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His Dark Materialism

In Defense of Facing Our Daemons…

If you’re like me, you’ve been watching the new HBO/BBC production of His Dark Materials and wondering what your daemon might be. (In Phillip Pullman’s fantasy series, a daemon is the manifested animal embodiment of a person’s spirit, telepathically linked to them.) You’ve been to a brunch or your local sports bar—where the chat is naturally all young adult literature—and heard someone ask, “What’s your daemon?” (It’s never you asking, for the record, because you are too cool for that.) And if you’re like me, you’re struggling to accept you are not too cool for that and also trying to find a clear answer, immediately. It’s bothering you more than you would like to admit, even to yourself. Maybe you’re embarrassed to discuss your self-ascribed daemon with anybody, to reveal the follies and absurdities of your own ridiculous self-perception, to dwell on a concept that originated in a children’s fantasy novel—you, a very chill, self-aware person. And yet, here we are. 

There are dozens, maybe hundreds of online quizzes one could take to “find your daemon,” but none of them satisfy (the BBC has recently added their own to the swelling pile of shitty quizzes). Why is this question something we feel compelled to answer in the first place? Why has the His Dark Materials trilogy captured our attention and imaginations so thoroughly, to the tune of 17.5 million copies sold, multiple adaptations produced, and a new companion trilogy recently introduced? 

We can thank Philip Pullman for introducing the concept of the daemon into popular culture, though he didn’t exactly invent it. There’s something universally captivating about the idea of having an intimate, telepathic link with nonhuman life, and having a part of one’s soul take form in a separate corpus. Similar concepts have popped up in disparate cultures through history, from sources as dispersed as the Nordic, the Aztec, Easter Islanders, your pagan aunt, and the psychologist Carl Jung. Pullman’s popularization of the word “daemon” means we can retire  “spirit animal,” a term weighed down with the baggage of appropriation and the irony-poisoned chronically online. We can also retire “Patronus” and stop talking about Harry Potter any more than we have to.

The daemon idea may hold particularly potent resonance today when people are so fundamentally alienated from each other, from strong community structures, and from ourselves. It’s no surprise that a story incorporating a daemon—and, featuring as its central conflict, a child’s disconnection from her soul—would find great purchase in the darkest depths of neoliberal alienation. 

Today, about an eighth of people in the United Kingdom report not having a close friend and almost a fifth say they rarely or never feel loved. Meanwhile, 22 percent of American millennials claim to have no friends at all, while about a third report always or usually feeling lonely. The breakdown of American community structures has been well-documented, and the United Kingdom has suffered similar fractures in community. The anglophone world, after all, has been the epicenter of the neoliberal social engineering project. This project has dissolved community ties through harsh austerity measures, privatizing public spaces, and crippling unions along with the solidarity they can incubate. It has nurtured extreme wealth inequality, leaving most of us competing for scraps, while “competitiveness” is cheered as a prime capitalist virtue.

In this climate, it makes sense that we would grasp onto the daemon. It’s not only an intimate friend, an eternal companion who can’t divorce you, who won’t ghost you, betray you, judge you (too harshly), or exploit you for monetary or use-value—all pitfalls of modern relationships—but it also enables the smoother communion of your soul with the souls of others. If people can physically see the contours of your interiority, and you can see theirs, and everyone’s souls can all interact in a free and open way, then we might develop a more immediate possibility for connection, a more just and genuine evaluation of each other’s personhood. In a time of great soullessness, loneliness, and ubiquitous dehumanization, daemons literally populate the world with an abundance of relationships between souls, and a personal daemon proves concretely, without question, that you—and everyone else—are an ensouled being worthy of life, love, and dignity. 

A daemon does more than this. We are living in a time of mass death. The extinction rate is currently occurring at 1,000 times above the natural rate, with some estimates suggesting that 150-200 species go extinct every day, largely caused by the same phenomenon that has alienated people from one another. When human activity has led to the mass murder of nonhuman life on such an overwhelming scale, at a time when most of us inhabit cities and the only wildlife we interact with are pigeons, the idea of a daemon can offer us a deeper connection to nonhuman life that has long since disappeared from urbanized, industrialized places. 

