Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Not Me, Not Not Me: The Dilemma of Animism as Mimesis

I lied. I said I hadn't worked on The Fifth World in the past month. But I love the Fifth World so much in part because it fits so nicely with everything else I love and cherish that I can't help but work on it just by doing other things. In this case, reading Rane Willerslev's Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs. Willerslev has read a lot of Ingold's work, and applied it to an ethnographic work. If Ingold's prose proves too dense for you, Willerslev's ethnography will hit some of the most important points in writing that I found much easier to digest.

It also suggested a dramatic tension to design into the Fifth World. Willerslev makes the argument that we should see animism in light of mimesis. He begins his account with the image of a Siberian Yukaghir hunter coaxing out an elk. He wears skis bound in elk skin, a costume of elk fur and antlers that make him look like an elk. He smells like an elk, he moves like an elk. He doesn't appear perfectly like an elk—in fact, Willerslev emphasizes the importance of the gap between them. The hunter becomes no longer human, but also not not human.

Yes, they live in a world where everyone expects that those who have much will share with those who have little, and yes, animism puts everything in terms of relationship. But a world of sharing and relationship does not mean a world without conflict or drama by any means. Willerslev's account highlights the tensions that those seemingly idyllic elements leave. Hunters take every animal offered to them, but by the same token, they become afraid of their own good luck. When in need, they expect the animals and forests to share with them. But when their own communities prosper, the animals and the forests may demand the same of them. Then, bad luck, disease or other things will kill humans, and the animal masters will take hunters back to repay all the game they provided before.

A hunter can only take an animal willingly, so a hunter focuses on making the animal willing. To the Yukaghir, hunting takes the form of seduction. Hunters must mimic an elk enough to seduce their prey; when the elk comes out, they can kill her. But this involves mortal danger. The hunter may go too far, losing himself to elkhood, and never find his way back to the human world. He may accidentally slip across that line, from seduction to true emotion, and the elk will lead him away forever. Even in their liminal state, not human, but not not human, if the hunter stays away for too long, he may become trapped in that state, one of the hairy "wild men" of the woods (which sound remarkably like legends of "Bigfoot") who became lost and never returned.

Willerslev offers a great many insights into how the Yukaghir live, how to "take animism seriously" (as his last chapter says), and about the common themes in animist belief and phenomenology. But as far as The Fifth World goes, I think this provides a rich angle for the game to explore. Animism as mimesis sets a number of challenges—to shift into a liminal state, to maintain a liminal state as long as you need to, to avoid the excesses and pitfalls that might drag you irrevocably into another world, and in the end, to find your way back to the human world. This provides the basic fodder for fairy tales, myths and legends across time and space. In fact, as I'll discuss in greater length in tomorrow's post, it hits upon the archetypal "Hero's Journey" that Campbell discussed, and the basic structure of rites of passage that van Gennep observed.

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