Trouble is an interesting word. It derives from a thirteenth-century French verb meaning “to stir up,” “to make cloudy,” “to disturb.” We—all of us on Terra—live in disturbing times, mixed-up times, troubling and turbid times. The task is to become capable, with each other in all of our bumptious kinds, of response. Mixed-up times are overflowing with both pain and joy—with vastly unjust patterns of pain and joy, with unnecessary killing of ongoingness but also with necessary resurgence. The task is to make kin in lines of inventive connection as a practice of learning to live and die well with each other in a thick present. Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places. In urgent times, many of us are tempted to address trouble in terms of making an imagined future safe, of stopping something from happening that looms in the future, of clearing away the present and the past in order to make futures for coming generations. 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, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings
Kin is a wild category that all sorts of people do their best to domesticate. Making kin as oddkin rather than, or at least in addition to, godkin and genealogical and biogenetic family troubles important matters, like to whom one is actually responsible. Who lives and who dies, and how, in this kinship rather than that one? What shape is this kinship, where and whom do its lines connect and disconnect, and so what? What must be cut and what must be tied if multispecies flourishing on earth, including human and other-than-human beings in kinship, are to have a chance?
An ubiquitous figure in this book is SF: science fiction, speculative fabulation, string figures, speculative feminism, science fact, so far.
This book argues and tries to perform that, eschewing futurism, staying with the trouble is both more serious and more lively. Staying with the trouble requires making oddkin; that is, we require each other in unexpected collaborations and combinations, in hot compost piles. We become-with each other or not at all. That kind of material semiotics is always situated, someplace and not noplace, entangled and worldly. Alone, in our separate kinds of expertise and experience, we know both too much and too little, and so we succumb to despair or to hope, and neither is a sensible attitude. Neither despair nor hope is tuned to the senses, to mindful matter, to material semiotics, to mortal earthlings in thick copresence. Neither hope nor despair knows how to teach us to “play string figures with companion species,”
“Make Kin Not Babies.” Antiracist, anticolonial, anticapitalist, proqueer feminists of every color and from every people have long been leaders in the movement for sexual and reproductive freedom and rights, with particular attention to the violence of reproductive and sexual orders for poor and marginalized people. Feminists have been leaders in arguing that sexual and reproductive freedom means being able to bring children, whether one’s own or those of others, to robust adulthood in health and safety in intact communities. Feminists have also been historically unique in insisting on the power and right of every woman, young or old, to choose not to have a child.
Communities of Compost
SF is a sign for science fiction, speculative feminism, science fantasy, speculative fabulation, science fact, and also, string figures
something that works, something consequential and maybe even beautiful, that wasn’t there before
I am not interested in reconciliation or restoration, but I am deeply committed to the more modest possibilities of partial recuperation and getting on together. Call that staying with the trouble.
The critters of all my stories inhabit an n-dimensional niche space called Terrapolis. My fabulated multiple integral equation for Terrapolis is at once a story, a speculative fabulation, and a string figure for multispecies worlding.
“Terrapolis is a fictional integral equation, a speculative fabulation. Terrapolis is n-dimensional niche space for multispecies becoming-with. Terrapolis is open, worldly, indeterminate, and polytemporal. Terrapolis is a chimera of materials, languages, histories. Terrapolis is for companion species, cum panis, with bread, at table together—not “posthuman” but “compost.” Terrapolis is in place; Terrapolis makes space for unexpected companions. Terrapolis is an equation for guman, for humus, for soil, for ongoing risky infection, for epidemics of promising trouble, for permaculture. Terrapolis is the SF game of response-ability. Companion species are engaged in the old art of terraforming; they are the players in the SF equation that describes Terrapolis.”
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 think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.
