Notes on “Feral”

“Many things in the world have not been named,” writes Susan Sontag, in the opening of her Notes on ‘Camp,’ “and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described.” It is for this very reason that I hesitate to write these notes. In recent years, it seems, to describe a path to freedom is to invite the certain destruction of that path. How many radical ideas have we seen seized, strip-mined, sucked dry, until they twist in the wind, empty, desiccated husks of their former selves?

Tiptoe through this linguistic graveyard with me: an transnational conglomerate which enslaves children is lauded as empowering for its advertorial images of young girls clutching baseballs and golf clubs; a skeevy gentleman batters your DMs with unsolicited dick pics, all in the name of sex positivity; you ask your roommate to do her goddamned dishes, and she asks you to stop demanding her emotional labour; an impossibly skinny celebrity posts an airbrushed selfie in the name of self-care, and another impossibly skinny celebrity decries airbrushing in the name of intersectional feminism, all while her coterie of personal trainers, stylists, and make-up artists keep her looking flawless.

At this point, why use language at all? Why name anything? Why even bother with description, when any idea, no matter how radical, can be bought and sold, and bought and sold again, and shamble miserably forward, forever, a zombie in perpetual decay?

I’m writing these notes only because I think this sensibility we’ve developed, the one we call “feral,” is immune to this kind of capitalistic intrusion. I could be wrong, of course. Maybe we’ll wake up one day, five months or five years in the future, to find beauty gurus posting video tutorials on how to achieve the perfect feral contour. But I doubt it. To be feral, after all, is to understand that achieving perfection is an empty goal. An impossible one, even. “Feral” is a rejection of expectation, a daring escape from domestication and a headlong leap into an untamed state. Rather than imagining the human being as an incomplete project, a constant embarrassment in need of ever-more-constant improvement, the feral sensibility revels in the humanity of humanity.

These notes are for Susan Sontag, obviously.







TPHD, 2018

  1. We’ll begin with the dictionary definitions. According to Wikipedia, a feral animal is “one that lives in the wild but is descended from domesticated individuals.” To be feral, says Google, is to exist “in a wild state, especially after escape from captivity or domestication.”
  1. In my mind, I’d always collapsed “feral” into “wild.” I missed the subtle distinction between the two. A wild creature is born in the natural world, and lives and dies within it. A feral creature was born in captivity, and tamed, and broken, and emerged, somehow, into freedom.
  1. We are not free.
  1. We’re told, in the name of progress, that we are free, that our only failure is our blindness to our freedom, and that freedom will reveal itself to us if we muster the strength to tear the scales from our eyes. “Body positivity as we now know it puts the onus on people living in marginalized bodies to turn their criticism inward,” writes Amanda Mull. “People are told not to be ashamed of their physical selves, based on the premise that there was never anything wrong with them to begin with, as though the same companies that claim to be guiding this ‘movement’ haven’t been selling insecurity for years.” It’s as though we’ve been locked in a cage, and the captor who trapped us there is standing just beyond the bars, clipping the keys to his belt and chiding us for being stuck.
  1. The summer after I graduated from college, I took a job doing data entry in a glass tower downtown. A dream job it was not. So imagine my surprise when, two weeks in, I realized that I felt happier, and somehow, more unburdened, than I’d ever felt in college. I’d attended a school I loved, and I’d studied subjects I cared about. But the work was never done, see, and my days and nights dissolved into an unbearable, contradictory litany of should, should, should. (I should write that term paper. No, I should apply for that internship, because it’s due at midnight, and the paper is due tomorrow, and I can write it in the morning, if I get up early. I should go to sleep. No, I should just pull an all-nighter, because I don’t want to risk oversleeping, and not finishing that paper. I should go out and meet people, because I’m lonely. No, I should stay home, and study, and save my money.) Now, my workdays had a clear beginning and a clear end. I earned money for my labour, instead of spending money for the privilege of labouring. I had free afternoons, free weekends, a half-hour each day for lunch. I didn’t have to optimize my every waking moment for maximum productivity. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to school.
  1. In our day-to-day lives, millennials must “check a never-ending number of aspirational boxes,” writes Anne Helen Petersen. “Outings should be ‘experiences,’ food should be healthy and homemade and fun, bodies should be sculpted, wrinkles should be minimized, clothes should be cute and fashionable, sleep should be regulated, relationships should be healthy, the news should be read and processed.” Grasping at perfection in every facet of our lives leaves us exhausted, and even experiences that should be relaxing and restorative — like meditating, or exercising, or even sleeping — become chores.
  1. When Mary Oliver died, two weeks ago, I saw that line from Wild Geese everywhere: YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BE GOOD.
  1. You do not have to be good. You do not have to be good. You do not have to be good.
  1. Your only duty, Oliver writes, is “to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
  1. All our lives, we’ve been taught to be good. To control our unruly desires. To punish our bodies and whip the animal into submission. Nobody ever told us that the animal is soft. The animal is vulnerable, and tender, and kind. The animal doesn’t deserve this. We don’t deserve this.
  1. We’re getting to the heart, now, I think, of what it means to be feral. In an era obsessed with cleanliness, and purity, and order — in a word, goodness — simply allow yourself to be bad. Not evil, or cruel, but “bad” in the sense that all human beings are bad: inefficient, imperfect, prone to mistakes. We know, intellectually, that we’re flawed; we’ve still come to believe that the human condition can be — should be — cured.
  1. I mean, for God’s fucking sake, we’ve arrived at a point where “I’m human” is a synonym for “I’m sorry.”
  1. When you’re locked in a cage, you can’t stand all the way upright, and the cramped postures of regret and embarrassment and shame are very often the only ones available to you. You’ve already been sold the lie that your captivity is your own fault, and so it’s an easy leap to the next lie: you have manufactured your own feelings of inadequacy, and eradicating those feelings is your responsibility. You feel regret, and then you regret it. You’re embarrassed about how easily you get embarrassed. You’re ashamed of being ashamed. You need to fix this. You have to fix this. You must fix this. If you can’t fix it, your failure is your fault.
  1. See #8.
  1. I read a profile, last October, of the 21-year-old actress Bella Thorne. As a child, she starred on the Disney Channel. When she was 13, Perez Hilton ran a photograph of her wearing a swimsuit and, essentially, called her a slut; as an adult, she still endures this sort of harassment. Once, on Twitter, someone wrote, “What did Disney do [to] this girl?! I think she was molested.” She responded, “Yeah I was. So it wasn’t Disney.” In the profile, she talked about this abuse at great length:

