Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Struggling on with Donna Haraway!... Some further thoughts on her book, "When Species Meet" (2007) #3

Having made a start in reading the work of Donna Haraway, I've decided to revisit her book "When Species Meet" (2008), by the University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis. I've chosen to spend a fair time of my Easter holiday trying to absorb her work in a different way perhaps than my first attempt back in January/February this year.

Haraway opens the book by describing it as "an acknowledgement of the lively knottings that tie together the world I inhabit". This seems to be a good start! It fits with my intentions to study relationships between humans and, as Haraway puts it, 'nonhuman animals' and with the knowledge that Haraway, being a professor of anthropology, it seems that her enquiries are indeed likely to resonate with some of my own thoughts.

However, I quickly find in the acknowledgements section at the beginning of the book, much of it is devoted to the relationship between humans and dogs. While there is a clue that this may be the case through the depiction of the silhouette of a black Labrador extending its paw into a cupped human hand, the title itself "When Species Meet" suggests that there may be a wider enquiry. Not being a very doggy person myself, I will pursue reading to her lengthy tome of over 400 pages, but with the caution that I may find myself struggling with it at times! If I find this to be the case and this battle becomes a chore, I will probably abandon the exercise, but this time I'm determined to give it a better chance than the 30 or 40 pages that I read at the beginning of the year.

Some of her initial points to position enquiry I've paraphrased. They are useful because she sets out (as her second objective) as "how is 'becoming with' practice of becoming worldly?" Which is about her initial question of "whom and what do I touch when I touch my dog?" And I read this as also being, whom and what does a human touch, in any human to animal encounter?

Haraway explains that us humans are actually only really made up of pure human genomes in about 10% of all the cells of the human body, the rest of the cells are filled with a plethora of various organisms genomes, including fungi, bacteria and a whole host of other life forms, all of which come together to harmoniously allow us to live! Many of these critters (and the critter is a term that Haraway consistently uses) get a free ride in that vessel that we call our bodies. She observes that her sense of self is almost entirely overwhelmed by all of these various other tiny companions.

So again, it seems we're off to a good start in that there is an explicit recognition of companion species, both within ourselves and without. But soon enough, Haraway's rather rambling and florid (and times a little archaic) writing turns the subject back to dogs… Although there is an interesting discourse on p 19 about the observations of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, about an encounter that he had with his cat. He recognised that his cat was looking at him, and so he knew that he was in the presence of someone, a sentient being capable of thinking, not some autonomous machine. But what Haraway points out is that Derrida did not start to question what his pet was actually feeling or thinking, or even doing, and as such suggests that he "failed the simple obligation of companion species". I find this interesting because there is an implied duty by Haraway, which whilst I understand her concept of companionship being a sharing of experiences (and Haraway deconstructs in detail the meaning of companionship, its derivation and etymology, its literal Latin translation meaning "with bread" as an inference to sharing and eating together), the observation by Jacques Derrida, was very much based on a singular event. Haraway attempts to criticise his failed attempt to enquire further, which is fair enough, but I think she misses the point which ultimately Derrida was trying to say. That is, what's the difference between a response and reaction? This was a linguistic enquiry, simply because Derrida was more interested in the language of encounters and exchange rather than biological intimacy.

Moving on, Haraway sites the work of two other French philosophers, Giles Deleuze and FĂ©lix Guattari, in their famous jointly written book, "A Thousand Plateaus". At the time that this book was written, (through the 1970s and published in 1980), it must be recognised that our culture and attitude towards animals (other than humans) was only just beginning to change from the dominator (and arguably, non-feminist) perception, like the master and slave, or human sovereignty over nature. This, I believe is what Deleuze and Guattari were also ultimately trying to break down, the masculine-centric, patrilineal thinking that has dominated philosophy before their very own writing about it. This is important here because I believe in the 30 or so years that have elapsed since their original thoughts, Haraway identifies (correctly) that their attitudes are vastly out of touch with her own (which of course are based on her own cultural environment and particularly a progressive, almost ideological, milieu found in California and the West Coast of the United States). Perhaps that's rather unfair, as neither of those two French philosophers has a chance of defending themselves in our modern culture.

Then back to writing more about dogs and observations of events! A regular pattern of prose rises with Haraway, where she often provides, instead of descriptions that illuminate imagination, she merely provides lists of nouns, separated by commas, which go on and on, such as that on p 39, the politics of wolves, dogs, cattle, tics, pathogens, tanks, minefields, soldiers, displaced villagers, cattle thieves et cetera et cetera. The staccato, almost scattergun approach to her articulation is tough for somebody like me, who is more visually orientated, to imagine or visualise as a kind of rendering of a picture, which is required to establish a clear understanding. Even in the last part of this last sentence, as I analyse it, the language is much more visualistic and image orientated!

In thinking about Haraway and her style, from a visual point of view, it's almost like a series of flickering photographic slides of all sorts of ideas, being bombarded at the spectator, rather than a smoothly unfolding (and arguably more sophisticated), narrative that brings a sense of journey (like a cinema film does) to the viewer.

Anyway, it's around here after about 40 pages that I stopped the last time, so I'm determined to keep going in the hope that I will start to absorb a deeper sense of rapport and common ground to find with Haraway. Onwards and upwards, but I think this reflection articulates my struggle with this author!


Haraway, D. (2008) When Species Meet, University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, US.

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