Just as the Haitian earthquake was followed by a welter of religious interpretations (fundamentalist Christians blaming sinful Haitians for it, Vodoun practitioners weighing in on the events, etc.), so the Japanese quake-tsunami-meltdown trilogy is offering evidence of humanity’s interpretive propensities.
You may have already seen the YouTube troll video satirizing right-wing Christian responses, which scandalized so many viewers that the young videomaker has apparently gone into hiding. I won’t link to it, since it doesn’t really deserve all the hits, but it’s easy enough to find. The gist of it is that “God is soooo great — we prayed for him to smite his enemies and there he did, smashing those godless Japanese to smithereens.” A lot of viewers couldn’t seem to tell the difference between satire and the real thing, which apparently follows Poe’s Law: one can’t satirize fundamentalist religion without it being taken by some as the real thing, because there are enough instances in which the real thing is as bad as that (Glenn Beck being only the tip of the iceberg).
Since there isn’t much available in English about Philippe Descola’s writings on animism, I thought I would share a piece of the cosmopolitics argument I mentioned in my last post. It will appear, in modified form, in the concluding chapter of the SAR Press volume mentioned there. Most of the volume will consist of ethnographic case studies from around the world, but these will be informed by the theoretical conversations of the week we spent at the School of Advanced Research in Santa Fe.
Following this excerpt I have added some comments relating the ideas (discussed here) of Descola, Latour, and Stengers to some of the concepts I’ve been working with from Whitehead, Peirce, and the fields/discourses of biosemiotics and panpsychism. I haven’t seen these connections made (in this way, at least) in any of the literature by or on these authors, and I’m still working out these ideas myself, so that part is work-in-progress.
From animism to cosmopolitics
Animism, like the “primitive,” “pagan,” and “savage,” but also like “religion” itself, is a term has been used to classify cultural difference into a hierarchically valenced series: animists, for Edward Tylor and other evolutionists, were thought to have maintained a “lower” and more “primitive” conception of the universe, one peopled by spirits and with objects being ascribed human characteristics. In Tylor’s view, the animist “stage” of belief was followed by a polytheistic one, and in turn by a monotheistic one. This evolutionism has since been largely rejected, and more recently, a loose coterie of anthropologists and scholars of religion have reappropriated the term “animism” to mean something rather more interesting (Bird-David 1999; Descola 2005, 2006, 2009; Harvey 2006; Ingold 2000; Viveiros de Castro 1992, 2004). View full article »
Tim Morton has recently been suggesting that just as humans anthropomorph (that’s a verb), so pencils pencilmorph. I love this idea, though I’m not sure about its implications, which I want to think through here.
Anthropomorphism #1 (traditional, & its extensions)
The traditional definition of anthropomorphism is something like “the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman things.” It’s treating, or perceiving, a nonhuman thing as if it were a human. And it’s a good thing, if you’re Walt Disney; or a bad thing, if you’re doing science and your peer reviewers don’t want to acknowledge that the animals you’re studying also think, communicate linguistically, pass things on culturally, and so on.
(Note: After a query from an editor friend, who is unfamiliar with recent research on affect, I’ve decided I should preface this post by saying that no, I don’t mean “effects” with an “e,” but “affects,” accent on the “a.”)
It’s been fascinating to watch the unfolding public conversation about Avatar (much of which, come to think of it, my early review had anticipated): environmentalist celebrations of how it portrays the Earth rising up against the megamachine of capitalism and patriarchy; critiques of how the film perpetuates the stereotyping of indigenous people and reiterates tropes of their salvation by white male messiah figures; the Vatican’s and religious right’s denunciations of its pantheism; the film’s advance of technological wizardry into the domain of a virtual hyperreality, like The Matrix but replacing that film’s gnosticism with a pantheistic new age science of networks and neural systems; and debates over the balance struck in the film between good spectacle (the high-tech stuff) and bad narrative (poor writing, flat characterization, stereotypes all over), or between bad spectacle (Spielbergian gee-whiz stuff) and good narrative (such as the film’s allegorization of global capitalism’s destruction of indigenous communities). Film Studies for Free has usefully summarized the various allegorical readings of the film proposed so far, many of which get articulated in conversations and comments by viewers in various blogs, op-ed commentaries, and social networking sites.
