To live and learn
Notes on alterity and togetherness, or: On living with dogs
Marianne de Laet
‘companions are not here just to think with. They are here to live with’.
— D. Haraway 2004: 298
How to be true to the experience of living together with dogs, when the language that is reserved for human-animal relations insists on describing such relations in terms of domestication, species-alterity and control? In this paper I tell three short stories about my life with dogs, each of which shifts the terms on which such ‘living with’ is possible, as well as the language in which to think of it. The stories give hands and feet to the theoretical musings about domestication, subjectivity, alterity and agency which they intersperse.
The first story introduces my canine counterparts Raylan and Kismet in an image; the story is about how this image was crafted and tells of what it produces. Thinking about the othering effect of photos as I try to do a photoshoot of my dogs, I list the work that it takes to be a subject, arguing that the dogs exert agency in this process, so asserting their subjectivity. The second story is about words. I take issue with a line of experimentation in animal science, where MRI scans of dogs’ brains are used to ‘show’ that dogs ‘understand’ or ‘know’ words. Privileging language, which dogs are not supposed to ‘have’, the study on dogs-knowing-words banks on as well as affirms dogs’ alterity. Depending on a protocol in which such alterity is assumed, the study meanwhile fuels the sensibility that dogs are not as alter as they seem. I submit that in their use or non-use of words dogs may not be as alter as the study presumes, nor as non-alter as it suggests; the urge to adjudicate alterity by way of understanding words may be a human preoccupation that has nothing to do with the dogs’ life-worlds. The third story is about the walk. Diffusing the idea that the leash locates power and agency in the human, I relate the intricacies of going for a walk with and without the tether and describe how words, leash, human and dogs together craft fidelity to the practice of being a pack.
In these stories, or so I argue, the dogs have agency; it is from doing things together that fidelity – representational, practical, and relational fidelity – to their subjectivity arises.
1 May 2016. A video rolls by on Facebook, of the enormous head of a husky snuggled up to a baby who cannot be more than six months old. Barely able to sit up straight, the baby pets, pokes and bats at the dog’s ears, nose and eyes; then it tumbles over, smothering the big head. This head, all that is visible of what must be a very large body, nuzzles the baby’s face and ‘grins’ – a word used in dog training manuals to describe this particular canine facial expression which may or may not have anything to do with the bliss typically associated with its human version. The head rolls over to expose the dog’s throat, and the video’s final frame shows it lying, paws-up, on its back. The appeal of the image lies in the play of opposites: power and vulnerability, tenderness and indifference, dog and child. It rests also in a blending of alters that creates new contrasts: the powerful dog is tender; the vulnerable child is untamed. Domestication, or so the image suggests, resolves alterity.
As anyone who has read a bit of ethology – the study of non-human behaviour – knows, for a dog to roll over and show a human its throat is the ultimate signal of… and here I hesitate. What is this meaning that ‘anyone … knows’? Of what is the throat-revealing act a sign? Of hierarchy, submission, control? Of domestication? Which is the word I am looking for? As Filippo Bertoni suggests in his dissertation Living with Worms (2016), the term domestication as a descriptor of relations with nature truncates the potentialities of what such relations might entail; the term implies a relationship of hierarchy and control, of domination and submission, denoting an alterity of the tamed and the wild. When relations among animals – humans included – are so framed it is difficult to imagine them in any other way. And so, I hesitate. For there must be a term that describes the husky-baby moment with greater fidelity to the agents involved.
This paper takes up the volume’s concern with a central ethnographic dilemma: how to seriously account for one’s informants when those informants’ life-worlds do not affirm the intellectual and practical commitments that as a responsive and responsible thinker one knows to be true (or believes to be valid or thinks to be right).1 In other words, what to do when alterity bursts onto the scene; when, as in the context of this volume, the ethnographer’s intellectual and political attachments to a post-nature ontology are not borne out by constituents’ practices – and when, as interlocutors, we must relate their business in our terms. The question becomes differently pressing when other-than-human animals are concerned. When, as in my case, those constituents are dogs, how to speak of and for their Umwelt2, if I have little access, or none at all, to their ontological commitments?
