Do It Yourself! A New Film on the Life and Work of Donna Haraway

In ‘Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival’, the feminist theorist discusses ‘living well and giving heart’

For decades, Donna Haraway has pushed against assumptions about gender essentialism, colonialism and human exceptionalism on which the dominant narratives of the history of science and technology are founded. Her avowedly feminist practice has forged hybrid connections between ways of thinking from philosophy to art and beyond. Linking ideas about ‘speculative fabulation’, science fact and science fiction under the single banner of ‘SF’, her recent work foregrounds the practice of storytelling as a way of thinking about the future. Her collaboration with filmmaker Fabrizio Terranova, Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival (2016), which is now released online and on DVD, builds on her writing and thinking in works such as Primate Visions (1989), When Species Meet (2008) and Staying with the Trouble (2016). 

Hestia Peppe Your writing has always made important connections to artists and their work. Collaborating with Fabrizio Terranova on Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival, you took this process further than ever. What was making the film like for you?

Donna Haraway I met Fabrizio at a week-long colloquium organised by Isabelle Stengers. He showed one of his previous films, Joseé Andrei: An Insane Portrait (2010) which was really intriguing; it affected me deeply. It’s about a blind woman in San Francisco, an artist who works with vivid colour and who is an important person in Fabrizio’s life. The next morning, Fabrizio introduced himself to me and said he wanted to do a film with me too, and it wasn’t to be a documentary or a portrait of me particularly, it was in some haptic, visual way to be about ideas, about storytelling and the things that I am passionate about. I liked that approach a lot. 

I thought it would be easy; he, of course, knows more about the work involved in making a serious film than I do. It took the best of us for a long time, several filming sessions with a cameraman and sound person he brought with him. Between us, the film grew. It was an interesting and demanding experience because this is the first time I’ve worked with a filmmaker. I like that Fabrizio did not invade my privacy but evoked connectivity. Also, his concern with form in the finished film was amazing.

Fabrizio Terranova, Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival, 2016. Courtesy: the artist and Studio Graphoui, Brussels

Fabrizio Terranova, Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival, 2016. Courtesy: the artist and Studio Graphoui, Brussels

HP In the film you talk about your father, who was a sports writer, describing how his work affected yours. Can you say how such a tendency to autobiography, auto-ethnography or perhaps memoir connects to your thinking about SF? 

DH It’s hard to answer this. On the one hand, I think of myself as a very private person. On the other, it is absolutely true that both my speaking performance and my writing involves a whole lot of performing intimate personal and familial stories and though they’re true, they’re also shaped by narrative. They’re neither memoir nor fiction and I’m resisting the word auto-; it’s more like sym-fiction, it’s yoked to many things. 

My younger brother has my father’s crutches in his living room. Those crutches are artefacts that themselves are articulate, that are constantly producing storytelling. The crutches are articulate just as they were articulated with my father during his life. The question is of embodiment and being in the world and living for and with each other, taking care of each other and the complexity of a body like my father’s, that has been deeply marked by diseases like tuberculosis – world historical diseases. My first husband died of AIDS and that’s in the film, too, significantly. He and his lover Bob were among the early deaths of gay men in the United States from AIDS. 

It’s about articulating lives. Both my brothers and I would take my Dad’s crutches, one of us would get to use them and we would race on them, so the tie to SF, speculative fabulation, science fiction, science fact, all those things, is an easy tie. It’s not so much a road from one to the other as a kind of string figural connectivity. 

HP The film takes place in domestic settings both in and outside your two homes, troubling the binary often drawn between natural and human-made. To what extent are place and home-making related to your ideas about ‘staying with the trouble’?

DH A group of us bought land in Sonoma County in 1977 and rebuilt a collapsed house that had been condemned, planted an orchard from the antique apple nursery and many other things. It’s where Jay and Bob died in the late 1980s and early ’90s; that place is just so full of so much. The house in Santa Cruz is connected to the university; for many years I commuted because of job and family commitments to the two places. My living spaces have always been where I write. So, it’s not a division between home and work or nature and not nature but they tie together in ways that I care about. They are both about kin making.

What I like most about the way the film handles this is that it brings forth the care of place. It’s places with whom you make who you are and the care of place and place’s care of you: ‘you’ collectively, not just individually. It’s about love of place and work and play and living and dying in place. I think one of the deep crises of our larger global problems is the degree to which people are violently removed from place in forced migration, loan foreclosures, mortgage crises, unaffordable rents, drought, land seizures, you name it.

Fabrizio Terranova, Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival, 2016. Courtesy: the artist and Studio Graphoui, Brussels

Fabrizio Terranova, Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival, 2016. Courtesy: the artist and Studio Graphoui, Brussels

HP We know now that the time left to take action against climate change is very brief. What do you think the role of storytelling and the arts is, given this urgency?

DH There’s so much to say. All of us are at risk of toppling into hopelessness or cynicism or both, a toppling away from staying with the trouble. It’s not just climate change; climate stands in for a whole raft of things. I have been converted to saying climate justice or environmental justice, but justice itself isn’t enough. I think what I would want is to be saying climate justice and care. Continuing to work with, as best we can, to join with, agitate, imagine, build and form alliances. Support people, like the water defenders, who are putting their bodies in the way, and take action ourselves.

None of us have any excuse for not being part of something but in the mix, I think that the practices of reimagining, proposing, storying, laughing, dancing and playing, of connecting, of sexuality, all the practices of these things are about living well and giving heart. 

I don’t think we should be approaching these dilemmas with the notion that they have to be fixed. The job is to live well, which includes bringing down the various extractive and exploitative industries and so forth, and this living well is for a thick present. Nobody knows what will work in the future. I think we have the best chance of things actually working if we’re doing the best job of building lives in this thick present which value each other and take care of each other and that job includes politics and economics, but it also includes, hugely, the imaginative practice of storying for giving heart. The present is not a vanishing instant; it is a rich temporality of living and dying, inheriting pasts and enabling futures, but not futurist and not fixated on a vanished past. A thick present, a thick now is the potent time at stake.

Donna Haraway: Story Telling For Earthly Survival is now available to stream on Amazon, iTunes, Vimeo, as well as on DVD via Icarus Films.

Feminist thinker and Historian of Science Donna Haraway is Distinguished Professor Emerita in the History of Consciousness Department at UC Santa Cruz, USA and the author of 12 books.

Main image: Fabrizio Terranova, Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival, 2016. Courtesy: the artist and Studio Graphoui, Brussels

Hestia Peppe is an artist who lives in London, UK. She is also a PhD candidate at Sheffield Hallam University, UK.

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