Dysfurria: A Manifesto — by Alec Esther
by Dogpatch Press Staff
Welcome to Alec Esther, a new media theorist and aesthetic scholar. Alec uses “affect theory” to investigate how people find belonging and becoming in group spaces. Alec’s undergraduate thesis was about Porter Robinson’s Virtual Self project. Now here’s a critical personal reflection about the furry fandom, and the feeling of distance between internal self and external fursona.
I. Pentagon Dust
“Wait a second,” my bunny-eared DJ buddy stopped us mid-walk. “You don’t actually HAVE a fursona, do you?!”
We were hopping along the San Jose Doubletree halls to find refuge in a PAWCon room party when the question arose. I’d hoped to dodge his accusations at least before a drink or five, but my neck was barren of badges sans my con admission. I guess that justified his suspicion: what kind of furry would frolic about a convention without a testament to their fuzzy side? Yet the remark only reminded me of the discomfort of human skin, the way it bumps and tingles at the first sign of trouble. My DJ name was on a flyer of his creation, advertising the very same party to which we strode. He knew who I was. Was there a part of me that mattered more?
I stashed this question in my carry-on and flew it back to my then-home in Arizona, a state in which I’d just partied the weekend prior at Arizona Fur Con 2019. I had only 48 hours before I’d be on another flight to an even greater challenge: a weekend in Florida spent with a furry mentor and his friends. Loath am I to pass up an adventure, but the thought of being surrounded by more “established” furries filled me with a hollow dread. More intimidating than the social falsehood of “popufur” status was the feeling of self-fulfillment that I knew I lacked. From the moment of my arrival in MCO, I’d be a fursona non grata in the inescapable form of isolated flesh.
It was not yet the weekend when I landed in Orlando. The others would touch down on Friday, and Thursday had yet to wreak its temporal terror. That day I took my mentor’s offer to accompany him to the UCF campus as he took his Thursday classes. I sought comfort in the arts building, just as I often did during my Midwestern education in art history, and admired the great works of UCF’s aesthetes until one peculiar project tackled my stomach to the tile floor.
Across from me hung a woodblock print of a tiger pawing a soccer ball. The slight slant of his eyebrows signaled an immeasurable depth of worry. Above his back a condor spread its wings, holding a #2 jersey with placid pride—and only a faint mountain range in the background seemed to connect this athletic accolading to a place past the hall in which I witnessed it.
Passersby warped around me as I internalized its every line. Messy graphite in the margins titled the piece El Caballero del Fútbol, a reference to the late Colombian athlete Andrés Escobar and his contemplative playstyle. But beyond the boundaries of real-world referentials I knew this tiger. I saw in him the essence of my favorite text-based roleplay character whom my mentor had met in an elsewhere long abandoned. This tiger was the reflection of countless jockish moodboards and visual collages stashed in my dusty Google Drives. And the question of his jersey-clad existence was one I’d ask myself in lieu of commissioning artist friends. Each contour of that printed tiger’s nine-shaped tail was a reminder of the striped soccer player that had existed inside of me for so long, yet could never quite come out at my call, stuffed inside the never-unpacked travel bag I called my grief. For so long I had wanted him out of me—and here he was, an omen of my current discomfort, intensifying and yet deconstructing all that I knew about my desires to become something greater than myself.
I opened Telegram. “Hey,” I texted my friend. “When you’re out of class, come to the art building. I wanna show you something.”
We beheld the image together for a millisecond upon his return, the hallway quieting as if in mourning. “It’s good,” I spoke through the silence. I knew he would understand, that his eyes would trace each pentagon and the ridges of his paws, making the connection to a self only he had seen in actio-
“Yup,” he chirped. “You ready to go?”
I blinked. “I mean, I just want a moment with this- there’s…” I forced the feeling out of me, upset that the tiger’s company couldn’t do so alone. “Just, the emotion in his face…”
My mentor squinted. “Yeah… What little there is of it, anyway. Okay; shall we go?”
