An interview with anthropologist and researcher Layla AbdelRahim, conducted by Richard Capes for the blogsite ‘More Thought’ and recorded in November 2015. In the interview, Layla talks about some of the main ideas in her wonderful book ‘Wild Children – Domesticated Dreams: Civilization and the Birth of Education’.
“Schools teach children the principles of death and of suffering. They do not teach them the principles of life, which is diversity, which is being out there in the world. They teach them within closed systems, within closed buildings and walls, separated from the rest of the world. They teach them that violence is legitimate when it is applied from the top to the bottom and that it is illegitimate when it is practised in resistance or defence of diversity and life. They teach children that humanity is alien to this world, that success means pleasing those in authority who will own the products of our flesh, of our effort, of our work, of our love.” – Layla AbdelRahim
Interview conducted by Richard Capes for moretht.blogspot.com
Recorded November 2015
(visit the ‘More Thought’ blog fora free podcast of this interview)
R = Richard Capes
L = Layla AbdelRahim
R; Hello and welcome to ‘More Thought’. In this podcast, I’ll be asking anthropologist
and researcher Layla AbdelRahim some questions inspired by her wonderful book ‘Wild
Children, Domesticated Dreams: Civilization and the Birth of Education’.
What do schools teach children about themselves and the world around them, and
L; To understand what schools teach children about themselves and the world around them,
we first need to understand the purpose of schools. What are schools made for? Who invented
them? What purpose do they satisfy in our world, in our society? Why do we think we need
them? To do that we need to understand the context that created schools, and the
dependency on schools. Then there is also the understanding of what is a human being. How
does a human being get born and learns how to live in this world, and why? In order to do that
we need to address the very premise of education and the society in which it was born, and
the needs to which it responded.
We can start by comparing our society with other societies. And who are those others?
Immediately we start engaging in a very complex system of knowledge that kind of recreates
itself, reproduces itself, in premises that are at the basis of how we understand ourselves and
the world. Which society are we going to compare ourselves to? Human society? Is it going to
be a comparison between the civilized so-called North or Western countries? Is it going to be a
comparison between different civilized societies on different continents, but that the hierarchy
of evaluation does not see them as far advanced as, say, the West is? And so that already
begins to problematise how do we understand ourselves. And again: What are the premises
with which we are dealing? Who is us? Who is considered to be part of our society?
Here I need to add a parenthesis. When we talk about ‘we’, we consider ourselves as
speaking on behalf of humanity. But humanity is an epistemological and anthropological
construct, and when we look at who controls the access to the construction of knowledge – at
who are the gatekeepers of other perspectives on humanity, on knowledge, on agency – we’ll
obviously come across class, gender, and race. So in the past couple of hundred years our
view of humanity has been formed by the dominant white male class. And this knowledge,
then, responds to this group’s needs – economical, emotional, material, psychological.
Therefore, understanding knowledge and approaching this understanding from the perspective
of wilderness or wildness inevitably leads us to species and civilization. By that I mean that the
centring of the humans within a narrative of why the world exists, and why are beings born in
this world, and how do they become members of the community in which they are born, is
ultimately the question of how do we separate the classes, how do we identify who is the
agent with the right to access that knowledge and that agency within that narrative, and who is
outside of that narrative.
For me, I look at how societies that have existed – and the variety and diversity of societies
that have existed – from the beginning of life on Earth, billions of years ago, with the first
rumblings of a cell that came into existence, that craved to be something and be someone. We can put aside the question that ultimately we don’t have any answer to: Was it an accident? –
And the way that evolution took form and shape and direction – was [it] haphazard or was it
created with intention, and what intention? That does not really trouble me in understanding
civilization and humanity, as much as that the choices we make in understanding how we
came about then legitimates certain practices, because they legitimate a certain understanding
of what the world is.
For civilization – and that started about ten thousand years ago, based on agricultural practice
– the world was seen as existing for that human group’s purposes, that human group that
decided they’re going to tame and domesticate labour and resources and look at the world as
belonging to them. The invention of the concept of free sources for labour and consumption
brings with it the need to convince the resources that they are to be consumed as labour. And
so, you immediately start zooming out of this claustrophobic system that revolves – always –
around humans and civilised human needs.
