Handbook of Contemporary Animism, First Impressions.

Stewart Edmundson's 'Return of the Fieldfares' on the cover of the Handbook of Contemporary Animism.

Stewart Edmondson’s ‘Return of the Fieldfares’ on the cover of the Handbook of Contemporary Animism.

Tree full of Fieldfares, West Yorkshire 20/1/14.

Tree full of Fieldfares, West Yorkshire 20/1/14.

Where to Begin?  The Handbook of Contemporary Animism (HCA) is Graham Harvey’s latest edited collection.  It promises to be every bit as useful as his readers on Shamanism and Indigenous Religions, but at 581 pages is even longer, and since only seven of the forty chapters have previously appeared elsewhere, most of the contents is new material.   The book therefore reflects a lively sense of ongoing debate encompassing a range of viewpoints.  Those of us who came to ‘new’ animism after reading Harvey’s Animism, Respecting the Living World, will have high expectations of this book.

Harvey orchestrates the volume by providing introductions to each of its seven sections –Different Animisms, Dwelling in Nature/Culture, Dwelling in Larger-than-human Communities, Dwelling With(out) Things, Dealing with Spirits, Consciousness and Ways of Knowing, and Animism in Performance.  These are written with his usual energy, clarity, and commitment to pluralism.  “More excitingly, what is proposed here is that setting diverse phenomena and approaches alongside each other invites interpreters and theorists to look again and think again.”  HCA does seem broader than Animism (2005), in which neo-Platonic and post-Jungian conceptions of animism were overlooked.  These are referred to in Stephan Harding’s chapter Towards an Animistic Science of the Earth.

Harvey describes how he serendipitously found himself learning the distinction between animate and inanimate genders in the Ojibwe language alongside primary school pupils at a reservation in Wisconsin.  Once again he emphasises the indebtedness of ‘new’ animism to indigenous traditions by opening with a contribution from Linda Hogan, Writer in Residence for the Chicksaw Nation and Professor Emerita at the University of Colorado.  There are several contributions from today’s variously engaged, dialogical, and post-Cartesian anthropologists.  Since some of my recent ancestors were missionaries, however, I found myself wincing at religious studies professor Martin Stringer’s comment that he was ‘not able to spend enough time with any one group in Burkino Fasso to assess whether their religious beliefs formed a systematic whole or not’.  Whatever next!

All contributors to HCA are academically qualified.  Whilst I appreciate the validity of establishing animism as a legitimate and pressing field of intellectual enquiry that should be taken seriously by the wider culture, I’m also keenly aware that this book will be inaccessible to most people, including some of those closest to me!  My worry is that, paradoxically, ‘we’ end up debating the importance of relationship (personhood, embodiment, and ecology), in terms that few can understand, and many will find threatening and exclusive.  This is a familiar dilemma.  Some invaluable political insights have, after all, been crafted in barely intelligible prose that had to be digested and popularised by other writers before it could bear fruit. (Michel Foucault springs to mind!).  Given the theoretical nature of much of the discussion in HCA, I also wonder whether ‘handbook’ was the right title?

Academic writing has, of course, traditionally been governed by the Cartesian convention of the disembodied author as dispassionate and objective cerebral expert.  Feminist and postmodern perspectives have replied by insisting that all knowledge claims are socially situated, and by encouraging auto/biographical writing.  As far as I can see (I’ve only just begun reading HCA) only Jenny Blain and Andy Letcher have included testimony from their own experience.  I suppose I should declare an interest here, since my article on birds and animism, which includes personal testimony, might have been squeezed in to HCA had Graham Harvey known about it earlier.(1)

Academic conventions may also have constrained the content of HCA.  Given that Oxfam have just pointed out that the richest 85, yes 85(!), human people in the world – you could fit them into a double decker bus- own as much wealth as the entire poorer half of humanity, I’ve been wondering about the exclusion of social justice from animist agendas (including my own blog).  There doesn’t seem to be much social critique going on here.  Murray Bookchin, who used the term new animism in the late 1960’s, doesn’t appear in the index, for instance.  My growing sense is that the interface between human social concerns and human attitudes towards other species needs to be addressed.

