Norms, short-term history and the collective memory.

Norms, short-term history and the collective memory.

[Originally posted on Beyond Awakening.]

This “essay” stems from musings I posted in private elsewhere and which have suscitated interest. I had been reading various websites and blogs from the latest wave of otherkin, and found the recents developments thought-provoking sociologically speaking.

When I first was around in the therian community, the norm was animal-people complaining about body-dysphoria and phantom limbs, or talking about how much nonhuman they felt or how difficult it could be to adapt/accommodate everyday’s life. The norm was the spiritual take on therianthropy (such as animal souls in human bodies), the discussions also were more spiritual in content, and forums that hosted a non-spirituality-centric view of therianthropy were a minority. In fact, they were about two active back then: the Werelist, and the Awareness Forums (note: at this point it was SO/TO/WAG, joint boards for Shifters.Org, Therianthropy.Org and the Were Artists Guild).

And now, we see a return of this take on things, only with an activist twist and more empowerment (as well as different media); and it’s cool to see this actually.

However, the overall short time – even if you consider our “community” started as recently as 92′ – where other voices had spoken up to say “this isn’t my experience of animality – here, I’ll write about what it feels like to me”, that time where some people dared talk about (non-pathological) mental therianthropy, or about animal identities that didn’t find immediate origins in past lives, or about having their animality functional and integrated into their daily life?

That era of the therian community seems to be perceived as “the norm”; maybe it now is in some places (the most influential? the largest?), but as I’m pretty reclusive I wouldn’t know first-hand. What is problematic in this understanding of the community, however, is that many people seem to not have any idea of how much criticism talking about this stuff could raise in most groups, at some point. There is a great deal of confusion between some attitudes that took place back then and other behaviours that they’re criticizing in the now, with no regards to historical context, and this fosters an innaccurate understanding of both the community’s timeline and the intents of certain groups of people.

I will take as an example my own writings and similar personal websites from the early 2000’s.

It bothers me a bit when I stumble upon certain present-day criticisms, and feel that because we used to say X or Y, we are thrown into some same big bag of “anti-fluff extremists” that are seemingly the norm nowadays. It make it as though websites like mine or Quil’s or others were law when, really, only a certain sort of people or circles were into that, and most of the community either didn’t know of our existence, or didn’t agree with us, or they did to some extent but saw us – as individuals, voices – as a threat for their authority, or they had more reasons to not appreciate our involvement on forums very much (for those of us who did post, because some others fully embraced their marginal status and have never involved themselves in communities).

We weren’t necessarily kicked out of a place, as most times it was much more insidious, such as the practice from the people in the place (thus who kept the legitimacy to speak) to question one over and over until the person backed down, shunning their views and self. So many people didn’t feel safe around those places and would give up trying to explain their point of view, or were reluctant to register and post at all, because they didn’t want to go through this hassle of always having to “prove” the legitimacy of their experiences. Many have gone offline now, or moved to blogging or other ways to express themselves.

The validity of my own animal-identity was questionned directly and indirectly for many reasons, such as the fact I identify as more than one animal, the fact that for some time I identified more with a taxon than a single species, the fact I don’t view my animality as spiritual in nature (even though I can be a spiritual person), the fact that I had no sudden “awakening”, the fact that I don’t experience “shifts” in animality, and so on and such as… Even the fact that I wasn’t a native English-speaker got me in trouble a couple of times (especially on the Crossroads or WereNET’s IRC prior to that).

So at the time I was quite the oddball, and people like myself were a minority or hidden, more controversial than anything – not the norm.

I originally created the writing group Animal Quills because it wasn’t possible to discuss certain matters elsewhere. The topics were frown upon on public forums because we didn’t fit the norms of what’s supposed to be a “true therian experience/identity”. Or in the later period, many people would participate with 101 types of comments and detract from the discussions, and other thought-provoking contributions wouldn’t be brought up anymore. Many of us eventually stopped trying, as it wasn’t possibly to discuss the things we were interested in on the boards. Others just went on with their offline life.

I have personally not supported the widespread use of “awakening” to describe one’s process of discovering their animality – not only it can be misleading for newcomers that it’s so reminiscent of the holliwoodian werewolf transformations, but there also was the implication that one’s awakening marked the start of people’s therian identities. I’m also not fond of shifting categories and a number of other labels. To the newer wave that feel they are “reclaiming” these words, this make me sound like one of the elitists or extremists maybe, even though I have no qualm against the actual experiences behind these words.

But I’ll tell you what. These words are the ones animal-people who constituted the majority used against another category of animal-people to disprove the latter’s identities. They reinforce the shifter-centric, werewolf-centric mainstream idea of therianthropy, actually erasing certain categories of animal-folk, such as the non-shifters, people who didn’t experience a drastic epiphany, and so on. For us, it can be a conscious choice not to use these words because we don’t want to support that practice of erasure, and the point back then was also to show it was possible to talk about animal-identity without using a shifter-centric ideology and such.

