Abram, D. The Spell of the Sensuous. Random House, NY. 1996.
“As the cricket’s soft hum is to us, so are we to the trees, as are they to the rocks and the hills,” Gary Snyder.
Ch 1. The Ecology of Magic: A Personal Introduction to the Inquiry
(6) Magicians [shamans and sorcerers of Nepal and Indonesia] rarely dwell at the heart of their village; rather their dwellings are commonly out beyond the edges of the village - amid the rice field, or in a forest, or a wild cluster of boulders. I could easily attribute this to the need for privacy, yet for the magician in a traditional culture it seems to serve another purpose as well, providing a spatial expression of his or her symbolic position with regard to the community. For the magician’s intelligence is not encompassed within the society; its place is at the edge of the community, mediating between the human community and the larger community of beings upon which the village depends for its nourishment and sustenance. This larger community includes, along with the humans, the multiple nonhuman entities that constitute the local landscape, from the diverse plants and the myriad animals - birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, insects - that inhabit or migrate through the region, to the particular winds and weather patterns that inform the local geography, as well as the various landforms - forests, rivers, caves, mountains - that lend their specific character to the surrounding earth.
(7) Destructive influences within the human community are commonly traceable to a disequilibrium between that community and the larger field of forces in which it is embedded. Only those persons who, by their everyday practice, are involved in monitoring and maintaining the relations between the human village and the animate landscape are able to appropriately diagnose, treat, and ultimately relieve personal ailments and illnesses arising within the village.
(8) The traditional magician or medicine person functions primarily as an intermediary between human and nonhuman worlds, and only secondary as a healer. Without a continually adjusted awareness of the relative balance or imbalance between the human group and its nonhuman environ, along with the skills necessary to modulate that primary relation, and “healer” is worthless - indeed not a healer at all. The medicine person’s primary allegiance, then, is not to the human community, but to the earthly web of relations in which that community is embedded - it is from this that his or her power to alleviate human illness derives - and this sets the local magician apart from other persons.
The primacy for the magician of nonhuman nature - the centrality of his relation to other species and to the earth - is not always evident to Western researchers. Countless anthropologists have managed to overlook the ecological dimension of the shaman’s craft, while writing at great length of the shaman’s rapport with “supernatural” entities. We can attribute much of this oversight to the modern, civilized assumption that the natural world is largely determinate and mechanical, and that that which is regarded as mysterious, powerful, and beyond human ken must therefore be of some other, nonphysical realm above nature, “supernatural.”
- the Western fascination with the projected transcendent supernatural
(9) That which is regarded with the greatest awe and wonder by indigenous, oral cultures is, I suggest, none other than what we view as nature itself. The deeply mysterious powers and entities with whom the shaman enters into a rapport are ultimately the same forces - the same plants, animals, forests, and winds - that to literate, “civilized” Europeans are just so much scenery, the pleasant backdrop of our more pressing human concerns.
(9) It is this that defines a shaman: the ability to readily slip out of the perceptual boundaries that demarcate his or her particular culture - boundaries reinforced by social customs, taboos, and most importantly, the common speech or language - in order to make contact with, and learn from, the other powers in the land. His magic is precisely this heightened receptivity to the meaningful solicitations - songs, cries, gestures - of the larger, more-than-human field.
- therefore, an ecologist than anything else
(10) It is likely that the “inner world” of our Western psychological experience, like the supernatural heaven of Christian belief, originates in the loss of our ancestral reciprocity with the animate earth. When the animate powers that surround us are suddenly contracted as having less significance than ourselves, when the generative earth is abruptly defined as a determinate object devoid of its own sensations and feelings, then the sense of a wild and multiplicitous otherness (in relation to which human existence has always oriented itself) must migrate, either into a supersensory heaven beyond the natural world, or else into the human skull itself - the only allowable refuge, in this world, for what is ineffable and unfathomable.
- without Nature-as-home, the original backdrop of human consciousness, we create transcendent gods and transpersonal entities
(10) But in genuinely oral, indigenous cultures, the sensuous world itself remains the dwelling place of the gods, of the numinous powers that can either sustain or extinguish human life. It is not be sending his awareness out beyond the natural world that the shaman makes contact with the purveyors of life and health, nor by journeying into his personal psyche; rather, it is by propelling his awareness laterally outward into the depths of a landscape at once both sensuous and psychological, the living dream that we share with the soaring hawk, the spider, and the stone silently sprouting lichens on its coarse surface.
- the written word facilitates the separation from Nature
- “propelling awareness laterally” - see Wandering God, Berman
(13) While the notion of “spirit” has come to have for us in the West a primarily anthropomorphic or human association…the “spirits” of an indigenous culture are primarily those modes of intelligence or awareness that do not possess a human form [animals, insects, mountains, winds, etc].
(14) The mountain too, has its thoughts. The forest birds whirring and chattering as the sun slips below the horizon are vocal organs of the rain forest itself.
To the Western mind such views are likely to sound like reckless “projections” of human consciousness into inanimate and dumb materials, suitable for poetry perhaps, but having nothing, in fact, to do with those actual birds of the forest. Such is our common view. This text will examine the possibility that it is civilization that has been confused, and not indigenous peoples. It will suggest, and provide evidence, that one perceives a world at all only by projecting oneself into that world, that one makes contact with things and others only by actively participating in them, lending one’s sensory imagination to things in order to discover how they alter and transform that imagination, how they reflect us back changed, how they are different from us. It will suggest that perception is always participatory, and hence that modern humanity’s denial of awareness in nonhuman nature is borne not by any conceptual or scientific rigor, but rather by an inability, or a refusal, to fully perceive other organisms [footnote 3].
