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Persistence's picture

It was a cool summer morning in the outskirts of Mancos, Colorado when I first noticed a golden retriever behind a rusty, iron fence. Our eyes found their way into each other as the gloomy clouds dissipated above us, revealing the warm, golden sun. The dog had a silver bell and a circular copper tag around its brown leather collar. The dog stepped closer to the fence and let out a quiet bark.  I did not understand what that meant. There was a language barrier between the dog and I. We were both up early in the morning, awake during the lonely hour of 6 A.M. I tilted my head while maintaining eye contact as I let out a soft smile. In a blink of an eye, the dog was gone. I could hear the silver bell ring from behind me. The sound fainted into the background and before I knew it, I was alone again. I took a deep breath and exhaled into the southwest air as I crossed my arms. With my eyes closed, I began to reminisce the memories I made in the past 3 weeks while backpacking in the San Juan Mountain, white-water rafting in the San Juan River, and doing service in the Hopi Nation of Arizona. I was not ready to leave home and go back to reality. My eyes watered as I stared into the rough ground below me. I immediately picked my head up after hearing a very faint sound of the silver bell. It grew louder and louder by the second. The dog appeared of out nowhere, running up to me. The tag on her collar read “Mia.” I brushed my fingers into her golden, soft fur as she rested her head on my lap.  Her soft, brown eyes stared into mine as she wagged her tail from side to side. I got up from from the bench and sat on the ground with her. She wiggled her way closer to me as I wrapped my arms around her warm, soft and embracing body.

After my encounter with Mia, I have thought hard about human-animal relationality. Turning to Donna Harway's When Species Meet, I have a better understanding and indigestion of the interactions between the human self and other primate-beings.  Haraway has challenged me to think differently about human exceptionalism with the following two questions in mind: “Whom and what do I touch when I touch my dog?” and “How is ‘becoming with’ a practice of becoming worldly?” Haraway believes that we learn to be worldly from excluding generalizations with the ordinary. She states that "to be one is always to become with many” (Haraway 8). In other words, she is suggesting that there is an interconnection between all beings and their relationships with each other in the environment. We encounter a variety of beings everyday ranging from dogs to fishes, yet no one really asks the question of who we will become when species meet. Now I cannot help but wonder who I have become when Mia and I met, whom and what did I touch when I touched Mia, and how did that touch make me worldlier?

To answer my questions, I turned to J.M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals.   Coetzee wrote a metafiction about a woman novelist named Elizabeth Costello who has been invited to speak in a prestigious lecture series at Appleton College. Through the book, Costello gradually becomes the voice of animals. She argues for the fullness of being in the life of animals and expresses her incapability of tolerating humans because of their cruelty towards other life-beings. In addition, she continues to assert her position by maintaining the issue is about reason, but about the failure of human trying to understand and acknowledge that animals are like humans and are full of being. In her lecture, she asks the audience what it is like to be a bat, while opposing Thomas Nagel’s, American philosopher, argument on how one can experience bat life through the sense-modalities of a bat. Instead, Costello states that to be full of being is to live as a body-soul. She believes that "to be a living bat is to be full of being; being fully a bat is like being fully human, which is also to be full of being" (Coetzee 131). In other words, all animals are an embodied soul because to be living is to be a living soul. Thus, should I now change my questions to who have Mia become when her and I met, whom and what did Mia touched when she touched me, and how did that touch make her worldlier? 

To answer these new sets of questions, I turned to Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide.  The Hungry Tide is set in the archipelago of the Sundarbans, in the Bay of Bengal, where, mangrove swamps are infested with crocodiles, snakes and tigers which are a threat to the human population. This threat is farther explored in the murky waters of the Sundarbans when Kanai became stranded on the mud bank. He questions about the relationships between humans and tigers. People have told him the tiger kills instantly “with a swipe of its forepaw, breaking the joint between your shoulder and neck” (Ghosh 271). Yet, Kanai wonders why those who live in close proximity with the tiger regarded them as being something more than just animals. Perhaps it had to do with mercy. Tiger kills in an instant to show mercy and forgiveness to humans for being so ill at ease in our “translated world.” Here, Ghosh reminds us to subvert human exceptionalism by allowing the readers to take on the perspective of the tiger. The idea suggests that all beings live in different worlds and that depends on who/where our souls are embodied in. Moving on, as Kanai tries to get into the clearing, he spots the tiger and finds that his “mind and senses had collapsed: his mind was swamped by a flood of pure sensation” (Ghost 272).  His encounter with the tiger, which may mean death or life, made him froze in place as he acknowledges the intensity of the tiger’s existence.

What about the tiger’s encounter with Kanai? We cannot know what that tiger was truly thinking upon meeting, unless we take into consideration the two points made by Haraway and Costello, respectively: “ (1) to be one is always to become with many and (2) to be full of being is to live as a body-soul.”  If one is able to become with many by accepting that to be full of being is to live as a body-soul, then all would be capable of understanding each other through the language of our eyes, body, touch, and movement. Despite how we may never be able to understand each other at the level of the mind, every being is capable of gradually developing companionship by becoming one.  

I now look back at my encounter with Mia, realizing that we communicated through our eyes despite the language barrier when she barked at me. She was able to comprehend just by looking at me that I was lonely and needed a companion, or she was lonely and needed to find a companion and knew that I would be a good companion. I, too, also looked at her and thought if she was lonely and needed a companion because I needed one. We became one by trusting and embracing each other’s presence on the same land. We were both one and the same. We were both companions for each other.



Anne Dalke's picture

Last month, you designed weekly workshops designed to address misperceptions between students and their teachers. This month you’re expanding your scope considerably, to discuss possible connections between different species.

Your web event begins and ends with an encounter of your own; in between, you attend to 3 texts, by Haraway, Coetzee and Ghosh. You use Haraway to ask “who we will become when species meet”; you use Coetzee to highlight a character who “becomes the voice of animals,” “full of being”; and finally, you use Ghosh to showcase an encounter between a character and a tiger—and to speculate that “every being is capable of developing companionship” with another.

Haraway’s experience is closest to yours…I’m wondering why you didn’t develop that analogy more fully, instead of skimming all the texts? For I think, in trying to cover everything we read in this section of the course, that you try to cover too way much territory: the agility training that Haraway practices with her dog is profoundly different than the voice of the animals that Elizabeth assumes, which differs deeply, in turn, from the encounter Kanai has with a tiger. In the the first case, women and dog develop a deep partnership, a “becoming with.” In the second, a woman speaks for—but, as Barbara Smuts points out, has no relationship with any animals herself. In the third, a man is frightened out of speech by his encounter with a wild animal (and there is a question whether this actually happens, since the scene has such a hallucinatory quality, and others dismiss it as impossible). I’m not convinced of your claim, for instance, that those two are ‘capable of gradually developing companionship (and certainly Kanai is not—he leaves as soon as possible!)

I’d really like to hear you develop more fully the notion that you and Mia became “companions for each other.” How is this like-and-different from the partnership Haraway describes with Cayenne?

P.S. please go back and tag your last event as such (I had trouble finding it).

The Unknown and Persistence— give a look @ (and comment on?!) your construction of two very different personal stories