The Adventures of Ideas
Although they are among humanity’s oldest games, string figures are not everywhere the same game. Like all offspring of colonizing and imperial histories, I—we—have to relearn how to conjugate worlds with partial connections and not universals and particulars. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, European and Euro-American ethnologists collected string figure games from all over the world; these discipline-making travelers were surprised that when they showed the string figure games they had learned as children at home, their hosts already knew such games and often in greater variety. String figure games came late to Europe, probably from Asian trade routes. All of the epistemological desires and fables of this period of the history of comparative anthropology were ignited by the similarities and differences, with their undecidably independent inventions or cultural diffusions, tied together by the threads of hand and brain, making and thinking, in the relays of patterning in “Native” and “Western” string figure games.
Not very many kinds of other-than-human critters have convinced human skeptics that the animals recognize themselves in a mirror—a talent made known to scientists by such actions as picking at paint spots or other marks on one’s body that are visible only in a mirror. Pigeons share this capacity with, at least, human children over two years old, rhesus macaques, chimpanzees, magpies, dolphins, and elephants.17 So-called self-recognition carries great weight in Western-influenced psychology and philosophy, besotted by individualism in theory and method, as these fields have been. Devising tests to show who can and can’t do it is something of a competitive epistemological sport.
The small Batman Park was established in 1982 along a disused freight train rail yard, and the pigeon loft was built in the 1990s to encourage pigeons to roost away from city buildings and streets. The loft is a tower structure built as part of the city’s management plan for feral pigeons. These are not the beloved sporting pigeons of fanciers or colombophiles, but the urban “rats of the sky” we met a few paragraphs ago in a Washington, DC, city parks program tied to the internationally eminent Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology. Melbourne’s pigeons came with Europeans and thrived in the ecosystems and worlds that replaced the Yarra River wetlands and dispossessed most of the Aboriginal traditional owners of the land responsible for taking care of country. In 1985, the Wurundjeri Tribe Land Compensation and Cultural Heritage Council was established partly to develop awareness of Wurundjeri culture and history within contemporary Australia. I do not know if this council played any role in the partial recuperation of the land of Batman Park; I do know that sites along the Yarra River were places of significance to the Wurundjeri. In 1835, businessman and explorer John Batman signed a document with a group of Wurundjeri elders for the purchase of land in the first and only documented time that Europeans “negotiated their presence and occupation of Aboriginal lands directly with the traditional owners . . . For 600,000 acres of Melbourne, including most of the land now within the suburban area, John Batman paid 40 pairs of blankets, 42 tomahawks, 130 knives, 62 pairs scissors, 40 looking glasses, 250 handkerchiefs, 18 shirts, 4 flannel jackets, 4 suits of clothes and 150 lb. of flour.”34 The British governor of New South Wales repudiated this impudent treaty for its trespass on the rights of the Crown.
Staying with the trouble, the task is multispecies recuperation and somehow, in that suggestive Australian idiom, “getting on together” with less denial and more experimental justice.
“We are all lichens.
—Scott Gilbert, “We Are All Lichens Now””
Nobody lives everywhere; everybody lives somewhere. Nothing is connected to everything; everything is connected to something.
The tentacular are not disembodied figures; they are cnidarians, spiders, fingery beings like humans and raccoons, squid, jellyfish, neural extravaganzas, fibrous entities, flagellated beings, myofibril braids, matted and felted microbial and fungal tangles, probing creepers, swelling roots, reaching and climbing tendrilled ones
The earth of the ongoing Chthulucene is sympoietic, not autopoietic. Mortal Worlds (Terra, Earth, Gaia, Chthulu, the myriad names and powers that are not Greek, Latin, or Indo-European at all)11 do not make themselves, no matter how complex and multileveled the systems, no matter how much order out of disorder might be produced in generative autopoietic system breakdowns and relaunchings at higher levels of order. Autopoietic systems are hugely interesting—witness the history of cybernetics and information sciences; but they are not good models for living and dying worlds and their critters. Autopoietic systems are not closed, spherical, deterministic, or teleological; but they are not quite good enough models for the mortal SF world. Poiesis is symchthonic, sympoietic, always partnered all the way down, with no starting and subsequently interacting “units.”12 The Chthulucene does not close in on itself; it does not round off; its contact zones are ubiquitous and continuously spin out loopy tendrils. Spider is a much better figure for sympoiesis than any inadequately leggy vertebrate of whatever pantheon. Tentacularity is symchthonic, wound with abyssal and dreadful graspings, frayings, and weavings, passing relays again and again, in the generative recursions that make up living and dying
Katie King told me about M. Beth Dempster’s Master of Environmental Studies thesis written in 1998, in which she suggested the term sympoiesis for “collectively-producing systems that do not have self-defined spatial or temporal boundaries. Information and control are distributed among components. The systems are evolutionary and have the potential for surprising change.
