The Self-made man and the Predator

The Self-made man and the Predator

“Identity only exists divulged in a public space where an other is watching. It is, for us, first read through appearance and action.” – Alain Erhenberg

 

A bit of context

This is about animality, especially feline animality or felinity, as well as ethics. Mostly it is about how they intersect, and pondering over integrity and social issues as an animal-person and my own self-realizations. The following is a collection of thoughts that were gestating since 2005 but that I finally developped during the year of 2010.

There is no definite conclusions that I draw, more like a pattern I sense through the prism of my personal experience as a trans and animal-person. Of course there is a part of criticism in this writing, especially self-criticism, but this essay is more like a tool for self-awareness, to reflect on what makes us who and what we are. How I processed these realizations was non-linear and made possible because of the specific experiences and teaching I went through, so I’ll try to give you a bit of context.

The shift from musings about being a raven and clouded leopard to ethics wasn’t a sudden one. It went from descriptions of personal animality and how Jaguar fits into this as a totem, to thoughts over being a predator and scavenger in a human world, which is less species-specific. The subject was brought up in various animal circles in the past and it made sense with who I was, though nowadays they’re not categories I find very relevant anymore, at least for myself. Thinking about how animality impacts my relations with other people led me to ponder over my goals and my ethics, as well as my place in the universe. As a general answer, the details of my worldview usually make sense simultaneously with several aspects of who I am of which animality only is a part, but I lost interest in disecting everything in details.

But there is more to all of this, strips of thoughts I could only piece together years later because of the exercise of reflexivity I’ve had to make in my current field and which helped me distancing myself a bit from what I was doing and talking about, here, and what we were discussing and doing as animal-folks, as trans people, and such as.

 

The basics

I do not believe we are pure entities living separately on our own planets with no influence nor feedback. At the same time, I do not believe this makes our individual experiences less valid, as if somehow “being oneself” should only be about building who you are from scratch (as if it was possible). I do not believe our fate is set in stone, that we can’t escape certain things – destiny or determinisms – and at the same time we do come from some place and our past experiences shape who we are today. I think that to most of us who differ from “the norm” in some way, like-minded people play a key role. It doesn’t matter if we interact with them, if we’re withdrawn from it all or if we’re very community-oriented, the fact we know they exist, that we’re not alone, and what they do, it changes us in a way or another. To me, finding other animal-people to relate to and, specifically, cat-people like myself, was almost perfectly symetrical with getting to know other trans people and starting my physical transition. There was the discovery of like-minded companions on the same sort of journey I was on, as much as understanding it’s not because we share this trait or supposed identity in common that we all get along. Roads split, sometimes forever, sometimes only to reunite later on.

Both the animal and trans communities share a lot in common (I mean “community” as a large network of various people, and nothing more; there is no organized, united community with a single set of tenets). There is an important “creed” present in both communities: the concept of empowerement. Back then when I was a part of this, it found an echoe in me because I was already walking my path with similar values. I think empowerement and self-guidance were especially exalted both among cat-people and among the FtM individuals I socialized with at the time, many of whom didn’t recognize themselves in the larger community they supposedly were a part of. It is through the more radical trans circles I was in that I became familiar with reclaiming, DIY (“do it yourself”), and in which ways I was privileged and disprivileged. Studying sociology then made it more solid, precise, and gave me other tools to sharpen my critical mind (including towards the discipline itself and other institutions).

Among both trans people and animal-people, the individual identity has always been at the center of attention. Everybody is encouraged to develop their own subjectivity and rejoicing in what makes them both unique (ie. different from other people), and similar in a community of “shared experiences” (trans people, animal-people). Many times someone or another would stress that nobody can tell us what we are, and that we can make our own rules for ourselves. We’ve been our own guides and nobody could decide of our fates. We’ve strayed away from the mass of “mundane people”. We’ve become gender outlaws, pirates, warriors and explorers, we’ve called ourselves transpecies, humanimals and modern-day were-creatures. We’ve been on journeys or conquests to our true selves to unfold the treasures we had inside. We’ve wanted to walk our own roads and make our dreams come true, no matter where we came from; we’ve made a rule of seizing opportunities and reaching for the stars.

We’ve wanted these actions and risk-taking – the risk of being ourselves, instead of being what others wanted us to be – to live our life to its fullest and get closer to something authentic, some kind of truth in existence: we’ve wanted to be free, free from any community and from society at large, free from their many constraints upon who we were. We’ve wanted to write our own destiny.

