Genevieve Stebbins and the Philosophical Roots of Somatics

A reigning prejudice today pits embodiment and feeling against thinking as a corrective for centuries of overemphasis on the latter. Apart from the contradiction of intellectually arguing for such a position, the trend of devaluing thought forgets that is it is precisely thinking which grants the observer a conscious self-awareness of the feeling body. Such observation forms a keystone in the burgeoning field of somatics, and yet rarely do we find practitioners engaging in serious metaphysical speculation regarding the conditions which give rise to this power of observation. Ancient thinkers like Plato certainly did not shy away from philosophizing about the transcendental conditions of thought in relation to the body. In fact, popular misinterpretations of Plato present him as the grandfather of body-denigrating dualism. What may be surprising to some is the extent to which the fields of somatics and modern dance were significantly influenced by a modern proponent of Neoplatonic philosophy, someone who sought to realize in everyday life the Romantic ideal of extending nature’s creativity through the conscious human being—namely, the performer, author, philosopher, and teacher, Genevieve Stebbins. With Stebbins the ancient understanding and practice of cultivating the human being as microcosm was translated into a modern context. Traces of this influence are discernible in the work of somatics practitioners and modern dancers that have emerged over the 20th and 21st centuries, but rarely is Stebbins recognized for her contributions. Former performing artist and independent scholar Kelly Jean Mullan has made it her mission to rectify this and conveys here the extent to which Stebbins’ charisma still inspires those today who come into contact with her work:

Stebbins’ name is barely recognized in dance and Somatics history. My hope is that I will be able to generate enough interest in her life and share my extensive research to celebrate the heritage of this incredible woman, so that her story will actually become a part of history and not be forgotten.[1]

I owe what follows largely to Mullan for catalyzing in me a similar reverence for Stebbins and her contributions. Before moving on to talk about more Stebbins, I first specify what I mean when I refer to the field of somatics. In her thesis, “The Art and Science of Somatics: Theory, History, and Scientific Foundations,” Mullan refers to somatics as “the field of western mind-body methods, encompassing ways of working with the body that are therapeutic, educational, artistic, and physically expressive.”[2] A foundational text for the somatics movement—Bone, Breathe, & Gesture—was published in 1995, an anthology put together by the somatic theorist and rolfer, Don Hanlon Johnson. In the introduction Johnson notes the late philosopher Thomas Hanna as he who provided the movement’s namesake, “adding the significant final ‘s’ to distinguish it from the commonly used adjective, ‘somatic.’ ‘Somatic,’ as in psychosomatic has been used to mean the physicalistic body as distinct from the mind or soul of a person… Hanna argued that it was the sacral body, gross and mechanistically conceived, separate from mind and imagination, that dominated Western thought and medicine. In his view, the teachers of embodiment practices were recovering a hidden sense of the wise, imaginative, and creative body, thus creating a ‘Somatics’.”[3] Therapeutic mind-body methods were won independently by many of these practitioners in their confrontation with illness and a mechanized medical paradigm that could not provide the help they needed. “This community,” quoting Johnson, “is best understood within a much broader movement of resistance to the West’s long history of denigrating the value of the human body and the natural environment.”[4] Unfortunately, the insidious mind-body split lived out in western culture sometimes inverts itself in advocates of bodily wisdom as an aversion, or even outright dismissal of philosophical thinking. This is something Johnson recognizes in his introduction and it shows up in the words of the practitioner who appears first in his anthology: Elsa Gindler. “I always advise my students,” wrote Gindler, “to replace my words with their own…in order to avoid getting a knot in their psyche and having to philosophize for hours about what was really meant.”[5] While one can admire Gindler’s emphasis on experience in the learning process and its individualization in the student’s own lexicon, her position inadvertently diminishes the importance of having a consistent, communal framework for understanding the wisdom of the body. This is significant for two reasons: A., because Gindler is often presented as one of—if not the—major founding figures of the somatics movement and so sets the tone for posterity; and B., because her eschewing of theory actually occludes the roots of her own practice—the psycho-physical system of culture developed by Genevieve Stebbins, what she called Harmonic Gymnastics.

Genevieve Stebbins was born in San Francisco in 1857; a performer from a young age, she pursued a career in acting as a young adult and apprenticed to Steele MacKaye who in turn had been a student of the famous French orator, singer, coach, and aesthetic philosopher, Francois Delsarte. Stebbins quickly became an enthusiastic disciple of the Delsarte method, shifting focus from her career as a performer to learn Delsarte’s living philosophy and disseminate to others. Apart from Delsarte and the field of physical culture (the 18th century forerunner somatics), Stebbins drew from a vast array of disciplines including the physical and social sciences of her day, religious metaphysics, Romanticism, esotericism, and the arts in both western and non-western traditions. Delsarte provided a substantial background for Stebbins’ thought and practice, but by the end of her life she had devised a theory and system that was at once unique to her and, as she describes in her book Dynamic Breathing and Harmonic Gymnastics, “the common property of all ages.”[6] Stebbins founded the New York School for Expression at Carnegie Hall in 1893 and taught there until retiring in 1907. During that window Hade Kallmeyer was a disciple of Stebbins and went on to teach Harmonic Gymastics in Germany when she completed her training. According to Kelly Mullan’s research, Elsa Gindler was a student of Kallmeyer’s and “developed her experimental work in part by drawing upon her training in the philosophical and practical basis of Harmonic Gymnastics.”[7] Thanks to Mullan we can now recognize the major role Stebbins played in the emergence of the somatics movement by tracing the lineage that streamed from her and through Kallemeyer to Gindler, Gindler’s students Charlotte Selver and Carola Speads, and beyond through the wide influence the latter figures had on other practitioners over the 20th century. Ruth St. Denis, one of the major pioneers of modern dance, was also inspired by Stebbins after attending one of her Delsarte matinees; in her essay “The Intellectual World of Genevieve Stebbins,” Nancy Lee Chalfa Ruyter points out the crucial role Stebbins body of work and thought had in catalyzing the “new dance” as represented by figures like St. Denis, Isadora Duncan, and Martha Graham.[8]

To recognize the importance of Stebbins in the emergence of both modern dance and somatics is at the same time to reveal that a philosophical perspective undergirds them. Obscured upstream from Gindler and those after her now appears a figure whose thought has been variously described as an aesthetic translation of scholasticism and “Swedenborg geometrized,” Francois Delsarte (1811-1871). Unfortunately, Delsarte died before publishing any explication of the applied metaphysics he painstakingly cultivated for over 35 years; Stebbins sought to make up for this loss. In one of her first publications, Delsarte System of Dramatic Expression, she precedes her interpretation of Delsarte’s work and a series of exercises with a hitherto unpublished manuscript of a speech he gave to the Philotechnic Society of Paris. Delsarte’s central concern in this speech is to define art apart from its application—to elucidate the very essence of art. Such a definition, he claims, has never been ventured and is only accessible to those “pure of heart.” True art arises from the human soul as mediator between the eternal and the time-bound; true art brings to the soul salvific tidings from its divine origin. Though sparse, there are moments in Delsarte’s speech in which his personality shines through and conveys a life of many sufferings. For example, contemporary somatics practitioners might be surprised to know that a major historical influence on their field described the body as hideous “vestment of rags,” a statement that reflects both his personal trials as well as the more general piety of his practical philosophy.[9] For him, to love the body for its own sake was tantamount to loving art for art’s sake, both being variants of idolatry. True art raises the human being and the world up into the ideal; true art is, as Delsarte says, “divine in its principles, divine in its essence, divine in its action, divine in its end… the essential principles of which…[are] the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.”[10] A rhythmic relationship between the divine and the human is effected through art whereby art “emanates from His divine perfections,” thereby endowing us with the very idea of them, which in turn realizes in the individual human being, her community, and the world at large, virtues which correspond to divine perfections.[11] Delsarte contrasts his understanding of art with what he saw as its pretense all around him in 19th century Paris. While acknowledging the talent and skill exhibited by so-called artists, Delsarte dismisses all schools of art as only so in name and not practice; pedagogical instruction in these institutions, says Delsarte, “proceeds only from an instinct badly defined and arbitrarily interpreted:” “all the law rests upon the opinion of the master; all the science dwells in a confused mass of prescriptions and examples that no principle comes to support.”[12] He goes on to describe the state of art in his time as one of bondage to the more enlightened tradition of antiquity, the vagaries of personal taste embodied by vain “masters,” and the atheist charade of naturalism. “What,” asks Delsarte of the influential Beaux Arts school, “is their systematic entity and their community of belief?”[13] Because this “school” lacks a unifying principle, he concludes, it is more apt to refer to it as a mere “heterogenous assembly.”[14] His critique of the arts applied equally to the sciences of his day, both of which produce only specialists:

They form there [the schools], if you will have it so, painters, sculptors, musicians; but they form no artists. I would say of science what I say of art, if my subject permitted me. I see men who treat of all sciences except the science. I see mathematicians, anatomists, chemists, physicians, etc., but I see no savant.[15]

Delsarte’s critique of disciplinary specialization and the corresponding absence of a metaphysical perspective that could unite them in mutual understanding—and, by implication, morally ground them—reflects the extent to which he was a man before (and after!) his time. Only today has the need to recover a holistic or transdisciplinary understanding of the human being and the world become widely recognized. “In art,” insists Delsarte, “one must love something besides art if one would know how to love art.”[16] This “something besides art” is its “sovereign principle,” that which is communicated to us by the beatific appearance it bodies forth for the soul—the grandeur of the Creator. Just as the scientist does not love the telescope for itself, but for the insight it conveys concerning the Wisdom of God in nature, so must one love art, not for itself, but as “the telescope of a supernatural world.”[17] Just as the sovereign principle expresses itself in a trichotmoy (the Good, the True, and the Beautiful), so must the foundational instruction for all art be threefold. No school in the truest sense of the word will arise until, says Delsarte, “music, eloquence, and plastic art, these three co-necessary bases of art, are taught unitedly as they are together united to the constituent essences of our being.”[18] Delsarte’s triune foundation for the instruction of art reflects the triune metaphysics which underlies the constitution of the human being. “Man,” says Delsarte, “made in the image of God, manifestly carries in his inner being as in his body, the august imprint of his triple causality.”[19] Stebbins later contextualizes Delsarte’s ontological trichotomy in world history by drawing out the same theme as it has been expressed by different cultures throughout the ages. She also equates Delsarte’s Christian understanding of the trinity with Emmanuel Swedenborg’s, defined as that which consists in love, wisdom, and power:

Love, being the origin and parent of all existence, is called Father; wisdom, which is the form of love, is named the Son, and the only begotten; while the divine power, consisting in the perfect union of love and wisdom, going forth in creative energy and life-imparting influence, is the Holy Spirit.[20]

Delsarte describes the relationship constitutive of the trinity as a “harmonic consubstantiality” and deems it the sovereign criterion for all matters of examination in science; art, he says, “is the generalization and application of it.”[21] Said otherwise, true science proceeds from a consciously held metaphysics of the trinity which serves as a hermeneutic light for interpreting the creativity of nature; art is the harnessing and extension of this creativity in like manner as the Creator. Both serve to elevate the human being in her aspiration for wisdom and her expressive extension of divine creativity. The harmonic consubstantiality of the trinity capitulates itself in the transdisciplinary reunion of science, art, and religion—a reunion Delsarte captures beautifully when he piously observes how “art and prayer so confound themselves in one ineffable unity that I cannot separate the two things.”[22] Just as the Holy Spirit unites the Father as love and the Son as wisdom, so does the power of imagination unite the inner human being with her external form and the rest of nature’s body. In lineage with figures like Plato and Thomas Aquinas, Delsarte’s trinitarianism exemplifies a metaphysics of participation by affirming a real relationship between the heights of divine transcendence and the sensual depths of created immanence. As Delsarte himself says,

This manner of looking at man shows us the role of his two natures in all their manifestations. To each spiritual function responds a function of the body. To each grand function of the body corresponds a spiritual act. Thus we can at the same time study separately that which is of the spirit and that which is of the body; thus from the concurrence of these two powers in the same person, results the intimate fusion of art and science, which, though each one is born of a different source, nevertheless ally, interpenetrate and reciprocally prove each other.[23]

The 35 years Delsarte devoted to the realization of true art consisted largely in his empirical study of outward human expressions and the inner soul-soul states corresponding to them—a science of correspondences. After Delsarte’s address Stebbins begins to unpack his metaphysically dense aesthetics into its practical application. Of the address itself she writes,

I advise you to read it; but beware of too much reading on the subject. You may then content yourself with the brain’s knowledge; and what we are aiming for is unconscious cerebration, not conscious. The first is only acquired by a patient practice of the technique, as a singer studies her scales.[24]

By emphasizing unconscious cerebration over brain knowledge Stebbins conveys the extent to which learning Delsarte’s method, as transmitted by her, effects a total transformation of the human being through a transdisciplinary form of training. Even still, metaphysical understanding is crucial for developing confidence in the espoused method. To inculcate this, Stebbins enjoins the reader as her pupil to consider an example:

Look with me at this aster. Do you realize that the purple star is as much the result of its ‘superior principle’ as you or I am of ours? The spirit [or sovereign principle] in a plant is its power of gathering from the earth and the air dead matter, and shaping it to its chosen form. The flower is the sign, the end, the creature, that the spirit makes. You see, then, dear pupil, two things to observe. One the life-power and energy; the other, the form proceeding therefrom, and most perfectly adapted to bring them into outward manifestation. What we produce is merely the form of what exists in our minds. Every stroke of the artist’s brush is made within ere it glows on the canvas. In the actor, every accent, every inflection, every gesture, is but the outer reverberation of the still small voice within. The idea, as separate from the object, exists prior to the object itself; and the outward work is but the material form, the effect of the spiritual idea or spiritual form.[25]

Stebbins makes clear the primacy and antecedence of spirit in the genesis of what appears to the senses. She also makes clear how human consciousness participates in spiritual creativity through the power of imagination, that which serves as the medium for the realization of art—“the outer reverberation of the still small voice within.”

Thus, perhaps surprisingly, a major tributary of the somatics movement flowed from a trinitarian metaphysics and its practical application of the esoteric principle of correspondence. In one of her final publications, The Genevieve Stebbins System of Physical Training, Stebbins characteristically situates her work in a long lineage of practitioners:

The principle of correspondence, thoroughly understood, is the key that unlocks many doors, physical and spiritual. It was first formulated in the grand old Valley of the Nile, as the axiom of both science and religion; as it is above, so it is below — as on the earth, so in the sky — as within, so without. Art could not speak if there were no instinctive comprehension of the language of expression.[26]

If Delsarte’s Christian terminology seemed to obscure the cosmos, Stebbins general explication of the principle of correspondence makes plain that what applies to the human being as microcosm equally applies to the visible macrocosm. The inner life of human beings is coordinated with the inner life of the cosmos as a whole, a perspective that interpretations of the new physics may have brought back into view, but which otherwise conflicts with the materialist world conception still reigning over many imaginations today. That Stebbins passed this on to her pupils is evident in a statement Charlotte Selver made about her own work and the influence her teacher had on it:

One can learn not to restrict one’s view; to feel oneself as a member of this planet we all live on. It’s important that people learn to stop circling around themselves and instead to become open to the world and active. When I started to study with Elsa Gindler, I was very deeply impressed by her including the whole cosmos in her work.[27]

Selver’s statement conveys the unique capacity human beings have to creatively participate in the cosmic reciprocity of within and without. Nonhuman animals, apart from those domesticated by humans, do not err from the cosmic coordinations of life. Human beings can, and have, but may also reattune to the cosmic dance and, with wisdom gained from overcoming alienation, extend its creativity further. Stebbins’ system works to effect such a metanoia and begins by addressing the way our habits shape the quality of our lives. According to Stebbins, any emotional and/or physical expressions I take on (willingly or not) build the picture of my overall personality. Informed by the principle of correspondence, I may have more agency than I realized to transform the melancholia I believe defines my personality; if the sadness I feel inwardly expresses itself as a frown across my face, perhaps venturing a smile more often—contrived as it might feel—will eventually create a corresponding shift within my soul. Stebbins also emphasizes the reciprocity between soul states and rates of respiration. If one is often beset with anxiety, as many of us are today, its correspondence in shallow breathing can effect detriment to one’s overall psycho-physical health. Because Stebbins’ system of psycho-physical culture brings intention to the dynamic of correspondence through the use of imagination and physical movement, it is intrinsically therapeutic and militates against the legacy of Cartesian dualism:

Recognizing the interdependence of mind and body, and the great power of habit, let us learn this beautiful philosophy — training the body easily to express a beautiful soul, or vice versa, training the body to right normal expression — that through reflex action a sickly spirit may grow into uprightness.[28]

The power Stebbins conveys for this beautiful philosophy to the grant individual increased agency in matters of wellbeing anticipates the resistance future somatics practitioners would pose to an overly mechanized medical establishment. Physicians of the latter have much to offer us, yet we should not cede all authority to them, but should instead build toward a culture that promotes individual training in the art and science of somatic awareness. The training Stebbins references consists in Delsarte’s “three co-necessary bases of art” and beyond, first in a phase of pure physical exercise to develop the body (plastic art) and singing exercises (music) to develop the voice before advancing to practices of graceful movement, eloquent recitation (eloquence), intellectual learning, and the cultivation of noble states of soul. Paradoxically, the effort required for meeting the demands of Stebbins’ regimen is directed toward an end that exceeds individual agency in grace. As Delsarte expressed earlier, art becomes indistinguishable from prayer when raised to its highest potential. “The imagination,” writes Stebbins, 

the ruling and divine power, is never governed. The rest of man is but an instrument on which that plays, a canvas on which that harmoniously, if the strings be true, the canvas white and smooth; wildly, if one be broken, the other stained. Thus, you see, while work must be done, the instrument perfected, art is only valuable as it expresses goodness and greatness in the soul.[29]

In recognizing the ultimate subservience of individual effort to transcendent grace for achievement the of living art—the virtuous life—Stebbins and Delsarte are in good company with spiritual practitioners the world over. For Stebbins, the imitation of Greek statuary was of particular importance for attaining a vital understanding of the highest of human ideals: “The Greek gods,” writes Stebbins, 

are not expressions of individual mind but of universal ideas. They were carved to embody those splendid abstract laws of the universe—form, power, balance, rhythm, repose—in one word, beauty. In the statutes we see represented the emotions of the gods. The practice of them gives ease, dignity, and calm, removing agitation.[30]

Imitating such forms garners the pupil’s momentum toward the overall goal of Stebbins’ system: to merge life with art, what she called the “great art,” “the art of being able to always express the true self, to elevate the soul to its highest aspirations, and the mind to its best thought.”[31] Thus, as was the case for Delsarte, Stebbins enjoins her pupils to undergo a rigorous training of body, mind, and soul and so attune themselves to the beautiful—a moment once reached when one may cast off all rules in coincidence with life divine. This great art of human life consists in becoming an instrument for that which is highest:

through our training we make the ground flexible for tender rootlets as we aim to make the clay of which we are made plastic to the inner emotion, revelatory of the soul. The music of the spheres might be echoing in the brain of some inspired master; but without an instrument how could he convey its wondrous vibrations to his fellow souls?[32]

Stebbins emphasis on approximating the classical perfections both within and without could be interpreted as an ableist promotion of spiritual bypassing. Is the system of psycho-physical culture really applicable to everyone, or just those of a “normal” constitution? And moreover, does this so-called “ideal” physicality render what is not considered ideal—disease for example—morally inferior? Finally, is the cultivation of noble states of soul not just a dissociation from the psychological wounding we have yet to address? Stebbins anticipates such questions and responds by pointing to the primacy of the moral soul:

Bodily condition, disease, has its expression; mental conditions, efforts of the mind, vacuity or indifference, their expression. Moral defect or obliquity is indelibly stamped, and to the trained eye can never be confounded with physical weakness per se.[33]

At the end of the day what counts most is the state of soul characterized by divinely inspired aspiration—a state of soul that shows itself clearly in the renewed wonder and gratitude of those who, faced with a terminal illness, wake up in grace to the glories of the most mundane features of existence. Stebbins intellectual appreciation of the marriage between the infinite the finite reflects the fusion of Neoplatonic philosophy and Christianity she has inherited. Just as the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ sanctified the flesh with the spirit, the temporal with the eternal, so does Stebbins’ metaphysical foundation allow for a reappreciation of the finite body (from the perspective of spirit) in contradistinction to the machinic corpse of the materialist medical imaginary. Philosophically speaking, the field of somatics could not emerge if we did not participate in something which exceeds the time and space conditions of our bodily existence. If we were just material, mechanical bodies—consciousness a mere epiphenomenon—we could not even think about or become aware of our bodies. Because somatics entails the vantage point of the observer in consciousness it methodologically affirms—when philosophically consistent—that we participate in something that transcends the given. Awakening to the transcendent presence of the observer within is the therapeutic potential of Stebbins system of psycho-physical culture; only then can we truly value our bodies, our individualities. This is the immanent possibility Stebbins and the somatics practitioners influenced by her offer people of the modern west—the sublimation of materialism’s skin-encapsulated ego by our inwardly illuminated, irreducibly unique individuality—our “I.” Martha Graham, one of the 20th century’s most famous artists of modern dance (a field that, as I mentioned before, was majorly influenced by Stebbins) sums this up beautifully in her famous encouragement to Agnes de Mille: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.”[34] 

Recovering the legacy of Genevieve Stebbins not only paints a fuller picture of somatics and modern dance history, but also further clears a path for moderns alternative to the nihilistic descent of materialism. Like the Romantic philosophers and poets before her, Stebbins philosophically integrates the apparent world of nature with the world of spirit in a way that celebrates the expressive particular, the irreducibly individual. Without the remove of spirit implied by such rigorous thought, such metaphysical speculation, we could not consistently affirm the value of our bodies, for we would be completely identified with them. Just as, in Delsarte’s words, “one must love something besides art if one would know how to love art,” so must one love something besides the body if one would know how to love the body rightly. That something besides the body is the divine, that which gives us to be and by whose light we may recognize the gift of life, of our bodies, of the world itself. As performers, Delsarte and Stebbins translated Romantic metaphysics into an applied aesthetics that streams down to us now in the field of somatics, offering contemporary individuals a renewal of meaning through life lived as an art—the great art—our bodies, instruments of the spirit, temporary shrines, dwelling places for our everlasting divine.  And “physical life,” declares Stebbins, “is simply one of the soul’s educational courses in the infinite university of existence.”[35].

