Could We Learn to Be an Animist Society?
Western civilisation is not currently practicing a way of life where the other-than-human are acknowledged for their agency and personhood, and where reciprocal caring and respect for multi-species communities is commonplace. This may be a crucial underlying reason why we continue to significantly contribute to the dire ecological crises we currently face. From this perspective I consider the question, could we learn to be an animist society? By primarily looking at Richard Hardack’s Bad Company: The Corporate Appropriation of Nature, Divinity, and Personhood in U.S. Culture (Hardack 2019) and Deborah Bird Rose’s Connectivity Thinking, Animism, and the Pursuit of Liveliness (Rose 2018), I will explore this inquiry, specifically in the northern hemisphere and in Western cultures, reflecting on how challenging this pursuit could be, given the power structures and dynamics of current political, legal, and economic forces.
Animism is already entangled in modern society in the West, cloaked under different guises, not yet appearing to have reached popular cultural awareness though paradoxically, it is often loosely practiced in plain sight. As I understand it, the distilled term for the large umbrella of this concept called ‘Animism’ relates to experiencing, interpreting, and navigating through a reality where we humans sense and acknowledge the aliveness of this vibrant world, maintaining right relations and respectful connections with everything from rivers, rocks, and trees, to clouds, rain, the wind, and everything in between. Addressing modern animism while separating it from its troubled academic roots is important. For clarity I will provide a brief examination of ‘old animism’ and ‘new animism’ focusing specifically on the latter for this argument.
Graham Harvey has put together an overview of this subject in his comprehensive work Animism: Respecting the Living World (Harvey, 2017). He reveals early traces of this ‘old animism’ starting in 1708 with the chemist and physician George Stahl who theorized there was a physical element he called anima that lived in all living things while dead objects contained none (Harvey 2017, p. 4). Harvey illuminates David Hume’s work in 1757, which he notes does not actually use the word animism though essentially explains ‘old animism’ succinctly. Distilling Hume’s words to reveal that “…humans attribute to the world around them signs of human-like-ness. This imaginative faculty or tendency is beautiful as poetry, but as religion and philosophy it is absurd, vulgar and ignorant” (Harvey 2017, p. 5). Reflections on early animism also came from James Frazer which further presented this as an unsavory perspective of early indigenous civilizations and their relationships with the world, by referring to them as ‘savages’ with absurd and preposterous views (ibid.). Then in 1871, Edward Tylor, considered the founder of the field of anthropology, brings about this notion of animism that has been most referenced and reflected on since its inception into the realm of academia. Harvey explains, “For Tyler, animism identifies a ‘primitive’ but ubiquitous religious category error, namely ‘the belief in souls or spirits’ …Animism began and continues as a way of trying to make sense of the world, it is a mythopoetic mode of discourse that explains life and events to those not yet fully acculturated to the practice of rationalist science” (Harvey 2017, p. 6f) Tylor’s use of ‘primitive people’ and ‘savages’ while working to define animism reveals some of the key distinctions between ‘old animism’ and ‘new animism’.
It feels prudent to highlight here that these terms – steeped in supremacy by Western thinkers who’ve traveled this colonial path – perhaps unwittingly provided justifications for systems of oppression that have been perpetuated right up until today. Addressing these connection points and exploring the path of we in the West becoming an animist society seems crucial if we are indeed going to improve our modern narratives, ecological relationships and worldviews. In doing so perhaps we will be better able to move toward an equitable, global more-than-human story.
