Leather, Fur, & Legendary Joy: A Response from Joshua Ramey to Beatrice Marovich’s “’We Dance These Beasts’: Capitalism, Animism, Believers of the Future”

This is Joshua’s response to Beatrice’s latest post. – APS

The first thing that Beatrice has done, in these gorgeously halcyon words, is to indicate, in her last paragraph, how I may have over-exaggerated the communal as opposed to individual significance of spiritual ordeal.  My fear as I wrote the book, and as I deployed this fraught and fragile word “spiritual,” was of the cheap and easy way that bids for “spiritual experience,” like those for “extreme experiences” (or extreme sports for that matter) can be neatly folded into contemporary habits of production and consumption.  This was only part of my fear, and I’ll try to address more of it below.  But what my own defensiveness elides, and partially obscures, are several things Beatrice’s subtle and crucial suggestions can now enable me to unfold.

I have regularly confessed to friends that if I had my way, I’d wear nothing but fur and leather, that is when it was too cold to simply live in my own skin.  I guess this is something about being from Northern California.  So I am with Beatrice, here, if I follow her line pointing beyond the simplistic piety that expresses only indignation in the face of our mechanized, industrialized co-optation of animal bodies, without situating our relations to animal death and animal bodies in greater, more archaic, and frankly more shamanic context.  The piety around animals, about animals, that animates our animus toward the wearing of fur, and of leather, is much more ambiguous than most of us (myself included) would like to believe who consider ourselves animal rights advocates, advocates for the de-industrialization of meat (if not for vegetarianism and/or veganism), and so on.  At the very least, even our best intentions here are likely to be infused with a liberal humanist sentimentalism that is still, in its self-congratulatory asceticism, radically anthropocentric and speciesist. Most importantly, any glib denial of the spiritual (again I do not define the word) power and promise, no matter how subject to distortion, of a joyful, painful, heartbreaking, ecstatic, and yes, glamorous, even luxurious relation to animal bodies (living and dying) is a denial of a relationship, or series of interrelationships–“transversality” in Deleuzian terms—crucial to and inseparable from our individuations, our becomings (as) animals (or to use the word of which Beatrice is fast becoming our unparalleled guide, “creatures.)

When I followed the links to the gorgeous fox headdress made with such devotion and reverence by Lupa, and to the scintillating world of Beth Beverly’s work, I personally feel no horror, shame, or reserve, only an uncanny empathy and inspiriation, not only toward the craftspeople, but toward the animal bodies themselves.  I suspect that I share with Beatrice, at one level, a certain passion for costume and masque, for line and texture, that includes adornment but necessarily, and precisely, forms but one thread among many in a stylized ritual movement.  But now it seems the moment has come to explain my hesitations in the book to affirm more bluntly, more emphatically, the very real individual sense of, not satisfaction, but, say, fulfillment, at-home-ness in one’s own (other’s) skins that the dance over and through initiating fires can also be.

As anyone who knows me knows, I spend as much of my time as I can drumming or dancing (when I’m not reading and writing and teaching).  Part of why I was drawn to Deleuze in the first place was that he seemed to be one of the few philosophers willing to lend some language to what was crucial for me about movement and rhythm, conceptually as well as at the affective level, and willing to take the emendation of the affects as far as the emendation of the intellect toward the composition of a philosophical life.  Deleuze was always, in a typically French way, reticent about being anecdotal, and I think he knew how to be revealing enough without anecdotes.  I’m not quite that refined.  Beatrice has moved me to relay, anecdotally, an experience that, for me, forms a kind of legend for the defense of spirituality Beatrice is drawing attention to between the lines of my book.

I met Morning Star on the Glastonbury Tor on August 8, 2008 (8/8/8).  At first, out of the corner of my eye, I thought she was a girl of maybe 14.  Then I looked again, and it was a white-haired woman in her mid-50’s.  She was dressed entirely in white leather, in an outfit that resembled something like certain Native American ceremonial costumes.  But it was somehow simpler and more detailed, at once, and as she got closer, I could tell that the costume defied categorization.  I later learned she made it herself, from an animal she had found dead.

Passing over many details that remain sacred to this fleeting, wonderful friendship, I spent quite a bit of time with Lindy Morris (her given name) over the next few years, mainly learning from her how to make drums, ceremonial objects, and clothing out of animal skins.  The vast majority of the skins she had were given to her by other people, and almost all of these were animals found dead along roads.  Lindy had grown up in the bush in Australia, the daughter of expert tanners.  She had been married and raised her children, and decided to spend the remainder of her life wandering the earth and teaching the rest of us how to honor and commune with animal remains, and how to live and even worship through the gifts the animal spirits had left behind in their forms.

I learned a lot from Morning Star, as did hundreds of people all over the world in the places she wandered to.  She had a beautiful singing voice and was a powerful dancer.  And her joy and total dedication to what she knew how to make left a legacy of love everywhere she went.  Her death, appropriately, was utterly auspicious.  In May of 2010, while camping in the pine barrens of New Jersey, not far from where I live in Philadelphia, one of the most powerful wind storms on record in this area—a true freak of nature, including tornadoes—rose up and knocked an enormous tree branch directly onto Morning Star.  She died almost immediately.  I had been with her just days before, swimming with her and my young (then 3 year old) son Hugo, in the beautifully murky cedar bogs of the pine barrens.

