Willerslev—Taking Animism Seriously, but Perhaps Not Too Seriously?

Taking Animism Seriously, but Perhaps Not Too Seriously?

by Rane Willerslev

[Willerslev, Rane. 2013. “Taking Animism Seriously, but Perhaps Not Too Seriously?” Religion and Society: Advances in Research 4 (1): 41–57.]




How do we take indigenous animism seriously in the sense proposed by Viveiros de Castro? In this article, I pose this challenge to all the major theories of animism, stretching from Tylor and Durkheim, over Lévi-Strauss to Ingold. I then go on to draw a comparison between Žižek’s depiction of the cynical milieu of advanced capitalism in which ideology as “false consciousness” has lost force and the Siberian Yukaghirs for whom ridiculing the spirits is integral to their game of hunting. Both know that, in their activity, they are following an illusion, but still they go along with it; both are ironically self-conscious about not taking the ruling ethos at face value. This makes me suggest an alternative: perhaps it is time for anthropology not to take indigenous animism too seriously.

Annotation Summary for: “Taking Animism Seriously, but Perhaps Not Too Seriously? Rane Willerslev”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In social anthropology, we have seen replacement of the so-called old animism in the traditional sense of Edward. B. Tylor with what Graham Harvey (2005: xi) has denoted the “new animism.”Central to the new approaches is the attempt to take animism “seriously” (Harvey 2005: xv; Ingold 2000: 42; Willerslev 2007: 181–191; Viveiros de Castro 2011: 131). ”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “With rhetorical wit, Viveiros de Castro de$ nes anthropology in the exact opposite terms, namely as “taking seriously that which intel- lectuals cannot take seriously.” He de$ nes the motive of anthropology as follows: “Anthropology is alterity that stays alterity or, better, that becomes alterity, since anthropology is a conceptual practice whose aim is to make alterity reveal its powers of alternation. … Anthropology is alterity”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “that becomes alterity … [# is] formula is mine and suggests the proper way of taking life—our own as much as any other—seriously (Viveiros de Castro 2011: 145).”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “What he denotes here is a “decolonization of thought”.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “# is motive was famously captured by Bronislaw K. Malinowski (1922: 25): “To grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life,to realize his vision of his world.” ”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Animism’s enigma of subverting same into other—animals becoming humans, humans becoming animals, and one class of sprits turning into another—has, as we shall see, posed and continues to pose fundamental challenges to Western intellectual thinking, with its long legacy of separating human from animal, reality from fantasy, and, above all, nature from culture”

Page 3, Underline (Blue): Content: “Animism’s enigma of subverting same into other—animals becoming humans, humans becoming animals, and one class of sprits turning into another— has, as we shall see, posed and continues to pose fundamental challenges to Western intellectual thinking, with its long legacy of separating human from animal, reality from fantasy, and, above all, nature from culture.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “! e Tylorian Tradition: Animism as Illusion”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Animism was, for Tylor ([1871] 1929a: 426), a doctrine of the soul that “forms the groundwork of the Philosophy of Religion, from that of savages up to that of civilized men.” In other words, animism was not only the most primordial stage in the evolution of religious thinking; its key element of soul continues to be present in all religions, hence his well-known minimum de$ nition of religion as the “belief in Spiritual Beings” (Tylor 1929a: 424). ”

Page 3, Underline (Red): Content: “Tylor”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ““Primitive” peoples, Tylor argued, were sen-sible beings and their inferences from empirical events and natural phenomena to supernatural souls, spirits, and the like, were both valid and logical, given their lack of scienti$ c knowledge. Animism was essentially a “magical philosophy” about the workings of nature, akin to a scien-ti$ c theory but grounded in error (Tylor 1929a: 500–501).”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Steward E. Guthrie (1993, 1997). employs a “cognitive and game-theoretical model”, suggesting that animistic thinking is “pre-programmed” into our hereditary makeup through natural selection because it has proven to be useful for survival in an uncertain world: “In the face of chronic uncertainty about the nature of the world, guessing that some thing or event is humanlike or has a human cause constitutes a good bet. It is a bet because, in a complex and ambiguous world, our knowledge always is uncertain. It is a good bet because if weare right, we gain much by correct identi$ cation, while if we are wrong, we usually lose little.” ”

Page 4, Underline (Red): Content: “Steward E. Guthrie”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “! e Durkheimian Tradition: Animism as Symbolic”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Edmund Leach’s (1965: 182) classic ethnography of the Kachin religion in highland Burma: “Nats [spirits] are, in the last analysis, nothing more than ways of describing the for- mal relationships (emphasis added).”

