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Decolonizing the anthro-animal: Furry fandom, speculative fiction, and the need for newer directions

Edited by yerf, dronon, Sonious, GreenReaper as of Thu 12 Dec 2019 - 20:56
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The taxidermy of Walter Potter (1835-1918).Anthropomorphic animals have been a means through which we can think about and examine queerness, abject bodies and forms. However, it can be argued that furry fandom has relied on animals under the meanings that western, white culture imagines them to have. This essay offers a critique on how furry fandom, at this current point in time, needs to look for newer directions, inclusive of rupturing the animal concept as we know and think of it right now. Some possible directions include ideas from Indigenous literature and post-colonial identities.

Furry, as a subgenre, has developed from the wider array of speculative fiction, bringing up issues of queerness and the place of animals in humanity. These often troubled realities force us to engage with how the animal has always in some way been queer, and that going beyond the human can open new ways of living together.

A problem that still exists, alas, is how we've considered the animal – a living, breathing creature – as an escape, like in early literature which showed the West as a sort-of paradise. While the topic of escapism has of course been discussed by furry authors and critics, the question of how we see the animal has not come up – at least to my current and developing knowledge. The animal, as great as it is, still carries a haunting of colonial knowledge in its name, body, and environment. In falling under what academics have called a "reliance on the virtual" – that we see something by its customary, accepted narrative rather than what it can actually offer – our characters, identities, and matterings have been relying on predominantly white, western culture and knowledge. A fox is a fox, of course, of course – but in what ways does speculative fiction beg us to ask more questions entirely, about what "fox" could mean? How has furry fandom become reliant on concepts and identities we already know?

What would it mean to write about characters horrified or lost in new lives?

In his book Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, Daniel Heath Justice argues for us to engage with lost histories, particularly of those who have been colonized, or of people who might see the animal as part of a larger ecological narrative, not just taking a simple view of how unlike us they are. Justice writes, "These stories [or ways of seeing] are imposed upon us from the outside. They belong to the colonizing populations that [have claimed indigenous and natural] homelands – populations from which many of us are also descended and with which we must navigate our complex relations as well". To this end, the animal is always (and will always) be seen as embodying difference. It steps apart from the human icon of western whiteness and agency. Nevertheless, some animals are more equal than others, an attitude seen in George Orwell's Animal Farm.

With the animal becoming a concept, which in turn can be given rank, order, and put into a hierarchy, it ultimately stands so clear to me how we can see the coyote as someone living in a trailer park as a justified Other (a view held by Sol's father in Kyell Gold's novel, Green Fairy). Or how we can see foxes as clever tricksters who continually stand as sexual objects. As Susan McHugh writes in her book Love in a Time of Slaughters, our reliance on seeing the animal "as human symbols or other literary devices" makes it impossible to truly see such embodiments any further beyond how they fulfill our personal subjective experiences.

One short story that still sits with me is David D. Levine's I Hold my Father's Paws (Roar, Volume 6), a narrative that grapples with animality as a space for decolonization from the human. In it, we follow Jason Carmelke and his father, a quiet, distant figure who's decided to become a canine, and thus alter his entire identity and being. Both his body and mind will be rewritten, altering how we see the animal as simply ourselves covered in fur. Nevertheless, Jason's father expresses that this change will bring a new and unknown potential for love, unlike when he was human and exceptional: "I'm turning myself into a dog so I can love someone. I want to be free of my human mind, free of decisions." In probably the most jarring of messages for a collection of furry fiction, Levine's story looks to the animal as beyond and outside of human grasp. To enter the state of the canine is to exist in a new set of terms and engagements; one cannot simply see the animal without rupturing the human identity. The practice of turning into a dog forces us to realize how much we rely on the virtual, expected symbolism, or how we want to identify with the animal for our own sake, never for the animal's own sort of mattering, that can exist beyond or outside of our language.

At this point in time, in which the state of politics and our world have truly become dystopic, it can be argued that what we actually need is a way to think of Others: other lives, other truths, other connections, and simply those who have been silenced. Science fiction itself has moved toward themes of questioning our exceptionalism, and although furry fandom has been able to talk about queerness and abjection, it may be time to realize that we have actually not gone where we can. How would becoming an animal be a truly alien experience? How is it that our fursonas are simply a re-engagement of Western perfection? In what ways is becoming a dog like that of breaking away from who we are? And how is this something we should think about more, as our world goes beyond what we know?


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The article would be funnier if also, besides scorning westerners for having western culture, you scorned westerners who follow other cultures for doing cultural appropriation.

