- Becoming with AnimalsSympoiesis and the Ecology of Meaning in London and Hemingway
“An African Story,” a narrative lodged near the center of Ernest Hemingway’s posthumous novel The Garden of Eden, opens with the protagonist David coming alive to the presence of an elephant by feeling “his dog’s hair rise under his hand as he stroked him to be quiet” (159).1 The dog Kibo’s perceptions thus initiate David’s powerful encounter with the elephant, whose pursuit is central to the published novel’s larger dynamics. In other words, careful consideration of first the dog and then the elephant helps David access radically new understandings of his life. The animals are in embodied communicative dialog with David, enriching his understanding of his immediate circumstances, and beyond that, of the larger meanings of the episodes described in the story.
Jack London often approaches animals in a similar fashion in his writing. Many critics suggest that London’s animals are commonly what might be called “humanimals”—that is, hybrid creations, less fully their nonhuman selves, more metaphorical, hybrid mixtures of themselves and humans.2 But like Hemingway, London relies on animal otherness to think through dimensions of human life that tend to remain unacknowledged and marginalized. In The Birth of a Jungle, Michael Lundblad presents a reading of London in this vein, revealing in the texts a disruptive interspecies affection, not easily reduced to familiar forms. Lundblad suggests that London is reaching for alternatives to the brutality of social Darwinism (71).3
This essay argues that in such cases, London and Hemingway expose and engage the profound intersubjectivity of humans and animals. “Inter-subjectivity,” in fact, is too familiar a term to adequately account for the completely interwoven character of human and nonhuman selves. Human becoming, as Donna Haraway has argued, has always been a becoming [End Page 5] with, a making with, a sympoiesis, as distinct from an autopoiesis, a self-making. She is my source for this term “sympoiesis,” which she develops in her book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene.4 London’s and Hemingway’s animals are more than mere ciphers or metaphors, even more than companions; their feelings and senses are part of the subjectivity of people who think and act with them. This mutuality, this ecology of selfhood and meaning, takes robust yet intricate form in their work.
I. Delusions of Solitary Striving: Sympoiesis in London
First, to address further the term “sympoiesis”: An advantage of this neologism is that it unmoors our thinking from exaggerated notions of discrete, independent human selfhood. Human sympoiesis, easiest to see in human-to-human “intersubjectivity,” occurs at a number of other levels. About half of the cells in the human body, by number, are not human, consisting of bacteria, protists, fungi, and more, whose activities are necessary to human life.5 Similarly, the history and pre-history of humanity is deeply intertwined with other larger species like dogs, horses, and so on. Sympoiesis is not only in the past. Although many contemporary social structures have succeeded in deepening the illusion of human independence, many ordinary contemporary facts undermine that perception. To name just a few: the food supply relies on animals and animal bodies, not just as direct sources for flesh, milk, and so on, but also as sources for fertilizer, and in many parts of the world, as draft animals.6 When it comes to crops, our food supply depends profoundly on bees, whose pollination and other activities are necessary contributions to around one-third of our foodstuffs (Ellis). Many modern medical advances rely upon animal testing, and militaries continue to make use of dogs, horses, and other animals as part of the national defense of many nations (leaving aside the serious ethical questions about both these activities). There is much more to write in this spirit, but this list suffices for my purposes here. Only a few generations ago, the fact of animal importance would have been so clear as to obviate the need to state it. Evidence was everywhere. For example, the problem of horse dung in the streets in nineteenth-century New York City was glaring...