Neoliberal alienation not only severs the connections between individuals and nonhuman life, but within us. We live in a time of hypercompetitiveness for scarce jobs, resources, and living spaces, characterized by capitalist perfectionism, ruled by carceral surveillance states that are eager to punish the merest transgressions with convictions and imprisonment. To survive in it, we have all been trained, in spite of ourselves, to despise the weaknesses inherent in our fallible minds and bodies, and each other. We have all been coerced, through fear and intimidation, to overwork ourselves, to overburden ourselves, and, when finally we fail to live up to impossible standards set from outside, to hate ourselves. 

But the daemon reconnects us with ourselves. It builds a compassionate bridge to that contemplative self, the inner person who sometimes argues with, well, the other self within us. A daemon is a vulnerable creature that retains the innocence of wildlife, that embodies the moral purity of nonhuman life, and summons the unconditional worthiness of love that animals evoke. It’s no accident that the bodies of daemons are invariably smaller than the bodies of their persons. With daemons, our conflicted, complicit souls are easier to love.  


[Spoilers Hence]

Intercision is a central process in the His Dark Materials series. It entails severing a child’s human body from their animal soul with a sort of magical guillotine. The process is of course deeply traumatic; it leaves daemons helpless and humans malleable, obedient, and with diminished mental acuity. In the second book, The Subtle Knife, intercision is used to make people into more single-minded workers, or used on soldiers “so they have no fear and no imagination and no free will, and they’ll fight till they’re torn apart.” What’s the stated reason for intercision? The television series puts it vaguely: “It’s about control isn’t it? If you can take away someone’s soul, you can do anything.” While the book uses intercision as a critique of religious social control (“That is what the church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling”—Pullman is a passionate atheist), one can see the same process in the way the neoliberal project strips away everything about a person that is not hyperproductive in service to capital and to corporate hierarchies. Anyone who has felt the loss of their autonomy and dignity during precarious, low-wage manual labor, or has endured debt and rent inflation and unsafe housing thanks to ruthless slumlords, knows this feeling of having bits of their soul cut away. The most powerful church today, after all, is the church of capital. The omnipotent Magisterium, the enforcement and governing arm of the church in the books (and source of scriptural authority in the real-life Catholic church), could easily be reimagined as a multinational corporation, with its rigid power structure, de facto influence on governmental policy, and mediation of societal norms and values. Had it made such an update, the HBO/BBC adaptation would certainly feel less like yet another nostalgia-laden cash grab, and might find more relevance with audiences today.

The Gyptian people, central to His Dark Materials, offer another glimpse of how the series successfully resonates as a critique of industrial capitalism. In the series, Gyptians are a nomadic people who mostly travel by riverboat and have their own economy and governing structure. They’re an undisguised depiction of real-life Travelers, wayfaring groups throughout Europe and the United States who possess self-contained cultural and economic boundaries. (The name “Gyptian” shares a root with “g*psy,” a term for Travelers which is now widely considered a slur.) Existing in a sometimes tense relationship with the dominant state and economic superstructures through which they move, Travelers include the well-known Romani people—who have a common origin in Medieval India—but also include Irish, English, Welsh, and Scottish Travelers, as well as indigenous Nordic people. 

Travelers represent some of the very few communities within Europe and the United States who have successfully built societies outside of capitalism while still inhabiting capitalist spaces. As such, they have been consistently persecuted. As much as 80-90 percent of the European population of Roma people were killed in the Holocaust. The new Conservative Party manifesto in the United Kingdom today includes measures that would prohibit Travelers from living anywhere in the country and effectively criminalizes the whole culture. 

It’s no surprise then, in both the books and the HBO/BBC show, that the Magisterium explicitly persecutes Gyptians, stealing their children for intercision experiments, and that it is Gyptians who lead the battle against Magisterium soldiers to save their children from capitali…uh, the church. 

We can even see echoes of working class oppression in the story’s panserbjørne, a species of armored bears. This is a culture of intelligent polar bears who spend countless hours meticulously honing the skills needed to handcraft “sky-iron” body armor. When the story’s main protagonist, Lyra, asks one such bear where his daemon is, the bear replies that the armor itself is his soul. To control the bear, the Magisterium hides the bear’s armor, and then puts him to work on odd metalworking jobs, repaying him with liquor. If this isn’t a blatant depiction of the destruction of traditional artisan craft with Fordist assembly line manufacturing and its attendant immiseration of skilled workers, I don’t know what is. 

