Animism is a contested term. Thought to be at the root of all religious impulse, animism can be divided, when using the anthropological frameworks of the west, into two historical periods of inquiry — ‘old animism’ and ‘new (or neo) animism’ (un-imaginatively conceived).
‘Old’ animism is a theory born of the Victorian anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor in 1871. Tylor believed that ‘primitive peoples’ were ‘like children’ in that they could not discern between living organisms and ‘inert objects’. He regarded those who perceived the world through an animistic lens, i.e. a lens through which aliveness was not the exclusive function of humanity, as being further down the ladder of ‘cultural evolution’. While this view is outdated, many still conceive of animism in this problematic and racist way. Given the lack of genuine rigorous (and radical) scholarship, and wider cultural discussion, animism is still decried in some circles as ‘magical thinking’ enacted by ‘woo woo’ shamans and ‘New Age hippies’.
Westerners tend to confuse animism with personification or anthropomorphism, that is, projecting human-like qualities onto other-than-human entities or prescribing sentience to ‘objects’. For example, discerning a face (a likeness of) in a tree, or abstracting a recognisable icon from a cloud formation is often conflated with ‘believing in animism’. Perhaps the term itself is confusing, as ‘anima’ means ‘soul’ or ‘breath’ — qualities we might generally associate with being human, that said, ‘anima’ is just short of ‘animal’, which is ironic given that we are, in fact, animals. The prescriptive quality of the term is not helped by the unfortunate presence of the ‘ism’ — animism is as far from an ‘ism’ as you can get (in my humble opinion). It is not, as the ‘old animism’ suggests, a religion, belief system, ideology or method. If it came close to an ‘ism’, I imagine Buddhism is closest in spirit by virtue of its attention on direct experience (more on that later).
Despite the seeming radio silence on animism in the west, renewed interest has been bubbling beneath the surface in disciplines extending beyond anthropology.
As we ‘moderns’ reckon with the effects of our perceived disconnection from the natural world, the ‘new’ animism offers us a chance to look again at what we previously considered nonsense in light of our hyper-rational ways of perceiving.
We should be cognisant that those who are generally considered to be animists through the eyes of anthropology (‘indigenous people’, broadly conceived) have no such word or concept for what we call ‘animism’. Here, I think, lies a crux. From what I’ve gathered so far from my reading/watching/listening/feeling for myself — animism cannot be categorically labelled or defined in any concise way. There are many animisms, indeed, most of human society outside of the west is animistic to some degree (some even posit that westerners enact animism when they curse at their car or computer).
For those who embody it, animism is a way of being, an inter/intra-subjective ontology arising from being in relationship with and through the world.
Those we identify as animist are discernible by what they do, rather than what they believe. Beliefs change just as we change.
Animism is an experience of what a man from the Wemindji Cree (northern Canada) calls the ‘continuous birth’ of life. It is an emergent, relational experience. An unfolding into direct experience. An experience of becoming more so than being. Anthropologist Tim Ingold uses the metaphor:
‘Life in the animic ontology is not an emanation but a generation of being in a world that is not preordained but incipient, forever on the verge of the actual. One is continually present as witness to that moment, always moving like the crest of a wave, at which the world is about to disclose itself for what it is’.
Ingold writes that animism is about ‘immanence over transcendence’ — and here lies another crux — if we in the west wish to heal our relationship with the world, with ‘nature’, with reality, then relating to our direct immanent experience is wholly, profoundly necessary. Utopian technosolutionist dreams of transcending all this chaos and living on Mars are limited. Animism invites us back to our embodied, sensorial experience. It engages us with reality and rejects the incessant conceptual abstractions we so addictively tend towards (not inherently as biological beings, but by virtue of our ‘cultural conditioning’). As eco-philosopher David Abram says:
‘A genuinely ecological approach does not work to attain a mentally envisioned future, but strives to enter, ever more deeply, into the sensorial present’.
(This is a key idea which I wish to return to in another blog post).
Ingold continues: ‘People do not universally discriminate between categories of living and non-living things. This is because for many people, life is not an attribute of things at all. That is to say, it does not emanate from a world that already exists, populated by objects-as-such, but is rather immanent in the very process of that world’s continual generation of coming-into-being. The animacy of the lifeworld, in short, is not the result of an infusion of spirit into substance, or of agency into materiality, but is rather ontologically prior to their differentiation’.
