Monday, July 13, 2009

Subconscious Animism

I found this interesting, while rereading selections from my copy of the Ecocriticism Reader (why would I want to refamiliarize myself with that,I wonder), I came across the theory that western culture has purposefully eliminated an otherwise inborn connection with nature.
Dr. Christopher Manes, PhD in Medieval Studies from the University of Oregon, and author of Green Rage, poses the idea in Nature and Silence that up until the prominence of Judeo/Christian thought, Nature had a personality, a voice, and only through this silencing of Nature, has Man solidified sole status as the only speaking subject.

Lynn White, Jr, former director of Medieval and Renaissance studies at UCLA, and professor at UCLA, Mills College, Princeton, and Standford, points out that due to a fundamental pillar of Christian dogma, western culture thinks of itself as apart from nature. "To a Christian, a tree can be no more than a physical fact" (White). The point being that the Judeo/Christian idea that Nature exists to serve Man has allowed for the truth of Man's "transcendence of and rightful mastery over" Nature. Therefore, the use of natural resources and by extension the exploitation of the planet for profit is validated. According to Kant, reason is related to political power and self interest. Why not use the land? The highest religious power says its ok, and we can make money while doing it.

However, if human beings and nature are truly disconnected, one apart from the other, how have "primitive" cultures of the past and present have been able to thrive within a communal relationship with nature? The answer, Mane says, lies in relations. There has existed in EuroAmerican culture, this idea of "privileged speakers", which up until the last 100 years has meant "rich white dudes". Our culture had done its best to silence the voices of people of color, women, and children, thus making it easier to exploit these various groups, to the point where drastic counter movements were staged to reaffirm and empower the voiceless. The point being, if Nature is allowed to have a voice and be personifed, it is more difficult for it to be exploited.

Here is the cool part: even though in our culture, it is considered crazy, tribal, and uncivilized, "in modern technological society animistic reflexes linger". Exhibit A: Cars and sports teams. As a culture we have attempted to cast the power of certain animals by naming things after them. Exhibit B: Children are not considered mentally insane when talking to stuffed animals, dolls or other toys, and people often lose their temper and shout and curse at inanimate objects, like that broken washing machine, or the Ford Mustang that just stalled on the freeway onramp. The idea is that people in these situations have created a "animistic subject, a shifting autonomous articulate identity that cuts across human and nonhuman identity" (Manes). Pretty cool, eh? I thought so.
The overall point? Final summation? Perhaps we should suck it up and stop pretending we are apart from the natural world. People talk to their house plants, dont they? The fact that there is overwhelming evidence that preservation and conservation of natural resources not only makes wise business sense, but also keeps everyone living here healthier, should be enough incentive to once again become a part of Nature.

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