Porkopolis and The Secret Life of Groceries

There’s this ascendent form of writing showing up everywhere from self-improvement books to books about how complicated things are: Start with a story of a person, could be a person from history, could be someone who came to your workshop, could be someone who stands in as the exemplar of a situation too big and complex to get a handle on. Focus on that person’s story to help readers understand the human scale of the enormous forces affecting them and, by extension, us. This form of writing has a long history in political writing, and it’s for sure effective and grippy. We are story-based beings. Because of this, maybe, the stories we tell shape the scope of how we think about what’s possible, what we can do next – and this is one reason I’m inspired by the work of places like The Center for Story-Based Strategy, because they help re-imagine the kinds of stories we can tell. Also, I’m a total sucker for both stories and stories about irreducible, brain-exploding levels of complexity. So these two books, Alex Blanchette’s Porkopolis, and Benjamin Lorr’s The Secret Life of Groceries, were like candy to read. Terrible, terrible, horrifying candy. I feel like, read them? But don’t stop where they stop, because there is a core problem with where they land with the stories they tell.

Both books tell really amazing narratives about our entanglement with and embeddedness in ramifying tangles of the material production of what we consume. Both show that things are waaaaaaaay more complicated than you’d imagined. But both land at the end in a kind of shrug – things are so complicated, so intensely intertwined, so impacted and so overdetermined that we just ¯\_(:( )_/¯ (that’s my edit to make the Shruggie emoji like, sad shruggie).

The Secret Life of Groceries will show you how everything in grocery stores is pretty fucked. Everything we buy comes to us by truck, shipped by truckers who are themselves a profit source that keeps the trucking industry going – trainees who end up paying to drive, experienced drivers losing money year after year, people living in rigs they don’t own. When we look at grocery workers, shrimp production, how new condiments come to market, we find that it’s all, just, impossibly bad. Benjamin Lorr is a beautiful and a clever writer, and this book has a lot of the compelling rhetorical turns that made his previous book (Hellbent, a brilliant reflection on yoga) unputdownable. But in this book his philosophical interventions are less grounded – a lot of the book is about judgement and the space of aesthetics, but he leaves out quite a lot of the politics of collectively determining what is good and beautiful – even in cases, like trucking or grocery working, where he mentions in passing the work of labor organizers.

Porkopolis will show you how everything in factory farming (pigs) is pretty fucked. Everything we touch, from asphalt to the covers of books, to the traces of pig fat in diesel fuel that we breathe in because of the grocery trucks driving on our roads, contains pig remnants. Alex Blanchette is also a beautiful and a clever writer, though in a much more consciously and unashamedly academic mode than Lorr (and with that particular frisson that one comes to expect these days from Duke books, like any one could be the one to coin a new, necessary theoretical term). Blanchette shows how growing pigs under conditions of vertical integration, as in the case of the company he did ethnographic work with, shapes not only the industrial pig but also the human workers needed to tend the pigs, the ecosystems around factory farms, and far-flung webbings of material conditions invisibly tied to the interspecies factory floor. The book is the result of years of careful and hands-on ethnographic work and it is interesting and complicated.

So I’ll read and recommend both of them. But they both end precisely where I wanted them to continue, to say – given this endless entanglement, to echo Eva Haifa Giraud’s also pretty unanswered question, What comes after entanglement?

Blanchette suggests we consider deindustrialization. He says, “For the story I have tried to tell across this book is not one of domination and unmitigated agribusiness power but, instead, one of creative desperation to keep this system afloat. So many processes, from the blood of mares and the taste of cate, to human kinship relations and musculoskeletal systems, are riveted through hogs to create this system of cheap meat. And many more will have to be added in the future to keep it running. Large-scale agribusiness is totalizing because it is so fragile (and fragile because it is so totalizing); it is a story not just of domination but also of desperation in its efforts to cling to shopworn forms of value that no longer seem sustainable” (245).

Here is a long quote from the end of Lorr’s work:

“This is to say, the great lesson of my time with groceries is that we have got the food system we deserve. The adage is all wrong: it’s not that we are what we eat, it’s that we eat the way we are. Retail grocery is a reflection. What people call the supply chain is a long, interconnected network of human beings working on other humans’ behalf. It responds to our actions, not our pieties; and in its current form it demands convenience and efficiency starting from the checkout counter on down. The result in both incredible beyond words – abundance, wish fulfillment, and low price – and as cruel and demeaning as Tun-Lin voluntarily choosing to return to those boats. To me this is a hopeful as it is depressing. We are in dialogue with this world, not at its mercy. We have a natural inclination toward what is right that is as powerful as any selfishness. But for those out there who bristle at this reflection, who want to scream the patently obvious fact that meat is murder, that labor without choice is exploitation, or whatever their own personal horror is, who want to shake the world awake to the fact that we are literally sustaining ourselves on misery, who want to reform, I very much don’t want to dissuade you so much as I want you to consider that any solution will come from outside our food system, so far outside it that thinking about food is only a distraction from the real work to be done. At best, food is an opening, like any maw, that might lead us inside. Somewhere darker, more unknowable, a place where the real work of change may finally begin.” (“Climbing out to Fresh Air”)

The thing is, the place we find ourselves is neither dark nor unknowable – many people, from pigs to shrimp workers, insemination experts, the people harvesting mare’s blood to produce the chemical that causes the sow to ovulate so that she can be inseminated on a schedule, the people driving the shrimp to market, the people sterilizing their boots to keep the pigs alive – know in the clear light of day how bad and wrong things are. And many of them, like the people organizing for the lives of migrant workers, know with great precision where the real work of change needs to begin. It’s not a mystery that we do terrible things to one another and our world, it’s just capitalism and colonialism, buttressed with hefty doses of border militarism and the continual threat of state-sanctioned murder. So I don’t regret reading these books, and I know that part of what’s happening with my response to them is all about the fact that any time I’m working on a book I come to read everything in terms of the work I’m doing – so right now, working on a book about collective organizing as a better response to complex wrongs, of course I’m frustrated at all books that focus on complex wrongs without telling us stories about how people do or might stand in solidarity with one another. More books to read! More books to write!

Water and Ocean

I was glad to have the chance to review Elspeth Probyn’s 2016 book, Eating the Ocean, alongside Astrida Neimanis’s 2017, Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology. This review just came out in Cultural Studies Review, and I’m pasting the text below, too.

I was born in Arapahoe and Ute territory, in the arid foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Growing up, the only oysters I had any practical knowledge of were the battered and fried bull-calf testicles called ‘prairie oysters.’ At fourteen, my family moved to the peninsula of K’jipuktuk, Mi’kma’ki (Nova Scotia), nearly an island. When my dad told me that we would eat nothing but seafood there, I cried. Teenage me would have had so much to learn from Elspeth Probyn and Astrida Neimanis about the entanglement of water with my body in that high desert, varieties of oysters, the feeling of the ocean, and the colonial politics of immigration and thirst! As I write, I’m living in a small town in Dena’ina Athabascan territory, Alaska, that is organised around fishing. The local bumpersticker reads, Homer, AK: A Quaint Drinking Village With A Fishing Problem. Half the people I know here are getting ready to spend the summer commercial fishing for salmon, and most of the rest are getting ready to host tourists who come to town for recreational fishing. The house I’m in has no running water, so we get drinking water from a spigot in town and use it sparingly. Water and the ocean are on my mind here, and increasingly I am convinced that they ought to be on all of our minds.

These books certainly help us turn our attention water-ward. Eating the Ocean is Probyn’s fifth sole-authored book. Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology is Neimanis’s first. Both writers teach at the University of Sydney, both are generous academic interlocutors and editors of other books, both attend to ubiquitous, suffusive, hard-to-grasp subject matter. These books pair beautifully—I can wholeheartedly recommend both, and in particular recommend reading them together. While they complement one another, these texts also stretch their matters of concern and methods in usefully different directions. And both contribute to growing academic interest in the vast parts of our shared world that is smaller or bigger or more complex than a human frame of reference easily perceives—microbiota, plant and forest sensoria, ecosystems, waterways, oceans and other more-than-humanness.

