Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Defining Animism

I find I still have a difficult time really encapsulating what animism really means in a succinct way. It took me a long time of digesting Ishmael before I could really put those ideas easily, either. Now I find myself working to digest David Abram's Spell of the Sensuous and Graham Harvey's Animism: Respecting the Living World. This will eventually become a big, essay-length piece for Anthropik, when I manage to complete that digestion. In fact, I've already posted earlier attempts, like "A Brief Summary of Animism."

At the beginning of Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram discusses a bowl of rice left out for "the household spirits." Intrigued, he watched it carefully, until he noticed a grain of rice begin to move. As he looked closer, he saw an ant underneath, carrying away the grain of rice. At first, Abram had the same reaction most of us would have: "Ah, the silly savages have mistaken simple ants for supernatural spirits!" But as Abram thought about it more, he realized he sat in the middle of a jungle. The whole earh beneath them pulsed with ants. Why had they not completely overrun the cooking areas, the huts, and everything else? Because the human community and the ant community had established a boundary between their worlds, and the ants respected that boundary because the humans also respected that boundary. The daily offerings honored that boundary. The ants took the rice offering, and left the human community in peace. The animists had not misunderstood the nature of the ants; we have misunderstood the nature of spirits.

Abram writes:

To be sure there has always been some confusion between our Western notion of "spirit" (which so often is defined in contrast to matter or "flesh"), and the mysterious presences to which tribal and indigenous cultures pay so much respect. Many of the earliest Western students of these other languages and customs were Christian missionaries all too ready to see occult ghosts and immaterial spirits where the tribespeople were simply offering their respect to the local winds. While the notion of "spirit" has come to have, for us in the West, a primarily anthropomorphic or human association, my encounter with the ants was the first of many experiences suggesting to me that the "spirits" of an indigenous culture are primarily those modes of intelligence or awareness that do not possess a human form.

The best summation of animism I have to date goes like this: animism means believing your senses. I mean this in a very deep sense, as in the philosophical inquiry of phenomenology, which Abram goes into in great detail. Think about it. You press your hand against a tree. What do your senses tell you? They tell you that the tree pushes back. You feel that. But we filter our senses through our brains, including our cultural assumptions. The tree doesn't act like a person, so the tree can't push back. So we quite effectively don't feel it. But even so, if you blank out your mind, press against a tree, and try to simply feel without thinking, you will feel the tree pushing back.

Now, sure, we know that it would have to, given Newton's third law of motion. And I can say that the sounds of the wind passing through the branches of a tree have no meaning, while the sounds of the wind passing through your larynx do. But if animism means believing your senses, then this breaks down. People talk to each other. People exchange gifts. People relate to one another. But ultimately, these things only have meaning because of empathy. Sounds pass through your larynx, and I can interpret the meaning you intend for them because I know how I feel or think when I make those sounds. We exchange gifts, and it creates a relationship between us because empathy lets me know the feelings you give to me with your gift, because I know what feelings I try to share when I give gifts. Well, the tree makes sounds out of the wind passing through its boughs, and it leaves many gifts, crucial and wonderful gifts that keep us alive. It relates to us. What separates the tree from a human person? Simply whether or not we share our empathy with it. In the case of the human person, we all agree that we should share our empathy. But our culture tells us that trees "are not" people, that that characteristic belongs only to humans. But remember, animists also think in terms of verbs and relationships, not nouns and characteristics. For them, personhood does not act like a noun, statically defining categories of things; rather, it acts like a verb. When wind passes through the tree's boughs, if we can find meaning in it, then that meaning exists in those sounds, just like it exists in the sound of human speech. When we exchange gifts with the tree, we relate to it. The tree acts like a person. If we really believe our senses, then we have to conclude that the tree acts as much like a person as any human in our lives.

The same goes for so much else in the world around us. When Irving Hollowell asked an Ojibwe elder if all the rocks around them "are alive," the elder answered, "No, but some of them are." The ones that act like persons; the ones that give gifts, the ones that communicate, the ones that relate. Which means that the very same thing can act like a person now, and not act like a person later. In a verb-denominated universe, that makes perfect sense, and that difference poses just one of the reasons why quantum mechanics make so much more sense in native languages.

I wouldn't call this a good definition, either, but for the moment, I don't have anything better than this. I'll continue digesting it. In a lot of ways, The Fifth World as a whole comes from my need to figure out how to communicate this.

No comments: