Thursday, 16 June 2011

Reading List - The Companion Species Manifesto

"There cannot be just one companion species; there have to be at least two to make one. It is in the syntax; it is in the flesh." 
A little diversion from the practicalities of dog training, a note on a short book by Donna Haraway, Professor in the History of Consciousness Department at University of California, Santa Cruz, called the The Companion Species Manifesto (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003). More thoughts in process than a call to action, this is an exploration of our relationship to canines in philosophical, historical and socio-cultural terms.

Some of my favourite bits:
"... dogs are not about oneself. Indeed, that is the beauty of dogs. They are not a projection, nor the realization of an intention, nor the telos of anything. They are dogs; i.e., a species in obligatory, constitutive historical, protean relationship with human beings."
Haraway tries to write, sometimes in the face of a complex reality that is hard to translate into prose, the myriad of connections, associations and relationships that make up every encounter with a "significant other" of another species. Her sometime failure to clearly articulate these encounters proves her point. We have to recognise that we will always fail to understand the other species, but also that this is what drives us to continue trying.
"The recognition that one cannot know the other or the self, but must ask in respect for all of time who and what are emerging in relationship, is the key. That is so for all true lovers, whatever the species."
Part of why I like Haraway's inquiry, is that her personal choice, which is also my choice, to have dogs, not children, simmers under the surface of her exploration of her own relationship with dogs. She resists being called 'mom' to her dogs because she wants to avoid the "misidentification of the important fact that I wanted dogs, not babies". While I have given up resisting the 'mama' label, the distinction is important to me, too. Haraway quotes Linda Weissman:
"While my dogs can love me (I think), I have never had an interesting political conversation with any of them. On the other hand, while my children talk, they lack the true 'animal' sense that allows me to touch, however briefly, the 'being' of another species so different from my own with all the awe-inspiring reality that brings me." 
However, the relationship with dogs is not just about this ineffable otherness that we are allowed to touch in their presence, but about love. To Haraway, training her dogs is an act of love, as is her Manifesto, indeed, it flourishes between what she calls the "corporeal join between the material and the semiotic" that make up species distinctions in the first place.

Yet she is the first one to reject the many fantasies we have about our dogs, including the one about unconditional love. To engage with dogs is rather "about seeking to inhabit an inter-subjective world that is about meeting the other is all the fleshy detail of a mortal relationship". This is what attracts me, who usually deals with the semiotic, to dogs: the inevitability of the material in our interaction.

Some of the most interesting parts of Haraway's little book is her consideration of the co-evolution of dogs and humans. She sees it as a two-way process, where the distinction between natural and artificial selection, as well as between nature and culture is a false one. "There is no time or place at which genetics ends and environment begins..." Both species have influenced the evolution of the other.
"It is a mistake to see the alterations of dogs' bodies and minds as biological and the changes in humans bodies and lives as, for example in the emergence of herding or agricultural societies, as cultural, and so not about co-evolution. At the least, I suspect that human genomes contain a considerable molecular record of the pathogens of their companion species, including dogs."
To Haraway, this two-way interaction is continuing to this day, in a relationship of "reciprocal posession" that should guide us in the way we interact with dogs.
"In relationship, dogs and humans construct 'rights' in each other, such as the right to demand respect, attention and response [...] If I have a dog, my dog has a human; what that means is concretely at stake."
In my own theoretical and, importantly, practical explorations of canine behaviour and training, this is what I believe is important to remember - reciprocity. If you want to expect attention and response from your dog, he or she will need to have some attention and response from you.


dog said...

I heard this:
"If someone's best friend is a dog then that dog has a problem... "

houndstooth said...

I think the last point is the one that resonated the most with me. I believe that's true in any relationship, but it seems to be one that many of us are forgetting as we enter an age where our interactions are dominated so heavily by technology. Having a dog at home may end up being part of what keeps us human!

Greyhounds CAN Sit said...

Hi, thanks for the follow back. I confess to not having read any of your posts yet, basically because they look so darn interesting that I want to start from the beginning and read all of them! I have a feeling I'm going to learn a lot:)

Celia said...

Very interesting concept for a book. I will certainly need to check this out!