Eating the Ocean begins with a masterful summation of the stakes and openings of taking the ocean as a starting point in understanding the contemporary politics of food. Probyn has been working on iterations of this project for many years. Her 2000 book Carnal Appetites; Foodsexidentities set a direction for cultural studies of food as a useful conceptual technology, as a way ‘in’ to the ethics of eating and being eaten. Eating the Ocean is anchored in the ‘specificity of how, where, and by whom food was produced, and with what effects’. (6) This book takes fish as its lens, asking how a politics of food organised by material entanglements unthinkable from the point of view of terrestrial food production and consumption shifts our understanding of an ethics sufficient to the real complexity of our eating practices.

Probyn situates the question of how to eat the ocean in the broad context of care. She argues for a ‘de-simplified’ ocean—materially, conceptually, affectively—‘if we want to generate care for the ocean and for her inhabitants, we need to work with the deep entanglement that fish, fishers, and ocean have forged over the millennia’. (43) Her first chapter compellingly examines a wide range of ways such care doesn’t happen—imagining that we could go on fishing the ocean as we have been forever, that we can feed the nine billion people soon to be living and dying on the earth using current forms of land-based agriculture, that ‘eating local’ or ‘eating sustainably’ can save us from the complexity of oceanic food politics.

Turning away from simplistic moralism, Probyn turns to ocean critters and their people. Chapter two rhapsodises about oysters—eating them, growing them—as a good site for heightening our felt attention to relatedness with the ocean. Probyn grounds an account of oysters as a keystone species, rooted in their milieu and revelatory of the social relations that constitute their place. One eats an oyster alive, and with it the place it grew, the people who fed it, and the entire context of its production. Probyn’s treatment of this node of relations unfurls the specificity of global capital’s enactment in a small loch in Scotland, where a foreign oyster feeds the livelihoods (and tastes) of people there and abroad. This is a beautiful treatment of a humble but mattering bivalve, attached to its place in the ocean until it is moved into exchange relations and, eventually, cracked open to spill out its particular ‘merrior’; the taste of its being from its place. Probyn shifts from these small filter-feeders to globe-trotting megafauna: southern bluefin tuna. Charismatic, valuable, wild-but-domesticated, bluefin tuna offer a perfect case study in how the fishing industry has transformed in the last forty years. Bluefin tuna have gone from being an abundant pet-food-fish to a super-valuable endangered-species commodity, from the essence of wildness to being sea-farmed in fattening pens. This chapter compellingly argues that we cannot go on organising human–fish relations along the lines of internationally traded quotas for fish at the top of the trophic pyramid held by a select few men.

The fourth chapter tracks back in time to reflect on smaller fish, the herring—notable more for their place in the history of the Atlantic fishery as an abundant schooling fish than for the kind of individual gravitas that bluefin tuna hold—and cod. Looking at the history of women’s place in the fisheries of the past, Probyn deepens her consideration of how gender is entangled in fish–human relations. Alongside interesting ethnographic encounters, this chapter shows how in these fisheries ‘gender is not a thing and certainly not one thing. It is a constant force in bringing into being other worlds, and other ways of being-with.’ (126) I left this part of the book convinced that a gendered approach to fishing, and especially an approach that listened to the insights of women who processed the bounty of the sea, would co-produce an ocean with more possibility for going on. Chapter five returns to a love of the small and the humble, this time oily schooling fish: sardines, anchovies, menhaden. This chapter resists fixed moralising in favour of ‘scalar intricacy and metabolic intimacies’. (130) Prime among its suggestions is the possibility that we could directly eat small fish, instead of rendering them down into fish meal to feed other, larger fish across the globe. Probyn persuasively argues for cultivating new tastes and finer scales of attention.

Probyn is without question complexifying how one might think about eating bivalves or fish, ranging from the tiny to the large, from the ocean. There are several questions that emerge from this fascinating book. The first is, where is the ocean? Probyn repeatedly references integrated marine trophic aquaculture (IMTA) as possibly a better way to eat with the ocean. Cultivated ocean polycultures of this sort are definitely promising, and may have much less harm than fish farming as it has been practiced, which spreads disease and produces what are in effect toxins through over-feeding and medicating farmed fish. But the details matter: some IMTA is in the ocean, some is on land. The ocean is all connected, so IMTA that happens in pens, bays and coves is by necessity not fulfilling its purpose of capturing the waste products of one ocean critter or plant as food for another. Land-based maricultures are more efficient and more fully meet the promise of ITMA, but they carry different problems. Is the ocean in tanks in Chile still the ocean? I would have loved to see Probyn bring similar attention to her suggested solutions that she brings to the complex cases of tuna, oysters and anchovies.

Second, I yearned for Probyn to articulate her ethical stance more. Much of this stance organises itself against the view, which she often characterises as simplistic, that we’ll find an ethical way through the problems the ocean offers us by deciding what we will or won’t eat. As Probyn says in the introduction: ‘I argue strongly against the hubris that passes for a politics of fork waving. The idea that you can resolves such intricate and complicated human-fish relations by voting with your fork is deluded narcissism.’ (10) Part of this point comes down to an unconvincing irritation with veganism. To be clear, I’m convinced by the irritation. I eat vegan and I write about the problems of a politics based on purity at least in part because I have had more arguments than I can count with self-righteous and wrong-headed vegans who think they are not implicated in suffering. I hate PETA’s racist, anti-Indigenous, ableist politics with the heat of a thousand suns. So I share the critique Probyn expresses when she writes: As with the condescending attitude toward those who don’t choose to eat better, increasingly the choice to proclaim oneself vegan often seems to act as an opting out of the structural complexities of food provisioning, production, and consumption. (3) It is of course ridiculous for anyone who eats to think that they are not implicated in complexity—if we refrain from eating megafauna, we are certainly participating in killing bugs; if we think bugs matter because they are alive and avoid death, then shouldn’t we also worry about microbes? If we make an ethical bright line around a nervous system, how should we respond to the good data coming out now that plants know when they are being eaten and try to avoid it? Probyn’s poster-children for wrong-headed, too-simplistic food politics are vegans and it is surely easy to find lots of easy-target cases of activists who think they are solving suffering by putting themselves naked and bloody in a cage and going to a community rib-fest. But what about eaters like me, who look at the complexity and insolvability of the eaten world and draw a line at a place different from ‘small fish good’? Since we can’t opt out of structural complexity, what is the normative advice for where to stand in relation to this?

Confusingly, Probyn both repudiates the politics of what’s on our plate and returns to it. The last sentences of the book seem certainly to say that voting with our fork matters. She writes: The more-than-human, if it is to be meaningful as a perspective, makes us confront again and again the relatedness of all entities. And while some may say that the best way of honoring that relatedness is not to eat fish, as I’ve argued, this is not a solution. I won’t force-feed people sardines or anchovies or oysters – what a waste that would be. But keep in mind the pressures of a growing population; be aware of the state of land-based agriculture; be informed of the advances in sustainable systems such as integrated marine trophic aquaculture; be mindful of the millions who work with the sea. This is why this book focuses on noticing detail, relating stories, histories, environments, and tastes. Try to eat the ocean better. Try to eat with the ocean. (163) This invocation, if it is to have teeth, needs, I think, to move beyond the scope of food politics. This may be an unfair critique of a book about food politics and the question of what humans as the top of earth’s trophic system ought to eat. It may reflect my own obsession with the broader scope of embodiment that makes me think about all the other oceans capitalism is currently ravaging than the eaten oceans, and all the other politics than food politics entangled in those oceans. Many of these concerns pop up in Eating the Ocean without being taken up more sustainedly: microplastics, enslavement and indentured servitude on fishing boats (two ‘smiling Filipinos’ show up in one sentence in chapter 4), ocean acidification, the cesium-134 pouring out of the Fukushima reactor, the islands going underwater as the planet warms, the floating plastic trash gyre in the Pacific, the oil bubbling up from breached undersea drilling platforms, the fence that goes out into the ocean between the United States and Mexico, the desperate migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, the ocean blockade of Palestine, Australia’s off-shore migrant holding facilities, and so on. Thinking about politics with the ocean is so much denser than what we eat from it. How might some of these politics be served by the instruction to try to eat the ocean better? Try to eat with the ocean? It is clear to me that if eating is one of the main things we do with the ocean it is perhaps the least of the things we do to it. I raise these questions here because I can’t think of a thinker I would rather have address them. Every reader of Eating the Ocean will leave it with a felt sense of the impossible complexity that we confront in taking still-necessary actions. Probyn’s invitation to start and start again in meeting that complexity will, I hope, move us all toward unpredictable attentions and actions.

