The Contact Zone

The Lasting Happiness And Success Formula

The Secret to Happiness

Get Instant Access

Blood on the Path August 26, 2003 Dear friends,

Cayenne earned her Advanced Agility Dog title in the United States Dog Agility Association on Sunday, and so now we run in the Masters ring! She got a fast, clean, first-place run to earn her title; she made me very proud. We also ran fast and accurately in the qualifying round of the Steeplechase, placing eighth in a field of thirty-seven serious national champions and other masters and advanced twenty-two-inch class dogs. The top ten got to run in the final round.

We bombed the final round because I took her offthe course when she failed to wait for my release word from the A-frame contact, my method these days for training this too consistent glitch. It was really hard to leave the course before finishing the run, because we had a real chance to place and literally everybody at the meet was watching this featured event of the day. But we did leave, to the relief of my teacher and mentors. It was harder still to put Cayenne back in her crate with no word of encouragement, food treat, or even glance. My blood was a thick smear from the place we left the ring to her crate. However, our reward was three perfect A-frame contacts in our Snooker game immediately afterward. String cheese to Cayenne and self-knowledge to me! She glowed and towed me back to her crate, as if in the Iditarod, for heaps of treats and face-to-face smiles.

I learn such basic things about honesty in this game, things I should have learned as a child (or before tenure in academia) but never did, things about the actual consequences of fudging on fundamentals. I become less showy and more honest in this game than in any other part of my life. It's bracing, if not always fun. Meanwhile, my over-the-top love for Cayenne has required my body to build a bigger heart with more depths and tones for tenderness. Maybe that is what makes me need to be honest; maybe this kind of love makes one need to see what is really happening because the loved one deserves it. This is nothing like the unconditional love that people ascribe to their dogs! Odd and wonderful.

Celebrating in Healdsburg, Donna

Let us return to the approximately two-foot-long yellow contact zone painted onto the up and down ends of teeter-totters, dog walks, and A-frames.14 Then, let's forget dog walks and teeter-totters, because Cayenne and I found their rigors intuitively obvious; the goddess alone knows why. However, at least one murder mystery I know features the A-frame as the instrument of death.151 understand that plot very well; Cayenne and I came close to killing each other in this contact zone. The problem was simple: we did not understand each other. We were not communicating; we did not yet have a contact zone entangling each other. The result was that she regularly leapt over the down contact, not touching the yellow area with so much as a toepad before she raced to the next part of the course, much less holding the lovely two-rear-feet on the zone, two-front-feet on the ground until I gave the agreed-on release words (all right) for her to go on to the next obstacle in the run. I could not figure out what she did not understand; she could not figure out what my ambiguous and ever-changing cues and criteria of performance meant. Faced with my incoherence, she leapt gracefully over the charged area as if it were electrified. It was; it repelled us both. Then, we rejoined each other in a coherent team, but our qualifying run was in the trash can. We performed our contacts correctly in practice, but we failed miserably at trials. Furthermore, we were far from alone in this common dilemma for dogs and people training together in agility. That paint strip is where Cayenne and I learned our hardest lessons about power, knowledge, and the meaningful material details of entanglements.

Indeed, I remembered tardily, seven years before Cayenne was born I already knew that about contact zones from colonial and postcolonial studies in my political and academic life. In Imperial Eyes, Mary Pratt coined the term contact zone, which she adapted "from its use in linguistics, where the term contact language' refers to improvised languages that develop among speakers of different native languages who need to communicate with each other consistently. . . . I aim to foreground the interactive, improvisational dimensions of colonial encounters so easily ignored or suppressed by diffusionist accounts of conquest and domination. A contact' perspective emphasizes how subjects are constituted in and by their relations to each other. . . . It treats the relations . . . in terms of co-presence, interaction, interlocking understandings and practices, often within radically asymmetrical relations of power."16 I find something eerily apt in Pratt's discussion for dog-human doings at the bottom of the A-frame. Cayenne and I definitely have different native languages, and much as I reject overdoing the analogy of colonization to domestication, I know very well how much control of Cayenne's life and death I hold in my inept hands.

My colleague Jim Clifford enriched my understanding of contact zones through his nuanced readings of articulations and entanglements across borders and among cultures. He eloquently demonstrated how "the new paradigms begin with historical contact, with entanglement at intersecting regional, national, and transnational levels. Contact approaches presuppose not sociocultural wholes subsequently brought into relationship, but rather systems already constituted relationally, entering new relations through historical processes of displacement."17 I merely add naturalcultural and multispecies matters to Clifford's open net bag.

