Donna Haraway’s “Critters”

Still from Fabrizio Terranova’s ‘Donna Haraway: Storytelling for Earthly Survival’ (2016)

I’ve finally been reading bits and pieces of Donna Haraway’s Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, which, I’ve been doing as part of a larger project to imagine the end of policing.

I had been meaning to do this for a while, but I was recently inspired her performance as discussant at a double panel at the American Anthropological Association Meetings I was a part of, honoring Aihwa Ong.  There were many wonderful moments there (one tidbit: Haraway, who became mega-famous for her essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” declared that “Aihwa taught me more about cyborgs than anyone else.”  She was especially inspired by the complex entanglements of women and machinery in Ong’s first book, Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline) but it was actually one word that she kept using that stuck with me: critter.

Haraway uses the term as a broad tool to talk about life forms.  It’s more inclusive than, say, “animal” or “plant” or even, she argues, “creature”:

Critters is an American everyday idiom for varmints of all sorts.  Scientists talk of their “critters” all the time; and so do ordinary people all over the U.S., but perhaps especially in the South.  The taint of “creatures” and “creation” does not stick to “critters”; if you see such a semiotic barnacle, scrape it off.  In this book, “critters” refers promiscuously to microbes, plants, animals, humans and nonhumans, and sometimes even to machines. (Staying with the Trouble, p. 169, n1)

And Haraway is justified is both tying “critter” to “creature” and then immediately dissecting their semiotic link.  The term “critter” seems to be an early 19th-century U.S. colloquial dialectical variant on the word “creature, which came into English via Old French.

As Hanna Pitkin has shown, such etymologies are seldom innocent; especially when discussing democracy.  In their contemporary use, they are often also arguments about, declared allegiances to, visions of what our collective political existence is and should be.  Pitkin, for example, explores the various imaginaries associated with the Germanically-rooted “freedom” versus the Latinate “liberty.”

What does it mean, therefore, that Haraway finds such purchase on an Americanized rejection of a French Latinate term, one whose origin lies specifically at the moment in which a distinctly American variant of populist liberal democracy is taking root.  “Critter,” for example emerges in the same milieu as Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  Its rejection–might one even note contempt–for the Latinate might well be read alongside contemporaneous rejections of French Republicanism, for example.

Which makes things… complicated.  French Republicanism has many problems.  But so did, you know, the democratic posturing of populists in the Antebellum South.  Where does this leave us in our own allegiances to Haraway’s term, itself an attempt to get us to think differently about ourselves together in the world?


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