Those who care about what critical theory can offer political work aren’t typically looking for simplification, which is good since Astrida Neimanis’s book doesn’t simplify anything. Where Probyn starts with the oyster-eating human, Neimanis starts with the figuration that we are bodies of water, arguing that the ‘meaningful mattering of our bodies is also an urgent question of worldly survival’. (14) Understanding our bodies as watery implies an understanding of ourselves as part of what Neimanis calls a hydrocommons. Conceiving of our bodies as connected to other bodies of water—lakes, rivers, oceans, other bodies, the beings our bodies host—offers a conception of distributed but intimately significant material connections with political and ethical effects. Neimanis attends throughout the book to how such a figuration can challenge ‘humanist understandings of corporeality: discrete individualism, anthropocentrism, and phallogocentrism’. (16) In quicksilver prose that is technically suited to the task, we are called to reconfigure both our understandings (and perhaps practices) of embodiment as well as our thinking about water—what it is, why it matters, how we should hold it.

Bodies of Water contributes to the phenomenological tradition, aiming to bring phenomenological approaches into conversation with posthuman feminism. This will feel audacious to many readers coming from any of these three directions since phenomenology has so often been understood as happening at the scale of and in reference to the human; posthumanism has quite often been rejected as eliding or ignoring intersectional feminist achievements, and feminisms of various sorts have often been seen as too-committed to thinking about the specificities of gendered experience to participate in phenomenological or posthuman departures from our socially situated embodied being. Neimanis does not shy away from these tensions, instead she weaves them together into a soft toolkit made up of otherwise distinct archives. This aspect of the book will, I believe, productively tempt thinkers attached to their particular oyster bays into tasting the waters and histories of other lineages and trajectories.

The first chapter begins with Adrienne Rich’s work on the politics of location, and especially her provocation for us to think about what it means to be, as she put it, ‘of woman born’. Human milk has for a long time been a significant political symbol in relation to nuclear body-burdens transmitted between parent and child and a way to trace the bio-markers of toxicity that concentrate themselves in milk of all kinds. The transcorporeal embodiments signalled by milk production and consumption reveal how we are ‘caught up in one another’s currents’. (49) In this chapter, I wondered how Neimanis’s account of milky transcorporeality would extend beyond human amphimixic transfer points into thinking about, for example, cow, goat, or sheep milk production. Why is human breast milk the main site for thinking about entangled materialisations and the kind of feminist phenomenology that might help us confront our watery problems? Listening to nursing friends talk about their experience of lactation, I suspect that breast-feeding is one way to access what Neimanis calls ‘experiences that are below or beyond human-scaled perception’; that it offers a kind of phenomenological access to the watery transfer points that are hard to name elsewise. This chapter grapples with the difficulty of offering any sensory apparatus and object of perception as a keystone in descriptions that start from bodies in all their particularity.

The second chapter is in conversation with Luce Irigaray about the possibility of ‘posthuman gestationality’. Attending to Irigaray’s engagement with Nietzsche, Neimanis offers the best attempt I’ve seen to focus on the gestationality without reproducing the sex-fixity that so often comes along with thinking of amniotic fluid. Similarly, she avoids the tradition that reads Irigaray’s work as presupposing heteronormative, binary and essential sexual difference. Neimanis writes that ‘this gestationality need not take the form of a human reprosexaul womb: we may be gestational as love, as neighbor, as accidental stranger’. (79) This is hopeful, and connects with Neimanis’s earlier thinking on the idea of a ‘gestational mileu’. For readers already inclined toward Irigaray and toward thinking about the maternal as a key site for feminist philosophy, this chapter will be a delight. Those not so inclined may find it a stretch to resituate Irigaray and her gestational way of thought. I found myself wishing for more of Neimanis’s own thinking on fluidity, gender and gestation, in order to be convinced about the potential to ‘untie waters from a limited biological/symbolic feminine’. (95) In particular, I wanted to hear more specifics about her conception of ‘transcorporeal interpermeation’ as a kind of gestationality and more practical examples of what she calls an ‘onto-logic of amniotics’ (105) as a way of thinking about membranes, connections, and what we pass on and offer to others.

In the third chapter, Neimanis turns towards the question of significant storytelling about wateriness as a part of our evolutionary unfolding, opening a non-linear, surprisingly exuberant approach to how we come to be connected with water as part of our being. This chapter offers origin stories and ongoingness stories that usefully connect kinship practices with waters. This is a paradigm-shifting accomplishment that helps us think about our being as oceanic wherever we are—and helps us perceive the watery adaptations of many different critters who seem to be landlocked. Aquatic environments, Neimanis shows, on land and off it, infuse and shape beings, and provide a material connection to ‘watery pasts’. (143) The final chapter turns from watery pasts to the watery present and the uneven distribution of watery harms to Indigenous people—toxins, poisons, bad water—in the Canadian context. Here Neimanis attends to renowned Anishnaabekwe Rebecca Belmore’s artistic engagement with water. Neimanis elucidates Belmore’s evocative and politically nuanced work so as to reveal how water can be central to redressing historic and ongoing harms, and how current colonial politics of water materialise the importance of thinking better about water. Neimanis takes up the challenging call for decolonial work in specific contexts, starting from the figuration ‘kwe’. I have lived in unceded Anishinaabe places for years and in that context am familiar with the use of ‘kwe’ as both a modifier that signals ‘Anishinaabe woman’ and as an opening toward broader politics of water, femaleness, femininity and care for the world. In a series of footnotes signalling some trepidation about ‘using “Kwe” to name an orientation to the world that [Belmore’s] work offers’ (211), Neimanis writes that she recognises that her ‘use of this word “Kwe” here is suspect’ but that she wants nonetheless to ‘accept the consequences of taking this risk’. (212) As a white settler woman, immigrant to Canada, reading another white settler woman, immigrant to Australia, Neimanis’s hesitation around this use of ‘kwe’ resonates with me. However, I am less sure about her decision to situate that hesitation in the footnotes to her book, rather than as a central problematic to investigate. Haudenosaunee (Kanienkehaka) scholar Laura Hall has pointed out, for instance, that not all Indigenous women are Anishinaabeg. Métis scholar Zoe Todd, who I am lucky to have as a colleague, has elsewhere argued that the figuration of ‘the Anthropocene’ is itself a flattening concept that evacuates the political responsibility for settlers harming the world, imagining that we’re all in this together. How might the specific histories, ontologies, ways of making sense of the world and ways of being in the world matter to our watery beings? There may be a ‘kwe’ worldview, but there isn’t an Indigenous worldview. Neimanis knows this well. She writes in another footnote that ‘working in the sweaty and impossible space of the cultural interface is necessary despite its inevitable failure’. (212) I agree with her—we settlers inevitably get it wrong but that doesn’t mean that we oughtn’t try to be in relation. Coming to the end of her book, Neimanis writes that the ‘answer will always be a question’ and that the central question might well be ‘What is water?’ (189) I finished this book wondering what it would mean for us settlers to ask that question not taking a ‘kwe’ or other Indigenous worldview, but standing in relation to it carrying all our colonising buckets of history, all the burdens of unjust deaths dealt, all the responsibility for poisoning the waters that we inherit and must meet. What would a settler orientation towards decolonising water politics, ethics and knowing be? I would encourage Neimanis to bring that trepidation out of the footnotes and into the body text of her writing.

