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Book Review: The Spell of the Sensuous

The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human-World, by David Abram
Review by guest-writer, Émile H. Wayne
[purchase through the Society]

 

It is not often that one comes across a book which so ambitiously synthesizes theory and experience. David Abram weaves together insights from anthropological research, philosophy, linguistics, cognitive psychology, ecology, and folklore in order to demonstrate the intimate relationships between culture and context, language and landscape, humans and their habitats. The result is the story of how western literate culture, especially philosophy, cut its ties to the sensory world and found itself floating in a self-referential, disembodied world of pure abstraction. The Spell exposes and mourns for what was lost in the western shift toward alphabetic, abstract thought; however, it avoids the trap of nostalgia by suggesting not a return to some idealized past, but rather a wedding of abstract consciousness to ecological literacy and local “re-inhabitation.”

Summary

The backbone of this book is Abram’s ethnographic work in Southeast Asia, the Himalayas, and beyond. Abram spent time with shamans, sorcerers, and healers in order to study the relationship between folk medicine and magical techniques, while funded by a research grant and inspired by his own experience as a sleight-of-hand-magician. Abram’s relationships with these local magic-workers, and indeed with the villagers alongside whom he lived and worked, challenged many western academic interpretations of animistic magic and religion. He found that the distinction between spirit and flesh, which was key to the Christian missionaries’ interpretation of native religious practices, made no sense in this context. The very idea that shamans communicated with some “extra-sensory” or “non-material” realm of disembodied spirits was a foreign imposition.

For these people, the religious or magical orientation is one that shifts consciousness from a purely human realm of concern, out into the larger, wider world in which human life is imbedded. Shamans seek out, and villagers propitiate with sacrifices, not the immaterial, in-dwelling “spirits” of animal and plants, but the intelligent, animate, communicating, sensorial beings with whom these people share their landscape of experience. In the various cultures Abram examines, the non-human-world is full of voices; it speaks, and people listen. Immersion into this mode of perception brought Abram himself closer to participation in the greater-than-human conversation happening around him. It was within this intimate relationship of engagement, Abram argues, that human language first evolved. Consequently, the fundamental underpinnings of human intelligence are synesthetic in nature; their function is to unify raw sensory data into intelligible, meaningful experiences. The oral cultures of the communities Abram studies include this communication between people, non-human animals, and the land as a normal fact of life. Their languages, their religions, and their stories hold the memory of this constant interaction, and offer ethical frameworks for proper human/non-human interactions.

Informed by this research, Abram proceeds to uncover the reasons why, when he returned to his native North America, the land suddenly fell silent. What was it about his language and culture that sundered these lines of communication and mutual recognition? What follows is Abram’s journey through the history of western philosophy and language, searching both for the roots of this alienation, and for its remedy. It is in post-Socratic Greek philosophy that Abram locates the first traces of this severance, especially in the philosophical turn away from the sensory world and toward the abstract and immaterial, made possible, he argues, by the arrival of alphabetic text. The engaged, synesthetic perception which allows people in oral cultures to “read” their landscape shifted in alphabetic cultures to the world of the text, specifically text which had no necessary relationship between the sounds of the language it represented. By shifting the locus of meaning to a set of arbitrary signs with no necessary external references, Greek literary culture created the necessary conditions for abstract thought, disengaged from the world of experience. The pretension of western philosophy, then, has been to posit the existence of an abstract, objective realm of pure mind, as if minds could exist without bodies, and as if thinking could be done without metabolism. This “view from nowhere” transforms the physical world into merely the “stage” where rational thought and ethical action happen, rather than a necessary participant in both those endeavors.

The remedy, according to Abram, is a new-old reorientation, informed not only by the philosophies of indigenous peoples, but also by turning academic philosophy back toward the sensory. By invoking Apache ‘agodzaahi stories and the Dream Time of Aboriginal Australians equally alongside Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Heidegger, Abram collapses the abstract, sterile notion of “space” and restores the rightful centrality of local place to systems of thought and meaning. It is only through the prism of our sensory experiences that we are able to speak back to the world with language, to imagine beyond the present, and to know ourselves. Such a shift also renders permeable the boundaries between the self and the world, between human community and ecological context. Rather than depend upon an increasingly self-referential alphabetic language for meaning, this outward turn brings the non-human world into a nourishing reciprocity with strategies of human meaning-making. When the “view from nowhere” of western philosophy breaks down, the world will begin to speak to us again.

When our ways of thinking and knowing are rooted in the actual soil of our actual communities, it becomes impossible to ignore erosion, nutritional depletion, and contamination. When our sense of the present hangs in the very air we breathe into our lungs, making life possible, it becomes impossible to ignore pollution. When we see our human communities as embedded within those of our non-human neighbors – both flora and fauna – it becomes impossible to ignore the massive loss of biodiversity caused by human activity. When we “come to our senses,” we are called out into the world where we meet, in every bodily sense, the consequences of our own actions. Non-human nature becomes present, aware, vocal, integral to our being. We find ourselves living not in the midst of our abstractions – nation-states, linguistic group, political party – but as members of a living, breathing, often suffering, body of relations.