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Editor's note: Scaled down the image.

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Dude at least scale down the image

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I don't get it.

A very large majority of Furries are culturally either European (including Latin American), or East/Southeast Asian, or some mix of these. Those who write in English are generally culturally European. OBVIOUSLY you're going to get the European perspective and culture when these people write (ie: the "Colonizer" point of view). What do you expect?

Sure, it's a sad fact that Native-American culture has been hugely damaged (and often even fully destroyed). And perhaps those who write Furry stories could benefit from learning more about Native stories and culture. But you're always going to get a European slant (as you call it, a "haunting of colonial knowledge") as long as you read stories written by people of European cultural background (and writing in fluent English virtually guarantees this). Animals get put into hierarchical structures because European culture has been hierarchical for millennia. Reynard the Fox, Disney and Beatrix Potter are always going to be part of the cultural fabric of those who write these stories. You're always going to be disappointed.

It's simply not the job of Furry literature to undo this historical destruction of Native culture, and there's no way that it would be able to measure up to such a large task. And it doesn't *have* to engage in such lofty goals of engaging otherness and decolonizing the human­.

Fulfilling our personal subjective experiences is a perfectly valid goal, and there's no reason to set the bar so much higher - after all, we're generally talking about amateur writing done on free time here. Even just going for the goal of self-gratification in writing is already batting way above the average in terms of creativity. There's no need to self-flagellate ourselves over failing to fight society's ills at the same time when writing.

Am I wrong in thinking that you're asking for too much?

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>Am I wrong in thinking that you're asking for too much?


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Thanks for sharing your perspectives on this, and good luck in your educational endeavors for your doctorate.

As far as having more stories from different societal foundations, I do believe that would be a good thing to have. The problem is, as some of the prior commenters have noted but may not have been the best worded is that the best people to offer those perspectives are those people themselves. For instance if you wanted a story from a more Native perspective, then it should come from a furry who is part of that culture.

One can write from an outsider perspective, of course, I could write a story about victims of colonization, but I am not one. So without referencing or working with those in those communities, the writing more than likely be flawed.

The best thing that you can do, in this case, is to give those whose stories have been hidden the opportunity to share it in a more direct manor. If they cannot write, then transcribe their words and give them credit for that oration.

It would require effort, but I think for better or for worse we live in a world where people can write their perspective. Obviously some of those perspectives make some uncomfortable about past sins, and that guilt may cause them to act with hostility when presented with that. But one would not need to act with such anger if one were to realize that, while the world moves forward, you just try to make the world better for others as best as you can, then it's a better use of that emotion.

People can generally discern the difference of those that work hard to make things better for as many people of different backgrounds as possible, versus those that try to push away due to wanting to protect themselves from their own pasts at best, and for their hatred and biases toward those groups at worst.

I have a suspicion that the former sometimes leads to the later.

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before i get into things, i appreciate your willingness to broach this kind of topic in the fandom. this wasn't the sort of essay i expected to see on flayrah! i'm also not super familiar with your academic background, so i ask your forgiveness if the points i bring up are ones you've already considered or perhaps taken up in other essays.

your initial reading on animal taxonomies being a settler-colonial narrative fixated on difference and human symbolism was really resonant with me! it brought to mind mark rifkin's 2006 work on romancing kinship (in her analysis of "the trial path") as well as jeanette armstrong's essay "sharing one skin," both of which work through the way in which the animal:human divide fails to hold and only really functions to restrict who/what can become kin. i think that undoing that binaristic thinking is important work, and that indigenous literature which centers modes of relationality across (or ignoring) species is a strong place to look when considering how to go about that undoing.

i feel like i got lost after you wrote on the hierarchization of animality, however. understanding e.g. becoming canine as entering into a new set of terms and engagements, which necessarily ruptures human taxonomies, is a brilliant point to make! yet, in how you contextualize it, writing that "both his body and mind will be rewritten, altering how we see the animal as simply ourselves covered in fur" and "levine's story looks to the animal as beyond and outside of human grasp," i think you may unintentionally be working against your groundwork: figuring animality as beyond human grasp and as an alien experience only further reifies human and animal as taxonomies. framing becoming animal as either something done for our sake or for an animal's own mattering is still framing possibilities in a system that prioritizes difference and separation, and the same issue would stand if (to borrow from sarah ahmed) we still focus on systems in which otherness as an eternal hegelian concept remains a position to which white & western folks can still oriented themselves towards.

