EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

Legacies and futures of animism in the anthropocene
Location U6-20
Date and Start Time 23 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Guido Sprenger (Heidelberg University) email
  • Scott Simon (Université d'Ottawa) email

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Short Abstract

Taking stock of mainstream and marginalized views in anthropology, we examine animism as philosophy, religion, epistemology, or ontology regarding relations between humans and non-humans. Can anthropological intellectual legacies about animism contribute to better futures in the Anthropocene?

Long Abstract

The ontological turn in anthropology has revived classical concepts of animism or totemism as contrasting ways of living in the world and relating with other beings. These legacies go back to founders of anthropology, including Edward Burnett Tylor, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, and Franz Boas, but there are also lesser known thinkers in all national traditions. Animism, which recognizes fundamental commonalities and essential relationships between all living things, has sometimes been studied as a stage in evolution or a marker of cultural alterity. New approaches by Philippe Descola, Tim Ingold or Eduardo Kohn suggest that animism contains the potential for a serious alternative to the ideological foundations of modern science and economy. New perceptions and analyses of bio-diversity, human-environment relations and interspecies relationships are among the promises this approach holds. However, reflection must begin by dealing with unresolved questions and contradictions within our own discipline. Taking stock of mainstream and marginalized views on animism in anthropology, past and present, we will examine animism as philosophy, religion, epistemology, and ontology about the non-human environment. How does animism interact and articulate with, or contradict and resist, other ways of knowing and being that we may think of as religions or sciences? What marginal schools of thought in anthropology can inspire new thought? What are the potential pitfalls and drawbacks of this approach? Can anthropological understandings of animism and the nexus of life contribute to earthbound futures in the Anthropocene?

We invite papers on case studies with theoretical relevance, theoretical and historical papers.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Animism and the ecological crisis

Author: Guido Sprenger (Heidelberg University)  email

Short Abstract

If we trade in modern epistemology for animism, are we to replace the ecological crisis with a permanent cannibalist crisis?

Long Abstract

With animism, Edward Burnett Tylor had created a term that at once allows subordinating non-modern concepts under modern epistemology and at the same time opens up this epistemology to radical difference. In particular, animism addresses personhood as an ongoing project encompassing humans and non-humans. This raises the question if animism, both as concept and ethnography, harbors the potential of an alternative to modern techno-scientific epistemology, especially on the background of the ecological crisis. Some writers and activists associate animism with respect for all living beings and a more intimate relationship with nature and its spirits. However, many people whose ontologies have been described as animist are more concerned with keeping those spirits at a distance. This discrepancy between animist conceptions and their political use begs the question if the current interest in animism amounts to romantic exoticism or rather an innovative way of addressing the ecological crisis. What is more, even if respect for all living beings might contribute to overcome the ecological crisis, it instigates its own, cannibalist, crisis. Still, the recognition that relationships with the non-human world are as complex as relations among persons might ultimately prove to be more adequate than naturalism.

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

Authors: Kaj Arhem (Göteborg University)  email
Nikolas Århem (Uppsala)  email

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.

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.

Luangan rituals as relational landscapes

Author: Isabell Herrmans (University of Helsinki)  email

Short Abstract

In this paper I look at how the curing rituals of the Luangan of Indonesian Borneo form relational landscapes through which they maintain relationships with a diversity of non-human beings in an environment which has undergone radical change.

Long Abstract

Belian curing rituals among the Luangans of Indonesian Borneo are described as paths along which offerings of respect and food are brought to the spirits. Like the paths along which the Luangans used to travel through and in the local rainforest environment, which quickly become overgrown with tangled secondary growth if not actively used, the paths that form Luangan ritual landscapes are created and maintained through continuous usage. Recurrent practice of rituals invokes and enacts relations with a diversity of non-human beings in the environment, and superimposes a ritual landscape upon the natural landscape. In 2011 palm oil companies entered the Luangan area, transforming the rainforest environment into palm oil plantations, while roads replaced forest paths and became scenes of unexpected encounters between humans and non-humans of different kinds. In this paper I look at how such radical environmental change affects the relations between human and non-human agents in the environment. I examine rituals as the main arena of negotiation of these relations, and suggest that the rituals enable the Luangan to (virtually) keep up relations with the various beings of the local rainforest environment, which does not, in many places, physically exist as such anymore.

