The subject of xenofeminism is neither woman nor human, if these term are understood as suggesting discrete entities snipped from the wider fabric of technomaterial existence. Instead, xenofeminism is interested in the assemblages within which social agents are embedded. This is evident throughout our recent manifesto, ‘Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation’ — a text that seeks to be very much alive to the entanglement and co-constitution of silicon-based and carbon-based actors. It makes frequent reference to current technoscientific conditions, from online solidarity networks, to the hyperstitional phenomenon of the stock market, to suggestive but embryonic advances in open source medicine. In so doing, the manifesto points to some of the many ways in which technological alteration might generate forms of radical alterity. ‘Nature’, meanwhile, emerges as a recurrent force in the text – not as a naturalising or essentialising underpinning for gender and eco politics, but as an always already technologised space of contestation that fundamentally shapes lived experiences. ‘Nature’ (not least as it is manifested in gendered embodiment) is viewed as a space of experimentation – not a fact to be accepted but a terrain of negotiation to be actively contested for. This is captured in the manifesto’s ultimate call to action: “In the name of feminism, ‘Nature’ shall no longer be a refuge of injustice […] If nature is unjust, change nature!” (Laboria Cuboniks, 2015).
I am starting with this outline both in order to emphasise the position from which I am articulating my ideas, and because a lot of what I want to discuss here takes this position as an implicit reference point. Xenofeminism, as a political and theoretical project, is distinctly future-oriented, tracing emerging developments in technology and the post-human in order to imagine a world beyond current understandings of gender, race, and class. However, aside from our (relatively brief) reflections upon globalised technocultures, our work has yet to really engage with the Anthropocene. To put it another way, we have been theorising the future (not to mention various senses of ‘Nature’) without reflecting on the conditions for biological existence upon which any future-oriented project would obviously depend.
With this paper, I want to start to rectify this framing our queer, technomaterialist transfeminism in terms of ecology and debates about human population. The points I’m making here are intended to be provocative rather than prescriptive, and they are certainly looser and more gestural than I would like. However, the ideas contained here mark an early gesture in a commitment to a longer-term project – one that I hope will be viewed as an invitation to discuss, engage, and construct a better xenofeminism.
The title of this piece is ‘(Re) producing Futures Without Reproductive Futurity’. It takes as its starting point the work of the queer theorist Lee Edel- man who, in his 2004 book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, famously takes issue with ‘the future’ as a heteronormative construct. I’m going to be using Edelman’s work to point to the limits of some of the discourses that most commonly circulate around climate change activism – namely, that the focus of said activism should be preserving things for future generations, and that it should be framed primarily as an effort to protect ‘our’ children’s rightful inheritance.
For Edelman, the contemporary world is characterised by a reproductive futurism in which the ‘Child remains the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics, the fantasmatic beneficiary of every political intervention’ (2004: p. 3). As he puts it, we encounter ‘the disciplinary image of the Child […] on every side as the lives, the speech, and the freedoms of adults face constant threat of legal curtailment out of deference to imaginary Children whose futures, as if they were permitted to have them except as they consist in the prospect of passing them on to Children of their own, are construed as endangered by the social disease as which queer sexualities register’ (Edelman, 2004: p. 19). The needs of adults – particularly non-reproductive adults – are constantly subordinated to those of children, as bearers of the idea of the future. Edelman’s primary examples of this phenomenon are rampant cultural homophobia and so-called ‘pro-life’ activism.
When we think the future, which is largely the terrain of politics, he feels that we inevitably perpetuate a culture laudatory of the child, and therefore supportive of ideologies of the family that are both hetero- and homonormative. Whilst heterosexual sex or the monogamous, dyadic relationship form are socially sanctioned via the ‘alibi’ of biological and social reproduction, the queer comes to represent the ‘violent undoing of meaning, the loss of identity and coherence, the unnatural access to jouissance’ (Edelman, 2004: p. 132). It is the irredeemable, unrecoverable other. The only proportionate response to this state of affairs is, for Edelman, refusal – the refusal of politics, the refusal of the future, the refusal of the Child. Those beyond the sanctified confines of heteronormativity are, according to his analysis, to embrace the death drive and to become what reproductive futurism has already decided that they are – just a bunch of selfish queers.
