Chosen by Lorraine Shannon, Coordinator of the Wild Mountain Collective’s Exploring Ideas occasional seminar series

From: Graham Harvey, Animism: Respecting the Living World. Wakefield Press, South Australia, 2005.

Graham Harvey argues in this book that a new understanding of animism can contribute significantly to contemporary debates about consciousness, cosmology and environmentalism. Notions that ‘animism’ is about a ‘belief in spirits’, the attribution of life to inanimate object or the projection of human attributes onto ‘non-humans’ are rejected in favour of a nuanced and positive evaluation of indigenous and environmentalist understandings that the world would be a better place if humans celebrated their relationships with the whole of life.

Quote 1: “Modernity’s dualist dichotomies not only privilege mind over matter, but increasingly reconstruct the community of life as ‘human environments and resources’ or ‘nature’. By continuous vigilance and effort the West attempts to de-personalise and commodify what it insists are contexts, surroundings, situations, givens, nature or environments. All of this conflicts with animist understandings of the nature of the world and of appropriate human and personal efforts to live a good life. But it also tends (sooner or later) towards the diminishment of human and other-than-human life. The conversion of rivers into sewers or industrial power inputs, the replacement of prairies and forests by agro-industry, and other actions towards ‘nature’ all serve the short-term gains of a single, particular, globalized culture to the detriment of others.” (p. 180)

Quote 2: “Animist worldviews are opposed to the utopian and disembodied fantasies underlying assertions of the modernist kind of objectivity, contesting them as rootless and timeless abstractions, and as claims to a hierarchical kind of divinity variously inimical to everyday life. Instead animisms entail … celebrations of life in all its diversity, materiality, physicality, specificity, ordinariness, locatedness and its many pleasures and excesses.” (p. 185)

Quote 3: “Animist contributions have an obvious lever in the recognition that the very materiality that has long formed the Western subject’s alterity – especially as the despised ‘other’ to soul or mind – is no mere context or backdrop. Instead the world is surprisingly full of persons with whom an ‘I-thou’ relationality is not only possible but continually actual and necessary. To engage with such a community deliberately and reflectively might greatly enrich understandings of, for example, hospitality and being in the world.” (p. 202)

Quote 4: “For animists, the answer to the problem of dualities is not the assertion of unity, but the celebration of plurality. While celebrating embodiment, animist persons are not determined by sex or gender. While celebrating careful thought, animist persons are passionate about sensual engagement. While celebrating relationality, animist persons are free to transform themselves by taking new paths – and taking the consequences.” (p. 203)

Quote 5: “We have never been separate, unique or alone and it is time to stop deluding ourselves. Human cultures are not surrounded by ‘nature’ or ‘resources’, but by ‘a world full of cacophonous agencies’ i.e. many other vociferous persons. We are at home and our relations are all around us. The liberatory ‘good life’ begins with the respectful acknowledgement of the presence of persons, human and other-than-human, who make up the community of life. It continues with yet more respect and relating.” (p.12)