Jeremy Hayward: Maybe we could begin by talking a little bit about animism. It seems to me that the main thing you are trying to communicate in The Spell of the Sensuous is a sense that the world is not made of dead matter—that there’s actually abundant life and intelligence everywhere.
David Abram: One of the strong intentions that moves through the book is the hope of breaking down what I see as a very artificial boundary between that which is animate and that which is inanimate, or between that which is alive and that which is not.
I very much want to suggest that everything is animate, that all things have their dynamism, that everything moves. It’s just that some things move much more slowly than other things, so we don’t notice their movement as readily. Suppose I’m walking along and a beautiful rockface draws my attention—I have a particular cliff in mind as I’m saying this— and I find myself moved by this presence, by this rock, by this huge implacable force that captures me each time I walk near it. If I’m moved by this being, how can I say that it does not move? By insisting that the rock itself does not move I’m denying my own direct experience.
Jeremy Hayward: You’re speaking not of merely physical movement, but an inner movement, a movement of experience.
David Abram: Yes, although I wouldn’t say that it is not physical. I really experience it as palpable movement within my viscera, a real physical engagement of my body by this other body, this other dynamism. It is a very, very different mode of dynamism but nonetheless it is flesh, is material, is matter.
So the animistic sensibility I’m trying to invoke is not one that avows the priority of some immaterial mind, or consciousness, out of which the material world is somehow born. Rather I wish to keep faith with matter, and with the sensuous particulars of the physical world that we find around us. This sensuous world, this material plenum, is not a sheerly objective set of mechanical processes. Material nature seems to have its own spontaneity, its own open-endedness, its own life.
In a sense I’m trying to walk a curious path between the spiritual idealism of much of the New Age, which often abandons the sensuous world to speak of the primacy of spirit or mind, and the detached objectivism of the scientific mainstream, which similarly isolates our awareness from the sensuous world by describing nature as a determinate set of objects. I very much want to keep faith with the earthly world, which I don’t experience merely as a bunch of objects. It is just as much a field of living subjects.
Jeremy Hayward: I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s a sense of rejoining mind and body, or rather, recognizing that mind and body are and always have been one.
David Abram: It is remembering what we are. Never to forget that it is this fleshly form, this tongue flapping between my teeth right now, that enables me to come into contact with the trees and the frogs and the sky overhead. It is the body, with its nervous system and its senses, that brings us into contact with all of these other beings and enables us to feel and experience them.
Jeremy Hayward: If we realize that what we call our mind is an expression or aspect of body, and realize that our body is continuous with the physical world around us, then how can our experience not be continuous with the physical world? And if we experience an interiority, then surely the physical world that we exist in must have some kind of inner sense as well.
David Abram: Yes, just so. There is experience, sentience and sensitivity at every point in the surrounding world. This is not to say that I and the world are one, or that the Douglas fir is an extension of my own flesh—well, no more than I am an extension of its flesh—but to feel the inherence of mind in and as the body. In just the same way that the body of that tree is different from my own sensible flesh, so also its experience must be different from mine. The point is not to dissolve all differentiation into some sort of a bland oneness, but to wake up into a tremendous diversity of experiences. There are so many different forms of experience and sentience and sensitivity.
The human body knows that it needs a multiplicity of relationships with the whole of its surroundings. Our bodies have co-evolved with all these other fleshly forms, all of these other bodies—with cedar trees and salmon and windstorms and moon and sun, with critters and plants and herbs of every shape and size. The cultures that we all inhabited for some fifty thousand years practiced relationship with every aspect of the sensuous surroundings.
Today our bodies still know, our nervous systems still know, that they need the nourishment that comes from a full range of relationships with otherness. Yet all of this nourishment is precluded by a culture and language that defines the sensuous surroundings as not sentient, as a purely passive and automatic set of processes. There’s no active agency there, no real otherness, nothing to relate to! We believe that the only place we can encounter otherness is in another human being. And so our bodies turn toward our human partners, demanding the sustenance that can only come from a full range of relationships. But another human, alone, cannot possibly provide all that otherness, and the strain rapidly shatters so many marriages and partnerships.
The Boundary Keepers
Jeremy Hayward: Most people as children have this sense of living connection with their surroundings. In terms of your own path, are you one of those rare people who never lost that connection, or is it something you worked to rediscover?
David Abram: I think it’s true that children are born into an affinity with the whole of the sensuous world, and only later are they somehow cut off from that sense of imaginative participation with the other beings. But the recognition of difference—the awareness of the remarkable strangeness of these other beings, the otherness of their ways of experiencing the world and displaying and expressing themselves—that’s something that I think only comes with maturity.
