The upgrading of our brain's system acts like a lens through which we see a unified image of people, places, objects, ideas and concepts that unite our individual perceptions around a common worldview which strengthen the cohesion of our societies. But that worldview threatens then to close our eyes on the reality of what happens outside of ourselves or outside of our societies. This explains how Euro-centrism pervades the discourse relating to other worldviews and Modernity having been shoveled by force down the minds of all citizens on earth it is extremely difficult to escape its narrative. Animism offers a totally different perspective as we shall see further.
Modernity invented rationalism as the functional philosophy of the reason of capital and one of its founding principles is that reality is knowable and conquerable. Modernity posits that truth is attainable through the scientific methodology. But this modern invention is no more than a gratuitous affirmation, a hope at best, that remains unproven and could tomorrow be overturned under the new worldview that will affirm and fix the minds in the historical era following Modernity. As Alejandro Haber rightly observes "Life cannot be simply known but must be lived; relationality cannot be simply known but must be related with".(3)
The modern invention that reality is knowable changed radically the way humanity approaches its own insertion within the all encompassing whole. The human odyssey got suddenly reduced, rationalized, rendered functional by the worldview of Modernity at the image of a vertical tree that has internalized the authority of rationalism imposed on it by those mastering the power in nation-states. As Isabelle Stengers notes "The epic is no longer about the 'ascent of Man' but rather about the ascent of the Scientist. ...the idea of a hegemonic scientific rationality, can be understood as itself the product of a colonization process. ... If the adventurous specificity of scientific practices has been acknowledged, no one would dream of addressing others in terms of the 'beliefs' they would entertain about a 'reality' to which scientists enjoy privileged access. Instead of the hierarchical figure of a tree, with Science as its trunk, what we call progress would perhaps have had the allure of what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari called a rhizome, connecting heterogeneous practices, concerns, and ways of giving meaning to the inhabitants of this earth, with none being privileged and any being liable to connect with any other. ... In order to resist the powerful image of a treelike progress, with Science as its trunk, I will now address another idea of Gilles Deleuze, that of our need to 'think by the milieu' meaning both without reference to a ground or ideal aim, and never separating something from the milieu that it requires in order to exist." (4) Yes once a worldview posits a methodology to access the truth all else is bound to be labeled as belief and rejected.
Animism provides us with a unique chance to observe that our modern dualism is not universal and it demonstrates to us that another approach to knowledge is possible and that it is working. The foundations of that worldview are based on the inter-connectedness of all particles within the whole. That view recently started to receive the nod of approval of the scientific community. Animism is indeed a highly pragmatic approach to knowledge that reposes on a refusal to erect boundaries, demarcations, and straight lines separating categories as those that were imposed in our minds by Modernity. Animistic knowledge continually energizes the material world by integrating newer observations made about the cycle of nature within the interactive context-environment - or milieu of the observer in Deleuze's speak. In other words knowledge is never fixed once and for all. It is never equated to the truth; knowledge is recognized to be evolving because it relies on new observations to refine its narrative in a better depiction of the truth. Under animism people have a very deep conviction that all particles are connected and dependent upon one another as if they were animated by waves of energy flowing in the universe or by a flow of communication between spirits. Energy and spirit basically can be understood as being the same thing only expressed differently. Modern science does not contradict that feeling of an interaction between all the particles under the whole. It simply arrives at the same kind of conclusion after having taken a very different road than the people living in so called primitive societies. What's important here is to recognize that the scientific way is not superior. It is one way to perceive the world among other. But if it were impossible to let go of the preoccupation with hierarchical categorization we would have to ask why modern rationality only reached that conclusion about inter-relatedness during the last preceding minute while primitive men had been conscious about the fact for the whole day of humanity's existence.
