Friday companion species blogging


“I believe that all ethical relating, within or between species, is knit from the silk-strong thread of ongoing alertness to otherness-in-relation. We are not one, and being depends on getting on together.”

I have been reading Donna Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto (2003). The slim booklet, written in a sometimes wordy but engaging style, explores the ways we relate to “significant others” — to dogs, but also to other creatures we love. Haraway is definitely not the kind of person to address her pet as if it were a child, or to anthropomorphise the dog into a furry human. She finds the idea of unconditional love of dogs for their owners “pernicious.” Instead, relating to significant others should happen on the basis of the acknowledgement of the other’s difference, a mutual constant alertness to the other’s identity, and a respect for that otherness. Drawing on her experience in agility courses, she writes that:

The task is to become coherent enough in an incoherent world to engage in a joint dance of being that breeds respect and response in the flesh, in the run, on the course. And then to remember how to live like that at every scale, with all the partners.

I kept wondering how this kind of ethical relation, this being together while respecting each other’s otherness, would work if the companion species in question is not a dog, but a cat. For cats, as fellow cat owners will be aware, are far less obedient than dogs. My cat will sometimes retrieve her toy mouse or play silly games that we’ve worked out together — but only when she’s in the mood for it. The “joint dance of respect” with my cat is much more quirky than the amazing choreography of a dog and its handler doing the weave poles. The constant mutual attention that Haraway has achieved with her dogs through training is simply not in a cat’s nature (or should I say — as Haraway does after Bruno Latour — natureculture? For animals not only have a biological, but a cultural history as well, she argues).

Perhaps the cat, as a companion species, is even more “significantly other” than a dog? If the dance with the dog is to serve as a model for interrelating “at every scale, with all the partners,” what happens when the partner is significantly other than an attentive dog? Can the dog-woman relation serve as a model when the other might at times simply be more interested in grooming her coat?

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