i'm also conflicted in the usage of decolonization as a term here given that you referenced indigeneity and daniel heath justice insofar as i think it does the settler work of making decolonization a metaphor as outlined in eve tuck & k. yang's landmark 2012 piece. this essay is excellent insofar as it makes the issues it raises intelligible within a furry context, but it's disconnected from the repatriation of indigenous life and land. moreover, i think there's an overreach in how DHJ is applied here. as he quotes from spokane writer gloria bird:

"writing remains more than a catharsis; at its liberating best, it is a political act. through writing we can undo the damaging stereotypes that are continually perpetuated about native peoples. we can rewrite our history and we can mobilize our future."

without ignoring the role that settlers must take in decolonization (i.e. returning stolen land), decolonization is not concerned with settler futurity. encouraging settlers into engagement with decolonization literature in a way that encourages furries to see becoming animal as a departure from humanity and complicity in settler-colonialism is a damaging settler move to innocence and undermines what decolonization is about. that isn't to say what you've written is bad or not meaningful, but i think it's conflating two different subjects (animal relationality and decolonization).

again, i'm not an indigenous scholar, and it's possible you've worked through these points in other essays before. it's also possible that i'm terribly misreading things! i'd love to see more essays like this on flayrah, i just wish that this essay was as grounded as it is compelling.

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Thank you for taking the time to respond! I appreciate your interest in discussing my reading and hoping to bring clarity to the ideas set forth.

In as far as your first point regarding the "becoming canine" within Levine's work: my argument partly extends into the ways in which furries (including ourselves) often see the animal as merely a vehicle for human knowledge or data, and how the animal body can easily be made a prosthetic for human identity while ignoring what intelligence and experience said animal positions may bring. In this light, I argue that we don't really know what animals think or know themselves, so when Jason's father decides to become a dog, he chooses to move from what he knows into an entirely new set of terms or means of experience, one not entirely accessible by human knowledge nor exceptionalism. While I didn't mean to again rectify taxonomies of separation as done by Western, colonial language, I ultimately hoped to start discussion on how seeing the animal as human can often be a means of colonizing its truth, unlike Jason's father who gives himself over to the dog that he is to be.

To touch on the next point, which you highlight so well: Justice and the work of Indigenous studies so brilliantly offer the tools of destabilizing concepts or readings upheld as fact, showing how they are rather only icons of Western cosmologies and readings of bodies as product. I haven't read Tuck and Yang's work myself, so I'll be making my way to the text soon after this, but my main reason for using Justice and his work is to question how we, even as we'd like to think of ourselves as supporters of animals and their environments, again often attune ourselves more to understandings placed on the animals that no less take away from what can truly be offered when they're not seen as, say, a fox or poodle being a "bottom." In this way we once again become consumers and even colonizers of the animal rather than trying to understand and even see what it may provide. We alas thus fall to histories of consuming bodies as product, as seen in Nicole Shukin's work and developing vegan theory. While I held no intent on directing settlers toward a romantic or innocent view of decolonization, my hopes were to instead reorient readers on how furry fiction can often be violent unless we start thinking otherwise and looking beyond the animal as an empty source for knowledge on queer sexuality.

Again, thank you for the brilliant response! Discussion of ideas via text can be difficult, so do message me further if you wish to discuss and or develop further ideas that may add to future essays for yourself.

Brandy J. Lewis
Science Fiction Studies, Comic Studies, and Fan Culture History

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There are some statements here that I find very strange. You can't colonise truth or colonise an animal. Truth isn't even culturally relative or anything like that. If things are true, they are true always, regardless of one's culture. It makes little sense to say something like "Justice and the work of Indigenous studies so brilliantly offer the tools of destabilizing concepts or readings upheld as fact, showing how they are rather only icons of Western cosmologies and readings of bodies as product." There are true and false beliefs in all cultures. Whether a belief is Western, Eastern, African or whatever else has no bearing on whether it is true or false.

Lastly, the content of furry fiction can be violent but furry fiction is not violent. Words, whether one finds them disagreeable or not, are not violence.

"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."
~John Stuart Mill~

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I miss the old 90's era of the fandom.

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ok boomer

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Give Boomer the Dog a break!

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How about that? I visit Flayrah occasionally and read an article about that story of stories, turning into a Dog, and that fishes me into the comments, and my name is mentioned.


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Intersectionality in action! (OK, so maybe it's not, but it's as good a meaning as any.)