Animism and thinking about cosmological abstractions are rooted in daily observation of the rhythms of nature. Or as Rane Willerslev observes "Animist cosmology is essentially practical, intimately bound up with indigenous peoples’ ongoing engagement with their environment. Accordingly, animism is nothing like a formally abstracted philosophy about the workings of the world or a symbolic representation of human society. Instead, it is largely pragmatic and down-to-earth, restricted to particular contexts of relational activity, such as the mimetic encounter between hunter and prey."
2. Animism is pure pragmatism.
Tribes delegated the formation of knowledge to their man of knowledge who in exchange for the supply of his services to his fellow tribesmen was exempted from labor. Men of knowledge got their knowledge from 2 sources.
Being steeped in a very long historical cycle of observation of - the rhythms of nature - human psychology and so on, in other words all things that are nearly identical anywhere on earth, it should not come as a surprise that tribal knowledge ended up being very similar all around the world.
So what are the determinant traits of tribal knowledge that fixed the central themes of the animistic worldview?
2.1. the view about the individual and the group
Tribesmen all around the world had a deep understanding of the centrality of the group for their survival. Individualism was a notion that was never entertained. It was outside of tribal consciousness. That means that each individual was in permanence subjecting his ideas, his desires and his actions, to group dynamics. The fact is that the group was central in the individuals' consciousness. It supplied each individual with the goods necessary to ensure his healthy reproduction. Goods were thus distributed not on an equal base but on the base of what was necessary for the individual. The group protected the individuals from outside risks. It supplied the individuals with a narrative making sense in their minds of the working of reality. It procured all the individuals with material abundance while securing them with peace of mind and regular feasts that were so many occasions of enjoyment.
I'm well aware of the fact that it is nearly impossible for us to fathom what these dry words imply in term of how one was perceiving his daily life experience within tribal societies. Let's take the example of the absence of individualism and the centrality of the group in the individuals' consciousness. How are we possibly going to understand this? Through the lens of our own experience for sure. But individualism being positioned, in Late-Modernity, in the individuals' consciousness as the primary lens through which we see ourselves, the world, and reality in general how could we possibly be able to have a feel of what it was when that lens was not there? How can we possible have a feel of what that other lens, the societal lens, would project reality in our minds?
I think, on that point, it is best to leave the discussion of this question at that and let everyone sink that matter in oneself. We'll indeed often be dragged back to that question along the coming posts and only further chewing on it while meditating will awaken us eventually to other possibilities than those inserted in our minds by our socialization.
2.2. the centrality of the group imposes certain rules
The group, as the assembling of all members of the tribe, constituted the center of attention in everyone's life and this practice slowly imposed its own rules. What I mean here is that tribal societies did not fall from the sky. They grew slowly over tens of thousands of years as the result of experimentation in gaining more efficiency and as any long haul process of evolution the tribal evolving process concluded on a state of affairs that was working. That's what is important here. Evolution, biological or societal, concludes its cycles of variation (gene or meme mutation) by reaching a stable state of working conditions in the sense of their operationality. All that can't find a place in such a stable working milieu is eliminated. We observe that workable tribal societies, societies that succeed to reproduce themselves over the long haul, anywhere on earth are societies that stabilize around a certain population size, decision making by unanimous consent, economies of abundance, art rich festivities and a very deep sense of interconnectedness with other humans, animals and all particles in the whole of reality.
Sociologists and anthropologists who studied the size of tribal populations observed that all 'small groups' tend to stabilize at a given size that has been called the Dunbar number.
"Dunbar's number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. This number was first proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can only comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships. Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 250, with a commonly used value of 150."(5)
Dunbar started studying tribal societies and that's how he came upon this idea of an ideal population number in term of the society's operationality. This same idea has been integrated in 'small groups theory' and its applicability has been verified in groups on social networking sites.
That average figure of 150 individuals is just that; an average. When the tribe reached a certain higher threshold somewhere between 200 and 250 the tribe split and when it reached a low threshold near 100 it dissolved or fused with another tribe suffering the same predicament.
