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Spirit of the Wind
A Laycat's Review of "We are Spirits of Another Sort"Just in advance I’d like to say that I have no experience reviewing scholarly articles and have only a layman’s understanding of sociology. I have no idea of the proper forms to follow in this review if there are any at all, and undoubtedly some of what Laycock says I don’t understand properly. Keep this in mind, as well as my bias. The very thing that enables me to analyze Laycock’s paper for conclusions that may be faulty influences how I see his paper. I can attempt to avoid any knee-jerk reactions, but I can’t guarantee that they won’t bleed through.
I expected the worst from Laycock’s article. The abstract was hardly what I would term promising, given that it implied that it thought of us as a religion or being some sort of unusual ‘pseudoreligion’.
Overall, I was mildly pleasantly surprised by Laycock’s paper. While his survey information is biased heavily towards spiritual and metaphysical explanations of therianthropy/otherkin (Laycock refers to both as otherkin, and for the ease of shortness I will as well when talking about the phenomenon), it does not depict us all as insane nutcases. While I would greatly prefer to see any attention at all paid to more scientifically-grounded theories of therianthropy, for a subject that has previously been granted little attention this is a good first step.
Introduction: Laycock argues that contrary to some previous scholarly essays, otherkin are not a religion. To some, we apparently are either a deviant religion or an Internet-arisen spiritual movement. However, Laycock notes that we rather vehemently dispute being called a religion, do not universally claim metaphysical reasons for our identities (this is pretty much the only nod he gives to the point of view I have and to other points of view like it), and do not have the trappings of religion. This is something I feel is both accurate and needed to be said.
Laycock does, however, argue that the otherkin community fulfils two functions identified with religion: our identities serve an existential function and that our identities only provide an effective source of meaning because they are supported by a community. I have no problem with the first and disagree with the second.
Not all otherkin are part of the community. The idea of taking a break from the community is a common one, and the fact that relatively few go back on their identities suggests that while this may be true in some cases, being around otherkin is not necessary for the maintenance of one’s identity as otherkin, even if it makes it easier. Secondly many otherkin have reported knowing what they were without a community, even if they felt lost and adrift and monstrous without the knowledge that someone was like them. While this may be in part due to false memories, I find it extremely unlikely to be entirely or even mostly due to that. So while it might be a rule of thumb, I disagree with the ‘only’ part.
Also, he capitalizes otherkin. This is irritating.
Methodology: I will make no secret of it: I do not like Laycock’s methodology. He relies on two survey sources: the AVA and Lupa. The AVA survey he uses, VEWRS, stands for Vampire and Energy Work Research Study. It is fairly logical to conclude that such people who did not believe in energy working would not take the survey or at least be very less inclined to, and that people who believe in energy working are more likely to attribute therianthropy or otherkin to spiritual or metaphysical causes rather than science-based causes. I have no had the opportunity to read Lupa’s book, and probably will not do so soon, but as I understand it her book focuses on spiritual and metaphysical causes for otherkin, rather than rationalistic ones, and therefore is likely to be skewed. And even if neither survey is skewed (very unlikely) and people like me represent an incredibly small minority, I suspect that we are still larger and certainly not smaller than the people who think that elves existed and interbred with humans and elfkin are their descendants--and this view is mentioned in the article. People with my sort of viewpoint are common enough that we deserve to be explicitly mentioned. I am hardly a fringe viewpoint, and I have heard from those around since the early days of therian culture that people taking my viewpoint are far more open about it and common than before.
The Atlanta Vampire Alliance also helped Laycock make contact with several intellectual leaders (I have no idea what qualifies as an intellectual leader, so if anyone from the AVA would like to enlighten me on what type of person or even give out some names with the permission of those named, that would be appreciated).
Overview and History: I have very little understanding of otherkin history. I’ve gleamed that there were some guys called the Silver Elves way back when and there have been otherkin undertones to various philosophical and spiritual movements in the past, even if they never became very prominent. I have a better understanding of therian history, but even that isn’t great and my best knowledge of it is since 2008 when I joined up with the Werelist. Probably should read the full Otherkin and Therian Timeline at some point and take notes.
