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Stories are much bigger than ideologies. In that is our hope.
— DONNA HARAWAY, The Companion Species Manifesto, 17
Want a different ethic? Tell a different story.
— THOMAS KING, The Truth about Stories, 164
IN THE WINTER OF 2014, I taught a seminar at the University of Alberta on research-creation. The seminar, Debates in Art and/as Research, began with the reading of two texts, neither of which made obvious sense to my students given the topic, as neither refers explicitly to research-creation, nor to arts-based research, nor, indeed, to "art" very much at all, but that instead speak to intertwined sites of Indigenous and ecological genocide: Thomas King's The Truth about Stories and Donna Haraway's The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness.
The Truth about Stories is a small volume of transcribed lectures by King, a novelist and broadcaster who was invited, in 2003, to deliver the annual Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Massey Lectures. In these lectures King speaks to the textures, effects, and logics of colonial violence, and to the promise of decolonized futures. He does so through the sharing of stories. Stories that speak to the imbrication of settler-colonialism, lived histories of genocide, and the production of the "Native Other" in the settler-imaginary. They also model the ways that different languages, different forms, tell different stories and, perhaps more importantly, tell stories differently.
Stories are powerful. The stories that we believe, the stories that we live into shape our daily practices, from moment to moment. They have the power to promise some futures and conceal others. They encourage us to see some things and not others. Entrenched stories like "race," "gender," "class," and "nation" have historically done this very well, prescribing who might accomplish what, where, when, and how. King underscores this when he reminds us that "we see race. Never mind that race is a construction and an illusion. Never mind that it does not exist in either biology or theology, though both have, from time to time, been enlisted in the cause of racism. Never mind that we can't hear it or smell it or taste it or feel it. The important thing is that we believe we can see it" (2003, 44).
To call race a story, however, even when invited by King to do so, may cause some to pause. Right up front let me assure the reader that I am in no way suggesting, from my (Euro-settler) perspective, that race is a story to be taken lightly, or that the material, historical force of such stories can be shifted through sheer force of will. To say that stories produce worlds is not to say that changing stories is an easy practice, nor innocent, nor always possible. Stories, here, must be understood as productive of and produced by ideological worldviews with real-life consequences that, as Judith Butler (1988, 1990), among others, has taught us in the context of gender- and sexuality-based violence, require telling and retelling. The work of telling new stories, or new versions of stories that need retelling/recrafting, is propositional; it requires ongoing engagement and a willingness to denaturalize the social, disciplinary, ideological structures within which we are embedded (to speak parrhesiastically, as Foucault might have it). King says as much in the afterword to his book, in his final repetition-with-a-difference: "Want a different ethic? Tell a different story" (60, 164; emphasis added).
Here, stories begin to have a weight they didn't have before.
Stories such as race, class, gender, and nation are hegemonic; they are discursive practices that shape us ideologically and bodily and that come with violent (although not only violent) effects. And it is for this reason that the central provocation of The Truth about Stories is that stories are "wondrous things. And they are dangerous" (King 2003, 9; emphasis added). Stories are wondrous in their capacity to reorganize our approaches to our social-material worlds; they are dangerous for their capacity to produce themselves as compelling objects of belief, naturalized, as all too many of us see year in and year out in the classroom, into calcified truths. Which is why King uses repetition — iteration, stories remaking stories, telling and retelling — to remind us that the telling of stories is a political performative. A world-making, knowledge-making practice.
One of the ways King does this is by opening and closing each of the five chapters of his lecture-text with the following repetitive structure: each chapter opens with someone, somewhere, in a dialogic setting, telling a version of a creation story in which the earth floats on the back of a turtle that is on the back of another turtle that is on the back of another turtle: "turtles all the way down" (2, 32, 62, 92, 122). This introductory story is followed in each case, word for word, by the following sentence, invoking the title of the book: "The truth about stories is that that's all we are." Each chapter then ends by reflecting back on the story told: "Take [X's] story, for instance. It's yours. Do with it what you will. ... But don't say in the years to come that you would have lived life differently if only you had heard this story. You've heard it now" (29, 60, 89, 119, 151).
Don't say in the years to come that you would have lived life differently if only you had heard this story.
You've heard it now.
Through this repetitive narrative structure, King invites us to think about stories as material-semiotic events that impact — indeed, configure — worlds. He invites us to attend carefully to which stories stick; which stories, by performing themselves as compelling objects of belief — being convincingly retold — have the sticky staying power to change how one sees the world, and thus how one acts within it. Through repetition and direct address, King invites us to be attentive to which stories we are crafted out of as well as which we participate in crafting; which stories we teach, and which stories we are taught by.