The impact of religious and cultural heterogeneity on local perceptions of nature and natural resource management in Guinea-Bissau

Author: Hannah Parathian (FCSH (Faculdade Ciências Sociais e Humanas)-UNL (Universidade Nova de Lisboa))  email

Short Abstract

Beyond the transition from 'primitive' to 'modern' a number of African peoples merge non-animist religions with indigenous belief systems. I consider the effects of religious and cosmological heterogeneity on local perceptions of nature and their impact on resource management in Guinea-Bissau.

Long Abstract

Traditional African ideology sees all beings, whether human, animal or plant, existing as equal elements in a holistic and connected vision of the universe. However, the gradual and consistent ousting of indigenous cultures and belief systems by more globally 'powerful' religions has been routinely documented. Indeed, Guinea-Bissau is a prime example of one country which juxtaposes a distinct yet fused mélange of peoples with complex ethnic backgrounds and cultural nuances, on account of a convoluted political history and various processes of development and religious doctrine. Beyond the speculative transition from 'primitive' to 'modern' local people have reformulated tradition, adopting seemingly dichotic worldviews, merging facets of non-animist religions with existing 'traditional' thought. Solving current ecological crises requires an understanding of the complex ways in which these components are created, combined and transformed. With new insights into biocultural diversity at the forefront of conservation discourse and innovative methods in anthropology pushing the boundaries of research beyond the more familiar human-nature milieu, I discuss the impact that religious and cosmological heterogeneity has on local perceptions of nature and resource management among two ethnic groups in Guinea-Bissau. Pre-Islamic and Muslim cosmologies of the Nalú in Cantanhez, and multi-species associations among animist Bijagó people, who were once the focus of Christian 'pacification campaigns' during Portuguese colonialism, will be the focus of this discussion.

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The modern nemeton: Celtic festivals as cohesive spiritual pilgrimages

Author: Javier Campos Calvo-Sotelo (UCM)  email

Short Abstract

This study examines Celtic festivals as experiences permeated by a religious substrate close to animist cosmologies. Celtic festivals become spiritual sites, fostering the re-enchantment of reality and restoring the cultural balance broken in Western societies since the rise of rationalism.

Long Abstract

With the triumph of Enlightenment thought, reason began to alienate magical and religious beliefs in Western societies. However, the tendency towards the supernatural is quite strong in our time. Specifically, Celtic mythology displays an overwhelming power to generate new cosmologies that re-enchant reality. European 'Celtic' sanctuaries like Glastonbury, Aosta, Iona, Locronan, Stonehenge, Ortigueira, Selja, Ukonsaari, or the Aran islands, currently embody and celebrate the spirit of old nemeta (sacred shrines to ancient Celts), where the place, bagpipes or the ancestors are sacralised and worshipped as animated realities. Our study addresses the following hypotheses:

A) Celtic festivals (CFs) are permeated by a strong underlying animistic-religious substrate, although frequently at a non-conscious level. They point to a special communication with specific environments, which is very much demanded by CFs attendees in their search of identity.

B) CFs develop integrative religious and cultural diversity into festive formulas. In fact in many of them there is a surprising sense of discipline, group cohesion and fraternity among the attendees, despite (or altogether with) massive consumption of alcohol and drugs.

C) CFs fulfil an important social function by restoring the cultural balance broken in the West since the unstoppable rise of technology and rationalism/secularization. They actually improve the psycho-emotional state of the audience, as evidenced by several fieldworks.

The faith in CFs semiology shown by many participants suggests that renewed analytical tools are needed to approach the nature-culture debate, and to better understand the relationship between the human and the non-human.

