Tilman Zitzmann, #340 Soaring Up. December 2012. (source).
January 13, 2016

The Dialogical Avatar

The following is a transcript of a presentation that was held at Revolution Books in Honolulu, Hawaii. Organized in a conversational fashion, the presentation occurred on the afternoon of January 31, 2010, with Donna Haraway as the central speaker and facilitator. Aside from the Cyborg Manifesto, it constitutes one of Haraway’s most extended engagements with science fiction, and with a specific work of science fiction cinema in particular, as a central topic. The dialogue from which this text is extracted involved around fifteen interlocutors, including what at the time, were University of Hawaii Political Science PhD students Jason Adams and Bianca Isaki, UH Philosophy PhD student Amy Donahue, UH Political Science faculty members Noenoe Silva and Jon Goldberg-Hiller, and Haraway’s longtime friend, Revolutionary Communist Party activist Caroline Hadfield, amongst other participants.


This t-shirt is black and red, and I’ll tell you something about this t-shirt [pointing to her t-shirt]. Amongst the many reasons I love Caroline, and her partner Michael, is that Caroline is my oldest, and deepest, and truest friend who has made me remember that we can’t throw away the word revolution. And there are very, very few people in the United States in my cultural circles who take that word seriously as a contemporary word – its impossibility, its necessity, its terrible, tragic, and hopeful elements. The notion, and the practice of revolution, is one of the things that I think Caroline’s friendship keeps making me come back to – I might be the person who makes Caroline pay serious attention to dogs, and I might push her to regard them as proper revolutionary subjects.

So, it’s that kind of holding of the friends in your life who have changed who, and what you are, in an ongoing and really important way. And Hawaii is one of these places for me, that continually revivifies these important kinds of energy and need. I remember coming off the plane in Hawaii – at the time I was a faculty wife, with a gay husband, and politically, there were two of every tendency on the island, so we formed various and sundry organizations, and I found myself literally on the New Haven Green. And then understanding about the families, and the mission families, and the history of colonization, and the literal social space, the physical and social space, of the islands. And then getting it that I was a new PhD, or about to be, from Yale in New Haven, and of course, the multiple overdeterminations of who or what one thinks one is. Intensely personal, but with just a tiny little blink, and the extraordinarily-thick historicity of it. And then coming to inherit these fleshly histories – that these are not just ideas, these are not just abstractions. But inheriting the physical facts in one’s body of these deep histories. And then trying to ask how to inherit – what are the consequences of “getting it”, about how it is that one is where one is, and with whom one is, both human and not-human. How does one go on together, with all of those humans and nonhumans, who one inherits in the flesh?

I think that’s the question that’s driven me, and I think that’s the question that Avatar raises in some really interesting ways. I want to look back at Avatar very quickly, but I actually want to do that by beginning again with Haiti. And Caroline reminded me, while we were standing out on the North Shore, and I was once again trying to catechize Caroline in the importance of non-humans, emphasizing them more seriously than I feared she did – or she probably already does, but just in case she didn’t get it, making sure she understood the absolute importance of getting it, that human nature is, and always has been, and always will be, a multispecies-ongoingness, a multispecies becoming-with. And I mean that in the most serious possible way, where our various tricks of anthropocentrism, and anthropomorphism, of making all of the world in the image of humanity, is not what I mean by taking other species seriously. Turning all of the world into resources for human use of whatever kind, is absolutely not what I mean by a livable multispecies human nature.

Marx, in many ways, was one of the best in our historical legacy, for taking the non-human world seriously. As of course did Darwin, but Darwin and Marx aren’t enough. And in many ways both of them, oddly – Darwin less than Marx – had a kind of humanist formation. In which the serious – agency is a hard word – but, the serious doingness of non-human life, that was not made in our image. The extraordinary activity in the world, in its living and nonliving forms – it doesn’t have to do with living in particular, that cannot be dealt with by similarity or analogy or metaphor, or various literary tricks. Although the story is incredibly, incredibly important in my view, for making connections.

Ok, so my mantra is learned from a friend of mine, who rewrote Engels from the point of view of mushrooms – The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, rewritten from the point of view of the history of people and mushrooms. Actually an extremely radical book [Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World] – it’s actually an unpublished paper, but I will send it around, since the publisher is being really slow with this manuscript, but human nature as a multispecies relationship, that’s the point. Becoming-with is the name of the game at every single layer of the onion, which finally has no stopping point. That kind of, it’s elephants all the way down, becoming-with. 

And our partners are many, rambunctious, and unexpected. So, we’re standing out there talking about these things, and Caroline and I discussed the forced extermination of the old Spanish pigs, which became a terribly important part of the farming and ongoing living practices of Haitians, with the terribly important Caribbean slave-gardens, that the slave-owners in the Caribbean basically left the growing of food to their slaves, to these really fascinating plots of the old sugar plantations. You see these distributions of space in terms of what was grown where, and a lot of the culinary history of the Caribbean is out of those old slave gardens, and the development of various kinds of interesting, market-oriented agriculture. Of tremendous importance in the history of slave and post-slave cultures in the world. It’s clear across the Caribbean, certainly including Haiti.

And Caroline reminded me – actually, told me, because I didn’t know – about the importance of the old Spanish pigs, who were serial environmental killers, serial murderers in environments all over the Pacific. Nonetheless, the old Spanish-style pigs in Haiti that had become deeply integrated, as a terribly important part of collective well-being, were exterminated in favor of a pig-skin industry for the growing commercialized and capitalized practices of football. The pigs carried certain kinds of pathogens that the industrializers were worried about, and the pigs were quite literally exterminated. In those kinds of obliterations of organisms – look at the deforested landscapes of Haiti, look at the extraordinarily obliterated plant and animal worlds, and the meaning of that for the micro-worlds that were about to know something really terrible as soon as the rainy season hits, and the cholera epidemics begin. The whole cultural-political-historical ecology of it.

