Staying with the Trouble: Xenoecologies of Home for Companions in the Contested Zones

“Inheritance is never a given; it is always a task. It remains before us.” Jacques Derrida, 1994

“What, though, is the fate of those threatened others that are unregarded, unliked, or even actively vilified?” Deborah Bird Rose and Thom van Dooren, Unloved Others, prospectus 2009

“I am particularly fascinated by the unexpected consequences of the stuff we don’t want but must somehow accommodate. There is no question as to whether there will be undesired outcomes; my interest is in whether we will be able to love them.” Patricia Piccinini, “In Another Life,” 2006, p. 13

"What does it mean to write in a time of exterminations and extinctions?" Deborah Bird Rose

“Human nature is a multispecies relationship.” Anna Tsing, “Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species,” 2006

“Like animals, we too are embedded in and enacted by practices…[T]o give up dreams of mastery is not to give up politics. Rather it is to change their character…If animals are enacted in practices then their character is not given in the order of things…Albeit with difficulty our human-animal practices might be ordered differently…it implies a politics of situated and respectful interference.” John Law and Mara Miele, “Animal Practices,” in Human and Other Animals: Critical Perspectives, Nickie Charles and Bob Carter, eds., Palgrave, forthcoming 2010.

David Schneider and I took up dog training together in the early 1980s in California. Whipped into tolerable shape by the writing of master trainer and philosopher Vicki Hearne, through the many emails we exchanged over the course of our struggles to learn the ontological choreography (Charis Thompson’s term)—the co-constitutive work and play—of obedience, David and I formed a life-changing companionship with each other, as well as with his large standard poodle George and mine and my partner Rusten's lab-mix mutts Sojourner and Alexander Berkman. George, Sojourner, and Alexander taught us to stay with the trouble because they deserved no less; they made an ethical semiotic material claim on us rooted in their capacity for response—response-ability—in what I sometimes call "the open," where what is to come is not yet—is not fixed by teleology or function, whether malignant or benign—and might still be otherwise. This is not Heidegger’s open, as I hope to show in what follows. His human exceptionalist preoccupations made him poor in world. What I mean is more like worlding in the sf sense, where earthly ontological choreography remains in play and at stake in living and dying with each other in our wounded, yet still capacious and capable, motley kinds. My open is to be found in play and in labor, where who and what are to be are forged in thick and deep times and places.

I miss David sharply; speaking here, at SCA, in his honor is terrifying because I am claiming him as kin—ancestor, mentor, friend, and kindred human who was undone and redone by the details of training together, of becoming with a nonhuman partner, of worlding in the conjoined mindflesh of multispecies tangles. In the sf mode, my own writing works and plays only on earth, in the mud of cyborgs, dogs, scrub oak, microbes, sheep, chickens, and all their kin and get. With the twist in the belly that etymology brings, I remember that “kin,” with the “g-k” exchange of Indo-European cousins, becomes “get.” Terran spawn all, we are side-winding as well as arboreal kindred — blown get — in seedy generation after generation, blowsy kind after blowsy kind. David understood such things when he ruminated—gnawed?—on the substance of kinship.

In her rewriting of Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State from the angle of the naturecultures of mushrooms and their companions, Anna Tsing defines “worlds” as “previously unrecognized galaxies of multicultural and multispecies relations plus life-enhancing relations among non-living elements of the earth.” Her definition interests me for and in a sf humananimal terraforming mode of attention, where recuperation might yet be possible.

Most of my own work these days asks what it could possibly mean to inherit the histories of companion species on a blasted earth where getting on together is still the task. Companion species "break bread" together at table; it's in the word itself—cum panis, with bread. Who is on the menu at this table is a question of ethical, political, and ecological urgency. It is also not a new question, even in the future tense. Companions have, somehow, “to get on together,” in that scary Australian English idiom. Moved by Deborah Rose, I want to ask what it might mean for human-animal studies in the zoo-ethno-graphic mode to face those who come before, so as to leave quieter, less wild country to those who come after? In other words, what might it mean for multispecies get to inherit the past thickly in the present so as to age the future? I read Derrida's words—“Inheritance is never a given; it is always a task. It remains before us”—through the lens of David's queries about kinship and Rose’s understanding from her Australian Aboriginal teachers of facing those who came before.

"Staying with the Trouble" aims to work through two ontological, ethical, and ecological cats cradle knots of companion species: 1) the people and other critters of the Navajo Sheep Project who bring the Iberian Churro into many an unexpected world of alliance and conflict; and 2) the rapidly growing world of 21st-century urban chickens and especially the women and other people who depend on and work with them in Greater Gabarone, Botswana, Missoula, Montana, and Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties, California. My focus will be on working humananimal worlding—“working” in both senses, “getting on” and “laboring”. Multispecies contact zones in these stories are where the tools for inheriting the trouble so as to leave more quiet country might be forged. Cat’s Cradle is a game of relaying patterns, of one hand holding still to receive something from another, and then relaying by adding something new, by proposing another knot. Cat’s cradle can be played by many, on all sorts of limbs, as long as the rhythm of accepting and giving is sustained. Scholarship is like that too; it is passing on in twists and skeins that require passion and action, holding still and moving, anchoring and launching. Maybe that is why David and George made such good partners in worlding.

Donna Haraway is Professor and Chair of the History of Consciousness program at UC Santa Cruz.