I learned much of what I know about contact zones from science fiction, in which aliens meet up in bars off-planet and redo one another molecule by molecule. The most interesting encounters happen when Star Trek's universal translator is on the blink, and communication takes unexpected, prosaic turns. My feminist sf reading prepared me to think about dog-human communication dilemmas and (polymorphously perverse) joys more flexibly than the more hard-boiled imperialist fantasies found in sf. I remember especially Naomi Mitchison's Memoirs of a Space-woman, in which the human communications officer on space explorations had to figure out how to make'noninterfering" contact with quite an array of sentient critters; several curious progeny resulted. Suzette Haden Elgin's pan-species linguist sf, starting with Native Tongue, also prepared me for training with dogs. There was no universal translator for Elgin, only the hard work of species' crafting workable languages. And if shape-shifting skill in the contact zone is the goal, no one should forget Samuel R. Delany's Babel 17, in which intriguing data-flow interruptions seem the order of the day.18

Even more tardily in my agility training dilemmas, I remembered that contact zones called ecotones, with their edge effects, are where assemblages of biological species form outside their comfort zones. These interdigitating edges are the richest places to look for ecological, evolutionary, and historical diversity. I live in north-central coastal California where, on the large geological scale of things, the great ancient northern and southern species assemblages intermix, producing extraordinary complexity. Our house is along a creek in a steep valley, where walking up from the creek on either northern- or southern-facing hillsides puts one dramatically into changing ecologically mixed-species assemblages. Naturalcultural histories are written on the land, such that the former plum orchards, sheep pastures, and logging patterns vie with geological soil types and humidity changes to shape today's human and nonhuman inhabitants of the land.19

Furthermore, as Juanita Sundberg analyzes for the cultural politics of conservation encounters in the Maya Biosphere Preserve, conservation projects have become important zones of encounter and contact shaped by distant and near actors.20 Such contact zones are full of the complexities of different kinds of unequal power that do not always go in expected directions. In her beautiful book Friction, anthropologist Anna Tsing explores the people and organisms enmeshed in conservation and justice struggles in Indonesia in recent decades. Her chapter on "weediness" is a moving, incisive analysis of the wealth and species diversity of nature-cultures shaped by swidden agriculture into so-called secondary forests, which are being replaced by legal and illegal logging and industrial-scale monocropping in a violent reshaping of landscapes and ways of life. She lovingly documents the threatened collecting and naming practices of her elder friend and informant Uma Adang. The contact zones of species assemblages, both human and nonhuman, are the core reality in her ethnography. As Tsing puts it in an essay that tracks mushrooms in order to form a sense of the webs of world history, "Species interdependence is a well known fact—except when it comes to humans. Human exceptional-ism blinds us." Riveted on stories either praising or damning human control of nature, people so blinkered assume that human nature, no matter how culturally various in detail, is essentially—often stated as "biologi-cally"—constant, whereas human beings reshape others, from molecule to ecosystem. Rethinking "domestication" that closely knots human beings with other organisms, including plants, animals, and microbes, Tsing asks, "What if we imagined a human nature that shifted historically together with varied webs of interspecies dependence?" Tsing calls her webs of interdependence "unruly edges." She continues, "Human nature is an inter-species relationship."21 With Tsing's approval, I would add that the same is true of dogs, and it is the human-dog entanglement that rules my thinking about contact zones and fertile unruly edges in this chapter.

In a sibling spirit, anthropologist Eduardo Kohn explores multi-species contact zones in Ecuador's Upper Amazon region. Doing ethnography among the Quechua-speaking Runa and the various animals with whom they craft their lives, Kohn tracks naturalcultural, political, ecological, and semiotic entanglements in species assemblages in which dogs are central actors. He writes, "Amazonian personhood, very much the product of interaction with nonhuman semiotic selves, is also the product of a certain kind of colonial subjection. . . . This essay looks particularly to certain techniques of shamanistic metamorphosis (itself a product of interacting, and in the process blurring, with all kinds of nonhuman selves) and how this changes the terms of subjection (bodies are very different kinds of entities in this part of the world) and delineates certain spaces of political possibility."22 Cayenne and I have no access to shamanistic metamorphoses, but reworking form to make a kind of one out of two is the sort of metaplasmic rearrangement we sought.