Then think of another set of connections that are also tied to Haiti, as a way to segue into Avatar. The Louisiana Purchase, someone called out – it’s absolutely true, that the self-organizing, and the first of the freed slaves, the first republic in the New World, was established by slaves who had produced their own freedom. Not purchased it, but produced it. And then, were forced to purchase it as debt, this becomes the financing of the Louisiana Purchase. Which in turn – I’m reading a book called Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity right now, which tracks the importances of the Louisiana Purchase in the development of everything that happened in the Great Plains West, in terms of the implantation of a commercial cattle economy. And the Louisiana Purchase is in many ways, the beginning of a vast, continent-changing change in the assemblages of organisms, most certainly including kinds of people. In particular, conquest of Midwestern and Northwestern Native Americans, and the tie of that to the developing ranching economies, and other economies of extraction, is part of the history of the Louisiana Purchase. I think I’m hard-wired this way: things that really matter to me, in the marrow of my bones, and in my heart, tie to other organisms. And those kinds of knottings, call them ecologies if you want to, it’s a good enough word – the logos, the linking, the yoking-together of the oikos, of the household. Ecology, the Greek word, the yoking of the household, that tying of relationships, human and non-human, that sometimes human beings ought to be, and are, at the forefront of attention, and at other times they’re very much not the point.

But, never able to be in the world without being-with a whole host of other organisms. Now, I think the principle of my political, intellectual, and emotional world is connections. And tracking the connections that were usually, for accidental, biographical reasons, one’s own. One can give all kind of explanations for why one cares about what one cares about, or where it is that we have developed skills, capacities, and work. But finally, I think it turns on small, biographical details, little accidents. And out of those little accidents, taken seriously, we do become more worldly. That little accidents don’t make us petty and small, but if we inhabit the contingency, the god-only-knows-why-it-happenedness of our lives, and if we inhabit it with some kind of growth. Why are we here, who are we, and so what? Then, we become worldly. Because the world is packed, in almost a holographic way, into these tiny details. Or another image is, you can pull on the protoplasmic thread, the little sticky thread, and just end up really tying into one of these really sticky, mucoid, slime-cradle, all-life-depends-upon-slime – this is a true fact. We become really sticky, when we take love and rage seriously – and in ways I really like.

Donna Haraway (2006); photograph by Rusten Hogness

Donna Haraway and Cayenne (2006); photograph by Rusten Hogness (source).

So, before we finally get to Avatar, I will tell you about Anarcha-Aussies. And this is an anarchist t-shirt, which I proudly wear in the RCP [Revolutionary Communist Party] bookstore, and this red-and-black diagonal pattern is derived from Italian anarcho-syndicalism in the 19th century, which some of you know. And the rest of it is designed by a friend of mine. There are three human beings, and three dogs, all of the Australian Shepherd persuasion – the people and the dogs, but the dogs are actually Australian Shepherds in the legal, breed sense – they were only standardized in the 1970s, though they have a history, and indeed they are US ranch dogs. They’re the dogs that were cobbled together out of whatever dogs were willing to herd the sheep that were being imported from Australia, around the horn, across the Midwest, up from the Southwest, into the California Gold Rush with the miners, and then also the post-Civil War consolidation of the California conquest, the United Statesization of California.

So the Australian Shepherds are US ranch dogs, who are very much part of the technology of conquest, literally. As with all these really interesting working dogs, they are both co-worker and livestock. Technology and companion. And we’re that too, anybody who thinks about working class history understands the importance of thinking many things at once. So the Australian Shepherd dogs, named Australian, no one’s quite sure, but probably because they’re spotted, identified with the sheep coming off the boats from the already export-oriented Australian sheep industry, which exported sheep in large numbers to California, from the Gold Rush, and then especially later. They become named “Australian Shepherds”, and they take on a kind of distinctive shape and behavioral characteristics, and they’re quite identifiable. Different ranches have their own lines, but they don’t become institutionalized in these breed clubs until the 1950s, and then seriously consolidated in the 1970s.

So those are the dogs in our team sport, and the humans in our team sport are all middle-class white females of a certain persuasion. I think all of us are women of a certain age, women who really, without apology, love the dogs we run with. I mean, our sports partners are the center of our attention in some completely shocking ways. We train thousands of hours over a lifetime, we train every Wednesday night, and we’re very serious, we’re playing at the Master’s level. We three human women, and we three female dogs, decided that, in the face of all the pro-natalism and religiosity, and Christian Marianism of our moment – and we were running for the first time our own Christmas, there were way too many Virgin Marys around, and two of us were named Donna, and one of us was named Mary – so we decided we needed a Jewish, atheist, anarchist, feminist patron saint, so we went to Emma Goldman, right? And got out an old anarchist flag and got one of our other dog friends. So here we are, the three Marys, with Emma Goldman as our patron saint, and the three of us Australian Shepherd females with our team, the Anarcha-Aussies. So we were going to make little warming blankets for our dogs, you know the little horse blankets, only we had dog-kids instead of human-kids. Watch for us, we might be on Animal Planet, or ESPN, or you know, who knows?

Ok, what I’ve done in the last ten minutes is riff connections, I’ve riffed connections from what Caroline gave us, and I’ve riffed them all through human-animal connections, and through all of those human-animal connections, the question of how to inherit runs. So how to inherit finding oneself, in a kind of weird, salivic exchange of love with a dog of conquest, you know, with an Australian Shepherd purebred, young dog. Well, pull the thread, and it takes one to responsibility for the contemporary ranch ecologies of the United States West, among other former settler-colony, ranch economies. It takes one into being extremely interested in the Intertribal Bison Council, in the Navajo-Churro Sheep Project, in the various efforts to develop sustainable agro-ecological relations to market animals, of pigs, hens, sheep, and others, lest they become nothing but heritage species, or subjects of rescue discourses.