WORKS CITED

Johnson, Don Hanlon. “Introduction,” in Bone, Breath and Gesture: Practices of Embodiment. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1995.

Mille, Agnes de. Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham. NYC: Penguin Random House, 1992.

Mullan, Kelly. “Harmonic Gymnastics and Somatics: A Genealogy of Ideas.” Currents: Journal of the Body-Mind Centering Association, (2016).

Mullan, Kelly, “The Art and Science of Somatics: Theory, History and Scientific Foundations” (2012). MALS Final Projects, 1995-2019. 89. 

https://creativematter.skidmore.edu/mals_stu_schol/89

Mullan, Kelly. “Somatics herstories: Tracing Elsa Gindler’s educational antecedents Hade Kallmeyer and Genevieve Stebbins.” Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices 9 (2017): 159-178.

Mullan, Kelly. “Somatics: Investigating the common ground of western body–mind disciplines.” Body, Movement and Dance in Psychotherapy: An International Journal for Theory, Research and Practice. 9 (2014) 10.1080/17432979.2014.946092.

Ruyter, Nancy Lee Chalfa. “The Intellectual World of Genevieve Stebbins.” Dance Chronicle, 11(3) (1988): 381-387.

Stebbins, Genevieve. Dynamic Breathing and Harmonic Gymnastics: A Complete System of Psychical, Aesthetic, and Physical Culture (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Edgar Werner, 1892. http://www.archive.org/details/DynamicBreathin-gAndHarmonicGymnastics

Stebbins, Genevieve. Delsarte System of Expression (2nd ed.)New York, NY: Edgar Werner, 1887. https://archive.org/details/delsartesystemof00steb

Stebbins, Genevieve. The Genevieve Stebbins System of Physical Training. New York, NY: Edgar Werner, 1913.  https://archive.org/details/genevievestebbin00steb/page/n4/mode/2up


[1] Kelly Mullan, “Somatics herstories: Tracing Elsa Gindler’s educational antecedents Hade Kallmeyer and Genevieve Stebbins.” (Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices 9, (2017) 159-178), 174.

[2] Mullan, Kelly, “The Art and Science of Somatics: Theory, History and Scientific Foundations” (2012). MALS Final Projects, 1995-2019. 89. https://creativematter.skidmore.edu/mals_stu_schol/89, 4.

[3] Don Hanlon Johnson, “Introduction,” in Bone, Breath and Gesture: Practices of Embodiment, (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1995), xv.

[4] Johnson, xvi.

[5] Elsa Gindler, “Gymnastik for People Whose Lives Are Full of Activity.” Bone, Breath & Gesture: Practices of Embodiment, edited by Don Johnson, North Atlantic Books, 1995, pp. 5–14, 6.

[6] Genevieve Stebbins, Harmonic Gymnastics and Dynamic Breathing: A Complete System of Psychical, Aesthetic, and Physical Culture (2nd ed.). (New York, NY: Edgar Werner, 1892). http://www.archive.org/details/DynamicBreathin-gAndHarmonicGymnastics, 19.

[7] Mullan, “Somatics herstories”, 160.

[8] Nancy Lee Chalfa Ruyter, “The Intellectual World of Genevieve Stebbins.” Dance Chronicle, 11(3) (1988): 381-387, 393.

[9] Francois Delsarte, “Address of Francois Delsarte before the Philotechnic Society of Paris” in Delsarte System of Expression by Genevieve Stebbins (New York, NY: Edgar Werner, 1891). https://archive.org/details/delsartesystemof00steb, xviii.

[10] Delsarte, xx.

[11] Delsarte, xx.

[12] Delsarte, xxxi, xxxii.

[13] Delsarte, xxix.

[14] Delsarte, xxx.

[15] Delsarte, xxx.

[16] Delsarte, xxv.

[17] Delsarte, xxv.

[18] Delsarte, xxxi.

[19] Delsarte, lvi.

[20] Stebbins, 33.

[21] Delsarte, liv.

[22] Delsarte, xix. 

[23] Delsarte, lvii.

[24] Stebbins, 18.

[25] Delsarte, 59-60.

[26] Genevieve Stebbins, The Genevieve Stebbins System of Physical Training. (New York, NY: Edgar Werner, 1913). https://archive.org/details/genevievestebbin00steb/page/n4/mode/2up, 11.

[27] John Schick, “Interview with Charlotte Selver.” Bone, Breath & Gesture: Practices of Embodiment, edited by Don Johnson, North Atlantic Books, 1995, pp. 17–22, 19.

[28] Stebbins, The Genevieve Stebbins System of Physical Training, 14.

[29] Stebbins, Delsarte System of Expression, 78.

[30] Stebbins, The Genevieve Stebbins System of Physical Training, 138.

[31] Ibid., 27.

[32] Ibid., 60.

[33] Ibid., 11.

[34] Agnes de Mille, Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham, (NYC: Penguin Random House, 1992), 264.

[35] Stebbins, Dynamic Breathing and Harmonic Gymnastics, (my emphasis) 23.

Performing Re-enchantment

Dear Friends,

I wrote this essay during the summertime as an expression of the personal reading I’d been doing at the time. I intended to reconcile what I’d learned about the ancient approach to philosophy as praxis with the more speculative gesture toward re-enchantment I’ve entertained. How can I make re-enchantment real for myself? How am I to live? This essay first outlines what kind of ontology might make that possible. Towards its end I begin developing a basic comportment of re-enchantment, one that emphasizes aesthetic appreciation. This is, of course, an ongoing inquiry for me.

I had the chance to present these ideas more than once, with the first talk taking place at Burning Man and the second at PCC’s retreat to Bishop’s Ranch at the end of September. I’m grateful for these opportunities, for they especially help me to integrate (perform) the vision I hope to one day more fully indwell.

I’ve included the video of the latter talk below and the essay itself below it.

Performing Re-enchantment:
The Fourth Wall Has Broken

How    to translate these feelings to you?

I’ll warm up the light temperature, choose a faster shutter speed (this will be slowed-down in post), close down the aperture and keep the light sensitivity low;
I don’t want noise in the image.

Prime my focus on a subject set apart by a glowing outline, backlighting
Yours Truly,

Action!

Hitting my mark, I improvise with the script, speaking to the camera, breaking the fourth wall—the wall with which performers construct a fiction for themselves and their audience: This is the vision I manually construct for you, and in calling attention to it, I call attention to your own perception, your own potential to reconstruct a world-image for living. We are, like the machine modeled after our vision, a lens of the world realizing itself. We needn’t see byway of automatism, autofocusing and adjusting according to preset values dictated by our inheritance. “Performing Re-enchantment” is a style of crafting, not theimage of reality, but animage—one among others. Re-enchantment is an image that makes room for other stories, other enchantments. It allows for stories to resonate, but it also makes itself vulnerable to discord. Re-enchantment is an ecological reality, tentatively woven between perspectives in discord, resolution, and resonance. It depends upon a “we” for its composition. It is not an image of solipsism. Against the despot of the absolute and disembodied objectivity, it celebrates the part’s etheric complicity with the larger whole of undulating magic. Even still, it champions the part’s potential for self-creation and calls it to action.

Performing re-enchantment is a way of collapsing the divide constructed between my inside and my outside. It is the practice of tying myself back with the world. Through sense, I fall in love with the world as my own body. It is the way that I make my partial perspective a “truth,” a scaffolding of belief. Performing re-enchantment is my wakefulness to the art of perception. Perception becomes the primary medium, like the manual relationship of camera to world, for stylizing my participation and efficacy in the continuous medium of the ether, the cosmic imagination dreaming all into being.

Performing re-enchantment is grounded in the groundlessness of an aesthetic ontology. Following Matthew Segall in his dissertation, “The Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead,” I think thinking as a special form of feeling. An aesthetic ontology therefore bounds knowledge to the cosmically sensate. As Segall has it, thought has no privileged access outside of space-time, rather,

when we try to peer beyond the cosmos outside us, or plumb the depths of the psyche within us, we find only more appearances, an infinite ingression of appearances. When the understanding tries to reflectively grasp the infinity of aesthesis, it slips into an infinite regression. It fails to find an original ground or fundamental reason for the ongoing aesthetic genesis of the Universe. Only the creative imagination can intuit the meaning of the infinite aesthetic ingression of Beauty’s appearances.[1]

Like the camera, the eye of the imagination is bound to thisworld—to others—and cannot create a pure image of what the world is really like. Rather, as waking dreams ourselves, we are lured toward instantiations of Beauty for “truth,” those mysterious, living symbols of intelligibility that confound mechanistic reductionism. For German idealist philosopher Fredrich W. J. Schelling, the order apparent in the bodily synchrony of organisms and human art bespeaks the larger etheric undulation of universal organism. But rather than declare this ontology absolutely, Schelling more modestly postulatesthe ether as “the first principle of the universal dualism of nature.”[2]I draw attention to the word “postulates” because, as Keith R. Peterson explains,

the discussion of the “postulate” in Schelling is meant to emphasize the deliberate collapse of theoretical into practical philosophy, or the mediation of all theory by practice, typical of the post-Kantian tradition. This is critical with reference to Schelling’s philosophy of nature, because unless it is seen as an attempt to reground science itself in the soil of practical philosophy, it will be (and has been) viewed at best as merely another narrative, myth, or story about nature.[3]

Schelling’s replanting of theoretical philosophy back in the dirt of the practical from which it arose effectively restores mind to body, soul to world—the relationship par excellence of dipolarity. It is a move that leads Segall to classify Schelling as a descendental philosopher, implying the genetic and this-worldliness of his epistemic approach.  In contrast to the eminent transcendental philosopher himself—Immanuel Kant—Schelling accepted that the critical turn in philosophy ultimately reveals the human mind’s codependence with a world for the birth of knowledge. This is what leads Schelling to postulate his notion of “original forces”—or the expanding and contracting dipolarity of universal organism—“not as absolute explanation, but [as] limit concepts” which allow the explanation of “all phenomenon empirically, that is, from the reciprocity of diverse matters.”[4]With the theoretical returned to actual experience, philosophy can no longer be understood as a neutral activity, rather, to philosophize is to act.

