David Abram: "Magic and the Machine"
For most traditionally oral, indigenous cultures that we know of, any and every phenomenon is potentially animate; everything moves. All things are felt to have their own pulse, their own inner spontaneity or dynamism. All things have agency, the capacity to act—although some things, like trees, rocks, or mountains, clearly move much slower than other things, like bears or dragonflies. Such styles of perception show themselves in exceedingly different ways throughout diverse indigenous traditions, yet Western ethnologists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries could not help but notice this curious commonality among the divergent tribes they lived with and sometimes managed to learn from. The members of such cultures seemed to respond to their surroundings as though all things were alive and (at least potentially) aware. Further, from this animistic perspective, it seemed that all things were felt to be expressive; all things had the power of meaningful speech (although, of course, very few of them spoke in words).
The conventional interpretation of such ways of encountering the world, among social scientists, has held that traditional, “tribal” persons are confusedly projecting human attributes—such as life and consciousness—into nonhuman and ostensibly inanimate phenomena. I wish to argue, however, that animistic perception is utterly normal for the human organism, a kind of default setting (to use a technological metaphor) for our species; that in the absence of intervening technologies, the human senses spontaneously encounter the sensorial surroundings as a field of sensitive and sentient powers. Our most immediate experience of the earthly world, and of the myriad bodies that compose this world, is of a multiply animate cosmos wherein no thing is definitively void of expressive agency, or life.
ONE ANCIENT TECHNOLOGY that conditioned and opened the way for countless later technologies is today so ubiquitous that we tend to take it for granted and forget that it is indeed a technology: the alphabet. The alphabet was foundational to many of the collective habits and cognitive patterns radiating from the Mediterranean throughout Europe, and ultimately the Americas. It is thoroughly implicated in the vast influence of all three of the monotheistic traditions—the Religions of the Book—and was formative for the birth of Western philosophy in ancient Athens. Much later, with the advent of the printing press, the alphabet catalyzed the Protestant Revolution and the European Enlightenment, enabling the development and spread of Western science. Indeed this remarkable technology has so thoroughly informed the thought style of this hemisphere that everything commonly termed Western civilization should more precisely be spoken of as alphabetized civilization.
When most people learn the extent to which phonetic literacy figured in the rise of monotheism, and then the extent to which the proliferation of literacy made possible by the printing press sparked both the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution, they conclude—as indeed most scholars have concluded—that reading and writing enable a form of reason that rapidly loosens and breaks free from the superstitious, animistic beliefs to which non-writing, oral cultures are presumably prone (and to which most citizens of European and American civilization are presumably immune). I want to argue, however, that alphabetic literacy can best be understood as a highly concentrated form of animism.
Much as other animals, plants, and even “inanimate” rivers and stones once spoke to our oral ancestors, so the inert letters on the page now speak to us! This is a form of animism that we tend not to notice, but it is animism nonetheless, as mysterious as a talking spider.
If my ancestors once engaged in animistic participation with bent twigs, animal tracks, cliff-faces, and cloud shapes, I learned an analogous participation with the letter shapes upon the page. But notice: while a thundercloud or a raven might utter strange sounds and communicate strange sensations, the written letters always speak with a human tongue.
Only as alphabetic literacy comes into a previously oral culture (often through Christian missionaries teaching how to read the Good Book) does that culture get the curious idea that language is an exclusively human property. The living land is no longer felt to hold and utter forth its own manifold meanings; the surrounding earth soon comes to be viewed as a mostly passive background upon which human history unfolds.
Sadder still, by using GPS we no longer experience the delicious delirium of getting lost in the woods or the mountains. And so we no longer experience the great heightening of our animal senses, the keen synaesthetic attention to the land’s every nuance and subtlety that is triggered by getting lost.