Both these books make generative openings for future thinking about watery sites of complicity and implication. I look forward to the continuing conversations they invite.

“Nobody lives everywhere; everybody lives somewhere.”

I am tasked with writing a review of the book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Not feeling able to actually do that, I have written this instead.

This is because of course, it is impossible for me to write a review of anything Donna Haraway writes; it would be like a jellyfish coming to a firm decision about how the ocean tastes, or a bird grading the wind, or a spruce root deciding whether to recommend taking in minerals from ectomycorrhizal fungi. This book is no exception; one wants to just float, just fly, just receive. Not very useful as a way to explain to someone else what they might encounter.

Staying With The Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene is (in contrast) tremendously useful and generous in offering a space for encounter and response to the critters, texts, and conversations it treats. Starting from the understanding that “Nobody lives everywhere; everybody lives somewhere. Nothing is connected to everything; everything is connected to something” (31), Haraway invites us to participate with her in weaving a carrier bag for the kinds of ideas and practices we need now, on this suffering planet, if we earthlings want to survive, nourish each other, or flourish. The book is playful, enticing, challenging; it will irritate most analytic philosophers.

One of the things I love most about this book is its insistence on grounding every theoretical “move” in the world as it unfolds. It is hopeful and generative in part in this refusal to abstract and in this commitment to being in-the-mix. Since I’m not capable of writing a review that honours this mode, I’ll start with the theoretical. One way in is through the title’s three strands, which open a way in to the substance of the book: “staying with the trouble;” “making kin;” and “the Chthulucene.”

The Chthulucene cues this iteration of a career-long attention to the material-semiotic practices necessary for understanding and living as situated beings in a connected world. This stance rejects the individualism and attachment to a certain sort of utilitarianism so commonly refracted through political economics and carves out a conception of relational ethics. Haraway is also literal, here, turning resolutely away from a view from nowhere (the view of the “sky gods”) and thinking in relation to beings who are entangled and interpenetrated with the world – from jellyfish to trees to IT networks to wormy compost to corals. And she is mythic, drawing on the long histories of the tentacular and connective ones – Medusa, Gorgon, Gaia. Calling the era we’re in the Chthulucene, for Haraway, opens a hospitable imperative, a speculation that we could go on with: “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?” Staying with the connected and partial beings of the earth offers a different option:

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 (57).

Placing ourselves in the Chthulucene means being in relation to generative monsters, and it requires us to understand ourselves as vulnerable to the world. Haraway argues that 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 our bumptious kinds, of response.” While our impulse may be to flee this trouble we meet, to resolve it into cleaned-up future, she recommends instead staying with it. “[S]taying 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” (1). One technology for learning this capacity to be present in a perpetually unfinished process is the concept of sympoiesis.

Haraway is resolute, in this book as elsewhere, in tracing for her readers the threads of conversations that have brought her to the matters of concern she offers to our shared regard. It is sad how striking it is to find a knowledge worker of her stature citing graduate students and intellectuals in the precariate. Here, she connects this term to M Beth Dempster’s 1998 MA thesis. (I think that Dempster is now a wilderness guide and intellectual in Victoria BC, something I wish I’d known when I was there recently). Haraway quotes Dempster’s framing of the concept as naming “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” (61). Haraway says:

Sympoiesis is a simple word; it means “making-with.” Nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoietic or self-organizing. In the orders of the Inupiat computer “world game,” earthlings are never alone. 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. (58)

Starting from sympoiesis also keeps us in the trouble, which is to say, cues our capacity to respond in ethical and political ways to living and dying in the context of sympoiesis. And not every sympoiesis is friendly! Haraway tells knotted stories of the production and consumption of the (synthetic) estrogen diethylstilbesterol (DES) and (extracted from pregnant mares’ urine) Premarin. Each has terrible human and non-human bodily effects; each is useful in certain ways, for certain things; each ties beings together. As Haraway says:

There is no innocence in these kin stories, and the accountabilities are extensive and permanently unfinished. Indeed, responsibility in and for the worldings in play in these stories requires the cultivation of vital response-abilities, carrying meanings and materials across kinds in order to infect processes and practices that might yet ignite epidemics of multispecies recuperation and maybe even flourishing on terra in ordinary times and places. Call that utopia; call that inhabiting the despised places; call that touch; call that the rapidly mutating virus of hope, or the less rapidly changing commitment to staying with the trouble. My slogan from the 1980s, “Cyborgs for Earthly Survival,” still resonates, in a cacophony of sounds and fury emanating from a very big litter whelped in shared but nonmimetic suffering and issuing in movements for flourishing yet to come (114).

The details and the differences matter to this understanding of staying with the trouble, Haraway argues. It is through attending to them that we might begin to find how we are situated in relation to the world that we touch, and how much capacity we have for response. She writes:

The details matter. The details link actual beings to actual response-abilities…Each time a story helps me remember what I thought I knew, or introduces me to new knowledge, a muscle critical for caring about flourishing gets some aerobic exercise. Such exercise enhances collective thinking and movement in complexity. Each time I trace a tangle and add a few threads that at first seemed whimsical but turned out to be essential to the fabric, I get a bit straighter that staying with the trouble of complex worlding is the name of the game of living and dying well together on terra, in Terrapolis. We are all responsible to and for shaping conditions for multispecies flourishing in the face of terrible histories, and sometimes joyful histories too, but we are not all response-able in the same ways. The differences matter — in ecologies, economies, species, lives (29).

Telling stories of sympoiesis, even and maybe especially when they are unfinishable and without a simple moral teleology, might strengthen our understandings of relational responsibilities arising from our co-constitution.

Doing justice to such responsibilities is one part of what Haraway calls “making kin.” Kin here means something “other/more than entities tied by ancestry or genealogy” (102-3).

Kin making is making persons, not necessarily as individuals or as humans. …I think that the stretch and recomposition of kin are allowed by the fact that all earthlings are kin in the deepest sense, and its 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.” (103)

This move queers how we might think about and practice making kin; it is no longer at all about fruitful heterosexual pair bonds producing babies. As she argues: “Queer here means not committed to reproduction of kind and having bumptious relations with futurities” (105). In the context of our impending destruction of much of the planet, Haraway’s suggested slogan provokes: Make kin, not babies!

If lineal and genetic descent is no longer the arbiter of who we are responsible towards, we are called to make decisions. “Who lives and who dies, and how, in this kinship rather than that one? What shape is 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?” (2)

Haraway ends the book with a set of SF stories imagining this sort of kinship and response – Communities of Compost and Children of Compost in a decomposing and recomposing future. It is too complex and delightful for me to summarize; I recommend it to you.

Topically, Staying With The Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucenemoves from the air, to the earth, to the sea. It offers speculative fabulation, string figures, significant fictions, science fact. Chapter 1 departs with pigeons – carrier pigeons, working pigeons, racing birds, and pigeons participating in art projects connecting to air quality testing. Chapter 2 offers a critique of bounded individualism, grounded in an invocation of those mythic tentacular ones less-mythic spiders and octopi. The third chapter is long and dense, and perhaps my favourite; it looks at how people, critters, and worlds enact sympoiesis in the context of Navajo and Hopi land struggles and sheep, lemur habitat work in Madagascar, arctic Iñupiat world-games, and much more. Unsurprisingly, complex and non-reducible Indigenous ongoingness is the main event in this chapter. Chapter five analyses the complexities of urine mentioned above, enfolding horse workers in the production of Big Pharma’s profits alongside DES health activism and much more. Chapter 6 beautifully weaves together Ursula Le Guin’s fiction with ecological evolutionary biology in a net bag holding capacious stories from acacia seeds to ants to the language of lichens and rocks. And the last two chapters lift up the work and approach of Vinciane Despret, with a direct discussion of what makes her work so generative and also through the example of the book’s conclusion, “The Camille Stories: Children of Compost” (which, again, please go read).

