POSTHUMAN KINSHIP

The English term kinship derives from the same proto-Indo-European root as the Latin genus, related to race, origin, tribe and gender. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines it as 1) “the relationship between members of the same family” or 2) “a feeling of being close or similar to other people or things”. The first meaning is associated with connections by blood, as in consanguinity, same-bloodedness –indeed, the Polish term, pokrewieństwo, has blood (krew) in its root– and as such, it has undergone revisions by feminist and queer critics. For example, Judith Butler has asked: “Is kinship always already heterosexual?” (2002), in order to open the notion of kinship beyond patriarchal heteronormativity. Kinship’s equivalent terms in Romance languages such as Spanish (parentesco), French (parenté) or Italian (parentela) come from the Latin verb pario, “to give birth”, “to engender” (related to gender); they are thus also associated with “biological” kinship, even though the significant image of blood is apparently missing.

From a political standpoint, what is perhaps most generative in the English term is its second meaning, with its focus on relation and affect, or we might say affective relatedness, when extended to affinities, similarities or rapport. Arguably, this second meaning of kinship opens up space for a posthuman understanding of who is our kin, and, crucially, a rethinking of the very notion of “human” and who counts as “human”. What are the ethical and political implications of posthuman kinship? How can our encounters with different forms of life (or matter more broadly) be conceptualized differently if we think about them as posthuman kinships? What happens when we refuse to think about the kinship apparatus as only encompassing the human? The answers to these questions do not rest merely on the recognition of kinship bonds between human and non-human entities alike, but rather bring to the fore a critical re-evaluation of what it means to be kin and to make kin.

The notion of posthuman kinship is particularly relevant for rethinking human entanglements with the non-human, as part of a broader project of dissolving “the onto-theological binaries of life/matter, human/animal, will/determination, and organic/inorganic” (Bennett, 2010, p. x). In prefacing the term kinship with the term posthuman –which amounts to extending kinship beyond the frontiers of humanity– one must recognise that this line of thinking is not new, though Western scholars have only recently begun to be more attentive to it. Indeed, the idea of posthuman kinship is central to a number of non-Western understandings of humanity as always “constituted in inextricable relations with the nonhuman world” (Bignall and Rigney, 2019, p. 159). Writing specifically in the context of Indigenous conceptualization of “being-more-than-human” in their home country, Australia, Simone Bignall and Daryle Rigney point out that such philosophies –ranging from pantheism, to genealogical constructivism, to expressivism– reject anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism. Further, they reference the first principle of the United League of Indigenous Nations, which asserts both the ontological inseparability of humanity from “the natural world” and “a shared commitment to care for […] the land, air, water and animal life”.[1]

This signals that thinking about the posthuman, in general, and posthuman kinship in particular, requires paying attention to the questions of knowledge production and situatedness, as well as acknowledging that many of the features of the emerging paradigm of western posthumanism are also at the heart of several non-western philosophies and practice.

While the discussions on human/non-human relationships within the academic fields of critical posthumanisms, animal studies, and new materialisms (that often emerge from feminist and queer perspectives which have always shown a strong interest in the “messiness” of materialities and corporealities) are grounded in different theoretical frameworks, they all share a common ethico-political aim: challenging human speciesism and formulating a postanthropocentric multispecies ethics and politics. In these approaches to kinship, ontological relatedness and ethical accountability go hand-in-hand. Such a conflation is articulated, for example, in Donna Haraway’s (2016) concept of response-ability and Rosi Braidotti’s (2013) zoe-centred egalitarianism, both offered as alternatives to the discourses and temporalities of the Anthropocene, the Capitalocene and the Plantationocene. Haraway’s reflection on entangled agencies of animals and humans articulated in her earlier work (2003) –in which she envisions a “kinship claim” and embraces the affirmative configurations of the inevitably close encounters with “companion species”– led her more recently to somewhat jokingly propose the word Chthulucene, which she defines as “learning to stay with the trouble of living and dying, in response-ability on a damaged Earth” (Haraway, 2016, p. 2). Haraway extends kinship to all “critters” –a term that encompasses living creatures and other forms of existence– whether non-human animals, plants, microbes, and even machines; we must accept the fact, she writes, that “all earthlings are kin in the deepest sense” (p. 103).[2] Key here is Haraway’s call for tentacularity as a model of relating to other critters, being responsive and responsible for and to them. This is not to suggest that our relationships with non-human critters are necessarily harmonious or congenial; as with our intrahuman relationships, they can be “full of waste, cruelty, indifference, ignorance and loss, as well as of joy, invention, labor, intelligence, and play” (2003, p. 12).