I am conveying something of Lindy, here, partly out of my own need to honor her and the part she played in teaching me something about what “spiritual” and “ordeal” can and do mean (she underwent several long, intense initiatory experiences in several parts of the world), but also because there was something about losing her, about watching her go, and about the fact that she is gone, now, that will let me say a few things more in response to Beatrice.  Lindy for me is one of a handful of people from a slightly earlier generation in contemporary spirituality that I managed to find some trust and complicity with, as opposed to the morass of guruism, fatuous newagianism, and egocentric selfhelpism that by and large characterizes baby boomer era psychologistic borrowings and waterings down of a plethora of East/West pseudoesotericisms.  Use the word “spiritual,” as I have, and take the risk of calling to mind this cast of over-resourced, self-satisfied consumers, and find yourself going sour in the gut.

Part of what made Lindy different, and relevant, was her poverty.  She had nothing, no savings, no home, no vehicle.  She lived hand to mouth, staying in the homes of friends, offering workshops, eating simply, and often fasting for long periods of time.

She was constantly hoping to get a van to store more of her skins in, and hoping for a woman or a man who could be a true companion, who could shepherd her from place to place, or even perhaps provide a place where others could come to her, instead of the endless, exhausting wandering.  This is what never happened, for Lindy.  I always felt a strange kind of responsibility for this, or for her, even though for many reasons it was not my time or place to be there, that way, for her.  But that personal gap began to resonate in my mind with a kind of cosmic gap.  Lindy’s persona, her gift, was a ludic one:  she always said that, ultimately, our purpose in communing with the animal spirits was to play.  To dress up and play all day, she used to say.

If it is difficult, maybe impossible, for us as critical intellectuals to hear those words and take them seriously, I think it says less about the perennial cynicism and skepticism of the critical mind than it does about the changing stakes and strategies of spiritual practice, spiritual discipline, spiritual joy, in this day and age.  Perhaps why Lindy left us when she did ciphers the crushing evisceration of ecological and economic energy—resources, diversity, ecosystems—foisted upon the world by the current neoliberal regime.  Perhaps there truly is no world, at the moment, for the morning star.

Or perhaps the spirit, today, has become a mourning star, not so much sad, morose, but sorrowful, as in Nicola Masciandaro’s work, where sorrow, the ability to feel sorrow, is inseparable from some more enigmatic joy, and a deeper complicity with the real.

But then again, as I continue to look around, feel around, listen around, there is a tremendous power of resisistance, of occupation, in the costuming that was and is part of Occupy and its bacchanalian pageant of protest.  That Here Comes Everybody politics, which Norman O. Brown would have loved to have lived to see, also picks up on the elaborate montage of Burning Man and its many offshoots, sites where becoming a singular enigmatic character—its own ludic ordeal of becoming-other—is encouraged precisely as against the mere consumerism of those who would attend to party only to gawk.

At any rate, I have often thought to myself that from the 1960’s to 2013 the spiritual stakes of experimentation have changed:  what was an aesthetic choice, then, has become a survival strategy, now.  For those of us with anything left to experiment with, survival itself has become experimental.  In the context of endless and irremediable debts, of a totally debt-leveraged existence, everything is improvisation, everything is experimentation.  Existence itself is spiritual ordeal, for those who manage to survive the imperative to “invest in oneself” at the cost of everything, and at the cost of everything manage to pretend to be an “entrepreneur of the self,” while in fact this means to take on the weight of the world, the burden of the global, ever-imploding debt.

It is into this context that I have suggested we have yet to think forward an experimental becoming, from Deleuze, that is not that libido-Deleuzo-Guattarianism that glibly dominated the scholarship of the heady, speculative bubble years of the nineties and early 2000’s.  If we have become too harassed, too destitute, too overworked and under-resourced to think of spirituality as some kind of option or some kind of lifestyle choice, all the better.  We then might be prepared, just maybe, for the joys of true poverty, which I saw for a brief moment in Morning Star.  RIP, Lindy.

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2 Responses to “Leather, Fur, & Legendary Joy: A Response from Joshua Ramey to Beatrice Marovich’s “’We Dance These Beasts’: Capitalism, Animism, Believers of the Future””

  1. Brad Johnson Says:

    I agree, Josh, that there is — I dare say, amongst a fair few of us here — a visceral adverse reaction to the term “spirituality.” There are a good many reasons for this, as you are clearly well aware. But like you, I am disinclined to ditch the concept altogether. I dare say a good many who talk about ‘intensity’ and ‘excess’, of things material and mundane, & even the ones who speak of emptiness without ever meditating, are thinking about spirituality without thinking about ‘spirituality’. Which perhaps is well and good, and maybe even the way to go.

  2. cleokearns Says:

    Brief note: A student just pointed out to me, wanting comment, that one curse of Adam and Eve in Genesis is that they must wear skins. I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin.


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