Becoming Animal

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.

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9 Responses to Becoming Animal

  1. Jay says:

    Yeah, lovely piece.
    For what its worth, I think perhaps ‘becoming’ is part of the problem. Our attempts to (be more animal, natural, whatever), have taken us further away from what we already are. The whole thing has become an intellectual endeavour to think ones way to, and so the natural ‘feeling’ and sensory engagement one has with ones environment has been usurped.
    Then there’s all the technological change with folks heads continually buried in smart phones, computers, ipods, etc, and so direct engagement with environmental surrounds ever diminishes.
    Ha! A whole new mutant species is being created!

  2. Adrian Harris says:

    Hi Jay,
    Are you saying we risk trying to hard to become more animal or natural? That thinking about how I might become animal risks taking us away from it? That would be a subversive suggestion to make to the panel on Saturday! There will be some experiential input – live storytelling and perhaps something from me – but mostly it will be talking about becoming animal.

    • Jay says:

      Hi Adrian
      for what its worth, I am saying that whenever it was in the past that we ‘developed’ the sense of self, so to did the need to become, this or that, or something else.
      No problem with any of this, but this change in man also saw us living in the head (with all the intellectualising of concepts, etc), whereas prior we were far more driven by direct sensory engagement, and not ‘trying to be ‘animal’, ‘natural’, whatever. We were just whatever we were.
      Like wolves smelling the winds, or eagle-eyed, or tasting plant matter and allowing sense of taste dictate whether the plant was appropriate to eat at the time, acute hearing, etc, etc.
      How do I know this?
      I don’t absolutely.
      But I do know what happened with me.
      One day more than a decade ago, thinking stopped.
      No, that’s not exactly true, but what happened is that thinking became disengaged – like the clutch depressed in a car – until the need arose to serve some particular function, then, when thought has taken care of that thing, thinking falls away completely until thought is needed to serve another function. There is no thinking at all, until thought is needed again.
      This happening occurred permanently, not something I try to do.
      When this all occurred, sensory involvement with my surrounds increased dramatically. (the post ‘The Tree Growing Inside of Me’ at my blog talks of this).
      If I was to say why this occurred, I would say that meditating in the wilds hour after hour, day after day, month after month, impacted on the neurology of the organism.
      This caused some kind of permanent rewiring, the result that I describe briefly above.
      So to come full circle, yes, I would say paradoxically that whatever one does to try to be animal, takes one further away from what we originally were/are, unless it instigates some sort of neurological rewiring of the organism.
      Then, yes, perhaps one will become more like we once were, though who can say what variances there may be.
      Kind wishes, J

  3. Adrian Harris says:

    Thanks Jay. That’s opened up the topic beautifully! Your experience resonates with mine, though I haven’t managed to quieten thinking all the time. Also echos my research into embodied knowing in eco-paganism and the more thoughtful ecopsychology literature I’ve read. I wonder if where you meditate was significant? I’d guess that meditating in the wilds has a different impact than meditating indoors. That’s just a intuition – or perhaps a prejudice! I’m looking forward to checking out you blog.

  4. Juliano says:

    I noticed this post several days ago and its been on my mind since, and I have a lot to say lol I feel that a lot of the evil in this world, not just now–though it seems to be escalating and exceedingly far more dangerous than previous bloodbaths because of the terrible contaminating weapons they have now which carries on destroying life.
    The pattern seems to be this: looking down on animals, and then likening people, and groups of people to animals and using this to abuse and even do genocide on them. I am not sure how to embed a video into this page, but VERY recommend this documentary: Scientific Racism The Eugenics of Social Darwinism Of course with this is the time line of ‘thinkers’ who claim that animals are machines and later that humans are machines, eg Rene Descartes and Wilhelm Wundt.
    We can go back into mythological underponnings of this. Apprently the originary Mysteries of Dionysos were all about exploring ecstatically via the inspiration of consciousness-expanding vegetal rites the animal of themselves. But within these mysteries came about a male-dominant philosophical school known as the Orphics who ‘reformed’ them and imposed a sense that the body, and thus animal nature was ‘impure’ and their goal was to seek ‘purification’ and release of their ‘divine spark of Dionsyos’ from the ‘traps of body and nature into some spiritual idealistic realm above. So there is an ancient example of hos ‘philosophy/thinking’ tends to look down on what ‘it’ sees as the ‘inferior animal body, and nature’ and consider its intellectual abilities far superior.
    I see this same pattern repeated through the his-story of ‘thinking’. Thinking cut off from the understanding a continuum between human and animal and more-than-human body which David Abram quotes as ‘the Flesh’ in his book The Spell of the Sensuous.
    But then you get thinking like Satanism which makes an image of ‘the animal’ as meaning without feeling and empathy, because its agenda is anti its idea of ‘meek and mild Christian’ feeling, and so imposes a brutal interpretation of animality.
    So I see a lot of the drive behind the evils we are experiencing in the world as thinking-cut-off-from-sensual body based. A fear and loathing of animals (which Jim Mason in his remarkable book An Unnatural order: Roots of the Destruction of Nature) names as misothery, a word that is similar to the accompanying fear and hatred of the feminine, misogyny. because again the roots of this fear is looking down, and wanting to destroy the mother and nature–matricide== which this patriarchal thinking associates with the ‘feminine’.

    I personally have not read Becoming Animal yet, though one of the most amazing books I have ever read is the same author’s The Spell of the Sensuous. A book that actually inspires the looking away from the printed word and inspiring the reaching out to sensually touch things!

    • Adrian Harris says:

      Hi Juliano, I agree – thinking that animals, the body and nature are inferior seems to be a major aspect of our current dis-ease. It’s something that has been discussed extensively by ecofeminists as ‘patriarchal dualism’. Patriarchal dualism sets up a hierarchy that supports the common prejudices of sexism and speciesism and many aspects of racism, classism and imperialism seem to operate through this same system. I’ve written about this on my environmental philosophy site, The Green Fuse.

      I’ll check out those videos – thanks!

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