How do we take indigenous animism seriously in the sense proposed by Viveiros de Castro? In this article, I pose this challenge to all the major theories of animism, stretching from Tylor and Durkheim, over Lévi-Strauss to Ingold. I then go on to draw a comparison between Žižek's depiction of the cynical milieu of advanced capitalism in which ideology as “false consciousness” has lost force and the Siberian Yukaghirs for whom ridiculing the spirits is integral to their game of hunting. Both know that, in their activity, they are following an illusion, but still they go along with it; both are ironically self-conscious about not taking the ruling ethos at face value. This makes me suggest an alternative: perhaps it is time for anthropology not to take indigenous animism too seriously.
The Uncanny Personhood of Humanoid Machines
This article analyzes the role of animism in the creation and production of humanoid robots. In Japan and the United States, robotic science has emerged from fictional sources and is enmeshed with fictional models, even when developed in advanced technoscientific facilities. Drawing on the work of Sigmund Freud and Masahiro Mori, I explore the robot as an ‘uncanny’ doppelgänger that is liminally situated between the human and non-human. Cultural depictions of robots, particularly in written and visual fiction, reflect Freudian fears of the ‘double’ as the annihilating other. I propose the concept of ‘technological animism’ to explore how fiction and technoscience co-construct each other, with roboticists drawing inspiration from positive fictional models, as among Japanese scientists, or frequently rejecting such models, as among their North American colleagues.
Ontological Multiplicity and the Transformation of Animism in Southwest China
In Nusu animism, the number and nature of a person’s ‘soul attributes’ change during his or her lifetime and after death. Drawing on Michael Scott’s study of Arosi poly-ontology, this article situates animistic personhood in a plural socio-cosmic order. Living and dead, human and non-human, Nusu and non-Nusu occupy separate, communicating domains. Meaningful exchanges across boundaries require the metamorphosis of persons and ideas. Nusu animism, continuously engaged in an ‘algebra of souls’, understands the self in terms of its multiplicity, its latent and emerging aspects. Through the ethnography of two death rituals—one ‘real’ and one staged for visiting researchers—this article shows that animism is being hyper-reflexively reinvented by Nusu animists themselves.
Hidden Jokes and the Reinvention of Animistic Ontologies in Southwest China
Anthropology has, among its many accomplishments, become a ‘hyper-reflexive’ discipline that is mastered by anthropologists and their fieldwork friends. Today’s China offers an especially revealing lens onto anthropological reflexivity as it reintroduces animism among ethnic minorities and mobilizes a cosmological-cum-ecological ethos, replete with soul-searching and planet-saving behaviors. This article presents ethnography on the Nuosu of Southwest China, who use the ‘art of capture’ to reinvent local animistic ideas and the Chinese ‘ideology of animism’. In dialogue with a Nuosu ethnologist, rural Nuosu villagers, and a Nuosu anthropologist, I propose that ‘hidden’ knowledge and jokes underpin the expositions of native scholars, who interlace their academic work with local rituals. In this way, Nuosu academics, foreign anthropologists, and villagers all partake in the reinvention of Nuosu animism.
Recent Studies of Amazonian Ontologies
Luiz Costa and Carlos Fausto
The ethnography of lowland South American societies has occupied a central place in recent debates concerning what has been called the 'ontological turn' in anthropology. The concepts of 'animism' and 'perspectivism', which have been revigorated through studies of Amerindian ontologies, figure increasingly in the ethnographies of non-Amerindian peoples and in anthropological theory more generally. This article traces the theoretical and empirical background of these concepts, beginning with the influence of Lévi-Strauss's work on the anthropology of Philippe Descola and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, and proceeding with their impact on Amazonian ethnography. It then investigates the problems that two alternative traditions—one combining a cognitivist with a pragmaticist approach, the other a phenomenological one—pose to recent studies of Amazonian ontologies that rely on the concepts of animism and perspectivism. The article concludes by considering how animism and perspectivism affect our descriptions of Amerindian society and politics, highlighting the new challenges that studies of Amerindian ontologies have begun to address.
Anthropological Knowledge Making, the Reflexive Feedback Loop, and Conceptualizations of the Soul
Katherine Swancutt and Mireille Mazard
In this introduction, we propose a new approach to anthropological knowledge making that would observe the ‘hyper-reflexive’ quality of ethnographic exchanges. We show that anthropological ideas infiltrate themselves into the discourse of native thinkers, even as native ideas regenerate anthropological theory. Our starting point is ‘animism’, a key concept of anthropological theory. We suggest that anthropologists and their interlocutors jointly reinvent animistic ideas through a process we describe as the ‘reflexive feedback loop’, in which abstract ideas about practice and belief are appropriated and recirculated by research participants. By way of conclusion, we reflect on how anthropologists and their collaborators ‘animate’ soul concepts through diverse forms of agency such as metamorphosis, doubling, autobiographical narrative, hidden jokes, and even technological animism.
Examining the Ainu Chisei Nomi Ceremony
The evolutionary importance of religion is a topic of considerable debate in recent scholarship. This article reassesses Neil Gordon Munro's ethnography of the Ainu people in Hokkaido area focusing attention on the Chisei Nomi ceremony. Munro describes kamui (ancestor spirits), who take part in the Chisei Nomi as active, observant, non-living persons. The ritual acts in the Chisei Nomi ceremony are reinterpreted using recent theoretical perspectives of perspectivism and evolutionary-communication theory. The Chisei Nomi promotes a healthy environment for close kin by establishing respect for long deceased ancestors.
Jonathan Woolley and R. Aída Hernández
Animism and the Question of Life (Istvan Praet, 2013)
New Approaches to Resistance in Brazil and Mexico (John Gledhill and Patience A. Schell, eds, 2012)
Is Reconciliation Possible?
This exciting special issue sets out to take the ‘anthropology of ontology’ (also called the ‘ontological turn’), along with its concern for indigenous animism, to a new level of analysis by pairing it with key issues originally raised by anthropology’s influential paradigm of reflexivity, the Writing Culture debate. A few years ago, I critiqued the inclination “to neutralize the challenge” that animistic ideas present to anthropological thinking (Willerslev 2007: 12). In their introduction, the editors of this issue, Katherine Swancutt and Mireille Mazard, describe the ‘reflexive feedback loop’ through which native thinkers, by adopting anthropological theories of animism, cast the anthropological gaze back upon itself. Here, instead of being neutralized by anthropology, native ideas feed into and play havoc with scholarly models of animism. It is this unexpected condition of inquiry that gives rise to the editors’ engagement with the ‘anthropology of anthropology’.
Claudia Weiss, Wie Sibirien “unser” wurde. Die Russische Geographische Gesellschaft und ihr Einfluss auf die Bilder und Vorstellungen von Sibirien im 19. Jahrhundert. Kristina Kuentzel-Witt
Niobe Thompson, Settlers on the Edge: Identity and Modernization on Russia’s Arctic Frontier Patty A. Gray
Susan A. Crate, Cows, Kin, and Globalization: An Ethnography of Sustainability John P. Ziker
Athol Yates and Nicholas Zvegintzov, Siberian BAM Guide: Rail, Rivers & Road David Lempert
Rane Willerslev, Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism and Personhood among the Siberian Yukahgirs Joseph Long
Books Received for Review