Postmodern Animism

becoming tulip

If, like some of those closest to me, you’re allergic to theoretical discussion, or haven’t had an opportunity to grapple with the language its written in, this page may not agree with you.  We’re all different.  Hopefully you’ll find something more to your taste amongst my other jottings.  Health warning over!

I’m cautious about wrapping experience in language.  Spiritual, visionary, divinatory, or magical phenomena (pick your own preferred term!) are notoriously resistant to the strategems of rational enquiry.  Many traditions caution against casual disclosure.  Phenomenology, which exhorts us to attend to ‘the things themselves’, without resorting to a-priori theoretical models, has obvious appeal in relation to subtle phenomena such as dreams (as Medard Boss and others have argued). Postmodern social theorists have argued, however, that ‘experience’ is always already culturally framed.  Their work has generated many fruitful insights into power relations, human subjectivity, and relationship.

Some of the best practitioners I came across in the ‘mental health’ field brought a postmodern perspective to bear on challenging social issues.  They were pluralists, comfortable with diversity, complexity, ambivalence, and contradiction.

Postmodern thought helpfully questions the Enlightenment tradition, with its overblown promise of human progress based upon scientific rationality.  It regards truth claims as provisional, enmeshed in social relations, and culturally specific, and is generally sceptical about fixed essentialist notions of identity, and appeals to primal origins, authenticity, purity, or human innocence.  As Michel Foucault once put it, ‘there are no ‘margins’ to gambol in’.

Rock/face in Evening Light

Rock/face in Evening Light


I take the term animism to refer to a sense or belief that the teeming complexity of nature – a matrix of interdependent communities of beings amongst whom humankind exists as a problematic member species – is pervaded by Spirit, and/or mind and consciousness, by multiple intelligences, incessant conversation, and relationships of many kinds.  Animism is therefore perhaps best characterised as an orientation.

Contemporary animisms are emerging from widely differing religous and philosophical traditions such as phenomenology, scientific naturalism, Buddhism, neo/Paganism (again pick your preffered term), Daoism, post-Jungian neo-Platonism, and even though animism is more readily compatible with polytheism or pantheism, Christianity.

Edward Tylor adpoted the term animism (in 1871) to refer to ‘two great dogmas’ in the religous beliefs of ‘lower races’, namely that the souls of creatures survive beyond death, and that spirits can influence human lives.  He hoped that these ‘harmful superstitions’ – that he also thought were definitive of religion per se – would be eradicated by scientific rationality. The writings of Graham Harvey, David Abram, and others, have reclaimed animism from its perjorative colonial-era usage and redefined it in ecological terms.

New animists argue that Christian assumptions about transcendent /heaven-centred spirituality – not least the ubiquitous use of the term ‘spirits’ by colonial era anthropologists – have distorted Western understandings of indigenous beliefs and practices that are often concerned with ecological relationship.  Animism has therefore been redefined in terms of respectful relationship with a range of other ‘persons’, many of whom -following American anthropologist Irving Hallowell and his Ojibwe friends and informants – are ‘other than human’.  From this perspective we are surrounded by bird people, stone people, tree people, insect people, cloud people, and so forth.

Whilst welcoming this development, I’ve been concerned that some new animist writing, in its eagerness to embrace this-worldly ecological concerns and emphasise relationship rather than states of consiousness, has marginalised visionary experience, and in so doing, conceded vital ground to Tylorian scientism.  The advance of scientific rationality has brought many tangible benefits, but has also lead to a pervasive disenchantment and de-animation of the world.  Zygmunt Bauman (drawing on Max Weber) advocated a process of postmodern re-enchantment in order to create a world ‘in which mystery is no more a barely tolerated alien awaiting a deportation order’.  Patrick Curry has written about re-enchantment in relation to contemporary divination and astrology.

A post-dualist view of Spirits and Souls.