As Haraway says, ending her introduction, “Lots of trouble, lots of kin to be going on with” (8).

Grappling with the trouble & in the wake

In March, we took the ferry from Bellingham, Washington, to Haines, Alaska. Getting to Haines was the last link in a chain of intense, nourishing, lovely time with friends – a wonderful and a sad thing about this driving trip that we’ve been on from Ottawa looping around the continent is seeing the distribution of friends across the continent. Wonderful to see people, tragic to only have hours with people it would be nice to live near for years. The friends we stayed with in Bellingham talked about the ferry ride as being like a spaceship from the continental US to Alaska, and it is like that – a strange capsule that was supposed to retire twenty years ago but is still doing this long run up the coast, domestic animals unhappily in the hold with the cars, people in various stages of boredom in the main decks. Because it was early March, it was still very wintry and most of the people on the boat were not tourists – they were moving to Alaska, or going home, or going to visit people. I wondered how many of them were taking the ferry because they needed to have a car and had DUIs barring them from driving through Canada.

It was cold on the deck of the ferry, and there was no internet, and so I sat in the observation lounge mostly and book-glutted myself, reading one a day. I read Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, and Eli Clare’s Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling With Cure, and Donna Haraway’s Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. This was tremendously nourishing time; I felt as though I was growing new dendrites and new heart muscles. I spent a lot of time staring out the window, watching the water and the snow and the mountains pass by and trying to open myself to insights that felt – feel – beyond the near edge of my capacity to grasp them. I know that all of them will continue to feel that way for me for a long while. I’m on sabbatical right now, and just starting to come out of a kind of long tiredness at the end of nine years of teaching full time capped by writing a book while also trying to do a separate research project. I spent the early part of the winter as a research associate at UCSC, which mostly meant that I had an excuse to hang around and listen to smart people talk about things, and also that I spent a lot of time driving between Berkeley, where I was mostly living, and Santa Cruz, in heavy rain. It’s been a drought in California roughly since I left after grad school, and this winter was the rainiest it’s been in years. The soil was unused to taking in water, couldn’t do it quickly, and there kept being mudslides and floods. I felt a bit like northern California after years of drought, reading these books.

They each feel almost overwhelmingly generous, complex, unstinting, clear-eyed, warm, unflinching. They follow things through to their ends and don’t take excuses, but they are also somehow very forgiving and they hold space for fucking up and still carrying on. They are each intimate, personal books that are somehow not at all self-involved. This isn’t a book review, but there is something I want to say about reading these three books together.

Sharpe’s book starts with deaths, close family members dying in quick succession (sitting at a wake); it begins with racism, institutional racism and slavery and forced movement (the wake of a slave ship); it begins with consciousness, and getting woke. It approaches the “unfinished project of emancipation” (5). Sharpe says

In this work, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, I want to think “the wake” as a problem of and for thought. I want to think “care” as a problem for thought. I want to think care in the wake as a problem for thinking and of and for Black non/being in the world. Put another way, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being is a work that insists and performs that thinking needs care (“all thought is Black thought”) and that thinking and care need to stay in the wake. (5)

This idea that all thought is Black thought is a reference to Jared Sexton refracting Lewis Gordon’s provocation about what good critical thought might be.

Sharpe says

I’ve been trying to articulate a method of encountering a past that is not past. A method along the lines of a sitting with, a gathering, and a tracking of phenomena that disproportionately and devastatingly affect Black peoples any and everywhere we are. I’ve been thinking of this gathering, this collecting and reading toward a new analytic, as the wake and wake work, and I am interested in plotting, mapping, and collecting the archives of the everyday of Black immanent and imminent death, and in tracking the ways we resist, rupture, and disrupt that immanence and imminence aesthetically and materially. (13)

Recognizing that gathering and archiving, viewing and witnessing, that repeating the “quotidian and extraordinary cruel and unusual violences enacted on Black people” (116-117) doesn’t slow the violence down, doesn’t stop it, what can be enacted otherwise? “Such repetitions often work to solidify and make continuous the colonial project of violence. With that knowledge in mind, what kinds of ethical viewings and reading practices must we employ, now, in the face of these onslaughts? What might practices of Black annotation and Black redaction offer?” (117)

This book made me think about so many things. The most self-involved is related to my current scholarly obsession, which is about the specificity of the production of whiteness in a context of white supremacism: that specificity is the co-production of the material specificities of many forms of racialization. Critical whiteness theory requires reckoning with histories & presences of attempted Indigenous genocide, anti-Blackness and the inheritances of chattel slavery, and the continuing death-drive of forced migration, all entangled with the productions of disability, sexuality, and capitalism.

I haven’t said anything about its substantive, its substance, which includes poetic method, grief work, witnessing, critical film readings, cultural analysis, political economic readings of supposedly humanitarian interventions, and much more. It is a model and a provocation for what it means to care, in the midst of harm and risk.

Care so often articulates with cure, but Sharpe is not looking for a cure for the past that is not past. She is certainly thinking toward what it would mean to transform the harm of that past and this present. Eli Clare works through some of this in his long-awaited meditation on the politics of cure. He says:

As an ideology seeped into every corner of white Western thought and culture, cure rides on the back of normal and abnormal. Insidious and pervasive, it impacts most of us. In response, we need neither a whole-hearted acceptance nor an outright rejection of cure, but rather a broad-based grappling. (14)

“Cure” is at the centre of a whole lot of what’s wrong and murderous about conventional approaches to disability. Clare’s book – like Sharpe’s – examines the police murders of Black people, looking at how that violence is entangled with ableism, fortifying “white supremacy by leveraging ableism” (25). Grappling with various desires for cure calls on us to confront the ways that “as a widespread ideology centered on eradication, cure always operates in relationship to violence” (28). As Clare unfolds it, recognizing this relationship doesn’t mean that we never pursue cure, that we never aim for less pain in our daily life – it means that we grapple with what’s really involved, refusing the route that reprises the narrative that disability is always bad and must be done away with.

Clare lucidly addresses what it means to oppose environmental destruction without leveraging disability-hating tropes. He asks, “[H]ow do we witness, name, and resist the injustices that reshape and damage all kinds of body-minds — plant and animal, organic and inorganic, nonhuman and human — while not equating disability with injustice?” (56). This is such a good question, one I want all of us thinking about so much more.

I was especially captivated by Clare’s depiction of “the trouble”. He writes:

“cure always revolves around the perception of a disease, infection, virus, chronic illness, dysfunction, disorder, defect, abnormality, or body-mind difference. For now, let me name this pivot “the trouble.”

At its most fundamental, the ideology of cure aims to eliminate the trouble from either a single body-mind or the world at large. This eradication can be as present-day and individual as removing an infected appendix or as future-focused and collective as research targeted at ending breast cancer. The goal is to ultimately ensure that the trouble no longer exists as if it had never existed in the first place. (70)

“The trouble” individualizes social relations, encourages us to take up the imperative to cure, to transform, to fix ourselves. And just as the medical-industrial complex can give us, sometimes, “comfort and connection” (183) – we can’t simply reject the trouble that “cure” brings us. We can say “no” to many, many of the worlds cure holds out for us, boxes us into. Always, I love Eli Clare’s evocation of worlds-to-come:

I catch glimpses of a world where many kinds of body-mind difference will be valued and no one eradicated; where comfort, pain, well-being, birth, and death all exist. Cure promises us so much, but it will never give us justice. In this world reconfigured, cure may not exist, but if it does, it will be only one tool among many. In this world, our body-mind desires will spread through us, as vibrant and varied as a tallgrass prairie in midsummer. (184)

Clare’s pivot of “the trouble” pivots again into Haraway’s book Staying With the Trouble. I’m supposed to be writing a book review of this book right now, clearly an impossible task, and all I’ve been able to do is think about its refraction patterns among these three books together. The book begins:

Trouble is an interesting word. It derives from a thirteenth-century French verb meaning “to stir up,” to make cloudy,” “to disturb.” We – 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 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 a necessary resurgence. The task is to make kin in lines of inventive connection as a practice of learning to live and die will 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, or 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. (1)

…and I should go write that actual book review that is due soon.