Donna Haraway's The Companion Species Manifesto makes a similar call for the power of stories. Haraway, a feminist theorist and science studies scholar, begins her book, published the same year as King's, with the following: "I tell stories about stories, all the way down" (2003, 21). The Companion Species Manifesto, like her 2007 When Species Meet, is a densely poetic and, for those not already familiar with her world of reference, sometimes frustratingly allusive text. Read with each other in mind, these two books of Haraway's can be seen to respond to similar questions, and although these questions are worded differently in each, the way that they are articulated in Haraway's later text — specifically, "Whom and what do I touch when I touch my dog?" and "How is 'becoming with' a practice of becoming worldly?" (2007, 3) — is key to both.
Whereas King focuses on the ear, on our capacity to be altered through ethical listening and speaking practices — forms of listening and speaking that render us response-able and, through this response-ablility, able to be moved to act — Haraway asks us to attend to the material-semiotic stories we inherit when ethically touching — being in touch with — the world around us. For Haraway, we are always already "becoming-with" and imbricated by all that we touch and that touches us; what and how we touch and are touched by participates in constituting the stories, the worlds, within which we live. For King, the relation of storyteller to story-listener conditions which stories are whose to tell and when, producing stories not only as sites of knowledge but as ethical relations. One invites us to attend to how we are remade by all we speak and hear. One invites us to attend to how we are remade through all we touch and are touched by. Both frame these intertwined sensorial relations as productive of stories that matter.
Stories of the magnitude at stake here are never innocent. They always do certain things and not others; rely on certain things and not others. What King and Haraway ask, each in their own way, by mobilizing different stories in different ways, is that we seriously attend to and recognize the constitutive power of the stories through which we come to understand the world, and, when necessary, give our all to reorganize them. Importantly, within both King and Haraway's texts, it is curiosity that emerges as key to our capacity to make such changes.
Haraway's curiosity, in The Companion Species Manifesto, driven by her "companion" questions, pulls her into the telling of three stories in particular, each with its own narrative arc: first, a story of species-time (human-canine coevolution); second, a story of breed-time (the Australian Shepherd as an instrument of colonial expansion); third, a story of phenomenological-time (her specific agility training relations with Cayenne and Roland, two dogs with whom she was living and loving at the time of her writing). Haraway tells these three story-arcs as provocations that model her situated attempts to "cobble together" practices of living ethically with significant others, others with whom our differences emerge as significant — for example, the kinds of alien differences that emerge at the intersections between species (Haraway 2003, 7). Attentive to the histories and presents at stake when the question "Whom and what do I touch when I touch my dog?" is taken seriously, Haraway suggests that to "find arguments and stories that matter to the worlds we might yet live in" (3) we must investigate, with the curiosity of she-who-does-not-already-know, the material-semiotic entanglements, the "worldliness" out of which each of us, at any given moment, emerges. Curiosity, here, emerges as key to the political capacity of stories to remake worlds and is the kind of curiosity that also figures prominently The Truth about Stories.
Contrasting what he calls "scientific, capitalistic, Judeo-Christian" creation stories with "Native" creation stories (2003, 12), King tells his reader-listeners that "contained within creation stories are relationships that help define the nature of the universe and how cultures understand the world in which they exist" (10). One of the first of these stories is the story of Charm, who creates the world cooperatively with nonhuman others, almost, it seems, by accident. The story begins with Charm digging a hole so deep that she falls through it, and through space, until she lands on a Pangean version of Earth. She was warned of course (by Badger) not to dig too deep — not to be too curious. But she cannot help it. She digs and digs, her curiosity getting the better of her. That said, rather than a possessive division between "her" and "her curiosity," the driven version of curiosity that King ascribes to Charm takes over her very sense of self such that her actions are no longer volitional but are constitutive: she doesn't make them; they make her. And it is in this way that Charm's curiosity becomes what King calls the "dangerous" kind (2003, 10–13) — the kind of curiosity that gets one into (methodological/ontological/epistemological/ disciplinary) trouble.
It is just such a curiosity that, taught by Haraway and King, I would like to claim as central to the approach to research-creation for which this book argues.
King's and Haraway's perspectives, while speaking with seriousness to histories of genocide that have given us this world, can also be taken as powerful invitations to attend to the ecologies of our pedagogical practices in the university, practices that structurally privilege certain modes of knowing, certain stories about knowledge production and dissemination, and not others. Standing on the shoulders of this assertion, what I suggested to my students in Debates in Art and/as Research, is that reading The Companion Species Manifesto and The Truth about Stories not only for their content, but for the worldviews that they model through the narrative and poetic forms that they mobilize, helps us to understand the power of stories as something that emerges not only at the level of content but that of form. Both authors implicitly insist that to do research — of any kind — is not simply to ask questions; it is to let our curiosities drive us and allow them to ethically bind us; it is to tell stories and to pay attention not only to which stories we are telling and how we are telling them, but how they, through their very forms, are telling us.
