“Animists are people who recognise that the world is full of people, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationships with others.” – Graham Harvey
(From Metascientist, which might be an interesting read in context.)
I like to explore my animistic ideals and beliefs through a lot of different perspectives and different philosophical lenses. I enjoy the intellectual exercise of it all, and it also provides a lot of new insights that I may have not considered before. Sometimes, it is important that we look at things from a different perspective. We might just see something in a a new way.
As such, I give you this presentation of some of the theoretical underpinnings I am exploring in relation to my animism.
In many ways, this piece is an expansion of what I wrote over at Pagan Bloggers. I think I hit on a few things there that I wanted to explore in more depth, and bring you all along for the ride.
Recently I have been exploring my animism through a much more systemic and holistic lenses; through topics such as cybernetics, systems theory, and actor-network theory. Most of these things deal with our relationships to humans and non-humans in a much more networked and systemic way. It has been really fascinating for me, and it has really reinforced the central animistic idea that we are part of our world; and not separate from it. So let’s start with what I said over at my other blog;
“Agency is at its simplest the capacity to act. This is also the simplest definition of what it means to be an actor, a participant in an action or process. This is what I am talking about when I refer to spirits and persons; actors in the world. Beings with their own desires and agendas.
Now agency can run the gamut from a relatively simple actions, such as a bacterium, to the much more complex beings such as you and I. When we talk of spirits, we are talking about active agents in an environment. The world becomes a much more interesting place when we consider that it is full of actors. That means whatever we do, we are in a social environment, and not an inert one.”
The cosmos is absolutely full of active agents in relation to each other. The simplest forms of matter that we can see have their own elements of agency. The fundamental aspect of chemistry is that atoms and molecules often act in predictable ways when interacting with others. You can get water predicably from two hydrogen and one oxygen atom. Water is vital to all life on Earth. But we will come back to that.
Matter builds up, and enters into increasingly more complex systems and networks; and after billions of years of trial and error; I am here now to tell you about these things. But, in order to think about these things in systemic and holistic ways let’s first talk about systems.
“Systems theory or systems science is the interdisciplinary study of systems. A system is an entity with interrelated and interdependent parts; it is defined by its boundaries and it is more than the sum of its parts (subsystem). Changing one part of the system affects other parts and the whole system, with predictable patterns of behavior. ” (Wikipedia)
There is a lot to digest here, but the really important part in that a system is basically a network; a whole comprised of numerous of interrelated “parts”. A system is often bounded in some way, though boundary here can be a fuzzy terms. Some boundaries are physical, some theoretical, some metaphysical. Some are open, some are closed. Some boundaries might be hard lines, and others more like fuzzy, porous, and nebulous clouds.
(From Wikipedia Commons)
While some systems are relatively (or theoretically) simple, some are very complex;
“A complex system is a system composed of many components which may interact with each other. In many cases it is useful to represent such a system as a network where the nodes represent the components and the links their interactions. Examples of complex systems are Earth’s global climate, organisms, the human brain, social and economic organizations (like cities), an ecosystem, a living cell, and ultimately the entire universe.” (Wikipedia)
Systems, especially complex ones, can be modeled in terms of networks. This will become very important here in a moment, but it is important here to dwell on the raw scope of this. The entire Cosmos is really one just big complex system, and this can be really difficult to comprehend. That would just make us a tiny network, on a tiny planet, in a vastly huge universe. That is definitely a little mind bending.
But many of these complex systems as wholes are greater than the sum of their parts. The characteristics of the human brain are not predicated on simply understanding the connections among neurons. The things we might call consciousness, self-awareness, and even the soul, those are not evident if we study just the parts of the brain. They are emergences, which brings us to the concept emergence.
“ In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence is a phenomenon whereby larger entities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities such that the larger entities exhibit properties the smaller/simpler entities do not exhibit.
Emergence is central in theories of integrative levels and of complex systems. For instance, the phenomenon of life as studied in biology is an emergent property of chemistry, and psychological phenomena emerge from the neurobiological phenomena of living things.” (Wikipedia)
Emergence is a really important aspect of complex systems, because it changes the nature of things. The idea that a certain level of integration, new properties and characteristics arise that are not predicted by the components. Cellular life is not predicated on simple physics alone, but if you get enough molecules, in the right integration, life emerges. If chemistry is an emergence of physics, and biology an emergence from chemistry…
Yeesh, it might just be turtles all the way down.
