Thursday, 9 February 2017

Book review - Donna Harraway's 'When Species Meet" (2008), - Continued... # 2

Further to my recent notes commencing the review of this excellent source (Haraway, D. "When Species Meet" (2008), University of Minnesota Press), Haraway takes us through an initial introduction and discourse about positioning her ideas of companion species, and "companion animals" that is. However, and this seems to be a literary habit, by the way, she tends to explain in every minutia that those titled companion animals are dogs, cats, horses, small monkeys, miniature donkeys, etc., etc., et cetera and goes on to define almost every one of them. (She does tend to use very many words to get across a meaning when only perhaps one or two might do)!
Anyway, nevertheless her introduction goes on to explain how there is a feeling of 'belonging' when in the presence of particular species (which I would call simply pets).  And she also talks about the notion of "becoming with," as a kind of place in which we inhabit in a common sense of living.

The origin of the word 'companion' is 'com panis' from the Latin expression to mean "with bread". In other words, we tend to eat at the same table, if you like. This makes sense, and I like the idea of comparing the fact that apparently, the word 'company' also comes from this Latin origin too. It was originally used to describe a company of Knights, that being the lowest 'officer' ranking individuals, who shared a common table together when eating. And it is from here that the idea of the Knights of the Round Table can perhaps be given further credence.

Haraway goes on to discuss species, and my present understanding of the word (from my time in engineering), reminds me of the idea, and that in itself, the word 'species', if I recall, was indeed an idea. I also seem to have in mind, that 'species' was a term that referred to an early form of money as coinage, but this is something I need to research a little further.

Eventually, back to the book, we might be getting to the heart of the matter, and I think it's important to point out here, that Haraway makes note that she was brought up in a Roman Catholic family. I am always interested when a person has had a strict secular upbringing, as it seems they sometimes rebel completely against it in later life, or, they openly embrace it wholly (No pun intended).  In other words, there appears to be a polarisation in many cases and answers (regardless of the specific religion (and there again is that word 'species' or a derivative in 'specific')) a possible cause of certain thought patterns (schema).  This notion of polarisation of beliefs in certain people of a particular temperament, appears to abound in the way that some writers choose to report their observations and I should consider caution that it may be happening in this text itself?
Putting all that aside for a moment, Haraway does provide an excellent and thorough breakdown of all the etymology in her chosen key words. Indeed, to use Jacques Derrida's method of 'deconstruction', she refers the word 'species' to its Latin origin of speciae.  Then in reflection, she talks of the Latin word specare,  (To look, as in spectacle, hence speculate, etc), and ties in this together with the "act of re-spect". It is here that we can then drill down and think of this term of 'respect' in paying some sort of deference to an other; that is, to hold some other in a higher regard or esteem.

It is also here that Haraway then puts together the idea of species and companion where she mentions the writing of Anna Tsing; who says "human nature is an interspecies relationship."  (This line appears to be taken from a jointly written book with Harraway entitled “Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species,” ed. Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, (forthcoming), MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts).  I was unable to find that original book referred to by Haraway, but instead, Tsing has since published "The Mushroom at The End of The World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins" (2015), Princeton University Press, Woodstock, Oxfordshire, UK.   (This latest book by Tsing, is one for me to try to get hold of as I believe there is much resonance with many of the ideas that she is working with, and those with which I am also working towards. However, I will resist a review until later in the year perhaps!).

Haraway then chooses a lecture given by Derrida which was entitled "And say the animal responded!" In that original address which was later followed with another one entitled "The animal that therefore I am (more to follow)", he explained how his pet cat went into the bathroom one morning, as he was washing. Derrida talks about the encounter and individuality of that specific cat, and how it responded when it saw him naked. My own interpretation of this (which is interesting if one considers Haraway's spiritual and secular upbringing maybe?), is that she too identifies with animals in the sense that they are sentient beings. She doesn't say this outright, but I think that that is ostensibly what she is trying to get to.
Arguably, therefore, animals that we recognise as companion species have "souls"? They are 'beings' in their own right, are sentient beings.  Consider, in just the same way that Buddhism and Confucianism (which arguably are not religions at all, but merely good rules to live by), recommend that we as 'human beings' treat all animals (that is sentient beings), as we treat ourselves. That is, we must respect them!

