New Animism: Creativity and Critique
A Symposium at the University of Leeds, 18–20 June 2020
Tim Ingold (University of Aberdeen)
Christopher Bracken (University of Alberta)
In recent years, animism has been celebrated as a salutary alternative to the processes of objectification, exploitation and alienation that characterize humanity’s relationship with nature in the Anthropocene. Although colonial anthropology cast animism as a primitive, magical mode of thinking to be superseded by religion and then science, numerous critics across the disciplines have recuperated animism as a creative practice for reenchanting the world. This “new animist” standpoint, associated with the work of figures such as David Abram, Nurit Bird-David, Eduardo Kohn, Eduardo Vivieros de Castro, Phillippe Descola and Tim Ingold, has now begun to assume canonical form with the publication of Graham Harvey’s The Handbook of Contemporary Animism (2014). Harvey describes new animism as a relational practice in which humans cultivate respectful relationships with other persons, whether human or nonhuman. New animism therefore intervenes in current debates surrounding capitalist crises, climate collapse, indigenous lifeways and anthropogenic extinctions because it conceives of the world not as a dualistic, hierarchical relation between ensouled—and therefore entitled—humans and other non-souled beings and objects, but as a relational meshwork of variously animated, ensouled, and agential persons.
Yet the politics of new animism remains unclear. Does an ethics of “respect” for more than human persons fall into the same relativist trap as liberal multiculturalist forms of tolerance, leaving each “person” free to practice his or her beliefs? Or does new animism call for fundamental changes to the beliefs that currently structure our various relations to the world? What might it mean, in practical terms, to follow the example of animists, indigenous or otherwise? Is it possible to become an animist or is such a desire a symptom of (post)modernist anomie, an ecological romanticization of indigenous cultures, even a fetishization of fetishism? How do we bridge the gap that remains between new animism as a Western academic formation and animism as a disparate range of ‘non-Western' beliefs and practices? What forms of alliances are possible, and in whose interests might they work? What role can animism play in building the collective power, political consensus and economic transformation needed to mitigate environmental disaster and its geopolitically uneven effects?
This symposium sets out to explore, extend and critique new animism. We welcome critical as well as creative, practice-led contributions. We especially welcome proposals that grapple with any of the following conundrums:
Personhood and sovereignty: If “personhood” has been shown to precipitate rather than resolve the contradictions between subjectivity and the rights-bearing individual, then what are we to make of new animism’s injunction to redistribute personhood to other-than-human beings? Is it possible to redistribute personhood in a way that undoes rather than affirms notions of bodily and territorial sovereignty? What does it mean to ascribe legal personhood to a river, and what contradictions arise when indigenous peoples utilize the state’s judicial bodies in order to protest dispossession and protect the land? What to make of the Noongar author Kim Scott’s redefinition of sovereignty as ‘empowerment through sharing’? Furthermore, what would it mean to talk not just of a relational epistemology, as Nurit Bird-David does, but also a relational ontology, an opportunity to become more and other than ourselves? Can animism lead us towards what Roberto Esposito has called the “third person”, a mode of generative impersonality and depersonalization that builds solidarity with those human and nonhuman peoples that have never achieved full recognition of their personhood? In short, how does animism lead us beyond governmentality and the biopolitical “management” of life?
Creativity, aesthetics and planetary community: In her work on “planetarity”, Gayatri Spivak speaks of “reconstellating the responsibility-thinking of precapitalist societies into the abstractions of the democratic structures of civil society, to use the planetary . . . to control globalization interruptively”. For Spivak, aesthetics has a crucial role to play in this work of reconstellation, not least because it conjoins the political imperative to think in planetary terms with the aesthetic imperative “to enter into another’s text.” What role might art play in mediating between capitalist and “precapitalist” societies and/or generating a planetary sense of community? Elsewhere, Tim Ingold suggests that creativity is “undergone rather than done”. Instead of happening inside people’s heads, creativity comes about through an exposure to the world, by submission not mastery. In what senses are poetry, novels, films, painting, music and other art forms animating, rather than merely “representational”, in their various modes of poiesis or world-making? Conversely, how are such forms animated by the world?
Disenchantment and Reenchantment: Harry Garuba has conceived of animist materialism within a postcolonial African context as a continual reenchantment of a disenchanted modernity. But this argument, in taking for granted Weber’s analysis of modernity as secularization, risks eliding the ways in which capitalism offers its own enchantments. Walter Benjamin once argued that “one must see capitalism as a religion”. And in a similar vein, Simone Weil understood socialism as “the highest spiritual expression of bourgeois society”. How does new animism distinguish between good and bad forms of (re)enchantment and magical thinking? Can animism and materialism speak to one another? And to what extent do animist knowledges operate already within purportedly non-animist epistemologies? Finally, what are we to make of Achille Mbembe’s argument in Necropolitics that neoliberalism has produced its own mutated forms of animist belief in technology?
Irony, Credence and Critique: If colonial anthropology saw animism as a mistaken belief in spirits, how might we characterise new animism’s relation to such beliefs? Credence? Good faith? The suspension of disbelief? Or what John Keats described as negative capability, the ability to remain in “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts”? What space is left for criticality? Do animist beliefs themselves constitute a form of critique? What role does humour play in animism? Does new animism take its interlocutors too seriously, as Rane Wilerslev suggests, thereby ignoring the significance of play and irony to animist practices? Conversely, Marxism, psychoanalysis, deconstruction and other ‘modern’ forms of analysis (even science itself) are habitually thought of as modes of scepticism, demystification, or ideology critique. But might they have an important role to play as forms of ‘magical criticism’ (pace Benjamin and more recently, Christopher Bracken)? How might new animism teach us to hold irony and belief as complementary rather than antagonistic ways of approaching the world?
Please send proposals (maximum 300 words) and short biographies for 30-minute papers to Dominic O’Key and Sam Durrant at firstname.lastname@example.org by 15 March 2020.
There is no registration fee, and catering will be provided across the symposium. Unfortunately we cannot subsidize participants’ travel or accommodation costs.