This reflects a lot of values seen among the animal-people who identify as solitary predators; this will, this attitude, the aura of boldness emanating from it (real or perceived), they are the main aspects of the predator’s mind, and though it can be declined differently depending on the individual, the core of it is rarely disputed. What can be discussed is “why we’re big, scary animals”, however we rarely question “what makes a predator” because there is some kind of unspoken definition – a common “representation” of what it is, a bit in the way of an archetype. The predatory mindset also works with the implicit exclusion of the prey mindset and people we relate to it – the mass, the followers, who could be anyone non-predator. Liesk is one of the rare counter-examples when, in one of his writings about being deer in the light of the prey/predator dichotomy, he said “all species are designed to survive; [...] deer works to fix his vulnerability”. Prey animals aren’t “mindless drones”, deer’s behaviors “arise because deer has what it takes to live”. Moving on to my next point, I think it’s a common idea that as feline and such animal-people we share those predatory traits because of – possibly among more reasons – our nature as predators, something seen as internal force. In other words, this aggressive take on life is ours because it reflects who we are inside: our essence as cat-people, the particular expression of our animal-identity.

I include myself in all of this because, well, I’ve been a part of it. I’ve written a lot about what being a cat (as a general feline) is to me, and it involves a great deal of straight-forwardness, self-confidence and drive in life. Being a cat to me is about standing up for oneself, because I see felinity in the light of my specific experience of being a clouded leopard – a solitary feline and not a pack animal such as lion or wolf. Additionally, Strength – as a requirement to be who you are – plays and important role in my life and ethics, and it’s a trait that I also link to Jaguar as a totem or archetype. Even though I do not think less of prey animals, maybe my mental imagery was close to the next person’s regarding prey animals, which is about linking them with food consumption and cattle, and cattle with the anonymous mass of people – society in general – we predators, with an aggressive outlook on life, somehow distinguished ourselves from: people who we understood as passive, easily influenced by external input, and not taking responsability and actions to hold the reins of their own life.

What am I trying to say about animal-people and this “predator identity”? All of this, all of what I described, actually is the common imagery shared with the mundane Western society we live in regarding how individuals should lead their life; it doesn’t come from our “animal nature”, even though this is a tempting explanation for many. Though before telling you more about that I need to say that my initial train of thought was solely about how to balance my felinity or “me-thing” along with my ethics.

 

Introspection as a start

I more or less subscribed to the idea that my outspokenness was very much a part of my identity as a feline. No matter if I’m actually blunt or if I’m simply read as blunt by some people, I related it mostly to being a cat and predator. It’s not that it’s not the case anymore but, as always, “it’s complicated”. As I wrote earlier those aspects of who I am and how I interact with other people make sense simultaneously through several filters, and animality is one of them. So the gist of it is, my increasing awareness of privileges, disprivileges and oppression have led me to ponder on my ethics: how to balance integrity, straight-forwardness and, overall, being who I am [especially as a cat-person], along with empathy and a safe environment where other people won’t feel oppressed (for a wide definition of oppression and violence)?

The basic train of thought here is that I follow my version of the Golden Rule; among other things, as I don’t want to be the subject of violence and oppression, I feel that it’s only fair I start with myself and work toward being a better human being. I guess it’s similar to “be the change you want to see in the world”.

So this was my dilemna, as someone with a strong character: how to stay true to myself while not hurting others? This is something I’ve discussed in private circles recently; how I don’t want to invalidate other people’s experiences, because they’re personal and at most I can only read them as similar or unfamiliar, but how in spite of this some people may feel threatened anyway, as an example by random statements I make about my worldview even though they apply solely to myself; or worse, how they may feel unsafe not because of something I’m saying or doing, but because of something they’re expecting from me and that I’m not giving (such as validation). I do not want to always add a disclaimer to everything I say (“this isn’t about you”), though on various occasions I end up doing just that.

I believe strongly that while I must take responsability for my stuff, people also need to take responsability for their, and that includes keeping our expectations and insecurities in check.

It’s not useless that I work towards diplomacy and compromises, and communicating in a way that isn’t hurtful to the people around me, and I’ll keep doing it; but sometimes things do not depend on me, and I have no control over other people’s insecurities. In the end, I’m bound to push some people away, because of the things I can’t compromise about because of my ethics and integrity, and because at times it’s not possible to be both honest and not trigger people’s sensitive spots. I do my best but when I have to choose between being oneself and avoidance/lies, I’m compelled to go for honesty. I find that avoidance is more a convenient excuse than a respectful silence because the latter doesn’t fix issues, which is what a polite, gentle confrontation would.

I thought this issue was only a personality thing, and maybe a dilemna between Jaguar and clouded leopard in my path. While both are felines, Jaguar energy is well-known for having a distinctive aggressiveness and cutting others appart, whereas clouded leopards are more secretive and quiet. Clouded leopard is and isn’t a big cat, and appears as non-threatening in comparison; in some places, there are bigger predators above him such as leopards and tigers, so existing does not equate being the apex predator. Being authentic does not mean performing more or better or being an over-achiever, and to make your own way it is not mendatory to push other individuals away. Clouded leopard is a predator, still, but it is more about this Gentle Strength that I aim for and that I favor as a driving force instead of an aggressiveness that would crush others, often unvoluntarily, and could sometimes hurt myself as well. I can express violence and cause harm, but does that mean I should do it when I feel it?