2.3. a coherent strategy to increase societal cohesion
It has been verified in sociology and political sciences that the health of groups varies depending on their level of cohesion. In other words it has been observed that the stronger the minds of the individuals are glued in sharing a common worldview the stronger their group's cohesiveness will be. Under a certain threshold of cohesion the group simply disbands and ceases to exist. Tribal societies around the word did not need universities to be aware of that fact. They were actively and in permanence trying to increase the level of their groups' cohesion. The necessity - of such a centrality of the group and - of the consciousness about the importance of its cohesiveness were, I think, arrived at from 2 perspectives:
"I have a more perverse proposition to argue. It is that in so far as the academic discourse of history—that is, 'history' as a discourse produced at the institutional site of the university—is concerned, 'Europe' remains the sovereign theoretical subject of all histories, including the ones we call 'Indian', 'Chinese', 'Kenyan', and so on. There is a peculiar way in which all these other Histories become variations of a master narrative that could be called 'the history of Europe.' " Dipesh Chakrabarty (1)
Over the last 2-3 centuries Modernity has been imposed to the whole world. Everywhere the modern paradigm of a linear time-line, with an arrow indicating a movement forward, is accrediting a conception of history as a development toward always further progress. The resulting narrative then paints the present as being the culmination of that development. This inevitably imprints in the minds a seal of rejection for anything that happened before modern societies or out of them in non-modern societies.
How did this possibly happen? Or is this the final truth of the matter about societal evolution?
The word development implies an unfolding of time toward something that is seen as being better and history thus becomes a justification for the idea of a present that is exceptionally better than anything that was before. We Westerners then inevitably conclude that we must have it right and that the other must have it wrong. In such a scheme history merely interprets the facts along the ideological line of the 'good versus bad' dualism that at root is inscribed in the axioms of our Western civilization that I'll lay out more thoroughly in my next post. For now let us observe that our modern western epistemological narrative is grounded in a rigid dualism in the form of good versus bad, nature versus culture, individual versus society, objects versus subjects, the material world versus meaning emanating from the whole, and so on and on. Dualism, in essence, implies that the duality we make ours is the embodiment of what we posit as being good while the other duality is rejected as being bad. G.W.Bush's statement "you are with us or you are against us" is the best caricature ever of dualism. The notion of progress is based on the idea that good is what unfolds in the present on the line of time with all that this implies for the relationship between 'us versus the other'. For us it justifies that everything we are doing or thinking is being good and for the other, in our eyes at least, it dictates that whatever he does differently than what we do is bad. This kind of reasoning gives us then, at least we think so, the right, the obligation even, to destroy the other. In the end this idea of progress or of societal development justifies in our minds that we are right which then explains why we are so radically unable to watch, listen, whatever else the other might be doing or saying.
Today in Late-Modernity this dualism decreed as the necessary foundation of rational thought by the Western worldview of Modernity is finally showing some strains. From the front of science appears this idea that dualism reduces reality to something akin to a slogan which leads it to conclude that to discover the deep mechanism of reality we have to get rid of the slogan. Electricity is not the positive versus the negative; it is the interactions between the positive and the negative that generate electricity. The same goes with the pair energy and matter. Micro particles can be energy at one moment and transform into matter at another moment in time. This is the string, the micro particle in string theory, that acts like the breathing of the particle between states of energy and states of matter. In Late-Modernity history is subjected to the same kind of foundational questioning for the good reason that our present appears no longer as being the best of all possible outcomes. We should have to thank the great economic re-balancing of the economy-world for that but we most probably will end up accusing the other in our globalized world (Chinese?) for the economic and social miseries that are confronting our societies nowadays. However we look at this the fact is that dualism, the motor powering Western thinking, has been hit badly and is bound to be assaulted further down the road.
