Companion Species

Ms Cayenne Pepper continues to colonize all my cells—a sure case of what the biologist Lynn Margulis calls symbiogenesis. I bet if you were to check our DNA, you'd find some potent transfections between us. Her saliva must have the viral vectors. Surely, her darter-tongue kisses have been irresistible. Even though we share placement in the phylum of vertebrates, we inhabit not just different genera and divergent families but altogether different orders.

How would we sort things out? Canid, hominid; pet, professor; bitch, woman; animal, human; athlete, handler. One of us has a microchip injected under her neck skin for identification; the other has a photo ID California driver's license. One of us has a written record of her ancestors for twenty generations; one of us does not know her great grandparents' names. One of us, product of a vast genetic mixture, is called "purebred." One of us, equally a product of a vast mixture, is called "white." Each of these names designates a different racial discourse, and we both inherit their consequences in our flesh.

One of us is at the cusp of flaming, youthful, physical achievement; the other is lusty but over the hill. And we play a team sport called agility on the same expropriated Native land where Cayenne's ancestors herded sheep. These sheep were imported from the already colonial pastoral economy of Australia to feed the California gold rush forty-niners. In layers of history, layers of biology, layers of naturecultures, complexity is the name of our game. We are both the freedom-hungry offspring of conquest, products of white settler colonies, leaping over hurdles and crawling through tunnels on the playing field.

I'm sure our genomes are more alike than they should be. Some molecular record of our touch in the codes of living will surely leave traces in the world, no matter that we are each reproductively silenced females, one by age and choice, one by surgery without consultation. Her red merle Australian shepherd's quick and lithe tongue has swabbed the tissues of my tonsils, with all their eager immune system receptors. Who knows where my chemical receptors carried her messages or what she took from my cellular system for distinguishing self from other and binding outside to inside?

We have had forbidden conversation; we have had oral intercourse; we are bound in telling story on story with nothing but the facts. We are training each other in acts of communication we barely understand. We are, constitutively, companion species. We make each other up, in the flesh. Significantly other to each other, in specific difference, we signify in the flesh a nasty developmental infection called love. This love is a historical aberration and a naturalcultural legacy.18

In my experience, when people hear the term companion species, they tend to start talking about "companion animals," such as dogs, cats, horses, miniature donkeys, tropical fish, fancy bunnies, dying baby turtles, ant farms, parrots, tarantulas in harness, and Vietnamese potbellied pigs. Many of those critters, but far from all and none without very noninno-cent histories, do fit readily into the early twenty-first-century globalized and flexible category of companion animals. Historically situated animals in companionate relations with equally situated humans are, of course, major players in When Species Meet. But the category "companion species" is less shapely and more rambunctious than that. Indeed, I find that notion, which is less a category than a pointer to an ongoing " becoming with," to be a much richer web to inhabit than any of the posthumanisms on display after (or in reference to) the ever-deferred demise of man.191 never wanted to be posthuman, or posthumanist, any more than I wanted to be postfeminist. For one thing, urgent work still remains to be done in reference to those who must inhabit the troubled categories of woman and human, properly pluralized, reformulated, and brought into constitutive intersection with other asymmetrical differences.20 Fundamentally, however, it is the patterns of relationality and, in Karen Barad's terms, intra-actions at many scales of space-time that need rethinking, not getting beyond one troubled category for a worse one even more likely to go postal.21 The partners do not precede their relating; all that is, is the fruit of becoming with: those are the mantras of companion species. Even the Oxford English Dictionary says as much. Gorging on etymologies, I will taste my key words for their flavors.

Companion comes from the Latin cum panis, "with bread." Messmates at table are companions. Comrades are political companions. A companion in literary contexts is a vade mecum or handbook, like the Oxford Companion to wine or English verse; such companions help readers to consume well. Business and commercial associates form a company, a term that is also used for the lowest rank in an order of knights, a guest, a medieval trade guild, a fleet of merchant ships, a local unit of the Girl Guides, a military unit, and colloquially for the Central Intelligence Agency. As a verb, to companion is "to consort, to keep company," with sexual and generative connotations always ready to erupt.

Species, like all the old and important words, is equally promiscuous, but in the visual register rather than the gustatory. The Latin specere is at the root of things here, with its tones of "to look" and "to behold." In logic, species refers to a mental impression or idea, strengthening the notion that thinking and seeing are clones. Referring both to the relentlessly "specific" or particular and to a class of individuals with the same characteristics, species contains its own opposite in the most promising— or special—way. Debates about whether species are earthly organic entities or taxonomic conveniences are coextensive with the discourse we call "biology." Species is about the dance linking kin and kind. The ability to interbreed reproductively is the rough and ready requirement for members of the same biological species; all those lateral gene exchangers such as bacteria have never made very good species. Also, biotechnologically mediated gene transfers redo kin and kind at rates and in patterns unprecedented on earth, generating messmates at table who do not know how to eat well and, in my judgment, often should not be guests together at all. Which companion species will, and should, live and die, and how, is at stake.

The word species also structures conservation and environmental discourses, with their "endangered species" that function simultaneously to locate value and to evoke death and extinction in ways familiar in colonial representations of the always vanishing indigene. The discursive tie between the colonized, the enslaved, the noncitizen, and the animal—all reduced to type, all Others to rational man, and all essential to his bright constitution—is at the heart of racism and flourishes, lethally, in the entrails of humanism. Woven into that tie in all the categories is "woman's" putative self-defining responsibility to "the species," as this singular and typological female is reduced to her reproductive function. Fecund, she lies outside the bright territory of man even as she is his conduit. The labeling of African American men in the United States as an "endangered species" makes palpable the ongoing animalization that fuels liberal and conservative racialization alike. Species reeks of race and sex; and where and when species meet, that heritage must be untied and better knots of companion species attempted within and across differences. Loosening the grip of analogies that issue in the collapse of all of man's others into one another, companion species must instead learn to live intersectionally.22

Raised a Roman Catholic, I grew up knowing that the Real Presence was present under both "species," the visible form of the bread and the wine. Sign and flesh, sight and food, never came apart for me again after seeing and eating that hearty meal. Secular semiotics never nourished as well or caused as much indigestion. That fact made me ready to learn that species is related to spice. A kind of atom or molecule, species is also a composition used in embalming. "The species" often means the human race, unless one is attuned to science fiction, where species abound.23 It would be a mistake to assume much about species in advance of encounter. Finally, we come to metal coinage, "specie," stamped in the proper shape and kind. Like company, species also signifies and embodies wealth. I remember Marx on the topic of gold, alert to all its filth and glitter.

Looking back in this way takes us to seeing again, to respecere, to the act of respect. To hold in regard, to respond, to look back reciprocally, to notice, to pay attention, to have courteous regard for, to esteem: all of that is tied to polite greeting, to constituting the polis, where and when species meet. To knot companion and species together in encounter, in regard and respect, is to enter the world of becoming with, where who and what are is precisely what is at stake. In "Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species," Anna Tsing writes, "Human nature is an interspecies relationship."24 That realization, in Beatriz Preciado's idiom, promises an autre-mondialisation. Species interdependence is the name of the worlding game on earth, and that game must be one of response and respect. That is the play of companion species learning to pay attention. Not much is excluded from the needed play, not technologies, commerce, organisms, landscapes, peoples, practices. I am not a posthumanist; I am who I become with companion species, who and which make a mess out of categories in the making of kin and kind. Queer messmates in mortal play, indeed.

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