At the same time, taking very seriously a kind of vegan witness, of those who remind us of the scale of the atrocity of global animal agriculture. The ecological scale of the atrocity is beyond discussion, whether you’re talking about fish-farming, or whether you’re talking about global warming gas production, or water depletion, or pasture destruction, or health issues, pathogens in human populations. The enormity of the outrage, including the enormity of the cruelty, the enormity of the savagery, that is regarded as simply normal. One cannot inherit being in love with my dog – Cayenne and I can’t inherit being in love with each other in this class, race, region, gender, historical moment – you know, all those words that we use as kind of markers for things that don’t reduce to one word, because they mark what must be at least marked – Cayenne and I can’t be in love with each other, in my view, without becoming more worldly. And this is a very ordinary, you know, postmenopausal, middle-class, academic white lady love. You know, we’re not talking about revolutionary – you know, we’re talking little here, the little in the worldly, ok, that runs through everybody’s life, and is a kind of a check on different kinds of elitism, and the sense of what it is that lets people see each other as growing out of our own specificities, in some kind of serious becoming-with, in this historical political ecology that is not-yet. Call it revolution, whatever, but this is what is possible, but is not yet. That might yet still be possible, maybe, just maybe, it is still possible, to flourish on this planet. Just maybe. The reasons for despair are immense, but just maybe, the possibility is still alive.


So, let’s take that as a preamble, and riff it into Avatar.  This is a film that has been seen by more people than there are e.coli on the planet. A large number of people have spent a really large amount of money, to make really serious money, and it’s a really serious commercial object, a really fascinating commercial object. Unbelievably interesting technology, serious production of new cultural pleasures, new visualities, this kind of solicitation of pleasure that often goes along with solicitation of the commodity. The best commodities solicit the most intense pleasures, which is one of the reasons why the figure of the vampire has these extremely interesting half-lives. There is also the pleasure in the story, there’s the pleasure in being outraged, there’s the pleasure of hating that airbrushed military villain. You know, the super-Marine guy who is so evil and so gorgeous, and that kind of extreme super-hatred pleasure of the super-airbrushed total evil guy, who gets shot by the brown woman in the helicopter. This is seriously good stuff to hate.

But then there’s also the narratives of the white colonial savior, he’s the one who’s really clever and gets educated faster than any mere native ever could. So he’s the one who could finally form the tie with the super-Pterosaur – you know, this Hindenberg dinosaur companion. He gets to ride, and you know, talk about a rodeo! The pleasures of the rodeo, combined with the pleasures of getting to be at one with the horse, and he also being the master of the horse, the kind of rough rider imagery, where he gets the girl from the guy who really should have had the girl by lineage, and all other considerations. Finally, he gives up being white, and by that time there’s hardly any sacrifice, you know, keeping the pod of white people alive at that point is really not happening. So he gives up the sacrifice of whiteness to become native, he is fully incorporated into the indigenous, and all of the white people who end up staying on the planet are fully incorporated, and everybody who can’t be fully incorporated has to go. You know – the good guys win, and the military-industrial-mining complex – um, what’s the name of the mineral? Oh yes, “unobtanium” – collapses.

And those of us you, you know, who really, you know, the degree to which we take Gaia seriously, if you’re really seriously down with Gaia, then the Gaia scenes can be fully indulged – the pleasures of the sacred. If we’re just kind of like “eh, Gaia’s a metaphor”, then that’s ok too, that’s there. But there’s a huge, really interesting spectrum of what we may as well call religion, the really interesting ties with the bio-love, and the gaia-love, and the tree, etc. But then you see David Brooks in the New York Times. He brings out the big guns, you know, the super-guns to squash a mosquito, pointing out the racism, and the imperialism, and the white savior narrative. Which is all perfectly true, and kind of right there on the surface. But nobody’s talking about the heterosexism, so far as I can tell. Nobody’s seriously gotten hot and bothered about all of the coupling going on, and you know, complete organization of life around boy/girl couples. The point is, it’s all there, and it has produced this tapestry of conversation – it has become a flashpoint of people talking to each other.

So that’s what we’re going to be doing from here on. And I’m curious, to get us started, first of all, who’s seen the film in this room? How many twice? How many thirders? Ok, and for the people who went twice, how many people who went twice, went to flatscreen to compare? Ok, we’ve got a couple of real scholars over here. And, how many people, as you left the theater, think for a minute, about what your feeling tone was? As you first started talking to your friend afterward, how many people would say that their strongest feeling was joy? And how many people might say that your strongest feeling was annoyance to anger? How many were bored? How many thought the narrative was so obvious it was uninteresting? How many got really involved and shed a tear? Even though you knew how it was going to happen, you were really worried? How many people in this room are really science-fiction buffs? And of course, this is a science fiction film, and it does all of the things that science fiction film does.

Ok, enough of that, I’d like you guys at this point, if you care enough, to kind of throw out your line on this film – some aspect of this film that you really want to tell other people about, that you care about.

[Dialogue Participant] I was really depressed by the movie, I almost left about 2/3 of the way in, because I felt so bad, just because it felt like I was watching what’s happening on our planet now, and the biggest thing that just hit me, was that the only solution is war. There was no chance of a peaceful solution, it just wasn’t even considered. And just watching the tree being destroyed, I was just so bummed.

[Donna Haraway] And you didn’t leave?

[Dialogue Participant] No, I didn’t leave, I stayed, because I wanted to see what happened, I just wanted to observe the movie, and I payed my ten bucks, so.

[Donna Haraway] Was there any solace for you in the last third of the film?

[Dialogue Participant] No, because it felt like they had to give up so much, and by choosing to go to war and fight, their core values were lost in a way that to me was tragic.

[Donna Haraway] Someone else, a reaction to the film.

[Dialogue Participant] I think that the scene where they destroyed the tree, was the most powerful scene in the movie, to me it was like the tree of life. And there were archetypal, very powerful images of that tree, mythological things going on there. And for that tree to go and topple over, I’d never seen anything like that, in all of the movies I’ve ever seen.  

[Donna Haraway] You, yes.

[Dialogue Participant] I enjoyed it for the fact that it maintained archetypal themes, just like Star Wars did, so there was always the good and evil side, and though the tree of life did get destroyed, at one level it was really reflective of the entire word as it is. Just like the violation of things that happen in everyday society, and just having that put in front of you.

