Toward Relational Monsters

Toward Relational Monsters



Two figures in mask and beaded costume stand back-to-back, holding hands outstretched and each with one foot in tendue, in a circle of rosepetals on a red carpet, in a tent with sting lighting; in the background are a costume rack and a mannequin bust form
Mirandan ritual from Going Extinct: Staying with the Trouble of the Archive, by nadahada, NYU Gallatin Galleries, 2018. Photograph by Samantha Licata.

Humans have become a geological medium. The transformation has no clearly defined or decided-upon origins, but perhaps the best-known name proposed for our nebulous geological epoch, in which human impact on the Earth has become significant enough to make serious changes in its ecosystems and geology, is the Anthropocene. Following the naming pattern of previous geological epochs, like the Holocene, the Anthropocene is named for the Greek anthropos meaning human and kainos meaning new in form or quality. Not exactly new, recent drastic changes are the symptoms and side effects of humans’ long-term parasitical infestation of the Earth—including, but not limited to, climate change, overpopulation, pollution, extractive capitalism, environmental devastation, and mass extinction. Dominant economic and political powers have justified this rampant planetary abuse by considering colonized and racialized populations along with entire ecosystems as disposable—a sublimely monstrous, unintelligible Other that must be tamed into oblivion. In turn, such practices have instigated a monstrous return—the unnamable and unknowable possibility of the future-to-come. But rather than waiting around for an apocalypse, how can the monster play as a queer reimagining of relations for carrying on together in this enmeshed mess? In her 2016 book, Staying with the Trouble, Donna Haraway envisions a monstrous method of collaborative survival and partial recuperation on such a damaged planet. To “stay with the trouble” is a transdisciplinary practice of “response-ability” that insists upon a present that is attendant to the future and to historicity, the born ones and the disappeared, by understanding how they are tethered to the now (which is therefore never quite now).

Staying with the trouble appeals to monsters and anomalous formations as models for thinking and doing. It takes note of intense, often unknowable and unintelligible, entangled relations with the Other, which involves living and dying in response-ability with historically situated relational worldings. In these relays and returns, the figure of “SF” proliferates: science fiction, speculative fabulation, string figures, speculative feminism, science fact, so far. SF is a method for cultivating multispecies justice, through an accountability to “who lives and who dies and how.”1 This praxis calls for a becoming-with–in which entities, events, and agencies do not precede, but emerge from, their encounters–proposing a sympoetic, making-with, of “kin not babies” through speculative fabulations of companion species2 and response-able mourning. Building up an ethics of care to suggest that there be many names for what is being called Anthropocene, Haraway offers Chthulucene, and she proposes “tentacular thinking” along with it. This way of thinking otherwise for the Chthulucene can appear monstrously, as it falls away from the human through an unforeseeable repetition of abominable transgressions and incalculable possibilities of change.

Chthulucene is “a name for elsewhere and elsewhen that was, still is, and might yet be.”3 It is named for the chthonic ones—those who inhabit the underworld, whether figuratively or literally in the subterranean—and the Pimoa cthulhu spider of the Californian redwood forests. Tentacular thinking is something of a thinking-with and grieving-with to cultivate a practice of response-ability that deals with the problems of thought in the Chthulucene: of not thinking of others–an unconcern or lack of care for certain lives, human and nonhuman, which become expendable at the hands of globalized neoliberal capitalist assemblages of industry and military might; the realization that old, Western, hegemonic modes of thought are no longer to think with; and the unthinkability of unknown, monstrous futures, which this abusive lack of concern has brought on in such a way that has become especially urgent. As part of thinking-with and becoming-with, symbiogenesis—a mutually beneficial, parasitical relationship in which the entities in relations are constituted through one another in their encounter—is a way to stay with the trouble and partial resurgence in the Chthulucene. As symbionts come together, in their incommensurable interstices, glimpses of multispecies justice can flash up for remembrance, relationality, and accountability to the Other in its very alterity. The possibility of resurgence emerges from a reconfiguration of the ruins of a damaged planet. In the reknitting of the order of things with the Chthulucene, the human is an earthly being, insignificant to in the face of greater forces, and revival is the cultivation of multispecies response-ability.