So, then, how do non-domesticating societies learn how to be in the world? In wilderness we
see that if the purpose is to simply be and enjoy life and enjoy being, then there is no need to
impose a certain narrative, a certain classification system. It could be fun if somebody decides
they want to look at the world like that, but as long as it’s not imposed systematically, as long
as it plays into the diversity of needs and cultures and the cultures’ choice for self-replication
and -self-reproduction, then we are engaging in wild living and wild learning.
In simpler terms, then, schools teach children the principles of death and of suffering. They do
not teach them the principles of life, which is diversity, which is being out there in the world.
They teach them within closed systems, within closed buildings and walls, separated from the
rest of the world. They teach them that violence is legitimate when it is applied from the top to
the bottom and it is illegitimate when it is practised in resistance or defence of diversity and
life. They teach children that humanity is alien to this world, that success means pleasing
those in authority who will own the products of our flesh, of our effort, of our work, of our love.
R; What desires does a civilized education instil in children, and why?
L; This question is intimately linked to the first question, because to understand what desires
schools instil we obviously have to look at what is the purpose of schools. And the purpose of
schools is to ensure smooth operation civilization, hierarchy, leading to the expression we
have today of capitalism and its total use and abuse of the world, the environment, species,
human species, etc. Just as with animal resources, the civilized or domesticating owners need
to instil obedience, and the desire to please and to fulfil the needs of the domesticator. Human
beings are trained in exactly the same ways as the animals are, so they are trained to be
docile and to desire to please the owner of the resources. We cannot understand the system
of education today without looking at the training practices of dogs and horses and whatever
other animals are used for whatever purposes, be it hard labour, be it circus performances, be
it pets, or be it animals that are bred to be killed and eaten, or worn as clothes, etc.
So what the domesticator wants stems from an economic perspective, on whether an activity
is expensive, in terms of energy, or not. Obviously, part of spending energy is what allows our
organism to grow, but at the same time if you start spending too much energy without
replenishing, then obviously you start getting exhausted, and starvation, etc., causes us to die.
And one of the elements of training is the real threat of death by starvation or by being killed.
In the wilderness, everyone as an individual within a group or a group within a species
develops cultural strategies based on their accessibility to land, space, fresh water, fresh air,
and relationships – symbiotic, mutualistic relationships – in which that group or those
individuals engage. And they look for diversity. So not one group controls how the other group
explores its place in the wilderness – that access is a mutualistic space, shared by all. Well, in
domestication and civilization we see it very clearly now – that civilization is a product, a
material, cultural product of those relationships.
So schools use that in a very real way, in the sense that if that access to the community, to the diversity of community and that space, is blocked, and you promise some access or some
reward for services from that person or that group of persons now categorised as your
resources, then those resources will comply with your need, and in exchange for devalued
remuneration for labour and input, will perform. And the reasoning behind a whole system that
develops around this is that obviously you have to impose – that those individuals and those
groups will not learn how to obey, how to perform, address your needs, if they are free and if
they require an equal exchange.
So you already are dealing with inequality and classification built within the system itself and
the imposition, through threat and appeal to a real fear of death – the imposition of the desires
to comply with that paradigm, to comply with the needs of the domesticator, of the hierarchy.
So you cede your wilderness for the purpose of the domesticator. You accept to be rewarded
unfairly, and to learn how to see yourself as that resource and be happy with that docility and
with your performance. The better you perform, the better you obey, the more you are
rewarded. And, ultimately, if the classification itself is based on the premise of inequality, then
the resources that are being taught in schools a priori will not be seen as equal, and will not be
geared towards careers that will be rewarding for all. Some will have to fulfil the needs of
exploitation. Some will have to be exploited, and be quiet about it, and comply with that
classification. In other words, schools prepare two groups of people – the smaller group of the
elites, that is the haves; and the much larger group of the to be had. All puns intended. And so,
in order to do that, there are certain things you need to instil.
Ri What do schools do to our innate capacity for empathy, and why?
Li For you to be satisfied with your position in the hierarchy if you don’t happen to be in the
upper classes, the managerial classes, then you have to understand yourself as incapable of
living in the world. And so for you to fit into the civilized society your knowledge has to be
limited so that you learn only your place in that hierarchy and that niche. In order to create
such a society you need to alienate your resources from their needs, from their community –
you separate them physically and you alienate them epistemologically, from their own
knowledge, from their ability to learn how they feel about themselves, how they feel through
interactions with others, who are those others, and the innate capacity of organisms for
Empathy is, on the one hand, seen as simply the ability of a person to feel another being, feel
the experience, the emotions, the suffering or the happiness, and all that. This knowledge,
however, is a very important mechanism for balancing life and different systems in life.
