I’ve been thinking a lot about binary thinking, and all the ways it limits and defeats. Either you should get a vaccine or you should mask up. Either climate change is already happening or there’s still time to halt it. Either journalism is crucial to understanding the world or it’s routinely, blatantly problematic. So many ors where there ought to be ands.
Either your workplace is a family or it’s not. It’s not, of course. The very concept of the workplace as family is a tool for exploitation. But if it’s not, where does that leave us in relation to each other? What does it mean to care about your colleagues, to love them?
I know—that word is loaded. But I have genuinely loved many of the people I’ve worked with. I’ve loved people from one job to the next, as we’ve moved towards each other when opportunities aligned. I’ve loved people long after we were no longer colleagues, and leaned on them for counsel in matters of work and not-work. I can see, of course, that we live in a culture in which there is so much work—and in which the patriarchal nuclear family keeps us largely isolated otherwise—that the workplace has been left as one of the few places to build those kinds of friendships. But I don’t love people any less, knowing that.
If you take the binary for what it is, then you’re left with either the exploitive office patriarchy or else a scenario in which you are surrounded by strangers about whom you do not give the slightest of fucks. But neither of these options is worth settling for. And they aren’t the only way.
Here’s Donna Haraway, talking about kin, in Staying with the Trouble:
Kin is a wild category that all sorts of people do their best to domesticate. Making kin as oddkin, rather than, or at least in addition to, godkin…troubles important matters, like to whom one is actually responsible….What shape is this kinship, where and whom do its lines connect and disconnect, and so what?
Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, page 2
Haraway is reclaiming kin to mean not merely blood relatives (“godkin”) but also those whose company1 we choose to be in (“oddkin”). “Odd” works here to mean unexpected or unusual but also suggests the odd ones out. “Oddkin” brings the odd ones together into kinship.
But what does it mean to be oddkin? To whom are we actually responsible? The nuclear family restricts the answer to that question to the smallest possible unit: only immediate2 relatives, not other more distant ones, and certainly not friends or neighbors. This isn’t just a philosophical restriction—it’s built in to our streets and buildings and laws with parking lots and bricks and surveillance cameras. But oddkin rewrites those boundaries, opens them wide up. Oddkin stakes the claim that the shape of kinship isn’t a birthright but a choice, that the people we choose to gather with are connected to us in ways at least equivalent to those we were born alongside. However odd that gathering may be—and Haraway posits that oddkin includes not only people but every living thing around us, the trees and birds and rivers and bugs—it is one in which we are responsible to each other.
The people of Acorn in Octavia Butler’s Parables are oddkin: refugees from a crumbling civilization who discover one another, and decide to make it work. Not merely to be in each other’s company, but to share resources, to keep watch, to build a new home. To work together. They begin as strangers, united largely by misfortune, and their gathering isn’t without conflict—kinship does not imply harmony. But they draw lines of connection to each other that weren’t there before, that weren’t merely given to them. You have to make kin as oddkin, you can’t take them for granted.
What would it mean for the workplace to be, not a family, but ground for making kin? Where and to whom would that kinship’s lines connect and disconnect, and so what? Oddkin doesn’t abide a hierarchy, it doesn’t heed the chain of command. A kinship of oddkin must be rooted in equity and care, in sustainability, in mutual aid. In solidarity.
And what is solidarity, if not an act of love?
- And notice how the word “company” works. A business. A gathering. Not one or the other but both. ↩
- The way we talk about “immediate” family is instructive. A distance measured in time, not space. But also urgency. So much of what patriarchal capitalism does is force us to act with only the narrowest perspective—no deep history, no long-term future thinking. Just right now. ↩