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Critical Animism


Critical Animism

Simone Kotva

“How, then, to take seriously the question of animism, if it is taken seriously at all, from being framed in terms that verify Science’s right to define it as an object of knowledge?” 

– Isabelle Stengers, “Reclaiming Animism.” 


Re-enchant the West! We have heard the imperative cried for many decades, now, and have felt its urgency increase. Today those of us who were raised to smirk at such things find it increasingly difficult to defend a view of the nonhuman world that does not recognize in it lively agency. We have learned the hard way the consequences of treating everything except human beings as dead matter, as less than alive. This is the reason why anthropology is now so much in vogue: in the accounts of Indigenous societies we find rumours of a thinking that listens to place and kicks back against those Western ontologies that have proved so disastrous to planetary life. So we hear alongside the first cry, a second: decolonize thought! For if a future different to the one promised by the West is possible, surely that possibility lies in difference, in learning with the non-Western. Yet a non-Western world-view exists not only outside the West, neither is the West any longer a geographical location. Capitalism, secularism, materialism and human-only-ism now invade every corner of the planet; but so too do animism, vibrant materialism and more-than-human-ism erupt constantly from within capitalist culture. 

Movements toward animism are ongoing experiments, not definitive conversions. Animism is not the opposite of Western thinking but indicates efforts to rework impractical approaches to that most fraught of matters: matter’s liveliness. Addressing the question in this way, the first stage of the course engages what Isabelle Stengers calls the “reclaiming” of animism. Taking her lead from the postcolonial recovery of animism (by thinkers such as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and Marisol de la Cadena), Stengers thinks of “reclaiming” as a movement allied to the “decolonisation of thought”: “the attempt to resist a colonising power” by thinking with the ontologies which Western philosophy regards as “other.” In particular, Stengers thinks with animism. “How…to keep the question of animism...from being framed in terms that verify Science’s right to define it as an object of knowledge?” (“Reclaiming Animism,” e-flux, 36 (2012): 2). Tolerance – which leaves animism recognised by still not spoken with as an equal – must be avoided, but so too must the temptation to explain animism, to speak on “behalf” of the other and so unwittingly “claim” their worldview as an extension of one’s own. Hence Stengers’ idea of “re-claiming,” rather than “claiming,” animism. Reclaiming animism is working with the animisms with which one shares the world. 

This seminar is an experiment in reclaiming animism. To reclaim animism means finding new ways of speaking, within one’s own language, the liveliness of the world. Those new ways involve experimentation with language and style – as argued in recent decades by David Abram and Robert Macfarlane – but also experimentation with the givens of a tradition and practice. Working with animism does not mean escaping Western ontology but deactivating those structures of thought that make escape seem necessary in the first place. The reclaiming of animism thus converges with other philosophical currents – such as new materialism, posthumanism, queer theory and postcolonial criticism – which seek to reformulate not only our stories about the world but the way we tell those stories. In the second and third stages of this course we look at texts where experimentation with style and form are the principal ways in which animism is expressed. 

The first stage takes its point of departure from natural history writers seeking to active the animist sense through a renewal of scientific language. Here we focus on texts concerned with birds, and with depicting the liveliness of birds. The second stage centres on the reformulation of philosophy in light of plant life and pure affectivity. In both sets of texts, but especially the texts that form part of the third stage, these reformulations are allied to Indigenous epistemologies, and we will be considering the nature of that alliance. What is at stake is not so much – or not only – the task of investigating the imposing mass of literature, poetry and art through which writers today reflect on the liveliness of matter in animist terms. Rather, it is above all a question of being alert to the critiques of thought that such art makes necessary insofar as it aims to bring about radical changes to the whole discourse and practice regarding the nonhuman. Without seeking to identify with animists, the purpose of this seminar is to think and write as if the lively matter-world to which they give voice mattered.

1. Reclaiming Animism 


Bennett, Jane, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).


Bird-David, Nurit, “’Animism’ Revisited: Personhood, Environment and Relational Epistemology,” Current Anthropology 40 (1999): 67-90. 


Cadena, Marisol de la, Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 12-19.


Cadena, Marisol de la, and Mario Blaser (eds), A World of Many Worlds (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018). 


Castro, Eduardo Viveiros de, “Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism,” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4-3 (1998): 469-488. 