In teasing out the relations between multiple critters and ourselves, Haraway focuses on the obligation of “making kin well” in a “world [that] is an exuberant array of invitations, both refused and taken up, to make kin” (in Haraway and Segarra, 2019, p. 85). Taking up these invitations highlights how making kin is “a voluntary action, instead of accepting something that has been given to us, family, and reproducing the same model” (Segarra in Haraway and Segarra, 2019, p. 78). Making kin requires practise and praxis, and it is always a work in progress, formed beyond normative relating, whether marked by blood, social relations, and so on. Our kin are not (or are not only) imposed on us by patriarchal understandings of family and consanguinity, rather they are the result of “unexpected collaborations and combinations” (Haraway, 2016, p. 4). Indeed, Haraway advocates not for a “reproduction of kind” (p. 105) but instead for “making kin as oddkin” (p. 2): the generation of unruly, affective bonds with the critters with whom we share the Earth. Therefore, kinship is both about ethical obligation (the praxis of care and response) and ontological interrelatedness: “Kin are those who can make claim on you and to whom you must respond” (Haraway in Haraway and Segarra, 2019, p. 80). Furthermore, kin, like species identities themselves, should be understood as gerunds, rather than simply nouns, underscoring their highly permeable, processual and relational quality. We not only become but always become with each other and, in Judith Butler’s words, we are also “undone by each other” (2004, p. 19). In a post-natural world in which the human and the nonhuman realms are profoundly intermeshed, posthuman kinship dissolves the clear hierarchy and boundaries between species, but without dissolving the singularity and heterogeneity of all living beings.

Similarly to Haraway, who addresses “cross-species-affection” (2016, p. 21), Braidotti argues in her critical posthumanist thinking that kinship needs to be redefined in relation to both affectivity and responsibility. Braidotti’s zoe-centred approach –where zoe refers to a dynamic, productive and immanent force, or life in its non-human aspects that “cuts and reconnects previously segregated species, categories and domains” (2013, p. 60)– involves developing eco-philosophies of becoming (whether as becoming-animal, becoming-earth or becoming-machine). Making kin in what Braidotti terms “a monistic universe of intersecting affective relations” (p. 55) means not only recognizing trans-species solidarity, but also displacing anthropocentrism and “nomadizing” the human-animal interaction (p. 71). Posthuman kinship asks us to recognise “the constitutive affective ability of all entities to affect and be affected, to interrelate with human and non-human others” (2019, p. 169). It necessarily involves an opening up, a recognition of responsibilities, an ethics of care, as a “materialist, secular, grounded and unsentimental response to the opportunistic trans-species commodification of Life that is the logic of advanced capitalism” (2013, p. 60). Yet, as Haraway stipulates, kinship does not imply “undifferentiated universal relatedness” (2016, p. 217), rather it is an attempt to be attentive to those relationships that are “urgently at stake and require urgent caretaking” (in Haraway and Segarra, 2019, p. 86). Indeed, “Nothing is connected to everything; everything is connected to something” (2016, p. 31).

In effect, if the concept of kinship is broadened to include any and all forms of ethical relations, perhaps one diminishes its critical potential by opening it up to too many possibilities and meanings. Its relation to affect and affective relatedness becomes much less evident, for instance. On the contrary, if we maintain the notion of affective closeness, as in Butler’s definition of kinship as “modes of intimate alliance” (2002), the term takes on a more precise, less abstract meaning. Frances Bartkowsky, alluding to kinship between non-human and human animals, coins the term “kintimacy”, defining it as: “Those who count, and for whom we care, we designate as kin” (2008, p. 155). Both in Butler’s and Bartkowski’s formulations of kinship, the term “intimate” –the superlative of “interior” in the original Latin word, intimus– suggests that this relationship touches the innermost part of our interior, that which is deepest and hidden from view, such as guts and blood. Read this way, intimate bonds are always blood ties, although not in the usual, heteronormative sense that has defined Western family relations for centuries. Moreover, “alliance” (in “modes of intimate alliance”), coming from the Latin alligare (ad and ligare, to tie), refers to the dependence that ties us to our beloved, which Hélène Cixous has metaphorized through the image of the “telephone cord” (1996).