Marilyn Strathern is an ethnographer of thinking practices. She defines anthropology as studying relations with relations—a hugely consequential, mind- and body-altering sort of commitment.
How can we think in times of urgencies without the self-indulgent and self-fulfilling myths of apocalypse, when every fiber of our being is interlaced, even complicit, in the webs of processes that must somehow be engaged and repatterned?
Arendt witnessed in Eichmann not an incomprehensible monster, but something much more terrifying—she saw commonplace thoughtlessness. That is, here was a human being unable to make present to himself what was absent, what was not himself, what the world in its sheer not-one-selfness is and what claims-to-be inhere in not-oneself. Here was someone who could not be a wayfarer, could not entangle, could not track the lines of living and dying, could not cultivate response-ability, could not make present to itself what it is doing, could not live in consequences or with consequence, could not compost. Function mattered, duty mattered, but the world did not matter for Eichmann. The world does not matter in ordinary thoughtlessness. The hollowed-out spaces are all filled with assessing information, determining friends and enemies, and doing busy jobs; negativity, the hollowing out of such positivity, is missed, an astonishing abandonment of thinking
Driven by radical curiosity, Tsing does the ethnography of “salvage accumulation” and “patchy capitalism,” the kind that can no longer promise progress but can and does extend devastation and make precarity the name of our systematicity. There is no simple ethical, political, or theoretical point to take from Tsing’s work; there is instead the force of engaging the world in the kind of thinking practices impossible for Eichmann’s heirs. “Matsutake tell us about surviving collaboratively in disturbance and contamination. We need this skill for living in ruins.”
Thom van Dooren
In his extraordinary book Flight Ways, van Dooren accompanies situated bird species living on the extended edge of extinction, asking what it means to hold open space for another.
Le Guin, “The Carrier Bag Theory,” (1986)
becoming human, becoming humus, becoming terran
In this terrible time called the Anthropocene, Latour argues that the fundamentals of geopolitics have been blasted open. None of the parties in crisis can call on Providence, History, Science, Progress, or any other god trick outside the common fray to resolve the troubles.29 A common livable world must be composed, bit by bit, or not at all. What used to be called nature has erupted into ordinary human affairs, and vice versa, in such a way and with such permanence as to change fundamentally means and prospects for going on, including going on at all. Searching for compositionist practices capable of building effective new collectives, Latour argues that we must learn to tell “Gaïa stories.” If that word is too hard, then we can call our narrations “geostories,” in which “all the former props and passive agents have become active without, for that, being part of a giant plot written by some overseeing entity.”30 Those who tell Gaia stories or geostories are the “Earthbound,” those who eschew the dubious pleasures of transcendent plots of modernity and the purifying division of society and nature. Latour argues that we face a stark divide: “Some are readying themselves to live as Earthbound in the Anthropocene; others decided to remain as Humans in the Holocene.”
“Latour is determined to avoid the idols of a ready-to-hand fix, such as Laws of History, Modernity, the State, God, Progress, Reason, Decadence, Nature, Technology, or Science, as well as the debilitating disrespect for difference and shared finitude inherent in those who already know the answers toward those who only need to learn them—by force, faith, or self-certain pedagogy. Those who “believe” they have the answers to the present urgencies are terribly dangerous. Those who refuse to be for some ways of living and dying and not others are equally dangerous. Matters of fact, matters of concern,32 and matters of care are knotted in string figures, in SF.
Latour embraces sciences, not Science.”