Haraway proposes snake-haired Medusa, the only mortal Gorgon, as a figure for the Chthulucene. Gorgons are the Greek example of creatures demonized by patriarchal forms of knowledge production and are without gender, genre, or proper genealogy. Haraway links Medusa to the sea through the Gorgonian sea fans and sea whips, in which the octopuses—eight-tentacled “spiders of the sea”—dwell (and thus related to the Pimoa cthulhu spider). But for readers familiar with horror genres, the Chthulucene might ring other seafaring bells. The Great Old One within H.P. Lovecraft’s pantheon of cosmic creatures bears the name Cthulhu, “a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.”4 Cthulhu’s name is also derived from chthonic, and the Pimoa cthulhu spider is in fact named after Lovecraft’s Cthulhu. However, Haraway is quick to snuff out this association for ‘her’ Chthulucene.5 She writes:

These real and possible time-spaces are not named after SF writer H.P. Lovecraft’s misogynist racial-nightmare monster Cthulhu (note spelling difference), but rather after the diverse earthwide tentacular powers and forces and collected things with names like Naga, Gaia, Tangaroa (burst from water-full Papa), Terra, Haniyasu-hime, Spider Woman, Pachamama, Oya, Gorgo, Raven, A’akuluujjusi, and many many more. ‘My’ Chthulucene, even burdened with its problematic Greek-ish rootlets, entangles myriad temporalities and spatialities and myriad intra-active entities-in-assemblages–including the more-than-human, other-than-human, inhuman, and human-as-humus. Even rendered in American English-language text like this one, Naga, Gaia, Tangaroa, Medusa, Spider Woman, and all their kin are some of the many thousand names proper to a vein of SF that Lovecraft could not have imagined or embraced—namely, the webs of speculative fabulation, speculative feminism, science fiction, and scientific fact. It matters which stories tell stories, which concepts think concepts. Mathematically, visually, and narratively, it matters which figures figure figures, which systems systematize systems.6

This denunciation sets off all kinds of alarms as an oppositional logic. Of course it matters which stories tell stories. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu is, indeed, a manifestation of a white man’s fears of the alien unknowability of the Other. However, precisely in this way, it inhabits an ironic position by requiring a change in perception of the world. In unfurling tentacles towards a reparative reading of monstrosity that begs a change of consciousness, what I would like to account for here are the ways in which, as much as Haraway tries to exclude Cthulhu from the relational worldings that she offers, it can never be fully eradicted and instead becomes a repressed entity in the Chthulucene. Cthulhu swims around its subterranean depths, lurking, still, as an alienated foreign body. In drawing Cthulhu into and out of the Chthulucene, I draw out the ways in which Haraway’s argument illustrates the importance of the queer sensibilities of performance studies for ‘the end of the world’–ironically encountering the multifaceted limits of knowability and thinkability in the endeavor to stay with the trouble.

Cthulhu Calling

H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu is a creature that emerges with the emergence and solidification of anthropology as a discipline, with nineteenth-century European colonial collection and extraction practices, only to utterly confound them. The narrator of The Call of Cthulhu encounters Cthulhu, in the form of a small carved effigy inscribed with indecipherable hieroglyphics, in a locked box, while going through the things of his late uncle, Professor Emeritus of Semitic Languages at Brown University. Along with his uncle’s field notes, which convey that the Cthulhu was crafted by an artist in a dream-like trance, the narrator is able to track various strange occurrences of symptoms similar to the artist’s through the work of various academics. In this detective-like search—which the narrator believes will give him notoriety as an anthropologist—it becomes apparent that the Cthulhu, with its humanoid figure and cephalopod head, is a latent, subterranean creature that functions as kind of contagion, spreading and flaring up various corners of the globe. Locked under the sea, until one day to return, the Cthulhu is one of the Ones to which humanity is insignificant, who roamed the earth before the humans, now worshipped by “primitives.” As each man develops a fascination towards the Cthulhu, following its call to determine its origins and know it, the cult sends out some sort of mysterious force to kill him. Thus the Cthulhu teeters in a play between the occult and “knowing too much.”

Cthulhu is the manifestation of Lovecraft’s racist and xenophobic fears, but not in the way one might expect. A known racist, as expressed in Haraway’s denunciation of his work, Lovecraft wrote The Call of Cthulhu (1928) when he first moved to New York City, and for the first time had to live near and around people of color and immigrants. Through Lovecraft’s letter correspondences during his two years in New York, Michel Houellebecq is able to deduce that the monsters in Lovecraft’s “greatest stories” are the manifestations of his sublime fear of the Other—“inhuman,” “monstrous,” “nebulous,” “half-breeds” (2005). Lovecraft described immigrants and people of color in the same way he described the monsters in his stories. In all its associations and unknowability, Cthulhu is the fearsome foreign body. It puzzles Western anthropological practices, which assume the world is knowable and containable, by making subterranean bonds that move in darkness. Imagined out of a racist fear, the relational movements of this monster could very well be adopted into a model for the Chthulucene. Reworking the Cthulhu monster’s allegory opens up to the ways in which a queer of color critique within performance studies is necessary for a praxis of staying with the trouble for monstrous reparative relationalities. Therefore, in the next section, I will illustrate how Cthulhu remains a foreign body in Haraway’s text, in order to unearth it from its repression, to show how a relational mode of thinking–what she calls tentacular–is contingent upon the irony and reading against the grain that reside at the intersections between queer critique and performance studies.