From the age of 6 to 14, she subsequently wrote on Instagram, she was sexually abused by an older man in her home.

“I used to think of myself like Marilyn Monroe a little bit,” she says now. “Everyone thought Marilyn Monroe was this sex symbol and she was always perfect and beautiful, but she was dying on the inside. I go back to that tweet, and maybe, in some [messed] up way, it’s right. Maybe I am this way because I was molested and raped when I was younger.”

Thorne has never named her abuser and says she has resisted reporting the molestation to the authorities because she does not want to relive the traumatic memories.

“And I guess that makes me selfish,” she says, her voice growing quiet. “I could do it. I should do it. You should tell every girl to go after her attacker. You should tell every girl that she has the right to go out there and speak her truth.

“But then you don’t. Then you can’t even [speak out]. I always want to be a good person. And that makes me qualify as not as good of a person.”

She starts to cry, and I put my hand on her shoulder to comfort her. Suddenly, she lies down on the couch and puts her head on my lap and details the abuse. Most of the time, she says, she acted like she was asleep while it was taking place. And she feels guilty about that.

“I always think, ‘Maybe you could have done something,’ ” she says, still crying. “It kind of makes me mad, because I read these stories that are really awful — I mean, really awful … it’s really something getting ripped and taken from you. At least those girls tried. I just laid there, comatose.”

