My dissertation, On Being Non-Human: Otherkin Identification and Virtual Space, is based on five years of ethnographic engagement examining identity construction and social practice among the Otherkin, a group of several thousand people who self-identify as intrinsically other-than-human. Otherkin recognize their bodies as biologically human, but their inner selves as non-human (such as wolves, dragons, elves). Because the group meets almost exclusively in Internet spaces, the dissertation follows the Otherkin across platforms—Second Life, Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, and Reddit—to trace how digital technologies can be used to mitigate the misfit between their bodies and identities.
Page 99 appears near the end of Chapter One and contains the transition from one large section to another in a discussion delineating “Otherkinity” as a term and an identity category. Here it is, without edits:
It is possible that other-than-human-ness has been an intrinsic facet of humanity from our very beginnings—images of human shape-shifting can be seen in the Lascaux cave paintings, created roughly 17,000 years ago (Henneberg and Saniotis 2016). If this experience of other-than-human-ness has, indeed, been occurring all over the world throughout history, it stands to logic that it did not simply stop due to Western modernity and post-enlightenment science. Yet, aside from the Otherkin (and children, as mentioned above) we have seen no large scale non-human identity category in Western, industrialized nations. A possible reason other-than-human experience has not been recorded on a larger scale in the West is that people did not have a name for it. When observed elsewhere, we have simply referred the myriad other-than-human experiences with the umbrella term animism. This same type of animism in Western contexts has not been available as a way to be a human (Hacking 1995, 2006). And now it is: it is called Otherkinity.
An Otherkin is a Kind of Human
As much as Otherkinity is a felt, experienced, embodied state of being, it is also socially constructed. I mean this in the sense that it is a category of identity based around a culturally constructed set of criteria, like being obese, or a woman, or mentally ill. Philosopher Ian Hacking calls these “human kinds,” by which he means “classifications that could be used to formulate general truths about people; generalizations sufficiently strong that they seem like laws about people, their actions, or their sentiments” (Hacking 1995, 352; see also Goffman 1963).
This passage might seem, at first, a poor representation of the work, since it mentions nothing of the Internet and contains absolutely no ethnographic content or even a citation to an actual anthropologist. On a more theoretical level, however, it speaks to one of the dissertation’s foundational assertions: that our identities as humans are just as culturally constructed as they are biologically designated. While this dual formation can be seen quite clearly in the case of my interlocutors, I would argue that it is true for us all. The tension between cultural and biological human identity underpins political arguments about which bathrooms we can use and the relationship between DNA testing and membership in particular ethnic groups. Indeed, one of the main arguments that I put forth in the dissertation as a whole is that the Otherkin represent a larger shift in body-understanding from a Cartesian bounded vessel to something more plastic and negotiable, epitomized in growing numbers of people identifying as trans* fluid, nonbinary, and neurodiverse. The term I offer for this wider phenomenon is open-bodied identification. Further, I argue that our increasing interaction in and with Internet spaces—as a technologically-mediated form of animism—helps to foster this open-bodiedness by extending the indexical relationship between our bodies and our identities.
Proctor, Devin. 2019. “On Being Non-Human: Otherkin Identification and Virtual Space” Ph.D. diss. The George Washington University.
Devin Proctor can be contacted here: email@example.com
Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Simon & Schuster.
Hacking, Ian. 1995. “The Looping Effects of Human Kinds.” In Causal Cognition: A Multidisciplinary Debate, edited by D. Sperber, D. Premack, and A. J. Premack, 351–94. Symposia of the Fyssen Foundation. New York, NY, US: Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press.
———. 2006. “Making Up People.” London Review of Books, August 17, 2006. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n16/ian-hacking/making-up-people.
Henneberg, Maciej, and Arthur Saniotis. 2016. The Dynamic Human. Bentham Science Publishers. https://doi.org/10.2174/97816810823561160101.