I hope you can see where I am going with this. As stated above, complex systems are more than the sum of their parts. I as a being am more than physics, more than just biology; I am a small part of the cosmos having a human experience.
But more than that, it asks us to think a lot bigger than the human scale. Emergence asks us to ask questions about our place in greater ecosystems, our place in our societies, and our place on the planet. It asks us to witness and engage with climate change, and recognize our being as part of a much greater whole.
It asks us to consider cities are more than just humans and concrete. It asks us to consider the possibility that cities might be something we might call superorganic. As beings of a type in their own right, in which we are just cells in a body.
Which brings me to a great article from NPR;
“…But if you want to consider the problem from its most general point of view, then you might want to think about civilizations purely as a network.
A network is nothing more than a group of objects (called nodes) and the links between them. Everyone is familiar with social networks — your friends and their friends and their friends, and so on. The bigger a network is the more complex it becomes, with links blossoming into a rich, dense, spider web of connections between the nodes.
Any population of intelligent creatures on any planet would, by definition, form a network…. So the question then becomes: What exactly does it take to transform a bunch of intelligent social organisms, with more rudimentary forms of interaction, into something more complex and rich — like a city with its highly ordered interactions?” (NPR)
We are a population of intelligent creatures living on a planet, and we are networked in fascinating ways. The advent of the Internet has absolutely revolutionized how we relate to one another, how we network, as well as the raw potentials of those networks. In short, it has connected us to every other human on this planet in ways that we could have never imagined. It allows us to see one another, communicate instantaneously, share stores and information. Yeah, it also lets us be shitty human beings anomalously…
The crucial question the author asked in the article is; could civilization as we know it be an emergence of a complex system of networked humans?
I think it is certainly a possibility, and one well worth exploring.
However, I don’t want to get side tracked too much here, as there is so much more I want to talk about. The question about civilizations bring up an important point that isn’t necessarily spelled out when we just consider systems. The point that complex systems are also social systems; full of actors relating to one another in various ways. Which brings us to Actor-Network Theory.
“Actor–network theory (ANT) is a theoretical and methodological approach to social theory where everything in the social and natural worlds exist in constantly shifting networks of relationship.
The fundamental aim of ANT is to explore how networks are built or assembled and maintained to achieve a specific objective. Although it is best known for its controversial insistence on the capacity of nonhumans to act or participate in systems or networks or both…“ (Wikipedia)
This fits in neatly with my Harverian (is that a thing? I’m using it) view of animism that is kind of mind blowing.
Actors in networks in constantly shifting relationships…
The world is full of persons (some of which are non-human), and life is lived in relation to one another.
Spiritual persons in a world full of other spiritual persons…
How exactly I frame it is kind of up to me. It is a way in which to look at ourselves, our cities, our technology, as just elements in larger and more complex systems (such as ecosystems, global systems.) But more than that, its also can include the stories and narratives we tell each other; our worldviews and beliefs.
“…it (ANT) can more technically be described as a “material-semiotic” method. This means that it maps relations that are simultaneously material (between things) and semiotic (between concepts). It assumes that many relations are both material and semiotic.” (Wikipedia)
Added onto the top of that is my layer of “mythic” narratives, that I have kind of cobbled together from the various sources. Folklore, ancestry, mythology, my own experience of the world…
In my personal cosmology, non-humans are definitely considered to be active “people” in the social environment. This includes technological people as well, such as automobiles, and smartphones, and robots too.
But it seriously makes me wonder… All the time our technology is getting “smarter” and more connected. Vehicles newer than my own are much more intelligent, and they can network and interact in ways that they never could before.
Connectivity and integration is accelerating quickly in our time. Those emergences, those “greater spirits”; of cities, of ecosystems, of the techno-organic networks we are building. With AI research progressing everyday, and bots and “synthetic persons” constantly trolling us on the internet; the technological realm is hardly exempt from having its own actors.
It makes me wonder a lot. What just might be emerging? Maybe that is the sci-fi buff in me.
Which is a great segway into animism through the lens of cybernetics.