It feels strange (and liberating) for me, a westerner, to conceive of reality as something other than a representation or identification of what is alive and what is not. It seems so obvious that what moves and breathes and speaks and feels is alive. But this is not entirely true. How can we know for certain? If Vipassana meditation taught me anything, it’s that ‘gross’ sensations can obscure the subtle ones, and in doing so, obstruct a genuinely rich and sensuous experience of reality.
Animism feels like an invitation to go beyond the conceptual, or perhaps before the conceptual, towards an experience of consciousness not bound in time, space, and other quantitative variables, but instead one in which the qualitative and the affective feature more prominently.
Abram writes beautifully, again, on animism:
‘If while walking along the river I find myself suddenly moved, deeply, by the sheer wall of granite above the opposite bank, how, then, can I claim that the rock does not move? It moves me every time I encounter it!’
Abram touches on an experience we’ve likely all had — an experience of astonishment, and one that is affectual rather than intellectual. The world is not an inert surface across which we walk, talk, and travel — it is the wider body through which we are enmeshed, entangled, both physically, but also emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. There is no way to disentangle from this wholly embodied relationship, despite the abstractions we perpetuate in the west… as Ingold says: ‘In the animic ontology, beings do not simply occupy the world, they inhabit it’.
Animism feels like non-duality, which is a hard thing to say given the instant duality that arises when you say ‘non-duality’, or even dare to use the limited tool of language in an attempt to describe it. In doing so, I’ve already paradoxically undone what it is I’m trying to say. I’m sure you get where I’m going with this…
Anyway, there’s lots to say and do here, and this is a napkin scribble version of potential tomes of inquiry. I want to write about pathways, meshworks, metaphors, and phenomenology, but deadlines are approaching, and I’m already far too excited about this to be coherent. All I can really say at this point is that animism (the term I’m still unsure about) offers an abundance of profound and stimulating questions. In some ways, animism feels like what I, and we, already know and feel, and so like the origin of the word ‘ecology’ (oikos: home), animism is coming home — to what, I am unsure how to say, but I am sure I can feel it.
More to follow. See some enlightening quotes from David Abram below.
(from The Spell of the Sensuous):
‘We learn that the truth is never in the appearances, but elsewhere, whether in a mysterious, submicroscopic realm which we could only reach by means of complex instruments, or in an apparently disembodied domain of numbers and abstract equations. The world to which our senses gave us direct access came to seem a kind of illusory, derivative dimension, less essential than that truer realm hidden behind the surface of things’.
‘In a society that accords priority to that which is predictable and places a premium on certainty, our spontaneous, pre-conceptual experience, when acknowledged at all, is referred to as ‘merely subjective’. The fluid realm of direct experience has come to be seen as a secondary, derivative dimension, a mere consequence of events unfolding in the ‘realer’ world of quantifiable and measurable scientific ‘facts’. It is a curious inversion of the actual, demonstrable state of affairs. Subatomic quanta are now taken to be more primordial and ‘real’ than the world we experience with our unaided senses. The living, feeling, and thinking organism is assumed to derive, somehow, from the mechanical body whose reflexes and ‘systems’ have been measured and mapped, the living person now an epiphenomenon of the anatomised corpse. That it takes living, sensing subjects, complete with their enigmatic emotions and unpredictable passions, to conceive of those subatomic fields, or to dissect and anatomise the body, is readily overlooked, or brushed aside as inconsequential’.
’Imagination is not a separate mental faculty (as we so often assume) but is rather the way the senses themselves have of throwing themselves beyond what is immediately given, in order to make tentative contact with the other sides of things that we do not sense directly, with the hidden or invisible aspects of the sensible. And yet such sensory anticipations and projections are not arbitrary; they regularly respond to suggestions offered by the sensible itself’.
’The human mind is not some otherworldly essence that comes to house itself inside our physiology. Rather, it is instilled and provoked by the sensorial field itself, induced by the tensions and participations between the human body and the animate earth’.
Language and the Ecology of Sensory Experience: An Essay with an Unconstructive Footnote, by David Abram (2000)
The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram
Rethinking the Animate, Re-Animating Thought, by Tim Ingold (2011)