Non-human environment in African vodun

Author: Alessandra Brivio (Università Milano-Bicocca)  email

Short Abstract

The paper is focused on the place of non-humans in vodun. Scholars have only recently started to question the agency of things. Here I discuss vodun as religion, epistemology, and ontology about the non-human environment (animals, things and matter)

Long Abstract

The paper is focused on the place of non-humans in vodun. For long time, fetishism and animism had been the notions used to speak of African vodun (fetishism was considered of sub-category of animism). Here I discuss vodun as religion, epistemology, and ontology about the non-human environment (animals, things and matter). The privileging of belief over practice continues to mark much scholarly discourses, notwithstanding a number of radical critiques. Scholars of religion have only recently started to realize that religion is always concretely mediated by things in order to be tangible in the world. The turn to matter has raised crucial questions because religion has so long been imagined as oriented just toward transcendence. Objects are no longer mere bearers of a message or vehicles of human wills.

This theoretical perspective is particularly significant in the religious studies, since it seems to share the language of magic and to generate new insights in order to investigate the uncertain relation between practitioners and the hereafter, and more in general between human beings and their artefacts. It actually rejects the priori oppositions between subjects and objects, visible and invisible and aims to focus on the agency of things.

This approach could give important insights on human relationship with non-human beings and reconcile scholarly and popular discourses on African religions with the problem of materiality, leading to a reconsideration of matter in religious discourses and at the same time eliminating the derogatory meanings that lie at the very basis of fetishism.

Animists take wing: living-with-birds in Austronesian Formosa and beyond

Author: Scott Simon (Université d'Ottawa)  email

Short Abstract

The Austronesian peoples of Taiwan and Oceania have rich traditions about human-bird relations. This synthesis of fieldwork and historical ethnography examines these relations within a broad context of animism and inter-species communication. Can animism offer insights on human-bird relations today?

Long Abstract

The Austronesian peoples of Formosa (Taiwan) have rich traditions relating to human-bird relationships. With legends of humans transforming into birds and practices of divination based on observing bird behaviour, not least in regard to the hunt, they conserve strong elements of animism in spite of mass conversion to Christianity. They also hunt some birds, and use bird parts such as feathers in adornment. Although there is great diversity in these relationships depending on the accumulated knowledge of specific human groups and the type of bird, there is a pattern in which humans access unseen knowledge through the mediation of birds. This may consist of environmental information, such as the location of prey in the mountains or the direction of land when at sea, or messages about birth and death of humans.

Thinking through these ways of living-with-birds as Austronesian variants of animism, I explore human-bird relations through field observations with the Seejiq (Truku) people of the mountainous regions. I contrast that with observations made by Japanese and German ethnographers throughout Taiwan and beyond in Oceania during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There seems to be a connection between ancestor worship and animist practices such as divination using birds, which, as in the work of Bateson or Kohn, point toward an ecology of mind. What can be learned from Austronesian animisms about human-bird relationships? Are there patterns in what humans try to learn from birds? Does animism provide new insights on the place of humans in semiotic ecologies?

Thinking about primates and with primates in Amazon rainforest

Author: Paride Bollettin (University of Oxford)  email

Short Abstract

The paper aims to compare natives and primatologists views of primates in Amazon rainforest. Both of them present primates as social, cognitive and cultural agents. Understanding the meaning of the concepts utilized is the key to open a dialogue between different types of knowledge.

Long Abstract

In recent years, the theme of humans/animals relations returned at the core of anthropological reflections. Due to the emergence of new theoretical proposals, such as the animism, the perspectivism and the anthropology of science, the hegemonic assumption of the separation between the two spheres become more ambiguous. Ethnographic cases from my fieldwork with the Mebengokré in the Brazilian Amazon offer a panorama in which humans and primates develop close interrelations between symmetrical agents. In mythology, primates develop central roles in producing the contemporary world, such as they offer cultural tools to humans. In daily life, they interact with humans in the forest and in the village, they are food, friends, pets and enemy, and in any case they are described as proper agents. Also primatologists studying Amazonian primates describe them as social, cognitive and cultural agents but a separation from the humans seems to continue. The theme of sociality is clasps in genetic or environmental determinism, cognitive life is described as a forerunner of human one, and the use of the idea of culture is even more controversial. Some authors, however, reflect a more or less declared intention to cross such frontier recognizing specific idea for primates behaviours. The paper will compare the different meaning of these ideas in order to elucidate what are their basic assumptions. The thesis is that, despite the proclaimed separation between scientific and local knowledge, both of them reflect on humans/primates continuities, so that this field represent a fertile possibility of dialogue and reciprocal hybridization.

