by Joanna Latimer, August 2017
I report on an incident in which a companion species in a rural site in Crete creates a threshold through which I was not meant to pass, a threshold which comes into collision with the passage created by walking and thinking and “being alongside” otherness. Drawing on Haraway’s notion of “becoming-with” in her work on companion species, and my own of being alongside, I reflect upon the mortal consequences of a collision of thresholds, and the politics of being open and vulnerable, and of becoming-rendered, including the reassembling that occurs.
Deleuze & Guattari suggested that “the self is only a threshold, a door, a becoming between two multiplicities”. In contrast, Rolland Munro and I have suggested that we can see thresholds not as doors, but rather as passages. The image of the passage helps bring a sense of thresholds as multiply constructed sites that involve moving, and being moved, sensing and being sensed. In this imaginary movement, in and through the passage makes it a site of transformation, a moving from/to, a moving in between. Here then we make reference to Turner’s reading of Van Gennep – of the liminal as a passage, a site of transformation, that is itself a site not just between multiplicities but as a space in its own right (or rite!).
In 2013 I published a paper on being alongside otherness. I was interested in finding ways to express something about ‘becoming with’ otherness as being done in partial connection between human and nonhuman animals, in ways that did not reproduce those hierarchical relations of comparison that order, as Marilyn Strathern intimates, Euro-American life. I focussed on human-horse relations drawing on the work of sculptor Olivia Musgrave and her marvellous sculptures of Amazonian women and their horses, but wrote it very much in conversation with Haraway’s theory of Companion Species, which is not about the cultures that humans and animals make together, but the “worldings” that humans and other animals can make together when they become-with each other to form ‘companion species’.
Critically, ‘being alongside’ for me denotes a spatio-temporal imaginary: an imaginary that implies a time-space of the in-between created by different multiplicities (‘humans’, ‘horses’, ‘dogs’, ‘birds’, ‘trees’, the very fabric, sound, smell and feel of the world) as a state of being alongside each other, in partial and intermittent connection. And of course we are never not alongside otherness. And the connections are only ever partial, as we shift between many different others, of which we are aware and not aware. These multiplicities and multitudes that are beings never fully collapse into a hybrid, but are rather, I argued, always in tension, a tension created by their differences, their very ‘each otherness’.
A couple of years after my paper on being alongside, I was attending a conference on creativity in a little village on the coast outside Chania, in Crete, with my partner, Rolland Munro. We were meant to be giving the paper together, and we paid to stay in the conference hotel as a bit of a treat – it had swimming pools, and a spa, as well as sea front. On the third morning after breakfast I went for a walk on my own in the lovely, peaceful countryside behind the hotel, passing through orange and olive groves and other smallholdings full of vegetables. I was familiar, or so I thought, with these kinds of Cretan spaces – the tradition of having a small plot of land, often owned by a family, where they tend their vegetables and fruit, spending hours there, in the early mornings and the evenings, before and after work, or over the weekend. I love walking in such a place, content to be alongside what I (naively, arrogantly?) think of as harmony and peace, a place to be in partial connection, thinking and walking.
Walking for me is a kind of threshold, a passage for thinking, something Gros explores in his book. But contra Gros, walking for me is not so much an escape from identity as an in between in the midst of multiplicities – the multiplicities that occupy and inhabit me in the space on either side of the passage I make by walking, moving and sensing. It is a space of a being alongside – a passage of leaving behind and coming back in which I think and mulch – the passage made by walking the in-between is a kind of elsewhere. Sleep is a similar threshold between wakings – a passage in which things shift and move, so one can wake up having shifted one’s thinking, and have the experience of being able to make sense or see connections or of ideas falling into place. In these ways the passage is a state of being open and closed at the same time, and as such both walking in the open and sleeping are also times at which we are at our most vulnerable. A passage through the in-between as at the same time as it opens us up to transformation (just think of all those road movies), it is also a site of intense vulnerability and precarity.
