On “Companion Animals” and “Becoming Animal”

“The king is gone but he’s not forgotten” -Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)

Our cat died this past weekend. He was a good cat. A cat that could climb and run better than me. His skiing abilities were never really tested but I don’t doubt that, with proper training, he would have bested me in that, too.

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Ramses highball bouldering (the rope is not to catch a fall but merely to make sure he doesn’t run away and under a car).

I have for some time wanted to write about the various environmentally oriented manifestoes circulating around but this recent, sad, event led to me focusing more on one, slightly older piece: The Companion Species Manifesto (2003) by ecocritic and feminist theorist Donna Haraway. Haraway is perhaps best known as the writer of the influential 1985 piece Cyborg Manifesto that argued that the cyborg is the perfect conceptual tool to question rigid human-animal-machine borders. During the years following the publication of the piece, it took on a life of its own, and the potentially negative aspects of becoming-cyborg were often forgotten. Partially as a response to this situation, she followed up with The Companion Species Manifesto that explores the role of companion animals, especially dogs (but also other domestic animals such as cats), in contemporary society.

Although The Companion Species Manifesto is perhaps less sexy and exciting than A Cyborg Manifesto, it nevertheless deals with many of the same issues. This time the focus is even more on challenging the opposition specifically between nature and culture (2003, 8). Further, Haraway approaches the topic of human-animal relationships partly from a distinctly leftist standpoint, and writes how both animals and people (or, more-than-human animals) “hail” each other: the animals hail ‘us’ into ethical accountability and ‘we’ hail ‘them’ into nature-culture “constructs” (2003, 17). For more on this Marxist concept of interpellation, see, e.g. Althusser 1970.

“Possession – property – is about reciprocity and rights of access. If I have a dog, my dog has a human” (Haraway 2003, 53-54).

Human-animal relationships are, however, complex enough to need approaches that also take into account relationships beyond those of owner and property. Haraway claims in The Companion Species Manifesto that “what is at stake is twofold: 1) the relation between what counts as nature and what counts as culture” and 2) “what counts as actor” (2003, 23). Answers to those questions are elusive. First, it is damn-near impossible to set up a clear nature-culture boundary. Second, if one is not an actor, i.e. a subject, then what are one’s potential responsibilities and, more importantly, rights as an object? I feel that following a Cartesian, dualist, mode of reasoning may fail us here, at least when it comes to acting towards our companion species, as the reasoning that favors a non-dualist way of thinking is more complex than the simple demarcation into ‘us’ and ‘them’ that seems to follow a dualist, everyday logic. Anyway, let’s proceed before this blog post derails altogether.

We have a little ‘reading circle’ going on, mostly among the scholars of the English Studies, here at my university. In it, we have recently discussed the dismantling of binaries. We are now reading the work of posthumanist Rosi Braidotti but before that we read the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (among other things, Deleuze and Guattari fiercely, and humorously, attack Freud’s handling of the famous wolf man case). To vastly simplify one part of the contents of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateus: it questions the Otherness of the more-than-human realm and argues, instead, for overlapping plateaus that can be seen as either representing various modes of thought or, potentially arranging various objects and subjects horizontally into non-hierarchical entities that cannot/should not be treated differently based on their position on a vertical axis.

Further, Deleuze and Guattari offer becoming animal as a way to destabilize human-animal (and other) hierarchies. One famous quote in the book goes thus: “The wolf, as the instantaneous apprehension of a multiplicity in a given region, is not a representative, a substitute, but an I feel. I feel myself becoming a wolf, one wolf among others, on the edge of the pack” (2005, 32). It is clear that statements such as those set oneself up for accusations of both romaticization of nature, and of anthropomorphization of it. Haraway was against both. Linda Williams (2009), however, has attempted a synthesis of Haraway’s work with that of Deleuze and Guattari’s. She approaches their work based on a consideration of the sixth wave of extinction that the planet is currently living through, and hopes that, by joining together the ethical implications of Haraway’s seeing the companion animal as worthy of consideration and Deleuze and Guattari’s recognition of the “heterogeneity” of the non-human, a response to the extinction wave could also be conceived (20090, 53).

Williams also discusses how the taking of domestic companion animals has affected how humans view non-domesticated animals. Deleuze and Guattari, for example, seemed to view the domesticated animal as something less than its wild predecessor, while Haraway objected to both this, and the romanticized notion of the de facto extremely hierarchical wolf pack that somehow flawlessly represents non-hierarchical multiplicity. Williams explains how, for Deleuze and Guattari, “the wolf pack offers a deterritorialisation of existing power relations” (2009, 49-50). As such, it should be seen more as a symbol of the destabilization that follows from this deterritorialisation than a concrete proposition of how to arrange various relationships. Thus, while the thought is appealing and could be continued further, it obviously has some problems.

The above theories are all very interesting to me, and probably boring as hell to many others. The challenge, however, is in how those theories could be implemented into an everyday practice that takes into account both the otherness of the companion animal but also her/his inherent similarity to ‘us’. I must admit that I have, at times, behaved in a theoretically very unsophisticated way in this relationship. Oftentimes I have in fact looked at the human-cat relationship on the basis of an unwritten yet binding contract between two subjects: The way I saw it was that ‘we’ had done ‘our part’ by rescuing the cat from a shelter and giving him food, love, and safety. ‘His part’, I felt, should consist of not taking a dump on the floor, or a piss on my pillow. There seemed to be some disagreement as to the implementation of these rules on his part at times, and I admit to resenting those times. Those infractions were, however, not enough to make the contract void. Perhaps they could be seen tests of a kind, carried out by him?

In any case, we now have one cat left, with whom to practice this cross-species companionship, and we also have a four-year old to whom it should be taught how to act in that relationship. We have already had many interesting, philosophically far-reaching, conversations since the sad events of the weekend, on how animals should be treated when they live, where they go when they die, and so forth. One such conversation started with the four-year old spontaneously exclaiming that when he’s five he will become a vegan. Now, I can say with hand on heart that I have not pushed my views on this matter but always insisted that it’s up to him what he wants to do in this matter. After all, I am not even near a ‘pure’ vegan myself. I did take some pride in the exclamation, though, as maybe it could optimistically be seen as indicative of a bright future and high ethics in the generation now growing up. Let’s hope so.

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R.I.P. Ramses, April 2001-April 2016. You had a good run.

References

Deleuze, Gilles & Felix Guattari (2005). A Thousand Plateaus. Available at http://projectlamar.com/media/A-Thousand-Plateaus.pdf

Haraway, Donna (2003). “The Companion Species Manifesto.” Available at https://nihilsentimentalgia09.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/haraway_companion_species_manifesto.pdf

Williams, Linda (2009). “Haraway Contra Deleuze & Guattari.” Available at https://www.academia.edu/5672483/Haraway_Contra_Deleuze_and_Guattari_The_Question_of_the_Animals_2009_

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