Monkey Myths and Elephant Ears

I completed When Species Meet by Donna Haraway for this week. To say the least, there is a lot in the book to find problem with in terms of its side-treatment of disability related issues – consider the chapter “Able Bodies and Companion Species” and not to mention the off non sequitur, “Not simple, these aged and needy parents!” (203) Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe it was just not what I expected. HOWEVER, this post will focus on another artist working with animals as material and subject matter.

Deke Weaver, a performance artist who teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has a life-long project devoted to animals, The Unreliable Bestiary.

The Unreliable Bestiary is a series of performances, a website, and a set of books about our precarious moment in natural history – an ark of stories about animals, our relationships with them, and the worlds they inhabit. The project will present a performance for each letter of the alphabet – the letter representing a particular endangered animal or habitat.

The Unreliable Bestiary also seeks  to unveil the “connections between science, behavioral observations, economics, politics, spirituality, myth, and imagination.”

(Image found at http://interactivefutures2011.wordpress.com)

I have seen two of Weaver’s performances: Monkey and Elephant. I did a brief write-up on Monkey for The Green Lantern’s blog, and when I look back on it now, I did not give enough credit to the animals, the monkeys, apes, and the others.  I was shortchanging the animals as allegories for humans, and I believe I didn’t pay enough attention to the animals themselves, their lives, their histories, their stories. Partially through reading When Species Meet and also through my own work on Franz Kafka’s animal stories and reading of Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari has made me more aware of this mistake of mine. I can’t believe I didn’t realize this sooner! The stories narrated in Monkey were not just about human genocide as I was thinking before, they are stories of the experience of monkeys themselves and should not be read solely through anthropomorphic lenses. Elephant should be read similarly; we are to mourn the elephant dying in the midwestern snow by itself, far away from home, for itself and not necessarily as a metaphor for our own struggles with loneliness and isolation; we should pay attention to the elephant’s own existential crisis, not just our own. We are to “regard” these animals in Haraway’s sense of it:

I see the regard I am trying to think and feel as part of something not proper to either humanism or post humanism. “Companion species” – coshapings all the way down, in all sorts of temporalities and corporealities – is my awkward term for a not-humanism in which species of all sorts are in question. For me, even when we speak only of people, the animal/human/living/nonliving category separations fray inside the kind of encountering worthy of regard. The ethical regard that I am trying to speak and write can be experienced across many sorts of species differences. The lovely part is that we can know only by looking and by looking back. “Respecere” (164).

I think maybe Weaver is engaging in these narratives to pose questions similar to the ones Haraway asks “Who are you?”, “Who are we?” and what it means to be “partners-in-the-making” (208). Unlike Haraway’s text-based project and her narration of her relationship to her dog, Weaver embodies the animals in his performances through costuming, movement with choreographer and dancer Jennifer Allen, sound with musician Chris Peck, and video. It is not a simple thing of “becoming the other,” and I don’t think that Weaver would claim that that is the case. It seems to be more of a rethinking of human exceptionalism and a paying attention to the “unruly edges” between species (Haraway 218); Weaver is putting himself in the “contact zone” and bringing us with him, for “most of the transformative things in life happen in contact zones” (219). (However, for some other time perhaps, an examination of the “contact zone” is required along with its seeming reliance on Levinasian ethics and the face-to-face encounter – the issue of what is a face and who has a face was not fully addressed, I don’t think in When Species Meet).

Weaver’s animal embodiment is not a simple engagement with the “contact zone” and the “encounter of the other,” rather, it looks toward “becoming-animal;” “to participate in movement, to stake out a path of escape in all its positivity, to cross a threshold, to reach a continuum of intensities that are valuable only in themselves, to find a world of pure intensities where all forms come undone, as do all the significations, signifiers, and signifieds, to the benefit of an unformed matter of deterritorialized flux, of nonsignifying signs” (Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka, 13). Like with Kafka, Weaver’s animals don’t simply “refer to a mythology or to archetypes,” but show us more of the animal in its intensities (13).

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