In Depth

Who On Earth Is Donna Haraway? Why the Art World Can't Get Enough of the Ecofeminist Cyborg Enthusiast

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Who On Earth Is Donna Haraway? Why the Art World Can't Get Enough of the Ecofeminist Cyborg Enthusiast
A still from Fabrizio Terranova's documentary, "Donna Haraway: Storytelling for Earthly Survival" (2016). Image via earthlysurvival.org.

Donna Haraway dwells in that elite strata of cult celebrity wherein a mere mention of her attendance is enough to attract lines out the door and down the block. Last year, Artspace’s editor-in-chief Loney Abrams found herself amidst such a throng outside of Anthology Film Archives for the New York premier of Fabrizio Terranova’s documentary Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival. “I didn’t get tickets in advance just because I figured it’d be a pretty niche event,” Loney recently recounted to me, “But so did the hundreds of people who also showed up to the sold-out screening.” It may well be a hallmark of Haraway fandom to underestimate the postmodern feminist's influence and popularity—recommending a Donna Haraway book is not unlike introducing someone your favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant in that your recommendee must be someone trusted enough to “get it”.

While she may not exactly be a mainstream figure to those in the scientific field, Haraway's highly progressive scholarship and unorthodox approach has earned her high regard within the artistic community. This past year, her ranking on ArtReview’s Power 100 list skyrocketed from 43rd to third, just under conceptual artist Pierre Huyghe and artist-theorist Hito Steyerl, and even Steyerl has drawn inspiration from Haraway’s work. For example, the Berlin-based artist's landmark 2015 installation Factory of the Sun was largely inspired by a quote from Donna Haraway’s seminal 1985 essay, A Cyborg Manifesto, which reads, “Our best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals.” Haraway also happened to be on the same advisory committee for Documenta 13 as Peter Huyghe in 2012.

 factory of the sunInstallation view of Factory of the Sun. Courtesy of MoCA Los Angeles.

 Only a few weeks prior to the announcement of Haraway’s spot on ArtReview’s esteemed list, The Brooklyn Rail published an in-depth interview between Haraway and the Rail’s Senior Art Editor, Thyrza Nichols Goodeve. In it, Goodeve details her own first-hand experience as a teacher’s assistant to Haraway at UC Santa Cruz back in 1989. At some point during the school year, Haraway was asked to contribute to an Artforum issue on “Wonder,” to which she replied not having anything relevant at the moment but suggested reaching out to one of her promising graduate students, which of course, turned out to be Goodeve. “That seemingly innocuous moment of generosity and fierce resistance to hierarchical boundaries between ‘student’ and ‘professor’ has everything to do with how I ended up writing about art and ultimately becoming the Senior Art Editor of the Brooklyn Rail,” writes Goodeve. Prior to that break, Goodeve had never before written about art (she has a Masters in Cinema Studies). “Haraway and myself come to art obliquely like crabs,” Goodeve continues, “her originary feeding ground being biology, feminism, and social justice, mine the curiosity of the dilettante (more respectfully called interdisciplinary education) shaped by the writer’s craft which, I soon learned, is perfectly matched to the challenge and curiosity of writing about art.” 

Haraway’s texts would be quoted ad nauseum if there were any indication that anyone was tiring of hearing reference to her. Despite the fact that Haraway seems to be on the tip of every artist and curator’s tongue, it has yet to be met with a laborious eye-roll (the likes of which Deleuze quoters are all too familiar). So why are we, members of the art community, so enamored with this non-arts, science person? “When I started reading Donna's writing, I started to feel more entangled with everything,” said artist and founder of the Institute for Queer Ecology, Lee Pivnik, in a Haraway-themed email exchange with Artspace. “What I've come to like about Donna Haraway is that she's a great way to find people with similar headspaces. I think I have a lot of thoughts and complaints about theorists that write in a way that alienates the vast majority of readers, but I truly appreciate and am infatuated with the work people make after reading her.”

 

 Lee Pivnik's Institute for Queer Ecology.