When the non-human speaks back: language in animist ontologies

Author: Jan David Hauck (University of California, Los Angeles)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores language in animist collectives. Different modes of interspecies communication and verbal practices that resist symbolic/representational analyses suggest language has profoundly different ontological properties from those attributed to it in naturalist ontologies.

Long Abstract

Language has played a central role in the constitution of the modern, naturalist ontology, not only as what sets humans against non-humans (Deacon 1997), but also facilitating the radical separation of nature and society (Latour 1993) in the first place. Here it is constructed as autonomous medium (Locke's "Third Province") that would guarantee accurate scientific and political representability and provide a model for modern notions of culture (Bauman & Briggs 2003). By contrast, ethnographies of animist collectives—aside from figuring prominently in recent debates about alternative ontologies (Descola 2013; Viveiros de Castro 1998)—have provided rich evidence of verbal practices that resist the privileging of the symbolic, representational, and referential properties of language as well as multiple modes of communication between humans and non-humans (Sherzer & Urban 1986; Townsley 1993; Descola 1996; Kohn 2013). Based on ethnographic material from the indigenous Americas and particularly my own fieldwork with the Aché hunter-gatherers from Paraguay, I will discuss how to understand the status of language in animist ontology. If non-symbolic and non-representational functions of language are emphasized in hunting and ritual practices, what bearing does that have on local understandings of language in general? And how do such understandings tie up with what is known about the distribution of nature/culture, interiority/exteriority in animism? I analyze myths of human-animal encounters, traditional ritual and hunting practices, and interactions between humans and animals that I have recorded on hunting treks and in an Aché community.

If I were a horse: mimesis as a means to overcome anthropocentrism

Author: Cassis Kilian (Johannes Gutenberg-Universität)  email

Short Abstract

As an actress, I learned to embody animals. This learning across boundaries between species resulted in a hypnotic state. I will consider it in the light of findings from neuroscience and argue that it is worth looking at my experience with regard to Ingold’s plea for anthropology beyond humanity.

Long Abstract

Mimesis is a travelling concept that has made a career in arts, humanities and sciences. Biologists have distinguished mimesis from mimicry to describe protective or aggressive mimetic phenomena in flora and fauna. Homi Bhabha borrowed the term "mimicry" from biology to analyse human behaviour during colonialism. Today, mimetic experiences with animals are not the centre of academic interest. Anthropologists mostly consider them a "strange" cultural practice in trance rituals, but currently they are studying mainly mimetic phenomena in the context of globalisation.

Scholars often look at mimesis through the lens of highly abstract concepts. However, findings from neuroscience prove that mimetic behaviour frequently bypasses the so-called "higher cognitive functions" of the human brain and acting teachers know that abstract thinking impedes intense mimetic experiences. They value the study with animals because they help actors to avoid self-reflection and premeditation, which hinder them from following mimetic impulses. From an academic perspective, such an attempt may appear an anthropomorphical phantasy. Most anthropologists might object that we perceive animals through the lens of symbolic connotations specific to our culture, but many acting teachers consider embodying animals a purposeful and actual unlearning of cultural patterns that stifle actors.

I will argue that embodying an animal can provoke an inspiration, which undermines the assumption that humans are superior and fundamentally different from non-humans. Humans won't be able to fly like birds, however these mimetic experiences operate metamorphoses worth looking at in the light of findings from neuroscience and Ingold's reflection on anthropology beyond humanity.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.