The problem with loving whiteness

This was later published as part of a section in Philosophy Today on the book

The problem with loving whiteness

SPEP, October 2015, response to S. Sullivan’s Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism

Shannon Sullivan’s work on racialization and habits, and on relationality and transaction, was important to my philosophical formation. It has been generative and useful for me to engage and think through this book, particularly as it works through issues and problems that have occupied me for years now. Shannon was also a reader on my first book when it was under evaluation at the press and (to my eternal gratitude) recommended publication. In part, I mention this because it is instructive to remember the hard and unrewarded work that established scholars do for unknown junior writers, and the incredible generosity of that work. In part, it is remarkable because then, as now, Shannon and I differ on some key things about race, racism, and how to dismantle racial oppression; I want to lift up her capacity to promote and value work that she disagrees with.

I attempt here to offer some constructive disagreement in this spirit on matters of mutual care and concern: in general, the abolition of white supremacy and in particular white people’s potential contribution for racial justice movements. I see the general purpose of Author-Meets-Critics sessions as either to explain to audiences who have not encountered a new book what’s in it so that they might engage or to directly engage the arguments and issues the book raises in the context of a collective conversation. Since Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism has already been widely read and reviewed, in this response I take the second approach. I focus here on the key question of whether it is appropriate to love whiteness. Along the way I worry on some side questions of Good White People‘s orientation toward middle-class liberals, approach to history, the politics of citation, and a focus on a Black/white binary in continental United States.

Sullivan begins the book by quoting a critic I hadn’t heard of before reading this book, Lerone Bennett, who wrote “The white liberal and the white supremacist share the same root postulates. They are different in degree, not kind” (Sullivan 2014, 1). Sullivan says that she is “addressing the bulk of white people in the post-Jim Crow United States and other similar white-dominated nations who consider themselves to be non- or anti-racist. These are the white liberals of which Lerone Bennett speaks, the ‘good’ white people whose goodness is marked by their difference from the ‘bad’ white people who are considered responsible for any lingering racism in a progressive, liberal society” (3). I agree absolutely with the view that white liberals are not going to bring about revolutionary transformation in the racial order of this world. But precisely for this reason, I am not sure that the white liberal is the correct subject through which we should to organize our thinking about race; I would like to hear more about why the white liberal is an appropriate organizing figure for thinking about anti-racist struggle.

Further, I am curious about the category of similar white-dominated nations; although I have only deeply engaged racial politics in two nation states, “Canada” and the “US,” it is clear to me that while there are certain commonalities in the way race is lived and governed there are also vital differences. Perhaps the most striking is the difference between an assumed Black/white binary grounded in historical chattel slavery as the central logic for thinking about race, common in US race thinking, versus an overt formation in Canada (and other places) that centers far more on indigeneity, borders, migration, and the management of multiple racialized others. Working through these differences has convinced me of the necessity of understanding and thinking about whiteness as operative outside the US American context, beyond a black-white binary, and in a way that accounts for the founding and ongoing violences of capitalism and colonialism. While chattel slavery has informed many parts of the world, and while anti-Black racism has been necessary to the ways slavery was organized and manifests in contemporary racism, I would love to hear more explanation for this book’s tight focus on the US and on Black/white racial dynamics.

Whiteness, in my view, operates in complex and shifting ways anywhere racialization is happening, and so perhaps it’s a good place to start in thinking about the question of whether we ought to love whiteness. In this book, Sullivan does not spend a lot of time defining whiteness. When she does, it is in expansive ways that raise the question of what it means to love whiteness so defined. She argues that there is “something to being white that being Irish or Italian alone does not capture, and that something is a pattern of domination, exploitation, and oppression” (Sullivan 2014, 16). This understanding of whiteness as collective –as constituted by domination, exploitation, and oppression – reminds us that whiteness not something, on Sullivan’s view, that we individually control the effects or the meaning of. For example, she says: “Whiteness is not a club in which a white person can just decide to drop her membership. Whether a white person likes it or not, at this moment in history she is white and she is implicated in the effects of whiteness. How she takes up and lives her complicity in white domination will help determine the quality of her contributions to racial justice movements” (Sullivan 2014, 12). I agree with Sullivan in these characterizations of what defines whiteness.

But she narrows her definition of white supremacy in a way that is curiously out of line with this definition of whiteness. She gives as her reason for this that she is following the 1964 book by Lerone Bennett, writing before much of the rich discussion and argument about how we ought to define white supremacy. As she notes in a parenthetical remark,

(While some contemporary scholars have reappropriated the term white supremacy to refer to systematic racial oppression and privilege, I will continue to use it, as Bennett does, to refer to overt white racism. I accordingly will us white privilege to refer to the seemingly invisible, often unconscious forms of white racism that pervade the United States’ post-Jim Crow era, and white domination and white racism as general terms covering both white supremacy and white privilege) (Sullivan 2014, 4).

Defining racism and white supremacy this way narrows them significantly, making them in effect only overt, conscious, articulated and avowed racist acts and statements. Given Sullivan’s work to argue for the inarticulate, implicit, and habit-based nature of racism, this is surprising. It is not exaggerating to say that the state of the art in whiteness studies, and perhaps indeed in critical race theory, these days understands white supremacy to name the webbing of social relations, institutions, implicit racial understandings, and explicit and implicit personal investments that hold up and stabilize the current organization of racial oppression. Of course, all of these are underlined every time a cop kills a Black person, every time a KKK member burns a cross, every time a teacher says that the white kids are smarter than the kids of color. But white supremacy is much broader, deeper, and more insidious than the Klan, or than overt and obvious expressions of white racism.

The essay (“Tea and Sympathy”) by Bennett that Sullivan cites as what she’s following in thinking of white supremacy as referring to overt white racism, is a hagiographic paean to white abolitionist John Brown, literally comparing him to Jesus. Most people probably know this, but in case: Brown believed himself to embody the wrath of God against the sin of slavery, and advocated for and practiced armed insurrection;[1] he led several raids, killing slave-holders, and was in the end captured in an attempt to take the Federal Armory at Harper’s Ferry. That raid, and Brown’s subsequent execution, escalated tensions and – it is widely agreed – helped precipitate the Civil War. Bennett says he “was of no color, John Brown, of no race or age.  He was pure passion, pure transcendence.  He was an elemental force like the wind, rain and fire.” Bennett continues:

There was in John Brown a complete identification with the oppressed.  It was his child that a slaveowner was selling; his sister who was being whipped in the field; his wife who was being raped in the gin house.  It was not happening to Negroes; it was happening to him.  Thus it was said that he could not bear to hear the word slave spoken.  At the sound of the word, his body vibrated like the strings of a sensitive violin.  John Brown was a Negro, and it was in this aspect that he suffered.

More than Frederick Douglass, more than any other Negro leader, John Brown suffered with the slave.  “His zeal in the cause of freedom,” Frederick Douglass said, “was infinitely superior to mine.  Mine was as the taper light; his was as the burning sun.  Mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the silent shores of eternity.  I could speak for the slave; John Brown could fight for the slave.  I could live for the slave; John Brown could die for the slave.”

