Mythical Liberations

When talking with students about how certain social demands or restrictive classification schemes are experienced as oppressive, I often find that their proposed solution is to remove as many social constraints as possible. Of course, this makes sense according to the liberal theory of subjectivity: social demands are seen as nothing more than constraining, and consequently subjects are most free when they are liberated from the most number of social demands. Unfortunately this view completely misses the positive or constructive role of social constraints.

Recently, my go-to example to challenge this liberal theory of subjectivity is feral children. Arguably, the individuals least constrained by human social norms are those feral children whose earliest childhood is experienced without human contact, such as the two Indian children — Kamala and Amala — who were famously raised by wolves as infants but later found and adopted by Christian missionaries in the early 20th century.

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As Douglas Keith Candland documents in Feral Children and Clever Animals: Reflections on Human Nature (1993), what many cases of feral children share is that the children can develop very different bodily or cognitive abilities than children raised by human parents. Kamala and Amala, for instance, could only eat food on the floor — sometimes eating with the family’s domesticated dogs — were able to digest raw meat, were able to run quickly on all fours, but could not walk upright. Like other feral children, they would sometimes eat dead animal carcasses they came across.

Image result for amala and kamala

Some feral children show heightened ability to see at night. Most of them are unable to learn much, if any language, and even those who memorize or recognize a few words rarely appear to understand their meaning or significance. Feral children are famously uninterested in human society or human clothing, typically ignore toys that appeal to other children, and many do little more than eat, sleep, run around, and stare at the walls of whatever room they were placed in. Kamala would urinate or defecate wherever they were at, and would only use a restroom when watched by her parents — “[i]f they were not in sight, she would urinate at will” (67). One famous boy — named “Victor” by a scientist who worked with the boy for many years at the beginning of the 19th century — was described by contemporary as:

a degraded human being, human only in shape; a dirty, scarred, inarticulate creature who trotted and grunted like the beasts of the fields, ate with apparent pleasure the most filthy refuse, was apparently incapable of attention to even elementary perceptions …, and spent his time apathetically rocking himself backwards and forwards like the animals at the zoo. A “man-animal,” whose only concern was to eat, sleep, and escape the unwelcome attentions of sightseers. (quoted in Candland 1993, 18)

Arguably, these feral children are about as free from human social constraints as possible, but would we describe them as “free” or “liberated”? On the contrary, I suspect most of us would interpret their lack of human socialization as resulting in them being greatly restricted, perhaps even enslaved to their biology, basic instincts, or animal desires. Complete liberation from social constraints would result in us being very constrained. It is crucial that we not ignore the positive role of social constraints in endowing us with needs, desires, enjoyments, and capabilities that most non-human animals never experience.

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