Even the nuclear family is not entirely safe in Pullman’s world. Sustaining the supremacy of the nuclear family has long been central to capitalist social engineering. Not only does atomizing society into isolated nuclear families help to spatially alienate workers who might otherwise organize, but if we are made to see capitalist competition rooted in a struggle between families—“keeping up with the Joneses”—instead of classes, it becomes easy to prevent solidarity. As Dissent put it, “Our affective investment in our own children becomes a disinvestment in those around us, and even in ourselves….It is no accident that our own age of hyper-capitalism is also one of aggressive ‘family values,’ pursued in popular culture and legislation alike.” Former U.K. Prime Minister and vampire ghoul Margaret Thatcher was one of the main political architects of the neoliberal project. She famously declared that there is no society, but instead, there are only individuals “and there are families.” The “nuclear” family is the atom: It is the final social organization to which everything else has been stripped down.

In His Dark Materials, Lyra believes herself to be an orphan and appears to be following the lone, parentless hero trope. But soon it’s revealed that her parents are in fact alive, enemies of each other, and very morally dubious individuals. Her father is the murderous aristocrat Lord Asriel, who convinced Lyra that her parents were dead and that he was just her uncle, and who ends up sacrificing a young working-class boy (and friend of Lyra’s) via a gruesome intercision that kills the boy instantly. Lyra’s mother, meanwhile, is a vain, controlling, psychopathic Magisterium agent with a creepy monkey daemon who set up the intercision experiments in the first place and nonchalantly uses the practice on various children. With the shifting conflicts between the three, the story blows apart the nuclear family ideal. But it doesn’t entirely escape. At the end of the book series, the two parents stop hurting other children and ultimately “disinvest” from everyone else (die) to save Lyra’s life.  


So fine—there is a worthwhile critique of capitalism in His Dark Materials. But does it “justify” so much obsessing over finding your daemon? There is a common accusation that popular fantasy novels and streaming shows are mollifying, pacifying tools, which serve to distract working people from their misery and occupy their little remaining free time. And it could be argued that thinking about something like a daemon is a waste of time that might be better spent organizing or protesting. But I think there’s value in this particular fantasy, and especially in its central conceit: that it’s good to imagine the embodied spirits of all humankind physically inhabiting the world. The recent wave of self-love nonsense might be a vacuous response to a systemic problem, but there’s a benefit beyond entertainment in picturing a part of one’s soul as animal and innocent, worthy of affection and tenderness, and to imagine such a creature in others. 

(Plus, if we’re going to consume billion-dollar entertainment media anyway, we might as well do so through a lens of liberation from oppressive capital. One of the  fundamental psychological hurdles to that liberation is to see oneself and others as worthy of freedom. In order to build egalitarian solidarity, we have to care about ourselves, and we have to care about each other just as much. Which, today, is very hard to do and any little help—even if it is a damn soul squirrel—should be welcome.)

And so, without further ado, I’ve made an attempt to think through a means of locating your daemon form more systematically or reflectively than just going on a hunch, or defaulting to some childhood notion, taking a shitty online quiz, or even, god forbid, asking someone else to tell you what your daemon is. This attempt is extremely scientific and objective, based on casual readings of His Dark Materials that I did years ago, and also on muddled thoughts I had in the shower, recently. 

3 Steps to finding your daemon…

[Disclaimer: this exercise is entirely unsanctioned by Philip Pullman. The only interaction I have had with the author can be found below.]

Step 1) 

First we need to find your daemon’s class, family, or genus. To do this, we’ll use some standard psychological tests. The Big Five Personality scale is the gold-standard personality tool used in psychology at the moment, measuring openness to experience (O), conscientiousness (C), extroversion (E), agreeableness (A), and neuroticism (N). If you’re not familiar with the Big Five traits, you can learn more about them at Wikipedia and IDR Labs, and take a test to find where you fall on the scales here, here, and here.  

So: Step 1, take one or a few of the above-linked quizzes and determine your Big Five traits. Then look at the broad categories below and decide which of these animal groupings tend to capture the dominant traits that define not just your personality preferences, but your “soul”—that is, your motivations, tendencies, priorities, and temperament.

