David Abram: “Becoming Animal”

“This old notion, deeply layered into our Western language, neatly orders the things of the experienced world into a graded hierarchy – “the great chain of being” – wherein these phenomena composed entirely of matter are farthest from the divine, while those that possess greater degrees of spirit are closer to the absolute freedom of God.  According to the dispensation of spirit, stones have no agency or experience whatsoever; lichens have only a minimal degree of life; plants have a bit more life, with a rudimentary degree of sensitivity; “lower” animals are more sentient, yet still stuck in the instincts; “higher” animals more truly aware – while humans alone in this material world, are really intelligent and awake.

This way of ordering existence, which depends upon an absolute distinction between matter and spirit, has done much to certify our human dominion over the rest of nature.  Although it originates in the ancient Mediterranean and reaches its height in medieval Christianity, this old notion was never really displaced by the scientific revolution.  Instead it was translated into a new, up-to-date form by a science still tacitly reliant on the assumption of a limitless human mind (or spirit) investigating a basically determinant natural world (or matter).

Yet as soon as we question the assumed distinction between spirit and matter, then this neatly ordered hierarchy begins to tremble and disintegrate.  If we allow that matter is not inert, but is rather animate (or self-organizing) from the get-go, then the hierarchy collapses, and we are left with a diversely differentiated field of animate beings, each of which has its gifts relative to the others.  And we find ourselves not above, but in the very midst of this living field, our own sentience part and parcel of the sensuous landscape. “

One Comment on “David Abram: “Becoming Animal””

  1. Stones do indeed have agency! My trip to Iceland reminded me of that; I saw the planet giving birth to itself, organizing itself, moving inexorably through its own geologic processes. They care nothing about us; they make our lives possible, yet they kill us if we are in the way. To me it’s comforting and inspiring to know that my species is not the biggest deal on the planet, that there’s something so much greater than myself.

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