Thinking about metamorphosis and suffering in a state of arrested development with Cayenne in the yellow-paint swatch of the A-frame, I comforted myself with the reassurance that most of the transformative things in life happen in contact zones. And so I turned for insight to the phenomena of reciprocal induction studied in developmental biology. As a graduate student in Yale's Biology Department in the 1960s, I studied morphogenetic interactions through which cells and tissues of a developing embryo reciprocally shape each other through cascades of chemical-tactile communications. The techniques to track these complex interactions and the imagination to build better theoretical concepts have become very powerful over the last twenty years. Scott Gilbert's several editions of Developmental Biology, starting in 1985, are a wonderful site to track a growing grasp of the centrality of reciprocal induction, through which organisms are structured by the mutual coshaping of the fates of cells.23 The point is that contact zones are where the action is, and current interactions change interactions to follow. Probabilities alter; topologies morph; development is canalized by the fruits of reciprocal induction.24 Contact zones change the subject—all the subjects—in surprising ways.

Interactions among taxonomically distinct organisms, in which structures in one organism do not develop normally without properly timed interactions with other associated organisms, are at the heart of a recent theoretical and experimental synthesis in biology called ecological developmental biology, in which Gilbert has been a key player.25 For example, Margaret McFall-Ngai has shown that the sacs housing luminescent Vibrio bacteria on the adult squid Euprymna scolopes do not develop unless juvenile squid acquire an infection from the bacteria, resulting in a cascade of developmental events producing the final receptacles for the symbionts.26 Similarly, human gut tissue cannot develop normally without colonization by its bacterial flora. Earth's beings are prehensile, opportunistic, ready to yoke unlikely partners into something new, something symbiogenetic. Co-constitutive companion species and coevolution are the rule, not the exception. Ecological and evolutionary developmental biology are fields that could form a rich contact zone with feminist philosophers, theoretical physicists, and science studies scholars Karen Barad, with her framework of agential realism and intra-action, and Astrid Schrader, with her approach to intra- and interspecies ontologies.27

Perhaps my problems in the contact zones of agility have neurotically induced too large a deviation into other kinds of unruly edges to reassure me that something good comes from repeated failures to communicate across asymmetrical difference. Nonetheless, all the elements for retraining Cayenne's and my contact zones are now assembled.

First, let us consider the question of relations of authority in the reciprocal inductions of training. Agility is a human-designed sport; it is not spontaneous play, although this chapter will return to play soon. I think I have good reasons for judging that Cayenne loves to do agility; she plants her bum in front of the gate to the practice yard with fierce intent until I let her in to work patterns with me. On the mornings when we are driving to a trial, she tracks the gear and stays by the car with command in her eye. It's not just the pleasure of an excursion or access to a play space. We do nothing else in the agility yard but work on the obstacle patterns; that is the yard she wants access to. Spectators comment on the joy Cayenne's runs make them feel because they feel her whole self thrown into the skilled inventiveness of her course. This dog is easily annoyed by food rewards, for example, when given during her intense sit-stay at the start line before the release word to begin the run, when what she wants is to fly over the course. The run is her chief positive reinforcement. She is a working dog with great focus; her whole mind-body changes when she gains access to her scene of work. However, I would be a liar to claim that agility is a utopia of equality and spontaneous nature. The rules are arbitrary for both species; that is what a sport is; namely, a rule-bound, skilled, comparatively evaluated performance. The dog and the human are ruled by standards that they must submit to but that are not of their own choosing. The courses are designed by human beings; people fill out the entry forms and enter classes. The human decides for the dog what the acceptable criteria of performance will be.

