Accepted Paper:

Animist ecology: exploring the village-forest cosmos in the Central Annamites  

Authors:

Kaj Arhem (Göteborg/Uppsala University)
Nikolas Århem (Uppsala)

Paper short abstract:

Drawing on ethnography from the Katu people in the uplands of Central Vietnam, the paper explores the cosmological and ecological significance of the Katu perceived spirit landscape and traces some of its wider theoretical and empirical implications.

Paper long abstract:

A key feature of the current standard notion of animism is the attribution of subjectivity and agency to non-human living beings. The social nature of human-animal relations is regarded as diagnostic of animism. In Southeast Asia, however, a corresponding agency is rather ascribed to spirits immanent in the landscape - hills, trees, stones, springs and stream sources. In the Central Annamites, hills, in particular, are conceived of as powerful spirits, and natural forest is seen as indexical for the generic domain of landscape spirits. Drawing on ethnography from the Katu people in Vietnam, the paper explores the cosmological and ecological significance of this perceived spirit landscape and traces some of its wider theoretical and empirical implications.

It is argued that Katu animist cosmology can be understood as an "ecological" model of the complex interconnectedness and communicative relations between humans (village) and spirits (forest), where personalized spirit-hills form significant nodal points in the landscape. In this model, human-spirit relations are mediated by the physical landscape; human-environment relations are effectively human-spirit relations. A complex taboo-system associated with the spirit-hills regulates human land-use. The village-forest cosmos emerges as a self-regulating "ecosystem" where spirit-hills function as "governors" maintaining the system in a dynamic equilibrium.

We take this moral-ecological dimension, evident in Katu cosmology but underplayed in current ontological accounts of animism, to be constitutive of animist cosmologies more generally. The paper also raises the perennial question about the relationship between animist knowledge and empirical-rational knowledge, evoking the works of Bateson, Rappaport and Lévi-Strauss and their intellectual heirs.

Panel P071
Legacies and futures of animism in the anthropocene