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

Qui suis-je? Si par exception je m’en rapportais à un adage: en effet pourquoi tout ne reviendrait-it pas à savoir qui je « hante »? Je dois avouer que ce dernier mot m’égare, tendant à établir entre certains êtres et moi des rapports plus singuliers, moins évitables, plus troublants que je ne pensais. Who am I? What if, just this once, I referred to an adage: indeed why would not everything come back to the knowledge of who I am “haunting”? I must admit that this last word loses me, as it tends to establish between certain beings and myself relationships more singular, less avoidable, and more troubling than I would have expected.

André Breton, Nadja, (1964) p.9 

Welcome to the second part (out of a planned three, but now likely four?) of a series of blog posts chronicling my current rereading of Isabelle Stengers’ salient and fascinating essay, “Reclaiming Animism.” The first part of this series can be read here — I highly recommend you read it first, not only to understand my goals for this project, but because otherwise the following might make little sense!

I am working from a much-loved PDF version I obtained from e-flux #36 in July 2012, hence my page notations might be obscure. The text is publicly available in full here.

My last set of notes dropped off with a brief discussion of how a rhizomatic development of human schemes of knowledge-making might no longer fixate on scientific truth and instead attempt to tangle a little more with creation of meaning. As the paper shifts focus onto the difficult art of knowledge-making, I’m reminded of the very first lines of Stengers’ papers :

“Some people love to divide and classify, while others are bridge-makers — weaving relations that turn a divide into a living contrast, one whose power is to affect, to produce thinking and feeling.” (p. 1)

(Put a pin in the word “power,” for now!)

In this text, I’d like to dive into bridge-making.

A bridge, simply put, connects two shores separated by some otherwise uncrossable divide. These two shores divided can also be described as a binary. Throughout the paper, Stengers discusses many binaries, or systems in which there are two sides (two shores). Not only have traditional philosophy and later science attempted to connect the two shores, but Stengers’ brings our attention from the very beginning on how “bridge-making” can also end up creating those two shores.

There are many ways to cross a stream: wade it, swim it, build a boat, take a nap on a buoyant inflatable tube and bob about. Perhaps, in some cases, the bridge ends up reinforcing a fiction of a stream being uncrossable. Perhaps it prevents bystanders from noticing the stream is only ankle-deep. More importantly, while a stream can create a very tangible, dangerous boundary (think only of the bulging, rushing rivers of spring time thrashing about dangerously with snow-melt), outside of the metaphor of streams and bridges, most boundaries that humans are forced to bother with (geopolitical borders, gender, race, class, and more) are far less touchable and far more artificial.

The first binary discussed on page 4 is where Stengers discusses the Catholic Church’s behaviour towards verifying modern-day miracles. These days at least, the Church waits around for doctors and scientists to explain away the “natural causes” of most miracles (“such as a placebo effect”):⁠1

“This relies on a disastrous definition [of] the “natural,” namely: that which Science will eventually explain. “Supernatural” is then — just as disastrously — whatever challenges such explanations.” (p. 4)

What this little example illustrates rather well is how the bridge-making of Science creates two shores, the Natural: that which Science has explained through bridge-making; and the Supernatural: that which Science has not yet explained through bridge-making. This illustration relies on a definition of “naturalism” the paper covered briefly on p. 2 —I also mentioned the term in my last blog post, as well. I want to dig in a little here, because I feel like a lot of non-Philosophers such as myself don’t get to engage with this idea very much in the wilderness of everyday. Naturalism (as per Encyclopaedia Britannica) affirms that all beings and events in the universe, whatever their inherent character may be, are the outcome of purely natural processes. “Consequently, all knowledge of the universe falls within [the purview] of scientific investigation.” That scientific investigation being the bridge-making of Science, of course. This vision of Nature the big idea is one that I feel as a layperson I don’t run into all the time anymore, as there’s a trend right now of collapsing Nature into the Supernatural. 