- In Search of the Primitive, S Diamond; Wandering God, M Berman; Saving the Appearences, O Barfield (participation awareness).
- The invention of transcendent (out of Nature, out of this world) gods made the world inanimate. One of the huge blunders of human-too-self-aware (narcissistic) consciousness, outlined most severely by Descartes’ mind/body split.
- Ecology as a modern form of totemism. The Human story can’t be told if we take humans out of our ultimate context, which is Nature, yet this is exactly what the biblical tradition does with its transcendent out-of-nature/beyond-this-world projected ruler of all.
- Even the most strict, “objective” scientific analysis is both the cause and result of imagination. “Imagination is more important than intelligence,” Einstein.
(15) For almost all oral cultures, the enveloping and sensuous earth remains the dwelling place of both the living and the dead. The “body” - whether human or otherwise - is not yet a mechanical object in such cultures, but is a magical entity, the mind’s own sensuous aspect, and at death the body’s decomposition into soil, worms, and dust can only signify the gradual reintegration of one’s ancestors and elders into the living landscape, from which all, too, are born.
(21) While at Pangandaran, a nature preserve on a peninsula jutting out from the south coast of Java (“a place of many spirits,” I was told by nearby fisherman), I stepped out form a clutch of trees and found myself looking into the face of one of the rare and beautiful bison that exist only on that island. Our eyes locked. When it snorted, I snorted back; when it shifted its shoulders, I shifted my stance; when I tossed my head back, it tossed its head in reply. I found myself caught in a nonverbal conversation with this Other, a gestural duet with which my conscious awareness had very to do. It was as if my body in its actions was suddenly being motivated by a wisdom older than my thinking mind, as though it was held and moved by a logos, deeper than words, spoken by the Other’s body, the trees, and the stony ground on which we stood.
(21) The source of stress lies in the relation between the human community and the natural landscape.
- Thomas Berry’s “cosmology of peace” is not the peace of passivity or withdrawal or sophism, but the promise of enlightened engagement, “the highest state of tension that the organisms can bear creatively,” (Dream of the Earth, vi).
(22) Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inheritance in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities. Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth - our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the sinking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.
(25) it became increasingly apparent, from books and articles and discussions with various people, that other animals were not as awake and aware as I had assumed, that they lacked any real language and hence the possibility of thought, and that even their seemingly spontaneous responses to the world around them were largely “programmed” behaviors, “coded” in the genetic material now being mapped by biologists. Indeed, the more I spoke about other animals, the less possible it become to speak to them.
- The bio-narcissism of modern human self-awareness precludes any “I-thou” relationship with Nature. We are therefore becoming less conscious as a species.
Ch 2. Philosophy on the Way to Ecology: A Technical Introduction to the Inquiry
(34) In a society that accords priority to that which is predictable and places a premium on certainty, our spontaneous preconceptual experience, when acknowledged at all, is referred to as “merely subjective.” The fluid realm of direct experience has come to be seen as a secondary, derivative dimension, a mere consequence of events unfolding in the “realer” world of quantifiable and measurable scientific “facts.” It is a curious inversion of the actual, demonstrable state of affairs. Subatomic quanta are now taken to be more primordial and “real” than the world we experience with our unaided senses. The living, feeling, and thinking organism is assumed to derive, somehow, from the mechanical body whose reflexes and “systems” have been measured and mapped, the living person now an epiphenomenon of the anatomized corpse. That it takes living, sensing subjects, complete with their enigmatic emotions and unpredictable passions, to conceive of those subatomic fields, or to dissect and anatomize the body, is readily overlooked, or brushed aside as inconsequential.
(35) Much of cognitive science strives to model the computational processes that ostensible underlie mental experience. While for Galileo and Descartes perceptual qualities like color and taste were illusory, unreal properties because of their ambiguous and indeterminate character, mathematical indices have at last been found for these qualities as well, or rather such qualities are now studied only to the extent that they can be rendered, by whatever process of translation, into quantities. Here, as elsewhere, the everyday world - the world of our direct, spontaneous experience - is still assumed to derive from an impersonal, objective dimension of pure “facts” that we glimpse only through our instruments and equations.
- even in psychology
(35) Edmund Husserl would turn to “the things themselves,” toward the world as it is experienced in its felt immediacy. Unlike the mathematics-based sciences, phenomenology would seek not to explain the world, but to describe it as closely as possible the way the world makes itself evident to awareness, the way things first arise in our direct, sensorial experience.
- Phenomenon: “known through the senses rather than through thought or intuition.”
(36) “To return to things themselves is to return to that world which precedes knowledge, of which knowledge always speaks, and in relation to which every scientific schematization is an abstract and derivative sign-language, as is geography in relation to the countryside in which we have learnt beforehand what a forest, a prairie, or a river is,” Merleau-Ponty.
(38) That tree, bending in the wind this cliff wall, the cloud drifting overhead: these are not merely subjective, they are intersubjective phenomena - phenomena experienced by a multiplicity of sensing subjects…Husserl’s notion of intersubjectivity suggested a remarkable mew interpretation of the so called “objective world.” For the conventional contrast between “subjective” and “objective” realities could now be reframed as a contrast between subjective and intersubjective phenomena.
