When Species Meet

Chewing on Haraway

(Inspired by Jonathon Sullivan, I decided to invite my dog, Juno, to write this occasional contribution. Here Juno writes a review of Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet. The review was solicited from Savage Minds by University of Minnesota Press. – K)

I was very happy when my owner decided that we should review this book. Mostly because when he reads a book we can sit together on the couch, which is much more fun than when he sits at his desk surfing the web. I get scratched behind my ear a lot more when we are reading a book.

I also like Haraway. She seems to engage ideas in the same way a dog might play with a dead animal: sniffing it, placing it our mouth, playing with it, rolling on it, barking at it, offering it to our master only to run away with it again. But I could tell my owner was as frustrated by this kind of play as he is when I do it. He likes to play boring, repetitive, games like fetch. He seems to prefer the easy popular style of Patricia McConnell to Haraway’s challenging prose.

Even though its written like those “myths of mars and venus” books he has come to despise, McConnell taught my owner a lot about how to be a good companion species. Haraway, on the other hand, struck him as self-indulgent with its long digressions, reprinting of entire e-mail exchanges, and its stubborn refusal to make any coherent claims which are capable of being wrong. That’s why he asked me to write the review. I understand play.

Haraway like to play with her dog. She seems to be in much better shape than my owner and goes running with her dog everyday. They also compete together in the co-species sport known as agility. I wish my owner was half as fun. He mostly just likes to go for walks or throw a ball while I do the running. But he has read a lot of dog training books and we do some simple training exercises together which is fun, because I always get lots of treats when I’m studying. Haraway scolds Derrida because he didn’t seem particularly interested in playing with his cat. That upset her a lot. She wants us to understand the responsibilities provoked by our encounters with other species.

Here’s how she says it:

When Species Meet, strives to build to attachment sites and tie sticky knots to bind intra-acting critters, including people, together in the kinds of response and regard that change the subject – and the object. Encounterings do not produce harmonious wholes, and smoothly preconstituted identities do not ever meet in the first place. Such things cannot touch, much less attach; there is no first place; and species, either singular nor plural, demand another practice of reckoning. In the fashion of turtles (with their epibionts) on turtles all the way down, meetings make us who and what we are in the avid contact zones that are the world. Once “we” have met, we can never “the same” again. Propelled by the tasty but risky obligation of curiosity among companion species, once we know, we cannot not know. If we know well, searching with fingery eyes, we care. That is how responsibility grows. (p. 287)

She does this mostly by telling stories. And she’s a good story teller. Her best stories are about scientists who use animals for research purposes. She argues that the quality of the research depends on respecting the ethical obligation humans have to animals.

The animals make demands on the humans and their technologies to precisely the same degree that the humans make demands on the animals. Otherwise, the cameras fall off and other bad things happen to waste everybody’s time and resources. (P263)

In McConnell’s book she describes how she wasn’t allowed to give toys to the lab dogs when she was in university because the emphasis then was on keeping the lab “sterile.” (She snuck in toys anyway. I like McConnell.) But my owner says that it’s a mistake to conflate ethical positions like this with instrumental arguments about scientific outcomes because it isn’t necessarily true that scientifically valid outcomes are dependent on ethical behavior.

Haraway reserves her deepest scorn for the field of bioethics. She emphasizes the importance of social processes and the process of becoming – hence her use of stories to make her points. I like her stories, but my owner thinks that the stories allow her to avoid doing the philosophical dirty work of formulating a coherent argument.

I don’t know. I think he read this book hoping to learn something about dogs, when its really a book about humans. I learned a lot about humans from this book. The part about how activists are pressuring dog breeders to be more open about genetic data was really interesting. It’s a whole different world from the Taiwanese puppy farm where my first owner bought me. My current owner took me there once and seemed very upset when we left. I was just happy to see my mother, even though she barked at me.

I’d like to learn more about dogs and anthropologists. I hope my owner finds time to read Kohn’s article “How dogs dream” or Ghodsee’s Anthropology News piece “Basset Hounds in the Balkans.” Maybe you have some stories or references you’d like to share?

(You can see a webcast of a talk Haraway gave about her book at The Open University.)

4 thoughts on “When Species Meet

  1. Maybe Juno would like to review “The Hound of the Baskervilles” from the point of view of the unnamed hound? Talk about abusing the animal-human relationship: “Encounterings do not produce harmonious wholes” (not always). Obviously, in a mystery, death is the outcome, both for old Baskerville and the hound. Well, I don’t have a story to share, but a quote from Groucho Marx: “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

  2. I’ll take this opportunity to once again plug Rebecca Cassidy’s excellent “The Sport of Kings: Kinship, class and thoroughbred breeding in Newmarket”

  3. Juno, I really enjoyed this. I see a future for you as at least a teaching assistant or perhaps a journal editor.

    Your master is a smart man. Re: his key point “… that it’s a mistake to conflate ethical positions like this with instrumental arguments about scientific outcomes because it isn’t necessarily true that scientifically valid outcomes are dependent on ethical behavior,” it’s sadly the case that the terrible experiments conducted on unwilling human beings by German and Japanese doctors during WWII, and by U.S. gov’t doctors on soldiers and African-Americans afterwards, among other like atrocities, yielded tremendously valuable information about the functioning of the living human body that is very much a part of our contemporary healing arts. So I agree that the instrumental argument is not only ethically thin but, if left on its own, catastrophically wrong.

    I wonder, though, if Haraway is telling her stories in an anthropologically thick kind of way to build, not an austerely coherent argument (of which there are many available, Rawls for example), but a deeper emotional-intellectual nexus of understanding about the messy integrity of our relationships?

  4. I actually do some TA work already. Mostly I steal student’s pencils and jackets to make sure they aren’t falling asleep in class. Unfortunately, a lot of Taiwanese are afraid of dogs (because there are so many strays here), so I can’t go to class too often.

    Haraway’s stories do help build “a deeper emotional-intellectual nexus of understanding about the messy integrity of our relationships,” but my owner complains that they still lack the “thickness” of good anthropological story telling. She seems to think that it is enough to tell the story and to let the reader extrapolate the significance. This flatters the reader. I know I didn’t have any problem figuring out what she meant to say. But my owner thinks it leaves one thinking you’ve learned more than you really have.

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