SHERRYL VINT is an US academic and critic, currently Professor of Science Fiction Media Studies in the English department of the University of California, Riverside. She is the author of Bodies of Tomorrow, Animal Alterity, Science Fiction: A Guide for the Perplexed, Science Fiction: The Essential Knowledge, and Biopolitical Futures in Twenty-First Century Speculative Fiction, and the co-author of The Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction and Programming the Future: Politics, Resistance and Utopia in Contemporary Speculative TV. She received the SFRA Award for Lifetime Contributions to SF Scholarship in 2020.
Story lies at the center of how we make sense of ourselves within a larger world, and stories are both explanation and practice: they have material effects that shape our behaviour and our behaviour, in turn, shapes the world we can encounter. In a twenty-first century defined by ongoing extinctions, anthropogenic climate change, and growing inequality rooted in capitalist ways of seeing the world as resource, we urgently need new collective understandings of what it means to be human that can orient us toward embracing new kinds of collectivities, new relations of kinship. This overview begins from the premise that anthropocentric methodologies and theories—the stories we have told ourselves since at least the Enlightenment era, and which ground Western colonialism and capitalism—are inadequate to the challenges we face today, which includes the limitations of the liberal humanist subject as a project of human being. Urgently, we need new stories because stories are the beginning of knowledge production: new modes of being become possible once we begin to tell different stories about who we are, how we are entangled with other life, and what values should anchor our modes of engaging with this larger world.
. Myth is thus the method. In what follows, I will outline some of the scholars and tools that can help us in this task of mythologizing anew from non-anthropocentric premises, focusing on a critique of how the story of human exceptionalism is implicated in the damage done by capitalist extractivism and colonial racism. Crucial to this endeavor is a recognition of the centrality of story to our ways of framing and understanding science, and particularly a rejection of what Bruno Latour, in We Have Never Been Modern, calls the “modern” constitution that has separated science from culture, nature from politics, mythologizing one side of this divided whole (science) as universal, about absolute truth, while demoting the other (culture) as contingent and fabricated. This “modern” way of seeing the material world—which is also a Western, colonialist way of separating humans from other life, science from story—gives us incomplete understandings of both science and politics, Latour argues. To be modern is to live in a set of stories that divides the world into “two entirely distinct ontological zones: that of human beings on the one hand; that of the nonhumans on the other”1Never Been Modern 10–11. In his lectures published as Facing Gaia, Latour turns more directly to European religious mythologies and to consider how their secularization constituted European peoples as a collective that does not acknowledge a supreme authority beyond its own capacities. Latour theorizes that all collectives are formed through story—which he calls religion, and defines, via Michel Serres, as “that to which one clings, what one protects carefully, what one thus is careful not to neglect”2Facing 145. All collectives, he argues, are thus religious in this etymological sense, but “there are collectives that neglect many elements that other collectives consider extremely important and that they need to care for constantly”3Gaia 145. Attending to how we form our collectives and whom they include is an urgent political and materialist task.
Within this framework, Latour reintroduces a notion of Gaia, but ultimately Latour finds the domain of the sacred, including the elevation of Nature into a deity, a limiting framework precisely because it too views kinship from a position outside or beyond entanglement. In contrast, he advocates for a way of understanding people as “in the middle of relations that they have to compose one by one without any means of escaping historicity,” a perspective he calls “earthboundedness”4Facing 178. His Gaia is not external to humanity, but both internal and external simultaneously; it must be understood locally, not projected as universal. Both religion and science in Western epistemology cannot accommodate this terrestrial, historicized materiality, and so Latour’s Gaia is a figure contra the figure of Nature as transcendent authority that has anchored much of Western knowledge. Western worship of Nature partakes of the modern’s separation of science from society, while Latour’s Gaia and the people that might be constituted as a collective through care of/for Gaia are terrestrial, a way of being that he contrasts with the humanity of the Moderns, as he styles them in this work. Being people of Gaia, for Latour, compels a return to historicity and a sense of the openness of the future, a future that is created jointly—as it has always been—by human and nonhuman participants, our relations with one another, and the stories (what we cling to, what we neglect) that we tell ourselves.
