New Feature: AmericanScience Re-reads the Classics; or, Teddy Bear Patriarchy in 2016

The AmericanScience team is back from winter break! To start out the New Year, we’re putting down our ice skates and hot ciders (okay, our piles of grading and overdue chapters) and introducing a new feature to the blog. Besides our regular posts and reviews—and science links, which we’re Tweeting daily—we’ve decided to re-read The Classics in the discipline. Returning to some classic HOS texts and discussing them as a team, we hope, will be a way to both rethink old ideas and, on a more practical note, to read some texts that we haven’t looked at since generals.

To start out the series, we’re beginning with one of the most famous, and most famously impenetrable, essays in the field: Donna Haraway’s “Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1938.” First published in Social Text in the winter of 1984-85, the piece became a key chapter in Haraway’s later 1989 masterpiece, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. “Teddy Bear Patriarchy,” and Haraway’s work in general, has become some of the most influential writing in the history of science, in postmodern readings of biology, and in critical gender and race theory. Over the course of a few weeks this fall, the AmericanScience team took some time with the essay, and came together to discuss our experiences with it, where it fits into current scholarship, and whether it really is impenetrable. We invite you to join the conversation in the comments section or on Twitter. On a purely aesthetic note, we’d like to point you to our current header—a timely, we think, image of none other than Carl Akeley working on his taxidermy at the AMNH in the 1930s.


What follows is a condensed version of the conversation:

Leah: I first read “TB Patriarchy” during my first semester of graduate school. The essay was my first encounter with the history of natural history/material culture and the idea that the objects of a museum could be “read”—that is, that natural history museum artifacts don’t merely “float” in existence, but instead encompass what Haraway calls a “profusion of objects and social interactions” behind their being. What about you all?

Evan: I “read” this article (or, rather, the corresponding Primate Visions chapter) for generals, but I can’t say I retained much more than what you can glean from the title: The American Museum of Natural History, Teddy R., patriarchal social order reflected in natural historical dioramas.

Elaine: I encountered Primate Visions, and “Teddy Bear Patriarchy” in particular, maybe earlier in my career than most people—for better or worse. In undergrad I worked in special collections at the (now defunct) Lawrence Jacobsen Primate Library, part of the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, the home of a number of famous primatologists like Harry Harlow—so most of my colleagues threw out references to the book on a regular basis. I ended up using it extensively in my undergrad work; partly for class papers, which I mostly focused on histories of primatology (for practical reasons more than anything else), and partly for a collection of oral history interviews that I conducted for the UW Archives Oral History Project. This is all to say that more than a few people told me I needed to read Primate Visions before I actually did, and it took a few re-reads to really be able to use it critically and usefully. It has, though, been one of the foundational texts in developing my HOS interests, especially when it comes to exploring museums and nature.

Jenna: This is actually my first time reading this particular piece. I read Haraway at various points in my academic career (A Cyborg Manifesto as an undergraduate, selections of Primate Visions early in grad school), but it was great to go back and grapple with her work now that I feel (slightly) less intimidated by her writing.

David: There are plenty of classic pieces that I didn’t read until much later than I should have, but which, when I did, blew me away. I didn’t feel that way about “TD Patriarchy,” I have spent a few days trying to figure out why. (I don’t think it’s because I read it on a bus from Boston to New York. Not advised.)

 Elaine: I was surprised by how different our interpretations of the “take-away message” of the essay were.

 Leah: The essay has a powerful argument about the way “nature,” as deployed at the AMNH, both reflected and reified class, race, gender, and geopolitical hierarchies of the 1930s. In this sense, “TB Patriarchy” concretizes for me the ways we define “nature” says as much about human history as it does the natural.

Evan: I take this long passage as something like a statement of the conclusions and premises of this piece:

“Obviously, this essay is premised on the inversion of a causal relation of technology to the social relations of domination: the social relations of domination, I am arguing, are frozen into the hardware and logics of technology. Nature is, in ‘fact,’ constructed as a technology through social praxis. And dioramas are meaning-machines. Machines are time slices into the social organisms that made them. Machines are maps of power, arrested moments of social relations that in turn threaten to govern the living. The owners of the great machines of monopoly capital—the so-called means of production—of race, gender, and class. For them, ‘naked eye science’ could give direct vision of social peace and progress despite the appearances of class war and decadence. They required a science ‘instaurating’ jungle peace, with its promise of restored manhood, complete with a transcendent ethic of hunting; and so they brought it” (52).

Elaine: Some of the main takeaways seem, maybe, obvious to us now—that representations of nature are socially, culturally, and politically constructed; that Western interactions with the “other,” whether human or nonhuman, are mediated by gender, race, class, religion, anxieties over technological and urban change, and political leanings (ultimately, Haraway claims, through vision); that dioramas, displays, exhibits, and museums as institutions function as Foucauldian expressions of biopower; that fears of social reproduction express themselves in narrative tropes of hunting, family arrangement, and the like; etc. We’ll return to this later, but I do think that this was a pretty remarkable set of nested claims in the 1980s. There’s a reason that historians of science return to this text over and over, that it’s on basically everyone’s generals lists.


Leah: How do we think that the two sections of the essay connect to each other? Is Haraway demonstrating the way that both human and institutional/material biographies can be untwined to reveal multiple, competing politics? Undoing of “unifying narratives” both in a human and material sense (which has arguably been Haraway’s primary goal over the course of her career)? Does it work stylistically?