(43) The true task of phenomenology, as Husserl saw it at the end of his career, lay in the careful demonstration of the manner in which every theoretical and scientific practice grows out of and remains supported by the forgotten ground of our directly felt and lived experience, and has value and meaning only in reference to this primordial and open realm.
(45) It is precisely this lingering assumption of a self-subsistent, disembodied, transcendental ego that Merleau-Ponty rejects…if without this body, there would be no possibility of experience, then the body itself is the the true subject of experience. Merleau-Ponty begins then, by identifying the subject - the experiencing “self” - with the bodily organism.
(56) Our most immediate experience of things, according to Merleau-Ponty, is necessarily an experience of reciprocal encounter - of tension, communication, and commingling. From within the depths of this encounter, we know the things or phenomenon only as our interlocutor - as a dynamic presence that confronts us and draws us into relation. We conceptually immobilize of objectify the phenomenon only by mentally absenting ourselves from this relation, by forgetting or repressing our sensuous involvement. To define another being as inert or passive object is to deny its ability to actively engage us and to provoke our senses; we thus block our perpetual reciprocity with that being. By linguistically defining the surrounding world as a determinate set of objects, we cut our conscious, speaking selves off from the spontaneous life of our sensing bodies.
- “mentally absenting ourselves” through innate self-consciousness, giving us the false illusion that the world begins/exists though our particular awareness…extreme separation occurs first through speaking and naming, then more so with the written word, which exists outside of experience.
- contrast with Totemism: identifying with an animately known world.
- and with A Watts: “When I’m in academic circles, I speak of ecology instead of mysticism…same thing.”
(57) Levy-Bruhl’s How Natives Think: participation awareness in an animate world.
- see Saving the Appearances, O Barfield.
(58) The perceiving body does not calculate logical probabilities; it gregariously participates in the activity of the world, lending its imagination to things in order to see them more fully.
(61) “Seen in the perspective of the objective [Cartesian] world, with its opaque qualities, the phenomena of synaestheitc experience in paradoxical,” Merleau-Ponty.
Seen, however, from the perspective of the life-world - from the perspective, that is, of our pretheoretical awareness - such experiences are recognized as amplifications or intensifications of quite ordinary phenomena that are always going on.
- “The whole crux of economic life - and indeed of life in general - is that it constantly requires the living reconciliation of opposites which, in strict logic, are irreconcilable,” E.F. Schumacher.
(69) If the surroundings are experienced as sensate [animate], attentive, and watchful, then I must take care that my actions are mindful and respectful, even when I am far from other humans, lest I offend the watchful land itself.
- awareness that extends beyond narcissistic human-centeredness.
Ch 3. The Flesh of Language
(90) The perpetual reciprocity between our sensing bodies and the animate, expressive landscape both engenders and supports our more conscious, linguistic reciprocity with others. The complex interchange we call language is rooted in the non-verbal exchange already always going on between our own flesh and the flesh of the world. Human languages, then, are informed not only by the structures of the human body and the human community, but by the evocative shapes and patterns of the more-than-human terrain. Experientially considered, language is no more the special property of the human organism than it is an expression of the animate earth that enfolds us.
- human language, that which seemingly separates us so magically from other beings, is rooted in/shaped from not in our own self-awareness, but in the perceived world.
Ch 4. Animism and the Alphabet
(93) “Lifting a brush, a burin [chiseling tool], a pen, or a stylus is like releasing a bite or lifting a claw,” G Snyder.
(94) A long line of philosophers, stretching from Friedrich Nietzsche down to the present, have attempted to demonstrate that Plato’s philosophical derogation of the sensible and changing world forms of the world - his claim that these are mere simulacra of eternal and pure ideas existing in a non sensorial realm beyond the apparent world - contributed profoundly to civilization’s distrust of bodily and sensorial experience, and to our consequent estrangement from the earthly world around us.
- Plato and the Western tradition of theoretical absolutism (ideal “forms”) is the result of not being able to “hold tension creatively.” The final, and most catestropohic expression of this inability is the desperate creation/invention of a paternalistic, vengeful, jealous, monotheistic god - the one who can hold/absorb the tension that we cannot.
(95) Long before the historical amalgamation of Hebraic religion with Hellenistic philosophy in the Christian New Testament, these two bodies of belief already shared - or seemed to have shared - a similar intellectual distance from the nonhuman environment.
In every other respect these two traditions, each on originating out of its own specific antecedents, and in its own terrain and time, were vastly different. In every other respect, that is, but one: they were both, from the start, profoundly informed by writing. Indeed, they both made use of the strange and potent technology which we have come to call the alphabet.
- catastrophic combination of Hebraic “subdue the earth” with Hellenistic non-physical eternal “forms”
- see The Alphabet vs the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image, L Shlain. Writing facilitated and cemented the separation of humans and Nature.
(95) Today, you read these printed words as tribal hunters once read the tracks of deer, moose, and bear printed in the soil of the forest floor. Archaeological evidence suggests that for more than a million years the subsistence of humankind has depended upon the activity of such hunters, upon their ability to read the traces - a bit of scat here, a broken twig there - of these animal Others.