In what follows I describe some of the domestic arrangements that allow me and my dogs to live together; I think through the life-world of a pack of which I myself am a member. I am cautious about how to represent these arrangements; my argument is inspired, again, by Bertoni’s theorising of textual excess – that is to say, by the realisation that ‘things are already engaged in multiple life formations and constellations, and these always do exceed the textual’ (personal communication). But if, as Bertoni asserts, language is insufficient for grasping such life-worlds, it also fixes them as soon as they are described. While I share the volume editors’ appeal to non-essentialist language as a potential way out of this dilemma, it seems to me that the term alterity may itself point to an essentialist practice: as soon as difference is articulated, it exists. So, I experiment with Haraway’s suggestion, above, that ‘living with’ might be an extension of, but also a radical alternative to, ‘thinking with’. I am interested in the circularity between thinking and living that is implied here: to frame being with dogs in terms other than domestication affords different ways of knowing and enables other ways of … being with dogs.
Togetherness: the pack as method
What form can ‘living in/as a member of a pack’ possibly take? Any dog obedience manual will instruct the ‘dog owner’ to assume the position of ‘leader of the pack’3; in this stipulation, hierarchy, dominance and domestication are inscribed, and it is not what I am after when I figure myself a member of the pack. While I resort to such manuals when I try to learn about how to be with my dogs, I am also wary of the particular conception of leadership that is inscribed in them. According to these texts a dog owner must be a steadfast, directive and charismatic leader of the pack. Positioned as I am – a woman anthropologist in a STEM environment; steeped in feminist, critical and actor-network theory, and by inclination and conviction bent towards collaborative forms rather than directive organisation, that doesn’t sit too well.
‘Being a pack member’ does not mean that I am one with the dogs, however. After all, I do not sleep with the new puppy in his crate. I do not eat out of bowls on the floor. I clean up the dogs’ poop and their vomit; they do not return the favour, or go shopping when I am sick. They would rather chew than read my library; they eat my shoes, carry off my socks, and this paper-in-the-making is not their friend. I control their food and their snacks and in order to feed them, I set aside my vegetarian care for other animals and buy them processed-into-kibble meat. It would seem that the agency is all mine. And yet, my stories about living together tell a different tale.
While thinking in terms of a pack does not mean setting aside asymmetries among us, it does allow for different observations than a framing in terms of domestication would afford. Rather than suggesting that the pack is the whole that subsumes and renders equal its elements, I propose it as an analytical and methodological tool – a way to imagine human-animal collaborations as exceeding alterity while still denying that there exists some sort of generic, natural intra- or inter-species harmony. ‘Pack-membership’ does not make me a dog, nor does it make the dogs human – but if the pack is understood as an empirical object, to be engaged ethnographically, the collaboration of agencies and the collection of instantiations that hold it together begin to unfold. Observing the pack of which I am one, then, points to an auto-ethnographic effort to un-modestly witness shifting relations, and to recognise all three animals’ subjectivities and concerns, as these emerge in our living together.4
As I attend to the ways in which the pack entails a shaping of each other’s practices, I argue that boundaries delineating self from Other shift as these practices unfold. While this volume’s concern is with how to maintain authors’ and ethnographers’ commitment to theorising ‘after nature’ when for their constituents’ nature is assumed, I am interested in how to do togetherness in the face of such chasms. The ‘othering’ that occurs in ethnographic accounts, where one party speaks for or about another’s ontology is, as we know, an effect of precisely the act of speaking for or about. I take our editors’ concern with alterity, then, as an invitation to think about alterity itself – considering the project of living together as a commentary upon it.
Pertaining to the nature-culture space of living with dogs, this paper tells stories of living with domestic canines for whom nature may be long past but is all too present, nonetheless. After all, for my dogs nature is my rug, our car, the dog park, the prepared experience of the ‘nature-trail’, the leash that enables excursions on that trail – while for their cousins elsewhere it may be a landfill in Corum, Turkey; a dog house or a chain in the sub-Arctic where they are kept outside despite the freezing cold; a dog-meat farm in Asia; or the Iditarod, an annual long-distance Alaskan sled-dog race. While it may be true, as Haraway (2003) argues, that humans’ and dogs’ natures – in the sense of environment, character and bodily matter – are mediated by each other, it is also true that our designation of alterity prescribes their potentialities: where ‘we’ draw the line – which we do by way of the word species – has world-shaping consequences for them. This paper, then, comes out of an impatience with both the limits and the effects of such representations. The words that we-who-write offer, form at best partial understandings – meanwhile shaping the natures and the range of action and motion of our others. Rethinking alterity, then, in terms of living together, is a path towards framing different worlds.