. Latour’s way of framing the issue helps us to recognize how the presumed universality of Western knowledge systems, especially the separation of detached, experimental science from other ways of knowing, is the key myth of modernity that needs to be rewritten. For many peoples excluded from and oppressed by Western modernity, these other modalities of knowledge have never been lost. As Leanne Betasamosake Simpson argues in As We Have Always Done, Indigenous ways of understanding and being in the world do not separate human from other life. It is vital not to collapse all Indigenous cosmologies into one another, yet certain core concepts recur across a range of Indigenous cultures, most centrally an understanding of other life as kin with humanity, not as resource for our extraction and accumulation. Another idea that Simpson discusses and which recurs in the discussion of Indigenous worldviews by scholars such as Mark Rifkin, Elizabeth Povinelli, and Donna Haraway, is reciprocity: humanity may take from the land, but it must also give back—indeed “We should give back more than we take”5Simpson 9. This reciprocity also requires considering future generations and honouring answers: it exceeds the present moment.
Simpson insists on the relationship between how we understand what it means to be people (what I am calling our grounding stories or myths) and material practice. As she explains about her Nishnaabeg identity, “how we live, how we organize, how we engage in the world—the process—[…] is the transformation. How molds and then gives birth to the present. The how changes us. How is the theoretical intervention”6Simpson 19, emphasis in original. While our knowledge structures are important to the shift that Simpson articulates, she stresses more strongly than Latour does that these ways of framing our understanding must be connected to a praxis, that action in some ways precedes belief. Instead of a project of invention, Simpson stresses one of engaging with what has been denigrated by the intellectual frameworks that Latour calls the Modern constitution: “If we want to create a different future, we need to live a different present, so that present can fully marinate, influence, and create different futurities. If we want to live in a different present, we have to center Indigeneity and allow it to change us”7Simpson 20. A later exchange between Simpson and Robyn Maynard, published as Rehearsals for Living, explores connections between Indigenous and Black resistance to the violence of the Western episteme against people of colour, showing how ecological exploitation of the land, dehumanization of non-Western peoples, and the sedimented structures of capitalism and colonialism are interrelated. Instead of an apocalyptic discourse of crisis, they offer ways of thinking about kinship and renewal, often using the mode of story to show us how other collective futures are possible.
. Mark Rifkin’s Fictions of Land and Flesh similarly puts work from Indigenous and Black studies into dialogue while being careful to insist that their distinct histories—and, in consequence, specific ways each are disempowered by racial capitalism and settler colonialism—produce distinct politics: an emphasis on land and sovereignty that contests Indigenous dispossession, and a concern with flesh and embodiment which critiques the dehumanization and the pathologization of Blackness. His work explores how these conceptual framings are interrelated, approaching the work through speculative fictions that are central to political imaginaries in each community. The power of such framings, Rifkin suggests, is that “futurist narratives allow us to see divergent ways of conceiving and perceiving, variable frames of reference through which to understand how things work in the world”8Rifkin 7. He argues that the fictionality of such narratives is part of their political power in a context where distinct histories of oppression must be navigated to find spaces of solidarity: these are “possible ways of describing what was, is and could be” and this modality “allows for the potential for there to be multiple modes of understanding that all may be true while also being nonidentical”9Rifkin 7, emphasis in original. Similarly drawing on Indigenous cosmologies to offer new ways to think about materiality, science, and truth, Povinelli argues in Geontologies that the distinction Western culture makes between living and inorganic entities is an expression of colonial governance. Drawing on Australian Aboriginal cultures which refuse this separation and find kinships with all matter, Povinelli critiques what she calls the Carbon Imaginary. The preference for matter that it is embodied in living forms is akin to human exceptionalism, she suggests, drawing attention to exchanges across organic and inorganic molecules that interrelate all matter, as recognized by Aboriginal stories and ways of living.
