A dangerous dinner to be having with Donna Haraway. ‘Eating-with’ and ‘Living-with’ the Virus.
In Donna Haraway’s 2016 text ‘Staying with the Trouble’ the author sets out a method and temperament to
adopt for the future. I intend in this text to expand on Harraway’s advice and relate to ‘the trouble’ we face
in the year 2021. I’m looking into whether by radical reconstruction of our relationship to the trouble, in relation
to Haraway’s ideas around companion species we can adopt an alternative practice to bring us into the future.
I will be looking at what staying with the trouble could mean for a potential future and how imagina- tive restructuring
of identity and community could emerge.
Staying with the Trouble ultimately doesn’t mandate any other action other than a radical rethinking and reconfiguring of the relationships present in our troubled world and fractured planet. This is an important note in considering the very real threats and important decisions that have to be made in the face of a virus. I am suggesting no preferable route, course of action or political avenue, I’m asking the reader to contemplate Haraway’s theory in relation to the trouble, and to consider the theory as a useful fictional experiment in emerging into the future. Haraway suggests we consistently engage and play with the troubling and compli- cated disquiet that plague our present.
We should avoid undue focus on visions of the future that depres and debilitate. Neither hope nor despair are useful partners in our pursuit of the future. (Haraway, 2016) Staying with the trouble advises being present and connected to the immediate, in order to enable an unpredictable future to emerge.
Haraway, in texts, ‘A Cyborg manifesto’, ‘Staying with the Trouble’ and ‘The Companion Species Manifesto’, is advocating for unique ways of disassembling the illusion, of the human as a singular or concrete singularity, “There are no pre-constituted subjects and objects, no single sources, unitary actions, or final ends” (Hara- way, 2003).
It is the idea of our singularity that propels our ideology of identity. These doctrines prevent us from creating new and divergent perceptions of the present and creations of the future. I would argue the recurrent theme in Haraway’s position is that becoming multiple is a doorway or an escape to the future. Whether humans be- come kin with the cyborg or differing species they must accept the otherness alongside, and within human- kind. The cyborg represents an acknowledgement of the alien or ‘other’ inside of the ‘singular’ being in order to disassemble singularity. Companion species extends Haraway’s hypothesis suggesting that we examine inter-species relationships as a way to view ourselves as multiple, other and symbiotically as one.
Haraway’s argument is that “To be an animal is to become-with bacteria (and, no doubt, viruses and many other sorts of critters; a basic aspect of sympoises is its expandable set of players” (Haraway, 2003). I am look- ing to extend the set of players to the trouble, to the aggressor and to the invader.
It is here where I see becoming multiple and the trouble converging. In very recent years, one of the most present ‘troubles’ facing humanity has been the threat of virus, infection and contagion. It would seem that viruses could threaten the future of humanity, and the future of the systems of existence. When the trouble is an identifiable ‘other’, can ‘becoming with’ and ‘staying with’ offer a practice that could enable the revelation of a potential future?
The virus is essentially a parasite, it cannot exist without a host body. Parasite comes from the Greek parasi- tos, meaning one who eats at the table of another. This appears as a way into “becoming involved with each other’s lives” (Haraway, 2016). In such an antagonistic relationship perhaps eating-with is a good place to start becoming-with. (Haraway, 2016).
Similarly ‘Contagion’ comes from the words, touch and togetherness. An idea of coming together or of form- ing a community is touched upon here, but i’m not going to dwell on this and instead keep the idea of ‘eating together’ present throughout this text.
The relationship between virus and humanity has been one historically marked with fear, tension and coloni- sation. The virus has been viewed as an invader and unwelcome guest.
In fact, it is in the interest of the virus to sustain the host species, in order to sustain itself, the virus is perhaps more attuned to collective living than humanity. The virus is always embracing the other, they must become multiple to survive. (Ferreira, 2010)
With the emergence of any virus, there evolves an arms race between host and invader. Humanity will rush to develop vaccines and treatments, the virus will rush to evolve. What I am potentially proposing is that hu- manity could seek to evolve, or at least evolve the relationship between themselves and the trouble.