(How, you may ask, did I assign these traits to animals? What scientific approach did I use? Essentially, it’s what I think these animals seem like from watching a lot of David Attenborough. Before sending angry letters to Current Affairs because this isn’t as formally systematized as you might like, please remember that we are talking about magical chipmunks and that you are having fun.)

Canidae (dogs)

  • Examples: domestic dog breeds, coyote, wolf
  • General description: emotionally complex, very social, cooperative, agreeable, playful
    • Domestic: obedient, eager to please, fast learner
    • Wild: hierarchical, resilient, tactical
  • Big Five traits:
    • Openness – mid
    • Conscientiousness – high 
    • Extroversion – high
    • Agreeableness – variable
    • Neuroticism – high

Felidae (cats)

  • Examples: domestic cat breeds, the smaller wild cats (nobody has a lion or tiger, sorry)
  • General description: emotionally murky, generally solitary, tenacious, curious, quiet
    • Domestic: docile, affectionate, protective
    • Wild: decisive, independent, focused
  • Big Five traits:
    • Openness – high
    • Conscientiousness – mid
    • Extroversion – low
    • Agreeableness – variable
    • Neuroticism – mid

Aves (birds)

  • Examples: corvids, parrots, sparrows, raptors (hawks, owls)
  • General description: insightful, scattered, active, social, open
  • Big Five traits:
    • Openness – mid
    • Conscientiousness – low
    • Extroversion – high
    • Agreeableness – mid
    • Neuroticism – high

Reptilia / Amphibia

  • Examples: lizards, snakes, frogs, salamanders
  • General description: emotionally aloof, solitary, opportunistic, analytical, clever
  • Big Five traits:
    • Openness – high
    • Conscientiousness – low
    • Extroversion – mid
    • Agreeableness – low
    • Neuroticism – mid

Rodentia / Mustelidae

  • Examples: squirrels, ferrets, rabbits (honorary), badgers
  • General description: industrious, vigilant, conservative, ambitious, anxious
  • Big Five traits:
    • Openness – low
    • Conscientiousness – high
    • Extroversion – mid
    • Agreeableness – mid
    • Neuroticism – high

Insecta / Arachnida

  • Examples: beetles, spiders, mantises, dragonflies
  • General description: active, unsentimental, energetic, systematic, practical
  • Big Five traits:
    • Openness – mid
    • Conscientiousness – low
    • Extroversion – mid
    • Agreeableness – low
    • Neuroticism – high

Note: you may have blended traits! For instance, if you seem to correlate to rodentia and aves, your traits might combine for something like a bat (chiroptera), or felidae and rodentia might combine for something like a monkey (primate), or felidae and mustelidae for something like a red panda (ailuridae), or a canidae and rotendia for something like an otter (which, to be fair, is mustelidae).

Have your genus? Great. Now it’s time to get SPECIfic. What is your daemon’s species? From here, you’ll have to narrow it down on your own. Below are two steps to help… 

Step 2) 

Is there a location that you feel is deeply embedded in your blood and sense of self? A place you spent your formative years, or a place you became an adult, or a place that simply resonates deeply with your archetypal mind? Is there a season or element, a geographical feature—like mountains or coasts, jungles or deserts—that you feel affinities for? What species are endemic to those places? 

Step 3) 

Once you have a category and location or general geography, reflect on how your soul takes shape through your body. How do the gestures and the dimensions of your body, the way you dress and ornament yourself, the way you hold yourself and move through the world, the relationship you have with your body, the speed of your movements—how do these all resonate with the shape of your interior? Which animals’ biomechanics and morphology do they metaphorically resemble? How do they compare to the ways in which those animals carry themselves in the world? Is the way you project your soul into the world—your tendencies, personality, beliefs, emotions, and reactions—captured by the movements of that creature? Given that your soul and body are a single entity, entirely inseparable, try to reflect on this: How does your soul hold your physical form in the world? How do your thoughts and emotions interact with each other and what might that look like embodied? Quick and energetic, slow and lumbering, agile and graceful, sharp and ruthless?  

(It may seem like I am making you do all the work here, but that’s precisely the point! No one can make or find your soul for you.)

All done. What have you got? That’s your daemon. Or hey, maybe not. Either way, hold them close, give them a break, see and love someone else’s, a bunch of other peoples’. They, like real wildlife, are trying to carve a little niche in a brutal world, and maybe if we take a moment to care about them, and each other, we can make things a little less brutal for everyone.

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