A new book by Tim Ingold is always good news, especially one that — like his 2000 collection Perception of the Environment — brings together several years’ worth of work into one volume. Ingold describes Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description as “in many ways” a “sequel” to that earlier book, and it’s interesting to examine the territory he’s traversed since then.

Some of Ingold’s earlier essays — such as “Culture and the Perception of the Environment” (1992), “Globes and Spheres: The Topology of Environmentalism” (1993), “Building, Dwelling, Living: How Animals and People Make Themselves at Home in the World” (1995), and his contributions to the 1988 collection What is an Animal? — have had a profound impact on my thinking over the years.

Among other things, they directed me to James J. Gibson’s ecological psychology and (along with Neil Evernden’s Natural Alien) to Jakob von Uexkull’s “umwelt” theory, and later helped me think through Heidegger’s writings on “dwelling.” In the effort to unravel the dualism of humans/culture versus animals/nature, Ingold provided much needed direction. More original, however, was Ingold’s cogent argument that meanings are not added or imposed — through culture, representation, or whatever — onto a world that is empty of them; rather, meaning emerges in and through the living, alongside the landscapes, the practices, and the livers themselves.

Ingold has always been very much his own thinker, never part of any school (to my knowledge) — which means he’s always been good at finding the limitations of any train of thought. And as a social anthropologist working with herders and hunters, he’s always maintained an empirical groundedness that’s kept his theorizing from getting too abstract. (That’s another thing I’ve tried to emulate, though my “one foot in empirical research” has moved around restlessly between landscape and place conflicts, cultural identity, religious practice, and media and visual culture.)

Over the last dozen or so years, it seems that Ingold’s trajectory has paralleled my own push into Latourian, Deleuzian, and Whiteheadian process territory. His general theme, as developed in his 2007 book Lines, has become that life is lived along lines, or paths, or “wayfaring,” and that “to move, to know, and to describe are not separate operations that follow one another in series, but rather parallel facets of the same process — that of life itself” (p. xii).

This work, to my mind, provides a useful corrective to those who would seek to “flatten” our ontologies so as to erase the differences between living and those things that mediate the living, but do not, in and of themselves, initiate it. There are reasons to question the division between “life” and “non-life” (as Jane Bennett and the object-oriented ontologists have done, among others), but there are also reasons to think carefully about what it is that makes life lively.

As Ingold puts it in his playful dialogue between “ANT (the network builder),” who perceives the forest floor as “an assortment of heterogeneous objects,” and “SPIDER (the web weaver),” who perceives it “as a tissue of interlaced threads”:

‘But have you’, asks SPIDER, ‘given any thought to the air itself? The butterfly’s flight is made possible, thanks to air currents and vortices partly set up by the movement of its wings. Similarly, the fish in the river is able to swim, sometimes at remarkable speed, because of the way it creates eddies and vortices in the water through the swishing of its tail and fins.

‘But what sense would it make to say that the air, in the first case, is a participant in the network, with which the butterflies dance as they do with one another; or in the second case, that the fish dances with water as it might with other fish in the shoal? Indeed it would make no sense at all. Air and water are not objects that act. They are material media in which living things are immersed, and are experienced by way of their currents, forces and pressure gradients.

‘True, it is not the butterfly alone that flies but butterfly-in-air and not the fish alone that swims but fish-in-water. But that no more makes the butterfly a fly-air hybrid than it makes the fish a fish-water hybrid. It is simply to recognise that for things to interact they must be immersed in a kind of force-field set up by the currents of the media that surround them. Cut out from these currents – that is, reduced to objects – they would be dead. Having deadened the meshwork by cutting its lines of force, thus breaking it into a thousand pieces, you cannot pretend to bring it back to life by sprinkling a magical dust of ‘‘agency’’ around the fragments. If it is to live, then the butterfly must be returned to the air and the fish to the water.’

(From “When ANT meets SPIDER: Social Theory for Arthropods,” reproduced in revised form in Being Alive. I’ve helped myself to the online PDF of the chapter’s original publication in the 2008 anthology Material Agency, pp. 212-213; and I’ve added emphasis in bold, and paragraphing to make it easier to read online.)

A Whiteheadian clarification here might be that, in fact, the air and the water are lively in their own ways, with, for instance, atoms and electrons rushing this way and that way, and much more. But there’s something about the level of complexity in an organism’s relationship to its environment (and not just its umwelt, i.e. its cognized environment) that thickens the plot for any analysis that would try to understand it realistically.

This something, for Ingold, has to do with the skilled — which means the learned and developed — coupling of bodily movement and perception. He has been an excellent guide, over the years, to the many different kinds of ways that humans and others do that sort of thing. This book is a summation of where he’s gotten with it.


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