Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

Depth Pschology: Animism and Literacy

One of the most fascinating ideas I have come across in my life is put forward in David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous. The book discusses phenomenology, the school of thought that derives from the fact that all reality is experienced reality, that try as we might, we cannot ever have "objective" truth detached from human experience, perception, and bias.

This seems obvious, but phenomenologists have some very interesting ways of looking at -- or rather, being in -- the world.

Abram explores the concept of animism, the impression that people have of things as animate, living presences. Even a looming building or a body of water may "feel" alive, contrary to "rational" explanations. That's part of lived experience, which most people deny because it doesn't "make sense". Other cultures are far more comfortable experiencing birds, animals, plants, and natural objects as other entities around them. The world for them is much more animate. Native Americans, for example, feel a certain spiritual presence in air, in trees, in the earth, in the animals they hunt, in the corn they grow. Abram believes that this was the default way in which humans experienced the world.

So what happened?

He points out a profound and powerful shift in perception that comes with written language. He mentions synaesthesia, a mental disorder in which some people "hear" images or "see" sound, and notes that in fact, the senses are not quite as distinct as we think: when we listen to symphanies, we may have inner visual imagery or a sense of color or lines or bursting patterns; when we look at a splat on the ground or a point or bright red or gentle blues, we may have a sense of taste or sound. This effect becomes more pronounced with recognizable objects like a photo of a thunderbolt, or the sound of a bug whizzing past our ear -- we will feel or see or hear what is associated with it. Birdsong has color. A fuzzy caterpillar, seen from several feet away, "feels" prickly.

Humans managed to invent something that compels us to synaethesia far more than we realize: letters. At first, writing was pictographic, representing what it was supposed to indicate, for example, a bull's head for a bull or a sun for the sun. The sign synaesthetically called to mind the "real" image. But there was a correspondence.

When we got to phonetic writing, however, where the letters no longer represent real-world things, but sounds, our brains started to do something quite startling. When we see a letter with our eyes, we hear its sound. The meaning of the word has become divorced from a real-world equivalent in a very abstract way. In order to read, we disconnect our senses from the perceived, experienced world around us, and let the writing "speak", filling our minds with sound and images and taking control of our conscious perception. The book is animated -- it comes to life, it shapes our experience.

So human thought literally (and I mean the word "Literally" very literally) took on a life of its own with the written word, and we became much more capable of detaching from our environment and viewing it semi-objectively, that is to say, as if we were not a part of it.

Abram's idea is even more radical. For him, the animism of pre-literate cultures is equivalent to our giving the written word "voice". Based on numerous anecdotes from native populations in Australia and America, he demonstrates that many of them "read" the world as we read books -- or rather, that they "hear" the landscape, animals, and plants as we "hear" books talk to us.

And now I need to get back to writing this danged paper. Anyway, that's my deep thought for the week.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 10th, 2006 01:25 pm (UTC)
Scott McCloud goes on about this at length in Understanding Comics, and posits that one of the reasons that you rarely get real art in the medium is that both mastering writing and mastering art take a lifetime and result in diametrically opposite worldviews -- the artist's expressionistic view and the writer's synaesthetic. He then goes on about how great comic creators have learned to reconcile the worldviews through a six-step process of self-examination and learning (and how bad ones get mired along the way).

I think the invention of writing is about half of the puzzle; the toxic meme of dualism is a big part of it too. Simplistic classification is easier for the mind but inaccurate, and you lose a lot of the ability to see conglomerate life in the inanimate.

I would say that one could consider an amusement park (or, as Pratchett suggested, a shopping mall) to be alive. It is a parasite, which uses lures to attract prey, feeds off them and then releases them into the wild to be preyed on again at a lower date. It constantly changes and reacts to outside stimuli, and competes with others of its species, staking out a "territory" and defending it. It excretes wastes that come about through its daily activities, which are carried away by the saprophytic sanitation companies. It sleeps, and its antibodies (in the form of security) keep intruders away while it is vulnerable.

Where is the creature, though? It exists only as a metaphor, as a combination of the park per se and its surroundings, and only when seen from a God's-eye view. There is little or nothing to suggest that it is a single entity from the point of view of a parkgoer, just as there is little to suggest that a human being is alive from the point of view of E. coli.

I think that many of our ancestors would have personified such a place quickly, and perceived the inherent differences between such places and other forms of life (such as libraries and museums) that serve very different functions and "live" in entirely different ways. (Libraries are more like coral ...) And yet, there are probably practical, down-to-earth business lessons that can be learned by viewing an amusement park as a living thing instead of as a pile of metal and pages and pages of numbers.

That's just it, ultimately. We confuse the word for the reality, and think denotatively; then, dualism strips down options to two, "alive" and "not alive," causing us to fail to recognize the qualities of life in that which our peers say lacks it.

I hope that made some sense, reading over it again I'm not so sure ...
Sep. 15th, 2006 04:07 pm (UTC)
We just found out we know someone who's teaching (depth psych & feminism) at your school this semester. Ping me from whatever your current email is.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by Lilia Ahner