Excerpts from "Magic and the Machine" by David Abram


For most traditionally oral, indigenous cultures that we know of, any and every phenomenon is potentially animate; everything moves. All things are felt to have their own pulse, their own inner spontaneity or dynamism. (…) The members of such cultures seemed to respond to their surroundings as though all things were alive and (at least potentially) aware. Further, from this animistic perspective, it seemed that all things were felt to be expressive; all things had the power of meaningful speech (although, of course, very few of them spoke in words).

[…]

The conventional interpretation of such ways of encountering the world, among social scientists, has held that traditional, “tribal” persons are confusedly projecting human attributes—such as life and consciousness—into nonhuman and ostensibly inanimate phenomena. I wish to argue, however, that animistic perception is utterly normal for the human organism, a kind of default setting (to use a technological metaphor) for our species; that in the absence of intervening technologies, the human senses spontaneously encounter the sensorial surroundings as a field of sensitive and sentient powers. Our most immediate experience of the earthly world, and of the myriad bodies that compose this world, is of a multiply animate cosmos wherein no thing is definitively void of expressive agency, or life.

[…]

To be sure, such participatory experience is very far from our current feel for things in the midst of contemporary, hyper-modern civilization. Few people today, when they’re cycling past a stand of oaks, sense that those trees are sensing them; we don’t feel the breeze gusting around us as a sensitive and sentient presence, and upon arriving at our place of work and settling down to the day’s tasks, we don’t concern ourselves that the chairs we sit in register our presence, or that the walls of the room are affected by our actions.

[…]

[A]nimism—the instinctive experience of reciprocity or exchange between the perceiver and the perceived—lies at the heart of all human perception. While such participatory experience may be displaced by our engagement with particular tools and technologies, it can never entirely be dispelled. Rather, different technologies tend to capture and channel our instinctive, animistic proclivities in particular ways.


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