So a child is born into a sense of unity, and then gradually, as she comes to a sense of her own uniqueness, she grows a sense of the uniqueness of others—of the spider and the ways in which the spider’s experience is very different from her own, of the specialness of the squirrel and the crow and the life of the wind. That each of these beings has its own powers uniquely different from hers, and that hers are uniquely different from theirs.
That respect for other forms of imagination only develops when it’s allowed to, when our early, childlike sense of continuity is allowed to ripen and deepen. In our culture, however, our spontaneous, felt affinity with the rest of the sensuous world is often severed around six or seven years of age, around the time that the child is learning to read and write at school. This is when the child suddenly “gets” what the adults around him have all been saying, which is, look Johnny, it’s just make-believe that that tree outside the house is watching over us—its really not doing anything at all except obeying the laws of chemistry and physics. And so the child is swept up in the peculiarly deadened world view of twentieth-century civilization, as though photosynthesis was not an astonishing and mysterious activity in its own right.
I certainly went through that. I suppose, however, that as a kid I was so porous, or oversensitive, that I was never able to shake that early sense of solidarity with other beings. It sort of slipped below the surface for a while, but as soon as I journeyed into a traditional culture it began to reappear and make itself felt once again.
Jeremy Hayward: When did that happen?
David Abram: Well, as a kid I had this odd experience, as I was saying, of being somewhat porous. For instance, I’d inadvertently pick up the accent of anyone I was speaking to. If I was speaking on the phone to someone from another country, everybody in the room would know from my accent the nationality of the person I was speaking to.
I was very mimetic—easily influenced by other people’s ways of speaking or moving—and I often felt ashamed of this, like I was somehow spineless and had no real integrity of my own. Only later, when I stepped into the village cultures of Indonesia, did I discover that this oversensitivity, which is fairly useless in our society, is very, very useful to any culture which assumes that everything is alive and sentient.
There are always individuals who are a little too sensitive to spend all their time hanging around other humans, because they pick up too much from nervous systems that are the same shape as themselves. If someone depressed walks in the room, they find themselves getting depressed, and if someone happy walks in they’re immediately joyous. They’re too easily influenced by other humans, and yet their sensitivity is just right for entering into a rapport with a very different shape of awareness, with an owl, for instance, or an oak tree, or an ant.
These particularly sensitive folks tend to gravitate quite naturally to the edge of any traditional culture, where with one hand they can turn toward the human collective, but with the other they are open to the whole field of other-than-human powers. They become the intermediaries between the culture and the living land.
I think that every culture worthy of the name recognizes the need for such folks. These persons are the boundary keepers, those who tend the boundary between the human community and the wild, more-than-human world in which human culture is embedded. Their craft or work is to keep that boundary porous, to ensure that it remains a fluid membrane and doesn’t harden into a static barrier.
Jeremy Hayward: And David, do you feel that this sensitivity, which is especially heightened in these boundary keepers, is something that everybody naturally has? To me this seems like a key to what we’ve lost in our present culture.
David Abram: It seems obvious to me that this is a capacity we all share; it’s part of being human. At the same time, there are folks who are a little oversensitive, perhaps as much as twenty percent of any population, who aren’t really good at working in the middle of the human community. That’s not really where their gifts are. They’re not very good at making decisions for the village, but they are really quite good at entering into relation with the other beings—with the animals or the local plants—and picking up what the land itself might need from us.
In the West, because we speak of the land and the rest of nature as a basically passive and insentient set of objects, such folks don’t know what to do with themselves. There’s no recognition that their sensitivity is good for anything, is actually necessary to the culture. Perhaps they learn to stifle their instinctive sensations, which just makes them sick; they become confused; often they get into quite a lot of trouble with the cultural mainstream.
Falling under the Spell
Jeremy Hayward: One of the key points of your book is the role of language in turning us away from, in covering over, this sensitivity. You present the view that the turning point was the moment when our alphabet became divorced from its connection with the natural world, when the words we used somehow became dissociated from our perceptions.
David Abram: Its more complex than that. Actually, I don’t think there’s a single point where things go wrong. It’s a long and subtle process and I try to trace out some of the steps in this falling away from nature that we’ve succumbed to, this falling away from direct relationship with the land.
Having been a sleight-of-hand magician, my interest was first in sensory experience. I was interested in what could have affected our senses so directly that they became blind and deaf to the other forms of life and awareness that populate our world, so much so that we now casually bring about their destruction. It’s not out of any meanness that we are destroying the natural world, but out of a sort of obliviousness. We simply don’t notice that it’s there.
That was the puzzle to me: how is it that we became so oblivious to the rest of nature? It seems to me that the ways we speak have a profound influence on what we see or hear of the world around us. Our body directly encounters the things around us as animate powers, as potent processes that draw us into relation with them. To the extent that we speak of these beings as objects, we deny our direct sensory experience.
