Partially on the enthusiastic recommendation of one of my compatriots, I’m finally filling the Donna Haraway gap in my philosophical knowledge. I think the reason why it’s gone unfilled for so long has been that my education in feminist philosophy has come too late. I first developed as a philosopher at a very friendly, strong, welcoming department. But I didn’t fully process its gender troubles until a few years after I left. It was disheartening at the time, but I’ve accepted it now.
So my education in feminist philosophy, queer theory, and related directions of thought was always rather lacking compared to some. Once I got to my doctorate, I either didn’t have time to read up on the classics of the feminist tradition, or felt as if I wouldn’t be able to overcome my handicap. But first cracking open her Simians, Cyborgs, and Women collection, I came to a corker immediately. I’m still sorting out her theoretical layers.
|"As we learn about primates, so we learn about ourselves."|
Wait, that's not how that line is supposed to go.
Let’s start with specifics and see if I can tease out what might be the foundation, if there is one (and I hope not). “A Political Physiology of Dominance” focusses on describing the work of Robert Yerkes and Clarence Ray Carpenter, two of the leading scientists in animal sociology over the 1930s-40s. They released a colony of rhesus monkeys onto a subsidiary island of Puerto Rico to study their behaviour; from this work, we have the stereotype of primates behaving according to systems of male dominance, aggression, and possessiveness of females. They also conceived of these primate studies as providing clues to the natural evolutionary path that humanity took. That is, we used to be what the apes are. (Layer A: Stereotypes of primates)
Haraway’s next step is a delightfully sarcastic description of the social world these researchers were raised in. Coming from rich, well-connected families, Yerkes and Carpenter attended elite institutions which, at the time, were run by traditional cultural conservatives with possessive views toward women and virulently racist views of non-white ethnicities. Their animal sociology work was funded through a Rockefeller-connected think tank, which was also connected with the American government’s semi-eugenical programs to organize its population according to scientific medical principles through the coercion of the state. Carpenter was a genuinely rigorous scientist, but his work was the product of a society based on domination by rich and powerful men. (Layer B: The obviously political)
But the self-conscious intellectual influences on the animal sociology studies were fundamental studies of developmental biochemistry, particularly embryology. The mathematics describing intensive systems such as embryonic development described them in terms of axes of dominance. A particular process (in this case, the currents that stabilize into the shape of a head) among the roiling currents of embryonic fluid comes to influence those currents, and determine the overall shape of the stable entity that emerges from all this chemical activity, the embryo. That process was conceived in terms of its coming to dominate the other currents and movements within the system. One key element of the embryonic studies was that if you removed the proto-head from the semi-completed developmental process, other currents would violently slosh together until a head emerged from their collisions and reunified the embryonic process to develop its proper shape. (Layer C: Intensive dynamics of multi-cellular production)
The major trend of this era wasn’t just theorizing about dominance, but conceiving of domination as the natural state of humanity. The political research of the science of the era concentrated on the authoritarian personality who governs through the imposition of violence on inferiors. If the authoritarian dictator were removed, the society would convulse violently until a leader emerged from the chaos who could impose his will on all the inferiors. (Layer D: Theory of political authoritarianism)
Haraway’s final move is the kicker, linking these layers seemingly without a foundation. The political theory of dictatorial authoritarianism was conceived as a socio-political articulation of the same process of embryonic development universal to all animal life. This theoretical move made violent authoritarianism the natural political organization for humanity because it was the inherent principle of life itself. Layer C was conceived as the primal process that determined the nature of Layers A, B, and D.
But the people doing the conception were already embedded in social structures of domination, conditions of their personalities’ development that led them to presume dominance and violence to be universal essences of existence, or at least life. Such a perspective would have no trouble with the intensive dynamic theories of development being adapted to theories of galactic constitution, as in Lee Smolin’s Life of the Cosmos. So I guess Layer B determines the nature of Layers A, C, and D.
One would think that the ontology is prior to political theory. I usually do, because you can’t have political actors without ontological developments first — there has to be carbon and the organisms made from carbon before there can be politics among social carbon organisms. But how we theorize about the ontological nature of life and the universe depends on habits of thinking that we’re socialized into before we even think to start theorizing. Reading Haraway, one is no longer sure if any attempt to understand how the world is can escape the partiality of our established habits of thought, even for a task so simple as getting an outside perspective.