Ironically Symchthonically Making Kin

Haraway’s implementation of becomings in her book is significant to the way in which the Chthulucene can never fully cast out Cthulhu. Drawing much of her speculative thinking from Isabelle Stengers, Haraway offers thinking-with and becoming-with in the Chthulucene for cultivating response-ability.7 Becomings are the Deleuzian indeterminate multiplicities of alliance, assemblages irreducible to the sums of their parts and vice versa, and the jumping off point for speculative exercises. Putting becomings into play here is important because, when presenting their intervention with becoming-imperceptible as part of the larger project of becoming-minoritarian—an involution, rather than evolution, where categories dissolve into one another and proliferate simultaneously, that occurs by contagion and not filiation—Deleuze and Guattari refer to Lovecraft’s monsters as multispecies assemblages that inform their theory. For Deleuze and Guattari, minoritarian groups “are oppressed, prohibited, in revolt, or always on the fringe of recognized institutions”8 Residing at the margins and borderlines, minoritarian groups hold the conditions of possibility for becomings. Thus, Lovecraft’s monsters as becomings are phenomena of bordering, neither individuals nor species; nameless, horrifying mixtures produced through alliances of unlike relations. In this way, in addition to the conspicuous homage in Pimoa cthulhu, as Deleuze and Guattari folded Lovecraft’s monsters into becomings, and Haraway weaves these becomings into her text, Cthulhu—the fearful foreign body that she spiritedly denounces—remains a foreign body that cannot be eradicated from ‘her’ Chthulucene. It is embedded in the very becomings that are the basis of her relationality, maintaining a parasitical, subterranean bond to the Chthulucene that is ironically not the mutually beneficial, parasitical relationship of the becoming-with that she proposes. But how can we instead consider ways to host such monsters, that are the fearsome Other, in a symbiogenesis that flashes up as “historically situated relational worldings”? In an attempt to answer this inquiry, I must briefly unleash Cthulhu to see how it might stay with the trouble.

Staying with the trouble involves partial recuperation and an ethics of care in the face of relentlessly excessive historical suffering of multispecies entanglements. It calls for thriving on monstrous interstitial relationships for getting on together. Likewise, Cthulhu is a liminal figure, neither terrestrial nor extraterrestrial, human nor inhuman, existing in dreamlike states between consciousness and unconsciousness. Some effigies of Cthulhu appear incalculably old, but do not show any indication of being from any known civilization—“something frightfully suggestive of old and unhallowed cycles of life in which our world and our conceptions have no part.”9 Of course, “our” here refers to educated, able-bodied, white men, which seems to suggest that the creature inhabits the realm of all that which does not fit into this subject formation; it is a creature of otherness. When each white man tries to get to know more about Cthulhu, he appears to go through a feminization process, as a hysterical madness overcomes him through too much contact with trying to know and pin down the monster. As the narrator attempts to go through this very same process, we find out that Cthulhu is worshipped by “diabolical” African voodooists and “demonic” indigenous tribes, and it inhabits a non-Euclidean world in which nothing makes sense according to established hegemonic norms of logic and reason. In these ways, The Call of Cthulhu offers an allegory for the Chthulucene and its tentacular thinking—unleashing Cthulhu marks a turn to marginalized forms of knowledge production where “bounded individualism in its many flavors in science, politics, and philosophy has finally become unavailable to think with, truly no longer thinkable, technically or any other way.”10

Cthulhu’s call stays with the trouble by undoing the order of things. It follows Patricia MacCormack’s discussion of “Lovecraft through Deleuzo-Guattarian Gates,” where she writes, “maligned as sexist and racist, Lovecraft ironically catalyzes the becomings of the human through infinite and abstracting paradigms, and thereby requires his readers to reorient power relations, along the lines of poststructuralist, feminist, and postcolonial strategies alike.11 A hybrid monstrosity associated with minoritarian knowledge and cultural practices, Cthulhu makes humanity look insignificant—not the sky-gazing anthropos of the Anthropocene—confounding human exceptionalism and bounded individualism by evoking the myriad worldings of the Earth, terrifying the rational minds of the white men so much so that they go mad. Cthulhu’s worshippers come together in the dark, in assemblage-style unintelligible relations, to summon it, using animal energies and orgiastic rituals—symchthonically making kin in Haraway’s very sense of it: monstrously not tied by filiation, making persons that are not necessarily humans or individuals. Undoing categorical thinking, this kinship does not flatten differences, but proliferates them in different relational worldings.