[Donna Haraway] And there are young trees who might – that possibility that just maybe, the planet will heal, was something – just because I’m hopelessly Pollyannaish. [Laughter]

[Dialogue Participant] I loved all the kickass chicks in the movie. Secondly, I’m not caught up in any of the criticisms of the movie. There was the military woman who stands up to the bad, mean-looking military guy, the doctor who stands up to him too.

[Donna Haraway] Well, it’s Sigourney Weaver, let’s face it.

[Dialogue Participant] Yeah. And then, the alien character who saves his life in the beginning, saves his life in the end, and then of course, the Goddess.

[Donna Haraway] The Goddess herself. Yeah, very female, strong… I agree, I felt that too, it was an extremely wonderful pleasure in the femaleness, including the pleasure of the warrior, the Amazon warrior pleasure.  

[Dialogue Participant] Two things, one that you said right at the beginning, that there’s a sense of awe, and somehow the technology allowed us to see the natural world with fresh eyes, the way a child might, and I thought was wonderful. The other thing that I thought was really a watershed in this movie, and in this country, was that Hollywood, 20th Century Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch, would make a movie in which the indigenous people – in which the Indians win. And not only do that, but construct it in such a way so that millions of people cheered for that outcome and wanted that outcome. And I think that was actually a remarkable shift in the national culture.

[Donna Haraway] And yet, the same people are probably not too likely to regard their own property as inherited through theft, and that it therefore should be given back.

[Dialogue Participant] Exactly. They know not what they do, and yet they do it.

[Dialogue Participant] Yeah, I was of two minds about the movie all the way through. On the one hand, I was really fascinated and taken in by the visual creation of this very detailed and complex, and quite beautiful planet, and the jellyfish-like creatures floating around in the air. But on the other hand, you know, the narrative was, eh – the demonization of the military, and the disavowal of responsibility that goes with it on the part of the hero, is the oldest plot in the colonial book.

[Donna Haraway] That’s how the salvation narrative works.

[Dialogue Participant] Yeah, it’s Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, 300 years ago – it hasn’t changed. So, I was kind of torn between, and disgusted by that, and also fascinated by the other parts.

[Donna Haraway] You know one of the things that struck me as enabling this particular story was the degree to which nature and technology really were separated from each other. Not just military technology, but the bio-world of Pandora, with its extraordinary bio-techno communication apparatuses, and all the rest of it, the organic world, if you will. At a color, design-level, at every imaginable level, there really was a divide between, not so much nature and culture, but nature-culture on the one hand and technology on the other. And technology wasn’t allowed, even while technologies were a subject of the film, and in some really amazing ways. For the whole history of film, technology is its own subject, again, and again, and again, and again. In King Kong, this is obvious, it’s obvious in a zillion films. This one too, the metallic – there is a division between flesh and metal, and from early on in my own work, with the notion of the cyborg, it was against that pithing off, of the one from the other. And getting it, that one doesn’t have to be metal to be technical. And the way that the stories of imperializing, I think, rest on having a god like technology, which is both the god to despise, and the god to serve. And I thought, if I were to do anything with this film it would be to refuse the clean separation between the earth-technical and the Pandora-bio. That bothered me a lot more than some of the other binary stuff.

[Jason Adams] Actually, one of the scenes that stood out to me, was that scene where Sigourney Weaver says, “I’m not talking about pagan voodoo here – I’m talking about something real and measurable in the biology of the forest.” That it’s absolutely real – so I was kind of curious how you would respond to that, in terms of nature vs. culture. 

[Donna Haraway] Since you’re with that thought, tell me more. Resituate that scene for me, I’m not remembering enough of it.

[Jason Adams] Um, she’s in the ship and she’s talking about the kind of global Internet thing that is connected to the hair, and the tree, and all of that. And she’s saying that it’s a sort of global neuronal-type structure.

[Donna Haraway] Mmmhmm, a giant neural net.

[Jason Adams] Yeah, so I don’t know, that struck me. And I actually thought of your work right away when I saw that, but I wasn’t really sure if it was – just the fact that she wanted to emphasize that it was real and measurable, and not some other thing.

[Donna Haraway] If I’m understanding you correctly, I liked that part. Because it was that affirmation of the materialism of it, if you will, in this rich sense of materialism, that the bio-communication system that is Pandora is real. This is not a fantasy – what I think the Pandorans don’t do, is separate off the material. And their sacred is relentlessly material. And its connectivities are knowable, really. Larger than any humanoid Pandoran can ever know, but no humanoid Pandoran is just humanoid, either. All the Pandorans of whatever species, are connected. There is no such thing as a clean species separation, even though there are, shall we say, dominant pattern formations that for convenience, we could call a species.

[Noenoe Silva] I think it’s important not to miss the representation of natives in this film. You know, it’s very disturbing that millions of kids are going to this film, and seeing people who have all of the simple icons of nativeness, right, and that hiss like cats. It’s just very disturbing, the whole thing is a fantasy about nativeness, it’s a white male fantasy about nativeness, and about power. My favorite thing actually, was the big mecha-suit the guy got in. Like this was like the ultimate military imperial fantasy. The depiction of the natives as being closer to nature, and this juxtaposition – even though they win in the end, these can still be damaging representations in young minds. The equation of natives with the Earth, and as organic. And there’s a separation there, between the smart people with all the technology, and then…

[Donna Haraway] Does it bother you just as much that the colonizer, the imperializer, is associated with technology, and is not natural, and that that’s a whiteness discourse? Does that strike you as similarly damaging?

[Noenoe Silva] Yeah.