1. The necessity to accept and recognize the other
Once we come to realize that dualism reduces logic to an ideological mechanism at self aggrandizement we understand the narrowness of judgment that leads to posit time as flowing towards ever better days. This is when we realize that other conceptions of time based on different sequences than our own, different and at times discordant narratives, and different 'epistemes'(2) within a same segment on the historical span of time are in the realm of the possible. I plan on trying to illustrate just this in the next 4 or 5 following posts in which I will lay out the evolution of societal worldviews from the one shared in tribal societies also called animism to the codification of 'the axioms of civilization' that creates a great divide within the long history between what existed before civilization and what comes after it rises. I'll then try to indicate how future Western worldviews diverged so radically from their Eastern counterparts to give rise to Christianity in the West and the evolution of animism into what is called Chinese traditional thinking. In a next step I will be transitioning to the 3 phases of Modernity: Early-Modernity culminating in the Renaissance, High-Modernity or the peaking of Modernity with rationalism imposing the philosophic functionalism of Modernity that unfolds in industrialization and mass marketization on the economic front and Modernism in the arts, and lastly Late-Modernity and its slow descent into the abyss of a new dark age that will free the path to a radically new worldview that I call After-Modernity waiting for history to settle on a better name.
Belief is a very powerful thing that acts as a calcification of ideas in the minds. So we'll sometimes have to use acid to get rid of the calcification in order to free the mind. I hope no neurones will be burnt in the process. Narcissistic beliefs pose a different sort of challenge because they are a calcification of ideas that not only cloak the minds but also impose their agency on the self which in consequence dissolves into an obeying slave. Acid unfortunately is not going to dissolve slavery and the channeling of beliefs in 'me me me' narcissism could thus end up being the force that breaks any possibility of human awakening from belief.
Belief in a worldview helps a society by strengthening its cohesion but it cloaks simultaneously that society under a thick layer of cementing conservatism that once fixed is difficult to pierce. Belief is something else than truth but truth is a difficult and tricky concept because how are we to prove that what we call truth today will not tomorrow be called belief or vice-versa. Societies devise methodologies, sort of agreements, to sort out what is truth; science for example under modernity. But those methodologies are not by themselves the whole truth of the matter and as such those methodologies can eventually be changed in the future, when our worldview changes, leaving us then with a different classification of what is truth and what is belief. By insisting on this difficulty I wanted to indicate that truth and belief are concepts that work from within the confines of a worldview and as such truth and belief vary from one worldview to the other.
What I tried to show here is that the arts (modern concept) were initiated by tribal men of knowledge as instruments to build up the cohesion of the group and each art had a specific function. Visual signs related to knowledge and its transmission to the minds of the tribesmen. Music related to the manipulation of their feelings in order to induce in them the most favorable mood to participate in a given activity; learning, being in unison with their fellow tribesmen, being prepared for hunting or war, be available to curing their health condition and so on and on. Since visual art is one of the major reasons I started this series so I'll address more extensively this subject of the arts in later posts.
2.4. an economy of abundance
Tribal societies were the mode of organization of humanity before the rise of civilization. They have been presented, till very recently as being primitive societies that lived in misery. This image had the advantage to solidify the certainty that white-men were in their right plundering and killing all around. But the economic reality of tribal economies was at the antipodes of this Euro-centric ideological projection.
Tribal societies were societies of abundance. I'm not referring here to contemporary groupings that are presented under the name tribes. It is indeed dishonest to compare the daily life of such contemporary groups with the life of tribes before civilization. Those groups have indeed been under the pressure and influence of agricultural societies with whom they were in competition since thousands of years for the land. Later Christianity tried to convert those primitives and detach them from their 'wildness' and so we have composite belief systems emerging like Voodoo for example. Finally Modernity is aggressively projecting in their eyes images of stuff and trying to exacerbate envy in their minds for the possession of that stuff. All this should be sufficient proof that these contemporary tribes have not much in common with the tribal societies that existed before the emergence of agriculture.
