I posted my Masters’ Honours thesis’ Conclusion today (1 May) and had another read of it. I read it a few months ago. And before that, in 2010, shortly after I graduated.
The thesis title, An inquiry into animism as a source of meaning in response to radical and disruptive non-ordinary experiences, still has an emotional resonance for me. I started the thesis in 2002. I wanted to wait a few years, but because I was granted a scholarship, that was not an option. My then partner had started her PhD at the same time and having two people working on their theses in one household at the same time was not a smart thing to do.
I struggled for almost 2 years for frame my research question. I began obedient to the assertion that one should inquire into a theme one was passionate about. The trouble was that my passion had never been articulated in a disciplined way. It had been driving me, but more like a haunting spirit than a guiding hand.
There was one event that triggered clarity. I will quote from Chapter 3 of the thesis where I describe it. I had been leafing through Funk & Wagnell’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend and glanced across the page at ‘animism’ to read; “The belief in souls; the attributes of spirits or personality to physical objects or phenomena…” (Leach, 1975 p. 62). It was a starting point that emerged, ineluctably, as a compelling central theme for my subsequent thinking. It was unexpected and forced a complete rethink of the original project.
It was far more dramatic than that. It was an epiphany that left me stunned. There was an instant flood of recognition of the implications of the idea. I was astonished and confused. I had never knowingly encountered the word animism before. This was even though I had been reading on themes related to and embracing the essential ideas of animism for decades. Why hadn’t I come across that word before?
The experience was like sitting with a hopeless jumble of jigsaw puzzle pieces with no idea what the final picture would look like – and then getting a sudden intuitive flash of the completed puzzle.
There had been a single organising idea absent from my experiences and thought for decades. True, I had vague ‘spiritual’ notions of a unifying sentiment or principle, but nothing so concrete as the sudden flash of awakening encountering animism gave me.
It took me a few more years to finish. There were difficult times. As I revisited my early experiences with psi phenomena, I triggered memories that forced me to process surprisingly powerful emotions – a kind of existential PTSD. Even though the thesis was autoethnographic I was unwilling to record the real depth of my reactions.
The final form was not submitted until late 2009. This wasn’t an intellectual exercise anymore. It was a kind of spiritual ordeal. I April 2008, I contracted a severe case of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), which put me in hospital for 10 months. In the 8 months of subsequent home-based physio before I could get back to work, I had to rework the whole thesis.
While I got a letter saying I would graduate, I had no feedback comments. By that stage I didn’t care. On the level where it mattered the thoughts of the markers were irrelevant. This was a personal matter.
Together, the thesis and the GBS transformed my thinking – and have continued to do so. The Conclusion was an affirmation of the transformative dramas – on an intellectual and spiritual level. It condensed time before GBS and after into a single moment. Here I want to revisit it and see whether it has stood the test of time, and my ongoing inquiry.
I want to take only 3 themes from the Conclusion – to keep this essay at a decent length. They are the environmental movement, technology, and urban animism. I have selected these because each speaks to our contemporary world in powerful and singular ways. I haven’t researched these themes in any deliberate academic way since I graduated. I read, listen, and watch widely, so I also am curious as to whether any of the themes has become prominent as part of the general conversation.
The environmental movement
From the Conclusion: Animistic thought is finding a place in the environmental movement, as it seeks ideas and language that better articulate emergent values and ideas. Mack has argued for a ‘new psychology’ to express such values and ideas as core and key to a needed change in attitudes and conduct.
The most telling development for me has been the greater accessibility to indigenous ways of knowing. There are more books and podcasts tackling animistic themes; and expressing a far more sensitive awareness of planetary lives – even as persons, as kin.
The environmental movement has dropped off my radar. It is unsubtle and jarringly political from my perspective. Greater sensitivity to, and awareness of, environmental issues has been growing – chiefly because of ‘natural disasters’, and the advocacy of ‘climate change’ activists.
I don’t think we are seeing the emergence of a ‘new psychology’ just yet. But I sense a hunger for it. Engagement in metaphysical ideas or ‘woo’ isn’t an issue if you have a predisposition for it. It is a problem is if you want to get there from a materialistic perspective there is no rational pathway yet. In a way, the reliance on ‘science’ has impeded the development of an articulate and deep value vision. And the passion for a kind of ecological sentiment without a countervailing reasoned foundation has impeded it as well.