Understanding ‘new animism’ poses multiple challenges and demands we embrace shifting our perspectives towards a ‘post-Western’ or ‘postcolonialism’ mindset. Nurit Bird-David, Eduardo Vivieros de Castro, Alejandro Haber, Tim Ingold, Donna Haraway, and Jane Bennett among many others have attempted to remove the narrow frames with which the colonial/Western ontologies, cosmologies, and dominant worldviews are seen through in order to broaden not only the narrative, but alter our collective perspectives so we may better comprehend ‘new animism’ and how to live through and with a world filled with vibrant, animate beings. We are entrenched in myriad dualisms and practices of ‘hyperseperation’ which Deborah Bird-Rose reveals through a reflection from her contemporary Val Plumwood who identified:
One of the key problems of the environmental crisis is the West’s cultural pattern of hyperseparation. This term identifies dualisms that are ordered in pairs that oppose each other, and in which one is dominant, the other subordinate. It is a traumatic structure par excellence: a structure of exclusion, hierarchy, and power. Western thought works with numerous dualisms that reinforce each other, with the overall effect (not necessarily intention) of naturalizing patterns that are in fact imposed by human intellect. To name just a few: man/woman, mind/matter, culture/nature, reason/emotion, civilized/savage. Separation, opposition, hierarchy, and the necessity of domination prevail. The nature–culture dualism is integral to the ecological crises we now face: humans and nature are held to be radically, oppositionally, different. Humans are held to be superior to all else (Rose 2018, p. 493f).
The ethnographer Irving Hallowel’s phrase from 1960, ‘other-than-human-person’ proved helpful for better conceptualizing being in right relationship within an animist society. By doing so all ‘persons’ are respected and given due care (Harvey 2017, p. 482). In the conclusion of Harvey’s contribution to this subject he sums up what this could mean for us nicely as he states, “Animism invites a renewed engagement with nature, culture, religion, and science (Harvey 2017, p. 495).
The ecologist and philosopher David Abram and his slight twist on the ‘other-than-human-person’ phrase ‘more-than-human’ came in 1996 and has for many become the line that is used most frequently these days. His modification comes from the delightful book and engaging book, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World. Abram dances on the precipice of academia, while dabbling frequently outside the realm of peer-review. His writing is accessible, full of wit and rich poetry, contributing a great wealth of work both within academic circles and far beyond in what may best be described here as our collective pop-cultural consciousness.
After gathering a sense of what would be involved in learning to be an animist society and finding the words and language to bring in this animistic perspective of personhood, we arrive at an important challenge posed by Richard Hardack that would suggest it will be quite a difficult road ahead in the West for this transition to happen. He points to how U.S. corporations have taken many of these principles and concepts and co-opted and appropriated this idea of personhood so effectively, that not only are corporations now legally defined as persons, but that in this unfolding process these past few centuries, through crafty corporate legal efforts, we humans have culturally lost some sense of this relationship with personhood ourselves. Hardack argues:
Corporations have become forms of sovereigns themselves, primarily by acquiring human rights and “personalities” and tethering those qualities to the corporation’s inhuman attributes. Through now credited with personhood, corporations cannot act with univocal intention or possess agency. They are at best simulacra, imitations of human life. But corporations don’t just mimic human behaviors; they chronically challenge and destabilize the status of personhood, and what it means to be a person (Hardack 2019, p251)
This is an important argument and challenge that must be faced as we consider if it is, in fact, possible to learn to be an animist society while corporations are deemed persons. Hardack further elaborates on this notion and its potential consequences by adding:
It therefore becomes critical to track the manifold cultural, aesthetic, legal, and ontological inversions that have allowed corporations to regulate the state. The causes and effects of these inversions affect society at all levels and in all contexts. As one disturbing example, it is now commonplace for many corporations, even those not immediately involved in information technology or social media, to refer to persons as the products rather than the consumers. Virtually all media, which now includes everything from entertainment to politics, serve as a pretext or lure for corporate advertising and manipulation, and a distraction from corporate maneuvering. All these inversions and effects are intimately predicated on the notion that the corporation is now the person (Hardack 2019 p. 252).