In geopolitics, “the important point here is to realize that the facts of the matter cannot be delegated to a higher unified authority that would have done the choice in our stead. Controversies—no matter how spurious they might be—are no excuse to delay the decision about which side represents our world better.”33 Latour aligns himself with the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); he does not believe its assessments and reports; he decides what is strong and trustworthy and what is not. He casts his lot with some worlds and worldings and not others. One need not hear Latour’s “decision” discourse with an individualist ear; he is a compositionist intent on understanding how a common world, how collectives, are built-with each other, where all the builders are not human beings. This is neither relativism nor rationalism; it is SF, which Latour would call both sciences and scientifiction and I would call both sciences and speculative fabulation—all of which are political sciences, in our aligned approaches.
“Alignment” is a rich metaphor for wayfarers
Like Stengers and like myself, Latour is a thoroughgoing materialist committed to an ecology of practices, to the mundane articulating of assemblages through situated work and play in the muddle of messy living and dying. Actual players, articulating with varied allies of all ontological sorts (molecules, colleagues, and much more), must compose and sustain what is and will be. Alignment in tentacular worlding must be a seriously tangled affair!
Shaping her thinking about the times called Anthropocene and “multi-faced Gaïa” (Stengers’s term) in companionable friction with Latour, Isabelle Stengers does not ask that we recompose ourselves to become able, perhaps, to “face Gaïa.” But like Latour and even more like Le Guin, one of her most generative SF writers, Stengers is adamant about changing the story. Focusing on intrusion rather than composition, Stengers calls Gaia a fearful and devastating power that intrudes on our categories of thought, that intrudes on thinking itself.36 Earth/Gaia is maker and destroyer, not resource to be exploited or ward to be protected or nursing mother promising nourishment. Gaia is not a person but complex systemic phenomena that compose a living planet. Gaia’s intrusion into our affairs is a radically materialist event that collects up multitudes. This intrusion threatens not life on earth itself—microbes will adapt, to put it mildly—but threatens the livability of earth for vast kinds, species, assemblages, and individuals in an “event” already under way called the Sixth Great Extinction.
Stengers, like Latour, evokes the name of Gaia in the way James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis did, to name complex nonlinear couplings between processes that compose and sustain entwined but nonadditive subsystems as a partially cohering systemic whole.38 In this hypothesis, Gaia is autopoietic—self-forming, boundary maintaining, contingent, dynamic, and stable under some conditions but not others. Gaia is not reducible to the sum of its parts, but achieves finite systemic coherence in the face of perturbations within parameters that are themselves responsive to dynamic systemic processes. Gaia does not and could not care about human or other biological beings’ intentions or desires or needs, but Gaia puts into question our very existence, we who have provoked its brutal mutation that threatens both human and nonhuman livable presents and futures. Gaia is not about a list of questions waiting for rational policies;39 Gaia is an intrusive event that undoes thinking as usual. “She is what specifically questions the tales and refrains of modern history. There is only one real mystery at stake, here: it is the answer we, meaning those who belong to this history, may be able to create as we face the consequences of what we have provoked.”40
But for now, notice that the Anthropocene obtained purchase in popular and scientific discourse in the context of ubiquitous urgent efforts to find ways of talking about, theorizing, modeling, and managing a Big Thing called Globalization. Climate-change modeling is a powerful positive feedback loop provoking change-of-state in systems of political and ecological discourses.43 That Paul Crutzen was both a Nobel laureate and an atmospheric chemist mattered. By 2008, many scientists around the world had adopted the not-yet-official but increasingly indispensable term;44 and myriad research projects, performances, installations, and conferences in the arts, social sciences, and humanities found the term mandatory in their naming and thinking, not least for facing both accelerating extinctions across all biological taxa and also multispecies, including human, immiseration across the expanse of Terra.
