An Exploration of “Companion Species,” Hierarchies of Intelligence, and the Notion of Unconditional Love
Betsey Lewis | Queer Ecologies: Animacies Project | 27 October 2023
It was always my intention to involve my cat, Olive, within this project. When I first heard the prompt, I thought “What better way to explore animacy hierarchies than to involve my fluffy friend?” Well, maybe not in those exact words... but my mind jumped first to my more-than-human companion.
Without further ado, allow me to introduce you to Olive: A cat who is extremely shy yet talkative. Brave yet skittish. Kind yet full of turmoil and hesitation. Olive has taught me that we are not static beings but rather products of the knowledge we gather in our relations to one another. As Donna Haraway writes in “The Companion Species Manifesto,” our dynamic "beings do not preexist their relatings" (6).
When we first met, Olive was a kitten terrified of the laundry room door opening for fear of my dog, Toto. She was quiet. Contained. We soon moved homes, and there, her situation worsened. For five years, Olive was confined to a 4x2 windowsill in the basement, as Toto continued his torment—running downstairs and barking at her every couple of hours. Her continuously traumatizing relationship with Toto (and, I suspect, many other dogs before we took her in) brought her to this place of isolation and fear.
I swore to her that once I had my own place, she would have her own space with me.
Now that she lives with me in Lawrence (without the presence of a dog looming over her every move), the dualities of her personality have emerged. But then again, so have mine. Where once she was scared to move down from the windowsill, Olive is now able to saunter into the living room as she pleases—hopping from roommate to roommate in an attempt to get as many head scratches as possible. Where I was once afraid to let anyone in again, I find myself being open and vulnerable with my cat. I cry with her. I laugh with her. I invite her to see the flawed human I am, extending a vulnerable hand of kinship and care.
When I get home, she excitedly meows at me and promptly plops on my bed. Exposing her tummy for belly rubs, she welcomes me home and invites me to share a moment of vulnerability and love.
These invitations are not new developments. Even when she was stuck in her windowsill and I was a depressed teenage girl living amidst a pandemic, she would utilize her few inches of space to expose her stomach. We may not be able to “communicate” with each other in a traditionally human and linguistic sense, but in a way, belly rubs bridge our gaps in vulnerability and understanding.
Within “The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness,” Donna Haraway quotes a previous work of hers—“Notes of a Sportswriter’s Daughter”—in which she explores connection with her beloved dog, Cayenne Pepper. It is this conception of “companion species” that I wish to invoke in considering Olive and I’s mutual extension of kinship throughout the remainder of this project. We do not own one another; we are learning from one another. Neither one of us is more intelligent or more capable of unwavering loyalty and/or love than the other. Echoing Haraway, “We are training each other in acts of communication we barely understand. We are, constitutively, companion species. We make each other up, in the flesh. Significantly other to each other, in specific difference, we signify in the flesh a nasty developmental infection called love. This love is an historical abberration and a naturalcultural legacy" (qtd. in Haraway 3).
Last week, I was doomscrolling through hours of Instagram reels in an effort to lull myself into a slumber. While I attended my blue light box, my cat, Olive, laid peacefully at my side. With jaw slack and eyes rolled back into her head, she carefully kneaded her blanket into biscuits. She could feel my gaze on her and thrust her emerald eyes open. After a few reassuring slow blinks, we went back to our respective Tuesday night activities.
Sensing my preoccupation with my cat, my social media algorithms tend to recommend videos involving some sort of cat content. But last Tuesday, I came across the same sort of video within five minutes.
In the videos, the creators zoomed in on their cats as the heading read something to the effect of “If you ever get frustrated with your cat, just remember that they have the IQ of a 2 year old.”
It was these videos that spawned my consideration of the hierarchies of intelligence that we build barring humans and animals from genuine connection. We place ourselves in positions of power, guising the connections we have with our companions as ownership—with “unconditional love” as our animals’ only form of reciprocity.
In philosopher Lars Svendsen’s “Understanding Animals: Philosophy for Dog and Cat Lovers,” Svendsen writes that “concept of intelligence stems from human mental life -- it is from there that we have acquired this idea of what it is to be intelligent” (68-69). But the human imposition of these standards of “intelligence” can be problematic for more-than-human beings, especially when considering "quite how this standard should be formed is another matter -- it's not certain, for example, that IQ is a suitable measurement” (68). Is a high ability to “reason” in a human capacity the only standard of measuring intelligence? What does this say about what we value in appraising intellect?