I see an opportunity to develop a ‘new psychology’ based on what we do know, and what we know we need to know. Rational assertions of immanent peril are not working. We need stories. Stories are the foundation of the psychology of driving change. That means we need smart informed and creative thinkers on the job of developing an intentional transitional psychology – getting us from where we are to where we know we want to be.
I didn’t like the idea of New Animism that appealed to some in the environmental movement when I was writing the thesis, and I haven’t shifted from that position. It may help for environmentalists to have a greater awareness of the natural world as the home of kin. I am not disputing that. What concerned me about New Animism was that it was, in my view, an adaption of an idea intended to modify and support another idea. It’s the ‘New’ that bothers me. I came to animism as an idea that made sense of my experiences. I did not see it as something to explain or organise my thought. What I see as animism is far more than New Animism offers.
That said, I don’t oppose New Animism per se. I see it has value in expanding awareness of environmental advocates. It’s just not what the name says it is. Animism, as an idea, is far more than that. Far better is to learn from an indigenous perspective how to think about the natural world. Braiding Sweetgrass is a good place to start.
I am aware that in New Zealand that the Whanganui River was granted personhood under New Zealand law in 2017. That is a powerful thing to do, but to what extent the spirit of the intent has been honoured in action I do not know. That’s something I will follow up on. Again, this is a case of the indigenous perspective being a guide.
We do need to build these other ways of knowing into our own. This may be the foundation of a new psychology – to create a shared ‘value vision’. I use this term advisedly because envisioning a destination in a rational sense is restrictive. Such a vision must be values based – but values based on, and articulated through, a psychologically informed philosophy. It must, of course, embrace the precepts of animism.
I have no doubt there are exciting and inspiring developments that I am not aware of. I can speak here only of what I am aware of as a person who is open to, and curious about developments in the environmental movement. I will allow that in today’s deeply fragmented media, there are great conversations happening on platforms I do not engage with.
From the Conclusion: The other area potentially rich in opportunity for inquiry is technology… In some ways designers are employing the potential implicit in technologies to impose a new kind of animism on us. Machines are engaging us, drawing us in to animistic relationships. I perceive a metaphysics of the machine that can help us explore extension of the human domain beyond the physical – engaging with the energies operating on the sub-strata of material existence. Is it entirely co-incidental that it is animistic analogues that take us there?
I think it is now beyond doubt that we are animating our devices in wholly remarkable ways – and we are nowhere done with the potential. There is a possible future world in which those who live in ‘advanced’ economies will live in an AI drenched world. Echoing Thales’ ‘Everything is full of gods’, we might say, “Everything is full of microchips” (or whatever new term we develop).
Between the internet of things, AI in everything, and robotics we might find ourselves living in a machine consciousness-based constructed environment. Such may take centuries to eventuate, but the early steps are here, and they are only the beginning.
Humans crave belonging and acceptance. It’s hardwired into our biology and fundamental to our spiritual ideals. Those who live in close connection with country know also that such a craving extends place and the kin lives who dwell there.
The rational separation between thing and living, or meaningful, being is not fixed. Things imbibe attributes beyond their intrinsic form via experience (just by being in time and space). And they acquire meaning because of that experience. Things ain’t just things. You know this when the property of famous persons sells for many times an item’s ‘normal’ price. Hence a guitar that would make say $5,000 normally might sell for $1m if it belonged to a rock & roll legend.
Some things are made sacred or imbued with a kind of secular manna
and are thus elevated beyond the normal. We can argue whether the ‘spirit’ expressed as monetary value is the same as the idea of the sacred. I think it is, and that’s an argument I am happy to have.
I really have no thoughts about AI infused human generated objects, beyond their occasional convenience. As a person with a disability, I am grateful I can say, “Hey Siri” and make stuff happen.
But what I will observe is that machine animation is not a surprising development. We may be amazed by what is happening, but we should not be astonished that it is happening, or that it can happen. Humans have been making automata for millennia. We are answering an innate impulse.
