Rachel Dolezal and the Spectre of Trans-Species Identity



by Justin E. H. Smith

I try not to weigh in on ephemeral online outrages, but there’s one thing I just can’t resist the urge to bring up in connection with the recent flare of fascination with Rachel Dolezal’s inner life and its outer expression. Not only are there plainly important parallels to questions of gender identity, in spite of all the overly anxious and hasty insistence to the contrary. Race and gender are themselves both just the tip of the iceberg.

There is massive evidence that for most of human history, in most human societies, claims of trans-species identity were taken very seriously, at least as seriously as Caitlyn Jenner’s claim as to her true identity. That is, one could be outwardly a human being, for example, and inwardly a jaguar. The possibility of recognition as a trans-species person, moreover, was gradually squelched in ‘western’ society in a transformation that runs parallel to the suppression of transgender identities (Aristotle’s Metaphysics marks an important moment in this transformation, while Ovid’s Metamorphoses –which, I gather, young defenders of the fluidity of gender identity would prefer not to read!– testifies to the endurance of a deeper layer). And in the one case as in the other, what we see is a suppression in the proper sense, involving persecution and violence.

Bear cults survived throughout Europe into the 12th century, and they were based on the belief that their members were ancestrally related to bears and could take on a visibly ursine nature in ritual circumstances. These traditions were broken up by force by the late middle ages, and now, today, western human beings think of themselves as existing across a vast ontological gap from other animal species, and regard non-western claims of trans-species identity as vestiges of comically unscientific, primitive ways of apprehending the world.

Poets still sometimes return to these ways, but when they do we assume they are just being poets. There are sexual subcultures (‘Furries’, etc.) that model themselves after identitarian movements, and end up, inevitably, looking like gross parodies of these movements. Important to note here, though, is that transgender identity has developed in our society from a seemingly parodical subculture (‘trannies’, etc.) into a form of souci de soi, of the practice of the art of becoming who one is, than which nothing is more respectable or urgent. What if the reduced and ridiculous expression of animality in current sexual subcultures is, similarly, a consequence of the way in which this dimension of human experience of our own embodiment is demeaned and marginalised?

Another important point of analogy here is the way in which these parallel experiences, of trans-gender and trans-species identity, have been clinicalized and pathologized in the modern period. A condition known as ‘clinical lycanthropy’ is well documented in the psychiatric literature. To what non-pathological premodern variety of human experience does this diagnosis testify? People used to transform into wolves and experience, in that condition, the truest and most exalted expression of who they really are. Now they turn into wolves, likely in a somnambulant state, and they are hauled off to psychiatrists and loaded up with meds.

The prejudice against experience of human life as continuous with other forms of animal life is the result of a distinct local history: the same local history that for so long insisted on an ethnographically anomalous binary gender distinction between male and female. Throughout this history, of the thriving and eventual suppression of the possibility of both trans-gender and trans-species identity, trans-race identity was not an issue, as race had not yet been invented. And yet, at the present moment, in the hyper-anomalous United States, a claim of trans-race identity seems to be much more audacious than a comparable claim of transgender identity, as it appears to bridge a vast ontological gap that in the case of gender has been broken down over the past few decades. It is the legacy of American anti-Black racism that makes the gap appear unbridgeable in the case of race. It is a result of the legacy of European anthropocentrism and anti-Indigenism that we don’t even notice, for now, the massive, looming issue of our (real) shared identity with the rest of the living world, and the possibility of being inwardly a jaguar or a bear that this opens up.

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