Monday, February 05, 2007

Capitalist Dogs

The New York times did a piece on "Designer Dogs,"the labradoodles, puggles, and other crossbreeds that are popping up everywhere, in the Sunday Magazine. What struck me about this piece is the way it grafts onto a history of the species that Donna Haraway alludes to in The Companion Species Manifesto. We can only speculate about the origin of the dog, and as Haraway argues such speculations (man creating dog, dogs choosing man, symbiotic relations) determine, or are determined by, how we think about culture and nature. They are modern stories of the garden before the fall, Master and Slave dialectics, or at least of Davy and Goliath. The recent history of the breed is caught somewhere between an idyll of peasant existence and Victorian economy of distinction and prestige. To quote Haraway: "Complete with the romantic idealization of peasant-shepherds and their animals characteristic of capitalist modernization and class formations that make such life ways nearly impossible discourses of pure blood and nobility haunt modern breeds like the undead."

Dogs are the last remaining aristocrats, still caught up in a "symbolics of blood," the purity of the blood line. Anyone who has seen AKC papers for a pure bred dog can't help but think this, the lineages include names like "Lady Gertrude," and I do not think that they are being ironic. In the dog's transition from feudalism to capitalism both the peasant definition of breed according to work and the aristocratic economy of distinctions gave way to the Oedipalized demand for "the family dog." To quote the times: "The new middle class spoke explicitly of “civilizing” the dog so it might better reflect its master. Cities were tidying themselves up, pushing unsavory things like abattoirs and coal-burning plants farther out of sight. Why not reform the dog as well?" Dogs became "privatized," removed from the world of work and the economies of surplus and expenditure, they were called upon to complete the home, to provide love and company.

It is at this point in the story that the "designer dog" comes in. The article in the times details some of the sociological reasons for the "designer dog," babyboomers retiring to smaller condos, urban living, and restrictions placed on condos. "It also suggests a kind of new status symbol, one not burdened by a bloodline, but one based on the "must-have" lifestyle accessories seen on television. The "designer dog" is as much a part of our current mode of production as custom ring tones and other signifiers of a unique lifestyle. To quote Haraway one last time, "Co-constitutive companion species and co-evolution are the rule, not the exception."

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