But there is a hitch: The human must respond to the authority of the dog's actual performance. The dog has already responded to the human's incoherence. The real dog—not the fantasy projection of self— is mundanely present; the invitation to response has been tendered. Fixed by the specter of yellow paint, the human must finally learn to ask a fundamental ontological question, one that puts human and dog together in what philosophers in the Heideggerian tradition called "the open": Who are you, and so who are we? Here we are, and so what are we to become?28

Early casualties of taking this question seriously became some of my favorite stories about freedom and nature. These were stories I wanted Cayenne and me to inhabit for life but turned out to produce painful incoherence in our intra-actions, especially for her. Criteria of performance

Agility Cartoon
Cartoon by James Liddle from Agility Trials and Tribulations. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Howln Moon Press.

on an A-frame are not natural to either dogs or people but are achievements dependent on invented as well as inherited naturalcultural possibilities. I could think that playing agility just makes space for a dog's natural abilities when she sails over jumps (that turned out not to be precisely true either), but fixing mistakes on the A-frame forced me to confront the pedagogical apparatuses of training, including their relations of freedom and authority. Some radical animal people are critical of any human training "of" another critter. (I insist "with" is possible.) What I see as polite manners and beautiful skill acquired by the dogs I know best, they regard as strong evidence of excessive human control and a sign of the degradation of domestic animals. Wolves, say the critics of trained animals, are more noble (natural) than dogs precisely because they are more indifferent to the doings of people; to bring animals into close interaction with human beings infringes their freedom. From this point of view, training is antinatural domination made palatable by liver cookies.

Behaviorists are notoriously cavalier about what constitutes natural (biologically meaningful) behavior in an organism (human or not); they leave that preserve to the ethologists and their descendants. For behav-iorists, if the probability of an action can be changed, no matter how meaningless the bit of action may be to the organism or anybody else, then that action is fodder for the technologies of operant conditioning. Partly because of this agnosticism deep in the history of behaviorism about both functionality (related to adaptation and so evolutionary theory) and meaning to the animal (tied to the question of interiority), Karen Pryor and other trainers of so-called wild animals in captivity, such as dolphins and tigers, have been accused either of ruining them by introducing nonnaturalistic behaviors or of making critters into robots by treating them as stimulus-response machines. Pryor and other positive trainers answer that their work improves the lives of captive animals and should become part of normal management and environmental enrich-ment.29 Engaging in training (education) is interesting for animals, just as it is for people, whether or not a just-so story about contributing to reproductive fitness can be made to fit the curriculum.

I rather like the idea that training with an animal, whether the critter is named wild or domestic, can be part of disengaging from the semiotics and technologies of compulsory reproductive biopolitics. That's a project I like to see in human schools too. Functionless knowing can come very close to the grace of play and a poiesis of love. I would, of course, be aghast at the idea that behaviorism has a corner on potentially playful pedagogical approaches for any critters, including people. From this point of view, an irony infusing the life-interest-enhancing and management work of behaviorist trainers in zoos and other captive animal facilities is that one of the few remaining powerful justifications offered for these places is that they are essential to keep the individuals and species in their care from extinction in their vanishing habitats. Animals in zoos, for all their dabbling in the rewards of behaviorism, have never been more enmeshed in compulsory reproductive biopolitics than they are in the twenty-first century!

I must admit, however, that the ironies of queer politics are not the reason I train seriously with Cayenne for daily life and for sport. Or maybe queer politics, if not all the ironies, are at the heart of agility training: The coming into being of something unexpected, something new and free, something outside the rules of function and calculation, something not ruled by the logic of the reproduction of the same, is what training with each other is about.30 That, I believe, is one of the meanings of natural that the trained people and dogs I know practice. Training requires calculation, method, discipline, science, but training is for opening up what is not known to be possible, but might be, for all the intra-acting partners. Training is, or can be, about differences not tamed by taxonomy.

Throughout my academic life, whether as a biologist or a scholar in the humanities and social sciences, I had looked down on behaviorism as a vapid science at best, hardly real biology at all, and an ideological, determinist discourse at heart. All of a sudden, Cayenne and I needed what skilled behaviorists could teach us. I became subject to a knowledge practice I had despised. I had to understand that behaviorism is not my caricature of a mechanistic pseudoscience fueled by niche-marketed food treats, but a flawed, historically situated, and fruitful approach to mate-rial-semiotic questions in the fleshly world. This science has addressed my questions, and I think also Cayenne's. I needed not only behaviorism but also ethology and the more recent cognitive sciences. I had to comprehend that comparative cognitive ethologists do not operate with a cartoon of animal machinic nonminds whipped into computational shape with math and computers.

