Memory work: colonialism, control, civilization

June 19, 2008


Haraway’s work examines how ideology informs science both through legitimization of claims and the intrusion of values into ‘scientific’ facts. In her introduction Haraway describes how the concepts of love, power and science are intricately intertwined in the constructions of nature in the late twentieth century. In the eighteenth century Linneaus named the order of Primates. Since then in western life sciences, ‘nature’ has encompassed themes of race, sexuality, gender, nation, family and class. Projects of colonialism developed ideologies of the control of nature and the civilization of native cultures (Haraway 1989:1).

The concept of ‘civilization’ as a benchmark for evaluating the evolution of culture had been an accepted and integral part of colonialism. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the control of nature by technology, the machine, had become ambiguous. Nature, a potent symbol of innocence, was female and she needed protection from technology.

The American Museum of Natural History near Central Park, New York, was opened after the Civil War. In 1936 the African Hall was unveiled, a vision of the communion between nature and man, made possible through the craft of taxidermy. Carl Akeley’s, the chief taxidermist, greatest success was his display of a giant silverback gorilla from Congo-Zaire. This silverback is exhibited in a specially created diorama against a backdrop of Akeley’s own burial site in Congo-Zaire where he died in 1921. Haraway notes that in the same year, the Museum of Natural Science hosted a meeting of the International Congress of Eugenics. (Haraway 1989:26 -27).

Haraway reveals how the funding of the Museum of Natural History and related projects, such as public education, scientific collection and eugenics was provided by wealthy philanthropists. These men were often sports hunters who hunted in the African jungle and were enamoured with nature (Haraway 1989:54). They created a Hall of the Age of Man which museum trustee H. F. Osborn hoped would provide children with “…the book of nature written in facts” in order to prepare them to be “…better citizens of the future.” These early trustees and scientists believed that the nature they knew and were showing was not an interpretation. Nature was real. This realism also informed aesthetic choices in exhibitions.

Haraway reveals how it was also designed to “…make the moral lessons of racial hierarchy and progress explicit.” Osborn was an ardent eugenicist. Another Museum trustee was a white-supremacist author, Madison Grant, who was deeply concerned by the increase of immigration of non-white working classes whom he feared would outnumber the “old American stock”. Non-white included the Jewish and Eastern European cultures (Haraway 1989:57).

Haraway traces the way in which primates: monkeys, apes and chimpanzees, represent a privileged relation to nature and culture. In the chapter on the work of Robert Yerkes (Yale) on Human Engineering and the Laboratories of Primate Biology (1924-1942) she examines his research in comparative primate psychobiology. Human engineering was a term and tool developed c. 1910 to establish and maintain a stable, productive, non-conflictual workplace to prevent lost time and resources. Workers who were properly managed, or ‘engineered’, would ensure industry’s profits. The engineering included concern for stable family situations to encourage the maintenance of a constructive force. In Yerkes research chimpanzees became physiological models of humans. Through them Yerkes investigated instinct, personality, culture and human engineering. In the process he was reformulating the relationship between nature and culture (Haraway 1989:66).

In her final chapter Haraway narrates a link between primatology and science fiction. She tells the story of Lilith, an Octavia Butler character in the science-fiction Dawn. Lilith, a woman of colour, out of Africa, becomes the primal mother, the Eve to a polymorphous species. The story unfolds in a post-nuclear, post-slavery world overtaken by an alien species. It is a survival fiction about the “… resistance to the imperative to recreate the sacred image of the same (Haraway 1989:378).” Haraway refers to a part in Dawn when Lilith talks about her feelings of being impregnated with something that is not human, a metamorphose. “I had gone back to school.” [Lilith] said. “I was majoring in anthropology.” She laughed out bitterly. “I suppose I could think of this as fieldwork – but how the hell can I get out of the field?” (Butler 1987: 262-3)

In this monumental, thorough work Haraway examined the various ‘border disputes” about primates including those between biology and psychiatry, scientists and administrators, specialists and lay people and historians of science and real scientists. “The primate field, naturalistic and textual, has been a site for elaborating and contesting the bio-politics of difference and identity for members of industrial and post-industrial cultures (Haraway 1989:368).” She traced the history of the science of primatology down an exciting path through Central Park, into the dark jungles of Africa, to taxidermy laboratories, to museum dioramas, to Disney homes for chimps and women scientists who serve as a kind of missing link in a long evolutionary chain. She concludes with a fiction, the beginning of a myth of Eve without Adam. She ends her narrative with that of a female scientist who becomes part of the experiment, part of the field study unable to escape (Haraway 1989:14).

Her work is so deeply intertextual and detailed that it confounds but does not prevent criticism. Haraway looked at the way frameworks become acceptable on the basis of value systems or world views held by particular interest groups or power groups which in turn provide the criteria for the legitimization of truth claims. She describes how ideology informs science.

Debates in sociology revolve around sociology’s function as a discipline within academia. Conflicting oppositional viewpoints are often defined as extreme and exclusive dichotomies: nomologism vs. historicism, generalizing vs particularizing, positivism vs relativism, scientific facts vs discourse, Science vs journalism, uncritical vs self-reflexive, occupation vs profession, value-free vs. social, hard science vs soft science, centre vs periphery, intra disciplinary vs interdisciplinary, optimistic vs sceptical; scientific elite vs the public; liberal vs illiberal; objective vs engaged political thinker.

These debates are somewhat like a conversation that takes place over centuries. The character of the debates often takes on the form of rhetorical assertions coupled with evidence. However, the evidence is often grounded in oppositional stances. The most diametrically opposed players then face an impasse which Joan Huber’s and Goldthorpe describe as an unbridgeable chasm. Empirical positivists “know” Science deals in Scientific facts which are predictable, replicable and guaranteed results of pure scientific methodologies. There is no need to theorize because they already know this to be true. SSK, relativists and postmodernists assert that the tools with which scientists work, their methodologies and the very environments in which they work, have to be constantly revisited and theorized. This they know is true. Those who attempt to enter into the conversation, need to first gauge the level of credibility of the discourse on either side. A legalistic strategy of the weighing of evidence might be useful. However, the weight of evidence can be valid only if all the major arguments on both sides are reviewed, a monumental task.

Webliography and Bibliography

Haraway, Donna. 1989. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science.

My Summary: Haraway looked at the way frameworks become acceptable on the basis of value systems or world views held by particular interest groups or power groups which in turn provide the criteria for the legitimization of truth claims. She describes how ideology informs science. In Primate Visions (1989) Haraway reveals how Yerkes’ Human Engineering projects (1924-1942) used chimpanzees as physiological models of humans. Through them Yerkes investigated instinct, personality, culture and human engineering. In the process he was reformulating the relationship between nature and culture (Haraway 1989:66).

2 Responses to “Memory work: colonialism, control, civilization”


  1. [...] Flynn-Burhoe, Memory Work: Colonialism, Control, Civilization Donna Haraway and the politics of [...]


  2. [...] public links >> colonialism Memory work: colonialism, control, civilization Saved by MariAssmann on Sun 02-11-2008 Paris declaration is collective colonialism? Saved by [...]


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