  1. In recent years, in public discourse on sexual abuse, there’s been a shift from the language of victimhood to that of survival. Calling someone a survivor instead of a victim, so the logic goes, reinscribes their agency. I can only speak for myself, of course, but I think this effort is misguided. I think it does more harm than good. “Victim” acknowledges the existence of the one who victimizes; it places the moral burden squarely on his shoulders. A “survivor,” on the other hand, is solely tasked with the hard work of survival. If you are a victim, something was done to you; if you are a survivor, you have a responsibility to do something.
  1. Bella Thorne puts her head in the lap of an entertainment journalist and weeps because she didn’t fight back, because she just lay there, because she didn’t speak out. She feels guilty. She thinks she’s not a good person. She says, “At least those girls tried.”
  1. The problem is, always, the cage. The problem is never your response to being caged.
  1. Meredith Grey, in the 24th episode of the second season of Grey’s Anatomy, thundering at the man who spurned her: “I make no apologies for how I chose to repair what you broke.”
  1. The cage is real. What happened to you was real. You were there. You saw, smelled, touched. The cage is not a figment of your imagination. It is not a mental obstacle that you can disappear through sheer force of will. You do have a responsibility to take care of yourself, but other people are responsible for taking care of you, too. And when they fail to do this, when they hurt you, the pain you experience is not a moral failure on your part.
  1. We are not free, but we can become free.
  1. “History is full of people who just didn’t,” writes Anne Boyer. “They said no thank you, turned away, ran away to the desert, stood on the streets in rags, lived in barrels, burned down their own houses, walked barefoot through town, killed their rapists, pushed away dinner, meditated into the light. Even babies refuse, and the elderly, too. All types of animals refuse: at the zoo they gaze dead-eyed through plexiglass, fling feces at the human faces, stop having babies. Classes refuse. The poor throw their lives onto barricades. Workers slow the line. Enslaved people have always refused, poisoning the feasts, aborting the embryos. And the diligent, flamboyant jaywalkers assert themselves against traffic as the first and foremost visible, daily lesson in just not.”
  1. There’s a reason why everyone loves shouting it doesn’t have to be like this at Car Seat Headrest shows, and a reason why “there’s not much anyone can do about that” is among the most upsetting things you can say to someone.
  1. Your life will not always look the way it does now. Even if you do nothing at all, even if you lay on your back with your eyes closed and allow days to shift into nights, our world will shift around you, and all the lives in our world, including yours, will change. You don’t have to lift a finger.
  1. Whether you like it or not, whether you work hard or crawl beneath your bed and curl into the fetal position, you will be a radically different person five, ten, fifteen, twenty years from now. And you know this to be true already, don’t you? Are you the same person you were as a child? Have you changed?
  1. I want you to become free, and I want you to understand that becoming free is not synonymous with becoming better.
  1. You’ve only ever considered freedom on the captors’ terms. You’ve been told that freedom is something you must earn, something awarded, by degrees, for good behaviour. You deprive yourself and break your body and deny the soft animal what it loves, because this, you’ve been told, is the way out of captivity. You believe that the cage is of your own making, and if you follow the rules, if you do everything right, you will awake one morning to find the cage gone; magic.
  1. The stupid logic of the captors is not correct. You deserve to taste freedom whether you’ve been bad or good. It is not something you need to earn; it is something you already deserve.
  1. It’s not entirely accurate, in all circumstances, to say that feral animals return to the wild. Some were captured and domesticated, but others were born in captivity. The cage is all they’ve ever known. And still, they escape, and still, they live wild lives. Animals that have been domesticated for thousands of years, since ancient times — horses, cattle, camels — slip through fences all the time, and roam, free and independent, for the rest of their lives.
  1. I understand, of course, that this is not a perfect metaphor. Sometimes, once-domesticated animals struggle to survive in the wild; sometimes, injuries mean sanctuary is safer. There is a sea lion named Señor Cinco who has lived in the Vancouver Aquarium ever since a gunshot wound left him blind, and broke his teeth, rendering him incapable of feeding himself. But I’d argue that care — real, loving care — is not the same condition as captivity. Those feral horses and cattle and camels I just mentioned: they all live together, in colonies. Captivity may be isolating, but feral life is not.
  1. Some feral music: Mitski’s “Geyser;” Fiona Apple’s “Sleep to Dream;” Beyoncé’s “Don’t Hurt Yourself;” boygenius’s “Bite the Hand;” Sleater-Kinney’s “Dig Me Out;” Erika Jayne’s “How Many Fucks?”
  1. To wit: how many fucks do I give? How many fucks do I give? None! Not one! Zero, zero, zero! Done!
  1. You can return to your true home, even if you’ve never been there before, and you can survive there.

14 thoughts on “Notes on “Feral”

  1. Vale says:

    I read the title and it felt like a re-surfacing memory; I read the piece and a latent part of me recognized itself (it also really wants to wear… horns, for some reason? but that’s beyond the point). Thank you for writing this.


  2. Jordan says:

    I can’t form any coherent thoughts on this piece yet, as I am crying in the research room, but I’ll come back and sing it’s praises at a later date.


  3. harper says:

    this feels like an awakening and i cannot physically express how ape shit this makes me want to go. it’s 5:27 pm on a Sunday and i’ve never felt more alive


  4. Tate Fountain (@tatefountain) says:

    Just thought I’d pop in to say I haven’t stopped thinking about this since I read it in February, to the point that I wrote a creative project on it and submitted it for a 30% uni assignment (alongside academic analysis, in which I heavily referenced this article). I ended up getting an A+ but more importantly The Niche has infiltrated New Zealand’s academic discourse so keep it up, team, love yr work xoxoxo


  5. Margaret says:

    It’s been a long time (and what is time anymore?), but I keep coming back to this insightful and liberating piece. I probably read it once a month just to remind myself not to fall for the captors’ stupid logic. Thanks for helping me get through 2020 thus far.


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