Animism in the Anthropocene

Post #7: The Personal is… Ecological?

It is something of a shock that it is already midway through week 8 and time to start wrapping up, finalizing, making a Powerpoint, sending material to my mentor and writing my final self evaluation.  I feel like I have just scratched the surface of what I wanted to explore and discuss.  I’m still working on processing and writing from my second somatic exploration, a month ago.  I feel reluctant to share what I’ve gotten out of this quarter on this blog.  It’s all been so deeply personal in ways I never could have expected.  It is almost unbearably difficult to be honest in this venue about the way I experience the world.  I’m in another window right now trying to finish a post on a walk through Capitol Forest and find myself trying to write about the Fae.  Faeries.  What place does this have in academia?  And yet in the deepest part of myself it feels right, to be trying to crack that barrier between the me that I am in my most private, sacred moments and the me that writes papers for college.

In Dark Ecology Timothy Morton says:

 “The exit route [from agrilogistics/the anthropocene] looks like a regression.  The arche-lithic appears as decadence and so is ignored.”  (Morton, 156).

Earlier in that section Morton says that the urge to DO something about the anthropocene can be in itself an anthropocentric urge to order our way out of the order that caused the problem in the first place.  This is not to say that we shouldn’t be ‘doing’ something.  But what is doing?  Can doing mean walking through the woods, looking into the eyes of lemurs at the zoo, writing poetry, working in deep intimacy with others to undo the anthropocentric training and attendant trauma we’ve all experienced, showing each other the ‘irreducible gap between who you are and who you think you are’ in vulnerability and humor, sitting in silence, BEING in our bodies in ways that we are trained out of from birth?  Can those things go hand in hand with learning to eat and grow food differently, decommodifying agriculture, education and bodies, fighting capitalism and patriarchy and systemic racism?  Can those things BE that very fight?  How does acknowledging the presence of felt entities in the forest, that we might call spirits or the Fae or the ancestors or nymphs or any of the names that countless cultures have given to this other dimension of being that is sensed but unseen, how does that help?  As Morton put it, spending my time in this way feels like decadent regression but it also feels right.


I catch myself, in all of this decadent regression, sinking into a kind of bored depression.  I’m accustomed to always having something new and exciting to catch my awareness, to lift me out of my body and the present moment and the reality of animal existence.  Instead, I’m diving IN.  To my body, to the physical world around me.  To relationships and my thoughts, my shadow and the breathing, present moment.  I can feel the weight of all this being present like some kind of mud sticking to my skin.  Morton says,

With ennui, I find myself surrounded and indeed penetrated by entities that I can’t shake off.  When I try to shake one off, another one attaches itself, or I find that another one is already attached, or I find that the very attempt to shake it off makes it tighten the grip of its suckers more strongly.  Isn’t this just the quintessence of ecological awareness, namely the abject feeling that I am surrounded and penetrated by other entities such as stomach bacteria, parasites, mitochondria- not to mention other humans, lemurs and sea foam?… Isn’t ecological awareness fundamentally depressing in precisely this way, insofar as it halts my anthropocentric mania to think myself otherwise than this body and its phenomenological being surrounded and permeated with other, not to mention made up of them?  (125)

This project has been a form of the stickiness.  I want to keep it at a distance from me.  I want to sound like the smart, witty academic that I wish to be.  I want to be writing beautiful poetry about trees.   I want to be able to put it down and go back to my real life.  Instead, it keeps tunneling further into me.  It’s exposing me to myself.  I can’t get out from under it.

At the beginning of the project I said to Allan that I wasn’t sure animism was something that could be practiced without an interactive relationship with a specific place; a place where you live and eat from the soil and drink the water.  I thought maybe animism wasn’t something that could be thought at all but was something that happened between beings who have something at stake, together.  I think maybe this is accurate, but am not ready to make great claims on that topic.  What it has led me to is the way that animism is also about the relationships “between a being” as Morton puts it.  All the haunting, difficult, unpleasant parts of ourselves are like  creatures that we need to look in the eye, and know, and do the dance of relationship with.  I keep finding myself ready to go ‘do schoolwork’ like I would go to the laundromat, just another chore, and realizing that whatever strange spell I started with this project is working on me all the time.  The real work is in these strange moments when I find there are parts of my psycho/emotional/spiritual being that are entirely opposed to anything like animism and all of this work is exposing them to the light and they are falling away, pieces of myself I thought bedrock becoming small and weightless.  Who am I underneath all of that?  Do I even need an I anymore?

A few weeks ago I had a strange epiphany.  I was in the library at work, and was wearing something a little more revealing of my curvy body than I’m accustomed to wearing.  Part of this animism work has been an attempt to embrace the reality of my body.  To not fret about the ways I don’t meet some standard and instead be what I actually am.  I was standing in the stacks and caught myself worrying about how other people might be perceiving me.  In so doing my awareness was outside of me, trying to get into the heads of the people around me and also existing in the past where I mourned all the ways I haven’t worked to have a ‘better’ body and in the future thinking of things I can do to change.  I caught this thought and realized what I was doing, and was able to pull my awareness back from all those hinterlands and into the core of my body, which means into the present moment.  For as long as I was able to hold it (it takes great attention for me to do this, although its getting easier with practice), I realized that not only my body but everything around me was alive to me in a way that it isn’t when my attention is off floating around in places that aren’t actually accessible to me (other people minds, the past and future).  It’s difficult to explain in writing how revolutionary and also liberating this shift in perception was.  In the present moment, in my body and with everything around me alive and aware of me as much as I was aware of it, that was the opposite of loneliness, whereas so much of my attempt to look into the past, future and other people is an attempt to find the kind of embodied connection that I found in that simple shift in perception.

There has been a truly magical response to all of this work in my personal life.  I’m able to be present to the moment and other people in ways that have enabled depths of emotional intimacy I wouldn’t have said were possible, before.  In the Handbook of Contemporary Animism, Danny Nevah and Nurit Bird-David say, “When one’s mind is available for direct perception, without being intensely immersed in non-immediate considerations, things/persons can indeed expose themselves in their outmost idiosyncratic uniqueness… they can expose themselves in their outmost vivid presence.”  In a world of disconnection,  I’m starting to have a sneaking suspicion that whatever work we each, and collectively, need to do to really BE present to the world, ourselves, each other, from moment to moment, might be the most decadent, regressive, important work we can do.  From that presence comes empathy, and from empathy comes right action.




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