Because of a variety of personal experience, I’m interested in a post-secular animism that acknowledges the possibility of dialogue with various kinds of other-than-human beings including ‘spirits’ and/or ancestors who inhabit dimensions beyond, but close to, and overlapping, the domain of ordinary human perception.  Such persons may occasionally be sensed in dreams and visions or by means of Altered Sensory Channels (another ASC compatible with Graham Harvey’s ‘Altered Styles of Communication’) such as second sight/clairvoyance, clairsentience, or clairaudience.  What appears to matter is the transformative emotional quality of such communications.

Grandad showing me a leaf, in Marion Park, Charlton, South London, c1950.

Postmodern and phenemonological perspectives suggest some quite powerful ways of deconstructing and moving beyond simplistic conceptions of ‘souls’ and ‘spirits’ based on hierarchical mind-body/culture-nature/spirit-matter dualisms.

For example (1) any coherent and sentient aspect of selfhood that survived death – and we are already plural beings, in Nietzsche’s terms ‘dividuals’ rather than individuals – would necessarily have been forged from the particularities of embodied existence, and may quite possibly be influenced by continuing relationships with materially embodied persons, and earthly places; (2) post-Newtonian physics shows material bodies to be, at some level, insubstantial (this seems consistent with notions of subtle bodies), and post-materialist science appears broadly consistent with indigenous traditions that posit non-local consciousness; (3) we are beings-in-worlds (including this beautiful, complex, and vitally important one).  There may be many dimensions of existence, many potential states of being, and many processes of transition between them.  The notion of dualism no longer seems appropriate when neither embodied persons nor ‘spirits’ are conceived as simple unitary beings. (4) Nature appears, and may actually be, riven with dynamic dualities, which need not be perceived in hierarchical dualistic terms,  And (5) ‘spirituality’ can, of course, be earth-centred.

From a postmodern perspective, language is neither transparent, fixed, nor universal.  Even if I tell you what I currently mean by the signifiers ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’, you are likely to bring a different set of associations to bear upon my answer.  What is needed, perhaps, is a sense of how such terms have been constitued historically, and how they’re being used now.

Camille Flammarion, Wood Engraving from 'L'Atmosphere Meterologique Populaire, Paris 1998.

Camille Flammarion, Wood Engraving from ‘L’Atmosphere Meterologique Populaire, Paris 1998. “a medieval missionary claims to have found the point where heaven and earth meet’.

James Hillman, for example, identifies ‘soul’ as a symbol, ultimately unknowable, but associated with immanence, and much more involved in ‘living intimacy’, relationship, embodiment, and the particulars of subjectivity, than ‘spirit’, which ‘calls one up and out’, is transpersonal, and associated with transcendence.  In the early nineteenth century, the new Enlightenment discipline of psychology first emptied ‘soul’ of agency and positive meaning, then relegated it to parapsychology or psychopathology.  Psychic events were now to be tested against outer ‘objective reality’ alone.  Hillman celebrates Jung as a phenomenologist of soul, and reminds us that the multiplicity of our ‘souls’, and states, means that ‘we will always be partly strangers to ourselves’.

In the context of discussions about the tendency to psychologise neo-Shamanic phenomena, Hillman warns that use of the term unconscious in relation to ‘a causal agent who sends dreams, and who can be turned to for an opinion … an initiatory daimonic voice, totem animal, or familiaris’, is sacrilegious because it ‘deprives the gods of their due’.  Psychology need not preclude other-than-human agency.

In a recent review of cultural constructions of ‘souls’ and ‘spirits’ in early Christian and late north European pagan contexts, Bob Trubshaw emphasises that non-Western traditions mostly describe a plurality of souls, often including a life-soul, a free- or shadow- soul that can leave the body during dreams, and sometimes an ‘ego-soul’, a bearer of ‘psychic life functions’.  He also finds a clear differentiation between soul and local ‘spirit-deities’.  The latter materialise a vital animating power, a ‘potency’ variously recognised as kami, potentia, chi, shakti, ond, luonto, and so forth, that also appears in trees, rocks, and living human beings.