Abundance was intentional for original tribal societies. Abundance was available in nature but what I meant to say is that those societies had a good reason why they wanted a supply of abundant food; they wanted to assemble reserves for later use. There was for sure the weather risk mitigation factor that reserves insured against but I always have been wondering if the numerous tribal feasts and their cohesion building rituals were not a more potent factor to accumulate reserves. Without reserves feasts would indeed have squandered the fresh food that had to sustain the group in the present and for some time to come which could easily have destabilized the normal daily routine. Building up reserves meant that the oldest reserves had to be discarded to make place for newer ones. This process would have necessitated only a marginal effort in the present to sustain the build-up of reserves for the future and it would have procured the group with a useful mechanism to supply their feasts with the necessary resources. Feasts were indeed an integral part of tribal life and their importance to guarantee high levels of societal cohesion must, I believe, have been the reason for the build-up of reserves. The group was considered by all as being the reason for each human action so its preservation and continuation must have taken precedence over anything else.
I formed my views of tribal economics and politics (modern concepts), over the last 50 years, reading books and articles of anthropology, ethnology, economic history, psychology and other. The authors I was most influenced by are Marshall Sahlins and Pierre Clastres' whose book "Society without State" has been a real eye opener for me.
2.5. societies without power
Every participant in tribal groups knew every other participant directly. This had the effect of solidifying the sense of belonging to the group (cohesion) and to facilitate unanimous decision making in matters of importance to the tribe. Also the fact that everyone was acting in the interest of the group without any after thought arising would have minimized the necessity for a formal central decision making process. But tribal people never forgot to be pragmatic and when they faced an urgency they would simply follow the guidance of the one among them who had the best knowledge of the problem at hand. When the problem was finally solved they would simply live as before. Putting all these factors together explains how political self management was the tribal norm.
We can entertain this idea intellectually and enjoy it. We can find it remarkably beautiful and seductive but simply deciding to reclaim or recover it and put it in application in our own 'milieu' is bound to end in disillusionment. I hear already the question 'why is that?' popping around. Well, as it goes, a same variety of grape grown in a different 'terroir' gives a different wine. It is the 'terroir' that gives its quality to a wine. The same goes in human affairs. The 'terroir' is to wine what the 'milieu' is to humans. This is the tragedy of anarchism; a milieu characterized by societal market massification and individual egotism would engender a monster from the application of tribal 'non-governance' to be understood as 'non-action' in governance.
I think nevertheless that this 'model' could easily re-impose itself through the call of necessity. I mean when states collapse into failed states all the systems set in place under Modernity gradually atrophy and soon are gone and to survive the individuals have to re-invent new economic and political forms. The center being gone people have to reach out to their neighbors and invent new local societies. This is no speculation. It is what happens in failed state societies. Without any workable solution left the Western establishment today is playing its last card in the form of a virtual reality built on lies, manipulation and deception, spying on all and the use of brute force. Whatever we think about this changes nothing. The ultra-complexity of Western societal systems and their break-down leaves no space any longer for reform or revolution. Change will be imposed by the collapse of the machinery of those systems and that collapse imposes what the individuals can and can't do. Look around you. This is happening now already and unfortunately, as most people correctly feel (check electoral participation rates), there is not much space left for human will. What I mean to say is that the time when we could create the conditions of our reality is in the past. Reality is finally re-imposing itself to our delusional late-modern minds.
3. Late-Modernity and the idea of a 'great divide'
3.1. recognition of the hubris of modernity
The recognition that the oppositions between 'Nature versus Society', 'objects and subjects', the material world versus the action from the whole that is embodied in human beliefs, are now less certain than the modernist project had decreed and that recognition has put a dent in the color of the vehicle of dualism. The further recognition that Modernity could after all well end up being the gravedigger of the human specie, even if it is not yet openly characterized as such, is already sowing seeds of doubt that are sprouting under the heat radiating from the side-effects of Modernity.
