Teddy Bear Patriarchy

This is a great read. Below is my summary and review. Haraway is epic! She makes the most eloquent and witty writers read as simply as Vonnegut or Hemingway.

*D. Haraway, Primate Visions (New York: Routledge, 1989), Ch. 3 (“Teddy Bear Patriarchy”), pp. 26-58.

The African Hall in the Natural History Museum in NYC is more than an exhibit.  For Haraway it marked the creation of a cyborg, one of “Decadence–the threat of the city , civilization, machine– was stayed in the politics of eugenics and the art of taxidermy. The Museum fulfilled its scientific purpose of conservation, preservation, and the production of permanence. Life was transfigured in the principal civic arena of western political theory–the natural body of man” (27).  Haraway explains that the exhibit would show more about American culture and nature than African.  Following through the Teddy Roosevelt Memorial, Haraway narrates the themes of symbolic and discursive character, most prominently Nature, Youth, Manhood, Democracy and the State.  The exhibit is catered to white boys, and a certain set of values which are deemed admirable, as they were for Teddy.

Haraway points to the photographic essay depicting Roosevelt’s trip to the Amazon where he had one last chance to “be a boy” as a joining of life and death, and to the museum, as a revealing of the central moral truth, one which centers on manhood, and a reviving of the “incoherent urban public threatened with genetic and social decadence, threatened with the prolific bodies of the new immigrants, threatened with the failure of manhood” (29).  It is a way to make nature subject to humanity. A way to make the world as man sees fit. It is “not a random world, populated by late twentieth-century cyborgs, for whom the the threat of decadence is a nostalgic memory of a dim organic past, but the moment of origin where nature and culture, private and public, profane and sacred mere -a moment of incarnation in the encounter of man and animal” (29). It was here that Akeley, the master taxidermist and adventurer, and Roosevelt had met.

This play on life and death, nature and industrial city, is a key theme. She Explains that the taxidermied animals are only made possible by their death and re-presentation,  it is by their death that the city is cleansed and the people are able to experience the virgin, pristine nature of Africa. One that is not even available in the physical Africa itself, but only in the diorama that the museum created and depicts.  “No visitor to merely physical Africa could see these animals. This is a spiritual vision made possible only by their death and literal re-presentation. Only then could the essence of their life be present. Only then could the hygiene of nature cure the sick vision of civilized man. Taxidermy fulfills the fatal desire to represent, to be whole; it is a politics of reproduction” (30).

After the killing that Akeley so needed, that was essential for his trip and for science, he was quickly finished, and even bored. He also mandated white woman come with on the trip to ensure that hunting was deemed “unmanly” and that “even a white woman could do it” as to discourage future attempts. “Once domination is complete, conservation is urgent. But perhaps preservation comes too late”(34).  Haraway dissects the multiple narratives of Akeley’s story to expose the layers of mediation. She explicitly ties the technologies of the gun and camera as metaphorical “conduits for the spiritual commerce of man and nature”, she inserts the issue of spatiality and temporality in the construction of the images and representation of the safari/science, and how the biography of Akeley’s life is revealing of social and political conditions and predispositions.

Biography revealed his life story, one that started as a boy with an intense passion for preserving nature as he saw it.  Taxidermy was an obsession that “fit” with this goal, and he became an expert. With patents and innovations he became an expert and renowned taxidermist and committed to organicism.  The dioramas were extremely labor intensive, taking over ten years to finish for the Great Hall exhibit and employing hundreds of men. In the dioramas, Haraway explains, “the credos of realism and organicism interdigitate; both are systematizations of organization by a hierarchical division of labor, perceived as natural and so productive of unity. Unity must be authored by the Judeo-Christian myth system; just as nature has an Author, so does the organism or the realistic diorama…There was only one way to achieve such truth—the rule of mind rooted in the claim to experience” (40).

