Cultural Lycanthropy


by Justin E. H. Smith

I’ve been rethinking n+1‘s 2010 intervention, “What Was the Hipster?“, which I continue to take as some of the best amateur sociology of recent decades. It alludes explicitly to Anatole Broyard’s 1947 “Anatomy of a Hipster,” but the real antecedents are works like William Foote Whyte’s 1943 Street Corner Society. It is a serious analysis of phenomena that don’t exactly make their own case for being taken seriously.

One thing that did not strike me on my first reading of it a year or so ago was the description of a shift, circa 2003, I think, from a sort of Phase 1, which was entirely based upon appropriation of symbols of American whiteness, to a Phase 2 that might be called ‘lycanthropic’ (in the broad sense in which we understand ‘clinical lycanthropy’ today, to include not just werewolfism, but any human adoption of the physical or behavioral traits of an animal, cf. T. A. Fahy, “Lycanthropy: A Review,”  J R Soc Med 82, 1 (January, 1989): 37–9). This involved both a new animal-centered totemism that was somewhat continuous with the old irony (the howling-wolf-before-the-full-moon t-shirt might be seen as straddling both Phases), as well as a more literal becoming-animal (to speak with Deleuze, which I try not to do) that involved the growing of thick beards, a sort of coming-out as hirsute beings.

Not since the Sexual Revolution has so much hair been left to grow, laissé pousser, as they say. Even if this time around the additional hair does not provoke conservative outcries about the decline of civilization (perhaps there are too many other symptoms of that for the old and hairless to notice), and instead is immediately taken up into the system of commerce and advertising –thick beards suddenly appearing on the models in the vitrines of FCUK and Stüssy, mere frozen photographs, yet somehow blowing like weathervanes–, even if things are different this time around, I say, to the extent that capitalism has developed quite a bit since 1968 in its ability to swallow whatever comes along, still, this new hair must be seen as pointing beyond itself, as significant.

I don’t want to get into what that might be. I suspect that it has something to do with the rise of ecology as a rallying point for the post-political youth in search of something to be earnest about. It also, perhaps, and perhaps relatedly, has something to do with a historical shift in the way we think about our community with animals.

But here is what I did want to get to: those who have been around me for the last month or so have noticed that I am having trouble shutting up about bears. I wrote a review for the Chronicle of Higher Education of a book about the history of the bear as a symbol in medieval Europe. It was an excellent book, and it fit nicely with my current broad interest, both scholarly and belle-lettristic, in the importance of animals in the constitution of human social reality.

Puzzlingly, when I arrived in Brooklyn a month ago, I quickly noticed that everyone around me was on about bears as well: the lad at the café would have one tattooed on his forearm; at least one restaurant would feature a bearskin rug, as if this were some hunting lodge; the names of bands I’d never heard of would bespeak the resurgence of the sort of ursine cult that the Church was supposed to have stamped out by the 11th century.

But here too, perhaps, the cult was waning: the kids had already started regretting their tattooing priorities of 2008; the bands with the ursine names were in close-out bins (bins full of recordings made in the last days of the history of the recording as a material object); and so on. And here I was, a middle-aged man arriving from the far provinces, just getting on to this bear thing!

And the question this has caused me to ask is one that is more Bourdieuian than Deleuzian: is everything, in the end, trickle-down, or do I actually care about bears? Am I like some mom on Facebook trying to use teen lingo? Or is my own ‘animal turn’, which expresses itself in books and essays and reviews (and blog posts too), rather than in tattoos and t-shirts and new directions in facial hair, something that has arisen quite independently?

In the end it doesn’t matter; I’ll write about them one way or another. And in a way it is heartening to see such intimate confirmation of what I have long suspected: that there is, so to speak, a regnum in regno, a kingdom within a kingdom –not grace within nature, but ideas within culture– and intellectual trends might very well track those of fashion, without for that reason being any the less worth pursuing.

In a subsequent post I will attempt to say more about what I take to be the deeper causes of this cultural lycanthropy, and perhaps to make some sense of why I have become swept up in it.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s Website