Making String Figures Amid the Troubles (on Zoom)

In Staying with the Trouble (2016), Donna Haraway offers a figure which combines a number methods of thinking thoughts and telling stories together in ways that emphasize a shared nature of giving and receiving, of participation, of crafting, tracing and following. They are ways of connecting across species and space together—that sometimes work, sometimes fail, are active and at times hold still. The figure, which she describes with the letters SF evokes multiple practices which address in imaginative and creative ways others and aliens and their connections to shared communities—all with a provisional eye toward the things we know so far. They have, in Haraway’s phrasing “response-ability” in their mutual creations. SF, as she describes it (2016:2) is:

science fiction,
speculative fabulation,
string figures,
speculative feminism,
science fact,
so far…

Haraway’s SF as she describes it, is an attempt to outline a practice for generating imaginative patterns of thinking and ultimately being that may lead to ways of “staying with the trouble” of our present. Her posture is one of directly “Facing Gaia,” in the terms of Bruno Latour, offering neither a utopian escape through technological fixes or a dystopian finality that offers the despair of The End. Working against this binary, Haraway wants to suggest a method for working together, collaborating and recognizing the power of fabulating and fabricating—thinking and making—together to live in the trouble, the way things are.

This this morning in my senior seminar we began reading and discussing Haraway’s ideas with the example of string figures—a storytelling method she uses as a metaphor to explain her idea of SF. In string figures, a simple loop—a structure of string in a circle—is transformed through the operations of fingers in a historical pattern passed down through generations, to make a figure illustrating a story which is told. As the narrative proceeds the circle becomes a thing through the physical operations of fingers, plays its part, and then is returned to its original state before being manipulated again. String, history, circle, creation, story and back to circle. The circle is, in a sense, a sustainable foundation for the collective fabrication of a fabulation.

When I originally built the syllabus for my seminar, Anthropology at the End of Worlds, I imagined Haraway as part of the antidote to thinking about the challenges of the climate crisis of the Anthropocene. I expected that students would enjoy the dip into her rich thinking, and a short surf on the poetic language of her theory for thinking otherwise.

That seems like a long time ago—before the world ended in the middle of our semester.

In late March the COVID-19 pandemic ended the class we started and has pushed us into spaces of seclusion alone or with our “COVID families.” We are, as I described last week, “astronauts” in our own world. At this point, we don’t know how long this will last or how it will continue to change things. What we do know is that we are living in a historical moment where stories we once imagined could only be science fiction have become real.

Like classes all over the world, our seminar is now online. Twice a week we speaking to each other through little windows on a computer screen: dependent on Zoom to have our discussions; to connect us. The speed with which things have changed, the uncertainty and isolation, have clearly hit my students and the effects are still playing themselves out. Of course I am not immune—the disbelief of grief, and the unreality of the new reality in which we find ourselves.

That this is real is unreal.

In this situation, talking about the climate crisis and the human-induced change in the Earth’s biosphere suddenly seems impossibly depressing. And yet, in the middle of this semester we have seen our world end. And, it seems to me that if Haraway’s ideas have anything to say about the “big trouble” of the Anthropocene (and its attendant other scenes and obscenes), her ideas should be applicable to the considerably smaller “trouble” of COVID-19.

So today, we began reading Haraway to consider how we might “stay with the trouble” of COVID. What could SF offer us right now? What could we make together? What resulted was the beginning of an interesting conversation about the ideas with which we are thinking about this pandemic. Riffing off of my favorite quote from Haraway’s first chapter:

“It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts thinking thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.” (12)

I suggested, that if Haraway was right and not just spinning an exclusively academic yarn (pun intended) we should be able to observe the things with which the pandemic is “being thought.” Specific stories are telling the story of the story and very salient descriptions are describing descriptions. Together we began a list:

  • The vivid stories of suffering and dying: “don’t be like Italy,” “be like China”
  • The dysfunction of politics: “Trump is incompetent,” “the Democrats are trying to bring him down,” etc.
  • The challenge to the operations of democracy and the upcoming US elections
  • Massive, unprecedented and dramatic unemployment
  • The seizing, freezing, stopping, and slowing of The Economy and the attendant question of when it can be restarted.
  • The unquestioned use of nation-states as the unit of conversation, response, and reaction (despite the fact that the virus does not recognize nations.) It’s as if “globalization” disappeared overnight.

An interesting thing about these stories as ways of telling stories about the pandemic are that they are many of the same stories that made up our world until mid-March. Together they are valiantly working to continue holding their world together, even as our new world is making new stories. It’s possible that the unease we feel is the gnawing awareness that those stories are struggling under the load of holding shit together long enough for the world they held together to have a chance to return: for things to get back to “normal.” (This, of course, is where the pandemic is different from facing the climate crisis. “Normal” is a state to which we can never return.)

The class and I asked, following Haraway, what if we trace the COVID? What if we think about what this moment is telling us and apply the storytelling of SF to think otherwise and together in a provisional way? Drawing on some lines from Anna Tsing’s book Mushroom at the End of the World (2015), which we coincidentally started reading in class and finished reading online—across the end of the world: Could we “look around” instead of look forward? (22) Could we engage in some “radical curiosity?” (144).

As these things go, we got to this point just as the end of the class was approaching. I hope to return to it next Tuesday. We did, however, get this far:

We must begin with the science facts of what we know about the pandemic—agreeing on the harm of a novel virus, the way it moves through societies and uses living beings as hosts. (I might add here, the way the virus is itself an interspecies production.) Speculative feminism can offer us ways to think things that don’t other others—the stories of the pandemic that suggest discontinuities across the masculine and heteronormative systems that have structured our until-COVID-normal. Who is dying, how are they dying? How does the pattern of death map onto that out-of-date-normal in ways that might be an opportunity to rethink it? What are the stories of care, of cooperation of making together and producing in new ways? (And to this, one can imagine the role of companion species broadly defined. Let us not forget the value of our furry and feathered family members!)

If the damage and suffering of a pandemic was something that until a month ago was in the domain of science fiction, could other positive fictions—things that we have heretofore assumed to be impossible actually be imaginable now? In other words, could the chaos of the present open the opportunity to dream and make something else? What this will be like when its over? Can we engage in speculative fabulation which no longer even imagines a health/medical system or an insurance system? Could there be something else that attends to the human need for a lively life with others for as long a time as possible? Could we imagine a moment when The Economy is not the measure of societal health? 

What happens when 12+ million people are suddenly no longer employed? What if next week there are another six or eight million? Doesn’t this world-ending push people into a situation where the myth of individualism can truly no longer be sustained? Isn’t this the moment that we have stories of being of the world and not just in it? Aren’t we being forced right now to realize that we need others.

As class came to an end I looked at the five rows of student photos that Zoom left me on the side of the screen (there were more people in class, but when you share the screen you can’t easily see all of them), and I was struck by the final of Haraway’s SF—string figures. At that moment I imagined each of the heads as a fingertip connected by the lines of the wireless and wired systems of the Internet. Five by five. Two hands together making string figures together: Our discussions pick up strands, drop others, try things out and, of course, rely on the contributions of others. Together we were working on our understanding, trying to make sense of the confusion we feel, holding our class together the best way we can and staying with our current trouble. I shared these thoughts with them and then asked them for permission to make a screen grab for this post. (Sorry for the other members of the class that didn’t make it in this shot.)

I can’t wait to see what happens next week.
Thanks, Donna Haraway!


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