Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Talk to the Wood: Animism is Natural

I'm bumping this 2011 post to the top of the queue.

At a certain point her recent OOOIII talk, “Powers of the Hoard: Artistry and Agency in a World of Vibrant Matter”, Jane Bennett broached the topic of animism, albeit with a little embarrassment. I understand, on both matters. As someone who writes about graffiti as being an expression of the spirit of the site, the kami, I feel the necessity of animist talk. As a card-carrying PhD intellectual I understand the embarrassment as well; don’t want people to think I’m nuts.

But, it’s 2011 and we’re slipping rapidly past post-modernity in a world that’s in the early phases of a global ecotastrophy. Perhaps going nuts with deliberation is a prudent move. It’s good for the circulation.

Whatever.

In Beethoven’s Anvil I’ve argued that primitive proto-music created a new arena for human sociality. At the beginning of “Chapter IX, Musicking the World”, I suggest that animism is what happens when non-humans are assimilated into this new social space. It is their spirits that anchor them in this new community. Here’s that passage (pp. 195-198).

* * * * *

According to Fannie Berry, an ex-slave, Virginia slaves in the late 1850s would sing the following song as they felled pine trees:
A col' frosty mo'nin'
De niggers feelin' good
Take you ax upon yo' shoulder
Nigger, talk to de wood.
She went on to report that:
Dey be paired up to a tree, an’ dey mark de blows by de song. Fus’ one chop, den his partner, an’ when dey sing TALK dey all chop togedder; an’ purty soon dey git de tree ready for to fall an’ dey yell “Hi” an‘ de slaves all scramble out de way quick.
The song thus helped the men to pace and coordinate their efforts. Beyond that, Bruce Jackson notes of such songs, “the songs change the nature of the work by putting the work into the worker’s framework...By incorporating the work with their song, by in effect, co-opting something they are forced to do anyway, they make it theirs in a way it otherwise is not.” In the act of singing the workers linked their minds and brains into a single dynamical system, a community of sympathy. By bringing their work into that same dynamic field, they incorporate it into that form of society created through synchronization of interacting brains.

What is the tree’s role in this social process? It cannot be active: it cannot synchronize its activities with those of the wood choppers. But, I suggest, “putting the work into the worker’s framework” means assimilating the trees, and the axes as well, into social neurodynamics. The workers are not only coupled to one another; by default, that coupling extends to the rest of the world. What does it mean to treat a tree or an ax as a social being? It means, I suggest, that you treat them as animate and hence must pay proper respect to their spirits.

Thus we have arrived at a conception of animism, perhaps mankind’s simplest and most basic form of religious belief. In this view animistic belief is a natural consequence of coupled sociality. In effect, the non-human world enters human society as spirits and, consequently, humans perform rituals to honor the spirits of the animals they eat, or the trees they carve into drums, and so forth. With that in mind let’s consider a passage from Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, an intellectual and spiritual journey into Australia’s Aboriginal outback. In this passage Chatwin is talking with Arkady Volchok, an Australian of Russian descent who was mapping Aboriginal sacred sites for the railroad. Much of the outback is relatively featureless dessert, and navigation is a problem if you don’t have maps and instruments, which, of course, didn’t exist until relatively recently. The Aborigines used song to measure and map the land:
[Arkady] went on to explain how each totemic ancestor, while traveling through the country, was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints ... as ‘ways’ of communication between the most far-flung tribes.
‘A song’, he said, ‘was both map and direction-finder. Providing you knew the song, you could always find your way across country.’
‘And would a man on “Walkabout” always be travelling down one of the Songlines?”
‘In the old days, yes,’ he agreed. ‘Nowadays, they go by train or car.’
‘Suppose the man strayed from his Songline?’
‘He was trespassing. He might get speared for it.’
‘But as long as he stuck to the track, he’d always find people who ... were, in fact, his brothers?’
‘Yes.’
. . . .
In theory, at least, the whole of Australia could be read as a musical score. There was hardly a rock or creek in the country that could not or had not been sung. One should perhaps visualise the Songlines as a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys, writhing this way and that, in which every ‘episode’ was readable in terms of geology.
. . . .
‘Put it this way,’ he said. ‘Anywhere in the bush you can point to some feature of the landscape and ask the Aboriginal with you, “What’s the story there?” or “Who’s that?” The chances are he’ll answer “Kangaroo” or “Budgerigar” or “Jew Lizard”, depending on which Ancestor walked that way.”
‘And the distance between two such sites can be measured as a stretch of song?’
We are now prepared to answer that question in the affirmative, as Arkady Volchok did. Given the nature of navigation by dead reckoning—that it requires accurate estimates of elapsed time—and the temporal precision of musical performance, it makes sense that one would use song to measure one’s path in a desert with few discernible features. Given our further speculation that music’s narrative stream is regulated by the brain’s navigation equipment, this Aboriginal Song-as-Map seems like a natural development.

Yet we should be wary of getting wrapped up in the practicality of it all. For that hardly explains the mythology, the fact that this or that feature of the landscape is a sacred place, that the Songlines were traced by culture heroes of animal nature. None of that is necessary for the merely practical end of accurate time-keeping, though it might be useful to have a story to give some content to the narrative stream. To measure a long stretch of time, and thus a long distance, one could simply count to some sufficiently high number while walking and singing at a steady pace. Counting to an arbitrarly high value, however, is a relatively recent human accomplishment, one not present in preliterate cultures. One could also use very long strings of nonsense syllables, but they are very difficult to memorize accurately, as thousands of undergraduates in decades of psychological experiments know all too well; such things simply don’t have much purchase in the human brain. So one sings the song of a culture hero’s journey, while tracing that journey oneself, and in the process, one becomes that hero. We are in the world Val Geist hypothesized, in which our ancestors imitated the calls of animals in order to manipulate animal behavior. In the process of imagining the wilderness though the persona of an animal one assimilates that wilderness to the categories and needs of human culture.

* * * * *

Allow me the liberty of repeating a paragraph from the passage I just quoted. As you read this paragraph I want you to think of Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory as he lays it out in Reassembling the Social. One of Latour’s key conceptions is that anything whatsoever can be an agent in an assemblage. If what I say in the following passage is more or less on the mark, then Latour’s methodology is recouping, and reconstructing in a different mode, the activity by which we originally constituted ourselves as human and the world as, well, a cosmos. Here’s the paragraph:
What is the tree’s role in this social process? It cannot be active: it cannot synchronize its activities with those of the wood choppers. But, I suggest, “putting the work into the worker’s framework” means assimilating the trees, and the axes as well, into social neurodynamics. The workers are not only coupled to one another; by default, that coupling extends to the rest of the world. What does it mean to treat a tree or an ax as a social being? It means, I suggest, that you treat them as animate and hence must pay proper respect to their spirits.
That is to say, you ‘grant’ them the same status in the cosmos that you grant yourself. And that is what Latour does in this, the 21st century CE.

Now do you understand why this blog is called New Savanna?

1 comment:

  1. That's how they make the big bucks

    they take a little bit of truth and blow it up

    of course that's where she needs to be

    at John Hopkins chair of a certain department("Political Science" - isnt' that a bunch of jokes?)

    if she were a lady with raggety clothes on the street would we be paying atention ?

    No

    is the definite answer --

    paradigmatization and particularization: true enemies of the people

    and they can't live with out them

    ReplyDelete