Ingold on animism

From Tim Ingold’s Being Alive:

In one of the most original and provocative discussions of materiality to have appeared in recent years, Peter Pels characterises the logic of this argument as animist: ‘a way of saying that things are alive because they are animated by something foreign to them, a “soul” or … spirit made to reside in matter’. Whatever its source might be, this animating principle is understood here as additional to the material object on which it has been bestowed.

There is however, according to Pels, another way of understanding how things can act back. This is to say that the spirit that enlivens them is not in but of matter. We do not then look beyond the material constitution of objects in order to discover what makes them tick; rather the power of agency lies with their materiality itself. Pels characterises this alternative logic as fetishist. Thus the fetish is an object that, by virtue of its sheer material presence, affects the course of affairs. This argument is an important step in the right direction, but it takes us only halfway. On the one hand it acknowledges the active power of materials, their capacity to stand forth from the things made of them. Yet it remains trapped in a discourse that opposes the mental and the material, and that cannot therefore countenance the properties of materials, save as aspects of the inherent materiality of objects. Thus the hybrid quality that Pels attributes to the fetish — its capacity at once to set up and disrupt ‘the sensuous border zone between ourselves and the things around us, between mind and matter’ — is in fact a product of the misrecognition of the active properties of materials as a power of the materiality of objects. …

Bringing things to life, then, is a matter not of adding to them a sprinkling of agency but of restoring them to the generative fluxes of the world of materials in which they came into being and continue to subsist. This view, that things are in life rather than life in things, is diametrically opposed to the conventional anthropological understanding of animism, invoked by Pels and harking back to the classic work of Edward Tylor, according to which it entails the attribution of life, spirit or agency to objects that are really inert. It is, however, entirely consistent with the actual ontological commitments of peoples often credited in the literature with an animistic cosmology. In their world there are no objects as such. Things are alive and active not because they are possessed of spirit — whether in or of matter — but because the substances of which they are comprised continue to be swept up in circulations of the surrounding media that alternately portend their dissolution or — characteristically with animate beings — ensure their regeneration. Spirit is the regenerative power of these circulatory flows which, in living organisms, are bound into tightly woven bundles or tissues of extraordinary complexity. All organisms are bundles of this kind. Stripped of the veneer of materiality they are revealed not as quiescent objects but as hives of activity, pulsing with the flows of materials that keep them alive.

This harmonizes with an earlier post I wrote, and nearly rewrote until I remembered I’d already written it.

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