I’m proposing rethinking as a fictional yet purposeful alternative that I will address slightly later in the text.
Viruses have had a significant effect on human evolution. Approximately 8% of the human genome is com- posed of sequences that began as viruses. (Grandi Nicole, Tramontano Enzo, 2018) These gene sequences are relics of viruses that infected our ancestors and are a result of the threat of extinction. Those who survive the threat are changed, evolved and so a new human persists. I am using the example of retroviruses here just to illustrate the deep entanglement that already exists between the human species and multiple others, and the history of evolution and adaptation. I am not necessarily advocating for a complete emeshing of the species, through the genome or otherwise, rather to eat alongside each other may be enough.
Haraway presents a world in which nothing is truly self-organised, self-sustaining or living in an internal system. Haraway introduces holobionts as symbiotic assemblages of agents, the whole being created by the entities acting within it. The term does not delineate between host and symbiont because the actors are equal parts of a whole. The relationship is not strictly cooperative and can be endlessly varied and jumbled. “Symbi- osis is not a synonym for “mutually beneficial.” (Haraway, 2016). As we often see with viruses the relationship is scarcely mutually beneficial as we see with some bacteria.
These models are endlessly complex and entangled. The virus already lives in a communal world, relaying
on and involving another species throughout its existence. Equally ‘living-with’ the virus has in some ways created a more communal world between the human species. ‘Living-with’ the virus has meant a cooperative effort, admittedly in the race to eradicate the virus. In an effort to eradicate the other, people have been en- couraged to engage with the community, the ‘big-picture’ and put individual priorities second. If, as Haraway puts it “Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction.” (Haraway, 1991) then a change in social relations can be a world-changing alteration. To enable our- selves to include others in our selves, to act as though the community is one assemblage or Holobiont, could enable a radical reframing of subjectivity. This is the first step towards including the ‘other’ in the assemblage, and perhaps even the virus, the aggressor, the invader and the trouble.
To invite trouble into our view of ourselves and potentially into our bodies is no more strange than the parts of our assemblage we ignore or are alienated from. A multitude of bacteria thrive within our bodies and ani- mal species are already so intertwined with our existence. (Haraway, 2003) We are already alien, an evolving species merely has to recognise and reframe the associations and relationships to the already-other and to the strange. The virus can be an agent of social and ideological change.
Haraway addresses science fiction in her texts as a tool for exploring relationships and involvement in the world. At the very beginning of ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, she describes the cyborg as an “ironic political myth” noting that “irony is about humor and serious play” (Haraway,1985). Haraway, as I understand it, is suggest- ing fictional tools to stretch contemporary ideas, a meeting of imagination and a very real vision of the world. I want to present this text as discussing fiction as a very real way of seeing the world, unusual conceptualis- ations have no need to be purely fantasy (although they might draw on science fiction) but can be utilised as visions of reality.
In accepting the other, we must radically reform the relationship between virus and host, aggressor and indiginous species. Science fiction offers a productive ground for imagining potential futures and troubling potentials. Science fiction frequently frames a virus or contagion as an actor, an equal player in the story. Fiction enables imagining an ‘eating- with’ an equal constituent part of a whole.
I wish to discuss at this point the virus’ role in science fiction, specifically drawing upon Octavia Butler’s 1984 novel ‘Clay’s Ark’. Clay’s Ark follows an alien virus that infects a settlement. The virus carries with it dramatic physical and mental changes to the hosts, some of the infected develop strength and power despite emaciated bodies, they produce quadruped mutated children and carry a desire to spread and carry the disease (Butler, 1984). The community built around the infected complicates the generic conception of those who are ‘well’, ‘sick’ or ‘healthy’. The virus appears to have it’s own agenda but is not viewed antagonistically by the infected. The virus has changed the carriers and their children,neither for better or worse, hope or despair, but through this a new human emerges.