The dipolar dynamism of Schelling’s universal organism finds an analog in the process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s concept of creativity. But the similarities go deeper; as Segall writes, “the [descendental] philosophies of Schelling and Whitehead can evidently be understood to orbit around a common intuition, namely that the conceptual division opposing objective reality to subjective ideality can be healed only through an aesthetic act of creative imagination.”[5] Despite their affirmation of creative philosophy, neither Schelling nor Whitehead would support a vacuous relativity where any story goes. Rather, the very structure of story—with its organs of (at least) teller and listener, time and space—calls for the coincidence of perspective and world. For Schelling, Peterson explains, this means that “nature philosophy is not merely another “representation” of a nature to which human beings maintain only a distant and instrumental relation,” bug is rather intrinsic to human experience and thus “the first postulate of philosophy must express the dynamic synthesis of self and world…as an ontological unity from which both terms are derived.”[6] All logos is therefore genetic logos. Unlike Kant, who, to save science from belief and freedom from mechanism, stamps the human subject with exclusive rights to the codex of knowledge, Schelling maintains that the latter relies upon an agreement. That agreement is the unity-in-dipolarity animating the larger dynamism of Schelling’s universal organism. “[To Schelling] self and world,” Peterson tells us, “are of one substance, and we will continue to misunderstand ourselves and undervalue the natural world unless this ontological identity is expressed philosophically.”[7] This is the gist of the term re-enchantment as I use it here, an image for seeing the world and its composition of perceiving creatures as continuous.

If our very subjectivity, like a skipping rock rippling across a pond, is continuous with the world and has affect—makes waves—then accepting this makes all the difference. It means that the images we have of ourselves and the world matter. Schelling’s commitment to creating an image that honors the relationship between self and world has special relevance for the contemporary moment in its crisis of belief. Threatened by the specters of “alternative facts,” climate science skepticism, and the rise of charismatic demagogues, the main character in the crisis of belief is the King, objectivity. The controversy? An unveiling—an image has surfaced of objectivity caught in intimacy with the world. Its reputation stained, objectivity can no longer pretend to be above and beyond the commons. Society scrambles—who to believe? Who holds the image of Truth?

During a time when primary and secondary qualities collapse, artists—those spellcasters of the sensual—have much to contribute to the re-visioning of objectivity. Writing in her 1968 compendium of theory, The Novel of the Future, literary artist Anaïs Nin suggests that “the only objectivity we can reach is achieved, first of all, by an examination of our self as lens, as camera, as recorder, as mirror. Only once we know its idiosyncrasies, its areas of prejudice or blindness can we proceed to relate with others.”[8] In Nin’s vision, the transfiguration of objectivity makes it something to be achieved, a goal that inextricably includes others. For the practice of science, philosopher-witch Isabelle Stengers defines objectivity as “the creation of a situation enabling what the scientists question to put their questions at risk, to make the difference between relevant questions and unilaterally imposed ones.”[9] The notion of objectivity as achieved and relational repeats. Stengers continues, saying “objectivity thus depends on a very particular creative art, and a very selective one, because it means that what is addressed must successfully be enrolled as a “partner” in a very unusual tangled relation.”[10]In Stengers view, the practice of science resembles an artful dialogue. Scientists translate back and forth with other cosmopolites, whether they be subatomic particles or the Earth’s undulating ocean, and between them something new is born. Knowledge, but a tentative, metaphoric kind that never ceases uncurling question marks. Facts that are living, evolving, dying. Objectivity reborn as a living, breathing lovechild. Why should the stories we tell be sensitive to this newborn creative, intersubjective objectivity? The threat of ecological collapse signaled by climate change, mass extinction of species, and the displacement of human beings already suffering from symptomatic natural disasters has made the interdependence of Earth systems explicit. Lines between “me” and “we” blur. Philosophers of science like Stengers take their cue, re-storying theory and practice in lieu of radical interconnectivity.

Stengers is especially inspired by the rhizomatic thinking of Deleuze and Guattari in their revelation of the assemblage,or the larger networks we as individuals are always already a part and formed by. One of her exemplary human models in the purview of the assemblage is the practitioner of magic—the witch:

What the witches challenge us to accept is the possibility of giving up criteria that claim to transcend assemblages, and that reinforce, again and again, the epic of critical reason. What they cultivate, as part of their craft (it is a part of any craft), is an art of immanent attention, an empirical art about what is good or toxic—an art which our addiction to the truth has too often despised as superstition.

Aesthetic ontology is resident in the word “witchcraft” as a subversive practice of recreation. What we, whether artists, scientists, or philosophers, are to learn from the witches is how, foremost, “to be compromised by magic.”[11]This comes from an essay by Stengers titled “Reclaiming Animism,” in which she reclaims the former term along with magic to revise our basic sense of intentionality. As a prescient example, Stengers describes writing “as an experience of metamorphic transformation. It makes ones feel that ideas are not the author’s, that they demand some kind of cerebral—that is—bodily contortion that defeats any preformed intention.”[12]Writing is no longer a rendering of the ideas that are mine, not an expression of only mycreativity, but is rather the expression of powers feeling through the unique nexus point of “me.” The same goes with reading and interpretation; what counts now as objective truth is much more fragile, more precious—a diplomatic achievement between a particular group in peer review, a “we” that includes nonhumans.

Rather than craft understanding with concept-images like Deleuze and Guattari’s “assemblage,” Stengers prefers the reclamation of the word “magic” from its trivialized status as mere metaphor, for it has protected our human intentionality from “the experience of an agency that does not belong to us even if it includes us, but an “us” as it is lured into feeling.”[13]Instead of pretending that there indefinitely exists some means of explaining away the experience of being moved by something, Stengers proposes we “forfeit this protection in order to relieve ourselves of the sad, monotonous little critical or reflexive voice whispering that we should not accept being mystified.”[14]The impulse of reason to reduce and reveal is recast as a powerful, inherited craft of magic animating human perception, hypnotizing its subjects with images that separate soul and world. Art, philosophy, science, history—all practices of sense-making, recast and reclaimed as magical arts of participation in the universal dreaming.

Etymologically, enchantment roots back to the Latin incantare, to in­­-sing. Feeling “back” through space-time, the word carries a translation of bewitchment, a means of singing a rhythm-image to sway others into dancing along. A certain song called disenchantment has prevailed over much of human perception, one that translates an image of soul as human-exclusive-meaning-seeker ina world that is ultimately meaningless. It is what allows for the capitalist delusion of unlimited Earthly resources and the myopic destruction of life systems. It atrophies feeling, is anesthetic. Re-enchantment is a song that rouses its hearer to sensation, like the epiphanic touch of art. It is a style of phenomenology, or “a reflexive awareness of perception.”[15]

Images of re-enchantment recast the self-evidence of ordinary “perception” into “a disciplined, stylized and creative expression of the world…[a] reflexive, situated, engaged expression of the truth of being within being.”[16]A camera on manual with special attention given to the aesthetic arrangement of the image. “Aesthetics,” Anaïs Nin says, “was [originally] an expression of man’s need to be in love with his world.”[17]Living is an artistic practice all its own and for Nin, the artist’s role in society is thus essential. As image maker (whether sonic, pictoral, or sculptural) the artist’s role is to shake up the habitual by shocking others into a renewal of perception—what Nin takes as the basic function of art. The artists of a given culture are therefore “responsible for our image of the world, and our relation to others.”[18]But not just any image goes, rather, the exemplary artist is a poetic one who aspires to make us fall in love with the world via Beautiful images. This achievement requires a level of insight and self-discipline that is a function of an artist’s own self-examination. “The artist,” Nin says, “is aware of his self. He is aware that it is more than his self, that it is at once his guniea pig for experiments, his potential tool, his instrument, his camera, to be nourished, his medium.”[19]

Though disenchantment has reigned over the modern period, robbing world of soul, perceiving (unselfconsciously) as a self over and against the world is perhaps basic animal instinct.Indeed, Hadot confirms that even philosophers of antiquity suspected this, for then too it was understood that “we must separate ourselves from the world qua world in order to live our daily life…[and thus] must separate ourselves from the “everyday” world in order to rediscover the world qua world.”[20]There is thus an older image to reclaim, one dreamed by the cosmic imagination before becoming lucid of itself, before the invention of the cell membrane. To break through the fourth wall, we must become aware of our perceptual palette. What colors do we unconsciously paint the world with? Translating her own insight into the waking dream, Nin describes how

we carefully observe and watch the happenings of the entire world without realizing they are projections of our inner selves. What we are watching outside is a representation, a projection of our inner world into the universal. There is no distinction… It seems to me that such a view is far more reassuring than that of considering the world as completely insane, absurd, or else ourselves insane or meaningless…You can only dispel the nightmare by awareness that it is our personal nightmare, projected on a multiscreen cinerama.[21]

Like the artist, the philosopher has been translated as a “stranger to the given.” Inspired by Pierre Hadot’s translations of ancient Greek philosophy, Adam Robbert describes philosophy as a practice and performance of perceptual reconfiguration, a wayof“enacting a shift in the phenomenological display, re-inscribing it with a new arrangement of meaning and significance.”[22]The so-called “side view” or praxis view of philosophy implies askēsis, or the practice of constructing a relationship to oneself by differentiating “oneself from the repetitions of the past, making explicit what were previously orderings in action and perception.”[23]The road to re-inscription is lifelong, for the self-duplication of askēsis implies a move away from pedagogy to psychagogy, what Ed Cohen—following Michel Foucault—describes as an “ontology of the present.”[24]Similar to aesthetic ontology, pychagogy concerns the soul with questions immediate to perception. The double within me is Socrates resurrected, leading me to the “true life” through a dialectic that ends only in death. I am my own lantern. Truth-telling becomes a craft that requires de-cision from the realm of possibilities. It means differentiating ourselves from the self-evidence of ordinary perception, turning the dial on our cameras from automatic to manual. Like witches, philosophers craft with magic, but cast spells foremost over themselves. They perform their spells and, like artist’s and their images, inspire others to fellow-feeling by their very being. They manually adjust themselves as cameras and are the living images they capture. I am before the camera, speaking to you, breaking the fourth wall.