This is how I’ve tried to balance both of those aspects in my life: the Strength, the integrity and sovereignty, on one side; and the rudeness, the aggressiveness, the destructive rage, on the other. They are an integral part of myself, this isn’t about something more “me” and something that isn’t. However it is my task to find a happy medium, in encouraging one and controlling the other, or transforming the latter into the former.

 

Thinking beyond the personal

It’s at this point, as part of my academic work and research, that I came across two books by the French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg: The Cult of Achievement and The Uneasy Society (from 1991 and 2010 respectively). At first glance you wouldn’t think of animality when reading his works, but quickly enough the links between the predatory mind, cat-people, trans-people, the exaltation of self-confidence and self-guidance, and his own points became ridiculously obvious. What I and other animal-people had always thought as an individual traits (caused or enhenced by our animality) actually reflected the modern social expectation individuals were pressured into fulfilling.

In those books the author explains how autonomy and individual achievement have become the values by which everyone has to live nowadays; in the Western world, professional sportsmen and businessmen are the new heroes, models who go by an entrepreneurial way of life and whose success can only be attributed to their own efforts. You read or hear about their “success stories” everywhere in the news and Internet. In this context, competition only seems fair, and individualism is closely related to equality. This mindset has spread to all levels of society and is the apology of neo-individualism: as much in their public life as in the most private spheres, people must strive to be flexible, self-sufficient, find their own place in existence by themselves as well as make Someone out of themselves individually and socially through their own actions: “To success is to appear as an initiator, which means making the self and possessing a past produced only by themselve, which hasn’t been passed down as an inheritance or through filiation; in other words, there is a close connection between success and forgetting one’s origins.” This is the American Dream and Self-Made Man.

This argumentation is dealt in details through The Cult of Achievement, while The Uneasy Society develops this train of thought further in a comparison between the American and the French concepts of autonomy, individualism and egality to re-contextualize depression and the modern-day anxieties through their analysis by the psychiatric field. Basically, the main point of the author is that self-loathing and depression as they appear today are connected to the social expectations of Being Someone and making one’s own success come true. When this pressure becomes too hard, when people feel they can’t achieve those goals (or can’t afford it), then comes the self-loathing and depression.

I cannot show you how that relates to ethics and animality without explaining it a bit better. I’d translate the whole book if this essay wasn’t getting so long already so I’ll keep the most meaningful parts:

“The first [major difference between the USA and France] is the importance and value both individualisms give to autonomy: the concept of independance divides French people and unites Americans. [...] The second difference is that the personality or Self occupies in the US the same position Institution has in France. Over there, the concept of self is an institution whereas in France it appears as a desinstitutionnalisation. [...] Americans constantly refer to the concept of opportunity, which doesn’t exist in our tradition. When we hear this term, we relate to it negatively as we consider Americans are utilitarians and materialists. We also associate it with another concept we connote negatively, as it is identified with a weak State and poor protection of public interest: liberalism. Liberalism and utilitarism associate themselves for us again to materialism and conformity, so many concepts the French see negatively.”

For Americans, personal success is closely related to community building. Personal assertion and self-reliance, which means both independance and self-confidence, is the key to the american alliance between the public and private spheres, and they relate to the concept of self-governance both for the individual and for the State. Equality is closely connected to achievement in the concept of equality of opportunity: “this is about giving to the most vulnerable the abilities to seize opportunities in order to enter the competition and accomplish themselves through success. Opportunity and competition go along achievement and equality, outlining the specific face of american individualism.” Later on: “In France, we put the emphasis on equality instead of autonomy, but the meanings given to those concepts isn’t the same as those given by Americans: equality relates more to protection than opportunity, and autonomy is valued as independance and not competition.”

Of course with the diffusion of liberalism worldwide, the different definitions tend to permeate more and the dichotomy isn’t so set in stone; it gives interesting challenges for the French as a nation which Americans do not have to deal with, and this is the source of many misunderstanding in the way we deal with present social issues in our respective lands, but this isn’t the point of my writing.

My essay is not about comparing France and the USA, but the different definitions of autonomy and equality serve as a background to explain what this predatory mind’s about and my relationship to it, so to speak.

 

Ethics and the predatory mindset

As I pointed out earlier, this [usually feline] “predatory mindset” that I described a couple of paragraphs ago is, word for word, the definition of individualism – the american way. Values such as self-guidance, self-confidence and empowerement, were exalted not only among animal-people and trans people, they reflected modern values in society at large. The conquest of autonomy, the emphasis put on taking responsability for oneself and one’s subjectivity, all of those values aren’t specifically predatory, or at least they’re not especially animal. The predatory mindset exalted in animal-people is not a path straying away from the mass [the cattle, the prey people]. The predatory mindset is the path of the mass, the values shared by Western societies at large, that we usually call (neo-)individualism and that everybody must suscribe to.

