andreas on animism
nourishing community in pandemic times – april 2020 – by Andreas Weber
“Animism is about what it means to be alive in the world.” – tim ingold
The corona pandemic makes us understand that the earth is a commons, and that our lives are shared. This insight is not a rational concept, but springs from an emotional need. Individuals accept hardships by restricting their contacts in order to protect community. The understanding that we need to protect others has been able to override economic certainties within days. Humans chose to put reciprocity first. Reciprocity – mutual care – is neither an abstract concept nor an economic policy, but the experience of a sharing relationship and ultimately of keeping the community of life intact.
reciprocity et al
For millennia, and until today, this position has been taken by societies labelled as “animistic”. From the perspective of a community of life, these lessons of animism need to be revalidated, as being able to inform our actions with etiquette of reciprocity in the great society of being.
yikes to etiquette of reciprocity
1. Corona and the common good
Humans are asked to stop their activities in the name of something, which had not been much in the focus of western – and global – policy in the last decades: Community.
This is not a romantic moment, however. For millions in poorer countries, the stay-at-home-orders are an existential threat of misery and even of starvation
The lockdown shines a light on the social nature of humans. It reminds of a fact neoliberalism continuously veils: The individual can only live if the collective, which she constitutes with all others, is able to thrive. The virus managed to have humans do what they were not able to do on their own: Sit down, be quiet, and behave so that others in the community are protected.
wow.. sounds like school andreas.. behave?
We did not choose to do so, that’s admitted, and we hope to get back to normalcy as soon as we can.
It turns out that we are inextricably linked to a living community. And the community we are acting within is bigger than the collective of humans. It includes the whole earth.
yeah.. let’s get back to that
2. An ecological stress test
The pandemic needs to be understood as an ecological disaster. The fact that every human is personally menaced by this catastrophe should not seduce us into thinking that the disease concerns only public health and, therefore, is a human-only problem. To the contrary.
The change, at least for the moment, consists of granting others – humans and non-humans – space.. Ecological destruction is the opposite of granting other beings and species space
The coronavirus outbreak can be seen as a consequence of our global society’s refusal to grant others (humans and non-human beings) reciprocity and space
It shows that reciprocity is a key ecological quality, and it shows that reciprocity – granting the others space to live in order to keep our own – is asked of us as a key ecological contribution.
3. Microbial deconstruction of the Western Cognitive Empire
Monsters are born when we split the living world (which by its own creates life by being offered reciprocity) into two incommensurable and hostile domains, nature and society. Despite the claim to achieve this, however, those domains can never be truly separated. Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic shows this impossibility to separate the human from the natural. In the outbreak, the material processes (the proliferation of the virus, the infection of bodies) change culture and society – and the social measures taken feedback on the course of the pandemic. Nature – a virus from wild animals – dictates how society behaves and society affords the playing field for the virus.
Through this, the virus offers us a community ethics. The pandemic shows us how to behave in the right way. This right way – granting the other the space of life – is summarised in the famous Kisuaheli term “Ubuntu”, meaning “you are, therefore I am”. It is the thinking of reciprocity, the thinking that we participate in a collective creating life, that we are collectively responsible for life, not only for ours, but also for that of the others, and for the fecundity of life as such.
The thinking underlying Ubuntu is animism. Animism is the idea that the remainder of the world is not made of mute objects, but of persons. Persons have interests, and needs. They are agents. An animistic approach believes that we need to establish reciprocity with these persons.
4. The family of being(s)
Animism, the cosmology of indigenous peoples, is the most radical form to think and to enact reciprocity among human and non-human persons. To understand the full scope of this radicality, we need to rediscover what animism is. It has suffered a long time of misrepresentation within the western cognitive empire. The idea that naïve “native” humans live in a Hobbesian natural state adulating spirits and demons in trees, rivers, and mountains is a false myth. This misrepresentation stems from projecting the western cognitive mindset on what the so-called “primitive people” are doing, when they, for instance, ritually give thanks to a tree-being. It comes from not getting the radical reciprocity animism is engaged in.
Through regarding colonial knowledge as surpreme, we have unlearned what ecological knowledges and alternative worldviews entail. A central principle of this knowledge is that it is not actually about knowing in a western sense, but about sharing a world. Animism accepts that all beings co-create a world that is continuously producing life, and takes responsibility to keep this cosmic fecundity going. It understands the cosmos not as made up of things, but of agents, which all resemble humans in the fact that they, like us, crave for life, express their needs, and are required to interact with one another.
“Animists are people who recognise that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others…,” religious scholar and anthropologist Graham Harvey observes, providing the best up-to-date definition of indigenuous, animistic cosmologies.
In a cosmos of relationships, reciprocity is required in order to thrive, and it is required from all sides. In a world of relationships, we are not atomistic indivduals set against one another, but we collectively create one coherent process of life. The collective is as important as the individual. This collective is not only human, but made of everybeing and every force of reality.