Just like that we returned to the car, he from his classes and I from a funeral for my future self. I was unsure of what had just occurred, but I did know that I was still in waiting, breath bated in hopes of reconstructing the immediate intimacy I had felt with the tiger just prior—and how insidious, the following invalidation. But the invalidation of what? My friend hadn’t done me any harm. No one had. Had they? So why did I feel as heavy as wood myself, cut and spliced into plaintive shards, dripping from the eyes with painted anger?
El Caballero was an affective cataclysm whose tremors I could not quite grasp. The tiger felt as guarding as he was guarded, grounding me in his presence long enough to bring me closer to him. But I could not shake the feeling that, in that moment of reciprocity, I had confessed in no uncertain terms an inner self for which I reflexively longed. That tiger… I wanted him to pull me out of myself and thrust me back inside the person that he and I could have been, and I wanted my mentor to behold that person, too, and I did not know why I wanted any of these things at all.
This memoir-manifesto hopes to address that which has led to my personal furry friction: the problem of the fursona and its identitarian distance. I draw upon Brian Massumi’s theory of “affect,” part of the experience of feeling something, to argue that the fursona is a dysphoric object that does not constitute open identity so much as it enforces identity’s dead-end nature within the furry fandom at large. I conclusively claim that furry processes of “homecoming” all too often require displacing the same self that needs a home in which to heal. I end this manifesto with a call to foster furry belonging that pivots from the notion that we must find home in others, including the others that we make for ourselves.
II. Fellow Feelings
Most of us enter the furry fandom through the funny feelings we get from those of fuzzier persuasions. We find animals evocative: their forms of play are exciting, their aesthetics sensorily appealing. Critical theorist Brian Massumi defines this fuzzy logic as “affect,” or the sense of feeling something, through which we move into a new state of being. Our becomings as furries start with a sensation — like a fursuit hug, a tear shed to a Disney film, or maybe an erotic reckoning. While these moments “move us” in the emotive sense of the phrase, Massumi argues that this “movement” is actually a literal shifting of our subjective states. If we have an affecting encounter with art or objects, then the “affect” of that encounter leads us to conceptualize new ways that we might live or be. For some, Simba’s smirks or a fursuit performance have no fundamental importance. For others, their affect is transformative, begging questions of identity, resonance, and fetish whose answers to which the affected subject feels their way.
The most important part of affect is that it doesn’t tell us what those answers are. Things that affect us open the door to new understandings of ourselves, but it’s up to us to move through that door, and there’s no one on the other side of it that defines what we’ll be when we get there. We make sense of ourselves through these encounters without conceding to a greater sense of culture nor purpose, venerating our experiences in ways entirely our own.
What does an ineffective affect look like? Consider the outrage of fans when a band presumably “sells out.” Suddenly the ways that the band shepherds us to self-understanding have been compromised. Their affect returns a new value that dominates our interpersonal contact with them, now inescapable from the green hue of major-label marketing. Massumi calls this feeling “stasis,” or the point where affect can’t move us anymore. Anyone who’s experienced the frustration of stasis knows that it’s all in their heads. It’s an affect, not a provable science. Yet our ability to intuit how outside actors “trap” affect is crucial to our becomings. Affect’s autonomy relies on its indeterminacy. If we feel that the affect guiding us has “something else” to it that’s on the tip of our tongues, affect loses its efficacy.
To move with affect again, we need to make a space in which the door is a collective gateway to our greater selves. Affect doesn’t direct us to a higher power. Affect moves us towards ourselves and others, such as those who define in their own ways what furry affect means to them. The things that activate our fuzzy feelings create points in which we find each other equally transformed—and through the mediation of these emotional charges we create our so-called culture.
In other words, furriness is a state of mind that we collectively create through our individual emergence. We enter the fold of furriness by folding into each other’s affected states.
III. Static Machine
Maybe it’s no coincidence that Massumi’s best example of “becoming” starts on the soccer field. According to his theory, we become soccer players because the ball mobilizes us with its appearance. The goals catalyze our movement, sanctifying the ground on which we run. These connections mold us into players — yet we, the affected ones, are the masters of what that play looks like. Our becoming as “Soccer Players” is really just a conversation between our bodies and a polyvinyl presence whose screams of “kick me!” we are obliged to answer. Wrapped in the goals’ embrace, we translate all that we feel in the ball into an activity to which we intentionally belong.