. Donna Haraway is perhaps the most influential Western theorist to work on the boundaries of science, imagination, and political possibility. Her famous “Cyborg Manifesto” insisted that we find new ways to tell stories about a world changed by the erosion of distinctions between (1) human and animal, (2) machine and organism, (3) materiality and virtuality. Throughout her career she has turned to science fiction as a fertile place of counter-hegemonic imaginaries, urging us to take seriously its role as the space of mythmaking for a science-centric culture. Haraway describes her project as one of cultivating liveable futures, always including nonhumans within her collectivities. Her cyborg figuration challenges the naturalizing of Western binaries, with a focus on gender, as she calls on feminists to recognize how science is being mobilized in ideologically specific ways and demonstrates how we can retell scientific stories otherwise to enable a politics of affinity rather than one of essences. In her later work, Haraway focuses increasingly on nonhuman species and environmental concerns. The Companion Species Manifesto emphasizes reciprocity as it asks us to acknowledge how animals’ material lives are shaped by both the narratives we tell about them and our ways of separating nature from culture. She points out, “We also live with each other in the flesh in ways not exhausted by our ideologies. Stories are much bigger than ideologies.”10Companion 17. New myths enable new insights into who we might be and what relationalities are possible, desirable.
In Staying with the Trouble, Haraway expands the abbreviation sf so that it means not only science fiction, but also “speculative fabulation, string figures, speculative feminism, science fact, so far”11Staying 2; the multiple meanings of sf share their capacity to enact material effects through what such stories put into the world: What shape is this kinship, where and whom do its lines connect and disconnect, and so what?”12Staying 2. The model of string figure provides a concrete image of the politics of story: a game of making patterns exchanged from one set of hands to another, a figuration of thinking and making as one. Haraway credits the Dine concept of hózhó as a knowledge practice that epitomizes this method. Hózhó, as she defines it, means “balance, harmony, beauty, right relations of land and people”13Staying 77. Staying with the Trouble embodies sf story as method in a section called “The Camille Stories,” which narrate speculative future generations who form genetic kinships with nonhumans.
Haraway is often described as one of the central theorists of posthumanism, a label she resists given that some versions of posthumanist theory, now more frequently called transhumanism, intensify rather than decenter the capacities associated with human exceptionalism in Western tradition. Haraway playfully suggests “compost instead of posthuman(ism), as well as humusities instead of humanities”14Staying 32, metaphors that emphasize instead that we are part of ecosystems, of morality and decay, a perspective closer to that embraced by Povinelli. Haraway’s work, nonetheless, has affinities with that of theorists who explicitly embrace the label posthumanism, such as Cary Wolfe and Rosi Braidotti, both of whom arrive at their formulations via a philosophical critique of humanism. Wolfe, working in Derridean tradition, has focused especially on the gap between our materiality and the history by which Western philosophy has described what it means to be human, focusing in particular on matters such as ethical duties we owe to other species. Braidotti works in a Deleuzian framework, combining a critique of liberal subjectivity with an analysis of material and historical changes that demand a response that she calls Posthuman Knowledge. Braidotti insists that the shift to the posthuman is an opportunity, contra those who fear the term as a mode of dehumanization, but consistent with other perspectives articulated here notes that we must construct this new mode of subjectivity in ways that acknowledge kinship but resist flattening and totalization: “a ‘we-are-(all)-in-this-together-but-we-are-not-one-and-the-same’ kind of subject”15Posthuman 58, as she names it.
Banu Subramaniam’s Ghost Stories for Darwin offers one reflection on why science needs stories and how stories enable new knowledge. She reflects on her work as a plant geneticist studying variation in conjunction with her training in women’s studies and her own experiences of gender discrimination in her profession. She figures the insights her reflections produce as ghost because they signify “a haunting reminder of an ignored past. Rendering ghosts visible and learning to listen to them attentively is a lesson about the unacknowledged and unresolved injustices of history”16Subramaniam LOC 644–646. Her ghost stories, drawn from her experimental work but also informed by experiments in fiction, write back to the ways that Darwinian theory has been restrictedly understood through notions of competition and maximization, reproducing the logics of capitalist/colonialist accumulation and rendering invisible parts of nature that are collaborative. This reframing demonstrates both the value of stories as sense-making practices and how science has never been as separate from mythmaking as Western epistemologies contend.
