What’s It Like to Think You’re a Bat?

I want you to take seriously for a moment the proposition that you might be a bat.

Therian is a term which has been coined by a group of people who self-identify as being, in some ontological sense, non-human, specifically an animal or plant which exists on this planet. That last disclaimer is because there’s a similar group who identify themselves as Otherkin, which is being a creature which is mythical, fictional, or extraterrestrial, such as a dragon, an elf, an angel, or an alien. The thing that one identifies as is referred to as a Theriotype or Kintype. It’s probably best just to let therians speak for themselves here, so I want to quote at length from the House of Chimeras otherkin blog:

When we say “identify as,” certain things are meant by that. What we “identify as” is how we define who are and even what we are (non-physically). When we say “species we identify as” we are referring to the species that we are in our own mind’s eye, that we are in our innerworld, that we expect to be but are not physically, how we view ourselves as being in a non-physical way, and so on. We are referring to our truer self, if not outright our true self, in relation to our self and nature.  A species we internally know ourselves to be beyond any ability to rationalize it away. For whatever reason, a certain species is part of what automatically comes to mind when we ask the question “who am I?” When we think of ourselves, we find ourselves classifying ourselves as certain species.

What’s clear here is that the experience of being a therian is an entirely subjective one. That is, I am a bat because I believe that I am a bat. And I want to take that seriously for a moment, that question of what does it mean to think you’re a bat, and what that implies about a universe where that happens.

So let’s say I’m a bat. I feel myself to be in a non-physical way a bat, beyond any ability I have to rationalize that. If we accept that subjective experience as truthful, it implies that there is such a thing as batness, which is distinct from humanness, and that these are distinct from the physical phenomenon of being a bat or being a human. Something that is physically human can be possessed of batness,  and perhaps something that is physically a bat can be possessed of humanness. You’ll have to ask a bat about that one.

We’re pretty clear on what makes something physically a bat or a human. The right set of amino acids in the right place at the right time and you end up either with leathery wings or a Netflix subscription. But how does a bat end up with batnessa human with humanness, or a human with batness? The existence of a human who can be a bat suggests that the cause of batness is external to the physical form of a bat. Lets just go ahead and call this cause of batness a soul. And the qualities of batness are inherent in this soul, which is non-physical. A soul is somehow attached to a body, which is a physical object, and the qualities inherent in the non-physical soul are then transmitted to the physical body. And when you a posit a soul, you’re generally positing some kind of cosmology in which that soul exists.

So what is therian cosmology? How do bat souls end up in human bodies? What makes a bat soul a bat soul and a human soul a human soul? Is there some kind of system of spiritual justice, like karma, which moves souls from place to place? Are souls placed in bodies by a god or other supernatural entity? Are souls eternal? How does a soul relate to consciousness? What kind of world is all of this happening in, anyway?

These are the kind of questions that I like to ask when I take something seriously. Questions that fall under the broad category of what does this mean? I’ve spend a considerable amount of time the past several months looking into the writings and videos of the therian community, and I have been unable to find any answers.  I’ve actually discovered little or no effort to even consider these questions. Instead, the focus is almost exclusively on descriptions of what it’s like to be a therian, and guides on how to identify yourself as a therian. Which leads me to think that I’m asking the wrong questions.  That what it means to think you’re a bat is that you think you’re a bat. Why isn’t the point. It’s clearly stated, the question being really being asked is “who am I?”

Folklore has traditionally been described as a narrative arising from the people. Membership in the group gives you access to a set of narratives, but the identity precedes the narrative. What I think is happening here, with therianism and with other emerging types of folk identity, is something different. That the people is arising from the narrative.

The communally agreed narrative of the origins of therianism date the concept to a discussion in a usenet newsgroup, alt.horror.werewolves, from 1998, when a thread began discussing the idea of shifting and the different forms it could take.  This grew into a series of other discussion groups, websites, and in 2007 the publication of A Field Guide to Otherkin, by Lupa, a book which aims its blurb at  “The Otherkin community is a small but growing subculture of people who identify in some way – spiritually, metaphorically – as something Other than human.”

So, the idea of therianism stretches back to 1998. Just to put that in a little perspective, that’s the year my cat was born. She’s a little cranky now, but still around and at this moment sleeping comfortably on her heating pad. There have obviously not been generations of therians born and passing down their stories, folkways, and ethnic therian dishes in less time than my cat has been alive.

Instead, therians seem to be building the identity to be identified with, forming personal and communal narratives to build a sense of self.  And this is the point where a certain segment of the audience is expecting me to say you are not a damned bat. A certain segment of that reading audience that is indeed very of certain of themselves will also have noticed that I didn’t choose a bat at random, instead it’s a nod to Thomas Nagel’s highly influential 1974 essay on the philosophy of mind, What’s It like to be a Bat?  Nagel helpfully lays out that consciousness is radically subjective, that it is impossible for a human mind to understand or even interact with the world in the same was as the mind of a bat, that we cannot even accurately imagine the experience of being a bat from the perspective of a bat, and therefore you are not a damned bat. But what is it that you are that you don’t want to be that makes you want to be a bat?

The specific answer here is probably a white kid trapped in middle school. That definitely seems to be a  very common thread among the therians I’ve encountered. But, whiteness and middle school are also constructs of larger social forces.  Being white is constructed as the default identity in American culture, whiteness is constructed as an absence, it is a state of not being the other.  The American industrial style school system was, by and large, constructed to fill in this other. Middle school is where you are plunged head first into the indoctrination of patriotism and being sorted into a place in the economy.  Be true to your school, and let that be who you are as you learn whether you will push pencils along a desk or widgets down an assembly line. But the cultural forces that allowed that indoctrination were not nearly as stable and long lasting as those who built them thought they would be. Consumer capitalism has triumphed over whatever mascot your school district happens to have as a way to form identity. As for the economic certainty that the education system was built to support, well, look around you.

The absence at the heart of whiteness has become increasingly unstable as the economic systems built to support it have toppled. And, while there were a hell of a lot of problems that came out of the systems designed to give structure to that identity, it did, for may people, serve as an identity.  With the tools by which that identity was traditionally constructed failing, that absence will be filled in by whatever tools are available from whatever kit is available. And those tools are both themselves narratives and  used to form narratives.

If your cultural toolkit includes a lot of fantasy novels, you might spend part of middle school thinking you’re a bat. You’ll probably grow out of  it. But if the same needs for certainty and identity are filled in with a slightly different set of tools, you might come to a different conclusion. Because “We are referring to our truer self, if not outright our true self, in relation to our self and nature” sounds a hell of a lot like the rhetoric of fascism, where every man is called to be a hero.  Just swap out batness for whiteness and we’ve seen this before. The people will arise from the narrative. Thinking you’re a bat is not that different from thinking you’re a member of the master race.

And look, as pointless an exercise as this may be, I’m going to go ahead and attempt to ward off the first round of attacks by clearly stating that no, I’m not trying to say that thinking you’re a bat will make you a Nazi. What I am saying is that the same social forces that make people insecure enough in their identity to think that they are a bat are the same forces that can be exploited to recruit people to white nationalism. If the truer self isn’t a bat, but a doubling down on white identity, that’s bad. And that you might not grow out of quite as easily.