Preoccupied with the baleful effects that the denial of human control and power in training relationships has on dogs, I have understressed so far another aspect of the human obligation to respond to the authority of the dog's actual performance. A skilled human competitor in agility, not to mention a decent life companion, must learn to recognize when trust is what the human owes the dog. Dogs generally recognize very well when the human being has earned trust; the human beings I know, starting with myself, are less good at reciprocal trust. I lose Cayenne and me many qualifying scores because, in the sport's idiom, I "overhandle" her performance. For example, because I am not confident, I do not see that she has mastered the difficult correct entries into weave poles at speed and that I do not need to rush to do a front cross, thereby, as often as not, blocking her path. Indeed, when I trust Cayenne I do not ever need to rush, no matter the pattern or obstacle. I do not need to be as fast as she is (good thing!); I merely need to be as honest. In one difficult run in an Excellent Standard class at an AKC trial in which most high-level competitors ahead of us were missing their weave pole entry, I failed my obligation to recognize and respond to Cayenne's earned authority, and I imposed my bent-over, anxious, controlling self in her path about two feet from the first pole. Laughing and chiding me afterward, my friends described what she did to get me out of the way and save our qualifying score. According to our observers, Cayenne saw me coming, clipped her smoothly curving stride slightly, and dodged around me, all but shouting, "Get out of my way!" while she slipped magically between poles one and two and wove very fast without break in rhythm through the twelve poles. In my mind's ear, I heard my agility teacher Gail Frazier telling me over and over, "Trust your dog!"

Honesty and response to the dog's authority take many forms. True, I do not need to be as fast as she is, but I do need to stay in as good physical condition as I can, practice patterning my body at speed (thus, all those choreographed aerobics classes at the gym!), cross train (I do a lot more balanced exercise of all kinds than I would if I did not owe bodily coherence to Cayenne), be willing to learn to make moves on the field that give her better information even if those moves are hard for me to master, and treat her like a full adult by not bending over and hovering at difficult parts of a course. I hear my astute instructor Lauri Plummer in last week's class tell me that once again I was bent over playing nursemaid in a section of the course that sapped my confidence but not Cayenne's. "Stand up straight!" is a mantra that agility teachers repeat endlessly to their recalcitrant human students. I believe this chant is necessary because we do not actually recognize our dogs' authority but, in spite of our best intentions, treat them too often like athletic toddlers in fur coats. It is hard not to do that when dog culture in America, even in agility, relentlessly refers to human partners as "mom" or "dad." "Handler" is only a little better; that word makes me think that human agility partners imagine they have their controlling hands on the helm of nature in the body of our dogs. Humans in agility are not handlers (nor are they guardians); they are members of a cross-species team of skilled adults. With an ear to the tones of asymmetrical but often directionally surprising authority in contact zones, I like "partner" much better.

The mixed practices of training require savvy travels in sciences and stories about how animals actually feel and think as well as behave.

Cartoon by James Liddle from Agility Trials and Tribulations. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Howln Moon Press.

Trainers can't forbid themselves the judgment that they can communicate meaningfully with their partners. The philosophic and literary conceit that all we have is representations and no access to what animals think and feel is wrong. Human beings do, or can, know more than we used to know, and the right to gauge that knowledge is rooted in historical, flawed, generative cross-species practices. Of course, we are not the "other" and so do not know in that fantastic way (body snatching? ventriloquism? channeling?). In addition, through patient practices in biology, psychology, and the human sciences, we have learned that we are not the "self" or "transparently present to the self" either, and so we should expect no transcendent knowledge from that source. Disarmed of the fantasy of climbing into heads, one's own or others', to get the full story from the inside, we can make some multispecies semiotic progress. To claim not to be able to communicate with and to know one another and other critters, however imperfectly, is a denial of mortal entanglements (the open) for which we are responsible and in which we respond. Technique, calculation, method—all are indispensable and exacting. But they are not

Cayenne and I at an agility trial in 2006. Copyright Richard Todd Photographer. Published with permission.

response, which is irreducible to calculation. Response is comprehending that subject-making connection is real. Response is face-to-face in the contact zone of an entangled relationship. Response is in the open. Companion species know this.