Re-enchantment is the performance of a certain song that stories an image of reconciliation, an image that is—as Hadot would translate it—essentially philosophical: “in all schools [of classical Greece] – with the exception of Skepticism – philosophy was held to be an exercise consisting in learning to regard both society and the individuals who comprise it from the point of view of universality.”[25]Hadot does not attempt to interpret classical Greek philosophy for systematic consistency, but instead focuses on the practical nature of its discourse:

discourse was not systematic because it wanted to provide a total, systematic explanation of the whole of reality. Rather, it was systematic in order that it might provide the mind with a small number of principles, tightly linked together, which derived greater persuasive force and mnemonic effectiveness precisely from such systemization.[26]

For Hadot, ancient philosophers treated discourse as one exercise among others in soteriological spiritual practice. Aesthetics were therefore given special attention. Especially for the initiate, discourse may act as the guardian of the threshold, snowballing into a reciprocal causality where practice and discourse blur into one. This is the essence of virtue epistemology, a way of knowing that honors “noncognitive accessibility conditions for what remains genuinely cognitive insights.”[27]Indeed, as Segall outlines in his dissertation, bridging Kant’s centuries-wide chasm between soul and world requires an imaginative act—what, for those reared by a world-image of dualism, may feel like a leap of faith. For the sake of more interesting propositions, for the soul of the world, I release my grasp on capital T-truth, leap, and freefall into the bottomless rabbit hole of aesthetic ontology. The only way beyond the correlation is through it. Casting a spell of symbolic reference, Whitehead’s space-time synthesizing mode of perception which can either maintain orcreatively disrupt perceptual habits “in favor of alternative imaginations in the flow of etheric space-time,”[28]Segall conjures a voluntary organ called the etheric imagination:

Only with etheric imagination can the process philosopher intuit the formative forces flowing through the natural world beneath or withinits outward sensory surfaces. Such an imaginative thinking represents the individual’s discovery within themselves of the etheric forces of Natura naturans, the inner dimension of Nature that is always in dynamic tension, sloughing off external Nature (Natura naturarata) like a snake shedding its skin.[29]

Etheric imagination is a particular form of symbolic reference, a particular configuration of the manual settings on my camera. But this is where camera metaphor breaks down, for in this ontology there are no fixed and final settings for perception to exhaust.

Reclaiming philosophy as a magical art, I recreate from my inheritance a book of spells for reconciliation. I call my craft “Performing Re-enchantment.” Turning round with the latest wave of ritual, characterized by its overcoming of “the putative duality between constructive and realist approaches,” I align my praxis with Jacob Sherman’s suggestion that we begin to think with, rather than about, ritual.[30]My metaphorical comparison of the camera to human perception breaks down, but its true limitation lies in the imagination of the human perceiver. It is the enchantment I perform which determines my interpretation, and here the notion of performance takes the stage, for its cameo has everything to do with the possibility of otherwise. The aesthetic ontology I freefall through does not permit any finality of self-image. The mystery of me only shines forth through my Beauty, the divinity of we hidden in plain sight. “Performance,” says João Florêncio, “is the way in which all bodies, human and nonhuman, play themselves to one another whilst always holding something back, like some bearer of divine secrets.”[31]“All the world’s a stage,” says Shakespeare. We are on stage performing, translating across the undulating space-time ether of perceivers. Florêncio moves through the correlation, and with the logic of objected-oriented ontology, affirms the always-withdrawn aspect of a being-thing. Like Nin, Florêncio connects art with the renewal of perception and extends the possibility beyond its province to the everyday. To call attention to performance is to hyperbolize it, and in doing so, foreground that“the being of a performing body is always more than—and therefore, never exhausted by—any of the phenomenal bodies or roles it might perform at any given instance.”[32]A being’s mystery shines out to us, disrupting our preconceptions and plunging us into its depth of possibility, its participation in the whispering of Beauty. Both Florêncio and Segall consider this way of aesthetically responding to have import for a politics that represents more than just the sanctity of human beings. “Beauty,” Segall says,

points the soul to the profound erotic current hidden in the life of all things. They [Schelling and Whitehead] saw that imagination, the generative matrix and communis sensusof the animate universe, helps to remind the individual soul of the immanent divine Eros holding all things together in Goodness. The ancients knew this Eros as a function of the anima mundi, the world-soul. The practical imagination that grasps Beauty as an expression of the Good allows the self to place itself in the position—body and soul—of others, and indeed of all others, that is, of the All.A redeemed imagination can empathically identify with any ensouled part of the universe and also with the soul of the whole universe. It does so through the power of Love.[33]

To hyperbolize performance is to perform performativity. It is the declaration of divine imagination reclaimed; a re-enchanted, active storytelling of otherwise. I am before the camera, speaking to younow, breaking the fourth wall, beholding you in all your strange Beauty.

Though the term “Anthropocene” speaks loudly of the human, it is paradoxically a time when I, as human being, am privy to scientific evidence which shows just how much my organism is comprised and constituted by nonhumans. Tracing the 20thcentury’s progressive externalization of psychopathology from intra and interpersonal origin, to larger social forces of culture, and, finally, to the ecological or cosmic, James Hillman senses a re-visioning of subjectivity. “The world,” he tells us, “because of its breakdown, is entering a new mode of consciousness: by drawing attention to itself by means of its symptoms, it is becoming aware of itself as a psychic reality.”[34]Like the cry of a wound seeking tenderness, ecological collapse is understood by Hillman to be a cry of the world soul, the anima mundi. His way of pointing to the world soul also reveals the practicable way to meet it. “Let us imagine,” begins Hillman,

the anima mundi as that particular soul-spark, that seminal image, which offers itself through each thing in its visible form. The anima mundi indicates the animated possibilities presented by each event as it is, its sensuous presentation as a face bespeaking its interior image—in short, its availability to imagination, presence as a psychic reality.

Like Segall, Hillman prescribes the recuperation of imagination as the communis sensus, or common sense:

Lodged in and around the heart,” the communis sensus unites sensation and imagination in the act of aisthesis—the Greek term for perception. Perception for the Greeks was tantamount to “breathing in or the taking in of the world, the gasp, “aha,” the “uh” of the breath in wonder, shock, amazement, an aesthetic response to the image (eidolon) presented.[35]

Aisthesis, the initial, sensual astonishment that precedes the process of creating knowledge. Performing re-enchantment requires one to either be or become aesthetisized—sensitized through the movement of Love: in order to “grasp the Greek account of perception,” writes Hillman, “psychology must already, as did Psyche in Apuleius’s tale, stand in the temple of Aphrodite, recognizing that each thing smiles, has allure, calls forth aisthesis.[36]The proliferation of consumer options and the cheapening of production has led to a devaluation of cultural things that equals the devaluation of the larger ecological community. Sensual valuation as a common good is exploited for the sake of addictive spending. Otherwise, it is mostly atrophied. But, if consciousness advances “by means of pathologized revelations through the Underworld of anxiety,” as Hillman suggests, we have a lead. For, as he continues, “our ecological fears announce that things are where the soul now claims psychological attention.”[37]

So far, the spells of my praxis for “Performing Re-enchantment” include reclaiming the organ-muscle (the heart) of etheric imagination and exercising it through aisthesisto meet the soul of the world in every incarnate thing—conceptual and physical. It involves the invocation of Aphrodite for the capacity to aesthetically respond—to see Beauty and sense soul. “Beauty,” Hillman explains, “is simply the manifestation, the display of phenomena, the appearance of the anima mundi…Beauty is an epistemological necessity; aisthesis is how we know the world. And Aphrodite is the lure, the nudity of things as they show themselves to the sensuous imagination.”[38]The training regimen for shifting my “phenomenological display” hinges on crafting well in the sensual world: “the cognitive task will shift from the understanding of meaning to a sensitization to particulars, the appreciation of the inherent intelligibility given in the qualitative patterns of events.”[39]My spell book is therefore written with a precision that honors particularity. For the soul of the world, I usher in a personal revolution of adverbs and adjectives to succeed the “ascetic puritanism” of my inheritance as an American academic. We are simply balancing primary qualities with the lushness of the “secondary.” Rhetoric returns—rising over the hill—a flower-bearing hero.

Practices of expansion and contraction complement my sensual apprehension of soul in thing and world. I thank my ancestors as models for these spells, and, following Hadot’s assertion that “each generation must take up, from scratch, the task of learning to read and to re-read these “old truths,” feel emboldened to recast them anew.[40]Like Goethe and the ancients before him, I magic in myself a delimitation to the present and become “aware of the inner richness of the present, and of the totality contained within the instant…[I] swell to fill the dimensions of the world.”[41]I experience what Raimon Panikkar calls “tempiternity,” like Schelling’s restricted infinity within which all the moments of particularity Beautifully whisper their participation in the eternal. This moment, an Epicurean gift! Oh, Aphrodite, pray I meet it well! Value is restored to all matter and I am not so lonely without other humans around. Rather, this is intimacy recast, a spell to break the curse of anesthesia for more than my personal salvation, because “my” salvation is now the world’s. Delimiting the present—contracting and expanding—means to be ever-always “held in an enduring intimate conversation with matter.”[42]

My last spell is especially for you—my song. I sing it in the polis, intending for the vibrations to translate an enchantment for a cosmopolis. It is a poetry of physics for awakening to “the very fact that we are perceiving the world, and that the world is that which we perceive.”[43]As a performer of re-enchantment, I sing the whole cosmos as my body, streaming through the nexus point of “me” as feelings that create an image—what I call “my” experience. Taking care of “me” means taking care of we—you. Re-enchantment is my de-cision, but my performance is foremost one of psychagogy—a provocation to life lived otherwise. “What I experience or portray shall go from my composition without a shred of my composition. You shall stand by my side and look in the mirror with me.”[44]The fourth wall has broken.

NOTES

Cohen, E. “Live Thinking, or the Psychagogy of Michel Foucault.” Differences 25, no. 2 (2014): 1-32. doi:10.1215/10407391-2773418.

Davis, Duane. “The Art of Perception.” In Merleau-Ponty and the Art of Perception, edited by Duane Davis, 3-53. State University of New York Press, 2016.

Nin, Anaïs. The Novel of the Future. Durham: Duke University Press, 1968.

Florêncio, João. “Encountering Worlds: Performing In/As Philosophy in the Ecological Age.” Performance Philosophy 1 (2015). http://www.performancephilosophy.org/journal/article/view/14.

Hadot, Pierre, and Arnold Ira. Davidson. Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

Hillman, James, and James Hillman. The Thought of the Heart ; And, the Soul of the World. Woodstock, CT: Spring Publications, 2014.

Robbert, Adam. “The Side View: Hadot and Sloterjidk on the Practice of Philosophy.” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy 13, no. 1 (2017). http://cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/viewFile/583/973.

Schelling, F. W. J. “On the World Soul (Extract).” Edited by Robin Mackay. Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI. England: Urbanomic January 2010): 66-95.

Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Von, and Keith R. Peterson. First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.

Segall, Matthew T. “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead” PhD diss. California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, 2016. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/26027974.

Sherman, Jacob. “Postscript: A New Ritual Turn?” International Journal of Philosophy and Theology 79, no. 3 (2018): 341-47. doi:10.1080/21692327.2018.1474323.

