Playing String Figures with Companion Species

Haraway, Donna J. “Playing String Figures with Companion Species” in:

Haraway, D.J., 2016. Staying with the trouble: making kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, Durham.

String figures are like stories; they propose and enact patterns for participants to inhabit, somehow, on a vulnerable and wounded earth. My multispecies storytelling is about recuperation in complex histories that are as full of dying as living, as full of endings, even genocides, as beginnings.

In the face of unrelenting historically specific surplus suffering in companion species knottings, I am not interested in reconciliation or restoration, but I am deeply committed to the more modest possibilities of partial recuperation and getting on together.

SF is a sign for science fiction, speculative feminism, science fantasy, speculative fabulation, science fact, and also, string figures.

Playing games of string figures is about giving and receiving patterns, dropping threads and failing but sometimes finding something that works, something consequential and maybe even beautiful, that wasn’t there before, of relaying connections that matter, of telling stories in hand upon hand, digit upon digit, attachment site upon attachment site, to craft conditions for finite flourishing on terra, on earth.

String figures can be played by many, on all sorts of limbs, as long as the rhythm of accepting and giving is sustained. Scholarship and politics are like that too—passing on in twists and skeins that require passion and action, holding still and moving, anchoring and launching.

The critters of all my stories inhabit an n-dimensional niche space called Terrapolis. My fabulated multiple integral equation for Terrapolis is at once a story, a speculative fabulation, and a string figure for multispecies worlding.

Companion species are engaged in the old art of terraforming; they are the players in the SF equation that describes Terrapolis. Finished once and for all with Kantian globalizing cosmopolitics and grumpy human-exceptionalist Heideggerian worlding, Terrapolis is a mongrel word composted with a mycorrhiza of Greek and Latin rootlets and their symbionts.

Terrapolis is rich in world, inoculated against posthumanism but rich in com-post, inoculated against human exceptionalism but rich in humus, ripe for multispecies story-telling.

My scholar-friends in linguistics and ancient civilizations tell me that this guman is adama/ adam, composted from all available genders and genres and competent to make a home world for staying with the trouble. This Terrapolis has kin-making, string figure, SF relations with Isabelle Stengers’s kind of fleshy cosmopolitics and SF writers’ practices of worlding.

It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.

Companion species are relentlessly becoming-with. The category companion species helps me refuse human exceptionalism without invoking posthumanism. Companion species play string figure games where who is/are to be in/of the world is constituted in intra-and interaction.

Although they are among humanity’s oldest games, string figures are not everywhere the same game. Like all offspring of colonizing and imperial histories, I—we—have to relearn how to conjugate worlds with partial connections and not universals and particulars.

These string figures are thinking as well as making practices, pedagogical practices and cosmological performances. Some Navajo thinkers describe string games as one kind of patterning for restoring hózhó, a term imperfectly translated into English as “harmony,” “beauty,” “order,” and “right relations of the world,” including right relations of humans and nonhumans.

Not in the world, but of the world; that crucial difference in English prepositions is what leads me to weave Navajo string figures, na’atl’o’, into the web of SF worlding. The worlds of SF are not containers; they are patternings, risky comakings, speculative fabulations.

It matters which ideas we think other ideas with; my thinking or making cat’s cradle with na’atl’o’ is not an innocent universal gesture, but a risky proposition in relentless historical relational contingency. And these contingencies include abundant histories of conquest, resistance, recuperation, and resurgence. Telling stories together with historically situated critters is fraught with the risks and joys of composing a more livable cosmopolitics.

[On pigeons]

Building naturalcultural economies and lives for thousands of years, these critters are also infamous for ecological damage and biosocial upheaval. They are treasured kin and despised pests, subjects of rescue and of invective, bearers of rights and components of the animal-machine, food and neighbor, targets of extermination and of biotechnological breeding and multiplication, companions in work and play and carriers of disease, contested subjects and objects of “modern progress” and “backward tradition.” Besides all that, kinds of pigeons vary, and vary, and then vary some more, with kinds for nearly every spot on terra.

Pigeons are competent agents—in the double sense of both delegates and actors—who render each other and human beings capable of situated social, ecological, behavioral, and cognitive practices. Their worlding is expansive, and the SF games in this chapter do not touch very many, much less all, of the threads tied with and by these birds.

The collaborations among differently situated people—and peoples—are as crucial as, and enabled by, those between the humans and animals. Pigeons fly us not into collaborations in general, but into specific crossings from familiar worlds into uncomfortable and unfamiliar ones to weave something that might come unraveled, but might also nurture living and dying in beauty in the n-dimensional niche space of Terrapolis.

[… section on pigeon-human relations]

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.

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.