Tag Archives: Agency

Interanimism: A Brief Commentary

Hello again folks,

As a brief note, WordPress is telling me that today is my sixth year anniversary here at The Thought Forge. Hurray! It has been a pleasure writing for you all these years, and I hope to continue to do so into the future. We have nearly 930 email followers on this blog, and I thank each and every one of you for this journey so far! Now, onto the meat!

There have been a lot of great articles out recently concerning animism and relationships. Today I would like to take a more in depth look at one of the them Interanimism By Mathieu Thiem. It has given me quite a lot to think about, and I want to dig a little deeper into the article itself.

Now, I will not be examining the whole of the article, as certain aspects I still want to sit with for a while. Naturally, if you want to read the whole of the article in context, links are provided. I invite you to take a read before reading my own exploration.

Let’s start with a quote from the article, to really set the stage for what I am going to be talking about here;

“By intra-action I mean that each act upon an object is effectively co-creating both the actor and the object because it introduces a new parameter of relationships. The relationship of interbeing between the two are co-constitutional, they act as feedback loops that mutually affect one another.”

To put this into my own words, intraction is the mutual relationship between two actors/agents. Take for example to people in a close, intimate partnership. Say two lovers for example. The relationship is the whole construct for both the individuals themselves, as well as the greater connections between them. It is not a neither/or kind of thing, but a “and” kind of relationship. The two lovers are co-creating their reality, through cooperation, and conflict as well. The constant push and pull, the constant integrated creation of of thing greater than just two individuals.

This extend well beyond our persons as well, to include all of our relations to other humans as well as our environment. I will be detailing this more in a future post, with graphics and everything; mostly because this kind of thing is better illustrated with visuals.

The primary topic of this blog has been animism for a long time; using Harvey’s definition that the world is full of persons and that life is lived in relationships with others. The principle of intraction is that those persons are involved in a delicate relational dance that co-creates their reality. As Clifford Geertz put it so perfectly;

that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning” (Clifford Geertz, from The Intrepretation of Cultures)

That is really what my animism is all about, a search for meaning. That meaning, following the spirit of the article, is something we co-create with others in relationship. Returning to the article;

This brings us to Interanimism, the notion that existence is mutually inspiring and co-creating itself, animating its interbeing through intra-active relationships. Rather than seeing the world filled with particulated essences or souls, what would reality be like if we saw all matter as an emergent function of relationships and agency as the phenomenology of entanglement?

This really gets to the heart of animism as I understand it. I have said it dozens of times here, but I understand it in the way Graham Harvey articulates animsim; “that the world is filled with persons and that life is lived in relation with others.” Actors and agents (persons) are more than simply individuals in isolation, but a web of beings in a network. More than just defined by their individuality, they are defined by their connections to everything else. It also implies that by focusing on simply “atomist” perspectives, we miss a lot of the picture. As Thiem points out;

Rather than committing reductionist fallacies, we must come to observe matter as it really is, an emergent phenomenon of relationships. An atom is a construct of its relational existence…”

Now, I wouldn’t necessarily call it a reductionist fallacies to look an individual entity is terms of itself, but it would definitely be missing the bigger picture of networked connections. As humans are relatively complex beings, it would be the equivalent of trying understand the whole of my being from just a single cell. While it is true in a large degree that you could extrapolate my DNA and get a decent view of my person, you would miss all the memories, all the experiences, the scars, and the resulting personality that has emerged from all those interactions; with others as well as with my environment.

You could get a decent portrait, but the image and person are not the same.

By just looking at a single cell of my being, you would miss the bigger picture; and that is an important point in and of itself. In addition, if you just look at me as an individual, you would also miss the fact that I am defined in relationship with others. You really see me as a whole when I am with my partner, my friends, or in any kind of network with other beings. You are seeing me in the totality as a whole, instead of an isolated partial. I wouldn’t be who I am today without all those intra/inter-actions.

Thiem continues with;

Every time an intra-action occurs, there is a resulting degree of agency emerging. As more intra-action and entanglement occurs, the emergent agency becomes more attentive, more aware, more enlivened. This is applicable to all interbeing within our existence. Agency is not a special or rare occurrence, but it is rather the basic emergent function of ALL EXISTENCE. That is right, awareness seems to be the norm rather than the exception.

Agency is just as much a physical phenomenon as it is a mental one. The two are the same thing.”

While I myself tend to communicate more plainly, I have expressed this thought in a dozen different ways. “The world is filled with persons” can be simply restated matter itself is agential. The Cosmos as a whole, from the smallest scales to the largest, can be said to have some measure of agency. While I do think there are limits to nature and scope of that agency, it would still seem to be a basic characteristic of existence.

Consider for a moment the nature of the atom itself, as one of the many parts of the cosmic whole. Even taken alone, there is a basic agency to the atom. It seeks out a “balance”, combining itself in numerous forms in order to achieve that. That basic drive to balance out internal charges (positive protons and negative electrons) denotes a basic form of agency. No, it is not the kind of agency found in larger and more complex forms, but an arguable simple agency all the same.

Throughout the history of the known universe, we see this basic agency. Smaller forms coalesce into more complex and diverse forms, and from that eventually comes the basics of life as we know it. We as humans are the result of countless generations of constructive agencies.

