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Donna J Haraway (1944-) – Architectural Review

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At a time of profound ecological and social crisis, Haraway’s reconfigurations of human and animal relations are desperately needed

Illustration by Victoria De la Maza Cueto

Our atmospheric, organic and environmental systems are on life support. Architecture is questioning its grounding in overwhelmingly Western-centric global humanist and capitalist logics which promote ‘human exceptionalism’; setting the human species apart from our responsibility for the many other biological, chemical, physical and organic lives and habitats that compose our local and global worlds. Animal architectures, which protect and nurture human and organic biodiversity, are urgently required.

Enter Donna Haraway. Now retired, Haraway, an evolutionary biologist, is Distinguished Professor Emerita of History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Daughter of a disabled sports writer, critic of genetic hierarchies and objects of property, and one of the most significant and respected international thinkers of ecological human and non-human relations (regularly appearing in global lists of the top 50 most influential people), her transformative, feminist writing provides a provocative body of work through which to rethink our responsibility for living with organic life as a matter of ‘companion species’.

Donna J Haraway

Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival by Fabrizio Terranova

Credit:Courtesy of Icarus Films

Our understandings of the worlds of animals have travelled far from the tidy, objective models of nature and science which once seemed so secure. These Western scientific and technological axioms, which underpinned modern architectural design knowledge, have also tended to designate the division between the human and animal realms as distinct: systems of knowledge which identify organic biodiversity as biological, anatomical and evolutionary specialisms and behaviours, and consider organic life as neutral ‘information’ or knowledge resource. Since the 1980s, Donna Haraway’s humane and creative reconfigurations of human and animal relations have revealed the social, technical, historical, psychological and material entanglements of our planet – relations that existed before enlightenment science and law grounded human individualism in neutral disembodied intellects.

Haraway’s When Species Meet (2008) artfully takes us away from morphological or psychological repetitions of the same: for example, unsettling standardised rational geometric representations of humanist knowledge with reference to American cartoonist, Sidney Harris’s playful image Leonardo da Vinci’s Dog. In the pursuit of enlightenment myths of genius, order and beauty, repeatedly and unthinkingly, the human is placed above the animal. Haraway challenges these inherited and naturalised ‘royal’ lines of biological speciation; domestic relations which reinforce the importance of the human over the ‘dawg’. Instead, her ‘companion species’ question those who are excluded by civilised voices of reason or enlightenment. Celebrating the mix and miscegenation of kin over the pure, filial and biological or genetic inheritance, Haraway’s companions are ‘critters’ of the everyday: the mutt, hound, wolf, pigeon, lapdog, rat, tiger or carrier pigeon.

Leonardo da Vinci's Dog by Sidney Harris

Drawn in 1996 and referenced and reproduced in Haraway’s When Species Meet (2008), Leonardo da Vinci’s Dog by cartoonist Sidney Harris subverts the enlightenment humanism of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man by re-centring upon a dog of perfect proportions

While life under Covid-19 has reconfigured daily domestic human and animal relations, where cat- and dog-bombed Zoom calls are regular occurrences and lockdown neighbourhood perambulations are retuned with birdsong and streets made ruderal as council hedges, verges and planters are left to wild, Haraway’s ‘humanimal’ relations – to use a phrase of Judith Still’s from Poetic Biopolitics (2016) – celebrate the lived intersections of ordinary life which constitute the domestic and spectacular everyday. Of course, these small-scale homely and urban encounters of everyday human and non-human life are unremarkable and unplanned changes in our built environment. But, together with the climate emergency and Black Lives Matter protests, these interminglings of different species highlight the more critical societal and environmental attunement to damaged and precarious human and non-human interactions that define our design and inhabitation of urban environments. Given the severity of these global changes, Haraway’s brilliant ‘God-trick’ critique of the enlightenment myth – that technological and scientific humanism produces the power of transcendental ‘God-like’ knowledge – highlights the danger of such hubris for today’s times.

For architects interested in formal and material processes of change, evolutionary life cycles in the animal kingdom have presented powerful images of transformation and of ‘becoming’. From the life cycle of insects, to the social construction of complex ‘architectures’ by beavers, termites or bees, animals have long presented images of ‘intelligent design’. Such logics also provide gateway concepts of techno-human life – from organic biological behaviours to robotic, algorithmic and platform design. Google, Microsoft and Apple’s platform capitalism has extended these databases of biological referents into new generations of software, programming and AI.

Multispecies Cat’s Cradle by Nasser Mufti

Multispecies Cat’s Cradle by Nasser Mufti illustrates Haraway’s thinking of
how multispecies kinship and collaboration can produce patterns for inhabitation on an earth in crisis

Credit:Nasser Mufti

Questioning modern obsessions with technologies of human self-improvement, Haraway shows that such logics of progress arrange, dissect and extract bodies into systems of inert property, ownership and commodification. Such design logics are also often at odds with the ethics of architectural responsibility for tackling its own environmental damage. Our human-made crises require architects to develop new animal ‘languages’ which do not just view organic matter and species as resources for extractive design techniques or techno-scientific models of architectural innovation.