Descola, Philippe, “Animism Restored,” Beyond Nature and Culture, trans. Janet Lloyd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), pp. 129-143


Descola, Philippe, “To Each His Own Nature,” The Ecology of Others, trans. Geneviève Godbout and Benjamin P. Luley (Chicago: University of Chicago Pres, 2013), pp. 55-80. 


Harvey, Graham ed., The Handbook of Contemporary Animism (London: Routledge, 2013). 


Harvey, Graham, Animism: Respecting the Living World (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976). 


Hornborg, Alf, “Animism, fetishism, and objectivism as strategies for knowing (or not knowing) the world,” Ethnos 71:1 (2006): 21-32,


Ingold, Tim, “Totemism, Animism and the Depiction of Animals,” The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill (London: Routledge, 2000). 


Naess, Arne and Jan van Boeckel, “An Interview witn Norwegian Eco-Philosopher Arne Naess,” The Call of the Mountain, Stichting ReRun Productions, Blokzijlerdijk 4, 8373 EK Blankenham, The Netherlands. Web:


Rose, Deborah Bird, “Tracks,” Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation (Sydney: University of New South Wales Pres, 2004), pp. 163-212.  


Stengers, Isabelle, “Reclaiming Animism,” e-flux, 36 (2012): 1-10. Web:


Stengers, Isabelle, “The Curse of Tolerance,” Cosmopolitics II, trans. Robert Bononno (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 303-312.


Vetlesen, Arne Johan, Cosmologies of the Anthropocene: Panpsychism, Animism and the Limits of Posthumanism (London: Routledge, 2019). 


2. Activating the Animist Sense, 1: Divinanimality   


Abram, David, The Spell of the Sensuous: Language and Perception in a More-Than-Human World (New York: Vintage, 1997) 


Abram, David, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York: Vintage, 2010)


Agamben, Giorgio, The Open: Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004). 


Agamben, Giorgio, “Absolute Immanence,” in Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, trans. D. Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), pp. 220-239. 

Battalio, John T., “Discourse Models for Natural history and Experimental Science,” The Rhetoric of Science in the Evolution of American Ornithological Discourse (Stamford, CT: Ablex, 1998), pp. 39-70.

Chen, Mel Y., Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham: Duke University Pres. 2012)- 

Derrida, Jacques, The Animal that Therefore I Am, trans. David Wills (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008). 


Guss, David (ed), The Language of the Birds: Tales, Texts, and Poems of Interspecies Communication (San Francisco: North Point Pres, 1985).


Howard, Eliot, The Nature of a Bird’s World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935). 


Hudson, W. H., “A Boy’s Animism,” in Far Away and Long Ago: The Story of My Early Life (London: Dutton, 1918). Available online:


Macfarlane, Robert, Landmarks (London: Penguin, 2015).


Selous, Edmund, Thought-Transference (or what!) in Birds (London: Constable and Company, 1931). 

Uexküll , Jakob von., A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, trans. Joseph O’Neill (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

3. Activating the Animist Sense, 2: Through Vegetal Being   


Berkes, Fikret, Sacred Ecology: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Resource Management

2nd ed. (New York: Routledge). 


Eliade, Mircea, “Yogic Concentration and Meditation,” Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, trans. Willard Trask (New York: Routledge, 1958), pp. 66-73. 


Hall, Matthew, Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany (Albany: SUNY Pres, 2011). 


Irigaray, Luce and Michael Marder, Through Vegetal Being: Two Philosophical Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Pres, 2016). 


Kimmerer, Robin wall, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants (London: Penguin, 2013). 


Marder, Michael, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).


Sheldrake, Merlin, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures (London: Penguin Random House, 2020). 


Sheldrake, Rupert, The Presence of the Past (Hartnolls: William Collins, 1988). 


Slaughter, M. M. “The End of the Taxonomic Episteme,” Universal Languages and Scientific Taxonomy in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 189-219). 


Stuckey, Patrick, “Being Known by a Birch Tree: Animist Refigurations of Western Epistemology,” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 4 (2010): 182-205. 


Tinker, George “Tink”, “The Stones Shall Cry Out: Consciousness, Rocks, Indians, “ Wicazo Sa Review 19 (2004): 105-25. 


Weil, Simone, “Some Thoughts on the Love of God, “ On Science, Necessity and the Love of God, trans. and ed. Richard Rees (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), pp. 148-152. 

Wohlleben, Peter, The Hidden Lives of Trees: What they Feel, How they Communicate (Vancouver: Greystone, 2016).

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