Culture Machine, Vol 15 (2014)

CM2014 Article: Francisco Vergara Silva

Universal Bio-cosmopolitics, Or the Perspectivism of Canine Life

Francisco Vergara Silva

Mediating 'Poesis, Autopoesis, Autopoethics' by Ed Cohen from vol. 3 (2001) Virologies: Culture and Contamination

People everywhere have perceived the dog as straddling this world and the next, linking nature and culture, sky and earth. The Dog Star, Sirius, has been identified with canines from China to Mexico, and is associated with the heat of the dog-days of August throughout the Northern Hemisphere. At this time of the year Sirius lies on the Eastern horizon just before sunrise and is connected to the opening of the gates of the dead. This Dog Star guarding the beginning of the day is akin to the dog guarding the passage to the next world. In Indo-European traditions, paths of the day lie in the night sky, where celestial dogs are stationed at perilous heavenly crossroads. (Marion Schwartz, A History of Dogs in the Early Americas, 1997)

In Mexico City, as in various other polluted, noisy, amorphous and equivocal colonial cities in Latin America, dogs are by far the most visible four-legged creatures inhabiting streets and houses. Despite their precarious dwellings, the presence of dogs, here as elsewhere, is the result of an alliance with ‘us’ humans – a transformative bond that has profoundly changed their external shape and inner way of being, mostly for our unilateral benefit. Too many signs, open for creative decoding far beyond the realm of the Western scientific discourse that calls itself ‘biology’ – a naming convention initiated when some Frenchman used the word in a treatise about the influence of water on the surface of the earth, right at the start of the nineteenth century – tell a story of ancient connections. Those connections involve many places and times, in and out of Europe, between (as a natural history specialist would say) hominids that were already humans and carnivores that once had been wolves. Now, if it is accurate to acknowledge that dogs are ‘cultural products’ – man-made creatures, after all – it is probably just as fair to say that dogs have assisted in the process of our mutation into what(ever) we have become. This statement immediately casts suspicion on the presumed common sense applied above. With language on their side, writers keeping their biological fashion glasses on, either undecided or convinced that the dog-human interaction qualitatively changed our human-ness, tend to describe this interaction in triumphalist terms. And so one of those narratives, the co-evolution story told by the archeozoologist, is usually warmly received by the dog-owner, who is always an owner, regardless. This differential condition of material existence suggests that, unfortunately, dogs would not be able to help those owners out, as they themselves, slowly and collectively, domesticate our descent into an environmental crisis so severe that even the most modern ‘conservation hydro-geology’ would be unable to stop it.

To talk about the contingent origin of B/biology – that European knowledge-fragmentation whose dominant, ‘modern’ inception (which is also a deception) as an informatics-driven megalomaniac industry of ‘gene analysis’ fuels some of the latest strides of the capitalist monster-machine – under the disguise of an idiosyncratically apocalyptic nod at ‘the meaning of dogs’ might seem pointless. After all, didn’t Donna Haraway’s agile cosmopolitical (after the Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers) proposal in When Species Meet already provide a rich matrix not only of sometimes highly personal love stories about humans and dogs (as well as other animal kinds), but of densely, delightfully woven arguments that allow us to look optimistically towards a better understanding of how men, women and (other) human chimeras could ‘become worldly’ with ‘companion species’? I dig into such ground while, instead of stereotypically looking for buried bones – not unlike the Western cartoons of pet-dogs prescribe, in pervasive graphic vocabularies that are not absent even from Haraway’s book – I also intend to articulate a comment on some of the issues that American scholar Ed Cohen deals with in his essay on poesis, autopoesis, autopoethics. In advance, I announce that my sympathy with Cohen’s project (be)comes (together) with a disagreement – one for which the dog-human relationship, as a metaphorical window to ‘other ways of being human’, provides helpful context.

* * *

In (a rather inevitable) reading of Cohen’s text, it is precisely the notion of the metaphor that plays a central role, while ‘the metaphoricity of metaphor’ constitutes the core of his reflection – one that, in turn, is very close to Haraway’s, and is therefore fundamentally concerned with how ‘life’ is inexorably life-with-others. Cohen writes for Culture Machine from what I picture – again, metaphorically– as a soft, comfortable, Anglo-American bio-philosophical chair. From that place, he closely follows, well-informed and consistently stylish, the sutures of many seeds of current biological theory without undoing them completely to reveal their insides. Here, I pay attention to his citation of Jacques Derrida’s botanically-minded use of terms, as he speaks of ‘the “interminable dehiscence” of metaphor in the forever unsaturated gardens of philosophy’ (2001: non-pag.). Bringing in Nietzsche’s eloquent observations on the subject of truth –‘a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies and anthropomorphisms’, Nietzsche wrote, as we are reminded – Cohen builds a biology-philic definition of organisms as never solitary, as always ‘individual-milieu dyads’. This leads him to the following important point: ‘the processes of living, then, are metaphorical processes, processes of carrying across and bearing upon the multiple dimensions of the material world, processes of transformations, of fabrication, of creation: in short, processes of poiesis’. Traces of the late Francisco Varela’s theoretical work on the self-producing emergence of organisms are clearly detectable there, and along Gilbert Simondon’s views on the impending inheritance of pre-existing realities for the constitution of collectives out of individuated, living beings, they also co-operate in Cohen’s construction of the poesis-autopoesis duality. Drawing from the work of biologists Lynn Margulis (the untimely departed inventor of the endosymbiosis biological explanatory scheme) and Dorion Sagan, Cohen writes summarily that

