For a non-essentialist understanding of animality

For a non-essentialist understanding of animality

When animals do something that we like we call it natural. When they do something that we don’t like, we call it animalistic.
Weinrich, 1982

This has been sitting in my notes for over a year and I still don’t know exactly how to write it down properly. If this article sounds too abstract, well, it’s alright; we all come from different backgrounds with different interests, and I’ve read too much whatever-ology for the past years.

My ponderings here have to do with the questioning of essentialism and universalism by post-modernism applied to animality, and if this was a thesis it would be hundred pages long and provided with sources and a bibliography for further reading – but this is just a little blurb to sum up my thoughts on the subject, as imperfectly explained as it will be. I think about concepts and social representations a lot because that’s one of my task in daily life, my field. It wasn’t the case when I first read about the concept of “therianthropy”, but the more years passed and the more I found principles that went unchallenged by most animal-people and that I disagreed with. One of them is what we put behind “animality” as an identity.

The idea of animal identity as something we’re “born with” goes entierely unchallenged by the vast majority of animal-people. Even when there is an acknowledgement that human beings are a mix of social construction, biology and other often vaguely defined parameters, animality is always understood in an extremely traditional way as an “animal nature”, something that characterizes, well, animals, or the margin of what makes human beings, and never something that is also shaped by our cultural/mental representations. Animal-people tend to think of “animality” as something that makes them more like “other animals” and less like “humans”. I may be faulty of that as well, as found in many of my past writings, but I’ve shifted positions a bit by having a closer look at what we mean with those concepts and why.

It is because I often feel “in-between” that I have more opportunities to challenge such concepts, because I don’t believe in a lot of “either/or” paradigms. It’s not just a matter of theory, of reading and thinking too much; it’s about my concrete experience and what works for me. If it doesn’t work for me or other individuals I might witness, then it’s not a universal rule. Gender-wise, there is the fact I don’t fit into the male-masculine-man VS female-feminine-woman traditional opposition. Regarding what makes up “animality” as well, the classical definition makes no sense to me: there is no distinction or opposition between the human, corvine and feline part of me, and they don’t properly fit into a binary system of animal-instinct-nature VS human-reason-culture. My academic background and personal ponderings led me to question this paradigm, as much as the the animal-inborn VS human-learned opposition found in a lot of animal discourses and taken as facts.

We human people haven’t been able to prove the existence of races, finding more biological differences between members of the same supposed “group” than between people of different origins. We haven’t been able to unveil what makes us men and women, finding that this was not just a matter of hormones, and not just a matter of chromosomes, and not just a matter of socialization, and by having control over those parameters we haven’t been able to predict successfully what would become some people’s gender identity. If these are found to be scientifically untrue, and if I can agree on that matter regarding topics such as gender and race, and the many facts science is uncovering about how other species function and are similar to us, then wouldn’t it be hypocritical of myself if I didn’t re-examine what is, in the end, animality?

Reading about ethology made me realize that animality can be understood very much on two different levels, just as gender in the academic field: on a first level, that of ordinary language, where you talk about genders (which are not unique) as sets of traits used to define and distinguish feminine from masculine; and on another level, when gender (singular) is used to analyze the power struggle and oppression between men and women. It is gender theory that helps understand how genders are defined and enforced as a norm; not pre-existing “natures” or “essences” in ourselves, but a system that constantly re-affirms itself on many levels of society.

So, on one hand, animal-people commonly use animality to define a set of traits we relate to individual species and we think of it as a “grid” that models or filters our experiences in a specific way depending on what animal we are; there would be many possible animalities, in fact. On the other hand, I think animality can be a concept and tool that helps us questioning the (unequal) relation between humans and animals – that is, animality is not a thing (pre)existing outside of humanity, but the result of the social/symbolical removal of humanity from the category [animal]. Biologically we’re still animals, but humans think of themselves as more, better and/or other than that, and animality describes this something that they want to move away from.

This is what French ethologist and philosopher Lestel develops in an essay: animality does not define the reality of animals but something more complex: how human people relate to animals. To paraphrase him, it actually is common to both, as humans are animals too, but animality is what human beings black out through the erasure of body, of their desires and feelings, in contrast with the valorization of the mind, spirit and faculty of reason. Instincts, fear-or-flight reponses and other traits we associate to animals are actually as much ours, but they’re not acknowledged as so (when they are, they’re seen as minor, lower traits in regards to what really makes us human). I do not agree with this hierarchy, and I don’t believe there even is such as thing as a single universal “animality” common to all creatures bare humans, considering different nonhuman animals have as little to do together (or as much) as humans have with the rest of the animal reign. There are no more similarities between an ant and a crocodile than between a man and a raven; perhaps even less. There only is a multiplicity of beings.