Story 1. Subjects and photographs: subjects of photographs
Rather than discuss this pack in words, let’s allow an image to do the work of representing. Anthropologists will recognise this photo; even if one has never seen this particular one before, it is nevertheless familiar – from Bronislaw Malinowski’s rendering of the ‘subjects’ of his treatise on the Trobianders, or from the cover of George Stocking Jr.’s Observers Observed (1983). A photo of the ethnographer in her backyard, with laptop and research subjects shows the (here absent) but nevertheless iconic ethnographer together with attentive ‘native’ interlocutors; it suggests, at once, being-there, authority, and her license and ability to speak of and for them. And it is precisely this license and ability to speak of and for, and the suggestion that speaking of and for represents understanding, that is at issue here.
Being a research subject is not as easy as it seems; one is not positioned as a research subject ‘naturally’. Preceding this picture was a half hour of negotiations, four treats, seven takes, a crushed snail, efforts to place, sit and stay, much mutual incomprehension and three (four, if we count the snail) unhappy persons. Raylan (left) and Kismet (right) clearly do not want to be there; you can see it in their postures and on their faces. Well… maybe you can’t, but – and this is the point, perhaps, of this paper – I can. For the animals look back. Subject-ness cannot be un-mediated; it must be relational. And that applies to being the subject of a photo, the subject of an MRI (which is at the heart of my second story), or/and the subject of another’s understanding. Being a subject is predicated on with-ness (Haraway 2016); it requires at least two subjects, in relation. And so taking a photo of my dogs both calls out and asserts their subjectivity.5
Being a subject is also material, and it has limitations. The other subject of this photo (and of my query), the author – third member of the pack – cannot in this moment be subject, object and photographer all at the same time. Choosing, for now, to be photographer rather than delegating the task to another human or a selfie-stick, the author is absent from the photo but present as its medium; it is I who calls the picture into being. Being absent is not what it is cracked up to be either: one has to be present in order to witness and report, and in this case the dogs appear to be more present than I can be. So, while being a research subject is not as natural as it seems, being a researcher, ditto; in ethnographic research, one is rarely where ‘it’ happens, where one imagines one ought to be or – learns later – should have been. ‘Being there’, then, is an impossible imposition, as (I am stealing from the best, twice) there is no there, there.6 Or at least, there is no a priori there; the situation is entirely made up. And yet in this made-up situation the subjectivity of Raylan and Kismet shows up.
I submit, then, that as I ‘live with’ them, I craft – continuously, on-goingly, inescapably and unwittingly – fidelity to the subjectivity of my dogs; a fidelity that is closer than what I might gain from scanning their brains with an MRI (which, again, is the conceit of the animal researchers in my second story). I take up and take seriously Haraway’s suggestion that ‘living with’ might be an extension of, and an alternative to, ‘thinking with’ or ‘speaking of’; I ask how to live with dogs – whom I both propose and problematise as my environmental other. Words cannot suffice as representational vehicles for human – let alone canine – understanding and yet one must put into words what offering a non-representational understanding might entail. The answer to this conundrum may be to experiment with modes of relating to what it is one seeks to understand; to engage rather than probe. It is, perhaps, to seek to accept that it is in living together in wonder, rather than in examining to understand, that an approximation to grasping the other’s life world may be found.
This story, then, does two things: it demonstrates that being a member of the pack is not automatic; it takes work. But while in the moment of making the picture relations in the pack are not harmonious, that moment – and this is the second point – offers an opportunity to show off the dogs’ subjectivity. That subjectivity manifests itself in their gaze, in their recalcitrance, in their faces, in their dissent and in their agency, which determines whether there will be a photo or not.7 Recognising the dogs as subjects of my life-world is a first step in acknowledging that they are both other and (like) myself.
