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David Abram: Perception of Others

November 5, 2016
English: This is a photograph of philosopher D...

English: This is a photograph of philosopher David Abram, author of “Spell of the Sensuous” and “Becoming Animal” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

David Abram’s “The Ecology of Magic” serves as the introduction to his book The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (1996). We can take this piece on its own, as something new in our exploration: a more anthropological version of environmental writing, particularly in its interests in ecological lessons from oral and “primitive” cultures. In this regard, the more specific argument that Abram goes on to pursue in the book concerns the effect of the shift in Western culture from orality to literacy. In particular, Abram argues that alphabetic language–the world of the writing and printing of language, rather than speaking–abstracts and distances humans from the animal and natural world. It is a fascinating point. Here is an excerpt of that argument from the book:

Alphabetic writing can engage the human senses only to the extent that those senses sever, at least provisionally, their spontaneous participation with the animate earth. To begin to read, alphabetically, is thus already to be dis-placed, cut off from the sensory nourishment of a more-than-human field of forms. It is also, however, to feel the still-lingering savor of that nourishment, and so to yearn, to hope, that such contact and conviviality may someday return. (196)

Google may be making us stupid (as one recent article on the effect of the internet on our brains proclaims), but writing long ago made us all too human. Abram’s vision thus takes up a problem of nature writing–how to write about nature in a form that isn’t nature, that can only be culture–and takes it to a place we haven’t been before. To continue with the terms from our discussion of environmental writing, Abram’s philosophy does more than argue by way of its rhetoric and poetics–as any philosophy would; Abram challenges the very rhetoric and poetics we use toward uncovering, or returning to, earlier, pre-literate ways of living in the more-than-human world. “My life has been the poem I would have writ,” Thoreau wrote, “but I could not both live and utter it.”

Abram is co-founder of a group called the Alliance for Wild Ethics. Perhaps one way to consider Abram is to link him back to Thoreau’s “Higher Laws.” Or, related to Thoreau, to Emerson’s notion (from Nature) of an “occult relation” between man and the natural world. Or maybe we can think of Abram in terms of Dillard’s struggle in “Fecundity”: seeking a reconciliation between the human and the fact that the world is populated by more-than-human forces. The footnote on page 829 indicates another, more recent context for Abram’s understanding of a fundamental relation between humans and the natural world: the Gaia hypothesis, in which the entirety of the earth is viewed as a living organism. Thus Abram suggests that what might be viewed (or discounted) as primitive, animistic worldviews (the natural world as rife with spirits) actually anticipates concepts emerging in contemporary ecology–and ecological philosophy or psychology, one branch of which is known as Deep Ecology. These discussions, to the extent that more traditional (anthropocentric) visions of nature have been replaced by ecological thinking, have come to be labeled under the broad category of “eco-criticism.”

So, we find ourselves alienated from nature in our cultivations, but also find relationship through that sense of alienation. We become the Other. Or as Abram cites Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, we breathe “a world that is the breath and bones of our ancestors.”

Phenomenology is a philosophical (and also psychological) concept that Abram takes up in his thinking (he is partly trained as a philosopher), extending the work of an important French philosopher, The Phenomenology of Perception (1945) by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Here is a useful summary from Wikipedia of the argument:

The central thesis of the book is what Merleau-Ponty later called the “primacy of perception.” We are first perceiving the world, then we do philosophy. This entails a critique of the Cartesian cogito, resulting in a largely different concept of consciousness. The Cartesian dualism of mind and body is called into question as our primary way of existing in the world and is ultimately rejected in favor of a intersubjective conception or dialectical concept of consciousness. What is characteristic of his account of perception is the centrality that the body plays. We perceive the world through our bodies; we are embodied subjects, involved in existence. Further the ability to reflect comes from a pre-reflective ground that serves as the foundation for reflecting on actions. In other words we perceive phenomena first, then reflect on them via this mediation which is instantaneous and synonymous with our being and perception in,as,and with body, i.e. embodiment.

This might be a stretch, but think of the greeting of the Na’vi in Avatar as phenomenological in a very basic way: I see you. Think about ways we can apply this rethinking of perception back to our study: to Thoreau, Burroughs, Dillard, Leopold.  In Abram’s vision of perception, what makes it ecological (rather than just psychological)?

To see and hear David Abram discuss his argument about reading, see this video.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2011 6:29 pm

    Recently I wrote a blog entry offering a leftist critique of the ideology of “Green” environmentalism, deep ecology, eco-feminism, and lifestyle politics in general (veganism, “dumpster diving,” “buying organic,” “locavorism,” etc.). I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter and any responses you might have to its criticisms.


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