3.2. power and the great divide
The sprouting doubts surging from Late-Modernity are being ascribed to all kinds of causes. We know about the reason of capital that unleashed the worldview of Modernity. We also know about the emergence of the side-effects of Modernity. But these causes don't seem to answer the fundamental question about how and why Modernity and the reason of capital could have emerge in the first place. We can follow the path of their emergence through history, yes, but this does not give us the ultimate cause for that emergence. They did indeed not jump at us from the sky.
At the end of the tenth century the central power of Christianity that resides in the pope put in motion a process (crusades) that landed a very backward Europe in the heart of a refined and advanced Middle-East. That is what put the whole thing of the reason of capital and Modernity into motion. But the ultimate cause for that thing to possibly start to move lays with civilization itself that consecrated the power of some men over entire populations which is what ushered in the principle of the social inequality of men as a core value of the societal construct of civilization.
This ideological mechanism took precedence eventually by occulting the true nature of tribal societies and animism and the narrative about animism has thus been wrapped in a lie to hide its seductiveness. Civilization was affirmed as an ultimate progress while tribes were painted as primitive societies. The arrow of progress was born out of the intellectual construct of dualism and that arrow of progress was said to cruise forward at the hands of authorities presented as the representatives of god or the spirits among men.
Discarding tribal societies and animism created the greatest divide along the entire time-span of human history.
3.3. the reality of Modern capitalist sorcery
"... the modern arrow of time has changed directions. The future is no longer a white sheet of paper awaiting our projective prescriptive schemes and designs, and the past is no longer the archaic animist 'stage' of multiple contagions and mediations which must be surmounted as “entry” condition into the hygienic order of modernity. The future is now behind us, and the past approaches us from the front. The specter of animism is no longer one that returns from the past, for the reversal of modern temporality has announced itself for some time in the ability to challenge monolithic modernist narratives ... Animism is thus no longer historical but is rather the ground upon which history is placed.
... we find ourselves in a time at which it is ultimately urgent to 'understand' - in order to step beyond and unmake - the magic circle of double binds. But this time it is not the sorcery of the animist other, but the modern and 'capitalist sorcery' (Isabelle Stengers) that keeps us spellbound, trapped within a set of false choices, within a systemic closure that suggests no alternatives, and does not cease to assimilate into clinical management its other and its outsides." (7)
1. Dipesh Chakrabarty as cited by Harry Garuba in "On Animism, Modernity/ Colonialism, and the African Order of Knowledge: Provisional Reflections"
2. episteme: I employ the term in Foucault's perspective used to mean a particular historical era's knowledge and its discourses that emerge out of interaction between the historical 'unconscious understanding' and the milieu of a particular era.
3. Alejandro Haber in "Severo’s Severity and Antolín’s Paradox"
4. Isabelle Stengers in "Reclaiming Animism"
5. Rane Willerslev in "Laughing at the Spirits in North Siberia: Is Animism Being Taken too Seriously?":
6. The Dunbar number by Wikipedia.
7. Anselm Franke. Introduction - “Animism”.
Anselm Franke was the curator of the exhibition “Animism” that took place in 2010 at Extra City and MUHKA in Antwerp Belgium. The exhibition then toured Europe and was in New York in July 2012. The e-flux journal presented a special 'Animism' Summer 2012 issue that was guest-edited by Anselm Franke. If you are interested in animism I highly advise you to check the e-flux website.
Video of the week.
One of the great videos I watched this last week
Tribes were actively and in permanence trying to increase the level of their groups' cohesion and what we call the arts today were the instruments 'by excellence' used to transmit the animist knowledge narrative to their members. This begs the question why do our Late-Modern societies, that are presented by authorities as being so advanced, do such a poor job at ratcheting up their cohesion. But this is a digression. Tribesmen regularly assembled for long feasts. They would banquet on their oldest food reserves and sing and dance. The atmosphere of happiness thus generated would contribute to a general feeling of well being interacting with the others. Feeling good playing and eating with their fellow tribesmen would then ease or facilitate the immersion of everyone inside the spell of the arts.
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