Edelman’s work is quite clearly a polemic, gleefully spooking the straights and denouncing the ‘fascism of the baby’s face’ (2004: p. 75). As such it is perversely seductive – not to mention seductive in its perversity — and compellingly, charmingly, spiteful. It also alerts those of us with an interest in eco-queer perspectives to some of the risks inherent in framing the future. Think of the imagery used to promote the People’s Climate March in London, New York, Paris and elsewhere. On posters spread across urban transit networks, we encounter an ethereal nymph-child, clutching a toy windmill whilst staring wide-eyed into the future. In positioning what we do as agitating on behalf of generations to come, we may unwittingly participate in the cult of the Child that is so central in determining which lives are prioritised and whose needs are seen to matter. However, the limitations of the argument for refusal and withdrawal sketched out in No Future are quite clear. What does it mean to cede the entire territory of politics to ‘family values’? What are the implications of celebrating ‘the act of resisting enslavement to the future in the name of having a life’ (Edelman, 2004: p. 30)? Living for the now and saying ‘fuck the future’ hardly seems like an apt response to impending ecological disaster — and indeed, the fact that Edelman’s analysis largely proceeds via queer readings of classic Hollywood cinema suggests that such crises are not really within his purview. He’s not actually considering the brute reality of the contemporary Anthropocene here, so perhaps it is unfair to frame his argument in these terms; and yet, the undesirable implications of No Future remain.
Nina Power is amongst those who have sketched out objections to this account of reproductive futurity. She points out some of the ways in which Edelman’s seemingly radical position plays into existing structures of neoliberalism, remarking that ‘capitalism depends upon the reproduction of sameness in the guise of difference, the idea that there is no alternative, and [that] no future (in the sense of new ways of living) is possible’ (2009: p. 2). She also comments that Edelman’s conflation of politics-with-the-future-with-the-child does not hold in every situation: “the question of a ‘queer’ (that is, non-futural) resistance to communal relations has in fact been an issue for various 20th century political movements. There have been various kinds of ‘queer’ resistance to the organising principle of heteronormativity, which have at the same time been explicitly political projects” (2009: p. 8).
Power gives the example of the kibbutz movement – to which we might add numerous forms of eco queer activism and theory. Alexandra Pirici and Raluca Voinea’s work on the ‘Manifesto for Gynecene’ is one helpful signpost here – a project that advocates for a move towards care, whilst indicating that any imaging of the future is not merely about protecting our children but is in fact key to fostering a collective politics.
In acting on behalf of future generations, we must be careful not to foster ‘the supreme value of species survival as a discursive technology of compulsory heterosexuality’ (Sheldon, 2009: n.p.). As I have suggested, to the extent that we frame our activism as protecting the earth for ‘our’ children, we risk promoting restrictive, exclusionary, and xeno-inhospitable notions of whose existence counts. Most obviously, by indirectly privileging lines of genetic descent and cultural inheritance, such approaches are distinctly speciesist – neglectful of the many other forms of life upon which environmental change might impact. How, then, can we think reproduction – even just in the sense of ensuring the survival of others into the future – without also reproducing the worst of reproductive futurity?
At this point, I would like to turn to the work of Donna Haraway, who has done so much over the years in terms of helping us to view our species within its wider biological and technomaterial context. In an article for Environmental Humanities published earlier this year, Haraway offers us a new slogan for an era of climate crisis: ‘Make kin not babies!’ (2015: p. 161). This is, quite clearly, a slogan of two parts: perhaps the easiest to grasp directive is the suggestion that we, as a species, reduce our birth rate. Official UN population projections now suggest that the number of people inhabiting the planet will pass the 10 billion mark by the end of the century, contributing to significant problems in ‘food availability and affordability’ (2011). Studies suggest that this situation may be significantly exacerbated by the environmental crisis, with climate change resulting in global crop yield losses of up to 30% by 2080 (Hallegatte et al, 2016: p. 4). There are understandable fears that the carrying capacity of particular regions may be exceeded, as local environments approach the maximal population load that they can support. This would risk detrimental effects not just on human lives, but on other species as well – hence Haraway’s suggested check on fertility. “Over a couple hundred years from now,” she muses, “maybe the human people of this planet can again be numbered two or three billion or so, while all along the way being part of increasing well being for diverse human beings and other critters as means and not just ends” (2015: p. 162).
