“Praise Bob”
Praise Uncertainty

Staying with the trouble - Illustration by Maria Krafft Photo: © Maria Krafft

Let’s imagine a world that is just like ours in almost all key respects. It has trees, cars, Christmas tree decorations, and dogs; people have relationships, go to work, eat meat and nuts, and they make mistakes. And now let us select a few people from this world as examples, and let us simply call them Poof, Pow, Wow, and Why.

Charlotte Krafft

Perhaps they are sitting together at a table or on the carpet, playing a game that involves acquiring as much of something as possible in order to invest it and then acquire even more of it. So, there they are, sitting on the carpet, let’s say in front of a fireplace, and while they play they are drinking wine, snacking, and listening to the crackling of the fire.

Happy Accidents 

Poof is way ahead of the others in the game, as always. He or she, let us imagine it’s a she, is about to take her turn. She pops a nut into her mouth, chews, carefully considers her options, and then makes a decision. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” she says. Pow and Wow nod, and then it’s their turns. Why is last to go. A few minutes later the round is finished and it turns out that everything has gone exactly the way Poof had planned. Poof smiles complacently, but Why seems to be in a pretty bad mood. Sullenly, he or she, let’s go for “he” this time, throws nuts into the fire. As he just discovered, he made a big mistake (yet again!). And this mistake now becomes the subject of a discussion that allows us to learn all kinds of things about Poof, Pow, Wow, and Why, and about the world in which they live.  

“Why, what’s making you so mad?” asks Wow.  
“The dumb mistakes that I simply shouldn’t have made,” answers Why. 
“But of course you should have. You know what they say: we don’t make mistakes; we have happy accidents.” 
“You should thank Bob for your mistake,” says Poof.
“That’s easy for you to say,” counters Why.  
“I’ve also had many happy accidents without which I would not be where I am today!” says Poof. 

“Praise Bob,” says Pow.  

Why shakes his head.  
“Big Bob will guide you onto the right path,” says Poof.  
“But why is my right path so damn stony?” 
“You will also get your happy ending. And if it’s not happy yet, then it’s not the end yet. Until then, thank Bob for all the happy accidents that he uses to advance you.” 
No progress without mistakes,” says Wow.  
No innovation without mistakes,” says Pow 
He who makes mistakes gets better all the time,” says Poof 
“Mistakes are also valuable in economic terms,” says Pow. 
“You must face up to your mistakes,” says Wow. “It’s allowed to hurt, for pain is weakness leaving the body.” 
“Yeah, whatever!” Why holds his ears shut.  
“Incidentally, evolution also relies on mistakes,” someone chips in. 
“Oh, so now evolution and progress are suddenly the same thing?” 
“It’s just a comparison.” 

“One that reveals the naturalization of progress for the sake of patriarchal capitalism,” retorts Why angrily. “As if economic progress by trial and error were just as unstoppable and unavoidable as evolution.” 
“But it is,” says Pow.  
“No, it can be disrupted,” interjects Why. 
“But what if every disruption is part of the progress…” 
Why gives up. 
“Bob reveals himself to us in each of our mistakes,” says Wow. 
“So that we fulfill our intended purpose,” says Pow.  
“Which is why we celebrate our mistakes and failures. Why, you should also allow yourself to be celebrated,” says Poof. “Just like I did.” 
Dropping your pants on stage – that’s an extremely valuable experience,” says Pow.  
“Praise Bob,” says Wow. 
Why shakes his head. “Failure is talked about only by those who have been able to turn it into success.” 

