Writing Risky Accounts
In a recent (2019) article about Donna Haraway she recounts an interesting interaction with herself, Bruno Latour, and a biologist at a conference in Brazil. The biologist, Stephen Glickman, privately asks the two of them: “I don’t want to embarass you, but do you believe in reality?” (1)
Haraway is recounting this anecdote as part of a discussion about how aspects of her work, particularly her writing on “situated knowledges” (2) in 1988 has been misconstrued and adopted by culture warriors, conspiracy theorists and bullshit artists in the contemporary information-ecosystem.
Her response explains the context and the stakes:
We were both kind of shocked by the question. First, we were shocked that it was a question of belief, which is a Protestant question. A confessional question. The idea that reality is a question of belief is a barely secularized legacy of the religious wars. In fact, reality is a matter of worlding and inhabiting. It is a matter of testing the holdingness of things. Do things hold or not?
Take evolution. The notion that you would or would not “believe” in evolution already gives away the game. If you say, “Of course I believe in evolution,” you have lost, because you have entered the semiotics of representationalism – and post-truth, frankly. You have entered an arena where these are all just matters of internal conviction and have nothing to do with the world. You have left the domain of worlding.
Her critics in the 80’s were the “science warriors”, a group determined to maintain a separation between culture studies and scientific research, as though scientific study could somehow be considered apart-from or separate-to the culture it was operating within and making observations about.
Haraway’s writing on situated knowledge aims to push back about the “god-trick” / disembodied omniscient perspective – “the god trick of seeing everything from nowhere.” (3) She pushes for recognition that everybody, even scientists, are located within their own material bodies, experiments are material relations, even observing a cell under a microscope changes the conditions for the cell, the observer, and that concrete act of observing a cell through a microscope and naming the observation, and framing it, is a process of “worlding”.
It’s important to contextualise Haraway historically, and her work in the 80’s as a feminist pushback against the patriarchal dominance of scientific orthodoxy at the time. Her ideas led into the wider philosophical movement broadly termed “new materialism”, which aims to maintain focus on matter in the scientific sense, but broaden the contextual frame to include situated perspectives, intra-actions between bodies (Barad), and flat ontologies in Actor-Network Theory (Latour).
Twenty five years on from her essay and it is a grim validation of the power of her arguments that the contemporary creators of pernicious mis- and disinformation have shaped conspiracist ideologies under the guise of “doing your own research” which has no relation to any scientific method and is much more likely to involve a solid afternoon on social media being fed more and more corrosive material. The science warriors have been usurped by the culture warriors, and the terms of the debate have moved from science and culture are separate to science is culture and everything is completely subjective (situated).
Feminist objectivity is about limited location and situated knowledge, not about transcendence and splitting of subject and object. It allows us to become answerable for what we learn how to see. (4)
Haraway (and Barad, and Latour etc) have always maintained the importance of the relations between actors / agents / materials / matter. The ongoing process of relating is the “body without organs” in the Deleuzian sense. The conspiracists perversion of the “subjective knowledge” perspective is designed to rupture the relationality between an individual and their immediate situation, to dislocate them from the immanence of their own existence. Thus unmoored, they become tethered to the only “truth” they believe is real – even if the only evidence for their new reality was delivered via a sweaty guy on Youtube. in the words of Orwell, “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” Which, ironically, is a phrase that the conspiracists have co-opted as well.
Haraway has a strategy for the future, and emphasises the importance of “play” as a way of interpreting a lot of what’s happening in the world, and as a mindset for creating new possibilities.
We need to develop practices for thinking about those forms of activity that are not caught by functionality, those which propose the possible-but-not-yet, or that which is not-yet but still open.
It seems to me that our politics these days require us to give each other the heart to do just that. To figure out how, with each other, we can open up possibilities for what can still be. And we can’t do that in a negative mood. We can’t do that if we do nothing but critique.
The emphasis on a positive perspective actually chimes with what a lot of the successful conspiracist and populist figures are really good at: upbeat versions of the future (3). If we listen to Haraway closely and craft uplifting stories to tell about the future we want to see in the world, then the subversive potency of the conspiracy theory will diminish.
** Cover Image – Birds Aren’t Real refers to a satirical conspiracy theory set up in 2017 by Peter McIndoe, on a whim, after witnessing Trump political rallies. Currently it hasn’t been adopted by the flat-earthers and anti-vaxxers but, never say never.
Header image – By Andrewj0131 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=105500110
Weigel, M. (2019). Feminist cyborg scholar Donna Haraway: ‘The disorder of our era isn’t necessary’. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/20/donna-haraway-interview-cyborg-manifesto-post-truth.
Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: the Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, [online] 14(3), pp.575–599. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3178066.
Dawood, S. (2022). From QAnon to anti-vax: Can you cure a conspiracy theorist? [online] New Statesman. Available at: https://www.newstatesman.com/spotlight/cybersecurity/2022/03/conspiracy-theories-online-psychology