[Donna Haraway] Me too. Anytime we’re talking about cultural objects like Avatar, in a corporate dominant culture, we are playing with fire, clearly. When the so-called indigenous is so-called natural, the extraordinary naturalization of the indigenous, no matter how talented, no matter how really, really, really, really great, no matter how many inventions they may have invented – but it requires the other half of the equation. Which is a particular production of whiteness. Even though there were plenty of people of color occupying the category of whiteness in that film. Whiteness is a space to occupy for those who are associated with the technologies of conquest, extraction, commerce, etc. and that strikes me. Both of those two require each other. And actual, living people believe these things of each other, to damaging degrees. Such that I know no small number of white people, some of whom I’ve found in my own skin, at various moments, you know, who somehow feel less able to speak up, in a critical way, in a conversation with someone who is produced as more natural. Whether it’s in an indigenous rights discussion, a discussion about who owns race, class, and gender properties, and so on, and so on. The very much in play ways that these story-fragments continue to set people out around these nature/technology contrasts, to perpetuate the trouble. People actually inhabit these imagined positions and do it to one another, including doing it to oneself. So, take the hyper-murderous, almost-impossible to kill – the machine enemy right out of the Alien sequence, you know that particular kind of killer robot that shows up, in how many films? It was in District 9, it was in Alien – it shows up, it’s a required visual object that does in my view, a whole lot of race production work. It is one of the technologies of the production of this thing I’ll call whiteness. Whether white people occupy that position or not, or so-called Euro-people.

[Noenoe Silva] Just one other point – many American Indians are claimed by the very real phenomenon of the wannabe tribe. And so anyways, that was also very disturbing, that he actually puts on the body of a native. In the end, he gets the wish that so many people who aren’t native have, to just be somebody else, to be Cherokee, or to be whatever else I wish I was.

[Donna Haraway] Well, I want to push both/and. I completely agree with you, that this is old trouble done anew, and, at the same time, is it really so terribly awful to want to be with and like those you see? You know, I think about these arguments in the 1970s, around this thing called the Lesbian Continuum – the radical position that all women are lesbians and frankly, if men want to be too, they can. You know, welcome to the continuum! Well, there was the “welcome to the continuum” position, and it didn’t have any kind of theory to it, you know – it was opposition to compulsory heterosexuality. It was about the desire to be with, but also to be. I think there is a way in which we better not be only critics of these dangerous things. There were also of course, those who said “get off my continuum”, you’ve been flirting with me and you’ll never produce. But I truly want that love and desire, which is never innocent, I want to hold on at the same time to the polluted but indispensable question of desire there, and not just name that, you know, as “everyone wants to be Cherokee these days, and pretty soon they’ll have all the tribal benefits”.

[Dialogue Participant] It’s a question of how subjectivity is constructed.

[Bianca Isaki] I’m thinking like, in the film though, how what happened, was that, the structures of authority for deciding who determines who is Pandoran, was kind of displaced onto this transcendental tree, as opposed to the actual people that were Pandoran. Wasn’t it the tree – like all those little spores that came down on him – so it was kind of like some transcendental god decided, as opposed to the people who were Pandoran. So it wasn’t community self-determination of who belongs, it was that the truth is, “he was blessed by the tree”.

[Donna Haraway] That’s the dictatorship of the proletariat, the leadership of the tree. [Laughter]

[Dialogue Participant] At least for me, at the beginning of the movie and throughout, I remained a little bit unclear about whether the Pandorans were created by the whites or not, because our first image of seeing Pandorans is them in the umbilical cell in which they’ve been created. We don’t get to see a Pandoran as such, premade.

[Donna Haraway] Yeah, and our suspicions go really far with this. That not only are the first Pandorans we see these biotechnologically-produced bodies in this cradle-Matrix that is then hooked up, and synchronized with a human brain. But then the body stays in that cradle, that utterly-dependent aspect is really interesting. But your suspicion goes so far as to say, well, if they made those Pandorans, the shell-Pandorans, if you will, maybe they actually made the whole thing. Wow – I never even thought of that. How far would you take that?

[Dialogue Participant] Well, I actually would take it as far as saying that the movie is a creation, right? And I’m sitting in the audience watching this, so I can refuse to suspend my disbelief and see this as fiction…

[Donna Haraway] This way lies madness. [Laughter]

[Dialogue Participant] Well three thoughts on the movie. I was actually less blown away by the 3D than I expected that I would be. I had just seen Sherlock Holmes the weekend before, and I enjoyed that movie much more, than I did Avatar.

[Donna Haraway] Visually…

[Dialogue Participant] I think so, but I think 2D can still do tremendous things. But I mean of course, this is an important moment in the history of cinema, no doubt. It’s just, it wasn’t a well-written movie – this is Things Fall Apart, without, you know – it’s amazing how some of those tropes are repeated. So that’s one thought, but the second one is that, for a movie that critiques commodification via watching, really, the production of the commodity itself, which always – it’s the old Marxist in me – it makes me think about what’s going on here. Here is a fully-commodified production which sets out to critique commodification, and we have to be skeptical about what’s really going on. And the third point is that, I think that, whether it’s racist or not, I think at the level of narrative, and whether Sully moves across identities – one could debate that either way – but what I think is not debatable is that he actually norms whiteness as humanity. Because on Pandora, indigenousness, or non-whiteness, is a fantasy world.

[Donna Haraway] Let me make sure I understand what you’re saying. Pandoraness is a fantasy world, in the sense that it is commodity production?

[Dialogue Participant] I think that non-Europeanness is made as part of this mythic, epic, invented, fairytale-fantastic, Pandora-world.

[Donna Haraway] Right. But whiteness is too.  Within the film itself, I would even say that it’s one of those fantasies that is exceedingly deadly. Whiteness is no more a thing than color, but it is fiercely real as an in-place, operating fantastic hold on the world.

[Dialogue Participant] What I’m saying is that, to the extent that there is a representation of the real world that we actually live in, outside of the theater – in the film, it is really the military base that is on Pandora.

[Donna Haraway] And you think that’s normed humanity?

[Dialogue Participant] That’s normed as white. In human history itself, whether it’s good or bad, it’s only white people who inhabit it. I mean yes, there are nominally non-white people there, but human history equals white history, and any sort of alternative to that is only a fairytale.