. Similarly working from biology to theorize politics differently, Samantha Frost’s Biocultural Creatures takes seriously materialist critiques of the liberal humanist subject but contends that we nonetheless need a politically useful way of talking about humans as a category. Beginning from an understanding of the material bonds that produce atoms, then various molecules that are the basis for tissues and biological functions, Frost offers a new story of what it means to be human, deeply informed by science, but beginning from the desire to think in terms of continuities and kinship, not ruptures and hierarchies. She thus arrives at a very different way of talking about the human via biology than was provided by the history of biological science as it developed within modernity. Describing material entities such as electrons or molecules as engaged in a project of perception of and response to environmental contexts, Frost offers a story of particularized materiality in which the body is not separated from its environment, but in constant interchange of properties with it; where genomic expression is contingently shaped by this context; and through which we can develop richer and more detailed accounts of how the social and material worlds are co-constitutive and how both inform the way we live. Frost argues that “an organism is the living trace—an accretion, a many-layered palimpsest—of many histories of creaturely engagements with habits” (Frost 123). She enables us to see how social and symbolic norms are enacted and encoded into the biology of the body: we are not biological creatures who then inhabit a culture, but biocultural creatures created materially via the biocultural habits we make and remake through body/environment interaction. Humans are a distinct kind of biocultural creature, and so we can theorize humanity as a collective, but we are not one defined mainly by our differences from the rest of the material world, contra humanism. This approach is similar to Karen Barad’s work, which begins with physics rather than with chemistry, and uses quantum theory to tell a new story about how matter relates to itself and how we can understand the substance of reality in a novel philosophical-scientific frame. Barad’s work, which demonstrates through that agents do not proceed their interactions but rather that the material world is constituted via our modes of being within it, concludes with the contention that ethics, ontology, and epistemology are inseparable and thus we need new intellectual systems for knowledge production that are based on this recognition.
. Haraway’s work following the “Cyborg Manifesto” has focused on human kinship with other species, but her invocation of the technological has been taken up by the collective Laboria Cuboniks in their Xenofeminst Manifesto. Embracing technology as a tool that can aid us in rejecting aspects of the given that have been fetishized as a proper mode of being by Enlightenment culture, this collective celebrates the power of technology by resignifying key terms for IT culture—Zero, Interrupt, Trap, Parity, Adjust, Parity, Overflow—to offer new mythologies of subjectivity. Unlike transhumanists such as Humanity+ or those invested in the singularity popularized by people such as Ray Kurzweil, the Xenofeminist Manifesto is premised on the rejection of the fantasies of transcendence so central to transhumanist culture while also willing to embrace technology as a tool to remake the self. Xenofeminists do not desire to escape the vulnerability of embodied and moral life, but instead reject what we might term the mythologization of Nature, especially heteronormative and transphobic invocations of nature to justify restrictive gender identities. “Anyone who’s been deemed ‘unnatural’ in the face of reigning biological norms, anyone who’s experienced injustices wrought in the name of natural order, will realize that the glorification of ‘nature’ has nothing to offer us,” they proclaim. Echoing and extending Haraway’s diagnosis in the “Cyborg Manifesto” that feminism must shape and critique scientific cultures, rather than dismiss them as inevitably tainted by capitalism and patriarchy, Laboria Cuboniks acknowledges that new technological tools, such as the algorithms that drive and sort so much of our quotidian life, entail significant risks. Yet in the face of these risks, it is imperative to engage in the “necessary assembly of techno-political interfaces responsive to these risks.” They argue that their approach offers a different way to think about the concept of the universal human subject, suggesting that xenofeminist politics are neither imposed from the top nor strictly built from the bottom up, but operate “laterally, opening new lines of transit across an uneven landscape. This non-absolute, generic universality must guard against the facile tendency of conflation with bloated, unmarked particulars—namely Eurocentric universalism.”