Stengers, Isabelle. “Reclaiming Animism.” e-flux # 36. July 2012. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/36/61245/reclaiming-animism/.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 150th Anniversery ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

[1]Matthew Segall, “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead” PhD diss., (San Francisco: CIIS, 2016), retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/26027974, 77.

[2]Friedrich W. J. Schelling, On the World Soul (Extract),” Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI, (Urbanomic, England, 2010), 85.

[3]Friedrich W. J. Schelling, trans. Keith R. Peterson, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature (Albany, State University of New York Press, 2004), xiv-xv.

[4]Schelling, “On the World Soul (Extract)”, 79. My emphasis.

[5]Segall, “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead,” 26.

[6]Schelling & Peterson, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, xv.

[7]Ibid.

[8]Anaïs Nin, The Novel of the Future(Durham, Duke University Press, 1968), 36.

[9]Isabelle Stengers, “Reclaiming Animism,” e-flux #36 (July 2012), retrieved from https://www.e-flux.com/journal/36/61245/reclaiming-animism/.

[10]Stengers, “Reclaiming Animism.”

[11]Ibid.

[12]Ibid.

[13]Ibid.

[14]Ibid.

[15]Duane Davis, “The Art of Perception,” in Merleau-Ponty and the Art of Perception, ed. Duane Davis (New York: State University of New York Press, 2016), 7.

[16]Davis, “The Art of Perception,” 10.

[17]Nin, The Novel of the Future, 197.

[18]Nin,The Novel of the Future, 192.

[19]Nin, The Novel of the Future,37.

[20]Pierre Hadot, trans. By Arnold Ira. Davison, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault (Oxford, Blackwell, 1995), 258.

[21]Nin, The Novel of the Future,30.

[22]Robbert, “The Side View: Hadot and Sloterjidk on the Practice of Philosophy,” 9.

[23]Adam Robbert, “The Side View: Hadot and Sloterjidk on the Practice of Philosophy,” in Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Volume 13, no. 1 (2017), 5.

[24]Ed Cohen, “Live Thinking, or the Psychagogy of Michel Foucault,” in Differences, vol. 25, no. 2 (2014), 18.

[25]Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault,242.

[26]Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault,267.

[27]Jacob Sherman, “Postscript: A New Ritual Turn?,” inInternational Journal of Philosophy and Theology, vol. 79, no. 3 (2018), 5.

[28]Matthew Segall, “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead,” 230.

[29]Matthew Segall, “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead,” 18.

[30]Sherman, “Postscript: A New Ritual Turn?,” 5.

[31]João Florêncio, “Encountering Worlds: Performing In/As Philosophy in the Ecological Age,” in Performance Philosophy, vol. 1 (2015), retrieved from http://www.performancephilosophy.org/journal/article/view/14.

[32]Florêncio, “Encountering Worlds: Performing In/As Philosophy in the Ecological Age.”

[33]Matthew Segall, “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead,” 55.

[34]James Hillman, The Thought of the Heart; And, the Soul of the World(Woodstock, Spring Publications, 2014), 97.

[35]Hillman, The Thought of the Heart; And the Soul of the World,107.

[36]Hillman, The Thought of the Heart; And the Soul of the World, 109.

[37]Hillman, The Thought of the Heart; And the Soul of the World, 111.

[38]The Thought of the Heart; And the Soul of the World, 113.

[39]The Thought of the Heart;And the Soul of the World, 112.

[40]Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, 108.

[41]Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, 232.

[42]Hillman, The Thought of the Heart; and the Soul of the World, 122.

[43]Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, 253.

[44]Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (New York, Penguin Books, 2005), 14.

Feeling Together: a Talk

The following is a recording of a talk I gave during PCC’s retreat to Bishop Ranch last week. Below that you’ll find the transcript!

The ideas I’m sharing today are not my own, but at the same time it’s true that I am here filtering them through the convergent point that is my unique perspective. In particular, I want to acknowledge a discussion that took place last Thursday at CIIS between Sam Mickey, Sean Kelly, Julie Morley, and Matt Segall during PAR’s first panel discussion, for it is especially informing what I share with you now.

One of the things I love most about PCC—and which seems to be true of ESR as well—is the variety of people who are attracted to it. Many ages; miles; languages; talents; and aspirations gather here. And for me, at least, there is a taste of homecoming about our community—something common that brings us together. I think that commonality is a shared intention, a notion I think I recognize in the words “re-imagine the human species as a mutually-enhancing member of the Earth community,” words that appear on PCC’s webpage. Put another way, we here are dedicated to multi-species flourishing on planet Earth, a deeper kinship with the other creatures we enmesh with. What would it take for that dream to become reality? Latent in our dream, I think I see the image of a cosmopolitics—a politics I’ll define in this context as one purged of human exceptionalism and in which nonhumans are extended representation.

You’d think that more people might be concerned by the sirens set off by climate scientists, but as the alt right movement has shown us, so-called neutral facts and figures aren’t always enough to move the human heart. How else might we make our appeal? As Sean Kelly and my cohort have taught me so well this year, we must do many things—anything less at this point would be a missed opportunity. I came to CIIS driven by the conviction that an appeal to feeling was the most potent and pragmatic appeal to make in a culture so anesthetized to the reality of our ecological interdependence. To me, art-making was the primary route to feeling, the key for change to be realized. Shortly after beginning my journey through PCC I was quickly purged of that dogmatism. It was just my means to meet the injunction to have a solution, a capital T truth to rest in. Deep down, I don’t think I ever believed it. But I do still think that feeling is primary (and not apart from thinking).

That specter called Utopia lures me forth—I so badly want a cosmopolitics. My imagination, thick with visions of creaturely diplomats; fungal-human-housing collaborations; a silk road of food forests weaving through boundaryless country.

Close your eyes a moment.

I can almost feel it.

We might try, but not everyone has the time or privilege to humor such things. This semester I’ve been entangled with thinkers, ideas, fellow students and teachers, wandering—feeling blindly through the dark—grasping for metaphors that stick, words we can hold on to in this time of radical change. The work of realizing a cosmopolitics is the reworking of what it means to be human after descending from the pedestal of Modernism. We must ask—what does it feel like? And for that we need an aesthetic—a cosmopoetics.

One of the repercussions of bifurcation—the separation of mind from matter, culture from nature, etc.—is that we (and this “we” is an invitational one) have largely become anaesthetized to the effects our lifestyles have on the fragile Earth system. Of course, not all of the human species fits into this category of alienation. Peoples who live closer and pay better attention to the land have been speaking out for centuries. Bruno Latour thinks that part of the problem is our tendency to think in terms of Wholes (capital W) and parts (lowercase p), where parts are subsumed by a Whole that is thought to be greater than those parts. Thinking with these terms results in a premature unification “of what first needs to be composed.” The Earth as Globe—as Sphere—we assume, has always been this way. Mama Gaia will take care of us if we just shape up. But it was not until the development of technologies sensitive enough to detect things like carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, the salinity of our seas, and the poverty of our soils that we began to piece together the delicate connections that keep our Earth system thriving in a dynamic state of disequilibrium. Though I do not deny the possibility of intuiting the Whole as concrete—say, the embodied soul of Earth as Gaia—I do think that it is the fragile connections delineated by climate science that allow us the most accessible semblance of that whole. Pragmatically speaking, it is about time that the parts take precedence over that mysterious Whole, so that we—privileged enough to recognize what is at stake—can begin to better attune ourselves and others to its fragility rather than taking it for granted. Only when we feel what’s at stake will we be driven to the kind of transformations that are necessary for our urgent times.

But how? How do we feel more into deeply what’s at stake?

To draw a sphere, one must first draw a circle, a loop—like the feedback loops we are sensing through climate science technologies. To quote Latour (and this is a long one), “we have to slip into, envelop ourselves within, a large number of loops, so that, gradually, step by step, knowledge of the place in which we live and the requirements of our atmospheric condition can gain greater pertinence…But we all have to learn this for ourselves, anew each time. And it has nothing to do with being a human-in-Nature or a human-on-the-Globe. It is rather a slow fusion of cognitive, emotional, and aesthetic virtues thanks to which the loops are made more and more visible. After each passage through a loop, we become more sensitive and more reactive to the fragile envelopes we inhabit.”[1]

Latour calls for us to “aesthetisize” ourselves “in the old sense [of the word as a]…capacity to “perceive” and to be “concerned” – in other words, a capacity to make oneself sensitive that precedes all distinctions among the instruments of science, politics, art and religion.”[2]
Donna Haraway calls this becoming “response-able.”

I’m inspired by the perspective of the late performance artist, teacher, political activist, and general shapeshifter, Joseph Beuys who conceived of social sculpture, an art that defies regular boundaries and encompasses everyday life. We might call this aesthetic activism. Each of us, an artist, a partial-maker, in the weaving of our social nexus that is ultimately the whole of cosmic history. The term co-creator might ring a bell. But what the ecological crisis has signaled—if we are so bold to face it—is the extent to which a swollen human hubris has absorbed so much agency that it has deanimated the rest of the world. Anthropogenic climate change pulls the plug as what was once an inert background—the “environment”—springs to life and acts back. As Isabelle Stengers says, “Gaia is touchy!”

The monoliths of our Understanding give out, closing the chasm between Subject and Object. What was once Other is in me and now I can only ask—

“Who am I?” According to Lynn Margulis, mostly bacteria.

It’s important to accept that by understanding, we mean translation, and by concept, we mean metaphor. How we interpret reality is a fiction among fictions. Our time is one where changing the story becomes a matter of life or death. Some stories are better told than others.

The figure of a feedback loop implies repetition; habit; ritual. A process-relational perspective shifts the emphasis from what is, to what is happening. Things are understood according to what they do, how they perform. Human identity becomes on ongoing creative act—what defines us can change. It reminds me of Aristotle’s virtue theory. In that schema (and here I am simplifying it) to become virtuous, one must act virtuous until the loop becomes habit, second-nature.
Like our guiding ideal of cosmopolitics, Latour tells us that once upon a time, “it took many decades to agree that the definition of democracy as the will of a sovereign people corresponds, even vaguely, to a reality, and it was necessary to start with a fiction.”[3] Nation-states were once on par with the prospect of nonhuman political representation we dream of today.  In general, the ritual of political representation is never more than a poetic gesture, but some poets hit closer to home than others. That there is a world we make together, I have no doubt, but consensus in a process-relational cosmos is a constant work in progress.

In May of 2015, Bruno Latour collaborated with students and faculty from the school of political arts at Sciences Po in Paris to create a simulation of the approaching Paris Climate Agreements, but in this scenario the United Nations were accompanied by representatives of nonhuman interests. Together, they called their performance the “Theater of Negotiations.” Unlike the historical fuss made over agreeing to fall under One Nation, Latour observed that the performers had no issue imagining into the role of Forest or Ocean representative, “I very much enjoyed observing that the negotiations were never impeded by that sort of objection.” Latour tells us, “rather,” The tireless president Jennifer Ching addressed “Lands” or “Amazonia” just as politely and straightforwardly as she addressed “Canada” or “Europe.”[4] The “Theater of Negotiations might seem like a silly, fruitless exercise in imagination, but only to those who forsake the imaginative basis for the politic farce we take for granted today. On the contrary, a seminal stunt like this—if looped through enough—could establish itself as a ritual with as much mythic force as the United Nations has.