Indeed, by defining the world as a bunch of objects we are essentially shutting down our senses, because our sensing body directly experiences the world only as a living field of forces. On the other hand, to begin to speak of the world as animate and alive is to begin to rejuvenate our direct sensory experience. To speak in a way that is in alignment with our senses reopens them to their reciprocity with the sensuous surroundings.
So how did our speaking ever get so cut off? How is it that we came to begin to speak of the land as inert? Especially since in traditional cultures it is assumed that everything speaks, not just humans. The voices and gestures of other animals enact their own languages. And not just other animals—even the wind in the willows is a voice with its own meaning. How then could we have come to this odd notion that language is an exclusively human property, and that everything else is mute, not really expressive at all?
I began to realize that there is one factor that directly influences our senses, at the same time that it influences our language and our ways of speaking. A factor that directly engages our eyes and our ears at the same time as it engages our language. This factor is the written word.
I began to look at the emergence of writing, and I quickly noticed that most of the cultures that we ecologists extol as being exemplary for their respectful, relatively sustainable relations to the land around them, like many of the indigenous cultures of North America, were oral cultures—cultures that traditionally flourished without any formal system of writing.
I began to wonder, what is it that writing does? I found that each script, each form of writing, engages the senses in particular ways and so influences our relation to language and to the sensuous world in a very specific manner. But it was one form of writing in particular—that which we call the alphabet—which really set the stage for the kind of intellectual distance from nature that is common to what we call Western civilization.
Even within alphabetic (or phonetic) writing, there are different forms of alphabets that have brought about unique and specific changes to the ways we see and hear the world. The ancient Semitic aleph-beth, from which virtually all alphabets are derived, had no vowels indicated on the page. When reading the consonants, the reader had to add the vowels, which of course are the breath sounds. (Traditional Hebrew texts have this same trait.) One could say that the consonants are the bones, and that one has to lend one’s own breath to those bones to make them come alive and speak.
This lack of written vowels inadvertantly preserved the sense of sacredness accorded to the wind and the breath by so many oral cultures. For these cultures speech is nothing other than shaped breath, and the invisible wind is the very mystery of the spirit, that which gives all things life and awareness.
The Greeks for the first time inserted specific letters for the vowels, for the breath sounds, and in doing so they effectively desacralized the air and the breath. They made it possible for us to forget this invisible medium in which we, along with all the other animals and the plants, are immersed—this medium that palpably joins the inside of our breathing bodies to the inside of the trees and clouds.
The wind is the mystery of mysteries for so many oral cultures, and yet for our culture the air and the breath and the wind is often forgotten. We just speak of empty space; we don’t speak of the air between us. It’s as if we feel that there’s nothing there, no physical connection.
Jeremy Hayward: What was it that separated people from nature in such a way that they could even conceive of changing the alphabet in this way? I wonder whether the separation of language from its direct connection with the natural world wasn’t instigated by something else that was going on. For example, if we look at some traditions with phonetic alphabets, such as the Sanskrit or Tibetan, we don’t necessarily find that kind of denial of nature.
David Abram: Once again, this is why I want to emphasize that it’s a complex process that happens in a different way in each place. It’s remarkable how unique the story of writing is to each place where it occurs. When the alphabet appeared in India, for example, it came into contact with an oral culture that was so alive, and functioning at so many levels of society, that writing never was able to displace it. Writing was sort of taken on as an adjunct to oral culture, a servant of storytelling, and the stories remained primary.
It’s my feeling, at least at this point in my research, that there does not need to be a prior distancing which the technologies of writing then begin to embody, as you’re suggesting, Jeremy. My sense is that our tools and technologies have their own potency and power, their own ability to alter or influence our relations with the world, and that we should respect them accordingly. The alphabet was a useful and a very beautiful thing that was taken up by diverse cultures across the globe. But such a technology has a power and a magic of its own, and if one does not work carefully with that magic it can be a very dangerous thing indeed.
I think that the separation you speak of, that beginning sense of a separation between the mind and the body, is itself made possible by this new reflexivity that emerges between the literate intellect and its own signs.
Cultures without writing come to know themselves primarily as they are reflected back by the other animals and the living landscape; many such cultures organize themselves in a totemic manner, according to who belongs to the turtle clan and who is of the beaver clan, and so on. The human society sees itself reflected in the movements and patterns of the land. With phonetic writing, for the first time, humans can reflect upon themselves in abstraction from the other animals and the local earth. They begin to enter into a reflexive relation with their own signs, one which short-circuits the ancestral reciprocity between their senses and the sensuous terrain.
