My Dissertation: On Being Non-Human: Otherkin Identification and Virtual Space
Available open access through ProQuest @
This dissertation examines digitally-mediated identity and community construction through the lens of the Otherkin, a group of several thousand people who identify as other-than-human. They recognize their biological humanness, but nonetheless experience non-human memories, urges, and sensations. I argue the Otherkin characterize a larger shift in body-identification that is underway in many industrialized countries, away from bounded, biologically defined bodies and toward a more plastic, negotiable type of embodiment I am calling open-bodied identification, evidenced in growing numbers of people identifying as trans*, nonbinary, fluid, and neurodiverse.
Otherkin experience can be understood as a form of animism, yet it arises out of a post-Enlightenment paradigm that rejects the infrastructural elements needed for animist thought (e.g. magic, spirits, kinship with natural elements). The industrialized West simply does not have the cultural vocabulary to comprehend the virtuality that is animist experience. What it does have are the virtualities of language and of Internet technology. Therefore, departing from conceptions of the body as disciplined citizen-subjectivity or an embodied politics, I approach the human body as a media platform, mediating a Self. I offer the theoretical and heuristic spectrum of virtuality—a sliding situation of being-in-the-Internet, between poles of the corporeal and the digital—as a way of tracing this Self-mediation, and through the virtualities of Internet space and language, I propose an experience of animism that is legible to the West, because it is articulated through its own tools.
The Otherkin experience an incongruence, i.e. “misfit” in the relationship between their corporeal bodies and their Selves, so they turn to Internet technologies to facilitate an “alignment” between the two. This dissertation traces Otherkin engagement with the techno-virtuality afforded by the Internet, along the spectrum of virtuality—through chat forums, personal blogs, 3D virtual worlds, Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, and Reddit—troubling conventional notions about our relationships with the virtual, our understandings of the Self, and what it means to be a human. Analyzing the Otherkin use of these technologies sheds light on the ways in which we all work to understand ourselves through the animist virtuality of the Internet.
My work argues for a rethinking of the way we approach the human body. Rather than accepting the Cartesian model of the body-as-vessel that houses a soul and mind, we can open up new ways of engaging with our surroundings, our cultural constructions, our experiences—with ourselves and our Selves—if we instead frame the human body as a mediating conduit, as a platform. This suggestion rests on a central premise: that we are all, at all times, somewhat within the virtual, and the virtual is, at all times, somewhat within us. The corporeal body, as a platform, serves as one of many mediating things—technological and otherwise, each with their own sets of affordances—that communicate this virtuality. This concept on its own is not a particularly revolutionary idea; it is very similar to types of animism that have been practiced throughout human history. But in the contemporary moment, an increasing number of people in the West conceive of themselves in ways that do not adhere to Cartesian strictures, yet Western culture at large—continuing to regard the body as a bounded container, separate from the natural world—defines these proliferating body identities as abnormal and even pathological. To understand these changes, we need a new relationship with our bodies, and we need to be able to talk about them in a new way. One of the overriding goals of my work is to identify and analyze a cultural vocabulary to comprehend this new relationship that I am calling open-bodied identification.
When people use the Internet, they are engaging in animist practice. Animism, broadly defined, is an ascription of spiritual essence to non-human entities. Similarly, Internet use involves occupying space with both human and non-human others: ‘bots’ and self-replicating codes, exerting agency and acting in supposedly human ways. I am calling this experience cybernetic animism—a process that draws from theories of animism, computer science, cybernetics, and cellular biology. It is the practice of interacting in digital spaces within an ecology of non-human and/or non-bodied elements and the process through which this interaction makes open-bodied identification available as a way of Being-in-the-World.
This theory of cybernetic animism is an approach to understanding digital existence—ultimately finding that the experience is not new, but rather ancient and quite common in many areas of the world. Paradoxically, we can uncover truths about our own technologically hyper-mediated selves by looking to the belief systems of small indigenous societies in Brazilian jungles and Siberian tundra. But how does a person acknowledge an animist worldview in the contemporary West, living in a scientific context that seems diametrically opposed to animist foundations? Answers to this question lie with the Otherkin community—a group of people, primarily based on the Internet, who identify as other-than-human. They recognize their bodies’ biological humanity but argue that they also contain non-human aspects, manifesting in non-material forms such as bodily urges, dreams, and memories. With their pagan/animist belief structure and reliance on technological mediation, the Otherkin epitomize cybernetic animism. Just as Otherkin must figure out ways to reconcile the animist denial of Western epistemological constructs, so must all Internet users recognize that they already live, work, and play in animist practice.
My ongoing research examines identity construction and maintenance among members of the Otherkin community (a group of people who identify as partially non-human) across multiple forms of technological mediation. The Otherkin recognize that their bodies are biologically human; the non-human aspects exist in a less corporeal sense. These entities can be native to the body, but can also come from external spatial and temporal sources, such as past lives, other dimensions, collective consciousness, and works of fiction.
Through fieldwork in multiple contexts of the digital (Second Life, MMORPGs, Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, Reddit, chat forums) along with more physical "IRL" spaces within the United States, the project seeks to uncover how the increasing availability/ubiquity of virtual communications and community contributes to new relationships between humans and their bodies.
Otherkin identity implies fissures in commonly held ontological concepts of what it means to be a human, and how to identify as such. Exploring the ways this discordant identity is technologically navigated can contribute to a richer understanding of digitally mediated identity construction in the 21st century, as these technologies become an increasingly enmeshed part of our everyday existence. The project has three central questions: 1) How does contemporary Internet communication facilitate diverse ‘logics of Being’ and how do these logics affect notions of embodiment and identity? 2) How can Internet collectives employ digital technologies in their work to validate and normalize forms of difference that others might see as irrational, absurd, or even pathological? and 3) Given the shortcomings of the online:offline binary for explaining digital mediation, how can we study Internet sociality in ways that challenge this dichotomy?
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Devin Proctor - email@example.com
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