Moments of predation or aggression are minimalised precisely by this mechanism, where
every individual learns and knows about the world, and has to be in tune with the world
through empathy and through consciousness. Consciousness is the awareness of that depth
of emotions and the understanding that those emotions bring to us about our place in the
universe. And consciousness has been co-opted by civilized humans and is misplaced in this
general use, so that it is self-awareness and is usually very narcissistic, in the sense that
humanity sees consciousness as the ability to see and recognise yourself in the mirror.
When we look at nonhuman species, particularly in wilderness – again, nonhuman species in
civilisation and domestication comply with the civilised and domesticated narrative; they do not
really show us how wilderness interacts and thrives. It is also a very narcissistic way of looking
and finding only our own aggrandisement through the exploited and abused domesticated
humans and nonhumans.
But in the wilderness, consciousness is that ability to know – and you see how animals
interact, plants interact, communicate with each other, there’s altruism. Peter Kropotkin, the
Russian anarchist and naturalist who corresponded with Darwin recognised this and proposed
to favour mutualism and empathy as the predominant mechanism that drives wilderness,
rather than as Darwin, who acknowledged that it existed, but kind of gave it a secondary place,
and focused more on adaptation and evolution as competition for resources and offspring. If
we look at it from this anarchist perspective on wilderness, we’ll see that what schools do is
precisely the opposite – that to domesticate children, educate them about themselves, what
they present as consciousness, as intelligence, intelligence of how to be in this world, is
exactly the opposite of being in the world. It’s being locked in a classroom. It’s being separated
from diversity and being taught by example, by the physical experience of incarceration, being
forced to obey and do the tricks in return for the grades that promise you a reward in the
And so the understanding of the human resources that grow in such a context will ultimately
be alienated from the self, will be unconscious about their own suffering and about the
suffering of the world. If we are given that narrative in the classroom and in the life that
structures our relationships outside of it, then ultimately most of us will forget that wilderness
we craved when we were born, and we will perform the tricks and compete with each other
and devastate the other and call it progress.
R; Can empathy for others be achieved through representation?
Lj. The problem with representation – it’s a problem for wilderness. For civilized knowledge and
self-reproduction of that epistemology, of that knowledge, representation is critical. Because if
you have a semiotic system, a symbolic system where something stands for something else,
at a certain point it is very easy to replace the original experience of what we could have
understood from the original thing or being, or phenomenon, or whatever. And so at a certain
point, then, we can represent something else with the same symbol – and that is the problem
of language. The problem of language is that it not only structures our understanding, our gaze
is actually controlled by what has been taught to us, what has been highlighted and
grammatically made available at all times to be used even in situations which you have no
direct knowledge of.
If you have a representation of a cat in your book and you are being told that this is an alien
from outer space that is made of tin, and you had never encountered a cat in your life, you’re
going to believe that. If you are going to be spun whatever stories around that being, you are
going to believe that. Actually, a lot of legends – and religion – is based on that. But what
people don’t realise is that even science, our scientific explorations, are being manipulated by language and by that system of representation, where we start seeing things from the
perspective in which we were formed.
And if we go back to our experience of civilization – well that perspective is always based on
that threat of hunger and, in certain places, where the need is, there’s capital punishment. And
the immediate violence, it’s still with us in the 21st century: with capital punishment in the
States and in many places, many African countries, Asian countries; and less dramatically,
say, in Europe, less visibly so, but it does not mean that the relationships are not based on the
same threat, it’s just that the representation makes a different story, through the language
which is used there, and the narrative looks a bit different, but it’s only the superficial details.
I can illustrate the problem of symbolic representation with the recent example of the so-called
‘migrant crisis’. We know that it has been documented widely that the lives that perish in the
Middle East under the bombs, the attacks by ISIS, and the migrants who are fleeing, obviously
illegally because movement, their movement, has been rendered illegal. The owners can
travel, but those seeking better opportunities are not allowed to travel, and so many of them
die. Many of them are children, but for whatever political party’s purposes, one child has been
picked, regardless of the reality, of the suffering and the brutal death of that child who drowned
in the Mediterranean, widely known as Aylan Kurdi, has been taken to represent everyone
else. Those who use that illustration, or photographs, or image, or symbolism, use it freely
without according a second thought to what the parents of the child may feel – the real child,
the real parents – and how it makes all the other parents suffering, whose children’s names are
not mentioned, invisible. And it becomes a political slogan, a flag that allows groups to further
their own agenda, their own voices, regardless of how it all perpetuates the same problem,
and how they appropriate and consume others’ suffering. So this is one of the most recent
illustrations, the most brutal illustrations, of the cruelty of symbolic culture.