Therefore, when you come to recognize certain patterns are found as much in human people and in animals, there can be no opposition between humanity and animality. Animality does not define the animal, it simply defines the set of traits that humans possess and want to distance themselves from in a world where humans think of themselves as superior. Traits associated with humanity such as dialects, cultural specificities or behaviors are found in several species of mammals or even birds – as an example it is the case for laughter or for obsessive/compulsive behaviors like excessive cleaning and plucking. What we animal-people used to define as “animality” actually is “nonhuman animality” at most, and even then it’s as difficult to define what makes up a specific animality as it is to define what is the “essence” of a specific gender (like “man” or “woman”). There is no such thing in our genes, and the definitions vary in time and space depending on which culture you ask and the context.

At most, animality may only be the product of our senses, the way we perceive the world, and what makes an animal’s animality different from another would only be the variations in receiving and processing those informations. In that regards, animal-people would be much closer to other humans than many would like to admit.

The traditional nature/nurture/culture paradigm isn’t known to work so well as we study it more and more. There isn’t such a clear opposition as we used to think and different aspects mesh with each others quite intimately. What it means isn’t even that they are distinct yet intricate aspects, but that some traits actually belong to several categories at the same time. Following the train of thoughts I developped earlier, animality neither strictly belongs to nature nor nurture or culture. We’re not simply “born this way” as animal-folks just as women aren’t just born as such (Simone de Beauvoir, Monique Wittig). We don’t develop one sexual orientation straight out of the womb, either. And before anyone feels insulted in a way or another, I think it’s important to understand that it does not mean we aren’t real – we’re animal-folk and this experience is valid, legitimate and intense.

It is still something beautiful and magical that comes from someplace deep in ourselves. And there is no paradox in accepting this and the fact we aren’t some sort of exception to the animal world. Chimpanzee Sarah was able to easily distinguish and classify pictures of apes and humans in those two categories with no mistake, and straightaway she would put her own picture in the human group. Anthropologist and natural historian Virey wrote, over a century before Simone de Beauvoir, that we are born monkeys and become men (or rather, humans). Seeing the patterns we discover between different species as well as the fact we, animal-folk, also exist, I think this goes as far as one is not born but rather becomes human – or doesn’t: we’re born monkeys and we may develop the proper pattern for “human beings”, or we grow into… something a bit different. Raven-people, coyote men and women, and leopards and horses and foxes. Animal-people.

We can’t determine that this animal-identity is inborn, but it’s there and it’s real. And we need to accept there is “construction” and “shifts in paradigm” as well even in what we consider to be the animal part of us. Think of the big number of people who go from being very regular shifters to occasional or even very integrated animal-people once they come to terms with their animality. Their experience was valid, and is still valid, yet it changed over time. I sincerely doubt it has anything to do with “nature” and “biology”, rather than it is a “processing” thing that happens in one’s headspace once a shift in perception can take place, such as getting more comfortable with one’s animal identity, or making room for it in one’s worldview and life, or something else. This is about identity and mental representations, not DNA; it probably wasn’t written in one’s genes that they would go from being a shifter to something else, yet the change happened at some point of their life, and nothing there is invalidating the authenticity of their animal experiences and identity.

I guess I’m just saying… All this discourse we hear about being whatever we are today straight from the womb (or prior to that), I think it keeps us from seeing things differently and from challenging some views that can be hurtful for others. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about “women’s nature” or an “animal nature”, I think we should really question ourselves about that and what we mean, before we talk about such matters; before we invisibilize another category of people, or make it as though one experience is more real or legitimate or universal, or whatever. And I don’t want this to be misunderstood and taken as an excuse for wishful thinking, either, though I don’t have to deal with the consequences. You know what I mean, I just said “we”, but as soon as I finish writing an article, I just go on with my life. I try to get through my pile of work; I go outside, run some errands. I’m out in the concrete world.

This is just me doing what I do, going back and forth between experience and thought, back and forth between solitude and other people; translating. Putting it up. Going on to something else. Rince, repeat.