Last year I gave a presentation on ‘Embodied Imagination and New Animism’ at a seminar organised by The Alain Daniélou Foundation. I was inspired by this topic and took the opportunity to develop my presentation into an article for Transcultural Dialogues, the journal of the Foundation. I had more space to develop my ideas and my article – Embodied Knowing, Imagination and New Animism – took my thoughts in a new direction. I begin with a critique of the disenchanted world of Modernity, the dominant worldview of the Global North. Such critiques are common, especially as we face the growing climate emergency, for this is the worldview which has ushered in the Anthropocene Epoch.
Some of those seeking an alternative turned to animism for inspiration. David Abram is a good example. David spoke at the same seminar I attended, so while I drew from his work for inspiration, I needed to take a fresh perspective on animism. My PhD research into embodied knowing (2008) has proved to be a deep well of inspiration, and again it nurtured my thinking. I mentioned animism in my thesis, noting a relationship between embodiment and animism but I didn’t follow the thread. Curiously, animism kept cropping up in my subsequent work. The spirit of animism was stalking me, appearing like a shadow glimpsed in the forest that vanishes when the sun emerges from the clouds. Animism features in Embodied Eco-Paganism (2013) and crops up again in The Knowing Body: Eco-Paganism as an Embodying Practice (2016). It’s also a theme in my conversation with the improvisational movement artist Stephanie Gottlob (2022). But in all these previous engagements with animism, I’d missed a profound insight: “Animism isn’t about what is believed but how the world is experienced”.
The idea that animism is a belief system comes from Edward Tylor, an anthropologist working in late 19th century England. Tylor invented the term ‘animism’ to describe a ‘primitive’ type of religion, a childish and mistaken worldview that confused inanimate matter with living beings. Tylor couldn’t have got it more wrong: what he called ‘animism’ isn’t a primitive religion and certainly isn’t confused! Most importantly, animism isn’t about what you believe; it’s about how you relate to the world. Tim Ingold characterizes animism as “a condition of being alive to the world, characterized by a heightened sensitivity and responsiveness, in perception and action, to an environment that is always in flux” (2006).
I concluded that it “can best be understood as an embodied way of knowing that underpins how people live practically in the world; hunting, farming, navigating etc.” (Harris, 2023). Once we grasp that animism is an embodied way of knowing, our perspective shifts 180 degrees. Tylor wasn’t capable of understanding animism because he was blinkered by the intellectual framework of 19th-century England. There’s a lot to value in that tradition, but like any viewpoint it’s restricted, which brings us back to my critique of Modernity. My main issue with Modernity is that it believes it’s the only framework that can make sense of the world, so it literally can’t see any aspect of reality that doesn’t fit within its confines.
Animism helps illuminate many of the themes I’ve explored in this blog: ecopsychology, ecosomatics, embodied ecology, the power of place, psychedelics, activism and more. It offers a powerful alternative to Modernity and if we can drop into an embodied animist way of knowing we may yet find our way through the Anthropocene.