So, regardless of the place, if it is civilized, it will have schools that will be implementing
methods of abstraction that will teach children to think through symbolic representation, rather
than from direct experience or relating other people’s experiences to one’s own. So the basic premise is still the same: Who are we and why are we here? And why do we need to teach if
beings for billions of years did not have institutions to tell them how to be in the world and the
world prospered? Why don’t we see the schools for what they are if they respond to the
civilized needs of our material dependency and the violence of that material culture – the
devastation, the desertification, the extermination of thousands of species, of billions of lives
for the food and clothing industry, and then all the other victims of those needs? For example:
if you’re going to mine, if you’re going to extract petroleum – well you’re turning that land
inhabitable for all life, all the species, human and non-human. But then the language helps us
veil that and erase the non-human and leave only humans. And even not all of the humans are
valued equally, if you look at the nomads and the Tuareg or the uncontacted tribes – they are
not valued at all, they’re not even seen as collateral damage. They’re just not noticed. There is
no empathy for them because the narrative, transmitted through this educational system, does
not give us that possibility, to experience their pain and to experience them as equal agents,
necessary agents, in the diversity of life. And so these questions are so tightly connected,
inextricably with each other and with our own place, the place that we have forged for
ourselves in this world.
R: What would you say to someone who told you that there is no such thing as human
nature and that the yearning for wildness you speak of all children having is only a
JLj. Of course we have been suffering civilization for thousands of years. It’s actually a very
short time in the history of life on Earth. But, yes, compared to our lifespan, of course it seems
like a very long time and so people tend to forget, they tend to forget consciously what it
means to be wild and free. And, again, to be wild is to engage mutualistically, empathetically
with the whole spectrum of possibilities of life forms on Earth, without controlling them, without
ascribing to them anthropocentric value. And so, yes, human nature, the understanding of
human nature within civilization, obviously, is problematic – it’s a social construct that sees
humans and their nature as different from non-human animals and non-human nature, and since they’re different, they’re separate from nature, then there is no human nature.
I would phrase the problem in a different way: What is the nature of life? Once we address the
nature of life, we ultimately come to the need for diversity, that life flourishes in diversity. It
started off from simplicity to more and more complexity and more complex interactions with the
different forms, without ascribing a forever value – that those forms will exist for my purpose, or
I will exist for the purpose of someone else. It is a fragile balance that individual actors and
groups have learned through billions of years how to guard and how to flourish. And that is the
nature of life. In this light, then, the nature of wilderness is life and the nature of life is
wilderness and mutuality. So when we talk about human nature, then, we need to clarify
whether we’re talking about civilized humans or wild humans.
So what is the nature of civilization then? Well, again, if we look at the roots of civilization,
when civilization started off – usually it is referred to at that moment when some humans
decided to domesticate resources: food, in terms of plants, their reproduction; appropriation of
the reproduction of others, that is of plants and animals, and so of the production and the
labour, forced labour, for the purposes of consumption, of eating, of killing, of owning. And so,
you see that the premise of civilization is built on giving no access to others, to space and food
and sources of livelihood. So it’s death, basically. The essence of civilization is
monoculturalism and it is rooted in the concept of permanence and ownership: that something
or someone can belong forever to someone else and cannot change; the ownership cannot
change unless the owner decides to give or sell or exchange the object of ownership for
whatever reason or whatever value in return. And usually it works as an accumulation of
previously acquired resources or capital. Permanence is the whole premise of private property
and the laws written around it. And it is these laws that bind us to these relationships.
It is monocultural because it is from the perspective of one group, the owners, that this whole
system is then being implemented. And agriculture itself is very monocultural, in the sense that
even the early agricultural projects demanded that the space be liberated from the unwanted
by the domesticators. So the whole concept of diversity is thrown out and we decided – well, we as civilized humans at that point decided – that anything that poses competition is
exterminated, anything that is useful for us to eat and kill is used. Monoculturalism and death.