(96) Our first writing, clearly, was our own tracks, our footprints, our handprints in mud or ash pressed upon the rock. Later, perhaps, we found that by copying the distinctive prints and scratches made by other animals we could gain a new power; here was a method of identifying with the other animal, taking units expressive magic in order to learn of its whereabouts, to draw it near, to make it appear. Tracing the impression left by a deer’s body in the snow, or transferring that outline onto the wall of the cave: these are ways of pacing oneself in distant contact with the Other, whether to invoke its influence or to exert one’s own. Perhaps by multiplying its images on the cavern wall we sought to ensure that the deer itself would multiply, be bountiful in the coming season.
All of the early writing systems of our species remain tied to the mysteries of a more-than-human world.
(101) “I’m a lover of learning, and trees and open country won’t teach me anything, whereas men in the town do.” These words are pronounced by Socrates, the wise and legendary father of Western Philosophy, early in the course of the Phaedrus - surely one of the most eloquent and lyrical of the Platonic dialogues. Written by Socrates’ most illustrious student, Plato, these words inscribe a new and curious assumption at the very beginning of the European philosophical tradition.
(104) The Greek alphabet was first invented - or rather adapted from the Semitic aleph-beth - several centuries before Plato, probably during the eighth century BCE.
(105) Homer, as an oral bard, or rhapsode (from the Greek rhapsoidein, which meant “to stitch song together”), improvised the precise form of the poems by “stitching together” an oral tapestry from a vast fund of memorized epithets and formulaic phrases, embellishing and elaborating a cycle of stories that had already been variously improvised or “stitched together” by earlier bards since the Trojan War.
(105) Homer’s choice of one particular epithet or formula rather than another seemed at times to be governed less by the exact meaning of the phrase than by the metrical exigencies of the line’ the bard apparently called upon one specific formula after another in order to fit the driving meter of the chant, in a trance of rhythmic improvisation. This is not at all to minimize Homer’s genius, but simply to indicate that his poetic brilliance was performative as much as creative - less the genius of an author writing a great novel than that of an inspired and eloquent rap artist.
- like Songlines, B Chatwin
(108) In the words of the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales, “all things are full of gods.”
(109) Eric Havelock has suggested that the famed “Socratic dialectic” - which in its simplest form, consisted in asking a speaker to explain what he has said - was primarily a method for disrupting the memetic thought patterns of oral culture.
- The non-truth, non-participatory sophistry of lawyer talk, vs the participatory myth-language of oral languages
- writing took meaning out of context, created abstract and dialectics
(111) The specific embodiments of “justice” that we may encounter in the material world are necessarily variable and fleeting; genuine knowledge, claims Socrates, must be of what is eternal and unchanging.
- Why? Separation from the cycles of Nature causes disparate need for certainty, “unchangingness,” and the ideology of eternal life
- Nature based cultures already know the unchangingness of life in the eternal return of natural cycles
(112) The letters of the alphabet, like the Platonic Ideas, do not exist in the world of ordinary vision. The letters, and the written words that they present, are not subject to the flux of growth and decay, to the preturberations and cyclical changes common to other visible things; they seem to hover, as it were, in another, strangely timeless dimension.
- like Heaven and the transcendent monotheistic father god
- The Alphabet vs the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image, L Shlain
(112) The fact that one’s scripted words can be returned to and pondered at any time that one chooses, regardless of when, or in what situation they were first recorded, grants a timeless quality to this new reflective self a sense of the relative independence of one’s verbal, speaking self from the breathing body with its shifting needs. The literate self cannot help but feel its own transcendence and timelessness relative to the fleeting world of corporeal experience.
- compare to Berman’s radical acceptance of death in Wondering God.
(113) For Plato and Socrates, the psyche was that aspect of oneself that is refined and strengthened by turning away from the ordinary sensory world in order to contemplate the intelligible Ideas, the pure and eternal forms that, alone, truly exist. This psyche, in other words, is none other than the iterate intellect that part of the self that is born and strengthened in relation to the written letters.
(113) Egyptian King Thamus on writing: “If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.”
Moreover, according to the king, spoken teachings, once written down, easily find their way into the hands of those who will misunderstand those teachings while nevertheless thinking that they understand them. Thus, the written letters bring not wisdom, but only “the conceit of wisdom,” making men seem to know much when in fact they know little.
(117) To define the phenomenon as an inert object, to deny the ability of a tree to inform and even instruct one’s awareness, is to have turned one’s senses away from that phenomenon. It is to ponder the tree from outside of its world, or rather, from outside of the world in which both oneself and the tree are active participants.
- the ecological destruction of the planet is the consequence of this 2,500 year old mistake.
(121) [on Nature based oral stories]…that which we literates misconstrue as a naive attempt at causal explanation may be recognized as a sophisticated mnemonic method whereby precise knowledge is preserved and passed along from generation to generation. The only causality proper to such stories is a kind of cyclical causality alien to modern thought, according to which persons may influence events in the enveloping natural order and yet are themselves continually under the influence of those very events. By invoking a dimension or a time when all entities were in human form, or when humans were in the shape of other animals and plants, these stories affirm kinship with the multiple forms of the surrounding terrain. They thus indicate the respectful, mutual relations that must be maintained with natural phenomena, the reciprocity that must be practiced in relation to other animals, plants, and the land itself, in order to ensure one’s own health and to preserve the well being of the human community.
- the unease of a “becoming” world is quelled by inventing an eternal world by way of the written word and eternal ideas.
(124) It is important to realize that the now common experience of “silent” reading is a late development in the story of the alphabet, emerging only during the Middle Ages, when spaces were first inserted between the words in a written manuscript (along with various forms of punctuation), enabling readers to distinguish the words of a written sentence without necessarily sounding them out audibly. Before this innovation, to read was to necessarily read aloud, or at the very least to mumble quietly; after the twelfth century it became increasingly possible to internalize the sounds, to listen inwardly to phantom words.