The Myth of the Necessity of Mistakes 

By way of explanation, Poof has just suggested to Why that he take part in one of those highly-popular events at which successful failures tell the audience about their biggest failures, faults, and flaws. The primary objective of the organizers of such events is to maximize their profits from their own mistakes. Ah, actually Poof is just in the process of explaining this herself: “We must not give away this capital of experience, risk appetite, and enthusiasm,” she says. It’s clear that Poof, Pow, Wow, and Why live in the Anthropo- and Capitalocene.  
“Or just write a book,” Pow now proposes. Why doesn’t react. There are loads of books of the kind Pow means in the world. They advise readers for example to praise rather than to punish the mistakes of others – like their employees, for instance. After all, every crisis, be it big or small, offers an opportunity to learn, to grow, and to improve. Just as the spirit of capitalism has devoured criticism and turned it into its constitutional element in our world, it has done the same in their world with mistakes. Rather than allowing oneself to be disrupted by mistakes, one attributes them a value according to this logic. Every mistake can and must be commodified – at least that’s what people say, and because everyone believes it, it also works. “Failure management” and “failure culture” are not contradictory terms in Why’s world. 
In our world, however, we love failures, faults, and flaws precisely for their disruptive potential. Isn’t that true? Glitches and goofs fascinate us because they reveal the fallibility of a supposedly infallible system, and not only that. Mistakes exist solely in the context of particular plans or norms – constructed orders. Mistakes bring disorder into this order, with the result that the order itself, its constructed nature, and thus also its changeability, often become visible in the first place. Mistakes also have revolutionary potential, in other words. But what happens when order succeeds in integrating the mistake into the system? Then the system can no longer be disrupted. And how does one integrate disruption into order? By talking about it as a necessity. “I am grateful for my mistakes, for without them I would not be where I am and should be now,” Poof tells her listeners over and over again. Her basic attitude at those failure lectures is that she is a heroine who fulfilled her mission not in spite of but because of her mistakes. She does not allow her mistakes to faze her. Her stories are heroic tales that apparently describe what it means to be human.  

“It is the story that makes the difference,” writes Ursula K. Le Guin. “It is the story that hid my humanity from me, the story the mammoth hunters told about bashing, thrusting, raping, killing, about the Hero.” And the Hero decreed: “First, that the proper shape of the narrative is that of the arrow or spear, starting here and going straight there and THOK! hitting its mark; second, that the central concern of narrative is conflict; and third, that the story isn’t any good if he isn’t in it.” 

This arrow-shaped narrative is the only one that Poof and her friends know. So they seem bound to turn every report of their mistakes into a heroic story. Those who are lucky enough to be a hero tell their story. Those who are unlucky enough not to be one defer to them. “Heroes are powerful,” writes Le Guin in her Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. “Before you know it, the men and women in the wild-oat patch and their kids and the skills of the makers and the thoughts of the thoughtful and the songs of the singers have all been pressed into service in the tale of the Hero. But it isn’t their story. It’s his. The trouble is, we’ve all let ourselves become part of the killer story, and so we may get finished along with it.”  

Heroic Stories 

Poof, Pow, Wow, and Why first need to recognize this trouble and then “stay with it.” “Staying with the trouble” is what Donna Haraway recommends, and I would be doing nothing new if I drew parallels between her and Le Guin. Haraway refers to Le Guin’s theory time and again. As she writes in Staying with the Trouble, for example: “So much of earth history has been told in the thrall of the fantasy of the first beautiful words and weapons, of the first beautiful weapons as words and vice versa. Tool, weapon, word: that is the word made flesh in the image of the sky god. In a tragic story with only one real actor, one real world-maker, the hero. Everything else in this story has the “job be in the way, to be overcome, to be the road, the conduit,” and this also holds true of mistakes.

Like the conflict, the mistake, assuming the mistake is not due in any case to the conflict, is the necessary test that the hero has to face in order to fulfill his destiny and ultimately arrive at the place he is now, namely the happy ending. And of course, all his little accidents are also happy, or at least they will be with hindsight. Everything was happy in the end – though obviously not lucky, for that would mean after all that the hero’s success is attributable not least in part to actual accidents and coincidences, or even, MAN=HERO=GOD=SELF-CREATOR forbid, to other beings, objects, and circumstances. His mistakes and his overcoming of them are his achievements alone, and if they do not lead to a happy ending then he is either not a MAN=HERO=GOD=SELF-CREATOR, or he has not yet fulfilled his mission.  

These heroic tales are reassuring because they always know how they will end. Their reproduction is not only fatal for Why, who is still constructing his story as a heroic story into the future toward an ending that will not be fulfilled, but is also fatal for his co-beings, all of those that are not the subject of this story. In other words, our example people must stop reproducing the old story of the MAN=HERO=GOD=SELF-CREATOR because, firstly: the anthropos is not able to overcome his mistakes on his own (any longer) and to survive on his own, secondly: the system that forces him to capitalize on his mistakes is what resulted in the mistakes that are now threatening his earthly survival in the first place, and thirdly: blindly hoping for a happy ending saves no lives, just as little, incidentally, as desperation does in the face of a supposedly unstoppable catastrophe. What both attitudes have in common is the calm expectation of a supposedly inevitable future.  

