Animism in the Anthropocene

Post #1: What is Animism, what is the Anthropocene, and What the Heck are we talking about?

As I’ve been trying to explain to people over the past weeks what exactly it is I’m going to be doing this quarter, I find myself opening my mouth to explain these terms and coming up blank, overwhelmed by questions and confusion, and instead of words I simply breathe out: air. Air that is actually carbon dioxide, which I expel before I breathe in oxygen that is dispelled by trees and other creatures that survive from photosynthesis. I am, every breath, taking in molecules that another being didn’t need, and in an exchange of subconscious generosity, giving what I do not need in return. The answers to my questions seem more easily answered with silence, but we humans communicate with language, and so I start my journey on this question of breath, and the interchange of chemicals that forms the basis of life. What is the importance of consciousness in this exchange? Does it matter that my rational mind does not acknowledge and agree to this giving of gifts, does that make it less an act of relationship, or less important? What is the role of our ability to think rationally in our relationship to the world? I think these questions are central to what we are trying to get at in this project, but first, some definitions. (I’m using non-academic, commonly used references here on purpose) defines animism as:

“1. the belief that natural objects, natural phenomena, and the universe itself possess souls.
2. the belief that natural objects have souls that may exist apart from their material bodies.
3. the doctrine that the soul is the principle of life and health.
4. belief in spiritual beings or agencies. (1)


“Animism… is the world’s oldest religion. Animism teaches that objects, places, and creatures all possess distinctive spiritual qualities.[3][4][5][6] Potentially, animism perceives all things—animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather systems, human handy work, and perhaps even words—as animate and alive… The animistic perspective is so widely held and inherent to most animistic indigenous peoples that they often do not even have a word in their languages that corresponds to “animism” (or even “religion”);[10] the term is an anthropological construct.” (2)

Western anthropologists largely saw animistic cultures (and their own genetic ancestors who practiced similar ways of being) as primitive, ridiculous, ignorant, a necessary but embarrassing step on the road to ‘civilized’ culture. With these biases I think they were missing the point when they believed the core of animist thought rests on assigning ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ to animate and inanimate beings alike. I think Western anthropologists thought of ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ as something like ‘ego’; something that defines a personality, that lives on after our corporeal body dies. Western cultural practices of domination relied on deciding who counted as a person and what counted as a thing.

From The Lives of Animals:
“…we can discuss and debate what kind of souls animals have, whether they reason or on the contrary act as biological automatons, whether they have rights in respect to us or whether we merely have duties in respect to them… the fact that animals, lacking reason, cannot understand the universe but have simply to follow its rules blindly, proves that, unlike man, they are part of it but not part of its being: that man is godlike, animal thinglike.” (3)

If Western anthropologists had a cultural imperative to designate who was a person and what was a thing- intended however unconsciously to enable them to continue to assert their power over other people, over animals, over the ‘natural’ world- then they had to dismiss animism as primitive and ridiculous, otherwise how could they justify their behavior? Maybe in order to develop a new/old way of being in the world, our imperative is to reexamine these biases and hierarchical definitions of what is alive and what is merely here to be used. I wonder, though, how much of this can be done with our rational minds, if our ability to see the world as ‘other’ is what led to the problem in the first place? Part of our work this quarter is going to be spending time in the world doing ‘somatic explorations’ (somatic: of the body) to see if dropping into our animal bodies and stepping back from our rational minds will bring any different kind of wisdom. This brings me to the question of separation from the body or stepping back from our rational minds- they really aren’t different things. The rational mind exists in and comes from the animal body. We think we can separate ourselves from ourselves, and from the rest of the community of life that we are so inextricably braided into that trying to look outside of it or see it as separate from ourselves is really no different than trying to look at your own eyeballs. It’s for me a dizzying concept, and one that will be examined in great depth in the coming weeks.
1. the Anthropocene, a proposed term for the present geological epoch (from the time of the Industrial Revolution onwards), during which humanity has begun to have a significant impact on the environment (1)

Anthropocene is a scientific term for a geological epoch, but I am using the term here to get at the underlying assumptions of human mastery over ‘nature’ that lead to the practices that caused the Anthropocene. Hopefully, through this project, we’ll find a better word.

An important statement: The word ‘indigenous’ was used in the Wikipedia definition of animism. A tricky word, and a loaded one. Since this is the intro I’ll make this blanket statement: European empire and colonialism were brutal, terrible things that devastated indigenous cultures worldwide. The legacy of slavery and genocide that we live with and is carried on by American empire and internal racist policies is BAD and is worth all the ongoing struggles to turn the tide. Cultural appropriation is also real, and needs calling out. I come from a spiritual tradition of mostly white folks that walks this line and it is a subject of constant contention and debate. It is something I am extremely aware of and sensitive to. With that said, if you go back far enough, we all come from peoples that saw themselves as part of the world and believed everything around them to be alive. The question of this project is: is there a way to get back to that kind of embodied engagement with the world, after so long seeing ourselves as apart from it (rather than a part of it)? Or maybe more accurate (and realistic), is there a way forward, from where we are, to develop a relationship to ourselves and the living community around us that does less harm?

It is late, and the nighttime silence of my house is singing with small alive noises. The even breath of Honey Bear the dog on the couch behind me. She snorts once and turns, kicks her feet out against the wall and settles back into dreaming. The creak and pop of the walls shifting, blue swirled pine from California and cedar stained dark, cedar that maybe once stood relative to the trees barely seen through the dark glass. Somnolent hush of rain droplets on the roof and down the windows that stand transparent, waiting to be defined by the trails and trickles of water. I breathe. Honey Bear breathes. The house breathes. The forest outside breathes, the moths flutter on the glass and breathe with us. We each take, and we each give.

3. The Lives of Animals, J.M. Coetzee


(Word: week1intro)


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