- reading is a disease of the dark ages.
(125) The experiencing body [and the Self] is not a self-enclosed object, but an open, incomplete entity…We may think of the sensing body as a kind of open circuit that completes itself only in things, and in the world. The differentiation of my senses, as well as their spontaneous convergence in the world at large, ensures that I am being destined for relationship: it is primarily through my engagement with what is not me that I effect the integration of my senses, and thereby experience my own unity and coherence.
(130) If participation is the very structure of perception, how could it ever have been brought to a halt? To freeze the ongoing animation, to block the wild exchange between the senses and the things that engage them, would be tantamount to freezing the body itself, stopping it short in its tracks. And yet our bodies still move, still live, still breathe. If we no longer experience the enveloping earth as expressive and alive, this can only mean that the animating interplay of the senses has been transferred to another medium, another locus of participation.
It is the written text that provides this new locus.
As nonhuman animals, plants, and even “inanimate” rivers once spoke to our tribal ancestors, so the “inert” letters on the page now speak to us! This is a form of animism that we take for granted, but it is animism nonetheless - as mysterious as a talking stone.
And indeed, it is only when a culture shifts its participation to these printed letters that the stones fall silent. Only as our senses transfer their animating magic to the written word do the trees become mute, the other animals dumb.
(133). Perhaps the most succinct evidence for the potent magic of written letters is to be found in the ambiguous meaning of our common English word “spell.” As the Roman alphabet spread through oral Europe, the Old English word “spell,” which had meant simply to recite a story or tale, took on a new double meaning: on the one hand, it now meant to arrange, in the proper order, the written letters that constitute the name of a thing or a person; on the other, it signified a magic formula or charm. Yet these two meaning were not nearly as distinct as they have come to seem to us today. For to assemble the letters that make up the name of a thing, in the correct order, was precisely to affect magic, to establish a new kind of influence over that entity, to summon it forth! To spell, to correctly arrange the letters to form a name or a phrase, seemed thus at the same time to cast a spell, to exert a new and lasting power over the things spelled. Yet we can now realize that to learn to spell was also, and more profoundly, to step under the influence of the written letters ourselves, to cast a spell upon our own senses. It was to exchange the wild and multiplicitous magic of an intelligent natural world for the more concentrated [not more complicated] and refined magic of the written word.
- “man gave names to all the animals, in the beginning..”
(133) The Bulgarian scholar Tzvetan Todorov has written an illuminating study of the Spanish Conquest of the Americas, based on an extensive study of documents from the first months and years of contact between European culture and the native cultures of the American continent. The lightning swift conquest of Mexico by Cortez has remained a puzzle for historians, since Cortes, leading only a few hundred men, managed to seize the entire kingdom of Montezuma, who commanded several thousand. Todorov concludes that Cortes’ astonishing and rapid success was largely a result of the discrepancy between the different forms of participation engaged in by the two societies. The Aztecs, whose writing was highly pictorial, necessarily felt themselves in direct communication with an animate, more-than-human environment. “Everything happens as if, for the Aztecs, (written) signs automatically and necessarily proceed from the the world they designate…”; Aztecs are unable to use spoken words, or their written characters, to hide their true intentions, since these signs belong to the world around them as much as themselves. To duplicitous with signs would be, for the Aztecs, to go against the order of nature, against the encompassing speech or logos of an animate world, in which their own tribal discourse was embedded.
The Spaniards, however, suffer no such limitation. Possessed of an alphabetic writing system, they experience themselves not in communication with the sensuous forms of the world, but solely with one another. The Aztecs must answer, in their actions as in their speech, to the whole sensuous, natural world that surrounds them, the Spanish need answer only to themselves.
In contact with this new potent magic, with these men who participate solely with their own self-generated signs, whose speech thus seems to float free of the surrounding landscape, and who could therefore be duplicitous and lie even in the presence of the sun, the moon, and the forest, the Indians felt their own rapport with those sensuous powers, or gods, beginning to falter:
“The testimony of the Indian accounts, which is a description rather than an explanation, asserts that everything happened because the Mayas and Aztecs last control of communication. The language of the gods has become unintelligible, or else these gods fell silent…As for the Aztecs, they describe the beginning of their own end as a silence that falls: the gods no longer speak to them.”
In the face of aggression from this new, entirely self-reflexive form of magic, the nature peoples of the Americas - like those of Africa and Australia - felt their own magics whither and become useless, unable to protect them.
- The Conquest of America, Todorov. See also, Beyond Geography, F Turner, for conquest as a primarily spiritual endeavor.
- “when the anthropologists arrive, the gods leave the island..”
Ch 5. In the Landscape of Language
(138) Our senses are now coupled, synaesthetically, to these printed shapes as profoundly as they were once wedded to cedar trees, ravens, and the moon. As the hills and the bending grasses once spoke to our tribal ancestors, so these written letters and words now speak to us.
We have seen as well that iconic writing systems - those that employ pictographic, ideographic, and/or rebuslike characters - necessarily rely, to some extent, upon our original sensory participation with the enveloping natural field. Only with the emergence of the phonetic alphabet, and its appropriation by the ancient Greeks, did the written images lose all evident ties to the larger field of expressive beings. Each image now came to have a strictly human referent: each letter was now associated purely with a gesture or sound of the human mouth. Such images could no longer function as windows opening on to a more-than-human field of powers, but solely as mirrors reflecting the human form back upon itself. The senses that engaged or participated with this new writing found themselves locked within a discourse that had become exclusively human. Only thus, with the advent and spread of phonetic writing, did the rest of nature begin to lose its voice.
