thing theory (2008)

anth g6085


eric palgon (columbia university)

 For my presentation I brought in Joao, the pigeon, and my friend Arlen, the human, to do a performance with me where I read three exerpts from Donna Haraway’s book, “When Species Meet,” as Arlen dramatically sang an opera song to Joao while feeding him.  I decided to bring the problem of ‘the animal’ into our discussion because it was one of the logical next issues at hand that the course could not really account for.

As Joao did his animal thing and Arlen did his human thing, (and as I framed this action with Haraway’s text), what was going on?  Were Arlen and Joao communicating?  What was the nature of their interaction?  Haraway tells us it is the locking of each other’s gaze, the human and the animal, that creates a new space that transcends the human/animal divide.  It is in this space that “all the actors become who they are in the dance of relating…” (p.25).  For Haraway, it’s not the recognition of the animal by the human or the human by the animal which delineates the relationship, rather, it is act of relating, of communicating. 



So what is Joao, the pigeon?  Is he a thing?  How much agency does Joao have?  I have no idea.  But what is clear is that he and Arlen were indeed interacting and communicating.  I think the difference between Joao and a thing, like a gun, is that yes, a citizen-with-gun is a network and so is Joao and Arlen.  The citizen without the gun is now citizen-with-gun-(pointed at screaming person).  And the gun does change the dynamic and capabilities of that person.  Likewise the gun is also now changed in that it couldn’t fire itself, and now, it can be fired.  But it seems to me that the gun doesn’t really change that much and that the citizen does.  The gun clearly doesn’t have the agency that the citizen has.  In the case of Joao and Arlen, it is a much more unknown interaction.   The relationship seems to me infinitely more complex.  In that Joao is not an inanimate object, he is an animal that walks and flaps and pecks.  And perhaps we can observe the “animal behavior” of Joao and find him predictable.  But even in that predictability, there is this possibility for this dance between human and animal that opens unknown doors.

So maybe a good question that would figure out the nature of the agency of the animal is simply how knowable is an animals behavior.  Because if I could list all the things a gun does/can do, and I could then list all the things a pigeon does/can do, wouldn’t then the animal be functioning just like a thing? 

But animals cannot be reduced to a list of behaviors, they are adaptive beings and they evolve and are ever changing.   I don’t have any major revelations when watching Arlen and Joao interact other than animals are more human-like than object-like.  Or they are what they are, animals, and do their specific things, and we do ours, and it is possible for there to be an intimate interaction, which can transform both animal and human profoundly.