Tongues of Beasts and Angels

14 Jan 2014 | Guest Poster

Guest post by Toledo (@toledothehorse). To the furry community, Toledo has mainly been an amateur artist. But outside the furry community, he can’t stop analyzing religion and furry things – often at the same time.

In April 1906, at a home at 214 North Bonnie Brae Street, Los Angeles, fire fell from heaven.

This was no fiery column defending fleeing Hebrew slaves nor cause for a modern-day Elijah to slaughter idolatrous priests. To those at the Bonnie Brae home, these were the “cloven tongues of fire” that had visited Christ’s apostles at Pentecost. They were a sure sign of Jesus’s saving power, in latter days come again into the world.

And they were literal tongues, too. Late one night, a black pastor and a white friend were kneeling in prayer when the latter let loose a flow of ecstatic syllables. The next day, the pastor, William Seymour, did the same. And when Seymour acquired a church-turned-warehouse-turned-stable as his new mission center—the famous Azusa Street Mission in downtown LA—hundreds more, of all races, experienced the outpouring of divine power. Those on the margins of society, generally poor, found in this power meaning for their lives, healing from their ills, and salvation for their souls and communities. Missionaries, believing themselves endowed with the power to speak foreign languages spontaneously, set out penniless but joyful to spread the Good Word.

And there was neither black nor white in Christ Jesus to these revivalists. To onlookers in an America in which racial barriers were being erected and fortified, the expressions these early so-called “Pentecostals” took for signs of divine favor were horrific breaches in social protocol. Seymour’s erstwhile mentor, from whom he had learned of the gift of tongues, denounced the “Negroisms” on display under Seymour’s ministry: seemingly nonsensical ululations, jerky dancing motions, raucous exclamations, weeping faces and bodies collapsing, beatifically smiling all the while. Black men were embracing white women, a clear racial transgression for those of the time that was all but overtly sexual: everyone knew black men couldn’t be trusted around virtuous white women. While the Azusa Street Revival under Seymour’s leadership was revolutionary in its deconstruction of strict racial boundaries, it suffered the fate of all revolutions: the disapprobation of those who defined “decorum” as “like us.” Even today, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t scoff at the so-called Pentecostal gifts of the Spirit, from healings to tongues to handling snakes.

It is these tongues by which Pentecostals came to be identified. In the Biblical account of Pentecost, recorded in Acts 2, the body of the early Christian church is gathered together shortly after Jesus’s Ascension when, in the midst of prayer, the Holy Spirit descends and they begin speaking in tongues. While some in the surrounding crowd heard untutored Jews speaking their foreign languages and, in amazement, converted, others heard merely gibberish and dismissed the Christians as drunks.

In mid-May 2013 I turned on the radio as I pulled out of the Irvine Regional Park. It was tuned in to Radiolab, on which the anchors were interviewing people who had discovered or recovered linguistic ability as adults. They all expressed that a sort of peace, a oneness, a connectedness evaporated with each word they learned or relearned. The need for mediated communication, sequences of arbitrary sounds, reminded them of the irrevocable distance between minds. Language, the constriction of syntax and diction, cut off and enclosed them.

I had been at the park for my first ever furry event, the SoCal FurBQ. Though I’d been lurking in the fandom since 2001 and contributing art since about 2006, I had never had the means to go to an event. Beforehand I was absurdly worried (as I always am when I approach new social spaces) that something would go horrendously wrong: I wouldn’t be able to strike up conversations, it would be just as drama-ridden as the worst online interactions I’d heard about, or events would be overrun by the more sensational parts of the fandom which endlessly capture outsiders’ attention and to which I tend to give a wide berth.

But it was alright. There, I shed my name; I was “Khed” to those I met. I shed my species; I wore my giant toucan beak. I shed my self-censorship; I could use the words “anthro” and “TF” in public without any reservations. I even drew a horse transformation—in the open air, with people around!—and got compliments instead of strange stares. I felt an uncanny sense of openness, of possibility, of potential for new connections.

Language is more than words, though. Though writing is notoriously imperfect (hence the rise of emoticons), even speech has its insufficiencies. A grammar book does not include all we communicate, the structures of discourse that form the riverbeds of knowledge through which we flow. Meaning runs through gesture, through posture, through facial expression, through habits of action and methods of taking up space we are barely coming to understand scientifically. While language and culture do not determine what we can or cannot think, Newspeak-style, they do regulate the channels and categories in which we think. Human, animal, vegetable, mineral; female, male, straight, gay; black, white, Latino, Asian, other; general audience, mature, adult; actual and virtual, digital and traditional, fiction and not.

The furry subculture is based around a single core idea: that the sun-bright line some ancients drew between humans and other beings is permeable. We straddle that limen with great aplomb, building communities and structures within our communitas.

We actually reconfigure our language as well. While only a minority of furs wear fursuits, we should beware of reifying the difference between “real” and “virtual” that we likewise ignore so adeptly. If we collapse the digital and the fleshly worlds into a single plane of analysis, all furries by definition are fursuiters. After all, when someone asks in furspace what species I am, I say I’m a horse. My friends who are less attached to their species often speak of “wearing” one body or another, and in Second Life these headspace images are almost translated into three dimensions.