Prompted by the admonishment that dogs are not here just to think but to live with, I wonder what kinds of thinking may yet be learned from living with them. Vinciane Despret’s stories in What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? (2016), about animal-human relationships in animal research, point a way. Despret – according to Bruno Latour (Latour 2016: ix) an ‘additive’ rather than ‘subtractive’ empirical philosopher – offers a steady stream of ‘scientific fables’ (vii) that fill and enrich animal studies practices with the relationships that such practices necessitate and forge. While ‘interested in objective facts and grounded claims’, Despret likes, in Latour’s words, ‘to add, to complicate, to specify, and, whenever possible, to slow down … above all, [to] hesitate so as to multiply the voices that can be heard’ (ibid). Hesitation here is a key methodological moment, resonating with Viveiros de Castro’s (2004) advice to ‘equivocate’ – equivocation being ‘the condition of possibility of anthropological discourse’. Her hesitation allows a suspension of judgment, and as she sits with the stories, Despret not only reframes but also respects and values the animal science that her work is about – instead of dismissing what it has to offer.
So, when she describes how the notorious ethologist Konrad Lorenz, as he studies the jackdaw, becomes ‘human-with-jackdaw’ as much as the bird becomes ‘jackdaw-with-human’, Despret infuses his behaviourist account with Whitehead’s (1920/2004) notion that being (and knowing) can only be in relating. And this notion applies as much to the ethologist as it applies to the bird: in their collaboration bird and ethologist learn to be affected by the other. Their study binds them, producing as much as banking on their togetherness; as Despret observes, they shape each other’s life-worlds. Exemplifying Haraway’s imperative, then, the story demonstrates how animal-human collaborations exceed ‘thinking with’ each other: the practice of ‘living with’ has world-shaping effects for which an animal study bent on producing knowledge has no eye.
When I take a picture of Raylan and Kismet at the back of my house, the three of us enter into a collaboration that turns each of us into a slightly different subject than we were before. In recognising their subjectivity, I am at odds with the practices of animal studies, where the term species denotes a prima facie self/others distinction between humans and animals. The alterity inscribed in that term would suggest that there is me (the ethnographer and subject of the auto-ethnographic stories I tell) and there is them (my canine companions and the objects of my accounts). If dogs are other-than-self in their other-species-ness, our alterity is marked in at least three ways: I am subject, and they are not; I use words and they do not; and I am in charge of the strategies for navigating life that enable our togetherness. While my first story disrupts the idea that dogs have no subjectivity, the next story homes in on their use of words.
Story 2. Understanding words
On 31 August 31, 2016, a major Dutch newspaper, de Volkskrant, reported a breakthrough scientific study suggesting that dogs understand words. The report infuriates me quite unreasonably. Not only, or so the report goes, can members of our companion species respond to intonation and inflexion: they actually know, the study unreflexively suggests, what certain words mean. MRI scans in experimental situations show that both left and right sides of the subject-dogs’ brains light up when certain words are spoken. Previously, animal researchers had thought that only the left side – that registers affect – would fire, but it turns out that the right side – which houses cognition – is equally involved.
Forget for a moment the complex of assuming, processing and decision-making that allows MRI’s to ‘prove’ anything at all8, and imagine that the scans do indeed tell us something salient about the brain. Forget also the philosophical difficulties to do with ‘knowing’, ‘meaning’ and ‘knowing meaning’; let’s follow empirically how the researchers propose to extend our prior understanding of the understanding of dogs. It had been thought, earlier, that dogs are sensitive to the affect with which words are spoken and, more recently, that they do not respond to affect alone; a ‘well-trained dog’ will offer the ‘intended behaviour’ even when her person gives certain ‘commands’ in a neutral tone. But that is not enough, or so the argument goes, to decide that the dog actually understands; after all, the behaviour may be no more than a Pavlovian response to a sound – a routed association between word and deed. The MRI study represents a ‘breakthrough’ in that it proves that more (whatever more is) is going on. The dog both ‘knows’ the word and, as the activity in the cognitive part of the brain suggests, ‘understands’ the content. Thus, with a big leap the newspaper report concludes, the distance between humans and dogs – a difference between species that seems to ultimately be at stake here – shrinks a little bit, yet again.