But then you build a whole epistemology that the whole educational paradigm is built around,
transmitting that knowledge, that misrepresentation of the real premises, of the reality, of the
real nature of civilization. And so you present wilderness as something outside, out there, and
hostile, in need to be domesticated and sterilized and controlled, because it is threatening,
whereas civilization is where we as humans can escape and can find life. And it’s the other
way round; it’s misrepresentation of what wilderness is. Wilderness gives us life. And tuning
back to that nature of life, if you want to remain alive, if you want to cede that place of the
ultimate predator, the ultimate parasite that we have attributed to ourselves, we need to tune
back into the nature of life and give up the culture of death.
Finally, the most important point, perhaps, in the nature of wilderness, of wildness, and the
universe at large is: chaos and change. Because chaos is order and harmony, and change
leaves us hope and room for action, because if at one point humans chose the path of
civilization, there is still the option to choose the path of wilderness. We should not think and
believe that we are stuck in permanence, that this is the final product. This is not the final
product – this is the final product of death, of devastation, of destruction. But we can choose to
re-wild ourselves. And we can choose to embrace life once again, with the principles of life and
all the surprises that chaos and the unexpected brings us.
And so, yes, on the one hand, I agree it’s all a social construct, but it’s a social construct that
has been misrepresented, mis-used, mis-applied, in order to force us to accept suffering and
death and murder, of ourselves and of the planet, and call it life and call it love, and call it
safety. Whereas we are the ultimate danger to the world and to ourselves.
Rl Don’t humans have a natural tendency towards violence? Don’t we need schools to
control our violent natures?
Lj. Civilized humans have a natural tendency towards violence because they are structured
through violence. And what I mean by that is that any step we take towards accessing
resources has to be negotiated, and the negotiation pact is ultimately unequal, it classifies us
unequally and gives us unequal access to rewards of our own labour, of our own re-enactment
of the system of domestication and civilization. And there’s always, like I said, at the basis
there is the threat of violence, through food, lack of access to space, but also clear violence of
extermination – if you pose a threat you are exterminated. Do wild animals, for example,
occupy human spaces? Well, the whole world has been rendered a human space, with the
population growth and the cities growth. Wild animals are exterminated. Humans who pose a
threat to this system are exterminated. And so the tendency towards violence is ensured and
that nature is reproduced and socially moulded through education, because it constantly
reminds us that there is no way out of this system of violence, that we have to play our part as
resources. The police, the soldiers, the rebels – they all re-enact their roles within that domain
that leaves the civilization and extraction of energy as a one-way system from the masses at
the bottom, the resources, to the owners at the top.
As I discuss in my book, ‘Wild Children: Domesticated Dreams’, that system, its methodology
itself, then reproduces the violence, and the bullying, and the competition, and the fear. And
those who graduate successfully have learned how to re-enact it. But even those who drop out
are not given many chances but to occupy spaces that are rife with the threat of extermination.
So alternative economies are still part of the main economy that always circles around
resources and access to them.
And so schools reproduce that system through the methods of teaching – through grades,
through punishment, through rewards, through the fear of starvation and the future and other
forms of punishment. And in different cultures they take different forms, from physical and
violent outbursts of abuse to the more refined psychological-emotional punishment.
1 gave a talk on bullying – it was on crime and reward from an anarcho-primitivist perspective –
2 years ago, at the Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia. You can find it online . I
discussed there how historical narratives legitimate and frame that question. The fact that the hierarchy itself exists – that is already a bullying structure. Then the question becomes: Who
has the right to implement power and violence and who doesn’t? Who, then, gets
criminalised? That is part of the framework within which children are taught in school. And this
is the first lesson they learn; everything else comes in bits and pieces – it’s like jigsaw puzzles;
they fall into places within the larger narrative. But this is the experience that becomes the
memory of our flesh, the memory of how we were, what we feared, what made us happy. And
teachers play a critical role in transmitting this narrative and these memories. Perhaps the
good teacher does it even more successfully, by rendering the threat invisible, but at the same
time it’s very dishonest. And here I’m talking about young children. University is a different
story, because university level continues that cycle, the system that was started, but grown-
ups or young people reaching adulthood – they crave to be out in the world and to learn from
the world, so they go into these institutions sometimes having an awareness of what place
they want to occupy in the hierarchy, and sometimes not. Within the civilized model it kind of
perpetuates the same problem.