An Alternative Narrative 

However, we must not only stop telling the one story. Above all, we must tell other stories! Why? Actors and active assemblages produce reality by helping to generate knowledge through discourse. At the same time, they themselves are produced by and in such discourse. Not all actors have equal power within the discourse, however. To break down or change the existing power relationships, one must intervene in the discourse, and Haraway believes this can be done by inventing new characters, metaphors, or narratives. Different knowledge with different metaphors, characters, and narratives gives rise to different actors, different power relationships, and different exclusions. “It makes a difference which forms of knowledge know knowledge, which relationships create relationships, and which stories tell stories.” Storytelling for earthly survival is the name that Haraway gives this practice.  

But what might such alternative storytelling sound like, or what form might it take? To answer these questions, Haraway once again looks to Le Guin, and I follow her lead: “I would go so far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us. One relationship among elements in the novel may well be that of conflict, but the reduction of narrative to conflict is absurd. So, when I came to write science-fiction novels, I came lugging my carrier bag full of wimps and klutzes; full of beginnings without ends, of initiations, of losses, of transformations and translations, and far more tricks than conflicts, far fewer triumphs than snares and delusions; full of space ships that get stuck, missions that fail, and people who don’t understand. I said it was hard. I didn’t say it was impossible.” 

Challenging bag stories of this type are unsettling. “Missions that fail, and people who don’t understand” are in constant movement in them. They do not form the necessary adversaries and tests, nor signposts or lessons on one specific path. They are not brought into any predictable order but remain troubled and trouble maker.   

Why is also troubled, Why is uncertain as far as his mistakes are concerned. But what he does not realize is that this uncertainty is precisely the attitude that may be able to save him/them/us. In my opinion, “staying with the trouble” also means remaining uncertain about how to deal with mistakes. It means preserving the disruption as a disruption, talking about the mistake as a mistake, and not turning it into a chapter and into capital in one’s own heroic tale, not wrapping it in the wrapping paper of Heaven, whose only inhabitant is the hero or his ideal itself. “Staying with the trouble” means not being reassured by stories that know how they will end. It means “really being present” rather than waiting for a downfall or the happy ending. It means remaining alert, causing trouble, shaking things up. It definitely does not mean an inability to decide and/or act – on the contrary, it means deciding time and again, being guilty, remaining capable of action – and jointly, not all alone as a hero.  

I do not say that Poof, Pow, Wow, and Why should not learn from their mistakes. But it makes a difference whether they say that this mistake is exactly what I need if I am to learn what I must learn in order to get to where I should be. Or whether they say that this mistake messes everything up, and now we have to deal with it. We haven’t learned any lesson from it because lessons learned from mistakes tend to become a dogma that will lull us into a false sense of security and lead to new mistakes. However, we have learned something for now. Perhaps it would have been better nonetheless not to make the mistake. Who knows?  

“It’s way past time to make louder and to tell ourselves the stories of ongoing, the stories of the net bag” says Haraway, “Stories, that don’t know how they’re supposed to end,” she says, in which grief and shame about our own failures, faults, and flaws are cultivated, I say, stories about uncertain beings in uncertain relationships. Perhaps Why will decide to go on stage and drop his pants, as Poof suggested; perhaps he will succeed in not telling a heroic tale there but instead will report on his uncompleted and unused mistakes, on who or what contributed to them and how, on which decisions he took with whom, on how he dealt with whom, on which relationships this resulted in, and on what he and all the others in the carrier bag have learned from this; perhaps he will succeed in reporting on his uncertainty. 

So now I have actually made Why the antihero of this story, an antihero in which of course a hero is lurking. Clearly, I also find it difficult to jettison the heroic narrative. “Staying with the trouble” means not relying on anything, and this includes not relying on the truths of the antihero and of one’s personal heroes. It should have become apparent by now that I am borrowing more than just a few slogans and a method from Haraway and Le Guin. What I would really like to do is embroider each of their words onto a pillow, bury my head in it, and rest – rest until everything is over. But I can’t afford to do that. 

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This article was commissioned and created in collaboration with Das Wetter - Magazin für Text und Musik.

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