Ecologically, the social definition of an attitude required to produce life is accurate. If we look from a formal point of view, an ecosystem is the embodiment of reciprocity. It consists of a host of beings related in endless ways. Ecological life is always lived in relationships with others. An ecosystem is a commons, shared and brought forth by all its participants. It is not an assemblage of egoistic agents.
So a view to substitute the crumbling Western Cognitive Empire is already at hand. It is the etiquette of reciprocity we can find unconsciously executed in ecosystems – and culturally instituted in societies, which have managed to live in mutuality with those ecosystems for a long time.
The animistic attitude, attempting to share the productivity of the cosmos among its participants, contrasts the basic principles of the western cognitive model (see table). Animism is not about material objects being possessed by spirits. It is about constructing a culture, which enables reciprocity, and about a cosmology, which integrates the experience of being part of a fecund collective.
It turns out that most conflicts of the Anthropocene are grounded in difficulties in maintaining good relations through sharing the cosmos.
5. Commoning for kin
An animistic answer to the central problem of how to maintain good relations is that we can see our membership in the living cosmos as being part of a vast community of beings. Our behaviour has the potential to make good relations possible – relations that let others and ourselves prosper. As these relations are of an embodied nature, we can, in accordance with an animistic view, put it even more radically: In this cosmos, all persons including the non-human ones are kin. As kin, they help us, they give us the assurance of being received well, but they also demand being treated in a way so that they can thrive.
Reciprocity with other – human and non-human – persons plays out in two fields: It requires us to treat the distribution of material provisions as a sharing of the productivity of the biosphere. And it allows us to experience this sharing as an emotional involvement, hence reconnecting with our own aliveness and enjoying it as a prime intuition of successful relationships.
I have called this new double stance “enlivenment” we can build from it a “poetics for the Anthropocene” , an art of creating and maintaining mutual fecund relationships sustaining cosmic productivity. And we can experience ourselves as sources as well as recipients of this productivity.
enlivenment sees a pluralist world of living beings constantly entangled with each other within a biosphere that must be understood as a continuous unfolding of diversity, freedom and experience.
all things that our civilisation touches with the x ray vision of the scientific method in effect loses their aliveness.
the richness of an existence which does not define itself by identities but by relationships
The distribution of material goods hence follows what we call a “commons economy”. Exchange and distribution is not a reaction to scarcity, but enables everyone to participate. A commons is not a resource, but a set of relationships. It is a collective process of co-creation, which nurtures all participants, which is upheld by everyone, and which in the end feeds into the productivity of the cosmos.
For the commons philosopher and activist David Bollier, commons are “realms of life defined by organic wholeness and relationality. They stand in stark contrast to a modern world whose hallmark is separation – the separation of humans from ‘nature’; of individuals from each other; and a separation between our minds and our bodies”. And precisely these commons are blossoming in pandemic times.
common\ing et al
With the onset of the pandemic, observers have noted a host of spontaneous resurgences of commoning – from neighbourhood networks volunteering to do shopping for the elderly to tailors shifting production to face masks and giving them away to the community for free. As Bollier observes, these behaviours are more than momentaneous bouts of altruisms. They rather represent the care for community, which is a spontaneous driver in human behaviour.
Nourishing the fecundity of the cosmos is a deeply animistic experience, because it is about feeling welcomed through welcoming the other. It is animistic for the reason that it is not a technical attitude, but a feeling experience.
These two dimensions – enacting the world as a commons through reciprocity with all beings, and experiencing this sharing relationship as my own and others’ aliveness, and hence the cosmos’ true character – cannot be separated. Only when we understand that the metabolic process through which we participate in the ongoing life is an emotional experience for all who are implied in this, can we proceed from the attempt to efficiently distribute objects to truly engage in an exchange with kin. Only then can we belong to family.
An aboriginal person, asked about her relationship to country, answers: “This rock is me.” Having an identity is derived from belonging. Through this, the human experience of beauty can be explained as the experience of being loved as part of family, the experience of one’s own love for that family or a particular member of it, and one’s desire to sustain that family, to give back.
Animistic sustainability is performative. It always requires a dialogue with a real other, a tree person, a jaguar person, a river person. Sustainable actions cannot be done without the etiquette of relationship, and without enacting the simple rites of reciprocity: Before we can save a place, we need to ask it to receive us in grace and to allow us to get in touch. And we need to express gratitude in words and in actions.
reciprocity et al
i don’t think it’s performative.. or etiquette.. or rites..
i think if we’re quiet enough.. the dance is already in us.. if we’d just listen to and focus on that
Animism, the enactment and culture of interspecies reciprocity, cannot teach us how to better manage “natural objects”, but shows how to sustain a cosmos giving life to all its members. This will require us to rethink traditional sustainable practices. US botanist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer, herself an American Indian, masterfully put what is required in her principles of “The Honorable Harvest”: “Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.”
braiding sweetgrass et al
free\dom et al