Water-like Modes of Animistic Inquiry
Ontology and epistemology are intimately entwined, at least in our Western world. In order to know what we are capable of knowing we cannot separate our understanding of things from the way we have oriented ourselves to life—to our everyday phenomenal experiences and to the values which guide our ethical considerations—because “all epistemologies lead us to ethical issues,…because knowing is itself an act that has consequences,” and “to know is to take a position in relation to other living beings, other human beings, and oneself.” 1 In fact a likely literal meaning of the word “understand” is to “stand in the midst of.” (https://www.etymonline.com/word/understand)
What does it mean to study something in order to understand it? Is it possible to know without affecting or being affected? Is it possible to hold the thing we are trying to understand at arm’s length as we allow for small shifts in perception and ways of knowing, or must we immerse ourselves in and present all levels of our being—from the physical to the mental to the emotional to the spiritual—to the study so that a breaking down of rigidified or outmoded structures of perception and relationship may occur? The dominant Western andro- and human-centric modes of knowing have been characterized by breaking apart and analyzing “objects” of inquiry with little regard for the subjective experience of these “others,” but if we are able to recognize that centering Western modes of thought and inquiry on negatively patriarchal and anthropocentric points of view to the exclusion of others such as the ecofeminist or nonhuman restricts our ability to perceive a fuller range of the spectrum of experience, we may begin the “immense task of reconstructing our cultural, cosmic, and vital reference points.” 2
As we allow ourselves to engage inquiry from ecofeminist-like orientations, ones that open “to broader perspectives in which tenderness and sharing in solidarity can be recovered as highly important elements in the processes of knowing and educating,” 3 I can’t help but ask: Do we truly produce knowledge, or do we participate within communities of sentience and ecologies of selves, human and other-than-human, in openings to knowledge? If this is so, how will this recognition influence the types and qualities of knowledge to which we will have access as we navigate these turbulent times?
And here I can’t help but invoke the element of water. When we gaze into water we see not only our reflection on the surface but may recognize that there are also hidden depths which we can encounter only by completely immersing ourselves. Water dissolves and has the capacity to receive and incorporate other things into itself. Within the Western scientific paradigm solving a problem or finding the solution has come mainly to mean dividing and separating, but the original meaning of “solve” also meant “to disperse, dissipate, loosen.” (https://www.etymonline.com/word/solve)
This loosening is an integral process that goes both ways. There is no subject-object divide but a meeting of subjects through which each is, to some degree, loosened so that understanding may arise. Within each being a transference and process of mutual transformation occurs—a taking in and a letting go. In this same way we may allow archetypal water to guide our processes of inquiry not just to “influence the process of transmitting knowledge” but to alter “the hierarchical power structure itself, which continues to propagate itself in the underlying structures of our society and, in consequence, of our knowing.” 4
Relational ways of understanding and being such as these may be called animistic, an oft maligned and dismissed concept because its qualities of experience are, in my estimation, misapplied in Western culture. Animistic orientations to the world only make coherent sense when they emerge from cultural ground made fertile through an ever-present, interconnected immersion within communities of life. Orienting ourselves in this way archetypal water may be called upon to support processes of inquiry through which meaning emerges via our continual interaction within the ecologies of these interpenetrating worlds—with the texts we read, with the air we breathe, with the food we eat, with the rocks we touch, the trees with whom we speak, with the sun, the moon, and the stars, and with the myriad beings of all sorts who touch us in some way every moment of every day.
I invite you along with Isabelle Stengers to consider that “in order to reclaim animism…it is not sufficient to entertain an ‘idea’ that would allow us to claim that we know about it” 5 for as we engage in processes of remembering and reclaiming we must be aware of the temptation to merely adopt just a portion of these animistic modes without committing to a radical paradigmatic shift and all of the intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and imprinted nervous system purging such a change of thinking may require. We must be vigilant, for when approached differently it is far too easy to use the magical thinking of animism as a means of spiritual bypassing, as an avoidance of intellectual rigor, or as an inadequate means of striving towards wished-for realities.
This type of study requires our active participation, but we need not ask questions in ways that seek concrete answers. Instead we can invite solutions in the sense of dissolving impediments to deeper and more full interactions with animate life. In allowing these processes to work through our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual beings we may become more alive to the living worlds and to the relations that constitute and make us who we are continually in the process of becoming.
Stay tuned for more thoughts and feelings about animism and practical ways to embody relational orientations to life…
Ivone Gebara, Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999), pg. 20-23. ↩
Ibid, pg. 23 ↩
Ibid, pg. 30 ↩
Ibid, pg. 21 ↩
Isabelle Stengers, “Reclaiming Animism,” e-flux journal #36, 2012, pg. 87. Accessed June 11, 2018. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/36/61245/reclaiming-animism/ ↩