On the morning in question in Crete I came parallel with some big, ugly sheds (ringed in Figure 1). In the photos below (figs. 1 &2) I was walking from right to left at first, but on the south side of the unmade road, next to a hedge. The road was a dead end, so I walked back on the other side of the road, the side that at one point opens directly into the forecourt area of the sheds. On the ground (as opposed to the aerial view) no boundary was marked – there was no kerb, wall or fence: as I walked past the sheds, the road and the forecourt seemed to be made of one continuous looking fabric. But what had been created was a threshold.
Fig 1. The sheds (marked by the blue ring), the unmade roads, and the surrounding countryside
Fig.2 The Threshold: the lane, the forecourt and the sheds
A truck was parked – was it at the side of the road, or was it at the side of the forecourt? Or was it in the in between, in between the road and the forecourt to the sheds? This ambivalence is important for what happens next.
As I overtook and walked on past the truck in front of the sheds, a dog came out from under the truck, now behind me, and knocked me down. I had not seen the dog under the truck. The dog had a chain on and this chain was attached to a running chain fixed to the ground so the dog could move along the chain in a horizontal line in front of the sheds – this can just be seen in the two photos in figure 3, of the dog and the truck, the two chains and the first shed; and the dog, the two chains, and the second shed. The two photos help show how the dog moves in front of the sheds. I want to suggest that the lane, the forecourt, the sheds, the truck, the chains and the dog are an assemblage that create a threshold.
Fig. 3 The Road, The Dog, The Truck, The Sheds, & The Running Chain
You can also if you look carefully see another huge dog sitting in front of the opening of the second shed – also chained up – this dog was not around the day of my attack.
The dog knocked me over, bit my hand, savaged my leg, came on top of me to go for my throat but was stopped by my arm in a gesture of defence, so bit my arm as it shielded my face and neck. When I say bit, I also mean ripped – a dog does bite but they also rip and tear. That’s what the dog was doing to my arm. But the dog left my arm and went back to my leg from which blood was spurting. It is at this moment that I had the chance to think (and yes this was thinking). Everything slowed down – and I said to myself “Joanna, you know about dogs”; and I said “Shsh, shsh” to the dog at the same time as I went very still and quiet. The dog sensed the change, and looked up at me, and I took my chance, pushed away along the ground, away from the limit of the dog’s chain’s reach. I then crawled along the ground to the hedge and managed to stand up. I saw an old man in his orange grove a hundred meters or so away, and shouted at him ‘Help! Please help me!’ holding my arm covered in blood up in the air, he shrugged and walked away. I remembered there were men around the corner, working on some new villas, and made myself walk around to them, all the while holding my arm and crying out ‘Help! Help! Someone please help me’. I knew my back and my body were very badly hurt and I felt savaged and deeply, deeply shocked, but I knew I must get help. Biology had flown to my rescue too – adrenaline entangled with my will to survive anaesthetising me.
Needless to say, me and my life were transformed by the violence of the event. This was a collision of thresholds. A collision that has made me think about walking and thinking, and the vulnerability of being open; but also about being chained, and being a dog whose human has exploited his gift for savagery and sport. And by extension this has made me think about all those who are chained and their gifts exploited. There was a companion species at work, a companion species that created a threshold through which I was not to pass. Had my going quiet shifted the balance of power, so that the dog became with me (not just my blood and tissues), and stopped figuring me as a threat? As an object of sport? In so doing did we momentarily reassemble the threshold by becoming a different companion species?
Being attacked put me in a new space of liminality – in an in-between that was shocking, violent, traumatic. My walking as a threshold between the multiplicities of leaving here and arriving there (never to the same place as I left because things have shifted their ground) was torn and savaged by a violence that has meant this practice of walking and thinking has now changed. I am always on the alert for dogs – dogs on their own, too many dogs for their owner to control, dogs that look aggressive, just dogs. Specifically, the event has intensified those aspects of my wanderings in the in between, in the passage, the threshold, my thinking-walking, that depends upon my being (in the) open(ing), my being alongside, my being vulnerable.