Harvesting a “typical” specimen was the goal of safari, to advance biological and ecological sciences, the most average/perfect specimen needed to be collected. Perfection was marked by physique and behavior, and importantly, gender, measured by exact quantitative measurement. Photography, was another tool employed and mastered by Akeley to preserve the “essence of nature” and to perfect his exhibits.  Haraway draws ties to the value of scientific expedition in providing truth about nature and mans place within it through Akeley’s story. In one section, she notes that “this democracy of reason was always a bit dangerous” (44) referring to the experiential necessity of truthmaking, of visually confirming actions. To this point she is speaking directly to Ezrahi’s “visual culture” and the mandated transparency of public actions of politics.  And further, she ties this to education, the spreading of knowledge (quite spermatic) and to domination/power and “protection”.

Importantly, the commitment to education fueled Akeley’s (and his sponsors) “aesthetic ideology of realism” which was “part of his effort to bridge the yawning gaps in the endangered self” (45). His “naked eye science advocated by the American Museum perfectly suited the camera, ultimately so superior to the gun for the possession, production, preservation, consumption, surveillance, appreciation  and control of nature…To make an exact image is to insure against disappearance, to cannibalize life until it is safely and permanently a specular image, a ghost” (ibid).  It is the camera which can stabilize time more perfectly than a gun, and its power comes from this ability, as does the diorama.

Haraway also notes the importance of story-telling. In the case of Akeley, he did not pen his own accounts, but rather had a scribe/secretary and other write about him and through his direction, sometimes through his direction.  Delia his second wife exposed the messiness of his hunts and the messiness of the scientific activities in which he was partaking. This vision is obscured by the exhibits, presumably for fear of impurification of science.  Haraway also notes the importance of structural racism, the colonization of peoples of Africa and their exploitation for the success of Akeley’s safaris. An organic  hierarchical division of labor was what his biographical notes relay, one that is strangely absent of discussion of the Africans so vital to his work.  Like nature, Africans were deemed “spoiled” or “unspoiled”, that is, “spoiled nature could not relieve decadence, the malaise of the imperialist and city dweller, but only presented evidence of decay’s contagion, the germ of civilization, the infection which was obliterating the Age of Mammal. And with the end of that time came the end of the essence of manhood, hunting. But unspoiled Africans, like the Kivu forest itself, were solid evidence of the resources for restoring manhood in the health activity of sportsmanlike hunting” (53).

For Haraway, the institutions that support the view of nature as pristine and civilization as destructive was constructed during the nascent stages of monopoly capitalism. Nature was pure, without technology, and thus the Museum was a visual technology projecting the nature depicted by Teddy and Akeley, for example. “Social relations of domination are built into the hardware and logics of technology, producing the illusion of technological determinism. Nature is, in “fact”, constructed as a technology through social praxis. And dioramas are meaning-machines. Machines are maps of power, arrested moments of social relations that in turn threaten to govern the living. The owners of the great machines of monopoly capital were, with excellent reason, at the forefront of nature work—because it was one of the means of production of race, gender, and class” (54).  Progressivism was the tale told, but domination  with the tool of “naked science” (Laura Nader has a good take on this too), was the reality. “Sciences are woven of social relations throughout their tissues” (55).

The Museum, Haraway insists, was practicing three public activities to preserve manhood, and the nature-culture relationship is signified: exhibition, eugenics, and conservation. “Decadence was the threat against which exhibition, conservation and eugenics were all directed as prophylaxis for an endangered body politic. The Museum was a medical technology, a hygienic intervention, and the pathology was a potentially fatal organic sickness of the individual and collective body…Exhibition was a practice to produce permanence, to arrest decay. Eugenics was a movement to preserve hereditary stock, to assure racial purity, to prevent race suicide. Conservation was a policy to preserve resources, not only for industry, but also for moral formation, for the achievement of manhood. All three activities were prescriptions against decadence, the dread disease of imperial, capitalist, white culture” (55). The Museum preached the gospel of wealth, projected moral lessons of “racial hierarchy and progress”, and manufactured “better” citizens because of this. Social engineering, social hygiene  eugenics was all done in the name of Science, and the racism inherent would be criticized but eventually replaced. “Different forms of capitalist patriarchy and racism would emerge, embodied in a retooled nature. Decadence is a disease of organism; obsolescence and stress are conditions of technological systems. Hygiene would give way to systems engineering as the basis of medical, religious, political, and scientific story-telling practices” (58).

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About anthony

Urban.Studies.Energy.Politics.Ecology.

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