Unsurprisingly, the aspect of living one’s life as a predator that I’ve wanted to distance myself the most from, such as aggressiveness and competition, and that somehow conflicted with my ethics, are related to the aspects of individualism connoted negatively in the French culture. When I worry about the conflicts between asserting oneself and oppressing others, it is not dissimilar with the French tension between liberal entrepreneurship (the American individualism) and the protection of common interest (equality the French way). Whether or not individualism is hurtful for our society is a debate that I may have taken to an individual level when I’ve been pondering over how to stay true to myself and walk my own path without hurting other individuals. This has made more and more sense as I was surrounded by individuals who discussed privileges and our ethics as activists or researchers.

Of course the correlation between “the self-made man” and “the predator” is not to say this mindset can’t be an authentic expression of animal identity, and that being fexible and self-confident and all those positive traits never have anything to do with being a cat for cat-people. As I put previously, I do believe it’s related to felinity in my own worldview, though it’s not solely related to this. I guess this is where I’m getting at, again; that I find some parts of myself make sense simultaneously under different lights, and that additionally there isn’t necessarily a clear difference between supposedly individual traits and the values that are shared by the social context we live in. Perhaps being feline is one of the things that made me more responsive to calls to individualism, or at least there is a connection somehow.

I know it’s more flattering to envision ourselves as detached from the mass and always in control of our own life, settings our own goals, and pretending our identities emerge from nothing but our own decisions, instead of acknowledging where we come from and that we may also fit in a broader social context. It’s usually more empowering to say “I’m doing my own thing” rather than “I’m doing what everybody else is trying to do”, but here the thing is that everybody is trying to “do their own thing” and claiming it only as theirs, and they fail to see the pattern. Relating to this, I find interesting and fairly ironical that some of the animal-folk who claim they feel so detached from humanity could actually show the most mundane attitudes in that.

 

What I learned from this

Now, I don’t believe we should all take the opposite direction, as if doing what others do is something that always must be avoided (the “ultimate rebel” attitude). I think empowerement, responsability and self-guidance are positive ideas and tools, and I too want to achieve my goals in life and be myself, free from peer pressure – as an animal-person, as a trans-person, and so on. However in all situations I want to remind myself “what are the costs”, not only for myself but also for others around me. If I see myself as a winner in life, a predator, taking everything I can get with no afterthought, who are the losers? I agree with other critics of individualism that there is a risk, with this logic, that any failure we witness is going to be blamed on the individual, like this must be a personality thing and not brought by a social context and other factors. If people seemingly fail to seize the opportunities around them, it’s supposedly always their own fault. I personally think it’s much more complicated than that and I don’t believe we’re all equal regarding opportunities (we do have privileges and disprivileges).

Additionally, of course, an individual cannot simply be defined through the prey/predator lense, and a feline is more than just a predator, and being predatory itself may be more complex than we think. This essay’s definition works on a symbolical level, such as aggressivity not solely or not necessarily being about asserting oneself socially but also persuing one’s goals, a kind of drive in life; but regarding animals in the wild there’s a lot left out. As an example, predators aren’t immune to fear and “flight” reponses. I’m only talking about mental or social representations and what people ascribe to, and there are many variations of this among animal-folk with probably a bunch of people who fall outside of it as well.

The point actually is that “everybody is different” and “we’re walking our own roads” is a general pattern of the modern Western society that has spread over the last decades and that everyone is following. It is sometimes extremely difficult to get acknowledgement that we may also be doing what’s expected of us and – how convenient – our personal ethics and worldview actually are well-suited for the society at large we live in, and/or our group of peers, and it is difficult for people to recognize this precisely because it goes against this belief that we do our own thing. This is individualism after all, putting the emphasis on subjectivity and refusing to acknowledge our original make-up – social/cultural, biological, and others.

As for myself, questioning the self-made man or predatory paradigm only is one more step towards better ethics.

I do not want to be an over-achiever; I don’t want to blindly buy into ambition and the quest for perfection (especially not at the expense of less privileged people). I want to be myself and do what I want in life, but I don’t want to do it carelessly and get caught in a pattern of produductivity with winners and losers that ends up othering different people. I want to keep on working on my personal projects, take actions, be determined and proud of what I’m doing, but I also want to value humility and be non-intrusive and just… clouded-leopardy, I guess. Quiet, respectful, observant, speaking up when I feel the need. Believing in the necessity for both empathy and boundaries. Gentle Strength. Standing for myself firmly but also not cutting others appart; and not fogetting that sometimes things fall outside my responsability.