We become so accustomed to plunging into Ancient Greece to seek the cradle of civilization that it probably seems strange to evoke a Greek comedy writer living twenty-five centuries ago to introduce the wild man, the counterpart of civility. Only fragments have survived of Pherecrates’ work, some of which form part of The Wild Men (Agrioi) performed during the Laenian festivals in A.D. 420. This comedy tells about two Athenian misanthropists who flee the corruption of the city in search of wild ways of living untarnished by the spoils of the polis. The surviving fragments of this work do not reveal whether the wild men among whom the Athenians found refuge were some barbarian tribe on the periphery of the Greek world or a group eloping from the rich Greek mythological ethnography occupied by imaginary wild figures. This comedy should be contextualized within the tragic crisis of Pericles’ democratic city at the close of the fifth century A.D. By satirizing those wishing to return to the nature’s fold, Pherecrates was defending the democratic polis. — Wild Men in the Looking Glass: The Mythic Origins of European Otherness, Roger Bartra
Bartra goes on to say that for the Greeks and the Romans, the wild man always existed as part of the polity, though obviously at the margins of it, usually by choice, not force. Wild men — personified grotesquely as centaurs, cyclops, and the like — physically inhabited the uninhabitable, frontier spaces of the Greek and Roman worlds: the caves and forests that acted both as protection and as camouflage for wild men’s depredations. In so doing, they refused the plains that provided agriculture, the hills that were the site of shepherding, and the waterways that made possible transport and communication. But wherever the dwelled geographically, the wild men lived everywhere, not so much as an ever-looming threat as a constant virtuality that stalked the polis.
The wild man, in other words, was not a foreigner or a barbarian. Those figures “constituted a threat to society in general,” while “the wild man represented a threat to the individual.” Foreigners and barbarians were menaces that were interested in usurpation and conquest of the state; they could be countered militarily or diplomatically. Wild men, on the other hand, could introduce mutations and contagions into the polity; they threatened to upset the internal balance in unpredictable and uncontrolled ways .
Does any of this sound familiar? The inhabitants of the bestiary have changed, but their discursive role has not: They are still the marginal figures whose desistance from established polities, and even from civilization itself, poses an internal threat to established oppositional politics. The internal becomes important, because no one is reactionary enough to exclude their struggles, but now that they are included, their politics threaten to upset the balance and the unity of the One, of the master struggle. So antisexists transmogrify into vampires, trans folk into language trolls, and antiracists into bullies. In the time of biopolitics, the metaphors get extended to the epidemiological: Twitter feminism is toxic, and intersectionalism is a symptom of the left’s decline. (I won’t honor any of these sources with a link.)
The dangers of the wild man extend beyond racial and sexual politics. DREAM activists raise the specter of the undocumented, those rightsless noncitizens whose wildness threatens the nation’s solidity and universality. During Occupy, pro-organization, pro-party activists criticized the anti-demand elements, particularly those that rejected the call for full employment and equal representation, as dirty anarchoids and prefigurists who ignored the left’s tradition of progressive struggle. And so on.
What, ultimately, are these critics of wildness defending? I think it’s exactly what Bartra names above: the democratic polis. The struggles of the contemporary wild men are secondary to the demands of defending the established political bodies.