Reciprocity in the Time of Despair

I’m thinking about Donna Haraway, the biologist, feminist, radical and formulator of the descriptive value of recognizing and exploring the oddity of our interspecies reality. [1] That we live with companions virtually all the time and everywhere, and that we are not, in fact, able to think ourselves adequately as lone individuals. That we gain nothing from failing to recognize that we are composed of ourselves in social arrays  with fellow beings, with species, human and otherwise. That we are inhabited by others and others inhabit the world and make their way with us, that we would not be here if they did not. That without them, there would be no “us.” How else could a pigeon or a bacterium or a dog exist, she shows us, but for the historical position we arrived at with them, and they with us? Yet how do we treat them and their habitat, the dirt they share with us?

We live in colonies; we are colonized. We are colonial entities ourselves: collections of microbes as well as genetic particularity, and laden with behavioral practices that simply could not exist without their having been grown and developed in us through interaction with others.

History is an inextricable element with biology. Relation. “Symbiogenesis”, a word Haraway uses. “Tentacular thinking” … an expression of the homely ways that the world is filled with collaborators who supply one another with oxygen, waste, feeding grounds, places of play and reproduction, should we choose them. The genius of an octopus. The art of the orchid. The entangled, world-traveling, world-making collaborations that compose us and that we compose bring into existence phenomena and characteristics that could not otherwise exist nor be imagined without empathetic alliances. The world we view as biological is replete with examples. This is only the beginning of what she has taught me.

* * * * * * *
How would Rui and I differ today if we had had each other to grow with? In biology and anthropology [sic], we can view the developments of arts of “living on a damaged planet” today; yet they are damages that long preceded us out of necessity and strangulation points, bottlenecks which demand our attention now because, well because, as Haraway points out, we are on schedule to have increased our human number by 9 billion over a period of 150 years. Driven to salvage now, we can look at current and past lives and see how the expansion and contraction of kinship (whether or not it entered into our thinking) has alternately aided our growth, and brought us to a brink of what most see as catastrophe. How could a forest ever have existed if the ground cover had not kept the roots safe, if the roots had not bent to balance the light seeking of branches, hungry for sunlight, bending to where the temperature shows that nutrient vitality can be manufactured, up, in the air? The plants hear our approach; they adapt to our presence if they can. How many stalks out of the brain stem of our own nervous systems have grown fuller and reached farther, in order to meet a stimulus or warmth, be it from the sun, or a parent’s hand? How many calories are there in the love of a parent extended to his child’s comfort and growth? I only relate these elements because they are my story; my part to play. To have raised my child alongside the others, for that would have given us both, given us all, more life; not less. How stagnant and stale it is, apart!

* * * * * *

A month after Trump was elected, I was fortunate to hear a talk given by Jedediah Purdy, [2] thanks to the glories of the Internet. Purdy is a law professor at Duke, but more than that he is a writer of consequence. In the talk, video-recorded at Harvard, he read from Henry David Thoreau, as out-of-fashion an author as you might find. The lines were written in the 1850’s, from Thoreau’s despairing moment of recognition of the falsehoods that ran through the accommodations he had made with his country like air pockets through a Swiss cheese. His country at that moment was Massachusetts, where a fugitive slave law was upheld by the courts, thus assuring that men and women desperate for freedom and safe haven would be returned to their slave masters to resume a life that was a living death: being worked to death, and tortured by their “masters” who found their wealth and prosperity to be dependent on naked brutality. They would now see this brutality more fully and penetratingly enforced on those courageous and strong enough to attempt to save their lives. At this moment, Thoreau wrote feelings that resonate deeply with us today, in the fictive reality of Trump as future embodiment of power. Jedediah Purdy pulled the quotes:

“I have lived for the last month… with the sense of having suffered a vast and indefinite loss. I did not know at first what ailed me. At last it occurred to me that what I had lost was a country.”

Seeing the value of what he loves diminished beyond repair, Thoreau continues:

“I walk toward one of our ponds, but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base? We walk to lakes to see our serenity reflected  in them; when we are not serene, we go not to them. Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle?
The remembrance of my country spoils my walk. My thoughts are murder to the State…” [3]

Certainly we can empathize with the sorrows Thoreau felt he must then shoulder; to defy the rules he opposed because their open-eyed cruelty was repugnant to him. These were rules made for the benefit of profit-seeking; for the purpose of propping up a social structure founded on a principle of death dealing: expand, or die. This was the restoration to tyranny of the power to crush a challenge to its totality, its full spectrum domination of its ‘subjects’. But what is on the outer edges of this awakening from a dream, sympathetic as it is, is the non-recognition required over the period prior to this epiphany.

Who was it that lost a country that day during Thoreau’s walk? Did the fugitive slave who was to be returned, Anthony Burns, have a country to lose? This was the question raised at Jedediah Purdy’s talk. For all the angst I feel for the global impact with which the ascendance of Trump threatens the world, who was it that had this world to lose to begin with? When did its loss occur?

In the discussion, they talked about Ferguson, New York, Baltimore. I thought about Flint. About Syria. About Iraq. I thought about thousands upon thousands, expelled and forced to lie on the ground in the cold open edges of Europe today. I thought about lifeboats capsized in the Mediterranean for two summers. I thought about all those in Japan who were forced to live in the shadows of the enormous military base camps of Okinawa, their rights, their dignity and the pleasures of living denied them. I thought of all the children without the guidance and psychological care of their parents, who had no institutions to care to protect them from the cruelty and profit seeking subcultures of child abduction. I thought of how barren is life, here and there, without my own son. I thought about the institutions that stole my country, long before Trump and the new right wing crazies. Many of the culprits are the same ones. And it is they who will create the new accommodations to which we must either be resigned, or plot against.

Donna Haraway shows us in her writing that despair and hope are poor resources with which to think and create. We must be less fearful of the future at the very moment when it is most violently threatened. We have to achieve present-mindedness in order to fight back against them, seeing where we are, now.

My thoughts are murder to the State.


    1. Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, Duke University Press.
    1. Jedediah Purdy, “The Politics of Nature in a Time of Political Fear.”
    1. Henry David Thoreau, “Slavery in Massachusetts.” Collected Essays and Poems. Library of America, p.344-347
  1. Jedediah Purdy’s talk has since been edited and posted here!

 I honor my heroes and favorites, and continue to try to reach Rui this way.
I keep saying it to myself… More posts, and briefer ones! More – with brevity. No manifestos; just direct, from the day, outreach.

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