The religious debate has been interesting in part because of the negative reactions that have greeted some of the conservative commentators like Ross Douthat and others who lament the film’s pantheistic nature spirituality and its associated “anti-Americansim” and “anti-humanism”. In his New York Times op-ed, Douthat wrote that “the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.” About 90% of his 146 commenters disagree, sometimes vehemently, with his assessment, generally by sympathizing with the film’s pantheism and seeing in it either something deeply American (in Transcendentalism’s line of descent), much more broadly religious (such as “panentheism” or some mixture of animism and stewardship), or just eco-pragmatically commen-sensical. And while some of the Christian movie sites that typically like to bash Hollywood liberalism do trash Avatar, others (reviewers and commenters alike) are surprisingly positive about the film. Defenders can also be found among more sophisticated conservatives, like the localist Front Porch Republic, and even the libertarian Cato Institute has defended it as an argument on behalf of property rights, the very foundation of capitalism.
What’s more surprising and interesting about the film, however, is how it’s not only breaking box office records around the world, but also may be setting off waves of emotional contagion in its wake — from spurring the launch of numerous fan groups and blogs to providing encouragement and fuel for environmental and indigenous activists as widely dispersed as South America, South and East Asia, and Palestine (portrayed above), to creating something that’s been called “post-Avatar depression.” But let’s start with the politics.
One of my (largely dormant) pet projects over the years has been to document and theorize anonymous, self-decomposing artworks made in collaboration with nature and time. These works are creative engagements with environments — often simple rearrangements of physical materials (rocks, wood, found pieces of scrap metal or discarded trash, and the like) — by individuals, designed or improvised with materials at hand, working with others less by design than by happenstance. They can be found in outdoor public spaces, wooded ravines and forests, wild patches of cities and countryside, abandoned industrial sites. Remaining little documented, they appear not to exist at all except when directly encountered, which is something that usually happens by chance.
Even calling them ‘artworks’ can be problematic, since they may not be created with the intent of being recognized as art, or made by ‘artists’, and certainly not as part of the ‘art system’ (as Bourdieu, Luhmann, or Stallabrass would define it). Insofar as they assert the (past) presence of those who have crafted them, they can be read as forms of graffiti, or a kind of resistant creativity akin to the guerrilla gardening movement of urban space activists. Marking out a space as different and significant, but leaving behind little direct evidence of the intent underlying them, they may convey an aura of mystery, playfulness, childlike wonder, or the more serious character of a sacred space or shrine, but until they are turned into a public topic (as has occurred with the fairy houses on Monhegan Island, where I just spent a few days, and about which more in a moment), they remain ambiguous and a little unplaceable within the systems of things that make up the recognized world. They are anomalous or ambiguous objects, which makes them relevant to the recent discussion here of objects versus relations.
Rigpa is the state of compassionate awareness that, according to Mahayana Buddhism, is the innermost nature of the mind. It is the primordial, nondual mind that shines through when unobscured; intelligent, cognizant, awake. “Empty in essence, cognizant in nature, unconfined in capacity.” Recognizing and dwelling within rigpa is the goal of Dzogchen practice (a kind of South/Central Asian relative or analogue of Zen meditation practice).
Anima suggests the state of animacy, animateness, animality, shared by all sentient beings. “Anima mundi” is the World-Soul that permeates and animates all things. “Animism,” both in its classical definition and in its revived and revalorized form (as used by anthropologists such as Nurit Bird-David and Tim Ingold and scholar of religion Graham Harvey), is belief and practice which recognizes the aliveness and “ensouledness” of all things. “Anima” is also Carl Jung’s term for the inner soul, the feminine part of the male self, though, by extension, I take this to mean the multifaceted diamond of animate soul within all things.
Where Rigpa meets Anima is where the empty, cognizant, unconfined essence of reflection meets the embodied, relational phenomenality of the world in its ceaseless becoming.
On the surface, “immanence” would appear to favor certain religiosities (paganisms, pantheisms, animisms, earth spiritualities) over others (transcendentalist monotheisms, rigid dualisms, Buddhist “extinctionism,” et al). But its resonance works within traditions as well: towards panentheistic strains of Christianity, where the Christ is seen as in-dwelling, where Easter is the rebirth of nature and life as well as of social relations after the long hard winter, where Mary is the cosmos; or toward a boddhisattvic liberationist Buddhism that cherishes life rather than seeking to flee from it.
Immanentism redirects our attention to what is going on in the moment-to-moment shaping of the world, to our experience and ability to shift things in one direction or another, to karmic conditions as open-ended rather than fixed. When we grasp something (the self, political power, the object of our desire), we lose it. Immanentism redirects us to the between: the grasping, the finding and losing, the power-to and power-with, the swelling current that pushes for change (e.g., in the build-up to the last US election) rather than the icon of change it gives rise to (Obama) though that icon be instrumental to the change.