Now we have to keep in mind that the study of cybernetics is really complex, but inevitably when people think about it, they think of cyborgs. Of some kind of fusion of human and machine, or some other such form. This is in fact partially true, but also partially misleading. In truth, cybernetics can be applied to any system that happens to be regulated in some way. In short;
“Cybernetics is a transdisciplinary approach for exploring regulatory systems—their structures, constraints, and possibilities. “ (Wikipedia)
But cybernetics is more than that too, and includes a whole range of elements that range from the human, to the animal, to the machine. Cybernetics is a wide view, and can used to study systems such as social and ecosystems, but also biological as well as technological systems and how these all interact. It is an approach with multiple meanings, such as;
“The study of systems and processes that interact with themselves and produce themselves from themselves.”—Louis Kauffman, President of the American Society for Cybernetics” (Wikipedia)
In this way, it sounds almost biological. And, when combined with other ideas I have presented here, it gives us one more tool in which to explore animism and animistic systems. It gives us a form of cybernetic animism;
“Concepts studied by cyberneticists include, but are not limited to: learning, cognition, adaptation, social control, emergence, convergence, communication, efficiency, efficacy, and connectivity. “ (Wikipedia)
We have already talked about emergence, and relationships between people, communication, social systems… All of this and more is included in how I view animism and how it asks us to contemplate our relations with ourselves, our environment, and our technology.
Technology, and our relationship to it is something that we need to consider.
Some time ago, I picked up Kevin Kelly’s book “What Technology Wants.” Overall, I thought it was a great read and a good reflection on our relationship on technology. This is not to say it was without it faults, but I won’t go into those critiques here.
That being said, I think his idea of the “Technium”; a kind of egregoric whole of human-tech relations, has a lot of value here. It intersects with many things that are of interest to animism; such as the idea of the superorganic;
“When Kevin Kelly looked up the definition of “superorganism” on Wikipedia, he found this: “A collection of agents which can act in concert to produce phenomena governed by the collective.”…. “ (Technium Unbound)
I feel that is self sufficient, but there is a few points that I think deserve emphasis. Collective agents and superorganisms is in many ways what I have been talking about all through this piece. In many ways I consider ecosystems, cities, civilizations, and the planet as a whole as a kind of superorganism.
“The technological numbers keep powering up and connecting with each other. Their aggregate is becoming formidable, rich with emergent behavior, and yet it is still so new to us that it remains unnamed and scarcely considered.” (Technium Unbound)
This is what I was talking about in my last section; how quickly things are “coming online.” Our smart technologies are getting smarter all the time, we are networking and connecting to the world around us in ways we never have before. We are already tackling questions about the nature and limits of Artificial Intellegences, and whether or not the machines are going to kill us all…
Okay, that last bit might be a little hyperbolic.
All the same, Kline is on point if you ask me. These kind of connections are rich in emergences. But this is all new territory for us as a species, so there are still plenty of questions to ask.
It reminds me of this scene from the recent I, Robot movie.
Or this from the video game franchise Mass Effect.
(Legion, from Mass Effect)
Which brings us back to Kline’s quote;
“The Technium may best be considered a new organism with which we are symbiotic, as we are symbiotic with the aggregate of Earth’s life, sometimes called “Gaia.”… They are not replacing each other but building on each other, and the meta-organism of their combining is so far nameless. Kelly shrugged, “Call it ‘Holos.’ “ (Technium Unbound)
It is really strange to think about all this in those kind of terms. When you consider the whole of the planet from a holistic view it includes the human, the natural, and the technological. It reinforces the idea that our role on the planet is related and intergrated into everything else around us. At no point are we divorced from that.
It really makes me wonder what that cybernetic Gaia, this meta-organic Holos might look like…
Maybe my particular form of animism gives me some tool in which to explore that question.
Thanks for reading! (I know it was a long one!)
The Digital-Industrial Revolution (TED Radio Hour)– Covers a lot of topics that I discussed here. Machine intelligence, AI, automation, human-machine interaction.
Hard Wired (TED Radio Hour)– This covers some really cool topics, and the segment with Moshe Syzf is really relevant to the topics here.
Start with the Animals and the World will Appear, By Lupa – A great article by Lupa, exploring some of the more systemic aspects to her own practice. Also a great example of how to look at “all this” in a much more holistic and systemic way.
Agential Realism – A theory by Karren Barrad; deserves a knowing hat tip here. This piece was already too long to include this.