A complex systems engineer named Brad Werner addressed a session at the meetings of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco in 2012. His point was quite simple: scientifically speaking, global capitalism “has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that ‘earth-human systems’ are becoming dangerously unstable in response.” Therefore, he argued, the only scientific thing to do is revolt! Movements, not just individuals, are critical. What is required is action and thinking that do not fit within the dominant capitalist culture; and, said Werner, this is a matter not of opinion, but of geophysical dynamics. The reporter who covered this session summed up Werner’s address: “He is saying that his research shows that our entire economic paradigm is a threat to ecological stability.”49
The systemic stories of the linked metabolisms, articulations, or coproductions (pick your metaphor) of economies and ecologies, of histories and human and nonhuman critters, must be relentlessly opportunistic and contingent. They must also be relentlessly relational, sympoietic, and consequential.52 They are terran, not cosmic or blissed or cursed into outer space. The Capitalocene is terran; it does not have to be the last biodiverse geological epoch that includes our species too
As a provocation, let me summarize my objections to the Anthropocene as a tool, story, or epoch to think with:
If Humans live in History and the Earthbound take up their task within the Anthropocene, too many Posthumans (and posthumanists, another gathering altogether) seem to have emigrated to the Anthropocene for my taste. Perhaps my human and nonhuman people are the dreadful Chthonic ones who snake within the tissues of Terrapolis.
I am aligned with feminist environmentalist Eileen Crist when she writes against the managerial, technocratic, market-and-profit besotted, modernizing, and human-exceptionalist business-as-usual commitments of so much Anthropocene discourse. This discourse is not simply wrong-headed and wrong-hearted in itself; it also saps our capacity for imagining and caring for other worlds, both those that exist precariously now (including those called wilderness, for all the contaminated history of that term in racist settler colonialism) and those we need to bring into being in alliance with other critters, for still possible recuperating pasts, presents, and futures.
Reaching back to generative complex systems approaches by Lovelock and Margulis, Gaia figures the Anthropocene for many contemporary Western thinkers. But an unfurling Gaia is better situated in the Chthulucene, an ongoing temporality that resists figuration and dating and demands myriad names. Arising from Chaos,58 Gaia was and is a powerful intrusive force, in no one’s pocket, no one’s hope for salvation, capable of provoking the late twentieth century’s best autopoietic complex systems thinking that led to recognizing the devastation caused by anthropogenic processes of the last few centuries, a necessary counter to the Euclidean figures and stories of Man.
“The Thousand Names of Gaia.”
What happens when human exceptionalism and the utilitarian individualism of classical political economics become unthinkable in the best sciences across the disciplines and interdisciplines? Seriously unthinkable: not available to think with. Why is it that the epochal name of the Anthropos imposed itself at just the time when understandings and knowledge practices about and within symbiogenesis and sympoietics are wildly and wonderfully available and generative in all the humusities, including noncolonizing arts, sciences, and politics? What if the doleful doings of the Anthropocene and the unworldings of the Capitalocene are the last gasps of the sky gods, not guarantors of the finished future, game over? It matters which thoughts think thoughts. We must think!
The unfinished Chthulucene must collect up the trash of the Anthropocene, the exterminism of the Capitalocene, and chipping and shredding and layering like a mad gardener, make a much hotter compost pile for still possible pasts, presents, and futures.
Sympoiesis is a simple word; it means “making-with.” Nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoietic or self-organizing. In the words of the Inupiat computer “world game,” earthlings are never alone.1 That is the radical implication of sympoiesis. Sympoiesis is a word proper to complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, historical systems. It is a word for worlding-with, in company. Sympoiesis enfolds autopoiesis and generatively unfurls and extends it.
That is decidedly not the same thing as One and Individual. Rather, in polytemporal, polyspatial knottings, holobionts hold together contingently and dynamically, engaging other holobionts in complex patternings. Critters do not precede their relatings; they make each other through semiotic material involution, out of the beings of previous such entanglements
Like Margulis, I use holobiont to mean symbiotic assemblages, at whatever scale of space or time, which are more like knots of diverse intra-active relatings in dynamic complex systems, than like the entities of a biology made up of preexisting bounded units (genes, cells, organisms, etc.) in interactions that can only be conceived as competitive or cooperative.
Margulis’s view of life was that new kinds of cells, tissues, organs, and species evolve primarily through the long-lasting intimacy of strangers. The fusion of genomes in symbioses, followed by natural selection—with a very modest role for mutation as a motor of system level change—leads to increasingly complex levels of goodenough quasi-individuality to get through the day, or the aeon. Margulis called this basic and mortal life-making process symbiogenesis.