- the neurotic, narcissicism of the written word.
(139) In the absence of any written analogue to speech, the sensible, natural environment remains the primary visual counterpart of spoken utterance, the visible accompaniment of all spoken meaning. The land, in other words, is the sensible site or matrix wherein meaning occurs and proliferates. In the absence of writing, we find ourselves situated in the field of discourse as we are embedded in the natural landscape; indeed, the two matrices are not separable. We can no more stabilize the language and render its meanings determinate than we can freeze all motion and metamorphosis within the land.
- the land stops moving, speaking, being animate, with the written word.
(151) Distant Time stories are told only during the late fall and the first half of the long northern winter. Indeed, scholars of native lore have found this to be an almost continent wide rule: throughout North America, at least prior to 1900, native communities listened to their most sacred stories only at night and only during the winter…The dark of winter, when some of the most powerful animals are hibernating, when other animals have gone south and the land itself is sleeping, is also the safest time to recount the stories; during the summer, when most of the animals are out and about, the animals and other natural powers may get upset at hearing themselves and their Distant Time exploits referred to so directly.
(152) “The most you should say is that you’ll try to catch a fish, or better yet, don’t say anything at all. Otherwise it sounds like sounds like you’re bragging, and the animals always stay away from people who talk like that,” Koyukon mother.
(155) The Apache seem to take great pleasure simply in uttering the native names of various locations within the Cibeque valley. For instance, while stringing a fence with two Apache cowboys, Keith Basso noticed one of them talking quietly to himself. When he listened more closely, Basso discovered that the man was reciting a long series of place names - “punctuated only by spurts of tobacco juice” - that went on for almost ten minutes. Later, when Basso asked him what he’d been doing, the man replied that he often “talked names” to himself. “I like to,” he told the anthropologist. “I ride that way in my mind.” Another Apache told Basso that his people pronounce place names “because those names are good to say.”
The evident pleasure derived from saying these names is clearly linked to the precision with which Apache place names depict the actual places that they name. Basso himself mapped 104 square kilometers in and around Cibeque, and within this area recorded the Apache names of 296 locations. He that all but a few of these place names take the form of complete sentences, each name invoking its place through a succinct yet precise visual description. Here are a few such names: “big cottonwood trees stand spreading here and there”; “coarse textured rocks lie above in a compact cluster”; “water flows down on top of a regular succession of flat rocks.” Upon pronouncing , or hearing, such a name, Apache persons straightaway feel themselves in the presence of that place: hence, when reciting a series of place names, the Apache experience themselves “traveling in their minds.” It would seem that the spoken place names, by their precision, effect a direct sensorial bond between Apache persons and particular places, and we may suspect that the benefit drawn from speaking these names aloud derives not so much from the names themselves but from the nourishing power of the actual locations to which the names draw those who speak them. Place names, that is, seem to take their particular power and magic from the actual places that they designate.
(161) “Nothing is considered more basic to the effective telling of a Western Apache “story” or “narrative”…than identifying the geographical locations at which events in the story unfold. For unless Apache listeners are able to picture a physical setting for narrated events (unless, as one of my consultants said, ‘your mind can travel to the place and really see it’), the events themselves will be difficult to imagine. This is because events in the narrative will seem to “happen nowhere,” and such an idea, Apaches assert, is both preposterous and disquieting. Placeless events are an impossibility, everything that happens must happen somewhere. The location of an event is an integral aspect of the event itself, and therefore identifying the event’s location is essential to properly depicting - and effectively picturing - the event’s occurrence,” (Keith Basso, On Nature: Nature, Landscape, and Natural History, ed. Dan Halpern.)
- the opposite of Platonic, non-physical, eternal Forms
- As participatory experience decreases (with writing and virtual communication/social media), abstract gods (therefore abstract behavior examples), disembodied ideas increase. The pathological belief is disembodied, landless, ideas. These abstract ideas/gods make for abstract behavior. The first thing that can be compromised in abstract ideas-to-behavior is moral/ ethical foundations. Those foundations don’t exist without real world, physical experienced reality.
(176) One of the strong claims of this book is that the synesthetic association of visible topology with auditory recall - the intertwining of earthly place with linguistic memory - is common to almost all indigenous, oral cultures. It is, we may suspect, a spontaneous propensity of the human organism - one that is radically transformed, yet not eradicated, by alphabetic writing.
- what is happening to our brains (the brains of 99% of our existence) when this is suppressed by virtual communication/social media?
(178) It should be easy now to understand the destitution of indigenous, oral persons who have been forcibly displaced from their traditional lands. The local earth is, for them, the very matrix of discursive meaning; to force them from their native ecology (for whatever political or economic purpose) is to render them speechless - or to render their speech meaningless - to dislodge them from the very ground of coherence. It is, quite simply, to force them out of their mind. The massive “relocation” or “transmigration” projects underway in numerous parts of the world (for example, the forced “relocation” of oral peoples in Indonesia and Malaysia in order to make way for the commercial clearcutting of their forests) must be understood, in this light, as instances of cultural genocide.
