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Donna Haraway's 'cyborg manifesto' was a call for communication across the technological divide. Now she's thinking in dog.

March 07, 2004|Michael Soller | Times Staff Writer

Santa Cruz — For some especially literary people, a word can open a world. Twenty years ago for UC Santa Cruz professor Donna Haraway that word was "cyborg." Hired as the first professor of feminist theory in Reagan's America, Haraway wrote an antic, ingenious little essay. Retraining the nightmare creation of Cold War science and post-apocalyptic fiction for a different task, "Manifesto for Cyborgs" revised the rules of human-machine interaction. The machine was in us, not outside.

Now, she says, the dog is in us. And she wants a walk.

Cayenne Pepper, Haraway's 4-year-old Australian shepherd, has just leaped into Haraway's lap, her quick pink tongue glistening with an inscrutable doggie demand. Haraway reads it instantly as a leap of faith across the supposedly neat dog-human divide. "It's kind of a scary thing for a dog to do what she just did," she says, laughing. "Cayenne doesn't readily do that. But she's come to like it."

Haraway, who turns 60 this year, has also come to like leaping. "The Companion Species Manifesto" (Prickly Paradigm Press), a collection of "shaggy dog stories" about the ongoing canine-human co-conspiracy, revisits the work that made her famous -- or as famous as you get if your audience is students, performance artists, feminist scholars and assorted cybercultural dreamers and cranks. "Like the cyborg manifesto, which was an argument about worlds contained within details, anything that's important enough to take seriously leads you to the whole world," she says in an interview in her small Santa Cruz home.

Raised as a "good Catholic girl" in a Denver suburb in the 1950s, Donna Jeanne Haraway once planned a different future. "I could have been a Catholic mother of about six children and a right-to-life activist, had life been just a little different," she reflects. "I could have been a nun, really." Beneath the hard look and the easy laugh, above the fleece top of the California academic, you can just make out the High Plains girl who once worked at the horse track as an "usherette" in an Indian dress, earning a union wage and doling out smiles to Texas gamblers.

Science offered another path, but after a zoology degree that led her to a joint PhD in biology, philosophy and the history of science, Haraway turned away from the laboratory too.

"At the end of the day I was always much more fascinated by the way science is a cultural practice," she says. "I'm way too literary in my pleasures. I love words, I love multiple meanings of words, I love metaphor, both verbal and physical metaphor. I really wasn't willing to discipline the meanings strongly enough to get good answers to experiments."

Haraway says her love of language was shaped by her father, a longtime sportswriter who loved the "game story." In her own way, she set out to write the game stories of her former profession. "The Companion Species Manifesto" also tells, in part, how Haraway fell in love with the dog sport of agility.

Seven years ago, Haraway and her partner of nearly 30 years, software engineer and freelance public-radio producer Rusten Hogness, inherited Roland, a recalcitrant 2-year-old Aussie mix. In part to learn to live with Roland, Haraway started going to obedience classes, and a trainer suggested she try agility, a growing sport that teams dog and person in a high-speed obstacle-course run.

Like Haraway, agility is a relatively new arrival in amateur dog land. The sport, inspired in part by horse-jumping and working-dog contests, first appeared at a 1978 London dog show. Played mainly by working-class men, agility migrated to the United States in the 1980s, where it became a sport dominated by middle-class, middle-age women. ("It's an astonishingly white sport," Haraway says.)

For Haraway, agility was another word that opened worlds. Interviewing canine health activists, she walked into a web of relationships among veterinarians, drug companies, breeders and ordinary dog owners who want to improve dog and human lives. "These prove to be really interesting people," she adds.

"She's translating us to her colleagues," says C.A. Sharp, a former Australian shepherd breeder from Fresno and one of Haraway's key sources. "I do the opposite thing. I'm trying to translate the science into dog-speak." (Sharp now works as a "genetic counselor," helping breeders combat inherited canine illnesses.)

You need a taste for agility to follow the leaps and bounds of Haraway's mind. "She reminds me of Vicki Hearne," says Catherine de la Cruz, a longtime advocate for Great Pyrenees, the massive white "livestock guardian dogs" that have made a surprising comeback in the American sheep and cattle industry. "She wrote from the heart, but academically, and that's what Donna does."

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