Human Exceptionalism & Entangled Agency
This is a Medusan Monday Musing
“The Greek word for “nod” is numen. In Greek mythology, a deity betokens his or her overwhelming reality through a nod. From numen derives the English word numinous, which signifies the irrational aspect of the sacred, the mysterious godliness that fascinates us and causes us to tremble.” - Robert Bosnak
"My Rite of Passage mentor Kamya O'Keeffe says a sign someone is ready to initiate into the next phase of her life is agitation. Like the snake suffocating in her old skin. Like the butterfly banging their wings against the dark walls. Like the world in it's current violent shuddering until the old world falls away." Sarah of Magdalene
We’ve fed the fire, my beloved and I, and the tea is being brewed by the burning, ancestral bodies of Juniper and Oak. The night has settled in around us as we offer prayers and ceremonial gestures to the land, the unseen ones, and the plants soon to hybridize our consciousness. Entheogenic elders that will shift the way we see and understand the world, causing our habituated knowings to tremble like leaves falling away from the snug branches that housed them during the Fall. Control cannot grow here, and we must surrender to the mycelial magicians guiding us toward the awe-some precipice of the unknown. Theirs is an ancient, subterranean intelligence whose adaptability is something to be perpetually astonished by. Hierarchical comparisons break down at their rhizomatic feet as we feel our bodies as so much more than human. Plurality pervades, and an interspecied subjectivity begins to birth revelations that stretch our bodies out along the terrascape of the emergent and mysterious.
For me, this is the realm of Medusa. In being seen from the inside my own sight is altered, and I was once told by a Vulture God, bare of flesh and bedecked with a mane of black feathers and silvery, moonlit eyes, that the point is to pass the gaze on. Seeing is more than an ocular function, it is a full-bodied “yes” that dances to the rhythm of change. Perception guides our narratives, big and small, and narratives are mattering forces that shape and reshape the world. Narratives that form ecologies of consciousness, and consciousness is not the domain of humans. It is a vast and fluxing web of interlocking passions and desires whose warp and weft is spun from the numinous.
In ancient Greece there was a ceremony for hundreds, if not thousands, of people to take part in known as the Eleusynian Mysteries. It is theorized that a particular fungi that grew on the wheat body of Demeter, ergot, was called upon to shift and expand the consciousness of participatory bodies, and invoke unanticipated relational pathways whose expansive corridors connected worlds within worlds. Humans have been calling upon plants and fungi in this way for thousands of years. Older than we are, these soil-dwelling elders continue to in-form and de-form the world. Their synaptic currents of trans-formation greet each other in the language of confluence, and out of their intersections riotous collaborations are born.
Humans are not the only intelligence springing from the Earth, nor can the intelligence of other creatures be understood through comparative measures. Our (human) intelligence emerges alongside other species, and is ongoingly shaped by the interwoven intelligence of this Gaian chthonic body we call home. Though we are constantly allured and swept up by a quintessential specialness that outshines the rest of life, there is a wound of belonging that aches beneath the surface of such a belief.
Human exceptionalism is a limited and isolating narrative, and prevents more honest and terra-fying conversations regarding our presence in this world and the behavior spawned through our enwebbed bodies. It is a narrative of control and superiority that justifies and reinforces willful ignorance and separatism - both of which produce an experience of safety in an unpredictable universe. Numbing out the tentacular promise of death, if humans are more intelligent than the rest of life then, much like gods perched in sky tops, we can direct its unfolding, forever perpetuating our species above all other species. To echo the sentiment of my ancestors and thinkers like Stephen Buhner, I too find such a belief embarrassing.
It is so that all species have their own ways of being with and in the world. Multiplicity abounds, and such diversity enables the dance of creation - with destruction as inherent. And though difference is clearly present, there are veins of commonality circulating evolutionary life-blood throughout the body of our shape-shifter of a world. We humans and our behavior is quite similar to that of, say, pine beetle or orca. We too consume without much regard for the farther reaching implications that linear time points to. And though we might boast a forward-thinking imagination, the world and its becoming is lateral, horizontal, peripheral, spherical, and as my dear sister Sara McFarland would say, “spiralic.”
Pine beetles, as temperatures continue to rise, sweep through the forests offering fungi a buffet. Orcas, as the ice melts, hunt narwhal who are not equipped to protect themselves from these pod predators. Though it might be tempting to reduce other species behavior to a symptomatic expression of a larger illness perpetrated solely by humans, one that we might come to fix if we just move a few pieces around and inject the right substance, such a reduction positions humans as more intelligent than the rest of life. Rather than symptoms, what might it be like to understand behavior as relationally responsive, and thereby emergent? The kind of emergence that does not concern itself with the perpetual presence of any one particular species.
Denying the agentic contributions of all life (including cosmic) does not stop the wheel from turning, much like later tellings of Medusa’s story where her own gaze is turned upon her vis a vis Athena’s shield. Her severed head and raining blood give birth to new lifeforms, lest you forget where Pegasus came from. No matter how hard humanity might try, we too are subject to the uncontrollable, chthonic forces of the Earth. Medusa reminds us of that in all her mortal monstrosity. Why do you suppose later tellings of her story seek to destroy her? Her gaze is an incantation of inevitability.
From microorganisms to churning storms, we are repeatedly humbled. As impermanent articulations of a much larger body, our lives are an invitation none of us can refuse to participate in the co-dreaming of possible worlds. Regardless of what we are doing or how we are doing it, we are always participatory. And as such, I find asking questions to be a most delicious way of dancing with the uncontrollable. Questions like: What happens when we stop trying to live forever, and instead say yes to a hybridized consciousness whose composted excrement enables the growth of the unforeseen? What other astonishing shapes are gestating inside the entangled agency of this worlds current form? And, can we surrender to the distributed intelligence that lives inside the transformative gaze of the chthonic-ally divine?
Well… can you?
Photo by my beloved Matt Huntze of me dancing with the desert wash and the incoming storm.