Anim(al)ism

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Whe had a conversation on pluralist ontologies and environmentalist thinking – the occasion was a brainstorm, for which I had invited my guest – on a potential subject for her PhD project. After I had made clear to be an ontological pluralist (inasmuch as I would like to be attached to any ‘ism’) and told about the roman catholic roots of my thinking, she pressed me to disclose in a more personal manner my position – where do I stand, where do my philosophical positions come from? Leaving precise use of concepts behind in the relaxed atmosphere of coffee and a chatlike discussion between friends, I let myself say: I am an animist. Adding, playing with the words: and an animalist. That conversation with coffee ended shortly after those words were spoken, due to the normal busy schedule of tasks – my thoughts lingered on the strange connection I had created without thinking too much of it.

Animist – a word from the early tradition of cultural anthropology, as far as I know – indicates someone who treats the whole of visible reality as being inhabited by spirit in the meaning of soul (animus). In traditional contradiction to the ‘enlightened’ person who ‘knows’ that only mankind has spirit or soul, more precisely understood as (narrowed down to) a thinking mind – and that ‘nature’, the non-human – the beasts, the plants, the waters, the skies, the atoms, the currents… are unconscious in the sense that they cannot really think, like mankind does. I did not use the non-gender-neutral word by accident, as the battle of women, and non-white men for that matter, to be counted as members of ‘humankind’ has been long and still is not won. Perhaps not by accident too. ‘Female intuition’, ‘natural spiritual propensity’ are expressions that one can still hear, indicating a fear, perhaps, of those who see themselves as non-female and modern, that a lot of those considered human in a biological sense, might not be able to shed their inherent animism fully.

‘Mankind’, or the enlightened human being, is ‘alone in the universe’, as a famous physicist once dramatically said. The animist, though, is not alone. (S)he feels herself to be part of a whispering, bending, whistling, barking universe – which is not always in all aspects understandable, but so (s)he isn’t her/himself. In this universe a universal language is needed, that is always headed for translation. In its universality it is never defined or final – but demands the work of the bricoleur, trying what will fit or work in this specific work of translation. The bark or the whistle, the dream or the word – they all have to be translated, mediated, to enter in the interchange of animate voices.

Animal is the one who phenomenally shows to have a soul, by being drawn to things, or pushed away by them. The animal is not like the rock who stays where it is, no matter what, or the water, which indifferentially seeks the easiest route. Not even like the plant, which shows some kind of sensitive reaction, but which never moans for pain, or jumps for joy. The animal is the most expressive creature of them all. It cannot resist to react visibly or audibly to what it meets. Even not when keeping things in with grand mastery. So what is an animalist? It is someone who feels that the human being is not only not alone for being part of the world of ongoing translation between all creatures, but still less alone for belonging to a large family of expressive creatures. Making sounds or movements to collect its young ones, or to scare enemies away.

An animalist does not see humans as ‘just animals’ – like the ‘enlightened’ person might do who in the end is coerced by his own unrelenting scientific attitude to see all signs of humanity as ‘just effects of processes in the brain’. On the contrary – (s)he knows all animals to have a wide variety of sources of knowledge, not just the technological-scientific one. (S)he doesn’t shrink the human to fit the image of a non-understood poor animal, (s)he rather acknowledges the great wisdom and power of our fellow-animals, of whom humans can (and most possibly should) learn. Those who watch the animals who live with them know this. For instance that animals not only know when someone is going to die, but also might hold their kind of vigil next to that person. That a cat or a dog knows where you are hurting, and will try to treat your pain or wound when you let them. They know when you come home. Most of them know better than us how to die. How to enjoy sun, or rain, or snow. How to wait. They are not stupid. Nor is this just ‘nice’ behaviour of ‘innocent’ creatures. Humans can learn those things too, if they will try. It is no easy thing, though. It is in complete contradiction with the normal technological world they live in, and entering the contradiction might hurt rather badly.

The animalist is by definition an animist, in my view – for I have never met an (non-human) animal who didn’t treat the whole of visible reality as being inhabited by spirit/soul. No fools among animals.

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The photos aim to give credit to the sheep, who, among the animals I met in my life, stood out for their patience to let me be with them and learn from them when I was a young child. The picture witnessing those times is not in my album, but if possible I will add it later.

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