Ch 6. Time, Space, and the Eclipse of the Earth
(181) “We must stand apart from the conventions of history, even while using the record of the past, for the idea of history is itself a western invention whose central theme is the rejection of habitat. It formats experience outside of nature and tends to reduce place to only a stage upon which the human drama is enacted. History conceives the past mainly in terms of biography and nations. It seeks causality in the conscious, spiritual, ambitious character of men and memorializes them in writing,” Paul Shepard.
(184) We have seen that alphabetic writing functions to undermine the embedded, place specific character of oral cultures in two distinct but related ways, one basically perceptual, the other primarily linguistic. First, reading and writing, as a highly concentrated form of participation, displaces the older participation between the human senses and the earthly terrain (effectively freeing human intention from the direct dictates of the land). Second, writing down the ancestral stories disengages them from particular places. This double retreat, of the senses and the spoken stories, from the diverse places that had once gripped them, cleared the way for the notion of a pure and featureless “space” - an abstract conception that has nevertheless come to seem, today, more primordial and real than the earthly places in which we remain corporeally embedded.
(185) Western time concepts include a beginning and an end; American Indians understand time as an eternally recurring cycle of events and years. Some Indian languages lack terms for the past and the future; everything is resting in the present,” (Native Religions of North America, Ake Hultkrantz).
(188) We touch here upon one of the most intransigent barriers preventing genuine understanding between the modern, alphabetized West and indigenous, oral cultures. Unlike linear time, time conceived as cyclical cannot be readily abstracted from the spatial phenomena that exemplify it - from, for instance, the circular trajectories of the sun, the moon, and stars. Unlike a straight line, moreover, a circle demarcates and encloses a spatial field. Indeed, the visible space in which we commonly find ourselves when we step outdoors is itself encompassed by the circular enigma that have come to call “the horizon.”
(190) American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, in his extensive analyses of the Hopi language during the 1930s and early 1940s, found no analog in their language to the linear, sequential, uniformly flowing time that Western civilization takes for granted.
(193) Numerous other examples could be cited. These few instances should suffice at least to demonstrate that separable “time” and “space” are not absolute givens in all human experience. It is likely that without a formal system of numerical and linguistic notation it is not possible to entirely abstract a uniform sense of progressive “time” from the direct experience of the animate, emergent environment - or, what amounts to the same thing, to freeze the dynamic experience of earthly place into the intuition of a static, homogenous “space.” If this is the case, then writing must be recognized as a necessary condition for the belief in an entirely distinct space and time.
(194) According to Mircea Eliade, the ancient Hebrews were the first people to “discover” a linear, non repeating mode of time…To the ancient Hebrews, or what we know of them through the lens of the Hebrew Bible, the cyclical return of seasonal events commanded far less attention than those happenings that were unique and without precedent (natural catastrophes, sieges, battles, and the like), for it was these non repeating events that signaled the will of YHWH, or God, in relation to the Hebrew people. In Eliade’s terms, these unique occurrences, whose consequences were often devastating (either to the Hebrews or their enemies), were interpreted by the prophets as “negative theophanies,” as expressions of YHWH’s wrath. Thus interpreted, these discordant and non repeating events acquired a coherence previously unknown, and so began to stand out from the cyclical unfolding of natural phenomena. And the Hebrew nation came to comprehend itself in relation to this new, non repeating modality of time - that is, in relation to [linear] history.
- “For the first time, we find affirmed, and increasingly accepted, the idea that historical events have a value in themselves, insofar as they are determined by the will of God,” (The Myth of the Eternal Return, Eliade).
- The written word “freezes,” straightens YHWH’s theophanies into history, creating linear time. God-Against-Nature imposes linear time by force (war, conquest, YHWH imposed catastrophes) onto Nature based/Nature separated people.
(195) While the visible landscape provides an oral, tribal culture with a necessary mnemonic, or memory trigger, for remembering its ancestral stories, alphabetic writing enabled the Hebrew tribes to preserve their cultural stories intact even when the people were cut off, for many generations, from the actual lands where those stories had taken place. By carrying on its lettered surface the vital stories earlier carried by the terrain itself, the written text became a kind of portable homeland for the Hebrew people. And indeed it is only thus, by virtue of this portable ground, that the Jewish people have been able to preserve their singular culture, and thus themselves, while in an almost perpetual state of exile for the actual lands where their ancestral stories unfolded.
(196) The Jewish sense of exile was never merely a state of separation from some specific locale, from a particular ground; it was (and is) also a sense of separation from the very possibility of being placed, from the very possibility of being entirely at home. This deeper sense of displacement, this sense of always already being in exile, is inseparable, I suggest, from alphabetic literacy, this great and difficult magic of which the Hebrews were the first real caretakers. Alphabetic writing can engage the human senses only to the extent that those sense sever, at least provisionally, their spontaneous participation with the animate earth. To begin to read, alphabetically, is thus already to be dis-placed, but off from the sensory nourishment of a more-than-human field of forms. It is also, however, to feel the still lingering savor of that nourishment, and so to yearn, to hope, that such contact and conviviality may someday return. “Because being Jewish,” as Edmund Jabes has written, “means exiling yourself in the word, and at the same time, weeping for your exile.”
- Writing needed because of loss of land. Exile from Nature/Eden. All descendants of conquest are displaced, therefore invent the abstract word of God-Against-Nature to justify existence.