. Critical ways of thinking about our assemblages with machines, and the politics required in such a context, inform the work of scholars such as Ruha Benjamin and N. Katherine Hayles, both of whom focus on human-machine interfaces, although in distinct ways. Hayles is one of the figures most centrally associated with the emergence of posthumanism in the 1990s; the key theorists of human/machine interfaces such as Haraway were the key theorists of multispecies kinship. Hayles calls on us to reassess how we understand agency, cognition, and subjectivity in a contest of human-machine assemblages, much of her work illuminating the gap between our philosophical notions of these qualities—one might say our myths—and new understandings of how our brains work emerging from neuroscience and research in AI and robotics. In Unthought, Hayles theorizes what she calls the “cognitive nonconscious,” suggesting that our decisions, actions, and convictions are processed substantially by bodily systems that never rise to the level of conscious reflection, although we might later rationalize these motivations via post-facto reflection. The agents of many decisions in a technologically dense environment, Hayles argues, are human-machine assemblages that operate simultaneously on conscious and nonconscious levels. Therefore, she insists, we must recognize that the nonconscious is a kind of cognition, not its opposite. This builds on earlier work in which Hayles explores how we evolve alongside the machines, reflecting a shift toward a computational culture—a difference as substantial as the earlier move from oral to literate societies, and entailing similar changes to how memory functions, how we process information, and what information is deemed valuable. Her most recent Wellek lectures, published as Postprint, elaborate further on these differences as she addresses the emergence of AI systems increasingly engaged in the kind of cognitive work once thought to be the exclusive province of human reasoning.
. Benjamin’s work focuses on the effects of this world of human-machine assemblages, and particularly on the ways that often-nonconscious biases are structurally implicated in technological design, exacerbating discrimination. Too frequently, design choices fail to take note of cultural histories—precisely the issue of the Modern constitution that Latour laments—and thus the default of AI systems will tend to replicate and intensify historical prejudices unless specific steps are taken to counter this tendency. Benjamin looks at examples of design choices that presume a default humanity that is white and male, and thus can exclude people who do not match this particularity-taken-as-universal, such as automated sensors that do not perceive dark skin and thus do not react to it, or more dangerously, algorithms trained on Internet-based datasets, which thus learn to sort and evaluate based on structurally ingrained human biases. In Race After Technology, Benjamin refers to these predictable design trajectories as “the New Jim Code” and argues that “An #AllLivesMatter approach to technology is not only false inclusion but also poor planning, especially by those who fancy themselves as futurists”17Benjamin 24. What we take to be the neutral, she insists, is the structurally biased due to the Western-centric nature of modernity, and thus imagining new stories that expand kinship and inclusive through new intellectual frameworks is integral to the project of technological design.
. Benjamin’s work reminds us how stories about human difference used to justify colonial oppression are perhaps most consequential of the ways mythmaking creates or denies kinship. The most influential thinker in this space is unquestionably Sylvia Wynter, whose work is premised on conceiving of humanity as simultaneously biological and semiotic: we are shaped equally by mythos/story and by genetics/biology. In Wynter’s view, although multiple peoples of the world each have stories about what it means to be a person, the hegemony of Western colonial oppression since modernity has compelled everyone to live within a single limited “genre” of the human, a story premised on a kind of human (European, property-owning, white, masculine, straight) that foundationally puts Black being outside of the human. Theorizing what she calls the sociogenic principle of humanity, Wynter contends, “we can experience ourselves as human only through the mediation of the processes of socialization effected by the invented tekhne or cultural technological to which we give the name culture”18“Towards the Sociogenic Principle” 53. Her central project becomes finding ways to rewrite this tekhne, of inventing new cultural myths that have the capacity to become as foundational to our idea of what it means to be human as have been the binaries that Western humanism draws between itself and those it dehumanizes and represses. Much of Wynter’s thought draws analogies between genetic or instinctual modes of species-specific behaviour, by which we “adapt” ourselves to the material conditions we inhabit, and sociogenic or cultural experience of adaptation, by which the “‘socialized’ normal subject of each order must, like the organism, also know and classify the world in terms that are of adaptive advantage to its ‘artificial’ or culturally constructed ‘sense self’”19“Towards the Sociogenic Principle” 49. We experience our adaptation to this “artificial” or sociogenic code as if it were instinctual, she argues, meaning that we always know the world through our limited conceptual categories and situated viewpoints, mistaking our culturally specific truths for reality.