…autopoesis does not refer to the self-fashioning of an organism out of the raw materials of an environment, where the organism becomes both the subject and the object of the fabricating process ... instead it metaphorically evokes the metaphoricity, the poesis, of the organism as a condition of its (re)production within the context of a biosphere that is itself autopoetic. (2001: non-pag.)

But the confection of the last bond in Cohen’s catachretic series acquires an ethical dimension after his borrowing of a quote from Haraway herself. In direct reference to her essay, ‘The Promise of Monsters’, Cohen asserts that ‘autopoesis is also an autopoethics’, and then (re-)states that ‘bio-politics is a bio-logic’. In the words of the owner and best friend of Cayenne, the female Australian shepherd starring in When Species Meet:

There will be no nature without justice. Nature and justice, contested discursive objects embodied in the material world, will become extinct or survive together. Theory here is exceedingly corporeal, and the body is a collective: it is an historical artifact constituted by humans as well as organic and technological unhuman actors. (Haraway cited in Cohen, 2001: non-pag.).

Domesticated animals are absent from Cohen’s considerations and, although I have already mentioned how salient they are in Haraway’s book, ‘Promise of Monsters’ is strictly dog-free. In a brief return to my point of departure – a tangential image of urban violence towards dogs in Mexico City – I recall that Xolotl, the name of the Nahuatl canine deity, means not only ‘slave’ (from its root, xolo), but also ‘monster’ and ‘companion’. (Let me re-write and re-arrange this triad of dog-centered Nahuatl ideas that linguists associate with Xolotl so that they resonate with Cohen’s catachretic series: monster-slave-companion). As hinted at above, dogs (Haraway’s favorite xolotls), in their relation to humans, but not in the realms of American ‘pet agility games’, reveal the reason behind my criticism of a fundamental aspect of Cohen’s piece. At the same time, though, this dog-talk will allow me to look into other pieces of his work and reveal that, ultimately, Cohen himself provides critical elements of judgement to subtend that criticism.

* * *

In A History of Dogs in the Early Americas, American anthropologist Marion Schwartz tells several stories regarding the Nahuatl worldviews on the relationship between life and death, wherein dogs are primary participants. One is the following:

In Aztec thought an individual’s manner of death determined where the soul would reside after death. If, for example, an Aztec drowned, he or she would go to the place where Tlaloc, the god of rain, dwelled. An individual dying an ordinary death was in for much more of an ordeal. This person was destined to go to Mictlan, which lay beneath the cold desert to the north of Tenochtitlan. There the soul would wander for four years among the nine layers of the underworld. The Aztec cremated a dog to be sent with the dead one to serve as guide for the journey. According to the Codex Vaticanus A, a picture book from the early colonial period (1566-89), this journey started with the soul crossing a river, ‘a place of water passage’. A dog’s head is drawn there to indicate that the animal waits to ferry the soul across the water. After crossing the river the soul crossed ‘the place where the hills clash together,’ then passed by ‘the place of the obsidian mountain,’ ‘the place of the obsidian wind,’ ‘the place where someone is shot with arrows,’ ‘the place where people’s hearts are eaten,’ also depicted with a dog’s head, and the ninth level is ‘the place of the dead, where the streets are on the left’. (Schwartz, 1997: 102).

Schwartz speaks from archaeology’s mounds and from ethnography’s textures. She writes past history in the present. Cohen, on the other hand, is committed to philosophical theorizing inspired by biology, one located in a present that wishes to be a future. But the latter path is cut by a lesson from the former. The ‘streets on the left’ in the Nahuatl myth reproduced by Schwartz (for an educated, English-speaking public) could hardly be metaphorically converted into the avenues of queer theory and feminist philosophy of science, as practiced by a bright and famous professor from an American university whose sincere love of dogs is at the core of the abstractions used by Ed Cohen in his own cosmopolitical proposal. Such streets belong to an entirely different universe of meaning. They symbolically refer to one element in the ‘becoming together’ of the anonymous, faceless pre-colonial peoples that, in the company of their domesticated dogs, were part of a bio-social autopoesis abruptly interrupted around the year 1521 – and who for that reason are relevant to this discussion. I therefore want to argue that, in the face of the universalist cosmopolitical views of life put forward by Cohen, Haraway and other biophilosophers, the specificity of long-term autopoietic processes in the precolonial Americas – as well as in many other world regions, past and present – is impossible to ignore. Humbly restricting myself to the example at hand, I suggest that the Nahuatl dogs mentioned in Schwartz’ work – creature-symbols of a myth that used to reflect a complex understanding of territory and space, personhood and collective agency – could be read, in an exercise of conceptual translation that might be defeasible, as essential elements of an autopoethics of being, not only locally human, but also particularly canine, in a world that (I insist) already existed without having ever encountered ‘ours’.