In the areas of immigration, technological development, and regenerative labour, then, one sees the potential benefits of making kin not babies. In the longer term, Haraway’s injunction could generate further emancipatory effects. To eschew the deliberate extension of one’s genetic line – to engage in the pollarding of one’s family tree – is to rethink modes of intimacy, sociability, and solidarity beyond the nexus of the nuclear family. In moving away from discourses of reproductive futurity, those parts of the social fabric which have abjected non-reproductive subjects as harbingers of the death drive will be unpicked and rewoven into something less exclusionary and more hospitable to difference. This brings us on to the second part of Haraway’s proposed slogan for the Anthropocene – making kin. This is the productive moment hitched to her rejection of the current order.
In the 2015 article, she declares that “If there is to be multispecies ecojustice, which can also embrace diverse human people, it is high time that feminists exercise leadership in imagination, theory, and action to unravel the ties of both genealogy and kin, and kin and species’ (p. 161). In other words, current ecological conditions demand a feminism that practices ‘better care of kinds-assemblages (not species one at a time)” (Haraway, 2015: p. 162), and one which prompts us to rethink the existences and relationships that our politics tend to privilege. ‘Kin’ is the concept that Haraway mobilises in an attempt cultivate this – an ‘assembling sort of word’ that speaks of solidarity beyond reproductive futurism (2015: p. 161). In calling for the making of kin, rather than the making of babies, we speak of a less naturalised, a less inward-looking, and less parochial form of both intra- and inter-species alliance (and as an ethos – a transmissible protocol for conceiving of the world – this can be adopted and practiced by both parents and non-parents alike). Such a call very much resonates with the ‘xeno’ in ‘xenofeminism’, I think.
We do need to qualify this rallying call not to make babies, however. When Edelman discusses what it means to ‘resist the appeal of futurity, to refuse the temptation to reproduce’ (2004: p. 17), he appears to rather sidestep the fact that biological procreation is not always an expressly planned or deliberately sought for process. Even if the provision of abortion was secure and the procedure itself culturally destigmatised, it seems likely that many pregnancies not chosen in advance would still, for various complex and sometimes personal reasons, be allowed to continue to term. And of course, who would want to step in to forcibly prevent people from having children? I can hardly imagine Haraway advocating for the imposition of fertility control upon the unwilling masses! Her demand must instead be seen as a call for the fostering of an ideological shift – that is, for an ambitious attempt to wrest hegemony away from reproductive futurity. Indeed, her vision of population reduction encompasses centuries rather than decades. As such, we need to marry any advocacy for the reduction of human population size with a commitment to acting in solidarity with the impregnatable and with caregivers. This is especially crucial in the case of those whose access to the social capital of parenthood is drastically limited – the world’s displaced, racialised, impoverished, queer, and otherwise stigmatized subjects.
There is reason to hope, perhaps, that a reorientation away from reproductive futurity and towards various models of kinship and xeno-solidarity might actually encourage a deeper hospitality towards these groups – that a generalised cultural rejection of the family line might be framed less as the dismissal of parents and guardians, and more as an act of solidarity with new arrivals of all kinds (from migrants, to new caregivers, to the very young). Indeed, there is historical evidence to suggest that the lowering of birth rates in countries in the global north does not lead wholly and exclusively to an aggressive restitution of ‘family values’, but may also generate markedly different conditions.
As Nina Power and Jose Esteban Muñoz suggest, however, there is more to the future than reproductive futurity. It is possible to have a politics beyond the horizon of the family, and it is possible to have a queer activism underpinned by the enabling affect of hope. Indeed, the judicious mobilisation of such a future-oriented affect may be necessary if we wish to create conditions that are hospitable to re-engineering a present that, for many human and non-human actors, is unbearable.
Entertaining the possibility of emancipatory projects beyond reproductive futurity is important, I have argued, if we wish to develop a xenofeminist-inflected collective eco-politics – that is, if we wish to fight for the continued existence of all our alien kin. If xenofeminism wishes to develop a politics fit for the Anthropocence, it obviously needs to engage further with this issue of climate change and to insist upon the myriad interconnections between capitalism, gender politics, population, and ecology. With Muñoz, then, I assert that we must “vacate the here and now for a then and there. Individual transports are insufficient. We need to engage in a collective temporal distortion” (2009: p. 185).
Dr Helen Hester is Associate Professor of Media and Communication at the University of West London. Her research interests include technofeminism, social reproduction, and post-work politics, and she is a member of the international feminist working group Laboria Cuboniks. Her books include: Beyond Explicit: Pornography and the Displacement of Sex (SUNY Press, 2014), Xenofeminism (Polity, 2018), and After Work: The Politics of Free Time (Verso, 2018, with Nick Snick).
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