Taking intimacy into account in our understanding of kinship necessarily relates it to the body. Intimacy has to do with the arousal of intense waves of affects and emotions; making kin implies therefore the possibility not only of bonding but also of wounding, and being wounded. These wounds produce “scars of intimacy”, an image that Peta Tait invokes in reference to the scars that female tiger trainers in 1920’s circuses bore on their bodies. We can use this expression both literally and metaphorically (as Cixous does in her text, “Stigmata, or Job the Dog”, 1998) in order to describe how kinship may cause wounds that eventually evolve into scars, which remind us that we are touchable, vulnerable creatures. The image of blood conveyed by both the English and the Polish terms for kinship may be thus understood in a less biological way, and at the same time connected to the Romance equivalents of it, which relate to engendering and giving birth, as said.

Furthermore, to think of kinship and of making kin in relation to vulnerability and the eventuality of the wound is to conceive of kinship bonds on the grounds of their “breakability”, not as if they were always present and intact. As Judith Butler states, “the breakability is the bond” (2017), not merely a negative eventuality of kinship relations. Interspecies or, more largely, posthuman kinship –which also conveys blood ties– troubles the normative forms of kinship while leading to a better understanding of the threats posed by exclusionary, immunitarian biopolitics. Moreover, due to the distance separating worlds –of human and non-human critters– that are far apart from each other, it clearly reveals the endurance and the disruption of the bonds that constitute kinship.

In recognising the primordial role of affects in kinship, we must also take into account negative affects. Claiming a new, responsible and responsive, relationship to all critters may seem a utopian and nostalgic aspiration, typical of traditional environmental politics. This nostalgia has been criticized by “queer ecology” (Morton, 2010; Sandilands and Erickson, 2010), proponents of which advocate that we have to learn to live and make kin –understood here as an entanglement of positive and negative affects– with all the dark aspects of our already irretrievably damaged planet, with all that we relegate to the margins or to no-man’s-land spaces, such as landfills or industrial, polluted zones, and the critters who inhabit these spaces. Queer ecology not only shows us how profoundly bodies and environments are interrelated in toxic kinship, but also draws our attention to other “uninvited” kinships like viruses, parasites, bacteria, and so on. Thus, the reimagining of posthuman kinship includes not only allied but also conflicting relationalities.

September 2020

To cite this notice

Paszkiewicz, Katarzyna; Ruthven, Andrea; Segarra, Marta : “Posthuman kinship”. Dictionnaire du genre en traduction / Dictionary of Gender in Translation / Diccionario del género en traducción. Published on 25 May 2021: https://worldgender.cnrs.fr/en/entries/posthuman-kinship/.

References

Bartkowsky, Frances (2008), Kissing Cousins: A New Kinship Bestiary, New York, Columbia University Press.

Bennett, Jane (2010), Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham, Duke University Press.

Bignall, Simone & Daryle Rigney (2019), “Indigeneity, Posthumanism and Nomad Thought: Transforming Colonial Ecologies”, in Rosi Braidotti & Simone Bignall (eds.), Posthuman Ecologies: Complexity and Process after Deleuze, London–New York, Rowman and Littlefield International, p. 159-83.

Braidotti, Rosi (2013), The Posthuman, Cambridge, Polity Press.

Braidotti, Rosi (2019), Posthuman Knowledge, Cambridge, Polity Press.

Butler, Judith (2002), “Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?”, differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, vol. 13, no. 1, p. 14-44.

Butler, Judith (2004), Undoing Gender, New York–London, Routledge.

Butler, Judith (2017), Breaks in the Bond. Reflections on Kinship Trouble, London, University College London, Department of Greek and Latin.

Cixous, Hélène (1996), Messie, Paris, Des femmes–Antoinette Fouque.

Cixous, Hélène (1998), “Stigmata, or Job the Dog”, in Stigmata: Escaping Texts, transl. Eric Prenowitz, New York, Columbia University Press, p. 181-194.

Haraway, Donna (2003), The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, Chicago, Prickly Paradigm Press.

Haraway, Donna (2016), Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham, Duke University Press.

Haraway, Donna & Segarra, Marta (2019), The World We Need / El món que necessitem, Barcelona, CCCB. See also:

https://www.cccb.org/ca/multimedia/videos/donna-haraway/228678#

Mortimer-Sandilands, Catriona & Erickson, Bruce (eds.) (2010), Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire, Bloomington, Indiana University Press.

Morton, Timothy (2010), The Ecological Thought, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Tait, Peta (2012), Wild and Dangerous Performances: Animals, Emotions, Circus, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.


NOTES

[1]See: http://www.indigenousnationstreaty.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Denver_Treaty-signed.pdf (Last accessed: March 2021).

[2] While the question of posthuman kinship and the human-machine alliances that can emerge is compelling, it falls outside the scope of this entry.


ÉTIQUETTES

affect, kinship, multi-species ethics, postanthropocentric, posthuman