“The virus is a literal and metaphoric border organism
that mediates between ‘host’ and ‘alien’, ‘self ’ and ‘other’, ‘human’ and ‘foreign’ and constructs new forms of the individual,
the family and the community” (Neeraja Sundaram, 2019)
What’s interesting about the infected is that through struggling to contain the virus, they cling to their notion of humanity. The settlers create new definitions of what it means to be ‘human’, they embrace certain behav- iors and reject some of the uninfected due to lifestyle or sophistication, as less human. Here the definition of humanity no longer relies on genetics, singularity or status of infection but on a chosen set of values. With- in the infected ‘humanity’ has become a choice or a judgement applied to others. The virus here highlights humanity itself as a construct.. The Ark’s virus acts here as an agent and catalyst for social change, the line between humanity and otherness is dissolved, alternative communities are built and humanity continues to exist in a different form. (Thomas, 2002)
It’s important to recognise the potency of science or speculative fiction in material reality and potential becoming, it is a power recognised by Haraway in storytelling, reimagining and prophecies.
“Fiction is still in process and still at stake,
not finished, still prone to falling afoul
to facts, but also liable to showing something
we do not know to be true but will know” (Haraway, 2003)
When considering speculative fiction, I would like to mention Deleuze and Guattari in questioning the posi- tion of the future and our relation to it. Deleuze and Guattai focus on the practice of becoming future beings, or how we participate in change. I see a comparison with Haraway’s ‘staying with the trouble’, by engaging with the act of becoming/becoming other, the focus is on the moment of change.
“The actual is not what we are but, rather, what we become, what we are in the process of becoming–that is to say, the Other, our becoming-other. . . It is not that the actual is the utopian prefiguration of a future that is still part of our history. Rather, it is the now of our becoming”. (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994).
In writing fiction for the future, we must consider what the future is. When we imagine a ‘future’, it is easy to fall for utopian or dystopian projections, hope or despair. Dis/utopias are static, platonic, and exist outside of reality. Their movements and actions are contained within the image of the dis/utopia. The actual depends on the tilt or the cusp of becoming, a becoming-other in perpetuity.
“In all these regards, utopias are the
antithesis of becoming, process and movement
toward a future that is genuinely new and thus inherently unpredictable,
defiant of any mapping. Motivation cannot be external to the process of becoming, and becoming cannot be goal-directed” (Bogue, 2011)
The future is not a fixture or a historical projectioning, the future must exist in the present. The future is con- tained in an infinite present, and on the tilt of that present we are always becoming other. We are consistently becoming the other that fiction addresses, the people yet to come. Fabulation, or speculative fiction does not have a goal in mind, or create an ideal in the mind of the reader. We see with Butler, the fiction doesn’t dictate an end goal, reaction to the virus or conception of humanity. Butler’s open endedness is her greatest strength in engaging with the process of becoming other, tipping into the future. In Butler’s novel politics and upheav- al persist and are by no means resolved by the final chapter. Her novel acts as an experiment in who may be to come, and in how ‘becoming-other’ may unfold.
The trouble doesn’t need to be internalised, like in the examples of retroviruses or the settlers in Clay’s Ark. Haraway has illustrated with examples of companion species or considering symbiotic relationships as community and assembly, that multiplicity can be recognised externally to the singular body. The virus is capable of causing dramatic change to systems of power and exchange, even when viewed as an aggressor. The changes in the system are also changes under which the virus must live, it is so intermeshed with humanities body, actions and structures of power. The virus is a proponent of major system collapse. Becoming-with the virus is also a threat to systems of power. However I propose that a collapse of the system is what can produce an unstable future and allow a new humanity to emerge.
It must be noted here that I am not an advocate nor an opponent of the ‘other’ humanity, much like Butler, I am sure that instability, opposition and politics will persist however Haraway suggests that commitment to living on a shared planet must be made:
“without guarantees or the expectation of harmony with those who are not oneself- and not safely other either”. (Haraway, 2016)
In suggesting a ‘becoming-with’ or ‘eating-with’ of the viral invader, I am avoiding potholes of utopian or dystopian outcome. I’m addressing a point in history when the cusp of becoming other looms large and uncertain, the present is a time in which we can experiment with becoming other and producing a new humanity, a new meaning for humanity and for the self. Therefore the present must be the time to make these experiments.
“In urgent times, many of us are tempted to address trouble
in terms of making an imagined future safe, or stopping something from happening that looms in the future”. (Haraway, 2016)
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