One of my own avenues to animism has been the study and practice of astrology.  Although there is now some academic research about astrology, sometimes under the cover of ‘cultural astronomy’, serious consideration (a word with starry etymological roots) of astrological evidence, is still likely to be met with derision within the groves of academe.  The only reference I’ve found so far is Linda Hogan’s description of finding a Skidi Pawnee star bundle in a Chicago museum.  ‘It is decorated with constellations, that take in the living world around, the people, antelopes, swimming ducks, as if uniting the universe with the earth on which we live, our one special planet in this universe of constant change and motion of its own, still unknown to us, but with nurseries of stars and new life forming’.(2)

Another omission from the index of HCA that I find much more surprising is the apparent lack of interest in dreams.  There’s only one reference (in a 581 page book) to dreams (as opposed to ‘dreamings’ in an Australian Aboriginal context).  Yet many ethnographic accounts emphasise the importance of dreaming in indigenous traditions.  Dreamwork has been pivotal to my own sense of connection with other-than-human persons, and is arguably critical to understanding what is meant by ‘spirits’ -the subject of an entire section of this book.

I’m uncomfortable with the description of ‘spirits’ (some contributors understandably want to exorcise the term in relation to indigenous beliefs and cosmologies) and extra-ordinary experience as ‘non-empirical’.  If empiricism signifies an attempt to tie knowledge to experience, this seems inappropriate, as extra-ordinary experience is still a form of (subtle sensory) experience.  I find the term worryingly evocative of positivist science, with its ‘preference for empirical data that can be observed and measured so that the various component parts can be compared for their relative frequency’, in order to ‘generate law-like regularities’ and ‘hard facts’.(3)  Rane Willerslev, for example, who seems to be swimming against the tide by suggesting that animism is, after all, a metaphysical rather than empirical issue, still refers to ‘ethnographic fact’, when he surely means ethnographic consensus.  Ethnographic (or scientific) consensus can, of course, get things wrong, especially in relation to the domain of  intimate experience and meaning.

Having expressed some initial reservations about HCA, I should say that I’m very much looking forward to following up some of the debates within its pages in more detail.  Its arrival in my life was marked by a minor but enjoyably serendipitous ‘showing’.  The day after I began reading the book the Sun came out (this in itself is noteworthy in the West Yorkshire Pennines, where we’ve had so much rain recently that someone I met quipped he was growing webbed feet), so I went for a walk.

Fieldfares, like their Redwing cousins, are beautiful thrushes that come over from Scandinavia to spend the winter in the U.K.  Flocks are a common enough sight, but that afternoon I had an unusually clear and close view of these birds, including seeing a whole flock flying up into an isolated oak tree.  Since most trees round here grow in woods or clumps, I can’t recall seeing this happen before.  I took the picture above, from a distance (so its not very clear, even when magnified by double clicking), because I felt that getting any closer to these very flighty bird-persons would have been a breach of respectful relationship!  (my usual practice is not to photograph birds at all).  Anyway, the sight of that tree teeming with Fieldfares was, of course, immediately reminiscent of Stewart Edmondson’s ‘Return of the Fieldfares‘ on the cover of HCA.  So, thank you to the birds, the earthworms in the fields for agreeing to be eaten by them, the farmer for leaving the tree alone, and, of course, to Graham Harvey for getting the book together and helping me think and see differently.

B.T 21/1/14.

1) Brian Taylor, Birds, Liminality, and Human Transformation, an Animist Perspective on New Animism, Pomegranate, the International Journal of Pagan Studies, Vol 14.1.2012, pp109-127.

2) Linda Hogan, ‘We Call it Tradition’, in HCA.

3) Mark Smith, Social Science in Question, Sage/Open University, 1998, p77.

Graham Harvey, The Handbook of Contemporary Animism, Acumen, 2013.


4 thoughts on “Handbook of Contemporary Animism, First Impressions.

  1. Well written sir. Wow – “Oxfam have just pointed out that the richest 85, yes 85(!), human people in the world – you could fit them into a double decker bus- own as much wealth as the entire poorer half of humanity…” I am going to reblog this so thank your for your skillful insightful post. BB

  2. Thanks for the outline. I also took a look at the price- the cheapest being £65! It certainly sounds interesting but I think I’d share your reservations about ‘non-ordinary’ experience being excluded, and about it not only being unaffordable but also inaccessible to non-academics.

  3. I hope I didn’t give the impression that non-ordinary experience is wholly excluded? Jenny Blain writes about Seidr, and mentions an interesting occurrence involving a ‘fish spirit or fish collective … that can be understood as a “power”. Andy Letcher talks about his ‘university of the hedge’ that involves psilocybe mushrooms and music. M.J Barrett argues for an animist research methodology, and uses ‘poetry, collage, music,prose, recorded human voice and photographic images together with multi-media hypertext’ in order to ‘open spaces for one’s non-discursive, psychically, and animistically informed knowing to be foregrounded’. One of the strengths of the book is that it embraces some very different perspectives. Where the word ‘spirit’ is challenged this is usually because its seen as imposing Western supernaturalistic generalisation on indigenous traditions and conceptions.

    I think the inter library loan system ought to supply books like this! I’m hoping to review more of the book later this year.

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