The norms of the community were quite tangible when a newcomer – who didn’t know of all the “rules” of the community beforehand yet quickly got an understanding of how things were supposed to work there – was brave enough to create topics such as “am I a real therian if I don’t experience shifting?” or “am I a real therian if I didn’t have a sudden awakening?” and so on. Because these experiences were believed to be mandatory in order to be real, and the widespread terminology reinforced that idea. Other experiences were silenced – until enough people begged to differ and spoke up.

So, what part of a generation of otherkin may see as reclaiming certain words nowadays, I see under a totally different perspective and I know I don’t want to rehabilitate some terms, because to me it feels less like reclaiming and more like the norm coming back again, the community returning to a shifter-centric point of view, et caetera. These folk may use our old writings as a basis to illustrate the “old ways” to better discard them, but they’re not setting themselves apart from a “us=community”, because we were never a truly integrated part of the community to begin with. Even though some of our ideas have apparently lasted, even though we left our mark somehow; I was not the norm when I was around.

The point is, people who belonged to this era? We were never an homogeneous bunch, and individuals like myself were more controversial than anything. What happened later, the lack of tolerance some have shown based on old writings they’d find inspiring, I’m not accountable for. I don’t agree with everything I’ve said in the past either, you know. I can take responsibility for myself and say “yeah, I used to be that person”; I cannot, however, answer for the actions of everyone who use past essays and rants to normalize the bashing of others.

It is ironic when a minority seemingly becomes a majority, even though it’s a common pattern for groups – opposing others to distinguish themselves and exist.

However, mistaking what we did when it was akin to “counter-culture” in reaction to the community’s norms, with the groups of people who are actively enforcing ideas as norms now (I do not support this practice)… well it’s a bit anachronistic, and disrespectful regarding what we actually accomplished. It erases as much parts of personal histories as a part of the therian timeline when people who were silenced spoke up. I remember countless hours of heated discussions where we’d raise points which were “out of the norm” back then, and it was nothing like the sort of hegemony some new-generation writings make it sound now.

This isn’t an actual rant; I hope to offer a perspective on the evolutions of “norms” (or the perceived norms), and some musings to chew on about the community’s memory. I don’t consider myself that old or wise, but I find it’s important to keep talking about these matters so that they don’t go forgotten, and to help correct a distorted view of this community’s history.

I am Not One-winged

I am Not One-winged

I’ve been struggling to talk of raven for a long time. It took me years to come to the simple conclusion I actually have no language for birdness, and that it’s not really a me-thing either – it has a lot to do with the culture I (we?) live in. We have a lot of vocabulary and imagery relating to mammals such as Cat (cats in general, not just the domestic species), we even have a term to describe the cat way-of-being, the essence of cat – felinity.

So writing about ‘pard has come easily; but what concepts do I have to describe being raven? I’ve tentatively used “ravenness” in my writings in the past, but who really gets what I’m talking about? There’s a lot to be said but the language is lacking. Not that this issue is unique to being a raven, of course – there are many much more obscure species – and it’s also a matter of who is around to build the language together. I’ve said it before and I think it’s still true for a lot of us, how much you construct things (including yourself) alongside others, not in a vacuum.

For years, a lot of the people I talked to about animal-things were cat-folk, not birds. Sure, there were others too, like the coyote/deer Liesk being an excellent partner-in-crime, and I also have a history of affectionate duos with wolves, but at some point there mostly were these loosely affiliated felines bouncing ideas off each others, and we were prolific in our writings. It didn’t matter so much that we were different sorts of cats because there was a lot of common ground. Sometimes we echoed each other, sometimes not. Yet everything added up to that big “background” of what cats are, a feline tapestry if you will.

I’ve talked to a handful of corvid-people before and I have yet to find any resemblance between each of us. I actually don’t know of many birds; and though I’ve enjoyed our conversations a lot, the bird-person I’ve talked to for the longest, Meirya, isn’t a close relative (rough-legged hawk/phoenix). To put it simply, I haven’t had the opportunity to discuss “being raven” much with other corvidae and I’m not sure our experiences are similar. One of the most corvid-like individual I’ve known actually is a fox-person.

After all, with the great versatility found in corvids, ‘plus the human-coat that might taint our experiences, maybe there isn’t much of a common ground to find. I think “birdness” is probably too broad as a category to define, and I’m not even sure a strong connection to the sky and flying is going to cut it (at least not for the non-flying birds). I’m not even sure how well I relate to that, since to me flight and wings are things both central and that I don’t idealize. Maybe because of the cat-thing or just me in general; practical, down to earth. That’s the way I am.