This valuation and infantilization of cats’ intelligence as irrational posits cats within a hierarchy of intelligence that places humans in a position of power, knowledge, and ownership. In the forward to Jacques Derrida’s pinnacle work, “The Animal That Therefore I Am,” Marie Luise-Mallet poses that the human conception of ourselves as “zoon logon echon,” or rather, "… as an animal therefore, but one endowed with reason... has always in fact opposed us to all the rest of animalkind, going so far as to erase all animality in us and, conversely, to define the animal, in an essentially negative way, as deprived of whatever is presumed to be "proper" to the human” (x). Luise-Mallet relays Derrida’s sentiments that humans have denied more-than-human animals’ capacity for "speech, reason, experience of death, mourning, culture, institutions, technics, clothing, lying, pretense of pretence [feinte de feinte], covering of tracks, gift, laughing, tears, respect, etc." (x). In thinking about Donna Haraway’s work with naturecultures, I consider how this conception of human intelligence as the “rational animal” revokes the culture and complexity of cats’ intricate modes of understanding. To say that a cat has an IQ of a two-year-old is to minimize their vast capacities of emotional intelligence and understanding, as well as to remove the possibility that a cat’s ability to reason may simply be incomprehensible to mere humans. As Svendsen writes, "…a great deal of thought takes place, within the animal kingdom, outside the class of humans. The thinking takes place without language as a medium; in some form of non-linguistic medium" that is not accessible to human ways of orienting towards the world (66-67).
Olive’s intelligence cannot be reduced to a number on a limited scale of measurement, for her ability to emote and to read emotions alinguistically does not fit within this set IQ scale. She queers the scale in her offering of belly rubs and in her wide variety and intonations of meows. In both of these invitations, Olive opens up a distinct dialogue that negates the binaries of humans and animals as unable to communicate. This communication may not be linguistic, but it is understood—and on a deeper, much more vulnerable level than words can convey. Svendsen considers this in his work: "We humans also possess this kind of non-linguistic dimension of thinking, and it is therefore possible that we can share an animal's non-linguistic thoughts. In that case, language is not 'a universal medium for understanding,' as the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer and others have claimed.” (67-68). I would venture to say that the sharing Svendsen refers to is more than possible and challenges the anthropocentric assumption that ‘language’ is required for intelligence, as well as understanding.
In the example of J.R. Ackerley (human) and Tulip (dog) that Haraway references, this intimate communication is observed in many companion species: "Tulip mattered, and that changed them both. He also mattered to her, in ways that could only be read with the tripping proper to any semiotic practice, linguistic or not” (34-35). It is their story that I resonate with and connect to the intertwined stories of Olive and I. In this example, we find that companion species’ capacities for vulnerable, non-linguistic modes of speech are forces of and for understanding. Companion animals do not respond to humans in incomprehensible manners, wherein the human receives unconditional love from an unsuspecting, unintelligent non-human. In fact, Haraway argues that the notion of unconditional love is “pernicious” (33). She continues, “receiving unconditional love from another is a rarely excusable neurotic fantasy; striving to fulfill the messy conditions of being in love is quite another matter. The permanent search for knowledge of the intimate other, and the inevitable comic and tragic mistakes in that quest, commands my respect, whether the other is animal or human, or indeed, inanimate. Ackerley’s relationship with Tulip earned the name of love” (35-36). Ackerley and Tulip’s story illustrates that hierarchies of intelligence, as well as the misnomer of unconditional love, have no place in vulnerable companionship.
I do not expect Olive to love me unconditionally, especially when I forget to fill her bowl when it runs out or am gone for too long. Nor do I expect to love her unconditionally, especially when she stands just out of arms reach or tears up the dirt of my favorite plant. But I do hope that we continue to learn from one another with a curiosity about the stories we hold and the distinct ways we interact with the world and how these modes are points of understanding our genuine love for one another. Let us expose our bellies and offer a hand as an extension of mutual kinship.
Derrida, Jacques. “The Animal That Therefore I Am.” Edited by Marie Luise-Mallet. Fordham University Press, Perspectives in Continental Philosophy, 2008. . Haraway, Donna. “The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness.” Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003,file:///C:/Users/betse/Downloads/haraway_companion.pdf. Svendsen, Lars Fr. H. “Understanding Animals: Philosophy for Dog and Cat Lovers.” Reaktion Books, Limited, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central, .