John Brown, fierce terrorist in pursuit of abolition, the religious white man who brought down war on individual slavers, who felt himself biblically called because of his position as a beneficiary of whiteness to dismantle chattel slavery, did not identify as Black. But surely this litany is a kind of white liberal dream – to have Frederick Douglass say that your zeal is infinitely superior to his? – to be framed as actually becoming Black. If Brown is Bennett’s model of the white non-liberal, and he is, and Sullivan is taking Bennett’s account as one ground for what it is to reject white liberalism, and she is, I worry about what models are open to us if we try to avoid being the “good white people” Sullivan argues against – white liberals who dump on white trash, preach colorblindness, abjure our white ancestors, and feel bad all the time and in all the wrong ways.

For sure, John Brown was not a good white liberal; he offered more than the tea and sympathy referenced in Bennett’s essay. But Sullivan does not explicate the implications of this citation. More than a critique of the white liberal, Bennett’s essay is an invocation to behave otherwise; to be like John Brown. But I do not think that Sullivan would go along with the presumption that we become no longer white through taking direct action against racist institutions and practices, nor, perhaps, with the injunction to take up arms against racism. And it seems to me that there is significant scope between nervous white liberals, always trying to show that someone else is bad and that we are good, and setting up armed raids on the overt expressions of racism such as chattel slavery. While I do see armed collective uprisings, of the form of John Brown’s, or the Black Panthers’, as transformative of the racial order, they certainly don’t organize themselves around loving whiteness. So let me turn then to the central argument of the book: that white people should love our whiteness.

Sullivan writes:

Love can be thought of as an affect that binds a person to that which she loves, and in that way love can counter the distancing tendencies that many good white people have toward their whiteness. I will argue that rather than try to create distance between themselves and their racial identity, white people need a closer, more intimate relationship with it if they are going to be effective in racial justice movements. Rather than try to flee their whiteness, white people need to embrace it more tightly. Rather than despise their whiteness, white people need to learn to love it (9).

Reading this quote – and this happened for me often in reading this book– gives me some conceptual whiplash; I agree, and agree, and then really really disagree. So: definitely, we white people need to not disavow our whiteness if we want to be of any use at all in fighting racial oppression – Sullivan’s arguments about the wrongs of trashing working-class white people are spot-on, as is her analysis of why we oughtn’t pursue supposed “color-blindness,” entirely aside from its ableist connotations.

But there is a difference that makes a difference between not distancing ourselves from our racialization as white and loving whiteness. There is a difference, that is, between binding ourselves as white people to the work of fighting racial oppression and binding ourselves to whiteness. My friend Clare Bayard is one of the founders of the Catalyst Project, an organization doing political education with white people aimed at building multiracial movements for collective liberation. Bayard commented to me about the above quote: “You don’t have to love whiteness (on what basis would that even make sense?) to love people who are racialized as white.” This is basically my response to Sullivan’s argument, and I could actually stop here. Being an academic, though, I’ll elaborate. Recalling Sullivan’s own definition of whiteness as a pattern of domination, exploitation, and oppression, I do not find it worthy of my love. I remain, though, fiercely committed to white people, both as potential agents of change and as in themselves.

Sullivan’s argument for why we white people should learn to love whiteness has two parts. She gives first a critique of the role of negative affect in theory and practice and then an articulation of the uses of critical love.

Sullivan argues that negative affect, in general, impoverishes and enervates us (134), and robs a person of the “vitality and energy it will take to make a sustained kind of change in herself or the world. The experience of a shrunken self doesn’t motivate beneficial action. It kills it” (135). Understanding affect as transactional and contagious (123), Sullivan sees affects that bring us down as a collective problem. She argues especially against the affects of white guilt, white shame, and white race traitor identification. Sullivan:

As I will argue, white people qua white are ill in that their racial habits largely have been built out of negative affects such as greed, hatred, jealousy, fear, destructive anger, and cruelty. Their psychosomatic health has suffered and continues to suffer because of their toxic racial identities built out of their affects and emotions. Their effect is to exhaust or diminish white people’s spiritual energies, leaving them weak and powerless, like a plant that is too sickly to put out new shoots and effectively begins to die. This sickliness would seem to make white people innocuous, but the result tends to be the exact opposite. As we will see especially in the case of shame, people constituted by negative affects tend to be too psychosomatically depleted to do much that is active and yet extremely dangerous because they resents [sic] others’ liveliness and health and so try to destroy them (121).

A bit later, she argues “Cultivating the negative affect of shame on the part of white people – perhaps especially because they tend to be positioned at the top of racial/social hierarchies – is misguided because it will tend to produce destructively angry white people who have malevolent intentions toward people of color and who will act with hostility toward them (as well as toward themselves)”(136). So: On this account negative affect harms white people, simultaneously weakening and strengthening us; shame is particularly worrying.

This is the one place I want to respond directly to the critique of my work, because Sullivan correctly cites me as a proponent of white shame. She misrecognizes a key piece of my argument, though: I (and others) do not recommend shame as a thing to cultivate – rather, when it arises, I recommend not trying to flee it or tamp it down, but rather to recognize that it’s an appropriate thing to feel bad about how the world, perhaps without our consent but to our benefit, harms others. The only way that a fruitful kind of negative affect arises, I argue, is in circumstances of solidarity work – and, as I say in my book, negative affect doesn’t all by itself motivate action. I believe that others who embrace the potential for shame, in particular, are likewise understanding it politically and in the context of collective action for changed worlds. So, if you follow the kind of account I give some of the key dangers Sullivan identifies in negative affect are transmuted. They move from immobilization to movement, from a desire for purity and clearness into an understanding of the necessity of imperfection and impurity as a ground for action. As I and others have argued, and based our practice around, avoiding negative affect generates more harm than it solves. Psychoanalytically, we could say that the inability to work through the inheritances that have come to us without saying and that go without saying but that we still experience intensifies their disavowed effects on our affects. This is the danger of refusing to meet, with care and compassion, how bad we feel about how bad things really, really are. That we experience shame about the effects of racialization is not necessarily the problem; how we respond to that experience is, in general, a problem. That so many of us white people have no way to hold and work through our experience of benefiting in extraordinary and ordinary ways from the immiseration and harm done to people of color in this world makes that problem harder to work with.

Sullivan’s arguments against shame are grounded in her reading of some key psychologists – ironically for Good White People’s project, many of whom actively recommend cultivating guilt instead of shame, which she also rejects. It is vital to remember that these psychologists are not political, or thinking politically about affect. Their work focuses on helping individuals, as so much clinical psychological practice does; it is not sociological or philosophical, and it definitely does not express sharp critical race theory. And from my reading of them, they do not have rich ways to approach the political and collective content and context of the affects they attempt to investigate. I believe their limitations are in part grounded in methodology – how it’s possible to study things within their discipline – but also it is a theoretical and political inheritance – what it’s possible to study within their discipline. Given Sullivan’s commitments to Laplanche in other parts of the book, I wonder here about her citational reliance on conventional psychology.

Again: the content and context of political affects matter. Take for example Sullivan’s discussion of white treason as exemplified by Mab Segrest’s important Memoir of a Race Traitor. Sullivan writes:

Challenging dominant ideas of whiteness does not have to be interpreted or experienced as an act of treason (which is not to say that Klan members won’t still see it that way). A more satisfactory solution to Segrest’s dilemma about how to love her racist family and fight against racism is for feminists, critical philosophers of race, and other white allies to set aside the notion of betrayal as the primary motivation for work against white domination and as the main component of a white identity grounded in racial justice (144-5).

But I disagree that Segrest sees herself as in a dilemma, nor does she see betrayal as her primary motivation for the work she does; she says “It’s not my people, it’s the idea of race I am betraying. It’s taken me a while to get the distinction” (Segrest 4). And, later: “There is a truth I am desperate to make you understand: race is not the same as family. In fact, ‘race’ betrays family, if family does not betray ‘race’” (102). When she investigates her family’s complicity in and active support for racial oppression, she frames herself as choosing, in her words “justice? community? humanity? the glimpse that we are all one organism…? After all these pages, the language for it escapes me still. But it calls me forward, and I come, with a clearer courage to change the things that we can change” (174, italics in original). Ultimately, Sullivan reframes what Segrest embraces as betrayal as instead a form of critical love. It is not clear to me that this reframing is necessary; on my reading, betraying race is, for Segrest, choosing that ineffable call toward a different world – betrayal of this sort already is a kind of love. In her chapter “On Being White and Other Lies: A History of Racism in the United States,” Segrest quotes James Baldwin, speaking in the film The Price of the Ticket: “As long as you think you’re white, there’s no hope for you.” She says “it is only through acquiring a consciousness of racist consciousness (a necessary corollary to anti-racist practice) that we as white people will ever have any other community than the community of the lie” (226). Again: It matters what and how we betray; context and content matter.