[Donna Haraway] That part, I would part company with you on. I think I understand what you’re saying, but it’s there that I’d want to argue with you, the “only a fairytale” part. In terms of the film, I mean.

[Dialogue Participant] Right, I think would just suggest that that is going on, and that’s the reason for its effect. In other words, you know, that the way that a kind of radical, indigenous, non-white critique is contained, by making it part of this fantastic world that everybody realizes is fantastic.

[Donna Haraway] Ok, I think we’ve got it. You, you had something…

[Dialogue Participant] I just wanted to mention, earlier you described the angle from the point of view of a mushroom, and I just wanted to point out that the mushroom, I mean that’s almost anthropocentric there. Because a mushroom is the fruiting body of the primary organism, which is the mycelia.

[Donna Haraway] I assure you, I really shorthanded that in an incredibly fruitist way [laughter].

[Dialogue Participant] I just want to say that I’m speaking from the point of view of those who haven’t seen the movie. My knowledge of it comes from my two sons who saw it, aged 15 and 19, one of whom is a UCSC student. They hated it – they just hated it. You know, and the politicized sophomore did for political reasons, and the 15 year-old because it was like a video game, and he was already jaded by that. So I just wanted to mention that.

[Donna Haraway] Thanks.

Mycelluim via Rob Hille via <a href = "https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMycelium_RH_(3).jpg">Wikimedia Commons</a>

Mycelluim via Rob Hille via Wikimedia Commons

[Caroline Hadfield] You mentioned David Brooks. And I had a lot of fun reading his Op Ed, and I seemed to note this tone of desperation. One of his most devastating criticisms was the point that the scriptwriters grabbed from here and there, and made a conglomeration of what they called “Native Cultures”.

[Donna Haraway] No question, a little Australian breeding there, a little…

[Carolyn Hadfield] And I think that’s actually a very devastating point.

[Donna Haraway] Why is it a devastating point?

[Caroline Hadfield] Well, because I think it’s very persuasive, for people who want to come at the movie in a certain way.

[Donna Haraway] The pleasures of indigeneity without any of the accountability?

[Caroline Hadfield] Well, and also a very specific definition of culture.

[Donna Haraway] Cobbled together, a little of this, a little of that?

[Caroline Hadfield] Well, his premise is that culture is sort of this silo, that extends from some sort of prehistoric time. He’s saying that this mishmash of the Na’vi culture is a distortion and a perversion of native culture. Thereby he’s suggesting that he knows what native culture is. And that he can trace native culture or indigenous culture to some place that he seems to think he, you know… I mean, he clearly hates the movie.

[Donna Haraway] That made me mad, because he tried to make me hate the movie, and I thereby hate him. But I would say what’s really happening is conversations like this one – rather than producing a single interpretation of this film. But there’s a way in which it sparks stuff that, it seems to me, is more than the sum of its parts.

[Dialogue Participant] The Sigourney Weaver character, she sort of represents an intellectual critique in a lot of ways. I mean maybe she presents liberal arguments in her position of relationship to the military, and capitalist forces in the movie, but it’s sort of astounding that despite her good comments, she sort of gets steamrolled, and she dies, you know. Her commentary is completely overwhelmed in the din of every other discourse in the movie.

[Donna Haraway] You may be right that this is a broad perception, but I’m curious if it is.

[Dialogue Participant] I had a question about Sigourney Weaver’s character, too. I was really taken by your statement that “human nature is a multispecies becoming-with”. Because, the Sigourney Weaver character, her lab exists because of that company. You know, she is absolutely complicit. And while there’s a few moments where the mining people remind her of that, she wasn’t actually seeming to hold onto that complicity, she doesn’t at some point say, “oh my god, look at what my sampling put into place”, at all. And I found myself uneasy at the end of the film – how am I supposed to think about what it means to try and find knowledge about the natural world? How do I know that sticking what looks like an innocent needle into, you know, some plant life, isn’t harmful – in fact, really damaging, every bit as much as big machines that dig up the Earth? So, I’m just kind of curious how you see her character, because on the one hand, I love Sigourney Weaver, and she says all these great things, but I didn’t see a lot of taking-responsibility for the role of science in imperialism.

[Donna Haraway] I think that’s actually a really interesting meditation on this. And Sigourney Weaver, initially, is clearly in the employ of the companies that are attempting to pacify a planet in order to open it for extraction. And to pacify it with the civilian arm, with education, with roads, with resettlement, with progress, with modernization. And essentially, she’s a benign modernizing figure that is a critical part of the workforce of colonizing and imperializing histories. And she knows that about herself and doesn’t initially find it particularly problematic.

Except that it turns out, the Na’vi will have none of it. And that, the Na’vi, from the point of view of the mining corporation, and the military, produce themselves like the Haitians did to the French, as quite capable of producing their own freedom. And the way I read the Sigourney Weaver character, is that she, whether she wanted to or not, took that seriously. And, you know, whether she’s going to get a Nobel Prize as Responsible Scientist of the Year, I don’t know. I felt this character changed significantly, which isn’t to say that – especially the sampling, it’s a really interesting one.

I keep remembering that this is in the literary genre of science fiction. The literary genre of science fiction is a colonial genre. It’s also an ethnographic genre. Which in turn, in its history, is closely tied with the history of European expansion. But not only that – and that, knowing something about the history of something doesn’t always allow me the “nothing but” position. But it also doesn’t allow me to forget that the “yes, and” is still there. So that, I don’t think it’s so much sampling nature, by the way, as sampling nature-culture. That the Na’vi on Pandora is never just nature, in this film, and Sigourney Weaver is both scientist and ethnographer, and improver and modernizer, an outsider who comes with the goodies that will make the rest of it palatable, and on and on.

But I also think the question of science is a fascinating one. Not just technology, but science. Have any of you read Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Space Woman, an old feminist science fiction book from thirty-odd years ago? The communications officer and the exploration ship that make contact with zillions of species, her job is to set up communications, and the one thing that she’s not allowed to do is kind of like, the prime directive in Star Trek. The one thing she’s not allowed to do is harm anybody, in her setting up of communications.

