So yesterday I was on a panel discussing the movie Donna Haraway Storytelling for Earthly Survival. I hadn’t yet read any of Haraways work, so I read parts of her Cyborg Manifesto and the opening chapters of her latest book Staying with the Trouble. The latter left me with some feelings of discomfort. Disclaimer: I am not an academic and it took me a lot of energy and concentration to keep up with the text. I ended up reading two reviews to make sure I had understood what she was saying in that book. As the panel approached I was becoming more and more anxious, because for me the negatives started to outweigh the positives.
I found this review of the movie by Sophie A. Lewis, a lapsed Haraway fan, that echoed many of my concerns:
One specific example is her use of the word Chthulucene for describing the time period we should be heading towards. She’s well aware of Lovecrafts racism, which is why she changed the spelling of it, whilst also taking two different greek words to explain why she finds it fitting. She was also inspired by a spider which has Cthulu in it’s name - never mind that the scientist that named it was a huge Lovecraft fan.
Like, if you know that Lovecraft is racist and you’re already making up words, why not make up a totally different one? A change in spielling and good intentions is not going to be enough for people not to make that connection. As a white woman, I don’t feel like she has the “authority” to reclaim that word. I made a joke on that panel to better illustrate my frustrations:
I am proposing this new way of living and I am going to call it Hughgenics, because I believe that we should all live more like Hugh Jackman. The spelling might be different, but the mental connection is still there.
There’s also the part where she talked about how we are going to be overpopulated and humanity will have to be reduced down to 3 billion people. How do we do that? She proposes that we make Kin, and move away from the importance of biological family. My criticism here would be that queer people and people of colour are doing that already and have been doing that as a survival mechanism for generations. Damon Young from VerySmartBrothas calls this concept cousin-culture in this very entertaining essay:
I ended up enjoying the movie a lot more than I thought. Her arguments were a lot easier to follow in that medium. Her core message and main strength is to animate people to read and tell new stories, which I am completely on board with. We talked about the potential and power of sci-fi to remind us that there are countless other possibilities of living together. All of us on the panel were pretty much on the same page, which made for a really productive discussion. At the end we got to recommend other works and I chose the book Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown, which proposes a lot of the same things, but with a much simpler language and Friends at the Table for a good example of collaborative storytelling.
After the panel we were approached by a Haraway fan, who criticised us for being too harsh on Haraway and felt that we were “bashing” her. This led into a pretty frustrating argument about who gets to speak/take up space. The phrase ‘identity politics’ came up a couple times and how the left is canibalizing itself with internal squabbles and suddenly I felt incredibly tired.
To bring this back to the actual question and summarize: Words mean things and while making up new ones is a natural process, it is pretty naive to think that they can be taken out of context and reframed through sheer willpower.