So, finally, let me look more closely at the content and context of how Sullivan argues we ought to love whiteness. She does not shy away from addressing possible reductios, particularly in her arguments that we should “understand and respect” instead of “condemn and resent” white slaveholding ancestors (82). The chapter on white slaveholding ancestors constellates Sullivan’s paradigmatic focus on the founding narrative of Black/white binaries as the central racial question, focusing as well on individual and overt white racism in ways consonant with her narrow definition of white supremacism. She argues:

For people concerned about racial justice to unilaterally exclude white supremacists – and I’m thinking here of middle-class white people in particular – is for them to reenact the dehumanizing and destructive marginalization that white supremacists inflict upon people of color. It is to engage in a repetition compulsion that suggests our society has only scarcely begun to deal with its traumatic history of racism and white domination. That history is not past, and one of its current manifestations is white middle-class abjection of white supremacists and other white people (46).

I agree that history is not past, that it matters very much whether and how we beneficiaries of racial oppression hold and respond to traumatic histories, and that we have scarcely begun that process. And when someone like Dylann Roof aimed to ignite a race war when he killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June, we perhaps do see an example of a racist repetition compulsion that perpetuates trauma and violence. But I would contest the claim that to “unilaterally exclude white supremacists” is “to reenact the dehumanizing and destructive marginalization that white supremacists inflict upon people of color.” White supremacism in its expanded sense – not limited to the Dylann Roofs and George Zimmermans of the world – is far more destructive to people of color than any white anti-racist exclusion of white supremacists.

When Sullivan advocates for loving whiteness and white supremacists, she seems to reach to find something salvageable in their thinking. Relying on the Southern historians Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese, Sullivan argues that white slaveholders are lovable because they expressed care for the white working class in the North.

Operating with mixed motives and often despicable intentions, white slaveholders nonetheless insisted that the needs of the white working classes be taken into consideration by those who governed a society. The propertied class of white people should not dismiss the interests of pooper whites, who were forced to sell the only thing they owned, their labor. The personal subsistence and security of all members of a society, including the non-laboring young, elderly, and ill, should be its first priority, and only then should it aim for material progress and economic profit. (81)

Another side note on citation practice: Fox-Genovese and Genovese are much more controversial within the discipline of history than would be evident through a quick reading of Good White People; they have done extensive work in pre-Civil War history that is frequently understood in the field as quite conservative, religious (and therefore imputed to be somewhat on-side with a Biblical reading, which they cite, that held that socialism was wrong but slavery sanctioned), and unsympathetic to shifts in the field toward a “history from below” approach that focuses on voices other than Great Men.

Sullivan cites as well George Fitzhugh in support of this claim that white supremacists in the antebellum era supported slavery because they saw it as the best way to create a good human society. Indeed, Fitzhugh does assert this. He writes:

At the slaveholding South all is peace, quiet, plenty and contentment. We have no mobs, no trades unions, no strikes for higher wages, no armed resistance to the law, but little jealousy of the rich by the poor. We have but few in our jails, and fewer in our poor houses. We produce enough of the comforts and necessaries of life for a population three or four times as numerous as ours. We are wholly exempt from the torrent of pauperism, crime, agrarianism, and infidelity which Europe is pouring from her jails and alms houses on the already crowded North. Population increases slowly, wealth rapidly.

It is this vision of a flourishing South which Fitzhugh contrasts to the depredations of capitalism in the non-slaveholding North, and it is this that he asserts (as Sullivan discusses) is worth defending against the individualizing and monetizing imperative of wage labor. (Roof says a similar thing. His manifesto quotes the film Hizaki: “Even if my life is worth less than a speck of dirt, I want to use it for the good of society.”)

If we take Fitzhugh seriously in these words, I believe we must take him seriously in his other statements about enslaved Black people. In the same document Sullivan quotes about his care for the wage laborer, Fitzhugh argues about the enslaved:

He is but a grown up child, and must be governed as a child, not as a lunatic or criminal. The master occupies towards him the place of parent or guardian…The negro is improvident; will not lay up in summer for the wants of winter; will not accumulate in youth for the exigencies of age. He would become an insufferable burden to society. Society has the right to prevent this, and can only do so by subjecting him to domestic slavery…We presume the maddest abolitionist does not think the negro’s providence of habits and money-making capacity at all to compare to those of the whites. This defect of character would alone justify enslaving him, if he is to remain here. In Africa or the West Indies, he would become idolatrous, savage and cannibal, or be devoured by savages and cannibals. At the North he would freeze or starve.

I believe that slaveowners, white and otherwise, were not simply enthralled by their own rhetoric – or at least that some of the more vomit-worth claims Fitzhugh makes were quite clearly false to people of the time. Consider his claim, that:

The negro slaves of the South are the happiest, and, in some sense, the freest people in the world. The children and the aged and infirm work not at all, and yet have all the comforts and necessaries of life provided for them. They enjoy liberty, because they are oppressed neither by care nor labor. The women do little hard work, and are protected from the despotism of their husbands by their masters. The negro men and stout boys work, on the average, in good weather, not more than nine hours a day. The balance of their time is spent in perfect abandon.

Slaveholders were frequently acting as they did and advocating as they did out of a clear-eyed, though perhaps ideologically inflected, commitment to wealth, alongside a particular reading of the Bible. Racists today have some of the same characteristics. So if we’re going to have a class analysis of white supremacy, let’s be thoroughgoing in our materialist analysis of history. Whiteness has in fact been a site for cross-class racist solidarity, explicitly deployed to break the cross-racial radical class solidarity that has repeatedly threatened capitalist and owning-class interests. I cannot love Fitzhugh’s white supremacist views or actions, just as I cannot love Dylann Roof’s white supremacist views or actions. Whiteness, qua pattern of domination, exploitation, and oppression, does not deserve our love. White people, on the other hand, certainly deserve all the critical love Sullivan invokes.

When Sullivan talks about the kind of love she advocates – at least when she is not referencing putatively redemptive views of white slaveholding ancestors – she herself articulates the complexity, mixed-ness, hard-feeling, and hard work associated with critical love. At the start of the book, she says:

Love is an emotion, but not always in the sense of being a pleasant sentiment. It can be and often is discontent, especially with situations, actions, and passions that separate people from one another, for example, through oppression and domination. A white person’s loving herself as a white person means her critically caring enough about the effects whiteness has in the world to make it something different and better than what it is today (10).

And at the end:

Dissenting with whiteness out of love means a white person’s being willing to risk complicity with white privilege and white supremacy – the dominant meanings and effects of whiteness to this point – out of a loving relationship with oneself (161).

I agree with Sullivan that we ought to radically shift our practices around whiteness, and that love is a central, complex, demanding practice for such a shift. But the love that I hold out for encompasses and cares for us white people as a way of working through what it might be for us to resist, refuse, and disrupt whiteness qua social relation of oppression. And at the end, this is perhaps the central tension I see in this work: it remains opaque to me how we might truly love white people and also love whiteness. Whiteness, again qua social relation of oppression (which is what it qua), is precisely the thing that is destroying white people. More importantly, it’s destroying and killing people of color. Even though it is hard and might sometimes feel terrible, hating whiteness and its effects while working for collective liberation, remaining committed to the possibility that white people are worth working with and for, also remains one of the most meaningful and joyful things we can do.

[1] “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood.”