For Wynter, the main purpose of myths is to enable the human “autopoetically to institute itself as a now symbolically encoded mode of living being” that artificially makes our species into a collective via “inter-altruistic, kin-recognizing fictive modes of kin (or referent We(s))”20“Ceremony Found” 217. What Wynter calls the “referent We(s)” of each story/mythos allow humans to imagine and experience kinship beyond merely genetic similarity, and she calls for us consciously to take control of this “symbolically encoded mode of living being” such that we might tell stories whose “referent We” is the entire species, not the narrow “genre” of Western humanism Man. Wynter calls for a revolution in our governing modes of figuration, an effort to “consciously alter our modes of self-troping”21“Ceremony Must” 52 that she calls “ceremony.” Ceremony must find a way to “yoke the antithetical signifiers”22“Ceremony Must” 27, that is, the binaries that perpetuate modernity’s production of a single genre of the human to the detriment of racialized peoples, the poor, and the living world itself. This yoking of antithetical signifiers through a new origin story would allow us to constitute the human differently, and for Wynter we must do so at the species level precisely because the challenges that threaten our survival are ones that must be faced at a planetary scale, centrally environmental crisis and climate change. Her work powerfully insists that while myths are an ordering system that historically has perpetuated injustice, myth remains an open tool, one that equally can create moments of rupture that allow for another kind of human—another kind of sociality, another material relationship to the world—to emerge.
Wynter insists that decolonial projects of antiracism must be the starting point for any such new mythologies, as the same logic that turns some people into dehumanized labor for the projects of others also turns the material world into resources for capitalist extraction. There are evident parallels with Simpson’s theorizing of reality from Indigenous rather than Western standpoints, and although Wynter does not frequently address matters of our kinship with other species, she frames some of her work in dialogue with notions of the Anthropocene and the damage done by turning land into property. In some work Wynter theorizes our species as Homo narrans, arguing “[t]ransformation of being entails one of meaning—resemanticization of the Imaginary, of culture’s self-conception”23“Different Kind” 165. Wynter thus articulates the project of mythmaking as central to our politics, affirming a project she calls “second poetics” as our vital task: that is, to revalorize things that are denigrated in the damaged, existing social order (Blackness, poverty, idleness) and from these premises to articular a novel ideal of what is proper to a new “genre” of our species. Changing our stories is a matter of social and material justice.
Kathryn Yussof’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None follows a similar logic as it critiques the framing of the Anthropocene as species crises, reminding us that only a narrow way of being human—rooted in capitalist extractivism and colonial racism—has created the climate change and other realities we struggle to face today. The dehumanization of people of colour, which she argues is “organized by historical geographies of extraction, grammars of geology, imperial global geographies, and contemporary environmental racism” (Yussof xii), cannot be separated from attempts to address environmental damage. Jussi Parikka coins the term Anthrobscene in his eponymous book to explain entanglements between environmental damage, structural racism, capitalist extractivism, and our electronic devices. His goal is to theorize media outside of an anthropocentric framework, drawing attention to the mining practices required to extract metals needed for electronic devices, particularly coltan. Like Yussof, Parikka interrogates geology to show how the stories it tells about the material world are processes “of transformation where the earth becomes an object of systematized knowledge and the knowledge thus created of the earth’s resources is mobilized toward technological production, governmental geopolitics, and increasingly a global survey of the minerals of the earth”24Parrika 4. He asks us to imagine stories of electronic devices that embrace a temporal frame that includes their origin as minerals and their termination in landfills.
Anna Tsing’s work, which uses the term Plantationocene in place of Anthropocene (see Mitman), similarly insists on the historical entanglements of capitalism, colonialism, and ongoing environmental racism for understanding the ecological challenges we grapple with today—and thus for finding new ways of being beyond them. In The Mushroom at the End of the World, Tsing explores imperial and other histories bound up with the harvest of the matsutake mushroom, using this entity to offer a new way to theorize what she calls “third nature.” If first nature is the world before capitalist extractivism, and second nature the world as transformed by capitalism, including its plantation modes of agriculture, then third nature is “what survives in the ruins of capitalism”25Tsing viii. The matsutake is a promising figuration for Tsing because it cannot be cultivated but must be found in the limited areas it will grow, based on contingent environmental factors that human engineering has failed to reproduce. Harvest of the matsutake cannot be scaled like plantation agriculture; it will appear only within ecosystems that involve multispecies activities and exchanges, including humans. Like all mushrooms, the matsutake is also neither plant nor animal: it appears plantlike, but it digests as does an animal, showing the limitations of our conceptual categories. Mushrooms as species are integral to worldmaking, situated on the interstices between organic and inorganic chemistry, breaking down certain compounds in ways necessary to free their constituent parts for use by other species. This mushroom is thus an image for Tsing of the methods of “collaborative survival”26Tsing 2 which she argues we must invent to secure liveable futures. Crucially, Tsing does not romanticize the mutuality of collaboration: collaborations are also contaminations, and in the space of third nature “[w]e are stuck with the problem of living despite economic and ecological ruination”27Tsing 19.
