Accepted Paper:

Agentive relationality and the caprices of modern spirits: dynamics in animic semiotic ideology among the Bebelibe of northwestern Benin  


Johannes Merz (SIL International)

Paper short abstract:

This paper uses a semiotic approach to explain the modern process by which animic ontologies become spiritualised among the Bebelibe of Benin. In their pre-modern ontology interaction and agency between humans, animals and things are egalitarian and are defined relationally.

Paper long abstract:

In pre-modern understanding of the Bebelibe cosmos (northern Benin), humans, animals and things all have an agentive relationality as they all share the main components of life and relate to each other in an egalitarian cosmos. While such beliefs are still widespread, modernity has left its imprint on the Bebelibe's cosmos by a process I call 'spiritual animisation'. This manifests itself by the cosmos losing the relationally defined agency of beings and things. Humans and animals are now sometimes seen as being animated by spiritualised agency that can exist in its own right. Material things, on the other hand, are either relegated to a kind of object status that retains an echo of their prior agency, or they are viewed as animated by spirits. I seek to explain the dynamics of pre-modern and modern animic ontologies through the notion of 'semiotic ideology'. By using a semiotic framework I can adopt a relational approach that moves beyond the Western dichotomies of subject versus object and material versus spiritual. I will demonstrate how such an approach can elucidate how the Bebelibe's perceived and changing cosmos lies at the basis of several traits of their distinctive culture, such as the egalitarian nature of their social structure, the importance of their aniconic but indexical visual and material culture and why until recently they did not experience spirit possession.

Panel P27
Religions' contributions in human-animal relations