A San elder shared with me his common experience as a young hunter: how upon following the tracks of another creature, he would soon be able to envision the animal’s movements as it laid down those very tracks; and if he kept up this concentration, he might come to feel the prey where it was at the present moment, feeding or sleeping or whatever it was doing at the far end of those tracks. Similarly, Jon Young told me of his own oft-repeated experience in North America, after coming upon the day-old track of an elk, say, or a bear: if he begins to follow the intermittent track, picking it up again and again wherever it leaves off—while also opening his peripheral senses to the sing-song calls and flight patterns of birds, noting the movements of other small animals, sniffing the air and registering shifts in the wind as it rattles the leaves of nearby trees—then it will sometimes happen that he receives, in his mind’s eye, an image of that elk where it is browsing by a stream bend in a distant part of the forest; and if he quietly makes his way to that stream, he will discover the elk just there, at that spot.
There is nothing “extra-sensory” about this kind of earthly clairvoyance. Rather, sensory perception functions here as a kind of glue, binding one’s individual nervous system into the larger ecosystem. When our animal senses are all awake, our skin rippling with sensations as we palpate the surroundings with ears and eyes and flaring nostrils, it sometimes happens that our body becomes part of the larger Body of the land—that our sensate flesh is taken up within the wider Flesh of the breathing Earth—and so we begin to glimpse events unfolding at other locations within the broad Body of the land. In hunting and gathering communities, individuals are apprenticed to the intricate life of the local earth from an early age, and in the absence of firearms, hunters often depend upon this richly sensorial, synaesthetic clairvoyance for regular success in the hunt. The smartphone replicates something of this old, ancestral experience of earthly acumen that has long been central to our species: the sense of being situated over Here, while knowing what’s going on over There.
What is the difference between these two forms of seeing, or sensing, at a distance? One approach, mediated by the smartphone, works by dissolving distance entirely—detaching us from our sensory embedment in a particular place in order to dialogue with other minds that have similarly withdrawn from their senses. The other, in contrast, works by virtue of our body and our creaturely senses. Instead of divesting ourselves of the place where we find ourselves, this more ancient form of clairvoyance involves tuning one’s body so thoroughly to the terrain that we ourselves become fully a part of the sensate surroundings. The land feels itself within us. Our animal body blends into the wider Body of the animate Earth—this immense, spherical metabolism in which our individual physiologies are embedded, upon which our divergent lives all depend.
“The placing of the personality in a particular part of the body is cultural. Most Europeans place themselves in the head, because they have been taught that they are the brain. In reality of course the brain can't feel the concave of the skull, and if we believed with Lucretius that the brain was an organ for cooling the blood, we would place ourselves somewhere else. The Greeks and Romans were in the chest, the Japanese a hand’s breath below the navel, Witla Indians in the whole body, and even outside it. We only imagine ourselves as ‘somewhere’.”
— Keith Johnstone, Impro
would I really rather be a cyborg than a goddess? The former hails the future in a teleological technological determinism—culture—that seems not only overdetermined, but also exceptionalizes our current technologies. The latter—nature—is embedded in the racialized matriarchal mythos of feminist reclamation narratives. Certainly it sounds sexier, these days, to lay claim to being a cyborg than a goddess. But why disaggregate the two when there surely must be cyborgian goddesses in our midst? Now that is a becoming-intersectional assemblage that I could really appreciate.
When one of your hands touches the other, something peculiar happens: You become aware of the strange ambivalence that makes your body different from all other things. Your hand is an object in the world, but it is also something you experience from within. And the hand you touch is also both an object and a feeling, sensing part of your embodied self. The touched thing is also touching. This ambiguity of corporeal life—of the active/passive, inside/outside, subject/object—is what phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty spent his life trying to elucidate.
Daniel Birnbaum, Lygia Clark
We do not only inhabit our planet and its biosphere anymore, but an endless universe, consisting of a multitude of galaxies in motion and, therefore, impossible to dwell in, according to the concept attributed to dwelling by western culture. In the same way, the materiality of the rocks of Mars, through the instruments of identification, have a consistency, shape and weight, but not tangibility, and they present themselves to us as a singular matter, the bearer of a new type of consistency that is perceptible only through technology.