But what I’m talking about is the really young children, when their need is for the tight warmth
of people they trust – their direct family and the community of which that family is a part. And,
again, the community in the wilderness is always diverse: the trees that are around you, the
rivers, the creeks, the birds, the plants, the animals. They are all part of that community in
which the child is born and in which the child finds safety and explores safely and learns
through experience and empathy and cueing into the consciousness of that community
naturally, rather than being taught that these things you can learn and others not. And,
obviously, pretty early on they cue into what’s dangerous, what’s safety. But as Kropotkin said:
the primary state of wilderness is safety, and, yes, dangerous things happen, but it’s sporadic,
it’s not the rule, and, usually, the community of life responds with protection of the members.
And so within that community there is no notion of even teaching anyone anything, because it
is assumed that individuals want to be part of that community of life. They know how to tune
into life and they will continue to reproduce that knowledge of life, its principles. But in a culture such as civilization that is premised on death and predation – where humans
construct themselves as the ultimate predators, are proud to be so-called successful
predators, and this whole knowledge, this whole understanding of human nature in civilization
is that of predation, of the ultimate predator – then you relinquish the children to a system that
will domesticate them and tell them that they are simultaneously predators and prey to be
consumed as labour. And so the spaces that these children go out in to occupy will be
rendered dangerous by this very anthropology of predation. And they are being sold a lie,
because most children will not grow up to be the top predator, they will be exploited. And so
rape and the violence that are in most schools around the world today – we see in America it’s
very loud, but everywhere else as well: this year’s school shooting in Kenya, in different African
countries. And the genocides – and the genocides maybe in different parts of the world do not
always address the children alone. But in a society that sees itself as predatory against the
world, but also within human species itself, this violence does not have to be specific to
schools. If a whole country is being bombed, schools and women, the elderly and the people
who are not so mobile, will ultimately be addressed by the bombs and all the other forms of life
So violence is present and characteristic of civilization and is rooted in this anthropology of
ourselves as ultimate predators giving ourselves the green light to conquer the world for the
purposes of agricultural civilization, hunting, domestication, and carnivory. And that is what set
us off on this road to disbalance, towards the doom, which is climate change. Nobody at this
stage denies that climate change is here, that the species are vanishing, that the non-human
species suffer by the billions in silence. For the most part it’s unacknowledged, it’s naturalized
and it’s seen as business as usual – that’s normal. And so the narcissistic fear that “moi-the-
beautiful before the mirror aware of myself, ‘What shall I eat next?’”, and it’s fear that you shall
not eat and you shall most probably die. And then, how do you make sense of it? To address
these problems, we necessarily have to link them to what we learn and how we learn.
So back to the beginning then. If we are taught in isolation in the classroom, we will not find the solutions. If we are taught that we are the most important, the most advanced, the most
beautiful species in the image of God or in the image of the ultimate possibility of evolution, we
will get nowhere to even beginning to address the disastrous effects of such self-knowledge
and self-admiration. So we have to humble down and see ourselves as the animals that we
are, and find our way among the animals, as those who choose life, who choose to know the
world, to know the suffering of the world and respond to it. Empathy requires a response.
And how do we respond to the world adequately? First of all, acknowledge that the same
system, the same methods of domestication that have been used to rid the free, wild animal of
its will are used in the schools to rid the free, wild human being of its will – the will to live. There
are seven billion of us in the world and we’re too far gone into civilization to unleash seven
billion people on the last remnants of the wilderness. I will not find that fair; it is
anthropocentric. So the way forward would be to re-wild ourselves and that means to re-wild
our relationships with our spaces – the spaces we occupy, the spaces we think are private, in
the sense ‘as human’. That’s also a construct of this representational thinking: that all the
nation state belongs to all the citizens of the nation. The citizens are only humans, and the
citizens usually have a hierarchy of which ethnic groups or which races have more rights, are
more equal than others. Even within the human spectrum, any civilized nation state abides by
So how do we undo the borders? Well the borders are there in our classificatory system, on
which we base our understanding of the world, our epistemology, our knowledge of the world.
And the classificatory system of humanity is ultimately – as I have tried to show – bound to our
class, of the niche, of the resources that we occupy. And so to undo those borders and to re-
wild those public spaces and private spaces is to invite diversity of life in which the other will
be engaged with as a free agent, regardless of whether that other is a ladybug, a weed, an
animal, or even something that is not alive.
