Speculative Fabulations for Technoculture’s Generations

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by Donna Haraway

Frontier practices of the 21st century are always announcing new worlds, proposing the novel as the solution to the old, figuring creation as radical invention and replacement, rushing toward a future that wobbles between ultimate salvation and destruction but has little truck with thick pasts or presents.  Rather than propose another frontier, the helpful aliens of Patricia Piccinini’s imagination embody something more akin to a decolonizing ethic indebted to Australian Aboriginal practices of taking care of country and accounting for generations of entangled human and nonhuman entities.

Patricia Piccinini has reframed the problem of caring for endangered organisms of the Australian outback with her “Nature’s Little Helpers” series.  This series depicts genetically-modified extraterrestrials who have come to earth to help wombats and birds, critters that have been pushed to the brink of extinction by people.  

Many visitors to the Multispecies Salon in San Francisco became visibly unsettled as they walked past pictures of two gatekeepers—a menacing “Bodyguard” and a benevolent “Surrogate” (both are below). The Bodyguard was a poster child for the Multispecies Salon. This fantastic creature was invented by Piccinini to protect a real organism—the Golden Helmeted Honeyeater, a small colorful bird from the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia whose breeding population reached a bottleneck of just fifty pairs.

Piccinini says that her Bodyguard was “genetically engineered” with large teeth that have a dual function: “He will protect [the honeyeater] from exotic predators, and he has powerful jaws that allow him to bite into trees, to provide the birds with sap.” These teeth are also a reminder that other species are not only good to think with, nor only to play with, but that they just might bite. 

The Surrogate for the Northern Hairy Nosed Wombat seems utterly unthreatening.  In one installation, the Surrogate is tenderly embracing a human child (below).  The back of the sleeping Surrogate has two rows of drawstring dorsal pouches running along its spine, six in all.  Each pocket shelters an immature marsupial wombat.  This sculpture illustrates worlds needy for care and response, worlds full of unsettling but oddly familiar creatures. It is a radical experiment in feminist science fiction that folds endangered species into a queer family whose members require us to rethink what taking care of country, taking care of generations, might mean.

"Undivided" (2004) by Patricia Piccinini
“Undivided” (2004) by Patricia Piccinini

Northern Hairy Nosed Wombats have been grabbed by the category of “endangered species” subjecting them to the ambiguous grace of salvation, specifically being saved through a regulatory and technological apparatus of ecological and reproductive management.  Apocalypse looms; in that story, the past—nature—is the time outside time and must be restored in all its innocence.

Read Chapter Seven: Speculative Fabulations for Technoculture’s Generations on Google Books.

See also: Patricia Piccinini

Donna J. Haraway is a retired professor and chair of the History of Consciousness Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (1989), Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (1991), Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium. FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience (1997, Ludwig Fleck Prize), The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (2003), and When Species Meet (2008). In September 2000, Haraway won the J. D. Bernal Award, the highest honor given by the Society for Social Studies of Science, for lifetime contributions to the field. Haraway is a leading thinker about people’s love and hate relationship with machines. Her ideas have sparked an explosion of debate in areas as diverse as primatology, philosophy, and developmental biology.

Donna Haraway: UC Santa Cruz profile
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a companion to the book