almost all of the chapters were individual papers published or talks given in recent years before they were to greater-and-lesser degrees revised chapters of a single bound book). The first three chapters are the longest and introduce most of the key terms that are employed and developed throughout the book: Chthulucene, SF (string figures, science fiction, speculative fabulation, science fact, speculative feminism, etc.), and sympoiesis—the idea that “critters do not precede their relatings” (60)—most importantly. These chapters travel with racing pigeons, spiders, ants, indigenous storytelling, bees, orchids, and coral to establish that the present in which we find ourselves is made up of “ongoing multispecies stories and practices of becoming-with” (55) that do not forget the past or foreclose the future. The next five chapters examine particular examples or frameworks for thinking and rethinking these terms and their stakes, playing and experimenting with concepts along the way in a manner that enacts Haraway’s “SF” concept as both methodology and ethics. These include a fascinating and deeply moving meditation on horse urine, the drug Premarin, and human-animal kinship; readings of literary authors Le Guin and Octavia Butler (though the latter is much less substantively engaged and seems to only get token mention since not a single specific page of Butler’s work is cited); and a collection of speculative fiction stories in the final chapter (the only one original to the book) that Haraway calls “the Camille Stories.” Taken together, the myriad arguments, claims, and speculations return time and again to the anything-but-simplicity of Haraway’s title: the point of all this “tentacular thinking” (30-44) is that we cannot plead out of the conditions of precarity in which we find ourselves or the processes which have accelerated and unevenly distributed that precarity, but that instead we must strive to live and die together towards a future that we make ourselves in this thick present.

I want to take Haraway’s slogan in Making Kin in the Chthulucene—“Make Kin Not Babies!”—as an opportunity for thinking alongside Sharpe. On the one hand, “making kin” is a profound and necessary injunction to consider queer ways of becoming-with each other, where “each other” signifies not only across lines of human difference but also species difference. As climate disaster brings multiple species closer to extinction and threatens to wipe out habitable zones for populations of human and non-human animals across the globe (particularly in the so-called Global South, as it remains true that the largest contributors to climate change are the wealthiest nations of the world and the human populations most violently impacted most quickly are those most exploited by global capitalism), this injunction is a timely challenge to consider what messy response-ability means on a warming planet. On the other hand, the “Not Babies!” portion of the slogan conjures the most pernicious tropes of racism, white supremacy, and economic domination that feminists, antiracists, and decolonizationists readily identify and rightfully critique in discussions of population control. Haraway acknowledges this danger in her introduction, but insists “that fear [of sliding into the muck of racism, classism, nationalism, modernism and imperialism] is not enough” to avoid the question of the Great Acceleration and human population, given estimates that there could be 11 billion human beings on the planet by the end of the twenty-first century (6, 100). Unfortunately, while Haraway acknowledges that this slogan is messy and in dangerous proximity to the list of “isms” that she offers, as in other places in her text, the moments when “Make Kin Not Babies!” surfaces do not engage fully enough with black and indigenous thought. After all, “it matters […] what thoughts think thoughts” (12).

Near the end of In the Wake, in her chapter on “The Weather,” Sharpe moves between weather and climate without conflating them, and while her employment of weather as metaphor is generative, as is the case with “wake,” “ship,” and “hold,” the metaphor of “weather” never escapes its literalness and materiality. That is, when Sharpe writes that “the weather is the totality of our environments; the weather is the total climate; and the climate is antiblack” (104), that sentence offers a metaphor, yes, but it also can mean that the weather and the climate are literally antiblack. Taking this claim seriously—as the uneven violences of climate change displace mostly poor and mostly Black and brown people, creating a refugee crisis that is a climate crisis that is an exposure of the crisis that has always been the very conception of national borders and the idea of the state itself—allows us to stay with Haraway’s trouble when she writes that “we are all responsible to and for shaping conditions for multispecies flourishing in the face of terrible histories, but not in the same ways. The differences matter—in ecologies, economies, species, lives” (116).