The study, then, at least according to the newspaper, offers a commentary on alterity. Dogs are not as different from humans as (to some) they may seem. But humans who are in a relationship with a dog know that dogs are not as alien to humans as our body shapes might suggest. We marvel at the dogs ‘human-ness’; our dogs are with us, and they ‘get’ us, ‘naturally’, all the way – or so we like to imagine. So, how to account for both the attachment to alterity – dogs are so different from humans that we should be surprised that they understand words – and the attachment to non-alterity – dogs are so similar to humans that they understand their persons implicitly?
I choose to take this, again, as a question about fidelity: it is in living and doing that some sort of fidelity to circumstance and experience arises. And I propose as an alternative to an epistemic variety of fidelity – where it matters that dogs understand what words represent, and in which the wonder about their understanding is premised upon human-dog alterity – a relational version of fidelity, where understanding arises from togetherness, in which it matters that dogs act as our (environmental) match. In developing this notion, I am aided by the sensibility of the pack. To take the pack seriously – as an operational and an analytical term – is to find a language for togetherness, but it is also to push back against the fantasy that dogs are with us, naturally, all the way. For it is only in the practice of togetherness that a mutual sensibility can arise.
Some would argue that the dogs are ‘other’ in more ways yet: in ways to do with what one might call power. In our pack, it is after all I who decides when we travel; I decide when food appears, and when we go for walks. But while others may press me to own up to my powers as ‘leader of the pack’, I maintain that I cannot be sure that I – nor do I generally strive to – call the shots. I concede gleefully that I am not always everywhere ‘the leader of the pack’.9
It is precisely the assumption of human agency and control that is at stake, here and in the broader conversation about human-animal relations; in order to modulate it, it is necessary to rethink what actors are and do. Not only is it imperative to distribute the possibility of agency among organisms – as in, for instance, Michel Callon’s work on sociologies of translation, which locates agency in both fishermen and endangered scallops as they bring about an ecological disaster in Normandy’s St Brieuc’s Bay; it is also useful to reimagine agency itself. Being with animals requires what Gomart and Hennion (1999) describe as an ‘active opening oneself to being affected’. Exploring the practices of music amateurs and drug users, the authors argue that in the day-to-day engagements with their habits, practitioners subject themselves to what objects (in their case music and drugs) do to and with them. Allowing oneself to be affected requires an active doing; surrendering oneself is not a passive move. I suggest that in living with dogs, too, all members of the pack engage in such what the authors call faire-faire.
My understanding of such faire-faire is informed, too, by the strategies, practices and sensibilities of sensory ethnography (Pink 2009), where the ability to say something salient about the state of the world rests in one’s sensory as much as in one’s vocabulary skills. Rather than trying to interpret the dogs’ meaning or thought, rather than ventriloquising what goes on inside them, I attend to the sensory materiality of their actions and their effects. Who barks, how, where and, importantly, in what voice – and what does that prompt me to do? Where does their sniffing lead us as we wander about the town; how does one’s sniffing tell me that I need to take the other to the vet to treat an infected ear? How do I know from their behaviour that a squirrel is laughing at us from the fence, that in the middle of the night a skunk is about to do its business in the yard, that the mail is about to arrive, that I am happy or sad? And how to speak of all this?
As the volume’s editors suggest, the refusal to reify alterity demands working around essentialist language. But speaking about animals in non-essentialist language invites the allegation of unreflective anthropomorphism; in speaking of animals, essentialist, behaviourist language is the norm. Animal stories that attend to animals’ life-worlds, according to this critique, invite lazy projections of human characteristics, thus thwarting the rigour that scientific study demands. Following Daston and Mitman’s (2010) collection of essays in defence of anthropomorphism, I take issue with the idea that anthropomorphism is a ‘scientific sin’ – suggesting, rather, that an anthropomorphic attitude offers the grounds for engaging animals seriously to begin with. As it polices the boundaries between species, the allegation of anthropomorphism maligns the possibility that humans and animals might shape each other as they live together and mix.