For an example of response-ablitiy in the sciences—biological fieldwork specifically—Donna Haraway attunes us to the epistemological position of ethologist Thelma Rowell—what the latter calls her “virtue of politeness.” Rather than assume “that beings have pre-established natures and abilities that are simply put into play in an encounter,” “politeness,” Haraway tells us, “does the energetic work of holding open the possibility that surprises are in store, that something interesting is about to happen, but only if one cultivates the virtue of letting those ones who visit intra-actively shape what occurs. They are not who/what we expected to visit, and we are not who/what were anticipated either. Visiting is a subject- and object-making dance, and the choreographer is a trickster.”[5] Haraway goes on to describe an enchanting situation between an ornithologist and a group of Arabian babblers “who defied orthodox accounts of what birds should be doing, even as the scientists also acted off-script scientifically.”[6]

Sym fiction / science fiction / speculative fiction — these, in different ways, refer to a practice of storytelling as a model of conscious art-making, what we might call with Beuys, social sculpture. In our time of collapse, invoking Haraway again, “we need to write stories and live lives for flourishing and abundance.” This kind of fiction would be “committed to strengthening ways to propose near futures, possible futures, and implausible real nows” so that we can begin “cultivating the capacity to re-imagine wealth, learn practical healing rather than wholeness, and stitch together improbable collaborations without worrying overmuch about conventional ontological kinds.”[7] This is what Haraway means by her slogan “Staying with the Trouble.” We have to rebuild from the ruins we find ourselves in.  Future-telling, the telling of futures we dream of, brings those futures closer into view. I’m aware that professor Elizabeth Allison has written something like this. I am also in the midst of a project, writing the journey of a protagonist whose consciousness is as industrial as mine is, but who lives in a future where human norms have become made over by the radical reorientation we are just beginning to face. My intention in writing this is to re-work in the process—as much as I can—my own assumptions, in hopes that—once finished—it might serve the same end for others when they read it.

Though the examples I gave might conveniently be categorized—political, scientific, artistic—each of them honors the originating force of imagination, has a common ground in the crowning of metaphor. Each is an attempt to modify the collective aesthetic, to shape our social sculpture. Closing the gap between Nature and Culture means letting go of capital T, engaging us in an ongoing practice of translation as we feel our ways through worlds. It has always been hard for me to define what makes something a work of art beyond the basic “rightness” I feel in its gesture. But that there is sometimes that feeling of “rightness,” and even more, that sometimes I might find resonance with another about that “rightness” goes to show, as Haraway echoes, “it matters what knowledges know knowledges. It matters what relations relate relations. It matters what worlds world worlds. It matters what stories tell stories.”[8] Because some stories are better told than others.

[1] Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia, (Cambridge, Polity Press, 2017), 139-140.

[2] Latour, Facing Gaia, 145.

[3] Latour, Facing Gaia, 263.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Donna Jeanne Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, (Durham, Duke University Press, 2016), 127.

[6] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 128.

[7] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 136.

[8] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 35.

Bibliography

Haraway, Donna Jeanne. Staying with the Trouble. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

Latour, Bruno.Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017.

a Reverie (a Review)

Though I maintain a healthy amount of suspicion, I tend toward an hermeneutics of faith and quickly fall in love with the ideas that saturate my life. How Forests Think is described as an anthropological work, but Eduardo Kohn’s radical thinking evades categorization. Because Kohn bypasses epistemological barriers—enjoining others in the ontological turn—one might consider this a work of speculative (yet grounded) philosophy. I would go further, though, and as you will discover if you have the time to read (or listen) to my words, and call it a work of art. Reading it, for me, was an experience. I intend for this website to be a home for ideas—those “qualities entertained as objects in conceptual activity [that] are of the nature of catalytic agents—”that build toward a re-enchanted worldview. Kohn’s ideas reintroduce our thinking to the world from which it came—a world of images—and invite us to recognize how the world may indeed be thinking through us.

Kohn_-image_480_300_90_s_c1
Photo by Kohn (one of the many that makeup his book).

Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human is an estrangement and a homecoming. As the subtitle reads, Kohn seeks to take anthropology—and his readers—beyond the human. But why should the study of what makes humans human concern anything more than us? Kohn’s answer, as with the entire book, is practical: “how other beings see us matters.” Immediately we recoil. An epistemic law has been broken. How can we presume to know anything about how another (nonhuman) being sees us? Kohn might simply say, “for our own survival.” To those of us living in cities or suburbs—even rural America—this answer might seem exotic. But to human beings who live on the edge of the Amazon Rainforest—like the Runa of Ávila, the subjects of Kohn’s ethnographic meditation—our speculative question is vital. It is a matter of life and death: those who sleep face-up are recognized by the jaguar as fellow selves, while those who sleep face-down risk being seen as her object of prey. This dilemma is how Kohn introduces his “analytic beyond the human.” Our ecological crisis is forcing us to make ontological assumptions that burst our sociocultural and historically-contingent bubble. Until now “our social theory…[, which]…conflates representation with language,”[i] has bound our thoughts within a complex whole. This so-called complex whole is the axiom of human culture, understood by many proponents of the linguistic turn to be resolutely closed—all our knowledge encaged by a matrix of exclusively human-wrought meaning. But upon considering the jaguar’s perspective, we release our thoughts into a wild flock.

The heart of Chapter One, “The Open Whole,” is Kohn’s restoration of meaning to the world. The human capacity for symbolic thought may be unique, but it is not ex nihilo. The semiotic philosophy of the “weird” Charles Peirce figures largely in Kohn’s work. Kohn says, though, that his approach is not one of merely applying Peirce to the forest, but one more of “allowing the forest to think through [him (Kohn), while]…also using Peirce’s framework.”[ii] Kohn borrows his working “agnostic definition” of the word sign from Peirce’s: “something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity.”[iii] Human language includes indices, icons, and symbols, the last of which as Kohn has it, are slightly more removed from the natural world. Shooting up from the root system of icon and the stem support of index, symbols “refer to their object indirectly by virtue of the ways in which they relate systemically to other such symbols. Symbols involve convention.”[1] As far as we know, humans are the exclusive users of symbols, but flowers don’t bloom from nowhere. To the extent that symbols rely on other forms of communication, signs can be seen to extend beyond symbolic language. Therefore, what we as humans can know and the range of beings we might commune with opens up.

The significance of asking how the jaguar sees us implies that we might grant the jaguar selfhood. And indeed, this is in line with Kohn’s definition of life as being “constitutively semiotic. That is, life is, through and through, the product of sign processes.”[iv] To Kohn, all life-forms represent the world in some way(s); life’s tendency to represent has a reciprocal effect of producing a perspective, that which observes the representation. The marriage of life and representation “allows us to situate distinctively human ways of being in the world as both emergent from and in continuity with a broader living semiotic realm.”[v] This is Kohn’s move to provincialize language as one unique way of making meaning among many along the landscape of the cosmos.

The predominant view in the social sciences is that we can only understand something by relating it to other things that make up a complex—but self-referentially closed—whole of meaning­. This approach is the very reason for Kohn’s provincializing of language, for it shows how our thinking as human beings has been “colonized” by symbolic thought. Words can only mean something in relation to other words. And likewise, “we can only imagine the ways in which selves and thoughts might form associations through our assumptions about the forms of associations that structure human language.”[vi] But now, after the linguistic turn, we swerve again, this time “away from the internal analysis of social conventions and institutions towards the interactions of humans with (and between) animals, plants, physical processes, artifacts, images, and other forms of being.”[vii] Thus the Runian “word,” or sound image, “tsupu.” Similar to how we understand onomatopoeia, “words” that are really only translations of sounds into language (e.g. meeeeeow!), “tsupu” is an icon that refers “to an entity as it makes contact with and then penetrates a body of water.”[viii] Upon hearing this definition, Kohn says that people often “experience a sudden feel for its meaning.”[ix] This recognition across languages (the Runa speak Quichuan) punctures the closed whole of our colonized way of thinking and lets slip a sound of the world. Just like “meow,” the meaning of “tsupu” is not reliant on its relationship to other words for meaning.

By paying attention to certain instances, customs, or ways of knowing among the Runa, Kohn distills amplified generals of our shared world throughout the book. “Tsupu” is an example and so is the animistic orientation of the Runa (animistic, i.e., “the attribution of enchantment,” the capacity to make and interpret meaning, to “other-than-human loci”[x]). In Chapter Two, “The Living Thought,” Kohn explains the centrality of the animistic perspective to the Runa and its relevance for us:

People in Ávila, if they are to successfully penetrate the relational logics that create, connect, and sustain the beings of the forest, must in some way recognize this basic animacy. Runa animism, then, is a way of attending to living thoughts in the world that amplifies and reveals important properties of lives and thoughts…Paying attention to these engagements with the living thoughts of the world can help us think anthropology differently. It can help us imagine a set of conceptual tools we can use to attend to the ways in which our lives are shaped by how we live in a world that extends beyond the human.[xi]

Animism is not a romantic or even chosen approach to living for the Runa. It is necessary for survival. The importance of anticipating how a jaguar might respond to our behavior reveals the inherent futurity of semiosis—selves represent to continue living. “Aboutness,” writes Kohn, “—representation, intention, and purpose in their most basic forms—is an intrinsic structuring feature of living dynamics in the biological world.”[xii] The evolutionary process itself is driven by semiosis wherein selfhood extends to entire biological lineages and representation encompasses the process of adaptation. Biology thinks its way into the future. Relationality takes on a new meaning in this purview in that the “logic that structures relations among selves is the same as that which structures relations among signs.”[xiii] This is one way of understanding what Kohn means when he asserts that forests think. Living selves are the thoughts in the mind of a forest.