As long as autopoiesis does not mean self-sufficient “self making,” autopoiesis and sympoiesis, foregrounding and backgrounding different aspects of systemic complexity, are in generative friction, or generative enfolding, rather than opposition.
In 1998, a Canadian environmental studies graduate student named M. Beth Dempster suggested the term sympoiesis for “collectively-producing systems that do not have self-defined spatial or temporal boundaries. Information and control are distributed among components. The systems are evolutionary and have the potential for surprising change.” By contrast, autopoietic systems are “self-producing” autonomous units “with self defined spatial or temporal boundaries that tend to be centrally controlled, homeostatic, and predictable.”
Mixotricha paradoxa is everyone’s favorite critter for explaining complex “individuality,” symbiogenesis, and symbiosis.
Leaving out viruses, each M. paradoxa is not one, not five, not several hundred thousand, but a poster critter for holobionts. This holobiont lives in the gut of an Australian termite, Mastotermes darwiniensis, which has its own SF stories to tell about ones and manys, or holoents.
Rooted in units and relations, especially competitive relations, the sciences of the Modern Synthesis, for example, population genetics, have a hard time with four key biological domains: embryology and development, symbiosis and collaborative entanglements of holobionts and holobiomes, the vast worldings of microbes, and exuberant critter biobehavioral inter- and intra-actions
Approaches tuned to “multispecies becoming-with” better sustain us in staying with the trouble on terra. An emerging “New New Synthesis”—an extended synthesis—in transdisciplinary biologies and arts proposes string figures tying together human and nonhuman ecologies, evolution, development, history, affects, performances, technologies, and more.
A model is a work object; a model is not the same kind of thing as a metaphor or analogy. A model is worked, and it does work. A model is like a miniature cosmos, in which a biologically curious Alice in Wonderland can have tea with the Red Queen and ask how this world works, even as she is worked by the complex-enough, simple-enough world. Models in biological research are stabilized systems that can be shared among colleagues to investigate questions experimentally and theoretically. Traditionally, biology has had a small set of hard-working living models, each shaped in knots and layers of practice to be apt for some kinds of questions and not others.
Margulis gave us dynamic multipartnered entities like Mixotricha paradoxa to study the evolutionary invention of complex cells from the intra- and interactions of bacteria and archaea. I will briefly introduce two more models, each proposed and elaborated in the laboratory to study a transformation of organizational patterning in the living world: (1) a choanoflagellate-bacteria model for the invention of animal multi-cellularity, and (2) a squid-bacteria model for the elaboration of developmental symbioses between and among critters necessary to each other’s becoming. A third symbiogenetic model for the formation of complex ecosystems immediately suggests itself in the holobiomes of coral reefs, and I will approach this model through science art worldings rather than the experimental laboratory.
Every living thing has emerged and persevered (or not) bathed and swaddled in bacteria and archaea. Truly nothing is sterile; and that reality is a terrific danger, basic fact of life, and critter-making opportunity.
Alegado and King
Getting hungry, eating, and partially digesting, partially assimilating, and partially transforming
King’s ambitious program is crafting a stabilized and genomically well-characterized model system of cultures of choanoflagellates (Salpingoeca rosetta) and bacteria from the genus Algoriphagus to investigate critical aspects of the formation of multicellular animals. Choanoflagellates can live as either single cells or multicellular colonies; what determines the transitions? The close evolutionary relationship between choanoflagellates and animals lends strength to the model.16 The symbiogenetic theory of origins of multicellularity is contested; there are attractive alternate explanations.
To be animal is to become-with bacteria (and, no doubt, viruses and many other sorts of critters; a basic aspect of sympoiesis is its expandable set of players).
the diminutive Hawaiian bobtail squid, Euprymna scolopes, and its bacterial symbionts, Vibrio fischeri, which are essential for the squid’s constructing its ventral pouch that houses luminescing bacteria, so that the hunting squid can look like a starry sky to its prey below on dark nights, or appear not to cast a shadow on moonlit nights. The squid-bacterial symbiosis has proven remarkably generative for many kinds of studies, “from ecology and evolution of a symbiotic system to the underlying molecular mechanisms of partner interactions that lead to establishment, development, and long-term-persistence of the alliance.”