This is not to say that this is a linear progression of simpler to more complex, but like biological evolution itself, it is a process of starts and stops. Entropy resists the larger and more complex forms, which then breakdown and rearrange before becoming something new.

As such, as Thiem points out, our reality is a process in motion. Not a linear track, but a complex of becoming…

Now, I want to move this discussion from the most broad to talk about a few specific points for a moment. I have said many times that I am an animist first, but also consider myself to be a polytheist by proxy. This means simply that there is plenty of room in my cosmology for those elusive beings we tend to refer to as gods.

I have struggled for a long time to clearly articulate how I view the gods. I have tried to describe them in the past as collective beings, as cumulative ancestors, and as the “spirit of a group”. Thiem has done a service by putting into words what I could not;

Gods are not separate disembodied ideals, but are instead the emergent agencies from the vast networks of ancient entanglements within which we are embedded. Gods arise not as archetypes, but as the long lived intellects of ecosystems and bioregions. As a bioregion, or any massive networked system for that matter, begins to experience multi emergent synergistic qualities that are unique to its paradigm, the agency of that system becomes more capable of awareness and attention. It develops its own paradigmatic memory and it seeks its own teleodynamic harmony.”

Gods can be all the things I just mentioned, and have tried to articulate in the the past. As emergent agencies, they can be the collective agency of a tribe, or a city. They can be collective agency of an entire region or ecosystems, a co-creation of human as well as natural persons. We as humans can well be part of those emergences, as we tell our stories of the gods, and so add to the network that is the agency of the very same beings.

In the nature of synergy, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. We may see the spirits in individual trees, but the god is in the forest.

Puts a whole new spin on the old cliché of “seeing the forest through the trees.”

(One of my photos.)

As I have already said, my animism sees the world as full of persons, of agents. But most common discussions of animism revolve around the idea of spirits, or not necessarily corporeal persons. As such, any animism must make space for these kind of beings, and Thiem here also articulates this idea well;

Spirits are the liminal agencies of the rocks, the trees, the rivers and all the other functionaries of the more than human world. They are not themselves astral or ethereal, but are physically present in the waking dream of the land. They are nature’s diffractive agencies, emerging out of the entangled relationships of various enlivened constructs.”

There is really not a lot I can add to this. This means that every rock, every tree, and every rivers may well be agencies in their own right. Through the networked intra/interactions of all of the parts, a new whole emerges. This is especially true of natural ecosystems, which often work in cooperation, as well as sometimes in competition. In addition, Thiem’s article also touches on the ancestors as well;

The ancestors are the culminating influences of the past embedded onto the present, all their gravitational waves pushing us forward into the expanse of the universe. The ancestors are not ghosts that pop up like some spooky ethereal being, but are the past actions of our ancestors imprinted upon the informational matrix of our reality which produces an emergent agency capable of communicating with the living, forever affecting and inspiring our future.”

This gets at the heart of how I have tried to articulate how I understand the ancestors. They are no longer embodied, but they are still around, embedded as they are in the intangible. They are, as Thiem put it, “imprinted upon the informational matrix of our reality.” This is a good way to conceive of the disembodied generally. Thiem goes on to add;

…Because of this, the ancestors were not an aspect of dead beings that somehow haunted us in the present, but rather to be an ancestor was to be alive as a different state of being. And this state of being was a kind of imprinting or embedding into the eco-sociological matrix of their places. So when you died you literally became the land, the flora and fauna etc. Your stories inhabited the land and were still very much a part of what made it what it was.”

In short, we are more than just our bodies. We are our stories, our relationships, our very real and formed relationships with the land, the water, and the sky. We are part of the air that we breath, and the water that we drink, so too they are part of us. The minerals from the earth compose our bones, and the fruits and flesh of plants and animals form our tissues. Even when we die, and those tangibles die away, our stories and our memories live on. This is how I understand the ancestors. But they are not just mere memories either, but agencies as well. People, in a different form.

As Thiem points out, the land too can sometimes also be counted as a ancestor. That my story is part of the land I call home. This makes me wonder a great deal. You see, I am a native of Michigan, and this is a curious land indeed. I was born here, and this land has been part of me since the very beginning.

I will have to look into this line of thought a little deeper, but I am sure the Native Americans of this region knew this well. On three sides of this state, we are bounded by the largest freshwater lakes in North America. Nearly one-fifth of the worlds freshwater resides at the edges of my state. This is something I will have to consider more, perhaps in a future post.

There is some much to Thiem’s article, and for the sake of brevity I am not going to explore anymore here. As such, I give the last words to Thiem himself.

I call on these mythic beings because I am seeking to commune with the reality of our interbeing. I call on my ancestors because I must become aware of how deeply we are affected by them, even though they have changed form. In many ways their death hasn’t stopped their meddling in our world, to the point where one must wonder if they ever really died at all. Their wisdom and stories are embedded into the fabric of our reality and this has vast implications. I call upon the Gods because I know that my human agency isn’t enough to understand the desires of the land…”

Thanks for reading!

Sources/References;

Interanimism

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symbolic_anthropology

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