Hardack presents an unsettling position that makes learning to be an animist society a daunting task. He devotes much of his argument to illuminating how corporations and their legally binding laws have been formed directly, and indirectly with the help of academics, philosophers and poets who’ve shaped these concepts. In this way we see how tricky it will be to shift this co-opted movement and untangle from the appropriation of some of these animistic concepts that corporations have effectively integrated into modern society. Further reflections from Hardack troublingly display that:
Similarly, Jane Bennett’s notion of enchanted matter, impersonal affect and heterogeneous/distributive agency could also apply to the same kind of animism that gives corporations the ontological status of persons. To deny the distinction between the living and the non-living can play directly into the absent hands of the corporation. Such theorists sometimes confuse the impersonal, which they tether to a rights discourse, with the egalitarian; the excesses that can mar personal discourses do not warrant their abandonment, but regulation (Hardack 2019, p. 262).
Reading these observations may be unsettling to those who wish to participate in shifting society towards a collective animism. It is revealed through Hardack’s work that in some ways we already have an animist worldview, only it is selective and primarily beneficial to the perpetual growth narrative that colonialism and capitalism have championed for so many generations now. Hardack further exacerbates this outlook, noting “Accumulation and aggregation are usually zero-sum games; the more money, power, sheer mass and ontological privilege corporations have, the less is left to Individuals” (Hardack 2019, p. 277). This would imply that we find ourselves at the mercy of corporations as the consolidation of privilege and power is already near absolute in many ways. Towards the conclusion of his examination Hardack sees that we individuals in the West have relinquished many of our personal rights and communal ways of being in this process. Surrendering them not only to governments, which are often feared by the public and in social/environmental justice circles, but more unsettlingly, to corporations. This, Hardack argues, is more detrimental to our connections to communities, ourselves, and the health of the ecological world we are a part of (Hardack 2019, p. 285). From this viewpoint, the way forward seems not only unclear, but extraordinarily confounding to consider if we could still learn to be an animist society while this corporate representation of personhood persists.
Conversely, there are many other perspectives to take into account and what we’ll be exploring now loops back to the work of Deborah Bird Rose. This is a more encouraging view of how we might find our way toward an animistic society. Starting with Rose’s idea that ecological thinking “takes us away from certainty and into probability. Connectivity entails interdependence and brings us into domains of responsibility, accountability, proximity, ethics, and community. These are domains in which many Indigenous people have been living for millennia. There is much to learn, much to be shared” (Rose 2018, p. 494f). Through learning and sharing we may be able to transform our thinking and living in a way where we can travel a path of connectivity in order to make our way towards becoming an animist society. Rose further shares an optimistic concept of ‘strong animism’ in which:
Bonds of mutual life-giving subtend relationships among individuals and groups, across species; they include a great range of beings, even some landforms. These relationships are the result of creation, and they enmesh beings, including humans, within life-giving bonds that are inclusive, that do not have humans as the focal point or apex, and that are pervaded with an ethics of care and responsibility. This is an ecological ontology in the best possible sense: it is relational, and it articulates patterns and ethics of connectivities, continuities, and responsibilities (Rose 2018, p. 495)
There is significantly more to Rose’s analysis of how we can shift our lives towards greater connectivity and she notes the need for stories to help carry us there. Rose takes great effort to acknowledge the indigenous cultures and societies who have, and continue to practice forms of animistic living. Providing insights that reveal it is through their storytelling that a lot of this way of living is conveyed to past, present, and future generations. What is important for Western civilization is to work towards stories that do the same while being careful not to appropriate these other cultures’ tales in the process. Rose expresses that, “the more ethically responsible step is to examine patterns, and search for connections, by recuperating alternatives from our own stories” (Rose 2018, p. 502). This is great advice. May we heed it and take the necessary steps, no matter how awkward they may be, towards these alternatives to our present dominant detrimental and disconnecting stories.