We really must stop talking about ‘Artificial Intelligence’. In the sense that the term denotes human made, it makes some degree of sense. But artificial can also imply fake; and confer a sense of invalidity.
If consciousness is the foundation of all, its manifestation in what we call intelligence should not be surprising – when the opportunity to do so arises. Human made devices are opportunities for consciousness or intelligence to express through the natural process of humans being humans.
From the Conclusion: Urban animism offers the opportunity to explore how we vest living significance and meaning within whatever environment becomes our ‘natural habitat’…We may comprehend a human- centred animism describing the built human-mediated environment in terms of the ghosts and spirits of history.
I think that if we fuse our modern passion for automata with the urban environment, we can see that not only will many people live in situations dominated by human-caused structures and objects, but they will all have histories and interpretations that resolve into underpinning human stories – as well as engaging with us.
The distinction between natural and artificial is essentially a distinction between a presumption of objective mechanical forces and a perception of intelligent agency. It is very much a materialistic point of view. A religious view distinguishes only between divine and human. The Christian view, which I cite because it is still the foundational faith of our culture, was closer to the animistic (everything is full of God). Christianity simply stripped the multiplicity of voices down to one.
The idea of urban animism is essentially an idea of sensitive awareness to human causes, heritage, ownership and meaning. It should also include how these attributes of the human-caused intersect with the natural/divine agencies and systems.
The story of what we grandly call Civilisation is the story of humans crafting and transforming their operational environment from one that was wholly ‘natural’ to a fusion of ‘natural’ and ‘human’ to one dominated by human artifice.
That transformation has been fuelled by a biological imperative to survive, and a deep non-biological impulse to express metaphysical aspirations. The city became the apex of human expression – but one born in contestation with, and disdain for, the ‘natural’. In the history of the evolution of the city over the past two millennia, ‘nature’ has been a vital resource and a dump – debased as crude and savage, fit only for domination and exploitation. That exploitation has included enjoyment of what has been tamed.
The tension between wilderness and the urban remains confused and unresolved. The deep sense of contestation lingers unresolved. The idea that the urban has the same claim to an animism of its own is not yet a comfortable idea.
It is still a field of great potential.
From the Conclusion: I can best sum up my sense of the potential for future research by repeating Guba & Lincoln saying that “we stand at the threshold of a history marked by multivocality, contested meanings, paradigmatic controversies, and new textual forms.”
I love this statement. Animism is a wholly inadequate term for the rich lifeworld of indigenous and other sensitive peoples. It was a western European conceptualisation that had a pejorative tone to it. But we do not have a better one yet. New Animism merely skimmed off surface notions for a purpose nowhere near holistic as is needed to give fuller insight into the potential.
I have retained the word more as a signal for what lies beneath it – a deeper, more coherent potential source of meaning. In a sense it is a political affiliation – in the politics of ideas. I reject New Animism because it is not an intellectual or spiritual spade to dig deeper, rather something to make mental sandcastles with. That’s fine. It has a purpose and value, but it’s not enough for me.
From multiple fields of human inquiry, we do indeed stand at a threshold “marked by multivocality, contested meanings, paradigmatic controversies”. It should be an exciting time. In a way this may be said of multiple times in the preceding centuries going back for millennia. There is no certainty that what we know and believe now will endure even a decade hence. A sense of curiosity and a passion to seek deeper meaning will always place on a threshold.
We have a choice – to cling to knowledge and beliefs we feel were hard won, and deserve to be preserved because of what we have invested in getting there; or adapt to a more dynamic response to how things are. It is true that the threshold we may be standing on is applicable only to inquirers, and not believers. The alternative to is step back, close the door, and enjoy our knowledge and beliefs as they are for a little longer. That’s okay.
In terms of inquiry, now we have multiple looking glasses as entrances to our own paths to a wonderland. Animism is my looking glass. Sometimes I look into it, and it looks right back. Other times I can see through it to an alluring realm of possibilities. Our challenge is to fuse our looking glasses into a shared instrument of inquiry.
We must also learn to carry the fruits of disciplined rational inquiry in the same basket as spiritual sensitivity and insight. They are not the “non-overlapping magisteria” Gould asserted. They are the yin and yang of our consciousness, dancing together – when we let them.