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I want to explore who can act as an “ancestor.” In doing so, I find myself having to carefully consider many of my words because “ancestry” can be a very triggering and loaded concept. In the commonplace sense, we usually approach “ancestor” with a focus on genetic inheritance and on those most proximately responsible for the sources and transmission of the genetic information shaping the existence of and culminating in the living. That is, we typically focus on who had sex with whom, and we establish hierarchical family trees, and so forth and so on.

However, within an animist worldview in which more-than-human “things” can have interiority and agency, can indeed be more-than-human persons, then I would argue that we should expand how we consider the “sources and transmission of genetic information.” If we decouple personhood from an exclusive human frame—we typically equate personhood with humanhood—then ancestry can unfurl for us into potentially, radically horizontalized flow models rather than the top-down, hierarchical models that emphasize paternity, let alone being prone to “blood and soil” approaches, in which we are always downstream from some “pure,” “original” source.

This hierarchical perspective can reproduce the power dynamics inherent in ideas like the Great Chain of Being (or Golden Chain), which premises itself on the idea that some God/the Father/the King is at the top of Creation, and everyone descends from him, with that dynamic of Father>Descendants reproduced in an almost fractal manner at all levels. Indeed, this fractalized hierarchy provided some of the primary logical bases for patriarchal and monarchical power structures: just as God rules Creation, so does the King rule the Kingdom, so does the Father rule the Household, with every Father the King of their Castle and de facto God to his Holy Family.[1]

Interiority of DNA

If we accept that “objects” can have interiority and “spirits,” and if we embrace a view of our ancestors that includes “spirits,” then it seems reasonable to consider DNA—and genetic information more inclusively—has having interiority. Indeed, I’m tempted to argue that the interiority of our DNA includes our ancestral spirits.

I use the scare quotes with “spirits” and “objects” mostly because I haven’t defined what I mean by spirits, and I find it a bit flattening and deadening to call en-spirited objects or objects with interiority of some kind mere “objects.” However, I’m not speaking in only lyrical or metaphorical terms. You and your genetics and your genetic expressions and your choices and actions are the visible protrusions of your ancestors into our waking, human world, the world of the living—as are their remains, of course.[2]

Sources and Transmission

Recent research points to the recognition in western science that our genetics can be influenced by environmental factors. The most visible research anchors itself in the genetics of Holocaust survivors and their descendants, even as some research points to how trauma is not the only factor. For example, nurturing environments can help reverse epigenetic effects of trauma while presumably further shaping how genetic information will express down the family line.

Now, these studies put me in mind of several things, but primary to my topic here is that choices and actions affect the sources and transmission of genetic inheritance and thus our ancestry.

I mean, on one level, this is obvious. Our parents and so on made some kind decision to have sex and to raise their children in whatever manner.[3] Less obvious, though, is how our immediate bloodline ancestors’ decisions were shaped (or outright denied), how they were inspired or spurred to make their decisions and to act, and how their ancestors had been similarly shaped.

Now, I have a few points that lead from the above. Firstly, I want to complexify a purely physiological perspective on what ancestry does and contains. Here, I’m moving beyond that commonplace focus on genetics, or at least as we usually understand genes and their expression into the world.[4] Their expression includes ourselves and our culture, our actions in this world, and the worlding of the larger world around us.

Secondly, that larger world and worlding directly shape our sources and transmission of genetic information and everything else that ancestry does, and in that sense, the more-than-human world and the larger human world can be included under “ancestry.”

This point is perhaps most controversial where outright trauma is involved. Before I move into the controversial point, let me stress that I do not think all “ancestors” should be treated equally, and everyone has ancestors whom they should not celebrate or include on the ancestral shrine. I pointed above to the research on Holocaust survivors, so I will return there. The Holocaust survivors and their children were shaped by the Nazis who perpetuated the Holocaust. Let me try to make this point very clearly, but delicately, in the form of a question: to what degree does the broader sense of “ancestry” for the descendants of Holocaust survivors include the Holocaust itself and those who enacted, enabled, and supported the Holocaust, including whatever “demons”[5] inspired the Holocaust in the first place? The same question is valid for any population who has suffered through similar horrific violence and oppression.

I think those of us who aren’t monsters would agree that the survivorship, the endurance, and the perseverance of the survivors merit celebration and memorialization. The same is true for the dead who did not survive. We should memorialize the horror as well, but we obviously should not celebrate the horror because we are not monsters, or at least we shouldn’t want to be. At the same time, the descendants of the perpetrators of trauma have also been shaped by that trauma. Note, I am not conflating or equating the effects of trauma on victims with the effects on the victimizers: the effects are not equivalent.

In both cases, though, I would argue that the ancestry includes wounds that must be addressed, confronted, healed somehow, and resolved. The relationship between victims and victimizers, and their respective descendants, must be addressed in some way, too. To be fair to individuals and individual families, the labor in question is…individual, personal, a matter for the living and the (perhaps literal) ghosts of their pasts.