Laycock gives a fair overview of the idea of otherkin, and notes that otherkin has two different meanings depending on who one is talking to.
The Substantive Dimension: Laycock flatly rejects the possibility of an organized otherkin religion, noting that for most there’s only a loose relationship, and that scholars seem to consider otherkin a religious phenomenon due to the metaphysical and supernatural claims often invoked to explain identities (once again, the neurological psychological viewpoints are hinted at but not stated). And he says that there’s an excellent argument against us being religious in nature because of our extremely varied nature (and are tolerant of difference), despite the fundamentalist opinions sometimes offered by individual members (he states Sylvere’s position that only those who were reincarnated at one point from a non-human are otherkin).
The Existential Dimension: Laycock uses the VEWRS data to indicate that we feel alienated by modern society in many cases. I have little argument with this and would take it further, arguing that the very anthrocentric nature of modern Western culture naturally alienates those of us who have substantial non-human bits to our identity or behavior. I see parallels between our culture and Beat and hippie culture with our rejection of conformity and our sense of alienation from society.
Laycock also ties otherkin to popular fantasy and science fiction. This is accurate. If you feel marginalized by modern culture it’s fairly likely, I should think, that you would enjoy reading books presenting alternate or hidden univeri, though of course I don’t expect that to be true in all cases.
The Social Dimension: Laycock argues that Wendy Kaminer’s model of ‘the therapeutic milieu’ cannot be applied to otherkin, as otherkin have a strong social drive (of course, not all do, but it’s a fairly acceptable generalization that otherkin and therians aware of their respective communities or the existence of othersmake a point to maintain contact with other otherkin or therians), and otherkin do not suspend skepticism, as we are frequently critical of each other and are not inclined against saying that some of us are insane or delusional.
Laycock argues that we have formed an alternate ordering of the world, which is apparently termed a nomos in his field. To back this he cites the substantial amount of effort put into making ‘types’ of otherkin. From what I understand of what he says, this seems fairly accurate. We may not view the entire world in a radically different way, but our view of identity, at the very least, is radically different.
Secondly, he argues that otherkin have promoted a social order that maintains our identities and that we have also taken steps to maintain this social order, with the creation of symbols, terms, and gatherings. This is certainly accurate. Even if we can maintain our identities without the community, I would be blind not to acknowledge that the community acts as a reinforcement at the very least, and could even augment one’s behaviors or alienation from human society over time given the right conditions.
Thirdly, he argues that our ‘alternate realities’ become less meaningful and less real if they are not supported collectively, because when pressure is put on us because of our identities, when people call us crazy and insult us, it’s far easier to shrug it off if we know that others go through what we go through. Of course it’s possible for an otherkin to maintain their identity without the community, but I’ve heard the horror stories about the sheer malevolence we get, and I’ve lived it. Laycock notes this--he states that we’ve resisted the hegemony of other social realities, and notes the backlash caused by this, seeing examples of young people viciously attacking us with tones ‘rang[ing] from satirical to pathological anger’ and seeing the positive reinforcement received by this videos. We, according to Laycock, are a potential threat to the dominant nomos, and while I don’t personally think we’re much of a social threat, I’m sure that some people would think of us as one, even if they didn’t admit it.
Conclusion: Laycock claims that there is a tendency to see our beliefs as religious because they are deviant.
Overall, I see Laycock’s paper as about what one would expect in academia, given the apparently religiously-slanted academic perception of otherkin and the definite religiously-slanted general perception of us, and the fact that his sources were most likely biased towards metaphysical and spiritual beliefs and explanations. While I may find some of his conclusions questionable, I am not a sociologist and he apparently is. My perceptions are going to be colored by my own presence in the community, the fact that I spend most of my time in more scientific-based circles, and the fact that I’m a high school junior trying to review something written by an academic in sociology.
Written in early March 2012
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