Another crucial point that needs to be addressed in civilization, which is intricately linked to
how we know ourselves and the world is, of course, the reproduction of resources – labour
resources or resources of consumption, so human resources and domesticated animals that
will be eaten, consumed, as workforce or otherwise. Because the economic system requires
an infinite growth we have come to a point where civilization has become unsustainable and
human population growth has to be addressed. Well, China has for years implemented the
one child policy. Birth control is critical. I’m not calling for killing or murdering – obviously that is
not what should be on the table – but a serious and responsible approach to child-birth. And
that needs a re-wilding of the people themselves, as well as their epistemology, so that they
will see their possibilities differently, that their relationships will be different. Rather than
producing human resources for labour, where the rational is ‘the more you produce the better’,
the quality of your relationships will be different if you focus on that new child as a wild being,
between you and the wild world. And so you’re going to make everything possible for that
world to be viable for that child, and your understanding of that child will be very different than
for a child or children that you give to the State as a resource, to be educated as a resource, to
be domesticated in order to domesticate and colonise the Earth.
In my new book, titled, ‘Children’s Literature. Domestication, and Social Foundation: Narratives
of Civilization and Wilderness’ . I address both the economic and the epistemological
classification system and then how the narratives reproduce themselves, or reify themselves,
how they make themselves real. In this book, ‘Wild Children, Domesticated Dreams:
Civilization and the Birth of Education’, I look at the civilization itself and how it required the
system that we have today, and how it’s not accidental, that system – it’s the logical
manifestation of the rationale on which it is built. And so, just to clarify: When I talk about re-
wilding, I do not mean the cliche of the mainstream – that you just are wild, you do what you
like and basically don’t care for anyone else, and no orders and no gods and whatever. In the
anarchist understanding of wilderness, it is the responsibility of each individual to want to keep
the balance of life in that community of diversity and life. And so wilderness means that you do
that because you find it meaningful to care for the world, to care for others, to be happy with
them. You don’t do that as in civilization – to respond to the needs of someone else in a one-
way flow of energy. So there’s the difference that in civilization the system is parasitic: it
always extracts from the bottom to the top, and the bottom is always recompensed for its
output of energy unequally and unjustly and with the minimum possible. So if they suffer and
perish or are depleted of energy, well, ‘too bad, there will be more’. That’s the premise of
civilization, while in wilderness all agents find ways to satisfy their wild needs within a
balanced economic system of mutualism.
So when I talk about re-wilding ourselves, it is re-orienting our flow of energy from bottom to
some humans up on top of the hierarchy into a diversity of community that is viable and that is
thriving and that is happy. Because through empathy the happiness of all is then felt by its
individuals. And once we understand and once we start practising that, de-schooling will
happen and diversification will happen, and the viability will return. But the problem is that the
system will not let us do it and the individuals who guard the system will not let us do it. That is
the ultimate question that we face; in the end it is not a coincidence. And, actually, it’s not even
a silly mistake that civilization has taken the form and the shape and the magnitude it has
today. It’s because those who resisted have been killed. The wars today reflect that premise
and reflect that reality, reflect the method with which we learn. And we need to find and muster
the strength to re-wild ourselves within humanity, but most importantly within a wild world.
R: Would you say that raising children as wild as possible within civilization makes it
hard for them to survive within civilization?
L; Phrasing the question in these terms already entails a limited understanding of who are the
children with whose welfare we are supposed to be concerned. Because that is precisely the
problem – that children who are defined as resources already have it so difficult in civilization;
for example: the children of pigs, the children of cows, the human children in Africa, in Asia
working in poverty. Even in Europe during Industrialism children worked in the mines for 16, 17
hours a day, died at a really young age. So already there is little concern or regard for the well-
being of these children.
So who are the children we are talking about? Are we talking about European or white
American children? Well those too are divided into classes that most in the poorer classes –
the divisions we see in the States is divided out racially, in Europe it’s ethnically-nationally and
racially as well, depending on where you are. This whole concept of ‘migrant crisis’ in Europe
today – is there a concern for those children of those who are ousted from the sources of
energy, access to food, access to living conditions, whose lands have been appropriated? And
the children in the indigenous reservations, First Nations in Canada, in South America the
dams, the petroleum companies, the deforestation that threatens at every step those children?
Raising those children as wild doesn’t really address the core of the problem.