So what does Donna Haraway write about? Frequently cited as one of the most preeminent scholars in ecofeminism, what Haraway's work highlights most dramatically is a rejection of anthropocentric thinking (ie: that humans are the apex of consciousness and life) in favor of, as Lee Pivnik echoed, systems of entanglement, relationships, and processes. Her's is an environmentalism that embraces technology as a potential for self-sufficiency, and studies all the ways in which the natural world proves itself in critique of fascistic, racist, misogynistic, and male-dominated Western institutions and ideologies. Haraway’s breakthrough 1985 essay, A Cyborg Manifesto, for which she is best known, is a remarkably intersectional text that offers technology and the possibility of the cyborg as avenues for women to establish fellowship based on affinity rather than identity, and to transcend the subjectivity inherent in biologically-based identities. For Haraway, the politics of the cyborg operate in a way comparable to the phrase “women of color” in that it stresses how affinity comes as a result of "otherness, difference, and specificity." 

In her 2016 book, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Haraway further spins her web of interconnectivity to discuss what she terms the "Chthulucene" and the dire state of our current ecological crisis. In her own words, Haraway describes the Chthulucene as referring to the “ongoing, pastpresentfuture processes and entities of the earth... The Chthulucene is a counter to the arrogance of the Anthropocene and Capitalocene, not a substitute, but a troubling presence and force that has never disappeared, and to with which we are at stake.” It’s through the characterization and acceptance of the Chthulucene that Haraway makes an appeal to the importance of “staying with the trouble” as the only inevitable reaction: “Without the narratives of apocalypse or salvation,” said Haraway in the aforementioned Brooklyn Rail interview, “staying with the trouble in caring and knowing and acting is such a simple, obvious political and ethical duty.” Staying with the Trouble is also where Haraway most prominently brings art into the entanglement of biology and activism, in what Haraway refers to as “art science worldings.” The resulting text is one that affirms science and creativity as one in the same web of intrigue and possibility, which offers exciting opportunities for artists to explore and engage.

 octopiAn illustration included in Haraway's 2016 e-flux essay, Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitolocene, Chthulucene. Image via e-flux.


"I am still very drawn to her writing on the Chtulucene, despite the fact I possibly find it to be more challenging than rewarding," Lee Pivnik admitted. "Her writing style is so incredibly lush. It combines the importance of critique with something much more poetic and enjoyable, although I often miss the point she's making. I was talking to a group of people last spring and asked: 'Is it possible to love Donna Harraway while really not loving the experience of reading her works?' and the whole room kind of agreed that they were in the same boat." The quality of Haraway's work is entirely unique, particularly within the context of academic scholarship. Her sprawling writing style often travels down deep tangential tunnels that carry you to the very edge of forgetting the point that was being made before looping back around. It is at once colloquial and approachable while at the same time so dense in its own lexiconal system, one consistently wonders if they understand anything at all. 

A 1991 review of Haraway's Primate Visions, published in the International Journal of Primatology encapsulates the frustrating genius of her writing style and philosophy: 

"This book infuriated me; but that is not a defect in it, because it is supposed to infuriate people like me, and the author would have been happier still if I had blown out an artery. In short, this book is flawless, because all its deficiencies are deliberate products of art. Given its assumptions, there is nothing here to criticize. The only course open to a reviewer who dislikes this book as much as I do is to question its author’s fundamental assumptions—which are big-ticket items involving the nature and relationships of language, knowledge, and science."

Artists, of course, are predisposed to this kind of intellectual frustration and intrigue—Haraway's writing perfectly encapsulates our current postmodern state of contradictions, interconnectivity, and relations. Her perspective on the natural world is one that does not try to fit its contents into an ideological box but is instead a constant negotiation and reshaping to find and invent possibilities that best fit our ever-evolving ontologies. It's a worldview that's as distinctive and exciting as it is oftentimes confusing and kind of impossible to get through.

Typically, this is where we would promote the upcoming launch of Haraway's most recent book Making Kin Not Population (2018) at Performance Space on October 21st but the event has already been sold out for months. If you aren't one of the fortunate Haraway fans who were proactive enough to buy tickets early on, you can join us in making a trip to the local library and taking out any of her titles for a mind-bending intellectual ride. 

 

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