The attack reincarnated me into the potency of the unprotected and helped me glimpse something subliminally always feared – having little control over being subjected by violent regimes of power, serious and mortal conflict. Experiences that have all my life lurked in me but miraculously been held at bay. The sense of vulnerability created by the contradictory experience of being white, middle class, English, highly educated, protected and nurtured – aka privileged – but also of being a woman who has struggled with the vulnerabilities that being feminine in every sense of the word brings – especially out in the open, out on the road and in the interstices, material as well as theoretical. So the violence of the interstice rendered the world-making that I had carefully constructed to give the illusion of stability, and brought all the precarity of always being in the interstices crashing in.
The affect of a collision of worlds constituted by opposing thresholds is political. The companion species created by the man, the dogs, the chains, the sheds, the forecourt, the truck was an actant in a dispute about boundaries or some such thing. The villagers, the hotel owners, the villa owners, the landowners all came to put pressure on the dog-shed owner (or so I was later told) to have the dog removed and put down. So were his ‘business interests’ (perhaps whatever was in the ugly sheds) and their protection matter out of place – the place being a peaceful tourist destination, the main source of the ‘locals’ (at least those that ply the summer trade) livelihoods, a destination whose peacefulness is partly made up of the very tradition of husbandry and the tending and keeping of parcels of land that made up the passage of my walk? I learnt that lots of people from the hotel and the villas go for walks with their small children or on their own or with each other around these unmade lanes.
So what of me and the dog brought into such a violent relation? There are the visible wounds of my becoming-with the dog as assembled at the threshold – these can be seen in Figure 5, as well as the invisible woundings – a broken back, post-traumatic stress (fear, nightmares, hallucinations and so and on).
Fig. 4: The (Visible) Wounds from the Collision of Thresholds – PLUS a crushed vertebrae
It is a carnal matter, sure enough, but also a matter of body-world-self through which I and the dog became differently. Because of being consumed and affected by the threshold made by the companion species (the dog, the chains, the sheds, the truck, the owner and the disputes over land) I have been reassembled. And my life, and what I understand as the passage made by thinking and walking, reassembled the relations and the space, and the threshold of dispute. Put another way by becoming with me in a companion species the dog lost its life, but saved mine.
In this rendering I want to propose the threshold as a space of intense openness and vulnerability – a politics of being open and vulnerable, a state of being and becoming shared by both myself and the dog: the dog humanized in such a way as to incite his sense of vulnerability, his impulse to attack, his sense of sport, but also, and this is critical, being open to sensing a change in me, so that for a moment I ceased to be such an object. The politics of vulnerability depends upon who and what is being rendered and (re)assembled. For example, is there another actor in the companion species that I have not yet mentioned: the dog-shed-truck owner’s sense of vulnerability, signified by the two guard dogs, reinforced perhaps by the dire straits of Greece’s political economy at the time? This after all was 2015.
Thresholds as a space of being-touched-by-otherness mean an openness to transformation – to being affected, even, as Haraway asserts, to becoming-with otherness. Thresholds are thus intense sites of precarity in which we pass to be rendered differently.
Post-script: ‘The Care Collective’: being reassembled
Fig. 6 The care collective: Being reassembled with cat, dog, lavender, sun, birdsong, bed and on and on – recovering from a broken back and other wounds (the actants missing from the care collective in this image include my children, my husband, my chiropractor, the doctors and nurses in the surgery in Crete, the nurses in my local GP surgery, the dressings and antibiotics, the painkillers, friends, colleagues).
The care collective (Fig. 6) was critical to my getting back on my feet and back out in the world, but I have to thank the dog in Crete and the threshold that he was made to protect for helping me to think with care about vulnerability and the politics of becoming-rendered.
Joanna Latimer, August 2017