Page 5, Underline (Red): Content: “Edmund Leach’s Adrian Tanner Nurit Bird-David”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Adrian Tanner (1979: 136) describes the relationship of the Mistassini Cree Indians of Can- ada to their game animals in much the same way: “# e facts about particular animals are rein- terpreted as if they had social relationships between themselves … and furthermore the animals are thought of as if they had personal relations with the hunters” (emphasis added).”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Nurit Bird-David (1990: 194) “Drawing on the cases of Nayaka, Mbuti, and Batek, I have shown that [they] … relate to the particular view of the environment that is entailed by their primary metaphor ‘forest is ”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “parent.’ … I o’ er the hypothesis … that their members’ views of the environment are centered around metaphors that commonly draw on primary kin relations” (emphasis added).”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Lastly, Kaj Århem (1996: 190) describes how the Makuna of the Colombian Amazon con- ceptualize animal sociality: “Animal communities are organized along the same lines as human societies, and human interaction with animals is modeled groups of people in the human world” (emphasis added).”

Page 6, Underline (Red): Content: “Kaj Århem ”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ““Sociocentric”models, like those cited above, can be traced back to the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, perhaps the most in& uential $ gure in the history of modern sociology. In his classical study of “totemism”, a term that encompasses aspects of animism (Willerslev and Ulturgasheva 2012: 48–68), but which emphasizes a special spiritual relationship between an animal or plant (called the “totem”) and a human group, Durkheim expressed his main argument in symbolist terms. Tot emi sm was best understood as “metaphorical and symbolic,” and the concrete and living reality that it expressed was the social group. ”

Page 6, Underline (Red): Content: “Emile Durkheim,”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In ! e Elementary Forms of Religious Life he writes,“# e totem is before all a symbol, a material expression of something else. But of what? … # e totemic principle can … be nothing else than the clan itself, personi$ ed and represented to the imagination under the visible form of the animal or vegetable which serves as totem” (Durkheim [1912] 1976: 206). ”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “According to Durkheim, totemic concepts and beliefs are nothing more than a projection of human society, which they serve to enforce.”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “He writes, “It is natural that the impressions aroused by the clan in individual minds … should $ x themselves on the idea of the totem rather than that of the clan: for the clan is too complex a reality to be represented clearly in all its complex unity by such rudimentary intelligences” (Durkheim [1912] 1976: 251–252; emphasis added).”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In both instances, the analyst $ nds it necessary to replace the indigenous peoples’ own animistic explanations of relevant occurrences with his own because the natives, it is assumed, do not speak the truth about what constitutes reality but, at best, speak in metaphors when talking about souls, spirits, and the like. By claiming that human society is the fundamen-tal reality from which animistic categories are ultimately derived, the Durkheimian tradition e’ ectively reduces animism to a “false epistemology”, resulting from the inability of indigenous peoples to distinguish metaphor from reality.”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “! e Lévi-Straussian Tradition: Animism as Classi” cation”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Lévi-Strauss’s contribution to the totemism debate was to show that totemism is an intellectual, not a practical, arrangement or an expression of pre-logical stupidity. He showed this by applying the method of the founder of modern structural linguistics, Ferdinand Saussure ([1906–1911] 1959), to the totemistic case studies of anthropol-ogy. ”

Page 7, Underline (Red): Content: “Lévi-Strauss’s Ferdinand Saussure”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Lévi-Strauss renewed the totemism debate in a most important and positive way. A statement such as “I am a bear” was no longer illogical or pointing to some hidden utilitarian function; it represented the sort of structure that we saw, with Saussure, to be characteristic of language per se, namely a system of classi$ catory di’ erence. ”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Philippe Descola’s (1996) conceives of totem-ism as a classi$ catory project that seeks to confer conceptual distinctions on human society on the basis of given discontinuities between species in nature. By contrast, he argues, ani-mism endows natural beings with human dispositions and social attributes to establish relations between human beings and animal species. # us, Descola proposes that “in totemic systems non-humans are treated as signs, [while] in animistic systems they are treated as the term of a relation” (Descola 1996: 88). ”

Page 8, Underline (Red): Content: “Philippe Descola’s”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “! e Ingoldian Tradition: Animism as “Being-in-the-world””