But of course, there is no such thing as innocent communication. Even in the notion of language itself, it’s tripping, you can never say what you mean, and it’s not because you’re not trying, but because language is not that state of innocence, nor is an organism that state of innocence. The communications officer, by virtue of being there, is herself changed and changing, and it will never be innocent, although the power relationships might be more surprising than one thought. And there are many progeny, there are all sorts of weird children who come out of very interesting – erotic, naturally, realities – which is also part of that imagination.

But let me, for a moment, bring up another piece of literature which I was lead to read after watching Avatar, as a colleague of mine pointed out to me – and that is Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest. Science fiction, by definition, produces possible worlds, you know, produces plausible worlds, that have to be inhabited in a serious way, but within the whole ongoing apparatus of the story. So science fiction-worlding, in the The Word for World is Forest, is very like Avatar. We have a species that has been basically enslaved, and this is a logging colonization story and it’s very much a Vietnam-era story.

Which I just find interesting, the historical moments of these two, in many ways similar fantasies, are in many ways quite interesting – but the creechies, they’re called, the creatures, the creechies, their own self-name is never used by the logging apparatus, or by the logging people. And of course, there was an ethnographer in the group who willy-nilly, is forced to know more than is good for him. And of course in the typical ethnographic fiction story, one of the people – of Athshe, I think, was the name of the planet – but anyways, befriends him, and becomes his mentor, but then also finally has to disown him, and he’s on his own, and you know, that’s the usual trope of these science fiction stories. And Ursula Le Guin is an ethnographer who studies with, and about, Native American California Indians, who are very famous and very important and very problematic, and really interesting. She grew up with that.

She’s constantly an SF writer of the ethnographic practice and persuasion. This is also a world of great ecological complexity and multiple connectedness, the forest and the people are one, in these biodiverse ways. Love of, and, a kind of, biophilia. A kind of deep love of diversity, and you have kind of the same compensation of the military and you know, the peace-lovers, that Avatar does. And this one raises the question of what a possible getting on-together might look like. What might a possible getting at, getting at that at the end of the day, nobody’s the same as they were in the beginning. And then what? It’s a serious question in the structure of fiction, in much more political fiction in that wholehearted way, and the super-evil guy, very like our super-evil guy in Avatar, and the former mentor of our ethnographer who was killed in the course of the story – there’s no white savior here.

The former mentor turns nationalist – well, not nationalist but turns liberation revolutionary. Biologist, he certainly is – but anyways, but the native, the self-organizer, self-liberator, is also a dreamer, and this mature man, this mature character who appears masculine, from our profound prejudices, and our super-killer military guy, they confront each other. They are both, they have both become in the story what they call “gods”, that is to say, they both want something that they can’t go back on. And they have undone and redone each other, and our mentor guy, our liberation leader, refuses to kill the super-evil guy, and says “you know, we have each given each other a terrible gift. You have given us the knowledge that we can kill each other”.

And this was a species that had not engaged in internal war prior to this moment. They had other mechanisms for dealing with conflict, and hither and yon, they brought out a primatology, and after various kinds of reconciliations, and postures, and all of these mechanisms have broken down, in the face of this having to confront a new threat. And they are changed forever. And the killer-guy is given the terrible gift of facing someone who won’t kill him, and being forced to live. Even though the so-called native is now in a nature-culture that knows about killing each other. It’s an extremely interesting moment that Le Guin produces that I think has a kind of, for me, has a moral seriousness very different from Avatar’s. In terms of where, there’s no status quo even on the level of fantasy, there’s not permanent war either, but there’s this exchange of terrible deaths that have to do with killing and not-killing.

And the argument is made these days in animal studies and philosophy, and I’m down with this argument, that one of the fundamental mechanisms of the production of that which will count as human, that whiteness-making is one of those human-making technologies, which I think was very articulately explained a few minutes ago. But that, the argument goes, that the structure of that argument is producing the class of entities that can be killed but not murdered. And those entities who are in the category that we will now call human, can be murdered, and if one kills, one is committing homicide, that making-killable.

Agamben makes some of these arguments in contemporary theory, but it’s made in a bunch of places, that that set of moves that produces the not-me as a class of what is killable. Watch this in the entire animal-industrial complex, which rests on that move. Not that, you know, chickens are homo sapiens, but I think that a serious multispeciesism does not produce everybody as honorary humans, as humans in fur coats or feathers, or vice versa, but the really serious difference, that really matters at a quite extraordinary level, in the kind of multispecies political ecology that I’m talking about. But that precisely what produces the human as over and against all else, whether that human is produced as technology, or as white, the various ways of producing the human, is to produce that category then, as part of a world that is killable without it being murder. I think that theory goes pretty far.

[Dialogue Participant] I have to say it again, because I tried to say it before, but you can get caught, and then you lose it. I think that the military guy goes from moving to calling them savages to terrorists after the tree collapses, right? So once they, and they’re amassing right? So now, they are no longer savages, but with the possibility of attacking, in a serious way, they become terrorists.

[Donna Haraway] Yeah. At one point, he really wanted permission to exterminate from the very first scene, he really wanted to go for extermination from the get-go, but his final move to utter killability, the move to making absent, that move to the elimination of the very category of the end, that kind of conflict – which is alas and alack, probably the principle technology of making what counts as human.

[Dialogue Participant] What if the main character was African-American? How do you think it would change the movie or change people’s point of view of the movie?

[Donna Haraway] I was thinking about that too, I think that’s really um – let me ask you what you think first?

[Dialogue Participant] Well, a lot of people have said sort of like, you know, how you’ve said about the white savior, do you think it would make a difference if it was like, an African-American?

[Donna Haraway] I think a little bit would depend on how it’s done. But unless an awful lot was done with a whole lot of savvy, I think it would only enhance the kind of techno-fable that the African-American savior – that I think the techno-human logically would remain in place, and if anything, would be enhanced in its appeal. But I think that making him white was almost a mistake, if one is interested in how the ideology becomes more powerful.