Ravens are heavy and inquisitive for passerine birds, and sometimes a bit of a paradox; they tend to be wary of unusual sights, yet wild ravens are also known to be surprisingly confident and tame, even taking food handed to them. They aren’t as social as crows and adults prefer to live in pairs in well-defended territories, however they’re sometimes found in large roosts. I’m not much of a social raven, though flexible enough when there is the need. I’m also not really a raven of the North or mountains, playing in the crisp air and rolling in the snow. I’m a raven of the coastal cliffs and forests of the South.

There’s also the fact that I am no storyteller and don’t relate much to the trickster raven of North America (on the other hand, I admit I am fascinated by the Japanese tengu). Simply put, my raven identity isn’t very “trickstery”, or at least not especially so , and neither is my Raven totem (which, I must say, is quite distinct from myself as well). “My” Raven didn’t create the world. I relate better to the Raven of the dead, the divine messenger and prophet of the Euro-Mediterranean. So that puts me further appart from a certain branch of raven-people maybe, thus harder to bond with.

In fact, before any symbolical associations, to me being a raven is being a scavenger bird, and it is a very mundane and concrete experience of reality. It is about the conflict between my human culinary tastes and my corvid interest in roadkill – corpses, dead things. It is about the awkward gait, the sturdy feet and talons, and the fluffy “feather trousers”. It’s about the long, broad, slighty pointed wings with strong muscles suited for long-distances as much as acrobatics. It’s about intimately knowing of the flap-flapping and soaring, of the primaries shivering in the air; the feel of one’s weight in the thermals and wind. Solid, yet flexible.

My body isn’t suited for flight, yet the sensations are deeply rooted in my flesh and light bones; not a dream or fantasy, it is first and foremoest intensely present in the here-and-now. I am not an archetypal corvid nor a bird-in-the-past (I’m not dismissive of these experiences, but they’re simply not mine). It’s simply hard to find the words for most things non-mammal. And whenever I want to talk about the feathers and flying, others only talk about freedom and infinity, and this isn’t what I meant. Then, all of bird is reduced to that part – the wings – as if they were one and the same or the sum of it.

It seems that a lot of people don’t register me as “corvid” though. People offline, because there isn’t such a thing as “corvidness” to describe humans in my language (but there always is felinity; some people have hinted at the birdness, but it hasn’t been as recurrent as the cat-thing). And people online then, because of different reasons. I’ve certainly written abundantly about being a clouded leopard, and not “enough” about being a raven, so that explains some of it. But it has also always been that people don’t give you as much credit as a member of X animal category if that’s not the only side you show. I’ve rarely if ever been asked to talk about my avian aspect when other birds were around. I possibly wasn’t as legitimate, in some people’s mind.

This is my bird manifesto, then: I am not “one-winged”.

I am raven, intensely and constantly. I am no less raven than any raven-person with a single animal side. I am not less feline than any other cat-person. I am not half-corvine half-feline; no halves. I am not a patchwork with missing pieces. I am both feline and corvine, with some “human” thrown in – simultaneously, no shifting, no switching around. No amount of coloured charts, sliding scales or terminology will ever be able to describe this properly. I may experience more certain phantom limbs over others, it doesn’t erase the fact I know, deeply, the complete range of my own identity. All of raven and clouded leopard are hovering over each other in a steady flow of bird-and-cat-ness; full and complete.

It’s tempting to now fill the white of my page with lengthy lyrical descriptions about what it’s like, deep down, being a raven; but I won’t, not here. I won’t because, basically, that’s what I’m asked if I want to prove that I’m a genuine raven. Been there, done that; I took off my website the old raven essay at some point because it felt too constrained – it doesn’t help that I had written it partly in a train and partly in a park as I came too early for an appointment. The writing was something that had to be done, for a reason or another.

When I’ll put it up again, it will flow better, because my quill won’t be as confined by expectations.

The trick is, I haven’t been very motivated to work on it for the past years because writing about your animal sides separately, like this essay was about, is yet another expectation I haven’t been much interested in meeting (anymore). A “purely corvine” essay, with all the negativity the term “pure” may carry, feels too artificial now; maybe it is. Probably not entirely, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to write at all about my animality in the past, but I want to question that practice of separating neatly what’s from what. I think, in the end, that it goes back to the same logic that makes your animal sides appear less “legitimate” if there are more than one.

It’s as though “felinity” or “ravenness” came in a finite, measurable amount and that writing about my animal identity without distinguishing the different species in clearly labeled, neat boxes (different paragraphs, different spaces…) would decrease the value of these experiences itself. I am no shapeshifter so I won’t speak for or about experiences that may be more fleeting, but regarding what I know of animality it seems like a foolish belief to hold, and an offensive one at that.

Which doesn’t mean that I’ll never write again about the specific experiences of “ravenness” or “felinity”, but rather, that it should be more of a conscious choice and less of a practice I follow out of habit or conventionalism. And above all, being a feline does not make me less of a corvid – and conversely. That is something that I’ve always felt and known, but that I haven’t said as firmly as I could have (I couldn’t bother with too much justifying when I was more interested in discussing other matters).