As this range of theoretical interventions reveals, writing new kinds of myths to orient different cosmologies and kinships is necessary for human survival. Changing what it means to be human—understanding the human as an entity that changes—is how we begin to call forth new kinships, new socialites, new futures. The political urgency of such projects may begin from the need to redress inequality among humans, but with the understanding that humanity cannot exist outside of the ecosystems and planet on which we have evolved, it necessary must extend our kinship to other species. Haraway calls this sympoiesis, making with, insisting that the singularity of autopoiesis is not adequate to describe the new mythologies we need28Staying 5. The Mythopoesis for Techno-Living Systems project extends this term to highlight the constitutive role of story, something the project also describes as writing “speculative collectivities.” Speculative collectivities thus join with other practices of anti-capitalism, decolonization, multispecies flourishing, and utopian worldmaking as emancipatory projects required for liveable futures.
I will conclude this overview with a call to recognize practitioners of speculative fiction as already engaged in this project of making new worlds via what Wynter calls practices of revalorization. Space precludes a detailed discussion of the many pertinent works, but writers such as Octavia E. Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, Kij Johnson, and Sue Burke exemplify this ethos, and I have discussed them and others in detail elsewhere. Here I will just mention one recent work, Claire North’s Notes from the Burning Age, as exemplar of the power of such fiction as a site of knowledge production, a space of theorizing. The fiction does not simply reflect ideas developed elsewhere but is, as Haraway’s multiple expansions of the acronym “sf” note, a practice of both thinking and making. North’s book is set in a post-ecological-collapse future, one whose social order is premised on remembering the lessons of the failure of this “burning age” (our own), promulgated through religious practices reverent of the kakuy, guardian creatures who protect the ecosystem and may awaken to destroy humankind once more, as they did during the burning, should we return to our destructive ways. Readers enter this world at a moment when some are questioning the religious restrictions that shape the social order, articulating heretical views of human exceptionalism, the justness of social class distinctions, and an understanding of nature as resource rather than as kin.
What I find most fascinating about this book is that even the priests of this world, the Medj, openly express some ambiguity regarding the ontological status of the kakuy: As events unfold, do they awaken and return? Or is the destruction that follows simply the inevitable material consequence of destroying one’s environment through greed? And as North makes very clear, in the end, this question of ontology does not matter. The myths have power because they are a way of shaping our understanding of the world, thus our actions in it, and they offer an important framework of truth, even if there are also non-mythic ways to apprehend these same truths. Yet letting myths be the ground for explanation enables a kind of sociality that also sustains humans in living as they must to prevent another burning age. This novel brilliantly illustrates the power of mythmaking as political technology: mythmaking is important because the only way to sustain the liveable world is to continue to reiterate, to reinscribe on the level of embodied practice, a set of values we might call sympoiesis. The point is how we configure what it means to be human, not whether a supernatural entity exists to validate our self-fashioning story. I will conclude by letting the myth of the kakuy have the final word:
Temple teaches that the kakuy wake not because they are angry at humanity and the things it has done but because the cycle must not be broken. Anger, shame, guilt – such human things. It is hard to teach that the sky doesn’t care. Destroy ourselves, or live in peace – all this will someday end, and the earth will endure, in one form or another, whether humans breathe or not. In Tinics, the forest burned, and then the forest grew, and we were taught to give thanks that we lived in a world where that which is lost can grow again. Give thanks, they said. We are of the forest. We are of the earth and of the sky, boundless and eternal. So give thanks.”29North 368
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