But there is something about virtual avatar embodiedness that distinguishes it from fleshly embodiedness: there are forms of communication to which we are attuned, if only subconsciously—touch, among others—that can only be approximated through pixels. In online furspace, speaking “furry” is a matter of two dimensions: length and width, word and image. Sometimes other dimensions, sound and time and motion, make appearances, but they’re rarer.

In fleshly furspace, speaking “furry” requires the breaking of human modes of linguistic and extralinguistic discourse. However, furspace in its liminality enables this rupture. If I’m a horse and you’re a wolf, we can employ more unique vocalizations, gestures, and interactions than would be possible were we both human. Wearing a fursuit, a body-mask, facilitates this; being unseen but seeing in public enables varieties of expression.

A charism (plural: charismata) is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Xenolalia is defined as the supernatural ability to speak in extant foreign tongues. This was the sort displayed at Pentecost proper, bringing on accusations of inebriation – but also conversions.

Glossolalia is defined as the supernatural ability to speak in unknown tongues, especially in prayer or praise. This was not explicitly demonstrated at Pentecost, Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians presupposes it when he admonishes the church to refrain from speaking in tongues unless someone interprets the speaking concurrently. The measure of appropriateness is whether others are edified; for Paul, unintelligible language does not uplift and can be a stumblingblock.

Linguists who have investigated glossolalia have found it, in general, to be strings of phonemes sampled from the speaker’s native language.

Fursonas are perplexing to the outsider. To some things they can relate: sports mascots, cartoons, fables, and special effects makeup are all familiar enough. They have their defined places in our broader culture. But furrydom does not speak these languages, though it has borrowed much of their vocabulary. What was a pidgin cobbled together from various cultural productions has, in its furry re-articulation and intergenerationality, become a creole. Our stopgap, ad hoc business-speak full of vulpine archers, racing lapines, and catpeople on starships has evolved into a native tongue, one with many dialects—some nearly mutually unintelligible—and innumerable redefinitions and neologisms. Our one-time fandom has gone subculture and begun budding subcultures of its own.

And within that subculture, transgressing the human-nonhuman boundary (in whatever way) allows us to transgress other boundaries more easily. Gender, sexuality, and racial performances and tensions are not as intrinsically associated with animals; they are human, even though we can and often to read such performances into animals. Even when the general culture anthropomorphizes or symbolically appropriates animals in certain ways, furry performance can draw from other symbolic dialects, including ones we ourselves have created. My performance as a horse, for instance, contradicts many of the masculine assumptions that have seeped into human-referent but equine verbiage: stud, stallion.

But even though animals are regularly the subjects of common metaphors, the extent of the furry affinity for such metaphors—and perhaps our denial of metaphor—set us apart. This different approach doesn’t always gel well; we speak tongues that others cannot understand or ones they deride. Little children, for example, can easily proclaim that they wish to be a cat or a dog when grown up. It’s a joke they’ll grow out of when they learn about real careers. When an adult dives into the extralinguistic excess of animal-play, however, his or her fellows not only react against the confusion of human and animal, but the rejection of norms of age and maturity. Animals are among the juvenile, domestic things one puts off when we join the sexual, capitalist, individualist, sub/urban world. Admission of a child-identified interest—animals, cartoons, so forth—by an adult—defined by production and sexual capacity—evokes  reactions ranging from disapproval to accusations of perversion. They hear some phonemes they recognize and fill in the gaps with exaggerated stories of minor or major breaches.

From Azusa Street Pentecostalism spread across the world. Very often newspapers, printed in the tens of thousands, brought news of the revival long before missionaries arrived to preach in person. Seymour’s ministry was cut off at the knees when two followers stole his mission’s printing press and subscriber lists. By this point, though, the fire had ignited and could not be extinguished. In the century since Azusa, not only have Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal churches proliferated, but some mainline Protestant and Catholic churches have taken on “charismatic” practices. At present, some scholars estimate the number of Pentecostals and charismatics in the world to be around 250 million – roughly a quarter of world Christianity. Though Pentecostals come from every socioeconomic stripe, Pentecostalism has flourished in those areas, often poorer, where charismata offer solutions to social, familial, and bodily suffering unavailable otherwise. And in the process it has sometimes served to bridge seemingly intractable fractures in society.

Contrastingly, furrydom has spread mainly through the so-called “developed” nations, leading some to believe that it eases the alienation brought down on First-Worlders by an economic system that splits them up as units of human capital. It can provide identity, ritual, even calendaring to otherwise monotonous lives. I feel it does so by tapping into what Harvey Cox, in his analysis of Pentecostal growth, called “primal speech”: communication that transcends the bounds of human linguistic, social, and bodily categories to release an effusion of pent-up anxieties and bond humans together. Furrydom might also share in a sort of “primal hope” with Pentecostals: the Millennial ideal that someday the world will be better. Whether better means social acceptance of a fetish, deeper and more visceral relationships, a reintegration of nonhuman animals into the sphere of moral consideration, or the Second Coming of Jesus Christ depends on who you ask.

My faith tradition gave up glossolalia years ago in an effort to discard enthusiastic elements that could disrupt ecclesiastical hierarchies and reflect badly on a church struggling after years of social, legal, and economic repression to become respectable. I envy Pentecostals their exuberant worship from time to time, wishing that I would not be constrained to the grammars and words of English in conversations with the divine.

And sometimes I can’t help but wonder if God listens when I practice my whinny.