Architects and built environment professionals are, of course, familiar with the need to respond to community, public and professional interests. However, while processes of consultation and ‘balancing’ interests are embedded in contemporary design practice, such approaches also require architectural design logics to be defined as neutral scientific evidence. Yet, as our current state of affairs shows so clearly, such value-neutral claims continue to perpetuate structural and historical beliefs in objective knowledge as the most ‘truthful’ and legitimate outcome. Instead, Haraway argues that such unreflexive normative logics are outdated versions of Western knowledge, disembodied from understandings of life which come from embodied and situated experience, which offer more powerful and ethical modes of social and environmental responsibility, to humans and non-humans.

The ‘string figures’ described in Staying with the Trouble by Melanie Boehi

For historian and researcher Melanie Boehi, the ‘string figures’ described in Staying with the Trouble are evoked by string designs in the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town, which trouble the passage of Egyptian Geese and make space for seedlings to flower uneaten

Credit:Melanie Boehi

The inspiring clarity of Haraway’s celebrated theory of ‘situated knowledge’ is therefore perhaps her most powerful gift of thought to contemporary architectural practice and societal enrichment. A rich and poetic vocabulary of ‘positionality’ runs deep in her work throughout her career; from her radical myth of female, material and technological alterity in ‘Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s’ (1985), to her deconstruction of logics of mastery in biological and techno-scientific cultures in Primate Visions (1989) and Modest Witness (1997), or more recently in her critiques of anthropocenic and capitalist climate change in Staying with the Trouble (2016).

Throughout her writings, Haraway speaks for, and listens to, the situated experience of so-called minority communities (those who have been historically excluded from, and exploited by, fossil-dependent techno-freedoms, including women, people of colour, disabled and LGBTQ+ communities): communities who have previously, and still now, live with organic and inorganic worlds. But she also speaks to both the ancient mythical, and the emergent fictional, lives of companion species to come.

Haraway’s ‘Manifesto for Cyborgs’ from 1985 presented the cyborg as a rejection of rigid boundaries between human/animal and human/machine, and was reprinted in Simians, Cyborgs and Women in 1991. Following Primate Visions and Modest Witness, The Companion Species Manifesto was printed in 2003, and Staying with the Trouble in 2016

Again, Haraway’s questioning of supposedly ‘natural’ inherited hierarchies which promote science and technology as uncritical instruments of human consciousness, or which ignore the exclusion of those who do not meet standardised norms of individuation, resonate with current critiques of discrimination in the architectural professions: they are congruent with calls to address structural inequality in pay, or the reliance upon exploitative employment and training cultures. In contrast, Haraway’s thinking is aligned with (and cited by) architectural, urban and landscape practitioners who design for and with ‘situated’ communities. Frequently now also defined as ‘practices of care’, such architectural, urban and envrionmental design positively promotes the enrichment of society and of architecture as a result of different sexual, racial, abled and generational ‘life-worlds’.

‘We are in the timeplace of multispecies and earthly powers which already have stories to tell’

Haraway’s ‘staying with the trouble’ speaks to these concerns; from the past, in the now, and for the future. Using the term ‘chthulucene’, a combination of two Greek words: khthôn for earth or soil, and kainos for times of ‘thick’ ‘beginnings’, ‘rememberings’, ‘of comings, of nurturing’, Haraway describes a ‘timeplace for learning to stay with the trouble of living and dying in response-ability on a damaged earth’. Chthonic life for Haraway is human and critter, odd and kin, ‘oddkin’ (rather than ‘godkin’) filiations, relational and wild. These human and animal worldings are ‘SF’: ‘so far’, ‘science’ and ‘fiction’, ‘speculative’, ‘figural’, ‘tangles’, ‘threads’, ‘patterns’, ‘real and particular places and times’. Our guides are creatures which offer older histories from outside the conventions of modern biological classification; ancient and wise narratives, these earthly and biotic companions embody ‘tentacular’ intelligence of ‘feeling’ and ‘trying’ (after tentare) through which lives and worlds are made. Home is compost-rich soil which nurtures ‘respons-able’ thinking and in which multispecies relations thrive. Haraway warns against the limitations of linear anthropocenic origin and solution narratives, eg, the anthropocene will be solved by replacing the combustion engine with renewable energy markets. Such capitalist and techno-scientific solutions do not ‘stay with the trouble’ as is needed. Haraway argues these are spectres of the ‘capitalocene’ which perpetuates the exceptionalist re-centring of ‘Species Man’, and exploitative logics of technology and governance, which continue to extract from the earth and designate minority communities as cheap labour. Although Haraway’s critique of enlightenment humanism is without question, her writing is rich, warm, and affirmative of possible futures for all. This is Haraway’s time and place of the chthulucene. Other human and animal ‘companion species’ have already existed, are here now, and are possible again in the future. We are not ‘at the end of the story’, in ‘the too late’ or ‘game over’. We are in the timeplace of multispecies and earthly powers which already have stories to tell.

Haraway’s thinking and living with animals and their earth powers is therefore a relational practice: of engagement and intersubjectivity between the human world and the non-human worlds we inhabit. Following Haraway, one’s situatedness in the world – as human, architect, critic, planner, technologist – signals an ethical responsibility to ‘live with’ the human and non-human world as a ‘companion species’.

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