[Dialogue Participant] James Cameron is very interested in the atomic attack on Hiroshima. And I don’t know if you saw in the newspaper, but a fellow named Tsutomu Yamaguchi just recently passed away, maybe a couple of weeks ago. He was a double atomic bombing survivor, he survived Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

[Donna Haraway] What a burden.

[Dialogue Participant] Well, and he lived up to, I think he was in his nineties when he died. And his whole purpose of life after surviving these bombings was to be a witness, basically. But, it’s interesting to me that Cameron is quite interested in that, and he spent time with Yamaguchi. There’s a new book out called The Last Train From Hiroshima, written by Pellegrino. And Pellegrino worked on Titanic, so Cameron is quite interested in this, he’s friends with Pellegrino. I’m halfway through the book, it’s a very compelling script, but it combines some of these things in Avatar in some really interesting ways. Now, I don’t know if we’re going to be able to sit and watch a 3D movie of the atomic attack on Hiroshima, but…

[Donna Haraway] But it works allegorically. And I think that, for me, it is important that Avatar rejects the genocide on Pandora – that, whatever the problematic nature of the future of Pandora, Pandora is on the map, after all. That this is not over, either internally or externally. That said, the Na’vi did not succumb, did not become objects of extermination. You know, and the whole planet vomited it out, literally, the planet vomited the logic of extermination and killability. And, you know, you could read that in a lot of different ways, but that’s one of the kind of – I don’t know, hope isn’t exactly the right word. There’s something about that, that is right, for me.  

Sensors Capture The Faces You Make Inside Your VR Mask

Sensors Capture The Faces You Make Inside Your VR Mask (source)

[Jon Goldberg-Hiller] I’m one who enjoys the film in part because the characters didn’t develop – there was very much a separate view, or point about some of these developments. Sigourney Weaver being one, and yet, perhaps there’s something rather interesting that follows along with what you said about nature-culture, in thinking about the film, and that is that ultimately, I think, the film, it’s almost quite critical of the notions of what reality might be. That, even though it’s talked about, there’s a constant play with avatars, that they’re seeking something that you know they can’t get, because it’s “unobtanium”, and yet there is a kind of reality that emerges that is not really the notion of nature, and the real, which can be put onto the indigenous. It’s more this notion of the real as being plastic. This creature, the Goddess, in the tree and in the ground, is a Goddess of change, of incorporation, and that consumes Sigourney Weaver, eats her, uses that as an opportunity to rethink the whole Western cosmology. And the suggestion is, I think, a rather subtle one, that works against a lot of the logics that you could see as purely colonialist. And that is that the reality is that you know, philosophically, it would be like Catherine Malabou’s work on plasticity [also, see The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic]. That the only thing that is real is the kind of form that can give other forms, and that can bring about change in doing so. And that’s what this creature is.

[Donna Haraway] I think also, in conjunction with that, reality is also what is at stake in the frame of this film. It’s ongoing and it’s not – it’s vulnerable, and it matters.

[Jon Goldberg-Hiller] It matters as nature-culture, it matters as a way of assuming and consuming, and reproducing, and transforming in very subtle ways. It’s very plastic in that way.

[Amy Donahue] Yeah. I like that interpretation a lot, but I think there are a few things standing in front of it. And first of all is the transfer, from you know, the hero, into the native position that happens at the end, and the way that’s constituted. In order for him to transfer over and become a Na’vi, he needs to win the woman, become a leader, obtain this dragon, do all of these things that replicate his positionality.

[Donna Haraway] And sacrifice his own body.

[Amy Donahue] And sacrifice his own body, but not his privilege. You know, that remains very much constant. And even as well, as he’s the symbol of the human for the white society, he achieves that by dominating nature, by dominating that big, orange dragon creature. So, it’s by establishing the centeredness of the human that he attains that position. I think that challenges the nature-culture interpretation. I think that it’s there, but…

[Donna Haraway] Except that nature-culture need not necessarily be nice.

[Amy Donahue] Well, that’s true. But the thing is there’s a discursive elimination that’s happening, you know, through that move. So, I mean, there’s all sorts of sexualities that are occurring in the film, including same-sex sexualities, between the steeds. Which are same-sex coded, rather than multiple sex – they’re having, you know, ponytail sex, with the trees, and with so many different aspects of the ecology.

[Donna Haraway] Yeah, these fabulous couplings of all kinds, polymorphous…

[Amy Donahue] But all that which seems to draw out nature-culture is ultimately erased in the movie.  

[Donna Haraway] Yeah, I think maybe the only thing I would – it’s, the words like ultimately, it’s the bottom-lineism, that the movie, for me, is this. The “yes, and” – and then, how can I hold all the contradictions which the film itself may not, but this moment does. Also, we have, for the most part, in our hour or so of talking, said very little about the Na’vi characters. Which is surely something. I didn’t, we didn’t, say very much, and there are many quite powerful and compelling Na’vi characters. And we didn’t collectively, though we acknowledged all these various things, and we clearly, maybe spent most of the film in that space, the marine-biological environment of the aerial forest, the extraordinary bioworld of the forest, which was very active in the film, extremely active, a real player.

I think we don’t know how really, to talk about these things, even though they’re very powerful in the experience that brought us together. And I think the character, the woman that the man finally got, although, hardly as a virgin bride in chains – one must say that you could joke about the “I see you” lines, that they were maybe a bit embarrassing as dialogue. That said, there is something about recognition, and ascent out of something that I’m not willing to just be a critic of. I feel like the critic-function, in all of this – god knows we need to cultivate it and develop it – but it is a little like cleaning the toilet. It will never go away, and it’s not the house. That, whatever it is that leaves us to live in, imagine, cultivate, build the house, though perhaps, getting better and better at cleaning the toilet. I’m thinking that we need to maybe wind up, and break informally, but I don’t want to cut anybody off. So, there were still some hands about… Maybe this is a good time. And so, I will say thank you.



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