I’m preparing for a forthcoming debate on the role of “becoming-animal in promoting ecological activity”. It’s at the University of Brighton on Saturday and I’ve been circling the question for a the last week or so. The debate is framed around traditional stories of humans shapeshifting into animals, stories which blur the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. And there’s the rub, for if humans are animals then what would it mean to become animal? Perhaps it would mean becoming more fully human, more alive, more aware of our fleshy embodiment.
I’ve long been entertained by the futile struggle to maintain the boundary between ‘human’ and ‘animal’. When I was a kid there was a whole list of supposed differences; humans use tools, use language and have self-consciousness – animal don’t. As the years pass, these ‘boundaries’ are falling away. The question of whether other animals have language is debatable and rather depends on what we mean by language. But other animals use tools and demonstrate what certainly looks like self awareness.
So why are we hairless apes in denial about our animality? And does that denial tie in with our apparent inability to live sustainably? Maybe. David Abram’s recent book Becoming Animal has some clues. Abram suggests that we “fear our carnal embodiment” because it reminds us of our mortality. We cannot allow that we “must die in order for others to flourish”, so escape into “dreams of machine-mediated immortality”. This is not only futile, but costly, because it leads us to dull the sensory richness that is our birthright. Our technologically mediated and scientifically framed world distances us from the immediacy of engaged experience. As Abram poetically puts it, “modern humanity is crippled by a fear of its own animality”.
The sociologist Max Weber proposed that modernity has disenchanted the world (1971). That’s true as far as it goes, but it’s clear that the process is incomplete. Something more fundamental than either science or culture resists disenchantment: our embodiment. So I return to where I began. Becoming animal means re-joining the dance of life with the community of the other-than-human. We must rediscover the fecund mystery of sensory engagement, accept our animal mortality and come to feel at home in our own skin again. Paradoxically, becoming-animal is to become fully human.