Disidentifying in the Chthulucene

In reading Cthulhu against the grain for Haraway’s Chthulucene, what is at work here is a disidentification—described by José Esteban Muñoz as “the survival strategies the minority subject practices in order to negotiate a phobic majoritarian public sphere that continuously elides or punishes the existence of subjects who do not conform to the phantasm of normative citizenship.”12 Disidentification is a performance of simultaneously working with and against, inside and outside majoritarian culture, through failures of interpellation for a relationality based on minoritarianism that recognizes and acknowledges difference.

Making new worlds by using majoritarian culture as its raw material, disidentification—a survival strategy of diasporic, displaced, and otherwise marginalized subjects—is of the Chthulucene, which “must collect up the trash of the Anthropocene, the exterminism of the Capitalocene, and chipping and shredding and layering like a mad gardener, make a much hotter compost pile for still possible pasts, presents, and futures.”13 Yet unlike the Chthulucene’s repudiation of Cthulhu, disidentificatory performance, although a refusal, does not outright reject any form of majoritarian culture. Rather, it ironically displaces the things of which ‘we’ are most critical. In this way, it is a hospitable performance for possible reparation, temporarily opening up worlds within the world for queer configurations of relations that can allow for a multispecies justice. While Haraway does take up some form of disidentification with Medusa, it seems to be almost a feminist ready-made symbol of empowerment.14 Conversely, disidentification is not about empowerment, but “managing and negotiating historical trauma.”15; sometimes it fails and sometimes it is insufficient. In repudiating Lovecraft’s “misogynist racial-nightmare,” Haraway alienates Cthulhu further, and rather than dealing with this trauma, histories of correlating monstrosity and otherness remain latent. Because the Cthulhu requires the reorientation of the reader, it is a phenomenological creature that has the transformative capacity to make relations through its unknowability. Therefore, rather than renouncing Cthulhu, disidentifying with it and the traumatic hatred it embodies as an allegorical return of the repressed could provide the necessary transformative change in consciousness that Haraway hopes for with her slogans and manifestos. In overlooking the potential of disidentification, Haraway’s Chthulucene reveals the pertinence of queer diasporic performance for strategies of survival and worldmaking.

For practices of becoming-with and making worlds for resurgence on a damaged planet, turning to the survival practices of queers of color that have already been displaced and dispersed due to politics, war, slavery, genocide, natural disasters is necessary for staying with the trouble. In disidentifying with the creature formed out of fear of the Other, staying with the trouble can be speculative without being prescriptive, gesturing towards specific historical moments and offering possible futures without imposition. In the final chapter of her book on the Chthulucene, Haraway provides a how-to for survival in the form of a speculative fabulation about “making kin not babies.” In times of urgency, it is comforting to have a set of steps to do to fix the problem, but, like Haraway puts forth, it first takes a reconfiguration of thought in order to go about animating a relational ethics of care on a wider scale. However, excising the “misogynist racial-nightmare,” and not accepting it in its alterity to rework it for survival, the Chthulucene . It banishes the injury, rather than stays with the trouble. As disidentification uses majoritarian cultural codes to present “disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture,”16 taking monsters like Cthulhu as allegory can be a way to transtemporally allude to the unthinkable and irrepresentable. In the conundrum of thought that the Anthropocene and its many names gives rise to, the queer sensibilities of disidentificatory performance and performance studies can be the pivot on which hinges ways of survival and mourning that take up the monster as an affirmative model for relations, for more response-able futures-to-come of living and dying together on a damaged planet.

  1. Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 3.
  2. Haraway uses this term for human/non-human animal relations in order to “refuse human exceptionalism without invoking posthumanism” (13).
  3. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 3.
  4.  H.P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu,” Weird Tales (1928), accessed on H.P. Lovecraft Archive:
  5. In a note, she even asserts that she is rescuing the Pimoa cthulhu spider from Lovecraft’s monster.
  6. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 101.
  7. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 34.
  8. Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 247.
  9. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu,” 8.
  10. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 5.
  11. Patricia MacCormack, “Lovecraft through Deleuzio-Guattarian Gates.” Postmodern Culture, 20.2, 2010 (DOI: 10.1353/pmc.2010.0008.)
  12. José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 4.
  13. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 57.
  14. Helene Cixous’s “Laugh of Medusa” comes to mind along with a slew of second-wave feminist texts from the United States, particularly of the New Age variety.
  15. Muñoz, Disidentifications, 161.
  16. Muñoz, Disidentifications, 31.
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