PRINT April 1989


Knowledge and Power

THE BRONX ZOO has five entrances. When I made an arrangement to meet friends at the sea lion pool, it did not occur to me that I would mistakenly enter the zoo through the Asia entrance, the one furthest from the pool. To make a long story short, in order to reach the pool in time to keep my appointment, I had to walk quickly across the length of the zoo, catching only glimpses of the Wild Asia Plaza, Camel Rides, JungleWorld, World of Darkness, Skyfari, the Himalayan Highlands Habitat, Holarctica, and the Elephant and Monkey houses.

Like museums, zoos are long stories made short, purported microcosms of the world and its history and inhabitants. And like museums, zoos cultivate delusional experts; experts if expertise is simply defined as broad knowledge in a narrow field of inquiry, and delusional because zoos and museums are conceived to present totalized—knowledge—whether it be of the natural or high-art realms— in supposedly paradigmatic form, and this scope of conceptualization is impossible within the boundaries of such institutions. But also because the very concept of expertise is delusional. In its isolationism and resistance to cross-cultural discourses, expertise insidiously reinforces an account of a world composed of self-contained and objectively produced modules of knowledge. The positioning of viewers in zoos, in front of perspectivally arranged, simulated environments, produces a sense that if what we are looking into is authentic (and how would most of us know otherwise?), then the refracted look back of the animal within is at an equally “authentic” world that we inhabit. How this authenticity is constructed is not a question posed by the zoo or museum; the labels do not ask questions about the viewer. Knowledge, then, in most museum and zoo contexts, is reduced to seeing and believing. What the simple definition of expertise leaves unexamined, in addition to the question of knowledge, is the role of questions in producing knowledge. More specifically, what questions determine the pool of common knowledge about certain “specialized” fields of study?

Primatology is one such field. It is defined as the study of primates, a lengthy and debatable taxonomy that includes apes and humans. This specialized field of knowledge has an enormous, although indirect, impact on popular conceptions of our primate ancestry, and thus on social definitions of human qualities. Assumptions extrapolated from primatological research have, for example, helped to define relationships between nature and culture, creating representations of our simian forebears that oscillate between anthropomorphism—as in the recent Diet Pepsi commercial in which chimps use a dispensing machine—and images of an extreme Otherness to be dominated, as well as what is considered normal and aberrant behavior with regard to men and women. (Of course, what is considered normal also serves to define research goals and processes.)

Primatology has been referred to as the urge to understand origins. That might explain why the Ape House always seems to have the biggest crowd, gazing for the longest time. One origin story that has held a central position within primate studies is the “Man the Hunter” theory. Reproduced in professional literature and school textbooks, it goes something like this: human males have inherited from their primate ancestors a greater competitive capacity, purportedly observable in the behavior of male nonhuman primates in mating situations in which the male must fight other males to gain access to a female. Dominance over females, and competitive as well as cooperative behavior, are also broadly thought, within the field of primatology, to be the evolutionary legacy of the early human male-as—hunter role in hunting/gathering cultures. Females, on the other hand, are assumed to have inherited traits favoring fecundity, nurturing, passive behavior, and accomplishment on an individuated, rather than group, basis. According to an extension of this story, the basic elements of social life “are evolutionary products of the success of the hunting adaptation.” In other words, if one follows this theory to its absurd conclusion, one could argue that woman never evolved.

By the mid ’70s, the hunting theory had been credibly challenged by feminist anthropologists who asked different questions of the “facts.” In a 1981 book, The Woman That Never Evolved, feminist sociobiologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy questioned the institutionalized view that female sexual anatomy and female competitive nature were simply by-products of male evolution. Hrdy made it her task to find out “why some current notions of what it means to be female depict natures that never did, and never could have evolved within the primate lineage.”

While Hrdy asks many important questions, I would like to focus on the one that concerns the female nonhuman primate orgasm, a phenomenon that until recently was “invisible” to primate researchers. It was only with the influx of women into the field that its occurrence was even registered in the field and the clinic. Up to that point, one widely cited argument rationalized the “absence” of female orgasm in the natural kingdom, and yet its undeniable existence (post Masters and Johnson!) in human females, by holding that female orgasm and female desire in general represent vestigial traces of primal male sexual drive and orgasm, considered critical to the evolutionary continuance of the species; that is, nature makes the two sexes as variations on the same basic—male—model. Therefore, female orgasm may be positive because orgasm is adaptive for males. With a changed perspective, Hrdy raised a new question: how can nonhuman-female-primate orgasm be understood as adaptive? Her argument is that it evolved in order to increase the reproductive success of primate mothers in the wild through the enhanced survival of their offspring. The more males a female mated with, recent field research recorded, the more “probable” fathers protected babies from infanticide carried out by other males in the process of hostile invasions from other troops or rank-reversal attempts within their own. As Hrdy notes, such infanticide had been another “unseen” phenomenon.

Given the legacies that have previously served to formulate the history of female sexuality, the implications of this finding are powerful (and strikingly in line with Freud’s contention that the drive is bisexual). The very historical “blindness” to infanticide on the part of earlier researchers contributed to the denial of female evolution. And Hrdy argues, "The history of our knowledge about primate infanticide is in many ways a parable for the biases and fallibility that plague observational sciences: we discount the unimaginable and fail to see what we do not expect.” If the acquisition of knowledge in zoos and museums is largely assured through the act of looking, then we might well ask what sorts of knowledge are produced by what we do not see, or for that matter, do not think to look for. Are we failing to see what we do not expect?

The trajectory that brought the Hrdy text within my reach started with another by Donna Harraway, a feminist theorist of modern sciences and technology who has delved into the field of primatology as an outsider, from a cross-cultural perspective. In her 1984 article “Primatology Is Politics by Other Means,” Harraway applauds the women who have entered “disrupting stories” into the arena of primatology, but warns against their dependence on a philosophy of science that does not permit questioning of epistemological conventions. For Harraway, this philosophy espouses dichotomizing logics—man/woman, nature/culture, objectivity/empathy—that “construct each other . . . in a logic of appropriation and progress.” Like Hrdy, Harraway sees aspects of the “disrupting stories” as potentially revisionist, substituting bias for bias to arrive at a “truer” picture, what Hrdy calls the same wine in a different bottle. In place of such an approach, Harraway calls for an “embodied objectivity,” a science of “passion and position . . . derived from webs of connection” that would yield partial, aggregate accounts of the world. By negotiating spaces between accounts, a reader would not have to settle for either positivist or relativist accounts.

How would the representational aspects of a zoo or museum be altered if they were to be formulated from a position of “embodied objectivity,” partial knowledges, and cross-cultural address? That remains to be “seen,” but the next time you stand in front of the apes at the zoo, imagine a label that includes not only the country of origin and the Latin name, but also a text on debates about female sexuality, psychoanalytic theories of desire, and the representation of the natural.

Silvia Kolbowski is an artist who writes irregularly on art and related matters.