* * *

Now, the subtleties in Cohen’s work regarding the contrast between the Harawayan account of a ‘species meeting’ and the alternative account which I am pointing at here, are clearly set in ‘Human Tendencies’, his longer essay for the electronic journal e-misférica (Cohen, 2013). As I announced above and explicitly acknowledge here, Cohen departs there from the positive assessment of the bio-political/bio-logic(al) relationship under which he interpreted Haraway’s way to link the necessity of justice with the existence of nature. (Whose nature, and who is Nature, by the way? Does ‘nature’ exist as a notion in Uto-Aztec languages? I will address these questions shortly.) More to the point, in the e-misférica essay Cohen fully embraces a more nuanced, seriously historicized view of the ethico-political implications of the Western scientific tradition of classifying the ‘natural’ world into ‘biological species’. For instance, he asks: ‘What if we deem the partitioning of the human species as a political distribution of the relationships between the sensible and the intelligible? What if we engage the discourse of human biology as politics by other means?’ Immediately after, Cohen responds with a specific reference to precisely the sources of current philosophical reflection that I find indispensable to address the subject. His own, elegant and clear phrasing of them is most apt for my purpose:

One place to begin such an engagement might be with the recognition that not all those who we include within the human species understand personhood as an exclusively human prerogative. Marshall Sahlins, who states in his recent disquisition on ‘the western illusion of human nature’, that a large – non-Western – portion of humankind understand ‘animals, plants … features of the landscape, celestial bodies, meteorological phenomena, and even certain artifacts (as) beings like themselves, persons with the attributes of humanity (Sahlins 2008, 88). Reflecting on the cosmologies of Amazonian Amerindians, the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro avers: ‘self references such as “people” mean “person,” not “member of the human species”…. To say, then, that animals and spirits are people is to say that they are persons, and to attribute to non-humans the capabilities of conscious intentionality and agency which define the position of the subject’ (Viveiros de Castro 1998, 476). If intentionality and agency do not belong exclusively to humans, then the assumption that the human species naturally distinguishes humans from other beings, animate and inanimate, may prove either overstated or under-motivated. Indeed, the assertion that being human entails belonging to the human species may represent a paramount example of what Bruno Latour, following Viveiros de Castro, calls ‘mononaturalism’. Mononaturalism bespeaks the assumption that there is one nature that unites us all. A product of Western onto-theology, and especially of a colonial mindset that sought to universalize the dominion of its three-personed God, mononaturalism construes the world as a universally knowable domain whose privileged spokesmodels often hold forth in the name of science and in the language of mathematics. Yet the interests of mononaturalism reveal specific rather than universal investments since the perspectives that it casts as truth obtain only among those who act upon them in good faith… . (Cohen, 2013: 3; italics mine)

With this minimal, sharp exposition of Viveiros de Castro’s perspectivism, as well as the realization of the colonial nature of the specificities of the interaction between European humans and the rest of ‘creation’, Cohen paves the way for my final remark on the differential lessons on autopoeth ics that past Xolotls and present Cayennes could teach ‘us’. That final remark is in fact a series of questions departing from a recognition of our largely Western, sheer ignorance, of the bio-social autopoetic histories of the non-Western colonized being – humans, dogs, plants and many other creatures that ‘God Biology’ today only sees as either repositories of ‘genetic diversity’ (with Lynn Margulis, by the way, belonging to the team), or as topics for evolutionary biology documentaries. Was ever there a legitimate cognate for the Indo-European word ‘justice’, in the communities of ‘Native Americans’ that both Haraway and Schwartz talk about in their books? Was there a word for ‘biology’ or ‘poetry’? What about the native notion of ‘biology’ and ‘poetry’ that dogs themselves, in different times and regions of the Americas, had then and have now? And, last but not least, which concrete communities of humans did Ed Cohen have in mind when writing his piece?


Cohen, E. (2001) ‘Poesis, autopoesis, autopoethics’, Culture Machine 3 (non-pag.).

Cohen, E. (2013) ‘Human Tendencies’. e-misférica 10 (Bio-Zoo);

Haraway, D. ‘The Promise of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others’, in Cultural Studies, L. Grossberg, C. Nelson, P. Treichler (eds). New York: Routledge, 295-337.

Haraway, D. (2008) When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Schwartz, M. (1997) A History of Dogs in the Early Americas. New Haven: Yale University Press.