Feral Rites of Fall

The Feral Atlas; Thanksgiving and its discontents

Returning to Anthropostures in this season of suspended uncertainty, I’m trying to pick up the trail again. Here are a couple of blazes or cairns, from the feral to the fraught:

Feral Atlas: the More-Than-Human Anthropocene, edited by Anna L. Tsing, Jennifer Deger, Alder Keleman Saxena, and Feifei Zhou. I’m just beginning to find my bearings in this trove of taxonomies, field reports, essays, and heuristics curated by Anna Tsing and constellated with a dazzling array of contributions. The ground of the feral, for Tsing et al., is the encounter between ecologies and infrastructures: “that is, ecologies that have been encouraged by human-built infrastructures, but which have developed and spread beyond human control.” In fealty to the Chthulucene, the project is tentacular, taking the form of a multimedia online publication hosted by Stanford University Press, a tutorial video, and an orienting home page to act as gazetteer. If all this leaves you at a loss as to where to begin, well, congratulations—losing the path is the first step toward ferality.

Reader, this is no review—I’ve only begun to plumb the offerings here, which include the work of such luminary contributors as Sven Beckert, Giuliana Bruno, Amitav Ghosh, Jennifer Gabrys, and Ruth Padel. I’m excited by the heuristic inventiveness of the project, which proposes a whole taxonomy for limning more-than-human ecologies: “Detonators” and “Tippers,” new verbs and descriptors, and a catalogue of Feral Qualities to name “the ways that entities attune to infrastructure.” These latter offer novel semantics for routing around concepts like invasion, contagion, wilderness and nativity, the whole imperial, market-driven lingua franca of a globalized world. All of this is in keeping with Tsing’s own feral, propellant ways with theory, and her call for new descriptions for the Anthropocene. True to the feral, it’s also occasionally bewildering.

As I’ve written elsewhere, bewilderment (which Samuel Johnson defined as the condition of being “lost in pathless places . . . confound (ed) for want of a plain road”) is a crucially modern condition. In full disclosure, I’ve had Ferality on my mind for a decade, beginning with an essay on my own tabulation of the feral qualities back in 2011; more recently, my 2017 book Tree (for Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series) begins with the question, “Can a tree be feral?” Pursuing my own clumsy fixation on the feral, I’ve been aware that others have been taking up the call and the cause—but I missed the advent of Tsing’s big project. I’m eager to make up for lost time. More in missives to come.

¶ The Rites of Fall. As the Christmas season approaches, I often return to Claude Levi-Strauss’s engrossing essay on the holiday, “Father Christmas Executed” (1952). Like a premonition of our own “War On Christmas” contretemps, Santa Claus in postwar France faced the disdain and attacks of pietists—culminating, on Christmas Eve 1951, with the burning in effigy of Father Christmas on the steps of the cathedral of Dijon.

Striving to unpick the passions of the season, Lévi-Strauss recognizes Santa Claus as “the god of an age cohort in our society… and the only difference between Santa Claus and a genuine god is that adults do not believe in him, though they encourage their children to believe and sustain that belief by means of a large number of deceptions.” But Lévi-Strauss refuses to accept that the bearded one hangs around as a mere survival of past regimes. In keeping with his structuralist method, he asks what work Santa Claus does, and how that work gets distributed across a framework of symbols strung like lights across the lintels of the year.

After cataloging antecedents and analogues across Roman Saturnalia, medieval Lords of Misrule, and the katsina spirits of the Puebloan peoples—all of which feature chimneys and hearths, gifts and tricks, masks and marauders—Lévi-Strauss concludes that Father Christmas presides over a seasonal rite of the dead that starts with Halloween and ends with the return of the light and the renewal of the year:

The apparently contradictory characteristics of Christmas rites are thereby resolved: for three months, the visitations of the dead among the living had become increasingly insistent and oppressive.… Let us venture to consider the tender care we take of Santa Claus, the precautions and sacrifices we agree to make to keep his prestige intact among children.… The belief we promote in our children, namely, that their toys come from a supernatural world, provides us with an alibi for the secret impulse that incites us to offer them to the supernatural world on the pretext of giving them to children. By that means, Christmas gifts remain a true sacrifice to the delight of being alive, which consists in the first place of not dying.

We don’t cling to these energies and their avatars because of superstitions about the fading of the light, but because the light’s dimming and renewal—like the fading of the foliage and the glowing of evergreen and fire—offers opportunities to celebrate, to storify, to reason with an unreasoning universe.

Why dilate on Father Christmas now, however, and not keep my structuralist powder dry for a later, more seasonal dispatch? Well, it’s because another holiday is upon us: Thanksgiving, the fragrant fulcrum of the American holiday season, which falls midway between the antic misrule of Halloween and the restoration of order at Yule. Following after Lévi-Strauss, I want to ask what work this holiday does, and how the scaffolding of the season hangs together around life and death, bounty and want.

It’s a vexing holiday, to be sure, with its recourse to an origin story that rightly makes us uneasy today. It takes the form of a quasi-historical narrative, peopled with legendary figures. And yet we’ve only begun to address the lies and evasions of these legends, the blood and trauma they index and erase. And that encounter is not understood in unanimity, but is factional, impassioned, and multiply agonistic.

I’m not going to litigate the case against Thanksgiving, or fact-check its authenticity. For present purposes, instead, I note the extent to which the adversarial and forensic impulses themselves have become highlights of the holiday, as dependable in their appearance as cranberry sauce and green-bean casserole. Especially in the Trump era, the threat of faction and fission hangs over the Thanksgiving table, home-from-college critiques of Pilgrim depredations to be met with own-the-libs taunts from militant uncles. If Lévi-Strauss is right about Halloween and Christmas—that they concern the appeasement of the ancestors and their rebirth in children—then maybe Thanksgiving gestures, however clumsily, towards some encounter with the centripetal energies of kinship and community, the carnality of life’s ongoingness, the necessity of staying with the trouble.

These thoughts come to mind in connection with the intractable intensity of our political culture, with its seemingly irreconcilable universes of fact and moral compass. In the midst of this, Sara Hendren has recently reminded us of the ineluctable place of debate and contention in free society, and the condition of agonistic plurality to which we might aspire:

Too few people speak about agonistic pluralism, Chantal Mouffe’s idea that democracy necessarily includes states of contestation. This is something more than simply acknowledging gray areas, and something more than “living the questions.” Agonistic pluralism implies vigorous debate, uncomfortable conversations, voicing ideas that can easily remain tacit, held in the background in favor of more feel-good affirmations of “universally” held beliefs: about the generalized, vague and abstract value of each human being, about the good of diversity for its own sake.

And so I wonder—can agonistic pluralism offer up its own feral legend, canny enough to wander from left and right, to compete with the poxy legacy of Plymouth Colony?

Like the monuments, this holiday probably should be overthrown. The legends are too corrupt, the traumas of native communities too real to be ignored. And yet Lévi-Strauss has me convinced that a structural hole lies in the calendar here—that we need something like Thanksgiving as the fulcrum of our fall rite. Something about sitting down at table with all of our differences of fact pattern and moral compass—not to erase or resolve those contradictions, but to break bread even in their midst.