Unless the juvenile squid are infected in the right spot, at the right time, by the right bacteria, they do not develop their own structures for housing bacteria when they are hunting adults. The bacteria are fully part of the squid’s developmental biology
The sympoietic collaborations of squid and bacteria are matched by the sympoietic string figures across disciplines and methodologies, including genome sequencing, myriad imaging technologies, functional genomics, and field biology, which make symbiogenesis such a powerful framework for twenty-first-century biology.
Nancy Moran emphasizes this point: “The primary reason that symbiosis research is suddenly active, after decades at the margins of mainstream biology, is that DNA technology and genomics give us enormous new ability to discover symbiont diversity, and more significantly, to reveal how microbial metabolic capabilities contribute to the functioning of hosts and biological communities.”
Two transformative papers embody for me the profound scientific changes afoot.21 Subtitling their paper “We Have Never Been Individuals,” Gilbert, Sapp, and Tauber argue for holobionts and a symbiotic view of life by summarizing the evidence against bounded units from anatomy, physiology, genetics, evolution, immunology, and development. In “Animals in a Bacterial World: A New Imperative for the Life Sciences,” the twenty-six coauthors present the growing knowledge of a vast range of animal-bacterial interactions at both ecosystem and intimate symbiosis scales.
They argue that this evidence should profoundly alter approaches to five questions: “how have bacteria facilitated the origin and evolution of animals; how do animals and bacteria affect each other’s genomes; how does normal animal development depend on bacterial partners; how is homeostasis maintained between animals and their symbionts; and how can ecological approaches deepen our understanding of the multiple levels of animal-bacterial interaction.”
McFall-Ngai et al., “Animals in a Bacterial World,” 3229.
Carla Hustak and Natasha Myers gave all of us a beautiful paper titled “Involutionary Momentum
Hustak and Myers argue that a zero-sum game based on competing methodological individualists is a caricature of the sensuous, juicy, chemical, biological, material-semiotic, and science-making world. Counting “articulate plants and other loquacious organisms” among their number, living critters love the floridly repetitive mathematics of the pushes and pulls of hyperbolic geometry, not the accountant’s hell of a zero-sum game.24
In xkcd’s cartoon “Bee Orchid,”
“Each is a model system for sympoietic, multiplayer, multispecies thinking and action located in a particularly sensitive place: (1) the Great Barrier Reef and all the world’s coral reefs, with the Crochet Coral Reef project, initiated and coordinated by the Institute for Figuring in Los Angeles; (2) the island Republic of Madagascar, with the Malagasy-English children’s natural history book series called the Ako Project, made possible by multinational friendships among scientists and artists; (3) the circumpolar northern lands of the Inupiat in Alaska, site of the Never Alone computer game project, centered in story-making practices among the Inupiat29 and brought into being by the sympoiesis of E-Line Media and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council; and, my most developed case, (4) Black Mesa and the Navajo and Hopi lands enmeshed in Arizona, site of many-threaded coalitional work including Black Mesa Indigenous Support, Black Mesa Trust (Hopi), the scientists and indigenous herding people committed to Navajo-Churro sheep, Black Mesa Weavers for Life and Land, the mostly Diné activists of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, and the people and sheep of Diné be’iiná / The Navajo Lifeway.30
Each of these projects is a case of noninnocent, risky, committed “becoming involved in one another’s lives.””
We relate, know, think, world, and tell stories through and with other stories, worlds, knowledges, thinkings, yearnings. So do all the other critters of Terra, in all our bumptious diversity and category-breaking speciations and knottings. Other words for this might be materialism, evolution, ecology, sympoiesis, history, situated knowledges, cosmological performance, science art worldings, or animism, complete with all the contaminations and infections conjured by each of these terms.