I truly do believe it is possible that we could learn to be an animist society though in order to do so, the way forward first requires a great deal of stepping backward. Decolonizing our way of thinking and living will be crucial in this process. One of the paths put forward that resonates well with me is by Tim Ingold. He sees that what indigenous cultures have remained connected to has been lost to us in the West, that “these peoples are united not in their beliefs but in a way of being that is alive and open to a world in continuous birth. In this animic ontology, beings do not propel themselves across a ready-made world but rather issue forth through a world-in-formation, along the lines of their relationships” (Ingold 2006, p. 9). Likewise, Nurit Bird-David emphasizes how there is still a need to untangle from the way ‘old animism’ was presented with its misguided, if not directly offensive interpretations of indigenous people and their ways of thinking and interacting with the world. Which led “the theoreticians to prejudge the attribution of ‘‘personhood’’ to natural objects as empirically unfounded and consequently to direct analytical effort to explaining why people did it and why and how (against all appearances) their ‘‘belief’’ was not a part of their practical knowledge but at best a part of their symbolic representations or a mistaken strategic guess” (Bird-David 1999, p. 68). In addition to this, seeing animism not as just a belief system but rather a way of life also may be key.
I am grateful for these opportunities and challenges presented as we consider if we could learn to be an animist society, it is helpful to take stock in where we find ourselves. Hardack presents his daunting argument which reveals how the West, and specifically U.S. corporations have all but dominated the work of bringing animism into society, just not how it was holistically intended to be practiced. It may be that this will pose one of the greatest obstacles to overcome. I hesitate to put forth any actionable solution to this quandary though I appreciate the efforts made by courageous indigineous and Western groups (led often by youth, and those who are marginalized and oppressed) who stand up to these corporate, often deified, and virtually immortal ‘persons’ with their protests, direct actions, and efforts to stop these machines of perpetual growth. Confronting the oil pipelines, or ‘black snakes’ as they have been named by Native Americans like Winona LaDuke is an encouraging example of this (LaDuke, 2015). We can also shift our perspective and learn differently through efforts and organized actions from such groups like Earth Guardians which:
Is an intergenerational organization with youth at the forefront that trains diverse youth to be effective leaders in the environmental, climate and social justice movements across the globe – using art, music, storytelling, on the ground projects, civic engagement and legal action to advance solutions to the critical issues we face as a global community” (Earth Guardians, 2018).
In these and many other ways, and through continued actions that confront, reveal, and challenge the problematic language, rules, regulations, and laws that have allowed for corporations to be deemed ‘persons’ we could also find our way towards learning to embrace more-than-human relationships as an animist society. India, New Zealand, and Bangladesh have recently granted legal personhood to rivers (Willems, Lambooy and Begum, 2021) and more inspiring actions like this are taking place all over the world. This pursuit matters and it can be argued it is part of what hinges on humanity either continuing on this wrecking ball course around the planet or significantly altering the Westernized/Modernity portion of our species frame of mind so that we once again place care and right relations at the forefront with the more-than-human world we are intrinsically a part of.
Bird-David, Nurit (1999) “Animism” Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology Current Anthropology , Vol. 40, No. S1, Special Issue Culture—A Second Chance? (February 1999), pp. S67-S91 The University of Chicago Press
Earth Guardians (2018). Earth Guardians. [online] Earth Guardians. Available at: https://www.earthguardians.org.
Hardack, Richard (2019) Bad Company: The Corporate Appropriation of Nature, Divinity, and Personhood in U.S. Culture British journal of American legal studies, 2019-12-31, Vol.8 (2), p.249-288
Harvey, G. (2017). Animism : respecting the living world. London: Hurst & Company.
Harvey, G. (2017). If Not all Stones Are Alive…: Radical Relationality in Animism Studies. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 11(4), pp.481–497
Ingold, Tim (2006) Rethinking the Animate, Re-animating Thought, Ethnos, 71:1, 9-20
Rose, Deborah Bird (2018) Connectivity Thinking, Animism, and the Pursuit of Liveliness Educational theory, 2017-18, Vol.67 (4), p.491-508 Malden, USA: Wiley Periodicals, Inc
Willems, M., Lambooy, T. and Begum, S. (2021). New Governance Ways Aimed at Protecting Nature for Future Generations: The Cases of Bangladesh, India and New Zealand: Granting Legal Personhood to Rivers. IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science, 690(1), p.012059.