Chapter Three, “Soul Blindness,” discusses the relativity of identity among the ecology of selves that makes up a forest. As modeled by our relationship with the jaguar, the line between self and other is blurry at best. Self and object are co-constitutive. Kohn writes, “before living thoughts emerged on this earth nothing ever came to stand in relationship to a self as an object or as another. Objects, like selves, are also effects of semiosis.”[xiv] For Kohn, the soul is an intersubjective effect that emerges from communication between selves. To remain a self, one “must recognize the soul-stuff of the other souled selves that inhabit the cosmos.”[xv] In contrast, soul blindness refers to the loss of such a capacity. For the hunter, being able to distinguish prey from the larger environment is contingent on seeing the creature as a self. Simply put, “our lives depend on our abilities to believe in and act on the provisional guesses we make about the motivations of other selves.”[xvi] It is a tragic and dissonant fact that selves must consume other selves in order to live, and this dissonance is captured in the conversion of a self into an object. “To eat them as food,” Kohn writes, they must become “dead meat.”[xvii] Although most of us reared in industrial society are far removed from the production of our food, English names for animal products (i.e. pork, beef, veal) reflect the same necessity of abstracting from the selfhood of the once living creature now unrecognizable on our plates. Whether one is subject or object, essential to this chapter is Kohn’s point that “what kind of being one comes to be is the product of how one sees as well as how one is seen by other kinds of beings.”[xviii] What the Runa amplify for Kohn is the potential for an anthropology beyond the human to utilize a “self-reflexive defamiliarization” of natures rather than cultures; by “stepping out of our bodies and into those of other beings…we see a different world from the subjective, I, point of view of another kind of embodiment. We are able, for a moment to live in a different nature.”[xix] In wake of the Anthropocene, imagining into the selfhood of the world’s dwindling biosphere is of obvious importance.

To mitigate the loss of species occurring in our time we must sensitize ourselves to the needs of those nonhuman others we are so inextricably tied to. Chapter Four, “Trans-Species Pidgins,” explores the Runa-forest relationship for glimmers of that possibility. To develop an ethic of care “that does not simply project human qualities everywhere,” Kohn writes, “we must situate morality ontologically.”[xx] We may simplify our problem by understanding the human capacity for morals in relation to symbolic reference: “It [symbolic reference] requires the ability to momentarily distance ourselves from the world and our actions in it to reflect on our possible modes of future conduct.”[xxi] Morality, then, is emergent, and its roots are in value. All livings beings participate in value by discerning good from bad. Sensitizing ourselves to the needs of nonhumans “forces us to think beyond our moral worlds in ways that can help us imagine and realize better worlds.”[xxii] That the Quichuan word runa is equivalent to the English word person is a clue as to how. “Runa,” Kohn explains, “is used as a sort of pronominal marker of the subject position—for all selves see themselves as persons.”[xxiii] Here again is the distinction of natures versus cultures. Rather than attempt in vain to enter another closed whole (culture), the Runa model a way of slipping in and out of other bodies, becoming-with other natures. This is the opposite extreme of soul blindness. Both come with a cost; the former, a loss of our humanity, the latter, the solipsism of “monadic isolation.” Consider the Runian phrase runa-puma. If runa means person, then runa-puma refers to a person-jaguar, or person-predator. Our experience of meeting the eyes of a jaguar makes us into “beings who can see themselves being seen by jaguars as fellow predators, and who also sometimes see other humans the way jaguars do, as prey.”[xxiv] Implicit in this example is the importance either way of walking a middle path—if we identify completely as runa-puma, we may end up cannibals, but if we shirk the gaze of a jaguar, we may end up her meal.

In our struggle to communicate with other beings, we must grapple with the constraints of their unique semiotic modalities.[xxv] Chapter Five, “Form’s Effortless Efficacy,” builds on our wish to make contact by exploring “how certain configurations of constraint on possibility emerge and…the particular manner in which such configurations propagate in the world in ways that result in a sort of pattern.”[xxvi] This is what Kohn calls form. The decolonization of our thoughts extends to the status of form and challenges us to rethink what we might otherwise assume as something we humans make up. Kohn’s perspective is an anti-nominalist one, after all. Riverine networks of the Amazon are a prime example of this kind of immanent patterning in their “self-similarity across scale,” with their creeks and streams as fractal echoes of a basic form. Thus, navigating a river system is one way of being inside of and harnessing the “effortless efficacy” of form. Another is hunting. Kohn explains:

Because of the high species diversity and the local rarity of species and the lack of any one fruiting season, the fruits that animals eat are highly dispersed…This means that at any given time there will exist a different geometrical constellation of fruiting resources that attracts animals…that predators are, in turn, attracted to this concentration of animals further amplifies the pattern of distribution of life across the forest landscape. This results in a particular pattern of potential game meat…[xxvii]

Rather than expend energy and time hunting animals directly, Ávila hunters allow the formal patterning of the forest to think through them and follow it to those constellations of fruiting trees and game meat. Kohn’s understanding of form as something one is “inside,” “quite different from the push-and-pull logic we usually associate with the physical effort needed to do something,” is wonderfully evocative of concepts like wu wei (non-action) from the Daoist tradition.[xxviii] Kohn’s ethnographic artistry abounds in examples (e.g. dreaming, rubber-trapping, shamanic empowerment) of form that I enthusiastically encourage readers to discover for themselves.

Chapter Six, “The Living Future (and the Imponderable Weight of the Dead),” considers how an anthropology beyond the human might understand the paradox of life—its inherent futurity and mandate of death. The semiotic nature of life has representation concerned with survival; in Kohn’s words, “we all always have one foot (or paw) in the future,” but as he goes on to say, “this living future…cannot be understood without further reflecting on the special links that life has to all the dead that make life possible. It is in this sense that the living forest is also one that is haunted.”[xxix] What the Runa amplify for Kohn about the continuity of life is tied up with their relationship to the forest’s emergent spirit realm, the afterlife. The earlier translation of runa as person was a hint that it does not refer specifically to an ethnic group (ours and Kohn’s use of it as a proper noun is for the sake of communication). In fact, the Runa of Ávila don’t even identify themselves that way or any other. For them, runa has a much more general meaning:

“Runa” more accurately marks a relational subject position in a cosmic ecology of selves in which all beings see themselves as persons. “Runa” here is the self, in continuity of form. All beings are, from their points of view, in a sense “Runa,” because this is how they would experience themselves when saying “I.”[xxx]

“Death for the self,” then, as Kohn puts it, “is ineffable, for the self is simply a continuation of life. The self is a general…it is the experience of the death of others by the living that is so hard to bear, because it is what is palpable.”[xxxi] Kohn’s assertion that the self continues may seem strange to us, but as that reciprocal effect of life’s tendency to represent the world, self as defined by Kohn transcends any reductionist ontology that would terminate it at bodily death. When we stop to ponder our own deaths and arrive only at mystery we might nod our heads—how else could we be but in being? With the problem of death aside, I now turn to that ethereal future realm and how one’s relationship to it in the present determines one’s survival.

Like navigating a river, our relationship to the living future is participatory. In Kohn’s view, the spirit realm the Runa interact with is a co-creative emergence of Amazonia’s various denizens. Yet, while it is collaborative, it is also heavily saturated with the “all too human.” It’s formal logic, then, comes to reflect all of the forest’s historical (i.e. colonial) influence “and thus permits and constrains, who and how an I can be, at the same time that it provides the vessel for continuity—the survival—of that I.”[xxxii] For the Runa, “who have long lived in a world where whites…have stood in manifest dominance over them,” this often means becoming white.[xxxiii] Oswaldo, one of Kohn’s ethnographic subjects, gives an example as he recounts a dream for us in which appeared a “’menacing[, white] policeman’” whose “’shirt was covered with clippings from a haircut.’”[xxxiv] For Oswaldo, this dream—an intimation of the future—was initially interpreted as a bad sign, for he had understood the white policeman to be his own predator. But as things would have it, Oswaldo ended up occupying the position of the predator when he successfully killed a peccary in the forest later on. Kohn elaborates further,

That Oswaldo at a certain moment in the forest can—perhaps must—be a white policeman, involves the particular and sometimes disjointed and even painful ways in which some aspect of his future self reaches back to affect him from the realm of the masters…The spirit realm that emerges, as a product of a whole host of relations that cross species lines and temporal epochs, is then a zone of continuity and possibility: Oswaldo’s survival depends on his ability to access it.” [xxxv]

Aside from challenging our understanding of both positionality and causality, what the Runa amplify for us once again is the extent to which our selfhood—our survival—is bound up with the way others see us. There is much more to this chapter and to the spirit realm of the forest than can be dwelt on here, and so again, I encourage the reader to dive into Kohn’s artistry.

How Forests Think, a seminal work ten years in the making, naturally ends with an epilogue titled, “Beyond.” Kohn’s central aim was to think like a forest, that is, in images, and in doing so, make us over—take us beyond our “doubt-ridden human housing.”[xxxvi] Indeed, even in this review, we taste the bidden fruit of Eden and in some way re-member what it’s like to see nonhuman selves seeing us. Yet, paradoxically, we bite the apple and gain a more refined understanding of what it means to be human. It is all necessary, as Kohn heroically explains, for “if ‘we’ are to survive the Anthropocene—this indeterminate epoch of ours in which the world beyond the human is being increasingly made-over by the all-too-human—we will have to actively cultivate these ways of thinking with and like forests.”[xxxvii] Sadly, what is lost in the review of this artful book is the phantasmagoria of images—“be they oneiric, aural, anecdotal, mythic, or even photographic”[xxxviii]—that make it. And once more—rather than goad—I lovingly wish that you, the reader, find a copy in your hands one day, so that you might join in on its gift to posterity—our, hopefully, living future.

 

[i] Kohn, How Forests Think, 8.

[ii] Kohn being interviewed by Marshall Poe in New Books in Latin American Studies.

[iii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 29.

[iv]  Kohn, How Forests Think, 9.

[v] Kohn, How Forests Think, 16.

[vi] Kohn, How Forests Think, 20.

[vii] Phillipe Descola, “All Too Human (still),” 268.

[viii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 27.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Kohn, How Forests Think, 72.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 73-74.

[xiii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 83.

[xiv] Kohn, How Forests Think, 104.

[xv] Kohn, How Forests Think, 111.

[xvi] Kohn, How Forests Think, 118.

[xvii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 119.

[xviii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 120.

[xix] Kohn, How Forests Think, 126.

[xx] Kohn, How Forests Think, 133.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 134.

[xxiii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 139.

[xxiv] Kohn, How Forests Think, 2.

[xxv] Kohn, How Forests Think, 148.

[xxvi] Kohn, How Forests Think, 156.

[xxvii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 163.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Kohn, How Forests Think, 194.

[xxx] Kohn, How Forests Think, 200.

[xxxi] Kohn, How Forests Think, 211.

[xxxii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 213.

[xxxiii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 192.

[xxxiv] Kohn, How Forests Think, 191.

[xxxv] Kohn, How Forests Think, 200.

[xxxvi] Kohn, How Forests Think, 228.

[xxxvii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 227.

[xxxviii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 222.

 

Bibliography

Descola, Phillipe. “All too human (still) A comment on Eduardo Kohn’s How forests think.” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4, no. 2 (2014): 267–273, http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.2.015

 

Kohn, Eduardo. How Forests Think: An Antrhopology Beyond the Human. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013.

 

Eduardo Kohn, interview with Marshall Poe, New Books in Latin American Studies, podcast audio, February 9th, 2014, https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/new-books-in-latin-american-studies/id425192236?mt=2