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Animism and Beyond

A response to Peter Ellis's Reading Animals

Article by:

Matt Barlow, Women's River (Ngangkiparinga), 2015, 35mm print, courtesy of the artist

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First of all, I’d like to extend commendations to Peter Ellis for delivering such a thoughtful and well-humoured article. It is true, that humans have had a long lasting tendency to project narratives of ourselves onto those things around us, whether they are human, non-human, or other-than-human (1). However, what Ellis’ article does not consider is that we too are animals. There is no escaping the fact that we share this world with other things, things that are made up of the same minerals and materials that give us the human form. While we may have evolved to think rationally and consciously about the world around us - and establish distinct yet connected and hybrid ‘cultures’ - there are signs that these features exist in other animals too (2). If narration is an animal behaviour that forges cultural belief, is it possible for non-human animals to have ‘culture’? Well, if humans are animals, which we are, I ask, why not?

Animism in this sense is, at its heart, an acknowledgement of the identical interiorities of humans and other animals - one that can also be extended to incorporate plants and other material things (3 & 4). It is recognition of a shared universal substance, a substance that some of us might attribute to a soul, or a spirit. With this notion comes the idea that the outward appearance of something is just that, an appearance that distinguishes it from something else. It is here that the discontinuity of the phenomenological form renders ontological and semiotic orientations of ‘nature’ much more useful and theoretically rich. When we start concentrating on being rather than knowing, and living rather than experiencing, we begin to move beyond the anthropomorphism and ethnocentrism of historically routed animism and toward one of ecological understanding and mutuality (5).

Now, if we return to Ellis’ piece with this reworked or more specific animist orientation, we find ourselves close to McCarthy’s narrative interpretations, however with a renewed faith in the nature of things. While I would tend to agree with Ellis in the fact that our narrative interpretation of the world is an immensely powerful illusion, I would also like to suggest that this is not the only narrative. We animals are part of something, an assemblage of intricate complexities and wonderful subtleties, routed to place because of our intrinsic material and spiritual connection to it. The landscape is not an impartial observer. It is a collective of things that each have histories and futures that are contingent on the natural connections between them, connections that are made, severed, and re-made by those same things. It is here that our interpretation of narrative becomes art.