• November 24, 2014

Donna Haraway's Critters

A Theory of Critters 1

Vincent Musi, Aurora Photos

Enlarge Image
close A Theory of Critters 1

Vincent Musi, Aurora Photos

If each age has its symbolic creature, the 1980s were the Age of the Cyborg. The cyborg invaded the cultural imagination in the now-iconic film The Terminator (1984), William Gibson's novel Neuromancer (1984), and Donna J. Haraway's essay "A Cyborg Manifesto" (1985). The cyborg encapsulated advances in technology and biology as personal computers, artificial hearts, and other handy gadgets permeated our lives. They were no longer alien to us but part of us.

Published in Socialist Review and mobilizing a wide range of theoretical references, Haraway's essay was an unlikely candidate to capture the zeitgeist. But it struck a chord, characterizing one aspect of postmodernism, of the world changing from nature to simulation, from things to information. The essay became a touchstone in the heyday of literary theory, reprinted in a slew of anthologies and cited copiously. It also drew audiences outside academe, among them science-fiction fans and writers, performance artists, and those who might peruse Wired.

I recently interviewed Haraway, a professor in the history-of-consciousness program at the University of California at Santa Cruz, to glean her reflections on "A Cyborg Manifesto" 25 years later, as well as to find out about her work since. She told me that people read her essay "like a Rorschach," sometimes seeing it as a celebration of technology, sometimes as a fierce criticism. Like the cyborg, it was both, and not quite either.

The cyborg suggests a futuristic world of silicon and software, so it might come as a surprise to those who know only the early essay that Haraway's work over the past decade has moved to the earthier world of animals. With The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (Prickly Paradigm, 2003) and When Species Meet (University of Minnesota Press, 2007), she has become a prominent figure in the developing field of animal studies. If her first manifesto stamped the Age of the Cyborg, her recent books mark the Age of the Animal.

Haraway's key idea is that animals are "companion species." This phrase seems less provocative than "cyborg," but it has some teeth: It rebuts the traditional Western view that man rightly has "dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle" (Genesis 1:26). Haraway sees it the other way around: We are not kings in a great chain of being, but, in her parlance, we are all critters. This idea has a good deal of consequence in how we relate to and what we do with animals.

Though animals seem a long way from cyborgs, Haraway sees them as "in the same litter." "I think in ecologies [that] are always at least tri-part: humans, critters other than humans, and technologies," she said. "In the cyborg work, I foregrounded the technological dimensions of that triad, and in the current work I'm foregrounding the other organisms in the triad." Much of her writing examines concepts that we ordinarily think of as opposed —like organisms and machines or humans and animals—and shows how they interweave.

Deconstructing opposed categories is a familiar move in poststructuralist theory, but unlike that of most postmodern theorists, Haraway's work is grounded in science. She has a Ph.D. in biology from Yale, which she attended during the early 1970s on a National Defense Education Act fellowship. "I had an Irish-Catholic girl's brain, and I became a national resource with Sputnik," she noted wryly. "I wasn't a national resource before; then I was." She first trained to be an experimental biologist, but she admits that she was never a good lab scientist. "I killed most of my organisms through appalling errors. I moved too fast. I didn't have the patience. I didn't have good hands." She also realized that she was interested in biology as a cultural and historical phenomenon, and was not "fundamentally committed to doing it."

Leaving the lab, Haraway began her career teaching the history of science, which fed her research exploring the culture of biology and biologists. In the 1970s, she published important essays in the feminist-studies journal Signs and elsewhere about the ways that science produces "situated knowledge" rather than objective knowledge. Her major study, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (Routledge, 1989), details the ways that primatologists project their gender, racial, and social views onto the world of apes.

Haraway's training gives her a perspective different from that of many scholars who do cultural studies of science. She's not an antagonist; in fact, when we talked, she said, "I love science. My Ph.D.'s in biology—that means I've spent a lot of time in labs, with other organisms, and I know a lot of people who do science." While teaching at the Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere in the late 1970s, she also learned a lot about literary and critical theory, which was coming to the fore at the time. Unfortunately, though, the commerce between the two cultures was usually one-way: "I learned a whole lot more about semiotics and psychoanalysis than folks learned about biology. It was never quite symmetrical."

In popular discourse, it's often remarked that contemporary thinkers are "secular humanists." But actually one perspective that theorists and scientists share is antihumanism, against "the notion that the proper study of mankind is man," as Haraway put it. "I've never been humanist," she said. "We live in a huge nonhuman world." She shares with many biologists the sense "that the most fabulous thing about the world are the other critters." In her recent work, she debunks what she calls "human exceptionalism."

