How Like a LeafHow Like a Leaf. Donna J. Haraway: An Interview with Thyrza Nichols Goodeve

by Donna J. Haraway and Thyrza Nichols Goodeve
Routledge 2000
ISBN:  0415924030    $17.95 (paper) 192 pages

Review by Tony Scott
The University of Louisville
Any readers who are wary of star making processes in academia will probably find that How Like a Leaf, Thyrza Nichols Goodeve’s interview with Donna Haraway, starts on shaky footing.  Goodeve is a former graduate student of Haraway, and the descriptions of Haraway, her house, her partner, and her dog are conspicuously adulatory, setting a fawning tone that many readers will find alienating.  Unfortunately, the book never completely drops this tone, and it is at times obtrusive.  However, while it will initially seem superfluous to many readers, Goodeve’s attempt to clarify the nature of her relationship with Haraway is part of a more general strategy that works well as an introduction to Haraway’s thought.  When analyzing the stories of science, Haraway has emphasized the importance of accounting for a wide array of contextual factors—such as workaday research processes, personal relationships and socio-historical attitudes toward gender and race.  She has usually presented these factors to her audience in a way that invites them to make their own connections between multiple layers of information.  As this interview progresses through some of Haraway’s most important concepts, it covers a similarly broad range of factors—such as Haraway’s personal and professional history, her relationships with Goodeve and other students, and the material and temporal context of the interview.  The result is an intellectually evocative piece that invites its readers to make connections between Haraway’s life and thought, often generating an intellectual energy very much like the energy that I have found in much of Haraway’s work.

Some of the connections readers discover in this interview might surprise them.  For example, it is easy to think of Haraway mainly in terms of the feminist, socialist, postmodern orientation generally displayed in her work.  However, in addition to being an unconventional and in some ways even revolutionary theorist, Haraway is also very much a woman of her time and place.  She refers to herself as a “child of the Enlightenment,” and speaks at length about how her middle-class, middle-American childhood has been an important foundation for her thought.  Haraway’s father was a sportswriter in Denver and she reminisces about scoring baseball games for him when she was young (perhaps creating an early interest in observation and processes of inscription?).  Throughout the interview, Haraway makes a number of connections between her work and her childhood devotion to Catholicism.  In fact, Haraway's Catholic background is one of the central topics of the dialogue, and it becomes especially important when she discusses her unique approach to the relationship between language and culture. Like the description of her childhood religious beliefs, Haraway’s revelations concerning her own relationships also eventually provide useful insight into her thought.  In many ways she has lived out the fluid, historically and socially contingent relationality she often describes in her work.

The interview achieves special depth and energy when it focuses on the study of genetics and the genome project.  In the section “A Gene Is Not a Thing,” Haraway describes how “the gene” has become a kind of cultural and scientific fetish.  Popular media often locates the essence of human life, its origins and possibilities, in the gene, which it tends to describe as static and extremely deterministic.  Haraway notes that the gene has thus gradually slipped from being a code used to describe a particular aspect of human life to being at the center of life itself.  Through this process, a scientific signifier comes to stand for a new kind of truth or reality; as Haraway describes it, “the layers of abstraction and processing that have gone into producing notions of code and program are . . . simplified and mistaken for the real” (How 93).  Haraway suggests that these popular misconceptions of the nature and possibilities of gene research probably help to contribute to its funding, so there may not be much incentive for biologists to dispel popular myths. Generally, the discussion of genetic research and the gene as a cultural fetish helps to illuminate some of Haraway’s most prevalent concerns, such as the relationship between capital and technoscience and the centrality of certain metaphors in our evolving constructions of nature.

The interview does have some shortcomings beyond its occasionally adulatory tone.  Other than one brief mention of the internet, there is no discussion of the rapidly evolving technologies that have impacted Western culture over the past decade.  The internet and cell phone technologies continue to blur the material, cognitive and temporal boundaries between marketplace, workplace, home and family.  Haraway has described technologies as potential tools of both liberation and dominance, and it would be interesting to hear her address some of the specific technologies that have recently become ubiquitous in our culture.

Also, I was a little distracted by the way the text packages the interview.  In addition to the introductory and concluding material, the interview is divided into five chapters that are roughly chronological, starting with a discussion of Haraway's childhood and ending with a discussion of some of Haraway's recent work.  However, because the conversation is very associative and broad ranging, it strains against the chapter breaks.  Moreover, the five chapters are divided into twenty-five smaller sections, each with a heading like “While Staying Connected” or “Worldly Practice.”   Unfortunately, these headings only make sense when contextualized within the conversations that follow them.  Therefore, the section breaks tend to further intrude upon the flow of the dialogue while doing very little to help readers navigate the work.

In spite of its shortcomings, most people who seek a greater understanding of Haraway’s work will find the interview well worth their time.  Goodeve is obviously very familiar with Haraway’s work, and she asks provocative questions and interjects clarifying and intelligent insights throughout the interview.  The book jacket claims that Haraway “speaks for the first time in a direct and non-academic voice.”  This is probably an overstatement; the language and references of the conversation are usuallyacademic.  Nonacademics don't casually cite Roland Barthes and Heidegger.  However, this interview will serve as a very useful introduction to Haraway’s challenging body of work for people who do have some background in theory.  Its most impressive attribute is that it manages to perform the integration between the personal, the political, the historical and the theoretical in a manner that is well suited to Haraway’s thought.

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