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Central to Ingold’s project is an urge to overcome the structuralist ri% between mind and world. He adopts a phenomenological starting point, emphasizing that world and human reality are ontologically inseparable—an idea conveyed in the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s (1962: 107) phrase “being-in-the-world.” # e hyphenation of this expression signals that our everyday involvement with the various components that make up the world implies that we cannot regard them as a purely objective and value-free set of things waiting for our mental construction to render them meaningful. Rather, the things with which we deal have meaning for us in the immediacy of our dealings with them”

Page 8, Underline (Red): Content: “Ingold’s Martin Heidegger’s”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “It reverses the ontological priorities of anthropological analysis by convincingly showing that everyday practical life is the crucial foundation upon which so-called higher mental activi-ties of conceptualization are $ rmly premised. By taking seriously the actual experiences of the practitioners in this way, the theory allows anthropologists to analyze animistic beliefs in a way that is compatible with the indigenous peoples’ own accounts, which tend to be based on hands-on experience with animals and things rather than on abstract theoretical contemplation.”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In my own book, Soul Hunters (2007, see also Willerslev 2012a), which is concerned with the Yukaghirs, a small community of indigenous hunters in the Siberian north, I took great inspiration from Ingold, arguing along phenomenological lines that their animistic cosmology is essentially practical, intimately bound up with the hunting activity in which they are engaged. ”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ““being absorbed in the world” (Heidegger 1962: 80), a situation in which “self and world merge … so that one cannot say where one ends and the other begins” (Ingold 2000: 169). # e basic notion is that we as human beings $ nd ourselves so interwoven with the world that we belong together, in undivided unity. ”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” # is very idea has been taken on board by Bird-David (1999), who in an in& uential article proposes a revised understanding of ani-mism as “relatedness”, understood as the absorption of di’ erence by sameness and togetherness. ”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “She writes: “[Animism] grows from and is maintaining relatedness with neighboring others. Itinvolves … turning attention to ‘we-ness,’ which absorbs di’ erences, rather than to ‘otherness,’ which highlights di’ erences and eclipses commonalities” (Bird-David 1999: 78). ”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Laughing and the Spirits”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “I will use our theoretical insights and my own ethnographic $ ndings among the Yukaghirs to discuss what this might imply for the issue that interests us here, namely the problem of taking animism seriously4. I will discuss a concrete episode of a bear hunt that I witnessed during $ eldwork among Yukaghir hunters.”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “in these societies the bear is believed to be loaded with a supreme spiritual power (Ingold 1986: 257).”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “us, they will bow their heads in humility before the dead animal and say: “# e Big One (meaning the moose) crossed your path and kicked you with its hooves”. # ey may even attempt to pass the blame onto other peoples: “Grandfather, who did this to you? A Russian [or a Sakha, a neighboring people] killed you.” Before removing its skin,they will blindfold it or stick a knife into each eye of the beast while croaking like a raven. # is will persuade the bear that it was a bird that blinded it. Moreover, while skinning the bear they will say, “Grandfather, you must feel warm. Let us take o’ your coat.””

Page 11, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “I was out hunting together with two Yukaghirs, an elderly and a younger hunter, and they had succeeded in killing a brown bear. While the elderly hunter was poking out its eyes with his knife and croaking like a raven as custom prescribes, the younger one, who was standing a few meters away, shouted to the bear: “Grandfather, don’t be fooled, it’s a man, Vasili Afanasivich, who killed you and is now blinding you!” At $ rst the elderly hunter doing the butchering stood stock-still as if he were in shock, but then he looked at his younger partner and they both began laughing ecstatically as if the whole ritual were a splen- did joke. # en the elderly hunter said to the younger one, “Stop fooling around and go make a platform for the grandfather’s bones.” However, he sounded by no means disturbed. Quite the opposite, in fact: he was still laughing while giving the order. # e only really disturbed person was me, who saw the episode as posing a serious threat to my entire research agenda, which was to take animism seriously.”