Anna Tsing in a recent paper called “Feral Biologies” suggests that the inflection point between the Holocene and the Anthropocene might be the wiping out of most of the refugia from which diverse species assemblages (with or without people) can be reconstituted after major events
Right now, the earth is full of refugees, human and not, without refuge.
One way to live and die well as mortal critters in the Chthulucene is to join forces to reconstitute refuges, to make possible partial and robust biological-cultural-political-technological recuperation and recomposition, which must include mourning irreversible losses. Thom van Dooren and Vinciane Despret taught me that.10 There are so many losses already, and there will be many more. Renewed generative flourishing cannot grow from myths of immortality or failure to become-with the dead and the extinct.
The edge of extinction is not just a metaphor; system collapse is not a thriller. Ask any refugee of any species.
Feminists of our time have been leaders in unraveling the supposed natural necessity of ties between sex and gender, race and sex, race and nation, class and race, gender and morphology, sex and reproduction, and reproduction and composing persons (our debts here are due especially to Melanesians, in alliance with Marilyn Strathern and her ethnographer kin).13 If there is to be multispecies ecojustice, which can also embrace diverse human people, it is high time that feminists exercise leadership in imagination, theory, and action to unravel the ties of both genealogy and kin, and kin and species.
Bacteria and fungi abound to give us metaphors; but, metaphors aside (good luck with that!), we have a mammalian job to do, with our biotic and abiotic sympoietic collaborators, colaborers. We need to make kin symchthonically, sympoetically. Who and whatever we are, we need to make-with—become-with, compose-with—the earth-bound
We, human people everywhere, must address intense, systemic urgencies; yet so far, as Kim Stanley Robinson put it in 2312, we are living in times of “The Dithering” (in this SF narrative, lasting from 2005 to 2060—too optimistic?), a “state of indecisive agitation.”15 Perhaps the Dithering is a more apt name than either the Anthropocene or Capitalocene!
Kin making is making persons, not necessarily as individuals or as humans. I was moved in college by Shakespeare’s punning between kin and kind—the kindest were not necessarily kin as family; making kin and making kind (as category, care, relatives without ties by birth, lateral relatives, lots of other echoes) stretch the imagination and can change the story.
Strathern, “Shifting Relations.” Making kin is a surging popular practice, and new names are also proliferating. See Skurnick, That Should Be a Word, for kinnovator, a person who makes family in nonconventional ways, to which I add kinnovation. Skurnick also proposes clanarchist. These are not just words; they are clues and prods to earthquakes in kin making that is not limited to Western family apparatuses, heteronormative or not. I think babies should be rare, nurtured, and precious; and kin should be abundant, unexpected, enduring, and precious.
I think that the stretch and recomposition of kin are allowed by the fact that all earthlings are kin in the deepest sense, and it is past time to practice better care of kinds-as-assemblages (not species one at a time). Kin is an assembling sort of word. All critters share a common “flesh,” laterally, semiotically, and genealogically. Ancestors turn out to be very interesting strangers; kin are unfamiliar (outside what we thought was family or gens), uncanny, haunting, active.
Recuperation is still possible, but only in multispecies alliance, across the killing divisions of nature, culture, and technology and of organism, language, and machine
Referring both to her own practice for observing scientists and also to the practices of ethologist Thelma Rowell observing her Soay sheep, Despret affirmed “a particular epistemological position to which I am committed, one that I call a virtue: the virtue of politeness.”1 In every sense, Despret’s cultivation of politeness is a curious practice. She trains her whole being, not just her imagination, in Arendt’s words, “to go visiting.” Visiting is not an easy practice; it demands the ability to find others actively interesting, even or especially others most people already claim to know all too completely, to ask questions that one’s interlocutors truly find interesting, to cultivate the wild virtue of curiosity, to retune one’s ability to sense and respond—and to do all this politely! What is this sort of politeness? It sounds more than a little risky. Curiosity always leads its practitioners a bit too far off the path, and that way lie stories.
Isabelle Stengers’s colloquium on gestes spéculatifs.