Fictional Constructions of “the Field” in Mary Sanders Pollock’s Storytelling Apes: Primatology Narratives Past and Future (2015)

17 June 2019
By Joe Mansfield

Published in 2015, Mary Sanders Pollock’s Storytelling Apes (2015) offers a comprehensive overview of modern primatology and the narrative strategies it created to best portray instances of non-human animal life. The book consists of a critical analysis of a selection of literary materials produced by a number of renowned primatologists including Jane Goodall, Sarah Hardy, and Diane Fossey, as well as the foundational literary traditions established by Charles Darwin. Drawing heavily from the conceptual approaches of figures like Donna Haraway, Pollock similarly offers science and scientific narratives to be social constructions forever inclined to satisfy dominant social mythos concerning issues of identity, race and gender inherent in western culture. What follows is a thorough examination of the literary characteristics specific to the primatological field narratives; an exploration into ‘the storyworld that comes into being when a primatologist writes a field narrative – a literary zone somewhere between scientific argument and prose fiction’. Key themes include narrative conceptualisations of ‘the field’, the conflicting objective and subjective approaches of empirical research, and the role of environmental influences on resultant narratives.

Pollock opens with a brief history of early-twentieth century primatology and the epistemological conditions of its initial formation; chiefly the complete authority of the laboratory space as the iconic mode of knowledge production across all the empirical sciences at the time. Pollock looks to avoid being drawn into a comparison of the specific empirical advantages and disadvantages of laboratory versus field-based researches, as such debates fall beyond the intended remit of the book. Instead, she focuses on the pioneering primatologists and their establishment of research traditions that looked to document nature in natural conditions whilst nondetrimental to scientific credibility. The richness of non-human animal life presented a problem that necessitated a mode of recording that could still be considered scientifically accurate and productively viable. Additionally, the logistical realties of field research meant locations were often isolated and difficult to reach both physically and politically, placing consistently arduous weight on the scientists working there both emotionally and corporeally. Finally, the approaches of field research more broadly meant that investigative aims were far more expansive and thus more inclusive than the hypothesis-driven specificity of laboratory experiments. Pollock suggests that these intrinsic set of epistemological problems necessitated a new scientific vernacular; a linguistical form able to capture the complexities of non-human animal behaviours and resulted in the creation of the field narrative.

Pollock offers that the incapability of technical scientific terminology to capture the complexities of natural life facilitated this fusion of translational modes; catalysed by Goodall’s entry into primatology and supported by critical analysis of a cross-section of her work. Pollock asserts that the undecided empirical traditions of a fledgling mid-twentieth century primatology provided a level of flexibility and accommodated this new mode of observational investigation. She upholds that field narratives look to maintain accuracy in their ability to depict the true environment in which observations are made, but the complexities of the natural world compel researchers to settle on something closer to prose fiction. This leads Pollock to her most intriguing concept in Storytelling Apes, narrative conceptualisations of ‘the field’. Within these field narratives, Pollock considers the field to be both a real place and ‘an expression of the human imagination […] bounded artificially from the outside’. Participants within these narrative constructions are delineated by human determinations of importance and projected agency; forever ‘mapped from a human perspective’.

Pollock’s overall aim throughout is to consider the influences of the field environment, the proximities of human and non-human animal bodies, and how they shape translational observations made by field scientists. As such, the book works to illuminate literary examples of the emergent personalities of the individual non-human animals being studied, as well as the narrative relationships that emerge between the scientist and the ‘informant’ upon entry into the non-human animal world. In conclusion, Pollock determines that whilst narrative constructions could potentially threaten to dilute genuine moments of behavioural insight in an empirical sense, it meanwhile permits researchers a level of investigative freedom to anticipate a variety of non-human animal behaviours in such a way that in fact considers them to be more meaningful.