Evan: I found the last few sentences illuminating (or, more accurately, I found them helpfully inscrutable):

“But in the 1920s the surrealists knew that behind the day lay the night of sexual terror, disembodiment, failure of order; in short, castration and impotence of the seminal body which had spoken all of the important words for centuries, the great white father, the white hunter in the heart of Africa. And the strongest evidence presented in this essay for the correctness of their judgment has been a literal reading of the realist, organicist artefacts and practices of the American Museum of Natural History. Their practice and mine have been literal, dead literal.”

Their practice and mine”—what does Haraway mean by bringing herself in, with a flourish, at the closing? Presumably Haraway is referring here to her “practice” of multiperspectival biography that makes up the second half of the piece. She’s been engaged in her own taxidermy and diorama-bulding—she’s a committed conservationist-cum-killer, too, and her big game is Akeley.

David: I actually think that there are three sections. As Haraway writes: “This essay has moved from the immediacy of experience, through the mediations of biography and story telling; we now must look at a synthesis of social construction” (53). I found the first really enjoyable, the second potentially brilliant, but the third a letdown.

Jenna: I was intrigued by the conflation of exhibit, conservation, and eugenics as comparable missions of the institution, as well as Haraway’s assertion that all three can be understood as “coordinated medical interventions…prophylaxis for an endangered body politic.” Compared to her painstaking analytical work in the previous two sections, however, I just don’t think that there’s enough evidence to flesh these assertions out.


 Leah: Jenna, you mentioned Cyborg Manifesto earlier, which was published just a year after TB Patriarchy. How can we situate these texts in the context of 1980s American academia? Within the emerging gender studies and science studies programs?

David: The article was published in the winter 1984-85 issue of Social Text, and I recognize that “science is socially constructed” was still a powerfully radical argument to make—this is before anyone had bought a copy of Leviathan and the Air-Pump or read Science in Action. But I was still seriously underwhelmed by the last ten pages or so of the article. Where is the clever storytelling that’s been on display for almost thirty pages?

Among other things, I wonder whether the dioramas of the AMNH are too soft a target. To put it another way—and I realize I’m asking this from the perspective of a historian of science in 2015 (now 2016)—what else could a diorama be but socially constructed? It is constructed in the most literal sense. Moreover, the reason Akeley and his fellow safari tycoons liked (shooting) apes and elephants is precisely that they seemed so close to us. But like the dioramas, this makes me curious to know whether we think Haraway’s method is extendible after all. Is it possible to perform a “TB Patriarchy” kind of analysis on natural entities that are further from us—say, protons? Or even plants? Or, in asking this question, am I just implicitly channeling another patriarchal division—between “real” science in a Laboratory with Instruments and Math” and lesser “field” science that’s imprecise and messy? At the same time, I also see that it’s that closeness to humans that lets nature (as Leah put it) be a “powerful political tool” in this case. That’s something which is much harder to do with a proton.

Jenna: What I find really intellectually exciting is the middle section of the essay, in which Haraway plays with the idea of biography as a narrative form. At a moment when biography is widely dismissed as old-fashioned or even whiggish, I think there is an argument to be extracted here about its methodological potential. It’s hard for me to imagine a similar experiment in form in an HOS journal today, but I think it works for her. Reading and re-reading the same stories from Akeley’s life from multiple perspectives, seeing what details get elided or changed or emphasized, drives home Haraway’s point about the multiplicity of storytelling.

Particularly striking were her observations about the gender politics of authorship—who gets credit, who deserves self-actualization—especially given the fact that all three biographies of Akeley were written by women. I wanted Haraway to unpack the gender implications of this feminine authorship even more, especially the role of Delia. I felt a bit uneasy with the way in which Haraway pitted Delia and Mary Jobe against each other—the bitter divorcee against the loving wife. How can we account for their roles in the organization of the safaris as well as the narratives that commemorate them? Are both women complicit in the Teddy Bear Patriarchy?


Leah: What about assigning “TB Patriarchy” to undergrads? I’ve mentioned before to faculty that I think this would be a fun essay to assign, and I’ve been surprised that they’ve usually responding by thinking it would be too inscrutable. 

Evan: I don’t see why one shouldn’t give this piece to advanced undergrads. I’d probably flag for them that this is a piece that would reward re-reading, and that it’s more an exercise in generating ways of thinking about knowledge, technology, and social order than the kind of best-we-can-do effort at historical reconstruction that we’re used to seeing in secondary scholarship. This is pretty intense stuff, and I could imagine it falling flat (or worse?) among a group that hadn’t established a reasonable level of intellectual and emotional trust.

Elaine: One final thought—I’d like to return to David’s question about whether we might use a similar analysis (especially one that’s both literary and literal) to examine other scientific objects. I think that Haraway’s reading of gorillas and elephants, dioramas and museums is actually a wonderful (albeit confusingly complex) example of biographies of scientific objects. Towards the beginning of her essay, she writes:

“Behind every mounted animal, bronze sculpture, or photograph lies a profusion of objects and social interactions among people and other animals, which can be recomposed to tell a biography embracing major themes for twentieth-century United States” (27).

Although her point, here, is that this is a constructed, particular story that’s being told (erasing, for instance, the African collectors involved in the hunts), this almost reads as a precursor to more recent reconstructions of the rich, complicated stories behind seemingly innocuous things like plants, which we’ve come to recognize are highly gendered, sexualized, and racialized objects. In re-reading this essay, actually, I’ve been realizing how applicable it is to histories of museum exhibits and objects far outside the realm of primatology or taxidermy. Making that point clear to undergrads, I think, might be the way I’d present it—that yes, this is certainly a story about gorillas and elephants, dioramas and the AMNH, Carl Akeley and his wives—but that it’s really a story about how mediated our vision is, even as historians, in our readings of any “natural” objects.

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