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.
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In Chapter Eight of Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett asks: “Are there more everyday tactics for cultivating an ability to discern the vitality of matter?” and, in response, mentions allowing oneself
to anthropomorphize, to relax into resemblances discerned across ontological divides: you (mis)take the wind outside at night for your father’s wheezy breathing in the next room; you get up too fast and see stars; a plastic topographical map reminds you of the veins on the back of your hand; the rhythm of the cicada’s [sic] reminds you of the wailing of an infant; the falling stone seems to express a conative desire to persevere.
What I like about this is not so much the argument for anthropomorphism (specifically) as the implied and more general argument for ‘morphism’, that is, for allowing one’s imaginative capacities — the capacities to take on and think with images — to build the forms of one’s perceptions and conceptions of the world. We’ve lost this ability somewhat since the decline of the epistemologies of resemblance that characterized the pre-modern and Renaissance imagination (according to Foucault and others). The ability to read the “signatures” of the world is something poets, of course, have not forgotten, but it’s also something that semiotics (of the Peircian variant) holds, or should hold, as central to the ways sense is made of things.
As for anthropomorphism, as John Livingston taught me, there’s nothing unusual about it. Dogs canomorphize, birds avimorphize, humans anthropomorphize. All of these morphic practices can be tested by trial and error for their validity in specific circumstances. The idea that something that looks somewhat like me and acts in some ways like me is like me is a reasonable starting hypothesis for a relational epistemology and ethic.
(See here for more on theorizing imagination.)