So, I learned to be at ease with the artificiality, the naturalcultural art, of training for a sport with a dog. But surely, I imagined, she could be free off the course, free to roam the woods and visit the off-leash parks. I had taught her an obligatory recall that authorized that freedom, and I was as nasty as any novice trainer feeling her oats about people who have no idea how to teach a good recall and whose clueless dogs give a bad name to freedom and an unfair fright to fleeing deer.311 watched how my fellow agility competitor and friend Pam Richards trained with Cayenne's littermate brother, Cappuccino, and I was secretly critical of how relentlessly she worked with Capp to fix his attention on her and hers on him in the activities of daily life. I knew Capp was aglow with pleasure in his doings, but I thought Cayenne had the greater animal happiness.32 I knew Pam and Capp were achieving things in agility out of our reach, and I was proud of them. Then, Pam took pity on us. Taking the risk to judge that I actually wanted to become less incoherent with Cayenne, she offered to show me in detail what we did not know. I became subject to Pam so that Cayenne could become free and lucid in ways not admitted by my existing stock of freedom stories.33

Pam is nothing if not thorough. She backed us up, forbidding me to put Cayenne on the A-frame in competition until she and I knew our jobs. She showed me that I had not "proofed" the obstacle performance in about a dozen fundamental ways. And so I set about actually teaching what the release word meant instead of fantasizing that Cayenne was a native English speaker. I started thinking practically about adding distractions to make the ""two-on, two-off" performance that I had chosen for us more certain in circumstances approximating the intense world of trials. I learned to send her over the A-frame to the bottom and the magic two-on, two-off paw position, no matter where I was, no matter if I was moving or still, no matter if toys and food were flying through the air and complicitous friends of various species were jumping up and down crazily. Pam watched us and then sent us back again with the mordant comment that Cayenne did not yet know her job because I had not yet taught it.

Finally, she said I was sufficiently coherent and Cayenne sufficiently knowledgeable that we could do the A-frame in competition—if I held the same standard of performance there that had become normal in training. Consequences, that sledge hammer of behaviorism, were the point. If, by letting Cayenne go on to the next obstacle, I rewarded a legally adequate performance in the contact zone, but one that did not match our hard-won criterion, I was condemning her and me to a lifetime of frustration and loss of confidence in each other. If Cayenne did not hold two-on, two-off and wait for release, I was to walk her calmly offthe course without comment or glance and zip her into her crate without reward and stroll away. If I did not do that, I had less respect for Cayenne than for my fantasies.

For more than two years, we had not advanced out of novice competition levels because of the A-frame contact zone. Subject to Pam's narratives of freedom and authority, after Cayenne and I had retrained each other more honestly I walked her off the course at a real trial once and was given a year of perfect contacts after that. My friends cheered us over the finish line in our last novice event as if we had won the World Cup. "All" we had done was achieve a little coherence. The occasional breakdowns in that contact zone that still happen are quickly fixed, and Cayenne sails through this performance with a gleam in her eye and pleasure written all over her coursing body. Among other competitors, she is known for great contacts. A random reinforcement schedule doesn't hurt, but Cayenne's love of the game—love of work—is our real salvation.

But what about Cayenne's independent animal happiness off the course compared with the bond of attention between Pam and Capp? Here, I think Pam and I have changed each other's narratives and practices of freedom and joy. I had to face the need for many more " I pay attention to you; you pay attention to me" games to fill Cayenne's and my not-so-leisure hours. I had to deal with my sense of paradise lost when Cayenne became steadily and vastly more interested in me than in other dogs.34 The price of the intensifying bond between us was, well, a bond. I still notice this; it still feels like a loss as well as an achievement of large spiritual and physical joy for both Cayenne and me. Ours is not an innocent, unconditional love; the love that ties us is a naturalcultural practice that has redone us molecule by molecule. Reciprocal induction is the name of the game.

Pam, for her part, tells me she admires the sheer fun in Cayenne's and my doings. She knows that can exact a price on performance criteria. The gods regularly laugh when Pam and I take Cayenne and Cappuccino out to a grassy field and urge them to play with each other and ignore us. Pam's partner, Janet, will even leave a riveting women's basketball game on TV to revel in the unmatchable joy when Cayenne and Cappuccino play together. All too frequently, Cayenne can't get Capp to play; he has eyes only for Pam's throwing arm and the ball she has hidden away. But when they do play, when Cayenne solicits her littermate long and hard enough, with all the metacommunicative skill at her command, they increase the stock of beauty in the world. Then, three human women and two dogs are in the open.

