In this post, I try to build some understanding of Donna Haraway’s lecture “From Cyborgs to Companion Species”, which I find interesting but challenging.

As the lecture’s title suggests, a key theme is exploring/understanding companionships or relationships that spans across the important category boundaries of “species” and especially the salient binary of “human” vs. (non-human) “animal”. In this way there is a clear thematic relationship to A Cyborg Manifesto, in that both are interested in and (at least metaphorically) motivated by objects (the cyborg, the cross-species companionship) that span or hybridize important category boundaries.

So if cross-species relationship or companionship (“companion speciesism”) is the motivating concept of the lecture, what does Haraway want us to learn from / about it? I understood two main, interrelated themes. One big theme seems to be recovering a genuine mutuality or symmetry (i.e. de-centering the human) in our understanding of these sorts of cross-species relationships. Haraway illustrates this theme in many examples:

  • Barbara Smuts’ baboons which come into relationship to Smuts — expecting her to respond to social cues etc. — just as much as she, the scientist and supposed “agent” in the setting, comes into relationship with them.
  • The false historical narrative of humans “domesticating” dogs, which renders the dogs without agency, a mere object that is acted on. In reality, there are moves and agency by both actors in the story (humans and dogs) — e.g. the dogs come into relation to humans to take advantage of their food waste and so on.
  • Most concisely, the comic: “We found her wandering at the edge of the forest. She was raised by scientists.” The joke relies on inverting the usual human-centric way of thinking about our relation to animals.

This kind of move toward “symmetry” and taking seriously the agency of non-human actors in the drama is very in the spirit of other STS thinkers as well (e.g. Latour/ANT).

The second, related theme has to do with Haraway’s emphasis on considering “really existing animals”. In an entertaining part of the lecture she says she is “actually interested in dogs. Honest to god dogs. You know, dogs”, and critiques Derrida for failing to engage “really existing animals”. She goes on to explain that she is interested in the biosocial history of dog-human relationality that “does not refuse a history to either partner” — i.e. that treats “both partners” (i.e. human and companion species “other”) as “social subjects with real social histories”. In short, I think Haraway is here clarifying one aspect of what it means to adopt the sort of symmetric stance outlined above — namely, we need to understand non-human actors as real, contextualized, embedded entities with their own histories — just as we might more-readily ascribe such things to human actors.

This lecture doesn’t touch on technology directly all that much, so it’s maybe interesting to ask about how it looks if we reflect these companion speciesism ideas back into our thinking about human-technology relations.