Evaluation

Abram dances between styles and approaches in order to tell a complex story of the western transition from unity with, to alienation from, the non-human world; however, he manages to do so without the moralizing and condescension which would otherwise phrase this transition as a story of “fall from grace.” Nor does he present oral, animistic cultures as idyllic and paradisiacal. Instead, the story is forensic in nature, but does not attempt to be definitive. Abram’s story calls us into a deeper understanding of the roots of our own cognition, of our most basic human ways of being and relating. What he presents is not a rejection but a return, not an exchange of one form of awareness for another, but a reawakening of sensory faculties which have lain dormant, discarded, and denigrated within western literate culture since the days of Plato.

The Spell not only describes the inherent participatory reciprocity between humans and their environment, it also demonstrates that relationship. To read it is to enter into the kind of experience that Abram seeks to describe. Poetry, folklore, and Abram’s own sensory experiences push readers beyond the world of Abram’s text and out into the world of their own experience. I found myself drawn to sit under a large, dying willow tree in one-hundred-degree heat while reading. At times I was frustrated by Abram’s way of shifting back and forth between the abstract, conceptual language of phenomenology and the experiential language of ethnography, but this only served Abram’s point; understanding cannot happen without experience. The abstract is meaningless unless it gives shape and clarity to what is seen, smelled, tasted, touched, and heard. The Spell inspires experimentation, which is more than I can say for most works of philosophy. While it sometimes meanders, and the journey is a difficult one, it ultimately leads outside itself and into the world.

For Spiritual Naturalists

The Spell of the Sensuous has important things to offer spiritual naturalists, naturalist animists, and others. Abram’s work is entirely naturalistic but does not lapse into reductionism. He offers a way to talk about the relationship between nature and culture (assuming for the moment that there is a division between those two things!). His approach to religion is culturally, historically, and linguistically nuanced. His insight into the relationship between shamanism and the more-than-human world offers, I think, a necessary corrective to interpretations of shamanism and animism which continue to perpetuate an implicitly Christian dualism between body and spirit. Shamanism, in Abram’s view, should not be understood as credulity about the ability of shamans to remotely contact immaterial spirits which dwell within the material world; rather, it is a sophisticated method by which custodians of the boundary between the human and non-human communities shift into non-human modes of awareness. This shift is made possible by the deep empathy for, and constant observation of, the non-human world to which the shaman relates on behalf of the larger human community. The shaman does not transcend the material, but rather extends his or her awareness out into the surrounding world, stepping outside of conventional human ways of sensing in order to understand more fully the wider web of relations in which the human community is embedded.

This deep perspectival empathy, this intimately experienced consanguinity, is a prerequisite for any spiritual path which upholds nature as sacred. In a very literal sense, we are created by our relationships. It is simple arrogance to believe that the only relationships which matter are human ones, that our relationships to non-humans have no consequences for our sense of self or our ways of thinking. To live only within a human set of relations, to let our cultures speak only to and about themselves, is to live in an eternally self-referential world. In such a world, disconnected from the living, experiencing, extra-human world around us, all meanings ultimately become arbitrary, hollow, and dead. But by deepening our participation in our sensorial awareness, by “grounding our newfound capacity for literate abstraction in those older, oral forms of experience – only then will the abstract intellect find its real value.”

The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human-World, by David Abram
[Purchase through the Society] ISBN: 978-0-6797-7639-0
New York: Vintage Press, 2003
Pages: 326

 

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The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.

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Amelia “Émile” Wayne has studied the intersections of religion, history, and culture for eight years, and spent two years teaching undergraduates in various Humanities courses as an adjunct professor. Émile’s personal spiritual quest flowed along lines of inquiry laid out by research, and eventually led them to seek out a form of religion which could counterbalance Émile’s tendency toward intellectual abstraction by a radical affirmation of lived experience. Émile is currently pursuing a PhD in Philosophy and Theology at Drew University. Their goal is to contribute to the emerging discourse of Religious Naturalism. Other critical engagements include the New Materialism, Queer Theory, Process Philosophy, and Ecstatic Naturalism. While not studying or teaching, Emile enjoys mystery dramas, bread baking, and craft beer.

One Comment

  1. Thanks for reviewing this, Emily! The book was seminal for me to leading to a naturalistic spirituality. I admit to having a lot of interest in the storytelling of what’s often called “shamanism” but without a lot of talk of the supernatural often associated with it. I also recommend his second book, “Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology”, possibly better in some ways as an introduction for a beginner. It’s not as mind-blowing (At least as Spell of the Sensuous was for me) as this his first, heads in similar direction talking about human beings as animals and how we share a sensual relationship with the world as do other animals.

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