Monday, December 3, 2012

An interesting speech I somehow missed

I don't know how it happened, but I somehow missed that Donna Haraway won the Science Fiction Research Association's Pilgrim Award in 2011. (This year's winner, as you may recall, was Pamela Sargent.) I realized this today, when I finally got around to opening a triple-issue of the SFRA Review, which arrived in my mailbox months and months ago. This publication printed Haraway's lengthy acceptance speech. It's also available in pdf here-- as well as a 29-minute Vimeo video, which you might want to check out here. To give you an idea of why you might want to read or watch it, here are the last few paragraphs of the speech:

 In this n-dimensional niche space, I am reminded that in her acceptance of the Pilgrim
Award in 2008, Gwyneth Jones defined SF “as a volume, a set (overlapping with many others),
in the vast, contained yet unlimited ocean of information—furnished with the icons of the
genre....Within this volume, every significant writer opens up a new Imagination Space….Maybe
the work of science fiction scholarship…[is] to forge links, build complexity, refine the
details: and rescue the genuine novelty from each writer’s generic contribution.” I like this
approach, but I want to characterize the work of SF scholarship, and SF as a whole, also as a
game of cat’s cradle or string figures, of giving and receiving patterns, dropping threads and so
mostly 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
flourishing in terran worlding. Like me, Jones says that she received her baptism in science
fiction’s sexual politics from The Female Man. I want to end with string figures as SF partly in
homage to Joanna Russ’s Janet Evason, who landed on a desk in front of, to her Whileaway eyes,
oddly dressed men, whom we, in Joanna’s world, know to be in military uniform, and proposes a
game of cat’s cradle to calm them down. They did not understand; they did not pick up the
threads and marvel at the patternmaking. Innocent that she is, Janet reasoned that cat’s cradle is
a universal sign of peace. It is surely one of humanity’s oldest games, but like guman instead of
homo, string figures are not everywhere the same game.

Like all offspring of colonizing and imperial histories, I—we—have to relearn that all
string figures are not exactly the same as English and U.S. American cat’s cradle. In the late 19th
and early 20th centuries, United States and European ethnologists collected string figure games
from all over the world; these discipline-making travelers were surprised that when they showed
the string figure games that they had learned as children at home, their hosts already knew such
games in greater variety. String figure games came late to Europe, probably from Asian trade
routes. All of the epistemological desires and fables of this period of the history of comparative
anthropology were ignited by the similarities and differences, with their undecidably independent
inventions or cultural diffusions, tied together by the threads of hand and brain, making and
thinking, in the relays of patterning in the “Native” and “Western” string figure games.

In the Navajo language, string figure games are called na'atl'o'. They are one form of “continuous weaving,” practices for telling the stories of the constellations, of the emergence of the People, of the Diné. These string figures are thinking as well as making practices, pedagogical practices and cosmological performances. Some Navajo thinkers describe string figures as one kind of patterning for restoring hózhó, a term imperfectly translated into English as harmony, beauty, and right relations of the world, including right relations of humans and nonhumans. Not in the world, but of the world; that is what leads me to include Navajo string figures, na'atl'o', in the web of SF worlding. The worlds of SF are not containers; they are patternings, risky co-makings, speculative fabulations. It matters which ideas we think other ideas with; thinking or making cat’s cradle with string figures with na'atl'o' is not an innocent universal gesture, but a risky proposition in relentless historical relational contingency. Janet Evason refused to hear Jael’s claim that the wonderful world of Whileaway got its start from an act of biological warfare—genocide— that killed off all the human males. Like Joanna, we cannot afford that kind of forgetting. Anyone who recognizes the repeated acts of genocide that undergird that nonetheless precious thing called democracy surely knows this basic fact. How to be response-able is the consequential question in SF worlding.

String figure games are practices of scholarship, relaying, thinking with, becoming with in material-semiotic makings. Like SF, cat’s cradle is a game of relaying patterns, of one hand, or pair of hands, or mouths and feet, or other sorts of tentacular things, holding still to receive something from another, and then relaying by adding something new, by proposing another knot, another web. Or better, it is not the hands that give and receive exactly, but the patterns, the patterning. Cat’s cradle, string figures, na'atl'o' can be played by many, on all sorts of limbs, as long as the rhythm of accepting and giving is sustained. Scholarship is like that too; it is passing on in twists and skeins that require passion and action, holding still and moving, anchoring and launching.

So I end with renewed thanks to the SFRA and ongoing astonishment at receiving the Pilgrim Award. I hope that with others I can contribute to weaving this honor into the multicolored skeins and twists of SF worlding.

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