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While its nice to get more essays, I think this one misses the mark. It's certainly true that a lot of the furry fandom uses Western frameworks, that's because that's the culture the majority of the furs are embedded in, or at least the English speaking ones. So to see that as a flaw is a bit like going to the Japanese and saying they have a very Japanese-influenced culture. They do, because they are.

I also have a wider distaste for decolonisation in general and here you fail to describe what you mean by decolonisation. What is meant by decolonisation can vary quite widely. There are calls that we have generally neglected the contributions of certain cultures and that we should pay more attention to them. That is a good point that I would hope most people can get behind. But there is also the other side of decolonisation where people take a highly relativistic views and almost call for the rejection of "Western" or "white" ideas as though there is something wrong with them. That stance is ridiculous and is perhaps best represented by the student in South Africa who was complaining about how science disagreed with some native beliefs about being able to call down lightning. Without further explanation, I fear this essay is treading dangerously close to the ridiculous side of things.

It's not entirely clear to me what the desired change would actually be. For one thing, the furry fandom is an aesthetic to such an extent that some people have defined the furry fandom purely by aesthetic criteria, where metaphorical use of animals is excluded. While the aesthetic is heavily influenced by Western culture, it is hardly the only influence. Japanese culture has a large impact on the aesthetic, notable examples being the chibi art style, kitsune and more examples of kemono suits. Different cultural influences are being seen more and more but this essay seems to imply a moral weight to an ethical decision.

Would being an animal be an alien experience, as a bat? Perhaps. This is explored in many stories; the Animorphs series in particular looks at the alienness of experiences. But we do also write about them as similar to us, sometimes only changing the aesthetic. And while there are cases of, maybe fursonas, where we identify with them for our own sake, there are also cases, such as The Animals of Farthing Wood or Watership Down, where we are supposed to identify with the animals in order to raise our awareness about them and for the sake of protecting them.

The idea of bringing in decolonisation is, I think a poor one. The concept seldom serves a useful purpose and, ironically, would be used, in this case, to suppress one culture in favour of another. There is a broad range of furry art and literature that approaches these questions from many different angles but this appears to treat as though it all comes from a single approach. That is just not true.

"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."
~John Stuart Mill~

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You raised the point of the experience of animals themselves, and the way they process thoughts and see the world, but I'm not sure how well it fits into your overall argument. Building on what Rakuen Growlithe said, studying the depictions of an animal over a range of cultures could aid one's understanding of the species, but eventually you would need to take a more analytical approach to investigate further.
The depiction of a certain animal in most any culture is going to be based on SOMEONE's observation of that animal, taking note of its behavior, appearance, and so forth. Going off those observations, there are ultimately going to be a limited number of conclusions, different ways to interpret the animal and its role. You listed the sexually-minded trickster fox as an example of a narrow stereotype, but that archetype is present in folklore originating on all three continents that red foxes are widespread on (I'm not well-versed in North African lore on the species, but considering how much commerce crossed the Mediterranean since Classical times, I wouldn't be surprised if it were similar to European fox mythology).
Scientific study is probably the way to go to learn about what's going on in animal's heads, there has been pretty extensive research in how animals approach human topics like speech and language, and how they solve problems, use tools, and so forth. The results of those studies show that different animals do in fact have fundamentally different thought processes from one another and from humans, but there's still fairly little that's conclusively understood about the topic. Who knows where that line of research might lead? Maybe one day it'll be possible to overcome language and communication barriers between species altogether.

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The animal, as great as it is, still carries a haunting of colonial knowledge in its name, body, and environment.

my eyes are rolling so hard that they've fallen out of my eye sockets. go white knight somewhere else. UC Riverside should revoke your degree.

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Why is anyone pretending that this made any sense?

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Well, communication is hard because yes, different humans put different weight on components behind same single term.

But I found works of Chatoyance (Jennifer) very.. unusual and in excellent quality when it comes to out-of-mainstream thinking about mind/body/psychology/history. As mostly textual person I enjoyed greatly her works.

as of native North American views..

I also liked views of Anthony Weston, starting from "Non-Anthropocentrism in a Thoroughly Anthropocentrized World" (1991)

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About the author

Brandy J. Lewisread storiescontact (login required)

a graduate student and Pig from Southern California, interested in speculative fiction, film, coffee, and politics.

Brandy J. Lewis is a Ph.D. student of English at the University of California, Riverside. Her work engages speculative-fiction, queer and transgender studies, film, and comics, fanzine history largely. She is currently instructing English composition while also working with fan fiction studies and archives, archive theory.