Animism, Art and Academia – February 3, 2013

(For those of you reading this as a link from my About page: this piece of writing doesn’t specifically explain my way of seeing animism, but it touches on it a little bit. I expect to write more on animism and phenomenology soon enough, and will change the link when I do.)

Animism, Art and Academia

I would like to argue that the fusion of art and academia, through artistic research, might play a vital role in redefining Western relationships between human- and non-human entities; and I would further argue that these redefined relationships might be necessary in order to avert ecological crises that face the planet.

It’s not enough for me to pursue my ideas in a purely artistic, or purely academic, context. I need to do the art, and at the same time step back and talk about how this kind of work fills a role that might not be filled in any other way. It must attempt to be accessible to the academic and the artistic worlds.

Within an animist ontology, humans and non-humans can all be seen as persons – as changing, transforming entities with whom it is possible to communicate and form meaningful relations. Because of this, it places precedent on relationships, understanding and respect between the things we perceive, and does not prioritize humanity over the rest of existence. This is a fundamental, ontological difference from the way Western thought relates to the rest of the world. I believe that a grassroots transformation at this foundational level of human existence might be the only way to bring about radical and long-term solutions to ecological problems that cannot be resolved with stop-gap governmental legislation and scientific research.

An animist ontology is inherently relational, open-ended, contingent, and subject to contradictory and ever-changing interpretation. It is a subjective, participatory and sensory way of being. As it does not distinguish between the mind and the body, it cannot exist purely as mental thought; it cannot be purely academic in the conventional sense, where reductionism and objectivism reign. It must be lived in the body, with all the senses, in an ongoing relationship with our surroundings.

This way of knowing fits perfectly within the realm of art-making and artistic research. There are very few, if any, differences between animist ways of knowing, and the ways of knowing that artistic research appears to pursue: contradiction, leakiness, subjectivity, an acceptance of “unknowing”. It is as though art-as-research were made to pursue knowledge from within an animist ontology.

I’ve found that academic papers on animism often rely on art in the form of narrative, poetry or imagery to support their point; however, they’re either forced to maintain a critical distance from these artistic objects (cf. Perception of the Environment, Ingold, 2000), or spend a lot of time justifying their use of these non-academic, artistic, methods. (cf. Being Known by a Birch Tree, Stuckey, 2010). There is a danger of the animist way of knowing staying at an impersonal distance, or becoming lost in academic justification and explanation. David Abram strikes a persuasive balance in Spell of the Sensuous, where theory is interspersed with poetic description and storytelling. But Spell of the Sensuous is a published book, not an academic work.

I am excited to see that people are trying to bridge the gap between art and academia in other fields. In the post-post period and environmental research, Marcia McKenzie talks about how means of validating research in the social sciences is changing to involve more “contingent, evolving and messy” models. Perhaps social scientists are moving towards becoming artists, in a sense. McKenzie’s article discusses a book, entitled Troubling the angels: women living with HIV/AIDS, “in which stories and images of angels are interwoven with interviews of women with HIV/AIDS.” According to the author of the book, this was done “to escape fixed gestures” as “an earnest attempt to listen to the material that moves against […] any claim to unmediated access to the real.” It seems that the work itself is not intended to achieve some transcendental truth. It is meant to be read as a series of stories – as an artwork in itself.

This movement towards messier and subjective knowledge isn’t only happening in the social sciences. Quantum physics is based on intangibility and contradiction (eg. wave-particle duality), where phenomena can exist differently depending on how one decides to look at it. This and other fields (such as ecology) rely on more theoretical and subjective ways of knowing than the reductionist and objective methods that we traditionally associate with science. (cf. Karen Barad, who eliminates the gap between feminism, morality and quantum physics in Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning.)

Another example in the sciences is a branch of neuroscience, beginning with Paul McLean and Antonio Damasio (Descartes’ Error, 1994) who recognize that their field  has been focussing too much on conscious, logical, brain-centered thought. Their work places more importance on emotion, unconscious thought, and a way of thinking that involves the body and the mind as a unified whole.

It’s fascinating to me that all these diverse fields appear to be arriving at the core principles of an animist ontology.


Works Cited:

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous – Perception and Langauge in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage Books, 1997.

Barad, Karen Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning”, Duke University Press, 2007.

Lather, P. & Smithies, C. (1997) Troubling the angels: women living with HIV/AIDS (Boulder, CO, Westview Press).

McKenzie, Marcia. “The ‘post-post period’ and environmental education research.” Environmental Education Research 11, no. 4 (September 2005): 401–412.

Stuckey, Priscilla. “Being Known by a Birch Tree: Animist Refigurings of Western Epistemology.” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 4, no. 3 (2010).


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