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).

When Bunnies Meet

It has been a while since my last post – I recently moved to Atlanta and started a graduate degree at Emory University in the ILA (Institute of Liberal Arts), so it has been a busy time. Getting back into writing posts has been a bit daunting for me (am I running out of things to say??), so I decided to repurpose a class I’m taking for blog posts. The class: Feminist Science and Technology Studies.

This week we are reading Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet, Part I: “We Have Never Been Human.”

Haraway starts the book with 2 questions: 1. “Whom and what do I touch when I touch my dog?” and 2. “How is ‘becoming with’ a practice of becoming worldly?” (3). From here, a good portion of the book consists of an examination of her dog, her dog’s history, and Haraway’s relationship to this history. How does the history and cultural context of her dog’s breeding implicate her? What does it mean to be a companion to another species? And, what are our obligations/responsibilities to them? What are theirs to us? How/what does the dog respond?

I am interested in her examination of breeding practices versus genetic diversity practices, which seem to be opposed to each other. I am confused, however, by many of her statements that seem to be contradictory to each other (and, for me most importantly, those statements that seem to implicate the existence and continued  birth of humans with disabilities – hopefully I will address this another time). Her chapter “Examined Lives” presents a complicated history of purebred dog breeding and genetic diseases. Like with humans, genetic diseases in dogs are also stigmatized and kept hidden. Many of the players in the chapter argue for a thorough screening of genetic diseases before breeding to eliminate/prevent the possibility of passing down certain genetic diseases including epilepsy and CEA (collie eye anomaly). This seems a bit too reminiscent of eugenics practices, and surprisingly enough Haraway discusses briefly the screening for Tay Sachs amongst the New York Jewish population (see 127 and footnote 52, pp.354-5). I am not trying to say that we should be thrilled to have genetic diseases. I am, however, saying that the discourse surrounding the prevention of genetic diseases amongst dogs seems a bit problematic in its rhetoric and aims.

I am still grappling with Haraway’s writing on genetic testing and genetic manipulation. She claims that bioethics is “boring” (136) and I’m not exactly sure why though she claims that bioethics “is firmly on the side of society” and that this “categorical dualism between society and science, culture and nature, is a setup to block a grasp of what is going on in technoculture” (136). This is something that I am interested to find out: is bioethics always on the side of society and does it work to maintain this division. As Harway then claims; bioethics “will have to get real” (136). Still to come…

An artist working with biology as a material in “bioart,” and project in particular, GFP Bunny, came to mind while reading. Eduardo Kac has an entire section of his website dedicated to his bioart practice. Many of the projects feature transgenic work, like GFP Bunny. Alba, the bunny, is a transgenic bunny that glows in the dark.

Kac writes on his website:

Transgenic art, I proposed elsewhere, is a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering to transfer natural or synthetic genes to an organism, to create unique living beings. This must be done with great care, with acknowledgment of the complex issues thus raised and, above all, with a commitment to respect, nurture, and love the life thus created.

What does it mean for us, the viewers, to look upon this work? How should we react? Should we be appalled or delighted? What would Haraway think? She claims in chapter 3, “Sharing Suffering” that she “does not mean people cannot ever engage in experimental animal lab practices, including pain and killing.” Though she does mean that “these practices should never leave their practitioners in moral comfort, sure of their righteousness” (75). How much of this statement is a testament to art? A practice that is supposed to affect us and at times make us uncomfortable; to open up questions? What does it mean that, in the 2nd to last page of Part 1, we are left with a new metaphor of dogs – “great companion animals are like works of art”? (156)

How am I to think of Alba as an artwork, an animal, a science experiment, but also as a pet, a companion animal? At first it appears that each of these categories needs its own set of questions and methods of judgment, however, I am not sure if that would be the best/most appropriate way to view this image of the being named Alba. Like the question Haraway started with in her book, I guess I may end my post: Whom and what do I see when I look at/regard/gaze at Alba?