- Encounters with Companion Species: Entangling Dogs, Baboons, Philosophers, and Biologists
In the joint keynote address that bioanthropologist Barbara Smuts and I did in 2004 for the Society for Literature and Science meetings, she and I were companion species with each other, as well as with other critters, as we explored our entangled histories dating to her helping me in the mid-1980s with Primate Visions, and extending through our practices of love and knowledge with dogs. In our address in Durham, North Carolina, that November, Smuts and I explored different aspects of our joint obsession that knowledge for both life and science depends on the recognition and interconnection of subjects, not all of whom are human. Drawing from her extensive video and bioethnographic record of dogs playing with each other, Smuts explored the gestural, cognitive, affective, and communicative worlds of canines with each other, while I concentrated on dog–human worlds lived in the sport of agility and in the working lives of pastoralists.
What follows is a condensation of my thinking about what “companion species” means and about why I think the pro-animal philosopher Jacques Derrida could not do what he set out to do without encountering ordinary animals in ways that Smuts has both practiced and theorized. What counts as philosophy, science, and response are only three of the most obvious things at stake for me in trying to stage a conversation between Smuts and Derrida in order that companion species might better flourish. [End Page 97]
Ms Cayenne Pepper continues to colonize all my cells—a sure case of what the biologist Lynn Margulis calls symbiogenesis. I bet if you checked our DNA, you’d find some potent transfections between us. Her saliva must have the viral vectors. Surely, her darter-tongue kisses have been irresistible. Even though we share placement in the phylum of vertebrates, we inhabit not just different genera and divergent families, but altogether different orders.
How would we sort things out? Canid, hominid; pet, professor; bitch, woman; animal, human; athlete, handler. One of us has a microchip injected under her neck skin for identification; the other has a photo ID California driver’s license. One of us has a written record of her ancestors for twenty generations; one of us does not know her great grandparents’ names. One of us, product of a vast genetic mixture, is called “purebred.” One of us, equally product of a vast mixture, is called “white.” Each of these names designates a racial discourse, and we both inherit their consequences in our flesh.
One of us is at the cusp of flaming, youthful, physical achievement; the other is lusty but over the hill. And we play a team sport called agility on the same expropriated Native land where Cayenne’s ancestors herded merino sheep. These sheep were imported from the already colonial pastoral economy of Australia to feed the California Gold Rush 49ers. In layers of history, layers of biology, layers of naturecultures, complexity is the name of our game. We are both the freedom-hungry offspring of conquest, products of white settler colonies, leaping over hurdles and crawling through tunnels on the playing field.
I’m sure our genomes are more alike than they should be. There must be some molecular record of our touch in the codes of living that will leave traces in the world, no matter that we are each reproductively silenced females, one by age and choice, one by surgery without consultation. Her red merle Australian Shepherd’s quick and lithe tongue has swabbed the tissues of my tonsils, with all their eager immune system receptors. Who knows where my chemical receptors carried her messages, or what she took from my cellular system for distinguishing self from other and binding outside to inside?
We have had forbidden conversation; we have had oral intercourse; we are bound in telling story upon story with nothing but the facts. We are training each other in acts of communication we barely understand. We are, constitutively, companion species. We make each other up, in the flesh. Significantly other to each other, in specific difference, we signify in the flesh a nasty developmental...