That said, some individuals may be able and willing to also confront this labor at a cultural or community level. I am put in the mind of the idea of “sorry business” in Indigenous Australian culture. I’ll quote Michael Cohen, Paul Dwyer, and Laura Ginters on “sorry business”:

the phrase implies an altogether more active engagement with kin and country. When a family member dies, for instance, an Indigenous person will speak of “having sorry business” in the sense of having things to do. The sorrowful event propels you and the rest of your community into a set of mutually binding, ritual obligations, such as not referring to the deceased by name, performing particular songs and dances at a funeral ceremony, and so on. Clearly, such actions involve a powerful integration of performance, community identity, and cultural memory. They are liminal practices in the fullest sense of the term…an active, engaged understanding of “sorry business” has also begun to feature in cultural performances where Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are together negotiating a response to what is shared in their history.[6]

I point to “sorry business” not to say that non-Indigenous Australian communities should appropriate their practices, but to argue that one approach to resolving such ancestral traumas may entail developing similar processes that accommodate the cultures and communities involved. These ancestral rites should seek to heal the ancestral wounds for all sides, if at all possible.[7] The healing in question should also be seen as probably working at a generational timeframe, so long as the business is taken up seriously by all sides.

Ancestors of Place, and More

Ancestors of Trauma, or of Culture, of Community are certainly some of what the expanded view of ancestry I’m getting at can include. I also want to consider others, which are more explicitly more-than-human.

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Who can count as an ancestor? As always, it depends on how you define and describe “ancestors.” If we think about who the potential agents are who can shape the sources of genetics and their vectors of transmission, then, well, are we not the sum of all actions, matter, sunlight, plants, food, water, inspiration, and choices, human and more-than-human, that result in us walking around now and thinking about Stuff. These agents are not “just” the humans who had traded genetic material to weave together ultimately under your mother’s womb’s gestational care. The rivers, forests, seas, fields, and more that provided water, food, power, and pacts with country: they all contribute to our genetic inheritance, or at least the processes by which we’re all here now. So too did the animals our ancestors ate and/or worked with, the stars that spurred one human ancestor to flirt with another, or even that “fictional” character one ancestor liked (or hated) from that one shitty Roman comedy that stayed with them and influenced how they treated another ancestor. We know trauma and lived experiences and environment change individual expressions of and actual genetics. So, really, all of these beings can be ancestors for shaping, influencing, making us come into the world as we have thus far and will continue in the future—even as we are doing the same thing to the ten thousand things all down the timeline.

No pressure.

Of course, not everything has the same immediate significance from our ancestry for our lives today. I’m not saying that we should reduce all of everything that came before us into some inchoate blob of “ancestors,” or if I am, then I do so to try to help us see beyond the humancentric, or even blood and soil prone, view of ancestors that remains predominant in the west. Or, rather than the simplistic, family tree model as being as far as we think with ancestors—I think family trees serve a purpose—it’s moving from that highly limited model to what is very much a flow model, in which we owe as much to country, to the stars, to other peoples, to ideas, as we do to the people who had sex and may have raised us.

I think this expanded, more-than-human view of ancestry should also lead us to ask, “What does sorry business look like between us and the more-than-human world?”

At the same time, this flow model also accommodates larger views of what ancestry entails. My students will be part of my legacy, and they may be the closest I get to having “kids.” And I think the flow model works better for helping adopted folks have legitimate adopted ancestors, even if they aren’t immediate “ancestors of blood.”

And, well, the pets my family had while I was growing up, they’re part of who I am today, even as the feral tomcat my Dad had when he was growing up is kinda an ancestor of mine, too.

I’m probably not going to light a candle for that cat, though.

Still, I can imagine a family dog from a few generations back being part of the ancestral “spirit team” a person goes through this life with. I can imagine Claudius the Goofy, Roman comic bawdy buffoon, showing up as another ancestral guide to someone. And, well, the living may not know that dog was an ancestor’s dog, or that Claudius is “fictional,” but for whatever reason, the living descendant might need them…or maybe they need the living. And it can be both.

Featured Image: jplenio | Pixabay

[1] I have noted to my students in the past that patriarchal authority may survive as well as it does because it offers every man the chance to become his own petty patriarchal deity/king, to rule his (usually destitute) demesne.

[2] The use of human remains in necromancy—let alone the use of one’s own blood for contact with one’s ancestors of blood—is ancient and well-conserved.

[3] Note that I’m framing this point in this way to acknowledge that not everyone’s parentage may have been mutually consensual or intentional, nor did everyone’s parents choose to raise (or not) their children in necessarily ideal ways.

[4] Again, I try to choose my words quite deliberately. If DNA is organized—or organizes itself—like a language, then arguably all human languages and the discourse that develops are expressions (consider my word choice here) of that underlying genetic language. We are DNA expressing itself, the discourse of life, as it were. After all, the universe probably isn’t run on “code” so much as on stories and discourse.

[5] Ideas—which could be seen as another way of thinking with the concept of “spirits”—can have agency, too. I use “demons” here not to detract from the human-side of the agencies that committed the Holocaust but to point to how demonic ideas expressed themselves through demonic people, or demonic ideas had demonic people, to adapt from Jung. Whether or not those “demons” were specifically a particular class of spirits we might typically associate with “demons” (like the demons from the Goetia spirit lists or something similar) is not at all my interest here.

[6] Michael Cohen, Paul Dwyer, and Laura Ginters, “Performing ‘Sorry Business’: Reconciliation and Redressive Action,” in Victor Turner and Contemporary Cultural Performance, edited by Graham St John (New York: Berghahn, 2008), 76.

[7] Much has been said of late about the West’s ahistorical construction of individuality in relation to the community as very compartmentalized domains. Indeed, the view of ancestry I’m articulating here very much has those domains flow into and through each other.

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