Thinking about how animals and human beings who train together become "available to events," Vinciane Despret suggests that "the whole matter is a matter of faith, of trust, and this is the way we should construe the role of expectations, the role of authority, the role of events that authorize and make things become."35 She describes what has been found in studies of skilled human riders and educated horses. The French ethol-ogist Jean-Claude Barrey's detailed analysis of'unintentional movements" in skilled riding show that homologous muscles fire and contract in both horse and human at precisely the same time. The term for this phenomenon is isopraxis. Horses and riders are attuned to each other. "Talented riders behave and move like horses. . . . Human bodies have been transformed by and into a horse's body. Who influences and who is influenced, in this story, are questions that can no longer receive a clear answer. Both, human and horse, are cause and effect of each other's movements. Both induce and are induced, affect and are affected. Both embody each other's mind."36 Reciprocal induction; intra-action; companion species.37 A good run in agility has very similar properties. Mimetic matching of muscle groups is not usually the point, although I am sure it occurs in some agility patterns, because the dog and the human are coperforming a course spatially apart from each other in differently choreographed and emergent patternings. The nonmimetic attunement of each to each resonates with the molecular scores of mind and flesh and makes someone out of them both who was not there before. Training in the contact zone, indeed.

Daemon Tear April 2, 2006 Dear Agility Friends,

In practice a couple of weeks ago with Rob near Watsonville, Cayenne and I had an interesting experience that I suspect you can relate to. The class is at night, 8-9:30, and has a dozen teams in it; in short, the class is big and sometimes a bit chaotic, and many of us are bone tired by then anyway. Many nights, my concentration is iffy, but that night both Cayenne and I were glued to each other's souls and did not make a mistake over several runs with difficult sequences and discriminations. Then at 9:25, we had our last run, one with only ten obstacles, albeit with a couple of challenging discriminations, one of the themes of the night. None of these had given us any trouble. We did fine until the last discrimination in the last run. In a nanosecond, we came apart, literally, and each went a different way. We each stopped instantly, no longer on the same course, and looked at each other with a blatantly confused look on her dog and my human face, eyes questioning, each body-mind bereft of its partner. I swear I heard a sound like Velcro ripping when we came apart. We were no longer "whole." I turned on time, in the right spot, and had all my parts technically correct; Cayenne turned well and correctly too. Then, we just lost each other. Period. It was not a "technical" mistake for either of us, I swear. Rob saw nothing wrong and did not know what happened. I swear Cayenne and I both heard the Velcro ripping when our cross-species conjoined mind-body, which we are when we run well, came apart. I've experienced losing her mentally before, of course, as she has me. Almost always, the actual literal error of a course—usually a tiny but fatal glitch in timing—is a symptom of such a loss of each other. But this was different—much more intense—maybe because we were both tired and we had been unconsciously but strongly linked all night. She looked abandoned, and I felt abandoned. I experienced the confused look we gave each other to be full of loss and yearning, and I truly think that was what her expressive canine being was screaming too. I think the communication between us was as unambiguous as a play bow would be in its context. Just as a play bow binds responding partners to take the risk of playing, somehow we unbound each other from the game. Something severed us. All of this happened in much less than a second.

Have you read the Philip Pullman series, Golden Compass, Subtle Knife, and Amber Spyglass, in which a human-daemon link is a main part of the fictional world? The daemon is an animal familiar essential to the human, and vice versa, and the link is so strong and necessary to being whole that its deliberate severing is the violent crime driving the plot. At one point, the narrator says, "Will, too, felt the pain where his daemon had been, a scalded place of acute tenderness that each breath tore at with cold hooks" (Amber Spyglass, 384). Earlier, the narrator described the crime of severing daemon and human: "While there is a connection, of course, the link remains. Then the blade is brought down between them, severing the link at once. They are then separate entities" (Golden Compass, 273).38

Surely, I am dramatizing the rip between Cayenne and me over a little agility discrimination—tire or jump?—late on a rainy Wednesday night in March in a central California horse arena. Yet, this tiny tear in the fabric of being told me something precious about the weave of the whole-selves commitment that can bind companion species in a game of conjoined living, in which each is more than one but less than two. We trained hard—for years, actually—to develop this kind of link; but both its coming into being and its coming apart are only made possible by that discipline, not made by it.

Does all that make any sense?

Coming apart in Sonoma County, Donna

Was this article helpful?

0 0


  • Faith
    What constitutes a contact zone?
    5 months ago

Post a comment