What animates my argument, then, is an anti-anti-anthropomorphic position, which I adopt for two reasons: in the first place, as I-the-author am located in a human body, not to be anthropo-centric or -morphic is a pipe-dream – which is, in a nutshell, Daston and Mitman’s point. But more important, anti-anti-anthropomorphism is a commentary on the term ‘species’, and on the alterity of humans and animals that the term suggests. Rethinking animal-human relations as a matter of mixing and togetherness destabilises the divisions inherent in that term. And the critique of anthropomorphism – that attributing human characteristics to animals is a philosophical fallacy – is moot, as it rests on the idea that species do not mix. My beef is with precisely this contention that human and animal characteristics – or, rather, humans and animals – do not mix; it is after all their mixing that has my interest. For, as Lorentz’s, Despret’s, Haraway’s, Callon’s, and Daston and Mitman’s stories about living with animals attest, mixing is what we humans and animals do.
Story 3. On (taking) the lead
When Kismet, Raylan and I walk out the door, it takes us a moment to establish an understanding of how we will arrange things, this time. For it is different every time. Forty kilos each, with eight firmly anchored feet between them and two bodies consisting of pure muscle, if they were to combine forces, they’d have me, again and again. But they don’t. Or, I should say, they rarely do. Sure, they impose their collective and individual wills upon me, but they don’t do it by force. It is, rather a pack decision – a matter of togetherness – that determines where we go, what we do, and when and how we do it.
Minutes before we leave the house, even if no preparations have been made, we all know that we are about to leave the house. I may be at my desk, working, when they decide from one moment to the next that it is time to go. All of a sudden, tails wag wildly, toys are brought, paws are placed on the very arm I am using right now. Right now. Invariably, I will say ‘Wait, I have to finish this’ – where ‘this’ can be the sentence I am writing, a chapter I am reading, a cup of coffee; between the agency of their restlessness and the agency of my voice, the three of us know that we are about to leave but not quite yet. And then I put on my shoes, and they are at the door, looking at the hallway closet where the leashes are kept. I have to remind them – with quiet voice, otherwise they think I am joining in the (fun of) loudness – not to bark; to tell Kismet not to yell at me and Raylan to calm down. As soon as they are harnessed, we are out the door. Sometimes in all this mayhem I forget my keys.
Tied together and looped around my back, a dog on each side, the leashes make us one three-headed body. It is not smooth; it takes this body a while to become one, to get in sync. But once we have adjusted to the actuality that we are not three, but one, we can move in the same direction. Or, once we move in the same direction, we adjust to the actuality that we are not three, but one; as usual, it is not clear in which direction the causal arrow goes. What is clear, however, is that the leash leads; it makes – in all senses of the word: enabling, achieving, assembling, forcing, creating, causing, managing, and rendering – our connection. It transmits Raylan’s movements to my part of our body, and on to Kismet’s; mine to theirs; hers to his via mine. This is what the lead does for us: it does the work of making us one. It is perhaps not knowledge that we share as we are walking, tethered by our leash. But we share something. Struggle. Pleasure. Direction. Companionship. Being a pack. Understanding. Togetherness.
The leash – and togetherness – are assisted by my words. When we practise using my voice as a lead of sorts, coming and staying and sitting and going, that reinforces our togetherness as a pack. Here, my words are not representations; they do not mean things. They are actions and they mean activity.10 They do things; they affect and effect; they are an act. Sometimes, in moments of great tightness between the three of us, these words do substitute for the leash. This happens, for instance, when we walk back from the park, and I keep Raylan on the leash but talk Kismet home without it. I can’t just say ‘Kismet, heel’, however, and consider the job done; even if I say that many times, it is not enough to keep her by my side. Only if I focus my attention on her presence and keep letting her know that we are one with my voice, does she remain tethered. It is tempting to say that she follows my commands, that I order her to stay by my side and that she submits. But I rather think that I cross the space between us with my voice; I reach out and she reaches back, following as if she were on a lead. She could break this connection at any time. But just like me, she has a stake in maintaining our togetherness. If she didn’t, she would bolt.