However we conceptualise our relationship with other worlds, the astrologer in me shares a widely held concern that if we restrict ourselves to the conceptual repertoire of modernist scientific rationality, valuable as that approach can be when used appropriately and ethically, we radically limit our appreciation of the unfolding dream of cosmic nature.  There is, of course, a converse danger.  We might be so seduced by the imagined glamour of otherworldly experience that we lose sight of the often exquisite detail of the living world and how it is under threat, on our doorstep, where we can sometimes make a difference.  That really would be to succumb to dualism.

Updated 13/9/15.

Sources, vaguely in the order they’re referred to above:

Medard Boss, The Analysis of Dreams, Rider, 1957.

Graham Harvey, Animism; Respecting the Living World, Hurst, 2005.

Irving Hallowell, Ojibwe Ontology, Behaviour, and World View. 1960/2002 in  Harvey G.  Readings in Indigenous Religions, Continuum.

David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, Vintage, 1996.

Edward Tylor, Primitive Culture, 2 Vols, John Murray, 1871/1913.

Zygmunt Bauman, Intimations of Postmodernity, Routledge, 1992.  and Postmodern Ethics, Blackwell 1993.

Patrick Curry, ed.  Divination, Perspectives for a New Millenium, Ashgate, 2010.

Roy Willis and Patrick Curry, Astrology, Science, and Culture; Pulling down the Moon, Berg, 2004.

James Hillman, The Myth of Analysis, three Essays in Archetypal Psychology, New York, Harper and Row, 1972.

Bob Trubshaw, Souls, Spirits, and Deities, Heart of Albion, 2012.

Photographs of Rock Facesand Tulip, are my own.  The other photo will have been taken by my father.


5 thoughts on “Postmodern Animism

  1. I have noticed that contemporary eco-poetry like new animist writing tends to marginalise otherworldly experience. Abram’s idea of ‘mapping myths back onto the land’ can lead to the loss of the voice of the singer, and their unique relationship both with the land itself and it’s spirits and deities.

    At present I see the only language adequate to capturing mystical experience to be poetry, as such experiences are deeply personal and can only be described through symbol and metaphor. As such their meaning remains polysemous and cannot recaptured conceptually and incorporated into metanarratives.

  2. I agree about the woo-woo being taken out. For me, there is one world, but it has so many levels I cannot see normally, I need a telescope or a microscope or to be in trance. I assume that there is far more than science knows because science says that and keeps revising itself. Mysteries is a word actually I used to use a lot, then I changed it to MoreWorld. Nothing is in a dualistic Other world, it’s all here with me and you, in a world that is More than meets the eye. Deities and trolls and ancestors and much more are also in this giant world we all share. Everyone is a person. I suspect that there are many MoreWorlders who have no interest in humans and we will rarely if ever meet. Also I don’t think an Cartesian labeling can explain the Whole or its parts in a true way of what experience is. It helps the rational mind a lot, but not other parts of our consciousness. Music, dance, visual arts, theatre, nonfiction prose and story telling can take me there. I am one of those people who does not “get” poetry. The things I do not understand can be magic or science, to me, both. I don’t divide things much as the lines get blurred over and over again. The anti-magic and fear of the G word come from I think people with a Christian background who didn’t like the church’s (denied) woo woo and their God’s personality, plus how both were treated as Untouchable taboos to discuss. I was raised hippie Hindu so I often forget others don;t come from a monist and polytheism background. (I have my own New Age childhood hang ups!)

  3. Because we’re human and use language just as birds and other animals do, I think the best we can do is to know its strengths and weaknesses, both in our use and in others.

    Perhaps our modern deficiency in both using and understanding language reflects our relationship to our own nature, our cosmology and the ten thousand things. As our language is depleted, so goes the world, its resources and our ability to sense the depletion.

  4. I’m so sorry for your loss. This blog is an amazing treasure trove of wonder and insights. Thank you for keeping it up. I’m working my way through it all. Seriously, I wish it could be published!

  5. Dear talisspinning, I’ve JUST found my way into wordpress to respond to any messages for my dear Brian’s blog. Like you I would like to see it published & intend to try & do that eventually. You are not the only person to express the same. Many thanks, P.F.

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