It is the elites that should be rewilded – their interests, their privileges should be abolished,
banished. And their children and themselves and their needs and relationships should be
rewilded by ceding those privileges and that consumption of the lives of their so-called
resources, their ownership. Only then will it be possible to re-wild the world. As long as the
ultimate predator exists and consumes we shall continue our path towards death. And so, yes,
raising children as wild would make all these distinctions obsolete and would make civilization
itself impossible. Wilderness will undermine the civilized access to knowledge of the world,
about the world, about ourselves in the world, and the structures of exploitation and
consumption that construct us as unequal agents in this world. And so in wilderness groups
will make their own choices, but the children will not be coerced to fulfil an agenda, to play a
role, to consume others and to be consumed as a permanent class that reproduces itself for
that consumption. And that probably is the key to de-schooling our society and ourselves.
The purpose of schools, once challenged, will allow us to interact with the already available
information, the already constructed knowledge and its premises, in a different way, a new
way, a wild way. So that we can really head towards healing ourselves as humanity that has
constructed itself as humanity, rather than understanding ourselves as animality, as part of
wilderness, as the nature of life and wilderness. And it may seem paradoxical that so far we do
rely on the scientific material, and there is a lot of, I guess, earnest attempt to understand the
workings of life. But ultimately our interests are informed and shaped by this system in which we work and for whose benefit we live. So ultimately we have stakes in this system and if we
work in it, we work for it, we reproduce it with our time and with our flesh, even when it acts
against us, even when it consumes us. Our hopes and aspirations are allowed to be realised
differently – and basically what I mean here is that it’s Europe and America and the white world
that continues to hold the key to the construction of knowledge and the kind of research that is
being done. And so the perspective is ultimately tainted by that domestication. If you are being
allowed to access food (and now it’s symbolic currency, salaries), to produce and reproduce
and participate in production and reproduction of knowledge, your stakes will be within this
domesticated hierarchy in which you will have a more comfortable role to play than the objects
of your knowledge. So there’s ultimately already, within the institution that produces
knowledge, that separation and alienation. And that happens at every level, starting with what
knowledge and what perspective you raise young children with, but then how you are going to
express those narratives in a more complicated and complex and nuanced way in academia,
on the higher level, graduate university, post-graduate university, and then a professorship,
post-doctoral research and professorial research, etc. Does it allow us to really face ourselves
in the end? Domestication does not allow us. So even if we do find that opening and we do
decide that we want to venture out, the system is so bullet-proof and water-tight that it will not
allow that perspective to undermine its own ivory tower and its foundation, the hierarchy.
And so I would turn the question around and say: To what extent, then, is it possible to be wild
within civilization and to re-wild civilization? The question is not: Will it allow us to fulfil our wild
purpose without it making a profit? Because if it doesn’t make a profit, if we challenge the
structure and undermine the economic flow in any way, we are eradicated. The real question
is: To what extent is civilization tolerant of us? And so, yes, then, that is perhaps the whip that
keeps the parents in shape – that they would be afraid to raise their children wild. But the
parasitic system has come to a place where we really don’t have any choice. If we could close
our eyes, even, say, five-hundred years ago – at this point I don’t even know if it’s reversible.
All we can hope for is to stop the madness of re-enacting our roles within that civilized model,
just stop that tempo and really do all we can to re-wild ourselves and find that knowledge of what the world is really like because of us and what the world is really like without us, and
what the world could really be like if we accept that wilderness and love it, and love ourselves
as part of that wilderness, which is life.
How are we going to raise our children alive? This is the basic question that permeates all of
my work. In fact, I even started on my quest through journalism, through anthropology with that
question. How do we return to life and return life, to our poor, suffering, dying planet?
Rl Where can people find out more about your work, Layla?
Li For more on my work, you’re welcome to visit my website: lavla.miltsov.org . Read more, but
ultimately those ideas and the critique that I offer is only a step – it will never be the solution in
itself. The wilderness has to be lived and wilderness has to be saved, and that begins by re-
wilding ourselves outside of books and outside of the internet and the technologies.
Rl Thank you very much, Layla.
Li Thank you very much.
R; ‘Wild Children – Domesticated Dreams: Civilization and the Birth of Education’ is
published by Fernwood Publishing.
This interview was conducted by Richard Capes for the site moretht.blogspot.com and
recorded November 2015. Thank you for listening.