Page 11, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Animism and Postmodern Ideology”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Ideology, in its traditional Marxist sense, Žižek (1989: 31) asserts, “consists in the very fact that the people ‘do not know what they are doing,’ that they have a false representation of the social reality to which they belong.” ”

Page 12, Underline (Red): Content: “Žižek”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “George Bush junior, declares that his country is invad-ing Iraq to “free its people from dictatorship and establish democracy,” nobody believes him. He himself knows that nobody believes him and we know that he knows it too. Still, it doesn’t really matter, since Iraq’s oil is needed for our material lives to run its usual course. In other words, we know that we are following an illusion when passively accepting the invasion of Iraq. In this way the late capitalist system is operating all by itself, without any need to control the minds of people. ”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Likewise for the Yukaghirs, I think: rather than being senseless followers of their animist ide-ology, they maintain an ironic distance from its o( cial rhetoric, which emphasizes the require-ments of treating the spirits with extreme respect. ”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “they know very well that in conducting their ritual activities they are follow-ing an illusion. Still, they do not renounce it, since it is needed for the self-sustaining game ofcosmological reproduction and thus for the routine material basics of their everyday lives. ”

Page 14, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Taking Animism Seriously, but Perhaps Not Too Seriously?”

Page 14, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “I do not mean to suggest that through joking, hunters ques-tion the reality of the existence of spirits. Rather, their joking reveals that they do not take the authority of the spirits as seriously as they usually say they do or as their mythology tells them to. ”

Page 15, Underline (Red): Content: “Århem, Kaj. 1996. “# e Cosmic Food Web: Human-Nature Relatedness in the Northwest Amazon.” Pp. 185–205, in Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives, ed. P. Descola and G. Pálsson. London and New York: Routledge.”

Page 15, Underline (Red): Content: “Bird-David, Nurit. 1999. “Animism Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology.” Current Anthropology 40 (supplement): 67–91.”

Page 15, Underline (Red): Content: “Durkheim, Emile. (1912) 1976. ! e Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Trans. J. W. Swain. New York: HarperCollins. Descola, Philippe. 1996. “Constructing Natures: Symbolic Ecology and Social Practice.” Pp. 82–102 in Nature and Society: Yor k: Routledge.”

Page 16, Underline (Red): Content: “Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1956. Nuer Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.”

Page 16, Underline (Red): Content: “Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1965. ! eories of Primitive Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press”

Page 16, Underline (Red): Content: “Frazer, J. G. (1885) 1931. “# e Scope and Method of Mental Anthropology.” Pp. 234–251 in Garnered Sheaves: Essays, Addresses, and Reviews. London: Macmillan. Frazer, J. G. (1922) 1976. ! e Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. London: Macmillan.”

Page 16, Underline (Red): Content: “Gell, Alfred. 1998. Art and Agency: An Anthropological ! eory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.”

Page 16, Underline (Red): Content: “Harvey, Graham. 2005. Animism: Respecting the Living World. London: Hurst & Co.”

Page 16, Underline (Red): Content: “Heidegger, Martin. 1962. Being and Time. New York: Harper and Row.”

Page 16, Underline (Red): Content: “Ingold, Tim. 1986. ! e Appropriation of Nature: Essays on Human Ecology and Social Relations. Man- chester: University of Manchester Press. Ingold, Tim. 2000. ! e Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London and New York: Routledge.”

Page 16, Underline (Red): Content: “Leach, Edmund R. 1965. Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Katchin Social Structure. Lon- don: Bell.”

Page 16, Underline (Red): Content: “Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1964. Tot emi sm, trans. Rodney Needham. London: Merlin Press. Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1968. ! e Savage Mind. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.”

Page 16, Underline (Red): Content: “Review 52 (1): 62–89. Malinowski, Bronislaw, K. 1922. Argonauts of the Western Paci” c. London: Kegan Paul.”

Page 17, Underline (Red): Content: “Radcli’ e-Brown, Alfred R. 1940. “On Joking Relationships.” Africa 13 (3): 195–210.”

Page 17, Underline (Red): Content: “Sahlins, Marshall. 1972. Stone Age Economics. New York: Aldine de Gruyter. Saussure, Ferdinand. (1906–1911) 1959. Course in General Linguistics, ed. C. Bally and A. Schechner,trans. W. Baskin. New York: # e Philosophical Library.”

Page 17, Underline (Red): Content: “Tylor, Edward B. (1871) 1929a. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philoso-phy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom, vol. 1. London: John Murray. Tylor, Edward B. (1871) 1929b. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philoso-phy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom, vol. 2. London: John Murray. ”

Page 17, Underline (Red): Content: “Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2011. “Zeno and the Art of Anthropology: Of Lies, Beliefs, Paradoxes, and Other Truths.” Common Knowledge 17 (1): 128–145. Žižek, Slavoj. 1989. ! e Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989.”


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