Il nuovo animismo
Copyright (c) 2021 Emanuele Coccia
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
The contemporary debate on ecology is largely influenced by the theses of the French anthropologist Philippe Descola, who in his masterpiece published in 2005 “Par-delà nature et culture” describes how different cultures relate to what the West calls nature1. Nature, in this framework, is itself a cultural element differently accessible according to the way it is thought and described. This is a very important contribution and not only for European anthropology. However, one of the theses of this book is particularly problematic: the one that leads Descola to recognize in Western culture a “naturalist” attitude, that is, objectifying the rest of non-human living beings. In the West, “nature” would be unified and defined by its very absence of soul or spirit, whereas other cultures recognize a form of subjectivity in everything that lives and for this very reason are forced to think in “nature” a “cultural” plurality that the West does not perceive. The problematic aspect of this thesis is the idea that animism, the attitude that recognizes the existence of a mind or self-consciousness even outside of humanity or a small number of animals, would be impossible or a minority in Western cultures. To this hypothesis, the one that Western culture devoid of any animist sensibility, was actually already opposed a few years before the publication of Descola’s masterpiece another great European anthropologist, Alfred Gell. At the end of the last century, Gell published a masterpiece entitled “Art and Agency. An Anthropological Theory”2, in which he described the cultural forms through which, even in Western culture, becomes possible to attribute agency to artifacts and objects and then practice a form of structural animism for our societies, even if irreflective and unconscious. First of all, there is a very common form of domestic and everyday animism, thanks to which we attribute personality to things: this is the case of children and their relationship with dolls and soft toys, but also of adults, every time they are surprised to talk to a car or a computer. It is, however, an ironic and metastable attitude: in this kind of behavior, often the dominant attitude is that of as if, of play, of fiction, which means that the human subject who, for example, talks to objects or places himself in front of them as if he were in front of another subject, can regularly enter and leave this kind of posture. The attribution of subjectivity is not an act that obliges us to some consequence and has no temporal continuity.
Yet there is another form of animism, deeper and more deeply rooted, in which the recognition of the subjective character of objects is neither ironic nor unstable: this is art. In Western society there is a sphere in which we are all unconsciously but invariably animists: we actually call art that cultural space in which we relate to objects as if they were subjects. It is enough to think of what happens in a museum: a museum, after all, is a warehouse full of old objects for which we have a sort of special veneration. Every day, in the “western” world, millions of people enter these enormous storerooms and come across more or less finished portions of linen cloth covered with layers of pigment, or structures of steel, marble, wood: yet, instead of seeing only geometric shapes of extended matter (as the cultural attitude that Descola calls naturalism would presuppose) they see the presence of a subject or a soul, they read opinions, or a vision of the world of someone who existed hundreds or thousands of years before. When we deal with an artistic artifact (but we could also say when we are in front of a book or a written page), we accept the idea that it contains a psychological, emotional, mental intensity that is present regardless of the non-anatomical nature of the material in which it insists. That is to say, in front of artistic objects we are all animists.
We don’t even need to go into museums to be one. We are animist even before we open our front door. The British anthropologist who founded material anthropology, Daniel Miller, published a very nice book a few years ago about the way we accumulate things at home, called “The Comfort of Things”3. He looked at some thirty apartments on one street in London and described the different ways people use objects to furnish their homes. Miller considers that this form of choices is a kind of small personal cosmology: deciding what to keep at home and what to throw away is not just an aesthetic or economic decision, it is a cosmological decision, because it involves trying to reconstruct the world differently. And vice versa, everything in the house seems to exude the personality of those who live there: things take on the same status as their subjects. From this point of view, houses are vernacular spaces of animism: places where matter is always imbued with soul and subjectivity. Home is that space in which we are used to relating to everything objective as if it were the presence of something subjective4. Once again, we are animists, without needing to be conscious of it.
Art, design and architecture are, in this sense, immense archives and repositories of collective animism that educate us to see subjects where anyone else sees only objects; they accustom us to confer agentivity on any portion of matter, to relate to the world as if it were populated by souls different from our own. In the gaze of these three forms of knowledge, matter is endowed with a spiritual life that is the same as that which allows us to be conscious, sentient and self-reflective. This is why the ecological problem must be transformed into an aesthetic problem. A great Australian eco-feminist who lived in the last century, Val Plumwood, had identified the main reason for the ecological crisis with the absence of animism or “panpsychism” in Western culture: it is because we are unable to recognize the subjectivity of plants, animals and bacteria that we are guilty of genocide on a planetary scale5. The solution, according to Plumvood, would be to disperse the creativity and agentivity, that theology has attributed only to God and his copy – the human species – to all the inhabitants of the earth, allowing to consider evolution itself as «the proof of the existence of a mind present in nature, of the intelligence that implies the elaboration and differentiation of species». It would therefore be a matter of extending to nature the supplementary animism with which art, architecture and design require ourselves to relate to our own artifacts.
Yet the analysis of these unconscious forms of animism or “european” panpsychism does not end here. In fact, in these cases we are dealing with positions that allow us to relate socially to matter as if it were endowed with agentivity and subjectivity, without constructing a real ontology. But there are other examples, more radical, in which, even if unconsciously, a form of ontological animism has been achieved. Bruno Latour had suggested some years ago that even science is an immense reservoir of unconscious animism. Applying to scientific laboratories the method that ethnography of the last century applied to non-European societies without writing, Latour realized that science, precisely where it keeps repeating that there is an ontological divide between subjects and objects, never stops transgressing this division. Scientists cannot help but relate to machines and matter as if they were subjects: they attribute to them the ability to act but also the ability to speak. We do the same every time we think that the thermometer “tells us” our temperature. Thus, Pasteur’s great revolution was more political than purely ontological: it was more a question of recognizing the political agentiveness of microbes than of discovering their mere existence. Science does not cease to ontologically constitute its objects into subjects, even if it claims exactly the opposite. More generally, if European modernity affirms a fundamental metaphysical division (a constitution in Latour’s words) between subjects and objects, it does not cease to confuse the two categories and make objects live in the manner of subjects. In some way we have always been animists6. That is, we should stop linking the animist attitude to a specific culture or era: it is a universal attitude that is proper to any living being.
Latour’s insight is however important for another reason. If science always does the opposite of what it says, that is, if, while claiming to relate to what it studies as objects, it actually treats them as if they were subjects, then we must read any scientific paper as if it were a huge exercise in ethnography of the non-human. Whether it be botany or zoology, virology or electronics, computer science or physics, everything we have grouped under the somewhat claudicant rubric of natural science is nothing but an investigation of the behavior of subjects who do not share our form. Often, exactly like the anthropologists of the last century, we have pretended to derive universal rules from their behavior; yet beyond the conclusions, we should grasp in this literature only an exercise of falsetto in which ethnography does its best not to appear as such, but a sort of ventriloquism of the non-human by interposed person.
And it is through this point of observation that the world becomes animated: there is no need to penetrate further into the matter of this world, there is no need to add discoveries to what we know, there is no need, above all, to deny inanely a culture in order to invoke in a simplistic way the conversion to another culture. It is enough to observe differently the knowledge that surrounds us and grasp in them their own reality: the knowledge that surrounds us will also become deposits of animism that will allow us to recognize the presence of subjects where we used to see only objects.