Notes on Isabelle Stengers’ “Reclaiming Animism” (Part One)

That – before the field become solely map memory
In some archive of some architect’s screen
I might possess it or it possess me
Through its night dew, its moon white caul
Its slick and shine and its prolifigacy
In every wingbeat in every beat of time

Death of a Field, Paula Meehan, 2005

This is the first in what I am outlining to be a short series of posts penned from notes I scribbled during a recent close rereading of Isabelle Stengers’ salient and fascinating essay, “Reclaiming Animism.” 

My goals are several: firstly, I think it would be fun to comb through this dense essay from an animistic and polytheistic perspective. Secondly, I think the essay is interesting enough that it deserves critical engagement. There is a secret third reason, though: I would like to have some notes on this paper that are in somewhat-plainer language than the paper itself.

You are very welcome to come along as I tango with my confusion.

I am working from a much-loved PDF version I obtained from e-flux #36 in July 2012. The text is publicly available in full here.

Situation, position, cannot be brushed aside, even or especially my own. Despite my complex family history and background, my white skin and class position pretty firmly situates me as a settler who benefits from a white supremacist, colonial society. I call myself an animist and have done so since at least 2010, according to my journals. I definitely remember (with the understanding that memory itself is a slippery slope) calling myself an animist when I first read Stengers’ essay sometime in late 2012 or early 2013. But calling oneself an animist and also benefiting from white skin and a settler class position in a colonial society constructed on the wiping out of animist thought is not in and of itself a neutral position, political or otherwise. One of the reasons I created this blog in the first place was to grapple with that tension. This essay is a kind of bridge-maker (or at least an attempt to bridge-make, as essai is the word for “try” in French), not only between two positions that don’t really make sense according to rational, scientific, liberal⁠1 Western notions of progress, but also to the contradictions and bridges highlighted in Stengers’ essay. 

One of Stengers’ first points is that she will not be putting “animism” in a neat little symbolic box (“textual animism,” which I am reading as metaphorical animism, though that may just be my own interpretation) nor will she be using animism to brush aside pertinent concerns about her own own colonial position as a Western philosopher. She disclaims that she will not use this paper to claim authority over animism, which does not belong to Western philosophers. She explains that this differentiates her from someone like David Abram, for example, in that she does not feel “free” to speak as an animist, because of how philosophy has historically positioned itself against animism. Western philosophers — Stengers’ uses “We” here — “presume to be the ones who have accepted the hard truth that we are alone in a mute, blind⁠2, yet knowable world — one that is our task to appropriate.” (p. 1)

I can almost smell the flip-side of such a sentence, which might read from the “other” perspective: 

They presume to be the ones who have accepted the hard truth that they are alone (they cut themselves off) in a mute (silenced), blind (removed from sight) yet knowable (exploitable) world—one that is their task to appropriate (confiscate).

Stengers argues that even if she does not consider herself free to adopt the identity of an animist, “there is some work to be done on the side I belong to.” 

From here, Stengers touches upon one of the paper’s primary concerns, that reclaiming animism flies in the face of a (certain kind of) societal notion of progress, which Stengers refers to as the following moral maxim: “though shalt not regress.” To science, to philosophy, animism is seen as inherently regressive, the anti-science. Stengers addresses this anxiety directly by noting that Western philosophers fear “indulging” anything that smells of woo-woo. (Amusingly, Stengers seems to actually channel just a hint of that same fear in the ironic example given early in the paper of the old cat lady who believes she can understand what her cats are saying.) However, to assuage her fellow philosophers, Stengers points out a few things. Firstly, philosophers are in practice no longer considered anywhere near the front lines to discovery and are now “only bystanders” as scientists have vested themselves with this particular mantle. And neuroscientists, among others, have relegated such universal truths such as “freedom” and “rationality” to “mere beliefs.” The implied question here is, if “rationality” is probably a “mere belief,” a “human scheme” to understand and organize the world, why are any other “mere beliefs” less legitimate for understanding and organizing the world? 

(Here’s a bit of a spoiler, but the answer in animism’s particular case is — surprise! — white supremacy and Western colonialism.)

Though I really like the point about naturalism (p. 2) and there’s a vague plan to return to it eventually in my notes what I really want to highlight here is Stengers’ own admission that there is no way to respect animism while only engaging with it on the Scientist’s terms, because animism will resist being easily categorized and neatly ordered. Animism cannot be a knowable part of the Scientist’s world. As Stengers writes on Science as Conquest:

“What is called Science, or the idea of a hegemonic scientific rationality, can be understood as itself the product of a colonization process.” (p. 3)

Stengers seems to be gesturing at an idea that animism is inherently anti-colonial. I want to avoid generalizing (a.k.a talking out of my rear end) on what is undoubtedly a very complex idea here, but I do need to note that it has been the case the last 600 years on the continent that I live in that animist Indigenous peoples have been subjected to war, land theft/genocide, and colonialism. In any case, Stengers emphasizes that animist thought cannot be reduced to an outcome of the scientific method, “objective rational knowledge.” 

And here, is introduced the rhizome, as Stengers brings in philosophy heavyweights Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari into the picture. Quickly, the Oxford Dictionary defines (using a colonial dictionary is so very emblematic of the contradictions inherent in this entire essai, but I digress) rhizome as:

A continuously growing, usually horizontal, underground stem, which puts out lateral roots and adventitious roots at intervals. Usually, rhizomes are confused with roots; they may look like roots but they are actually modified and advanced plant stems.

(Fun fact: the ginger root you can buy at the market is actually a rhizome!)

Why the rhizome? The image as Stengers describes it unfolds as follows: science suits the hierarchical metaphor of a tree upon which Science advances (grows) upon previous application of the scientific method. But in a world in which animism is not merely cast aside as a “woo-woo belief,” “progress” might instead be like a rhizome, “connecting heterogeneous practices, concerns and ways of giving meaning” to human and nonhuman experiences, “which none being privileged and any being liable to connect with any other.” If I understand correctly (always a risky assumption), Stengers is shifting the meaning of “progress” itself along the following lines: in a hypothetical world where animism had been confronted with respect, we would have stopped worrying about the conquest of science in its advancing march to product hegemonic rational truth, and might have started instead conceptualizing progress as pluralistic and divergent acts of creation of meaning.

Meaning, instead of truth. Without worrying about compromise or needing to separate something from its context. Without worrying about putting “natural” and “supernatural” into opposition.

But I’ve been writing for hours, my candle is nearly out, and it is time to lower the pen. I will continue my examination of Stengers’ essay “Reclaiming Animism” soon.

Thank you in particular to Mori Ualetikantalon from Toutâ Galation for sparking this adventure with your pertinent comments and questions. 

Update 2022/03/19: The second blog post in this series is out now!

1 For my American friends reading this, don’t be alarmed! Liberal is one of those terms with a million definitions (that also vary with geography), so I will elaborate: in this case I am employing the mostly-European social philosophical definition which describes the kind of people who believe that the world always tends towards progress, slowly (moderate) or less slowly (progressive), that progress being their idea of a more just and better world.

2 Disabled communities have been asking for decades that we retire terms such as “deaf”, “mute”, “blind” from being used figuratively or pejoratively. A recent article by Sara Nović in the BBC from April 5, 2021 is worth reading for more on this subject.

One thought on “Notes on Isabelle Stengers’ “Reclaiming Animism” (Part One)

  1. Pingback: Notes on Isabelle Stengers’ “Reclaiming Animism” (Part Two) | Osfairy

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