In this interview for Backwoods, Layla AbdelRahim expands on her analysis of the predatory and parasitic foundation of civilized economies. She explains how narratives, whether fictional or scientific, encode templates for socio-economic praxis and clarifies the concept of rewilding that she develops in her books Children’s Literature, Domestication, and Social Foundation (Routledge 2015; 2018) and Wild Children – Domesticated Dreams: Civilization and the Birth of Education (Fernwood 2013).
The interview was conducted by Bellamy Fitzpatrick over the summer of 2018. Painting by Francisco de Goya: Saturn Devouring His Son.
"Storytelling in general, and especially recorded stories, provide an efficient mechanism for the transmission of cultural choices. After all, even in oral traditions, stories have proven to be effective in recording past experiences, which they transmit along with warnings, instructions, and prohibitions. Thus, stories can serve as an ethnographic or historical record and concomitantly influence our actions.
...These are some of the experiences that prompted me to re-examine the foundation of knowledge and its manifestation through both narratives and praxis. My subsequent research confirmed the intricate nexus where anthropology, philology, and economics meet and prompted me to redefine how we understand literature and culture. Basically, I arrived at the conclusion that stories – whether fictional or scientific – reflect how a group chooses to understand and depict itself. Yet deeper than that, it is the premises at the heart of the stories that the narratives propagate and thereby reproduce the cultural choices that had been made in the past. The most fundamental choices any group of living beings can make necessarily pertain to the economy of subsistence (linked to the socio-environmental culture), reproduction of bodies, and the reproduction of the choices themselves.
So, what do I mean by cultural choices? Living organisms devise life strategies, namely, (1) where to obtain the energy to sustain their movement, reproduction, subsistence, and emotional nourishment; and (2) where and to whom to provide the same services. Hence, cultural choices are rooted in subsistence economy and socio-environmental culture. For life to continue on earth, these systems must be sustainable and, if we study the history of life on earth, we see that, indeed, they have been sustainable throughout the history of wilderness –3.5 billion years – while the Anthropocene has proven to be hazardous for life – after a mere 11 thousand years, Homo not-so-sapiens has already ravaged and consumed over 80% of wilderness (see Potapov et al., 2017) and shows no signs of slowing down.
However, the metanarrative of civilization flips these facts and presents a skewed, if not false, picture of the nature of life. And, as my book on children’s literature shows, even the stories that try to challenge this narrative, inadvertently fail, because they continue to operate from the same premises. They actually end up reproducing the same false narrative.
Therefore, if we want to halt the apocalypse and allow life on Earth to continue, it is not enough to simply change the stories we tell. It is imperative that we address the premises about who we are and who we can evolve to be. Equally important, we have to demolish the institutions that ensure the self-propagation of this predatory culture. Unfortunately, all we have is the very same technology that, in the first place, has been responsible for reproducing violence and predation: human language and symbolic culture. The challenge is to move beyond these technologies, beyond the stories and language. We have to go to the root of our anthropology and the physical institutions that work in tandem to ensure the smooth operation of civilization...."