At the end of his book, echoing many a poststructuralist theorist, King draws on the words of poet and novelist Jeanette Winterson to assert that language is not something we speak; it speaks us (King 2003, 2). Languages (discourses) precede us; research methods and disciplines precede us. We enter into them and they work to craft the possible forms of our questions. Thus, when examining our research practices, it is crucial to ask: which stories are animating our choices? Why might this research choice matter? Alternate (research) stories create alternate (research) worlds. Conversely, different storytelling strategies (methods and practices) emerge from different worldviews and commitments. If we understand our research in the university as the production of a set of interlocking stories that are, indeed and ideally, world-changing fictions (Haraway  1991, 149) — interventions, micro though any one intervention might be, into the givens that organize our social and material worlds — the next logical, research-creational, pedagogical, step is this: to open the university up not only to different writerly vocalities, as decades of feminist, literary, Indigenous, critical race, deconstructive, and performance studies (the list goes on) scholars have done, but also to different tangible forms (for example, a song, beadwork, a performance, or a video installation) as valid modes of rendering research public.
It is with this in mind that I proposed to my students the following — slightly opaque — provocation as central to research-creation in its strong form: the crafting of a research question is the crafting of a story that is also the crafting of an ethics. Following this, in a room full of students who self-identified as art historians and artists (along with a few sociologists and performance studies students), I, perhaps even more provocatively, proposed research-creation as a methodology that, therefore, necessarily sidesteps disciplinary allegiance. That is, I suggested that rather than letting our research questions be conditioned by the structures of legibility and value given by, say, one's self-identifications as painter, or early modern art historian, or feminist theorist, we take seriously King's call to tell stories differently and pair this with our own versions of the questions that Haraway asks herself: "Whom and what do I touch when I touch my dog?" and "How is 'becoming with' a practice of becoming worldly?" (2007, 3).
Throughout the semester, "Haraway's dog" then became our touchstone for developing research approaches and orientations. Sometimes this appeared as a question from one student to another: "So ... what is your dog?"; sometimes as a description within the classroom setting: "For my final project I've chosen 'desire lines on campus' as my dog; I'm asking: 'Whom and what do I traverse when I follow the desire lines across our campus fields?'" Together we discovered that to frame a research question in this way helped to unpin it from a primarily disciplinary orientation; to frame research in this way foregrounded the researcher's positionality and moved beyond primary accountability to a specific discipline while still keeping the door open to discipline-specific knowledges. Simply put, it placed the curiosity-driven question first. What these texts modeled for us was an approach to research rooted in process, multiplicity, context specificity, and contingency — one that might even be called emergent.
In The Companion Species Manifesto, Haraway writes: "The obligation is to ask who are present and who are emergent. ... Situated emergence of more livable worlds depends on that differential sensibility" (50 – 51; emphasis added). This term — emergent — is peppered throughout Companion Species, and it is often paired with symbiogenesis. The terms rhyme conceptually. While symbiogenesis, forwarded by the volutionary theorist Lynn Margulis ( 1993), speaks to the relational origin of organisms (an understanding of the contested distinction species as emerging through symbiosis rather than mutation), emergence describes an aggregate property of elements, none of which demonstrate that property inherently within them. Water, in its liquid form, and snowflakes, as specific crystallized forms, exhibit compound properties that are not seen at the (molecular) levels below. Water is emergent. So are snowflakes.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "How To Make Art at the End of the World"
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments ix
Introduction: Art in the Expanded Field 1
1. Haraway's Dog 19
2. Discipline(s) 38
3. Polydisciplinamory 59
4. Drive(s) 77
Conclusion. Art at the End of the World 97
What People are Saying About This
“In this beautifully argued, eminently readable book, stories are the center of attention. Morphing art and knowledge in the neoliberal university situates thinking and pedagogy. Curiosity-driven transdisciplinary practice is both motor and object of analysis. Natalie Loveless asks how stories craft worlds in politically and sensually attuned modes. I treasure the extensive knowledge of modernist performance art and art activism broadly, as well as rich semiotic and psychoanalytic readings of stories and performance. This book is itself a loving act of research-creation.”
“In her evocative book How to Make Art at the End of the World, Natalie Loveless has captured the most urgent and far-reaching question concerning our cultural environment, that is, how to inhabit it in an era of geopolitical uncertainty. This is a daunting task; her ambitious answer, grounded in examples of alternative critical pedagogies, aims to reduce the toxic colonial footprint in arts education by developing a sustainable research-creation model based on differential multiplicities. And that gives us hope.”