In my mind’s eye I stand before my favorite tiger on one of those fields, guarding the goal to which the youthful feline looks for an opening. My tiger prances about the pentagons with a determined demeanor, hungry to score just as I’m hungry for his sense of self-satisfaction. His sweat-matted hair spikes in fluffy triumph as he wipes his forehead with the bottom of his shirt. His black stripes contrast not with brilliant orange but instead a purplish-white hue, as if a shadow spread across his snowy Bengal fur. And though he’s never told me his name, I know him as well as I know myself, the person staring in somber delight at his feisty, fearless form.
Any other furry would know this tiger as a “fursona,” or a character created either to manifest oneself in anthropomorphic likeness or simply as a fun exercise in animalistic design. Surely my tiger befits a bit of both descriptions. He’s the visual ideation of an alternate path of my former youth, one where I might have run my interest in soccer into the very dirt below us. Each grass stain he bears on his jersey is one I avoided on my journey to academic success. I won’t sugarcoat this part, either: he’s skinnier than I am. Plenty about him screams “self-insert,” a fetishistic wish fulfilled within the confines of my life story. But he’s his own person, too, whose individuality underlines an identity beyond mine. Just as some see their fursonas as characters with no bearing on nor stake in their creators, my tiger straddles the line between fictionalizing my reality and calling pure fiction his home.
So why can’t I call myself a part of his? Why does seeing him hurt so much?
I think of the tension between us as I gaze upon his playful posture. I want to play with him. But “wanting” is a logical term here: he would not traverse this field at all if I didn’t want him to exist. And I want my tiger to exist because he materializes for me the journey I’ve taken along my furry path. I’ve constructed him to tangibly demonstrate furriness’s impact on me, and that demonstration isn’t just for others. As long as he exists in my mind or otherwise, I can witness in the third-person my becoming in the fur. It doesn’t matter if I want to be him or not. What I want is his demarcation of my own internal transformation. So long as I behold him, I always have a reference for the continuum of sensational experience that brought me to him in the first place.
Yet witnessing my transformation through his presence defines him as an object of my desire. He’s an object that I “want” to see, to experience, to take into myself. If I can’t see him, I lose sight of my becoming. I want what he has, or at least what he means to me, because he consecrates the generative energy that created him. But my desire for him reinforces our distance. If I were living an openly affected life, I wouldn’t need a referent for that transformation in order to feel realized. I wouldn’t have to want him. His “being” is contingent on my desire to see him, but I only desire to see him because he inversely validates me, the harbinger of the affect that gave him this existence.
The tension that comes from this desire is dual-pronged. I cannot validate my becoming without his presence, but his externality increases the distance that I feel from my presumably transformed self. In other words, I can’t return the value of my becoming as a furry without my tiger’s presence, but he solidifies that value as oppositional to my own. My desire to find myself within furriness is captured in his fluffy exterior, a becoming that is always in-progress yet stuck in his place: not mine to feel, but mine to observe. Affect can’t actualize me as a furry without me staying in that state of longing. I can only affirm my affected state through my unresolvable desire to see it in action.
My tiger is static. He has unwittingly captured what I’ve wanted for myself—a way to be seen as becoming and belonging—inside of him. It’s not that he “overshadows” me, nor that my human flesh is “secondary” to him within a culture beyond this soccer field. My belonging to furriness is instead predicated on him because he is the only way I can affirm to myself the emergent powers of furriness at all. I am always staring into the abyss of a self in flux that should have been me from the start.
The soccer ball hits my leg, shaking me from my thoughts. I watch the ball slow to a gentle roll from my back-left, gliding along the grass until it plants a peck on the goal’s firm netting. My head swivels from the sign of my failure to the tiger before me. He’s cheering with his fists up. Gotcha! his body says with the faded varnish of a fever dream, his smiling eyes begging to receive my own.
I’m not sure that I can reciprocate. I pick the ball up with a weary smile and punt it towards the setting sun.