Take the following case that I hear about all the time from a friend of mine who studied physiology and chemistry in university: every time we go into a pharmacy, they mention noticing that the “natural remedies” section of the pharmacy (featuring extracts, essential oils, and more) is getting closer and closer to the actual pharmacist’s counter. This relentless encroachment over the past decade especially means that it’s quite usual now to find herbal supplements next to pharmaceutical concoctions, with packaging that makes these hard to differentiate from each other. Last summer, for example, I hurt my leg while chopping wood for the fire. A few days later, I hobbled my way to the nearest pharmacy, and asked the pharmacist if something I’d picked up on the shelf next to the acetaminophen and ibuprofen would work well for my injury. The pharmacist scoffed, told me that what I’d picked up was no better than a sugar pill, and sold me something he thought would work much better. As much as I love drinking herbal teas for every ill imaginable (and had already tried that on top of relying on my first aid kit), the reason I was there was for pharmaceutical assistance. Yet despite my vigilance, I’d been led astray by packaging and the horrors of marketing into picking up a “natural” remedy!

I feel like when Stengers’ was writing this paper, there was still a reigning general climate of skepticism towards the “power of nature.” In a few ways, “Reclaiming Animism” is almost starting to feel dated.

Natural, nature, naturism, these are all words which contain multitudes. While reading the notes I took on Stengers’ essay, I’m reminded here of Donna Haraway’s work on nature-cultures,⁠2 which collapses a very different binary from “Reclaiming Animism”’s Nature-Supernatural shores bridged by Science.

I find myself out of tea, and having reached well over the word limit I imposed myself for this post. I will continue my notes on “Reclaiming Animism” soonlyish, hopefully digging finally into power, truth, and the real meat of the essay. 

Response to Feedback

Before I close out this post, however, I want to mention the feedback of two readers who offered some really interesting commentary to my first blog post on “Reclaiming Animism”:

  1. The first is by Liquidambar from Skíðblaðnir, who commented: “One thing that’s interesting to me is that Science— as defined by most philosophers in the strict Popperian⁠3 sense— is going out of style in actual scientific practice. At least in the fields I work in.” 
    This comment sparks a few divergent thoughts! The first is that, on the topic of definitions, science — like nature — is one of the hardest concepts to concretely define, whether from a historical, scientific, or philosophical perspective. Where does science begin and end, in historical or even geographical terms? Modern science, as it is most familiar to us, with labs of researchers, legions of underpaid TAs, and the scientific journals that keep churning out content, feels like a phenomenon unique to the 20th century. And yet in the West the Scientific Revolution is dated to 300, if not 400 years prior! On the other hand, more than simply looking at how scientific practice has evolved, I think it’s definitely worth thinking about how much scientific fields worldwide have changed in the decade since Stengers wrote this paper. Science in practice is simply not the enlightened lance-point of humanity but rather a complex field of (often disenfranchised in its widest sense) workers subject to the whims of economies, state governments, and multinational corporations (which have far more power than the previous). The limits imposed on the medical and research communities’ responses to the covid-19 pandemic is a choice illustration of this curtailment of power and autonomy on the scientific field. 
  2. The second comment touches upon how the definition of animism is in and of itself a colonial construct at its origin. As Cassanâ Sunicia Sigroni wrote to me: “I’ve never read that article, but for me personally, being quite fond of science and animism alike, in my mind they don’t clash at all. What I will throw out, yes, animism has links with colonialism, orientalism,⁠4 and evolutionism, because the term was coined in 1871 as an anthropological model. So technically animism as a lived practice does not exist in an indigenous sense.” (Bolding is mine) Cassanâ writes more about the term “animism”’s origins in her blog post here, and I recommend you take a look. I will be engaging further with this notion soon.

1 For more information about how the Catholic Church uncovers a “true” miracle in the 21st century, check out this page.

2 For more information on nature-cultures, I highly recommend Haraway’s seminal 2003 little book “The Companion Species Manifesto” if you are interested in animals, animal welfare, and how to be in ethical companionship and relations with nonhumans, particularly animals. Xenopraxis has a free PDF of the book available here.

3 For more on Karl Popper, the Stanford University Philosophy website is a very good starting point.

4 Referencing Edward Saïd’s seminal 1978 book of the same name, orientalism in this sense can be defined as the existence of a subtle and persistent Eurocentric and white supremacist prejudice against Arab and Islamic peoples and their culture, which originates from Europe and later the West’s long tradition of false, romanticized images of Asia and the Middle East in particular. Such cultural representations have served, and continue to serve, as implicit justifications for the colonial and imperial ambitions of the European powers and of the U.S, from the Crusades to contemporary wars in the Middle East.

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

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

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