What Stories Tell Stories

I’m working on several projects right now – turning my dissertation on food allergy advocacy into a book, exploring the enmeshment of financial techniques with biomedical research, and launching a VR art series with a group of women artists – and one thing that ties my approach to all of them together is concern about the narrative frameworks we use to talk about science, technology, and progress. Three books I’ve read this fall are grounding my thoughts about the narrative challenges of storytelling in our technoscientific world.

First and foremost is Donna Haraway’s new book, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press). In it, Haraway continues her long-term project of denaturalizing the categories of species and kind. She is also in conversation here with multidisciplinary concerns about the anthropocene: the idea that we live in a unique age, the characteristic feature of which is the impact of humans upon the planet and the organisms and global systems (like climate) that we share it with. Characteristically ironic and contrarian, she has her own name for our times: the chthulucene. The chthulucene is the age of the dark and forgotten ones, the ones under the earth, the organisms too small in scale for our regard and the processes too large in scale for us to understand. The chthonic ones “have no truck with ideologues; they belong to no one; they write and luxuriate in manifold forms and manifold names in all the airs, waters, and places of earth. They make and unmake; they are made and unmade. They are who are.”

Donna Haraway, remember, is the same writer who declared in the Cyborg Manifesto that we need to do away with origin stories that posit fundamental breaks within the self.The narrative problem for Haraway’s Chthulucene is how to tell stories that do chthonic actors and scales justice. One response enacted in this book is to be willing to tell intricate stories that involve humans, technologies, and non-human organisms as actors, but not as actors in identical ways. Pigeons in current pigeon fancier communities still have pigeon agency and pigeon ethics and pigeon love for other pigeons and their humans. They can do pigeon science in cooperation with attentive human caretakers and scientists. Sheep for the Navajo have figured as material wealth and symbolic wealth as well as economically-important natural resources; the history of Navajo sheep is also a history of colonization, genocide, instrumental scientific reason, identity politics, globalization, woven blankets, and the humans and sheep dogs who tend them.

SF holds these stories together. SF is both a referent – “science fiction, speculative fabulation, string figures, speculative, feminism, science fact” – and a method of telling stories that is complex, relational, and attentive to connections and oppression. It is a mode of weaving, metaphoric kin to the weaving practices of (not-simply-traditional) Navajo weavers, weaving together materials and meanings and histories to produce partial connections, subjective positions, and persons of many species. As Haraway writes,

“It matters what 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.”

The stories we tell in and about technoscience, who tells them, about whom, and how, all matter for our relational and political futures.

Added to the mix are recent books by Janet Roitman and Ann Stoler. Both books question how key concepts shape our understanding of histories. At stake for Stoler in Duress: Imperial Durabilities in our Times (Duke University Press) is how the concept of “the colony” was mobilized in the early modern history of the European colonial project. She writes:

“Already knowing what a colony is precludes asking whether ambiguous nomenclatures, competing visions, repeated failures, and reversals of course (and the violence and fortressed settledness they engender) prefigure “the colony” as something else – rather than as a site of settlement, an always unstable and precarious project, plagued by the expectant promise (and fear) of its becoming something other than which its visionaries prescribed.”

Understanding that concepts like “the colony” are unevenly and inconsistently used, and shaped through being used to structure social life, helps us see “their capacity to morph, to identify what might otherwise construe as peripheral sites of their making or as uncertain, wayward, deviating features, set aside because they seem to lead us astray.” By allowing concepts flexibility, we may thus be motivated to uncover more accurate stories about the past and be more imaginative about the political possibilities of the future those pasts produce.

In the extended-essay-in-book-form Anti-Crisis (Duke University Press), Roitman’s concern is how “crisis” was the go-to narrative framework used by both popular and scholarly writers to tell the more recent history of the 2007-2009 United States housing market collapse. She ponders the odd ontological status of “crisis” as the lynchpin for understanding a process like the development of economic illiquidity in a market, asking,

“How did crisis, once a signifier for a critical, decisive moment, come to be construed as a protracted historical and experiential condition? The very idea of crisis as a condition suggests an ongoing state of affairs. But can one speak of a state of enduring crisis?”

What is at stake in pulling apart the crisis-as-a-given framing of accounts of historically important times is the ability to find more hard-edged and enduring critiques of the social practices that give rise to misery. If both analysts and participants alike frame a problem as a “crisis,” she suggests, the critique doesn’t matter, since it already is in agreement with the participants’ perspective and is thus stuck quibbling over small details. Instead, she prompts us to consider:

“What are the possibilities generated by suspending crisis as the foundation of narration and critique?”

In other words, what other stories can we tell, what other worlds can we remember, in order to tell new stories and make new worlds?

So what does it mean to tell responsible stories for/in/of technoscience? I think it means a willingness to be complex. It also means being be deeply interested in history without assuming our current concepts and narrative frameworks map onto past or future configurations of nature and society. It means letting go of the idea that history and the concepts we design to describe it provide a simple road map for futures – but simultaneously recognizing that futures mushroom out of the materials of past and present. Knowing our pasts and presents in detail, understanding patterns of oppression and opportunity, means telling stories we might not reflexively think are at the center of things. It means seeking out the stories of the oppressed and forgotten and overlooked to show the full ramifications of the stories of the powerful.

Here is the methodological lesson I take from all of this. SF storytelling means taking inspiration from marginal stories to find templates for living together in times that we might otherwise experience as characterized by crisis and decline. Moreover, the concepts and narratives we use to tell our stories need to be understood as changing and changeable. “Food allergy” and “virtual” and “reality” and “biotechnology” and “the corporation” are keywords in my work, but they haven’t meant the same thing all along, and by writing about them I will contribute to their ongoing metamorphosis.

So as I write and pursue new projects about contemporary technoscience, I am compelled to ask: Where are the points of resistance, collaboration, and reconfiguration of family and economic structures? Where and how can partial affinities – perhaps based on gender or race, but also based on skills, profession, shared commitments to specific caring practices – be the basis for care-ful remakings of the current social order? These are the tools that matter for making technoscience domestic, scalable, and generative. These are the stories and worlds to tell in hopes that they will generate new kinds of stories that are not premised on separation and decline and world new, more livable worlds.

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