IV. Shepherd (He Heals Everything?)
In 2018, the Reno-based convention Biggest Little Fur Con pulled off an impressive feat. It’s typical for American furcons to feature annually rotating “themes,” or adventurous aesthetics that dominate one’s registration badge, souvenir T-shirts, and the hotel’s hallway decor. BLFC 2018’s theme was that of the Broadway musical. In addition to the standard fare that filled the schedule, the con’s creative staff teamed up with furry rockstars Fox & Pepper to honor the theme with a live musical of their own, “BLFC: A Musical Tail.”
“A Musical Tail” follows Thistle, a starry-eyed canine who’s excited to experience a weekend of firsts: his first flight; his first furry convention; and his first love, having fallen for jaded con vet Clover with which Thistle rooms for the event. Clover attempts to control Thistle’s naivete as the dog dotes on fursuiters, misconstrues the erotic arts (“A ‘pup play’ panel? I love puppies!”), and eventually unravels at the unprecedented depths of his own sentimentality. When the two separate at a Saturday-night shindig and Clover leaves Thistle’s frantic texts on read, Thistle succumbs to his ever-growing pile of frustrations — his ruined plans, his screwed-up schedule: “Every dollar spent on this is feeling wasted!” he laments on a rooftop as the party rages on below him.
Yet through his wailing Thistle realizes how much of his frustrations rest on his unrequited feelings for the other man. “You were supposed to be my perfect iteration!” he angsts through song. “You were supposed to solve this crushing desperation!” Thistle’s mourning of what-could-have-been evolves into grief for what he wants Clover to be: the conduit for the home that unfolds around Thistle as he belts his pain and anger. Thistle’s belonging isn’t in the party nor the people at it. Thistle needs a rock, and nowhere is this need more clear than in his climactic cry: “You were supposed to be the thing to fix it all!”
Overanalysis may do a disservice to the obvious. Thistle’s got it bad, and no amount of theory can handwave his love away. But Thistle’s slip of the tongue — that Clover is the thing that was supposed to fix Thistle’s tensions — points to Thistle’s internalization of Clover as the key to a kingdom that couldn’t possibly be without a lock. Despite Thistle’s demonstrably independent identification with the furry fandom, his failure to find fulfillment in his surroundings leads him continuously back to Clover. In every word, the poor puppy becries his burgeoning sense of belonging and the limerent bind that makes its actualization impossible. Thistle’s implicit realization is that, if home is where the heart is, it can’t beat in the furry fandom proper. Thistle needs Clover to tangibly embody the ephemerality of furry homecoming so that there may be something to come home to after all.
My Floridan mentor’s TV rolled the recording of “A Musical Tail” on the final day of our weekend outing. The six of us sat on a couch as wide as I was lonely, swapping stories of the show’s production while it played. I turned to my laptop to ease the growing rift between myself and the play, ostracized by its glorification of a communal experience that I still couldn’t grok. Meanwhile, the past words of fellow furs echoed through my mind: you’ve brought this isolation upon yourself, you know. The proof of my belonging was in the pudding of our friendship. I was there, on that very couch, listening to stars of the show recall with harrowing hilarity the project’s planning process. What room did I have to speak of social discomfort when those around me had already let me in?
Thistle’s soliloquy transmitted my troubles back to me. As soon as he opened his muzzle I knew his pain. His anguish defined how it feels to be so trapped in one’s state of longing that home becomes an elsewhere of its own, just as I had to internalize my furriness to seek comfort within it. Furry affect wasn’t a limitless field of potential to me. It was a wrestling match between the unstoppable force of my desire and the immovability of myself, which unveiled the greatest paradox of all. I could only partake in the couch’s communion so long as I reconciled that the way we realized each other would ruin me. What made it feel like home was its acceptance of my displacement: I could be anything I wanted to be so long as I stared my liminality in its static face. But if I did that, then how liminal could I really be? The deposits of my desire were too deep to be contained in a singular entity that only fulfilled me through my opposition to it. Thistle’s need paralleled my longing for a home that I had to materialize away from myself, not within myself, because I could only find “home” in furriness through my own undoing. I could be blind to the home inside me or long for the mirage before me. Either way, my heart would tear in two.