Sharpe’s book allows us to trace a history of the differences that matter. Recounting the practices used by enslavers to manage the enslaved, Sharpe writes:

Weather monitoring was a major part of plantation management. Awareness of the ecological systems was necessary for the growth and cultivation of certain crops […] and for the life expectancy (or lack of) of the captive laboring population […] We, now, are living in the wake of such pseudoscience, living the time when our labor is no longer necessary but our flesh, our bodies, are still the stuff out of which ‘democracy’ is produced (112).

In this passage, we hear the past that is not past. Slavery not only provided a system of labor that fueled the capital accumulation and circulation on which industrial growth exploded and released massive quantities of carbon into the already anti-black climate, but it also provided a surplus (non-)Human population who were denied kin but forced to produce babies in order to be the flesh out of which so-called democracy could emerge. The thick present of the Chthulucene thus has inscribed in it the anti-blackness of the weather of slavery’s wake. And so staying with the trouble must mean refusing the impulse to turn away from anti-blackness. It must mean theorizing futurity within the struggle of making breathable air out of anti-black weather systems, rather than continuing to count on futures guaranteed by the extinguishing of black breath. Staying with the trouble must mean wake work.

Thinking wake work with the imperative to “Make Kin Not Babies” might open something different but not new at the meeting point of Black studies and the environmental humanities: a theorizing of the other-than-human not from the site of the post-human, but from the troubled site of (non-)Humanity. The most generative synthesis of Haraway’s and Sharpe’s books might just be in their shared refusal of the category of the Human. “We are compost, not posthuman,” declares Haraway, “philosophically and materially, I am a compostist, not a posthumanist” (97); while Sharpe asserts, “I am not interested in rescuing Black being(s) for the category of the ‘Human,’ misunderstood as ‘Man,’ or for the languages of development” (116). This refusing of the capital-H Human might be the trouble we have to stay with in the wake, since one of the deadliest tricks the Anthropocene ever played was making us forget that it was precisely biologically human bodies rendered non-Human that fueled the Human systems which precipitated the Great Acceleration. Climate disaster is the continuing unfolding of the disaster that is the construction of the Human made possible by slavery, colonization, and attempted indigenous genocide, and it is perhaps the refusal of that category, if not its outright abolition, which is called for as we attend to the work of an ethics of care that might help us make kin together in this troubled world.

Both In the Wake and Staying with the Trouble challenge readers to see their own imbrication in the troubling ethics of the worlds we inhabit, and both books offer rich language, methodologies, and analytical frameworks for thinking and doing different worlds without having to find a space outside of our present. Both Sharpe and Haraway map ways of carving futures in, not after or beyond, the present even as the past remains with us, troubling our path through the weather.

Endnotes

  1. Most concretely, “wake work” makes me think of prison abolitionism’s simultaneous focus on deconstructing the world and building it anew. But that is whole different essay.
  2. Readers should dig into chapters 2 and 4 for Haraway’s detailed engagement with other terms—Anthropocene, capitalocene, and plantationocene—with which she is not fully satisfied. For  Haraway, the terms are too anthropocentric; she writes that “unlike either the Anthropocene or the Capitalocene, the Chthulucene is made up of ongoing multispecies stories and practices of becoming-with in times that remain at stake […] The chief actors are not restricted to the too-big stories of Capitalism and the Anthropos” (55-56).
Jesse A. Goldberg
Jesse A. Goldberg is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Longwood University where he teaches courses on African American literature, prisons and carcerality, American literature since 1865, and literary theory & criticism. He earned his PhD at Cornell University where he also taught in the Cornell Prison Education Program in prisons across central New York. His writing appears or is forthcoming in Callaloo, Public Culture, MELUS, CLA Journal, Teaching Literature and Writing in Prisons (Modern Language Association), Against a Sharp White Background: Infrastructures of African American Print (University of Wisconsin Press), and Toni Morrison on Mothers and Motherhood (Demeter Press).