(197) The earliest historians, like Hecataeus of Miletos (c. 550-489 BCE), Herodotus (c. 480-425 BCE), and Thucydides (c 460-400 BCE) pioneered the use of written prose, rather than poetry, to record past events. They practiced a new skepticism regarding the storied gods and goddesses of the animate environment, and by separating past events from the tradition-bound rhythms of verse and chanted story, they loosened time itself from the recurrent cycling of the sensuous earth, opening the prospect of a non repeating, historical time extending indefinitely into the past.
(199) The burning alive of tens of thousands of women (most of them herbalists and midwives from peasant backgrounds) as “witches” during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries may usefully be understood as the attempted, and nearly successful, extermination of the last orally preserved traditions of Europe - the last traditions rooted in the direct, participatory experience of plants, animals, and elements - in order to clear the way for the dominion of alphabetic reason over a natural world increasingly construed as a passive and mechanical set of objects.
(200) Immanuel Kant…agreed with Isaac Newton that space and time were absolute, that they were independent of particular things and events…Needless to say, Kant’s writings could bot be translated into Navajo or Pintupi.
Ch 7. The Forgetting and Remembering of the Air
(227) According to Robert Lawlor, a researcher who has lived and studied among the indigenous cultures of Australia, Aboriginal peoples tend to consider the visible entities around them - rocks, persons, leaves - as crystallizations of conscious awareness, while the invisible medium between such entities is experienced as what Westerners would call “the unconscious,” the creative but unseen realm from which such conscious forms arise.
(253) Under the aegis of the Church, the belief in a non-sensuous heaven, and in the fundamentally incorporeal nature of the human soul - itself “imprisoned,” as Plato had suggested, in the bodily world - accompanied the alphabet as it spread, first throughout Europe and later throughout the Americas. And where ever the alphabet advanced, it proceeded by dispelling the air of ghosts and invisible influences - by stripping the air of its anima, its psychic depth.
- And adding vowels took active participation away from reading. Vowels put air/spirit into words and out of the world.
(254) It was that the progressive spread of Christianity was largely dependent upon the spread the spread of the alphabet, and, conversely, that Christian missions and missionaries were by far the greatest factor in the advancement of alphabetic literacy in both the medieval and the modern eras. It was not enough to preach the Christian faith: one had to induce the unlettered, tribal peoples to begin to use the technology upon which that faith depended. Only by training the senses to participate with the written word could one hope to break their spontaneous participation with the animate terrain. Only as the written text began to speak would the voices of the forest, and of the river, begin to fade. And only then would language loosen its ancient association with the invisible breath, the spirit sever itself from the wind, the psyche dissociate itself from the environing air. The air, once the very medium of expressive interchange, would become an increasingly empty and unnoticed phenomenon, displaced by the strange new medium of the written word.
(257) It was only with the plugging of these last pores - with the insertion of visible letters for the vowels themselves - that the perpetual boundary established by the common language was effectively sealed, and what had once been a porous membrane became an impenetrable barrier, a hall of mirrors. The Greek scribes, that is, transformed the breathing boundary between human culture and the animate earth into a seamless barrier segregating a pure inside from a pure outside. With the addition of written vowels - with the filling of those gaps, or pores, in the early alphabet - human language became a largely self-referrential system closed off from the larger world that once engendered it. And the “I,” the speaking self, was hermetically sealed within this new interior.
Today the speaking self looks out at a purely “exterior” nature from a purely “interior” zone, presumably located somewhere inside the physical body or brain. Within the alphabetic civilization virtually every human psyche construes itself as just such an individual “interior,” private “mind” or “consciousness” unrelated to the other longer any common medium, no reciprocity, no respiration between the inside and the outside. There is no longer any flow between the self-reflexive domain of alphabetized awareness and all that exceeds, or subtends, this determinate realm. Between consciousness and the unconscious. Between civilization and Wilderness.
- Dreamtime: Concerning the Boundary Between Wilderness and Civilization. The Alphabet vs the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image.
Coda: Turning Inside Out
(263) The belief that meaningful speech is a purely human property was entirely alien to those oral communities that first evolved our various ways of speaking, and by holding to such a belief today we may well be inhibiting the spontaneous activity of language. By denying that birds and other animals have their own styles of speech, by insisting that the river has no real voice and that the ground itself is mute, we stifle our direct experience. We cut ourselves off from the deep meanings in many of our words, severing our language from that which supports and sustains it. We then wonder why we are often unable to communicate even among ourselves.
(265) To explain is not to present a set of finished reasons, but to tell a story…It is an unfinished story.
(265) To make sense…is to make the senses wake up to where they are.
(267) Human persons are shaped by the places they inhabit, both individually and collectively. Our bodily rhythms, our moods, cycles of creativity and stillness, and even our thoughts are readily engaged and influenced by shifting patterns in the land. Yet our organic attunement to the local earth is thwarted by our ever increasing intercourse with our own signs. Transfixed by our technologies, we short circuit the sensorial reciprocity between our breathing bodies and the bodily terrain. Human awareness folds in upon itself, and the senses - once the crucial site of our engagement with the wild and animate earth - become mere adjuncts of an isolate and abstract mind bent on overcoming an organic reality that now seems disturbingly aloof and arbitrary.
The alphabetized intellect stakes its claim to the earth by string it down, extends it dominion by drawing a grid of straight lines and right angles across the body of the continent.
(272) If humankind is to flourish without destroying the living world that sustains us, then we must grow out of our adolescent aspiration to encompass and control all that is.
- Pathology to control instead of belong.