And then there is our joint and separate sensibility. For togetherness, we don’t always need the leash. For this togetherness includes a distributed Sense of Something – not necessarily understanding in a representational sense but, rather, understanding relationally. It occurs when, for instance, a new person enters our house, and the dogs have to decide how to greet them. Bark? Act excited? Jump up and down? Sniff? Give a hug? They do as I do. They kiss my mom, sniff my little nephews, bark at strangers, and settle as soon as all are ok with being in each other’s presence. And I follow their cues, too. If they don’t bark, greeting the newcomer enthusiastically with body slams and presents and toys, I know this person is ok. When they know someone may be trusted to enter the house, so do I – and vice versa. This is what I have learned from my dogs: to attend to each other’s presence. To respect that there are distributed somethings – maybe knowledge, maybe not; sometimes knowing, sometimes not, that move across and between our bodies. That togetherness is not always smooth, and it requires work – it needs to be done again on each walk, at each visit, at each moment one of us takes the lead. And the intricacies of going on a walk help diffuse agency and control. Words, leash, human and dogs together craft fidelity to the practice of being a pack.
I am interested here in the notion of alterity. When ethnography concerns human counterparts, perhaps alterity resides in a non-sharing of cosmologies, and lines between one way of framing and practising the world and another may be drawn with some clarity. Early on, ethnography knew three positions regarding the dilemma of rendering ‘other’ cosmologies: 1. Their terms are inadequate, so let’s describe them in ours. 2. Our terms are inadequate, so let’s describe them (and perhaps us) in theirs. 3. Different worlds are fundamentally incommensurable; translation is by definition inadequate – ‘traduction est trahison’ – and correlation is the best we can hope or strive for. One might say that in each of these modes the production of alterity resides in the power-ful act of ‘rendering’: capturing the subject’s life-world in another’s language makes the subject strange. It is precisely this altering effect of rendering that was at issue in ethnography’s critical, literary turn of the 1980s – its result a rethinking of the political stakes of ethnographic discourse (Clifford; Clifford & Marcus; Marcus & Fisher; Taussig; and others) and a set of experiments with the limits of language whose, sometimes deliberately non-transparent, products wonder rather than worry about alterity’s effects.
This paper wrestles with the essentialist perspective on species that infuses animal science. It proposes, as an alternative take on human-animal relations, to recognise all manner of agencies in the wildly asymmetric situations which are so readily understood in terms of ‘humans calling the shots’. That requires eschewing representational language that frames alterity as a given, and which banks on a reflexive dualism between self and other while it is precisely this dualism that requires examining.11 So I question taken-for-granted notions of species, nature, agency and power that seem to me rooted in the words ‘we’ anthropologists use but are belied by the practices by which we craft fidelity to the environments of enquiry that we engage; throughout, my question is how to achieve such fidelity. Here I again borrow from Bertoni (2016) the notions of togetherness and excess. What we know and think to be true or real is both under-determined and over-determined by language: it cannot be fully captured in representational terms, but it is precisely those terms that dictate how to frame and understand life-worlds. It is in the practices of living together with and among heterogeneous entities that reality emerges and can be known.
It seems to me that in this volume – in our STS-, critical ethnography-, and theory-infused neck of the woods – we are after something else. As Walford and Bonelli suggest in the introduction to this volume, a line of scholars – from Derrida to Haraway to Latour, from critical ethnography to feminist epistemology to thinking with agency and relationality – engage precisely the question of how from this position to account for ethnographic material that seems to exceed this position. While perhaps in that very articulation the altering is already done, I’d say that what binds this work, and separates it from what came before, is that it decentres alterity at the same time. If there is a temporality to these theoretical strands, perhaps the present moment offers a new-ish attention to local imbroglios in which opportunistic, strategic, spontaneous, but meanwhile serious, structured and rooted practices reign.
We are all other – and non-otherness is a fleeting, crafted, event that is more of shared moments than it is of shared sensibilities. My aim is not to produce narratives that ‘hold’ or ‘capture’ or ‘explain’ alterity; the task at hand is rather to frame and acknowledge situations that ‘hold’ or ‘capture’ both alterity and togetherness and whose very existence ‘explains’ itself. In other words, I am hoping to achieve some sort of fidelity with my field that exceeds representation, and that mobilises my interlocutors’ subjective agency, my own truthfulness, and an explicit normative position vis-a-vis the attachments that I hold dear. If there is an enemy to this approach – and if there is an alter to my own thinking – it may be precisely that idea of alterity, itself.