Besides her formidable studies of biology, a personal circumstance prompted Haraway's recent work: getting a dog, Cayenne. As Haraway observed to me, "You know, what we do becomes what we write. Most of us start whatever we do from biographical accidents." Hers started a decade ago, when she got "this puppy youngster who's just a dynamo, an amazingly talented athlete that takes training seriously. I'm interested in doing sports at a serious level with a member of another species." They participate in agility competitions in California and elsewhere.

An Australian shepherd, Cayenne is geared more toward tasks than other dogs. When I went to Haraway's house, Cayenne was more standoffish than most dogs; she didn't bother to nose at me but lay at a distance from where we were talking. However, she revved up when Haraway did a few minutes of a complicated drill with her in the backyard.

Her experience with Cayenne has led Haraway to think more about the philosophical question of "how might an ethics and politics committed to the flourishing of significant otherness be learned from taking dog-human relationships seriously," as she writes in The Companion Species Manifesto. It has also led her to the cultural history of animals. "When you take things seriously and track them," she explained, "you track somebody like Cayenne into the history of eugenics, into the history of breed clubs, Nazi animal-rights legislation, … the history of herding dogs and the post-gold-rush transformation of California ranching ecologies," among other strands.

When I asked about the danger of indulgence in the turn toward autobiography, she clarified that "it's personal in a very impersonal sense, too," insofar as "some weird biographical thing can turn out to be a world-historical phenomenon," like the current debate about animals, agriculture, and ecology. "Cheap food has been an imperial strategy since before Rome," she added. "Animals are at the heart of what's going on in the world today. So I think of animal studies as smack dab in the middle of things," in the same way that scientific research was during the Vietnam War, when she was a student and worked with Science for the People, a group concerned with the misuse of science, particularly by the military.

A good deal of work in animal studies might be divided on the axis of theory and activism. Haraway, as she does with other dichotomies, tries to work between both poles. The theory side often dwells on concepts such as the nonhuman and draws on Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze, canonical figures in French theory. While Haraway has affinities with this side, she also has reservations. When we spoke, she allowed that "Derrida did some wonderful stuff, but he doesn't start animal studies." And she quipped that "big-name theorists lend a shiny cachet … that some people run with that makes me vaguely nauseous." Instead, her litmus test is if one is a "committed, on-the-ground animal person." She still considers herself a theorist but said her recent writing "is doing theory more in the vernacular," using stories, e-mail, and other informal elements.

Haraway has a more fraught relationship with the activist side of animal studies, which focuses on animal rights and sometimes compares the killing of animals for food, sport, or research to the Holocaust. She advocates the "flourishing of other animals" and criticizes the "animal-industrial complex," but she still eats meat and maintains a "continuing affirmation of the goodness of doing lab experiments with other organisms up to and including killing."

Similar to her argument about the cyborg, that the human does not represent some idyllic state before machines, she holds that we should not consider animals as inhabiting some idyllic state without humans. In her words, rather than seeing "domestic arrangements between human beings and other animals as always the imposition of human domination, … the history of co-domestication is a multispecies phenomenon. It's not that we domesticated them and turned them into instruments for our ends, but these are co-evolutions of ourselves and other organisms we live with."

To deal with current agriculture and animals, she favors organic farming and such practices as pasture-raised chickens. About lab research, she proposed: "You minimize laboratory animal experimentation, you minimize suffering, you substitute, you develop systems that don't require whole animals." Still, she was unabashed in asserting, "I believe the engagement of human beings and technologies and other organisms in the projects of knowing to be good, and not just because they cure diseases. I think curiosity is a precious and fragile and not very nice virtue." She retains her belief in the importance of scientific inquiry.

A bit defensively, Haraway carries the animal-rights argument to its logical extreme, claiming that it would make modern agricultural animals either "museum specimens" or extinct, both of which she finds unacceptable. Still, she is troubled by the killing of animals. "It's impossible to work from the fantasy that animals are for human use. I'm not comfortable, and I don't think we should be."

Jeffrey J. Williams is a professor of English and literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University. A full version of his interview with Donna Haraway will appear in the winter 2009 issue of the minnesota review, called "The Feral Issue" and guest-edited by Heather Steffen.

Comments

1. chron7 - October 21, 2009 at 11:21 am

There's a bad word play here. Humans are animals...unless you believe we are minerals or vegetables.

2. rsmulcahy - October 26, 2009 at 08:19 pm

I believe most humans are animals though I am pretty sure Dick Cheney's heart is made of stone and Geoge Bush was clearly composed of vegetative materials.

3. svoros - October 27, 2009 at 03:49 pm

Jeffrey Williams could have made his main point using 75 percent fewer words. Why do academics feel compelled to load up simple arguments with murky, extraneous material?

4. richardtwine - October 31, 2009 at 02:30 pm

"claiming that it would make modern agricultural animals either "museum specimens" or extinct, both of which she finds unacceptable"

I think this is an assumption unworthy of Haraway's intellect.

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.