Therein lay the real friction between myself and the rest of the couch: furriness couldn’t bring me towards them so long as furriness’s final frontier returned for me the same hollowness from which I supposedly emerged. Everyone else could use the fursona to make a home within themselves and each other, but I was doomed to succumb to its static shocks, desperate to verify the potency of my unfolding at the expense of setting myself truly free. And even if I rejected the fursona myself, I would always long for the evidence of my affective evolution. Just as Thistle languished in his need for another, so was I unable to escape myself without the double-bind of an existence so distant and strained.
The musical number ended. I excused myself, slipped on my shoes, and hit the pavement of the Orlando suburbs, hoping to leave my heartache behind for a moment. I only returned when the clouds began to weep with me.
V. Goodbye to A World/Unison
On the penultimate evening of PAWCon 2019, I encountered a YouTube livestreamer while working at a friend’s vendor booth. It was easy to hear him coming: the giggles of his roving gang would’ve put a hyena to shame. Despite the species similarities, however, the first words I heard from him were that he didn’t belong. “I am not a furry,” he said to his virtual audience as he walked past my booth. “Fake news, I swear.”
Minutes later he returned to my table, his camera pleading for my attention. “Hi,” he waved. “You have something to say to YouTube?”
I put a hand over my heart, faux-flattered. “Wow!” I gasped. “What have I always wanted to say to an audience of people…?”
“Take your time,” he replied.
I fell back into silence as a cacophony of incoherent thoughts filled my head. There were so many things I wanted to tell him. Most important of them all was that I understood his proclamations of opposition. Yes, even as I sold furry merchandise at a furry convention, I knew how it felt to question my place within it all. After all, opposition is one of the easiest ways to occupy the space between yourself and what you love. Why bother with the pain of a broken heart when you could just break it with your own hands instead? I didn’t know if this streamer’s heart beat in time with the rhythm of my pain—nor if he even cared to investigate it—but in his vocal objections I saw the same aches that plagued me even as I sat in the booth before him.
The irony of his approach was so heavy that it robbed me of my voice. I answered with a non-committal meme, he laughed, and I watched him turn his back on our silently shared antagony.
All too often I, too, openly reject furriness—despite my ten years being in and around it—because claiming it reignites the distance that I feel from other furries. On the days that I do claim furriness, I do so in hopes that my contributions to the fandom encourage others to find themselves within my work. This manifesto isn’t a cry for pity. It’s a call for furs to reimagine how they create community and to “flesh out” what more furriness might mean to them. In what ways are we fostering creative self-expression that moves us beyond the rigidity of our desires? Does the mythological allure of home fuel our collectivization, or is the tension between our inner selves what causes us to long for it in the first place?
I’ve heard many furries argue that the fursona’s externality is what embodies them. Some of the fursona’s reconstitutive powers can be healing, especially for trans individuals, queer furs, and fellow body dysmorphics. Nothing I’ve written is meant to oppose those perspectives whatsoever, nor do I believe that affect theory is prescriptive. The fursona is so unique because it’s one of the only technologies that constructs a home that one can see for themselves. Dismantling that home altogether is fruitless. I hope, however, that this analysis has centered another kind of marginality: the ones for which the fursona is not an escape, but a sacrifice, the final nail in a boarded-up property built by dysphoria’s raking claws. Some of our paws are simply too worn to justify pulling back the planks from it any longer.
That’s why my own paws stroke these keys until I hear someone knock on the door to my dingy domain. From my window I see my tiger shivering; he’s seeking shelter from the falling snow that pushed him away from his ultimate purpose.
I can’t help but shed a tear. Each of us is a place, and yet he’s come to rest in mine. I rise from my writing desk, unlock the entrance, and warm us both by a fire that may free us from colder flames.
- Massumi, Brian. 2002. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 72-82.
- Ibid, 72-77.
- Biggest Little Fur Con. 12 May 2018. “BLFC 2018: A Musical Tail.” Youtube. Accessed 2 September 2020.
BIO: Alec Esther is a community advocate in Madison, WI who promotes civic engagement, critical inquiry, and radical social change. When he’s not cooking up a spicy Cephalid Breakfast in Magic: the Gathering, he spins all things bright and special as “DJ REDACTED” on Datafruits.fm. You can follow his local organizing and theory work on Twitter @highestwinds, contact him on Telegram @redacteds, or reach out via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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