But perhaps I'm missing the point here too? In Derrida's case, he was just talking about how his cat made a response, (which is very different from a reaction). He merely speaks of the fact that the cat did respond, and from a philosophical point of view Derrida does not attach any anthropocentric emotional context to this. His concern about being naked is completely human, the cat would simply be indifferent, as it is probably indifferent to any other animal being 'covered or uncovered'. From a cat's point of view, is it surely not just an encounter with the species that it might recognise as being a human? Equally so, everything that we try and impose through the personification of our pets is entirely superfluous too?

In response to Derrida's writing, Haraway, however, makes the critique that she seems to think that he failed to take the encounter further in the analysis. Haraway suggests that we should know what the cat was actually thinking or feeling, doing or knowing? Is this not personification again? Isn't Haraway's analysis of the account indeed the encounter being viewed anthropocentrically? Haraway believes that Derrida made a significant error and lost the opportunity to speculate further about some 'otherworldliness' that his cat lived within.

However, in defence of Haraway, this notion of trying to see the world from the point of view of another, is what is being rejected as imperialist (as she calls it) and arguably facile. I believe that Derrida's enquiry at the time was about his cat's response through the term 'gaze'. This mutual exchange of looking, and what we as humans believe to be thinking behind the looking, becomes 'the gaze'.
Was the cat actually gazing in this sense? That Derrida was gazing at the cat and locking 'eye to eye' in some sort of primitive animal behaviour? It is true that cats generally avoid the stare, that is the 'eye to eye', direct contact, for a prolonged period. That is one of their features of behaviour in avoiding aggression. This is quite unlike dogs, where the stare is considered an act of assault and must be met with an equal stare in response. That is, dogs stare because they are pack animals and naturally aggressive but cats don't stare as they avoid aggression!
 Isn't the discourse that both Derrida and Haraway engage in, purely philosophical perhaps? Of course, it is!  This is the point!  I sometimes question that in trying to think from another point of view (that is from the point of view of another species), it is always going to be clouded with our own judgement, based on our own individual experiences and encounters, and in these writings, these notions are exposed.

Interesting for me, though, Haraway goes on to say (on page 21) "Why did Derrida leave unexamined the practices of communication outside the writing technologies he did know how to talk about?"   This is important to me because Haraway identifies the concept of communication and extending it to the idea and the notion of the gaze.
Haraway goes on to say. Instead, Derrida makes an enquiry through a kind of pity. He asks the question (as many others have done before him) based on 'does the cat suffer'? And do we know if animals can suffer? Haraway argues against these traditional thoughts and instead talks in terms of "can animals play?" But then I think she further falls into the human hierarchical behaviour of 'can I play with this cat'? Which in my opinion puts her at odds with what she is indeed trying to do, and that is, to get down (whoops there I go again with hierarchy), onto the same level as the cat, so that we truly can share an encounter or experience together.

All in all, Haraway's treatment of Derrida still, I think, seems to be somewhat anthropocentric unless I have missed her other points somewhere in her rather rambling style of writing?  However, I'm pleased to see that in further chapters, she then talks in terms of "becoming with".  This then brings me back to the central notion of my own plot for investigation, that is how one can attempt to reinterpret and re-articulate the world from another being's point of view on the same level.
Watch this space for further speciae!

Haraway, D. (2008) When Species Meet, University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, US.
Tsing, A. (forthcoming) Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species,” ed. Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts (Unable to find this source).
Tsing, A. L. "The Mushroom at The End of The World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins" (2015), Princeton University Press, Woodstock, Oxfordshire, UK.

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