It’s no coincidence that the word “spell” has that double meaning: to arrange the letters in the right order to form a word, but also to cast a magic spell. Because to begin to read or write with this new technology was precisely to deploy a new kind of magic. It was also, all too often, to cast a kind of spell upon our own senses. Its as though we’ve all been under the spell of the alphabet in the West. The spell of spelling, one could say.
The Autonomous Human Zone
Jeremy Hayward: This also reflects on the Internet and the whole virtual world that people are so fascinated by. When we began to come under the spell of writing, we lost the direct relationship with the trees and animals who spoke to us. Now that we are coming under the spell of the Web, we’re losing the direct relationship with other humans. We’re actually beginning to live each in our own little box.
David Abram: In some ways it is the fulfillment of Plato’s philosophy, his dream of an ideal dimension of pure forms that is prior to the sensuous world with all of its foibles. Plato’s heaven of pure forms is finally exemplified in cyberspace. Finally it seems to offer us a way to escape our bodies, to free our minds from all embodiment. But of course it’s the body that links us to the other animals and to the earth.
With older, non-alphabetic forms of writing, the pictorial or ideographic characters borrowed some of their shapes from the more-than-human surroundings. With the emergence of the phonetic alphabet however, the letters came to refer strictly to human sounds, and the more-than-human origin of those shapes was forgotten. The rest of nature was no longer a necessary part of the practice of reading and thinking, as it had long been when reading the hieroglyphics of the Maya or even the ideographic scripts of China.
This subtle shift makes all the difference—reflective thought now begins to experience itself as a purely human power. The act of thinking comes to inhabit an exclusively human dimension. And the Internet really extends that. There are no other organisms really participating with us when we’re living out our lives through the screen, except, of course, virtual organisms devised and programmed by humans. We are just sort of wandering around inside our collective human nervous system. It’s what Jerry Mander speaks of as a kind of intraspecies incest.
Jeremy Hayward: When one thinks that all over the globe millions of computers are connected together through these wires, one really begins to feel that it’s taking on a body and an intelligence of its own. That it is somehow communicating with us, and almost using us, in a sense.
David Abram: Yes, and how could it not be so? From an animistic perspective, everything is alive in some manner, even the computer. Once one links up so many millions of nodes, certainly the complexity is invoking a very mysterious being indeed.
The Languages of the Land
Jeremy Hayward: So how do we work with this trap that we’ve created for ourselves? Is there a different way of teaching our children?
David Abram: Oh gosh, too many things are flooding into my awareness all at once. One very important aspect is to work toward a rejuvenation of oral culture, a renewing of the storied world. For heaven’s sake, children are being brought up on screens now, both on the television screen, which seems to be the all-purpose babysitter, and increasingly in relation to the computer screen. Before they step into that world, even before they step into a world of texts and written words on pages, it seems to me essential that they walk first into the world of stories.
I’m talking about stories being told face to face, not read to children from books. Just telling the story of what happens inside that forest edge every full moon, or whose tracks are winding across this dry creekbed. What are the stories of your place? Why does that mountainside have that huge and strange-shaped boulder jutting out from it? Or the story of that street corner over there, where the street lamp keeps buzzing on and off—what’s going on there?
Children need the stories in the land, the stories in the physical world, because, unlike other forms of discourse, we inhabit stories with our bodily imagination. We need to experience language bodily before we come to inhabit it as a disembodied realm of abstractions. We should put a priority on improvising stories together with our children, so that the child grows into a storied landscape, and has a sense of language as something that belongs not only to humans but to the whole of the world. The child growing up within a world of stories has a sense of being immersed in a meaningful cosmos, a world in which meanings are leaking out of every branch and blade of grass and beak that happens to open.
That’s the kind of grounding that is necessary for the literate intellect, and perhaps even the computerized mind, to be able to navigate with some sort of ethical restraint. It can only do so if it’s rooted in this bodily awareness of being immersed in a world in which not just humans, but other beings and other bodies also dwell.
The linking of language to the land, renewing the forgotten intimacy between language and the land, is so important. When I speak of revitalizing storytelling it’s because of the need to rejuvenate a sense in which language and speech is rooted in particular places, and hence that the mind does not float free of the land. How peculiar it is that you could study at a university in New York or in California or in Texas or New Mexico, and you’d learn the very same things. We’re taught the same information because the place where we are, the particular ecology, is thought to have no bearing on knowledge and thinking.
But what a bizarre assumption that is. It is a product of texts, the fact that once words are written down they can be carried everywhere. Stories were once rooted in the details of particular locations—the way the other animals moved and hunted, what plants grew there in what season, which roots could be eaten and which could not, which plants could heal specific ailments. All of that local knowledge is lost until we restore the storied dimension of oral speech which underlies and grounds the literate layer of language.
Jeremy Hayward: So what would you say if someone came to you and said, “David, your book has profoundly affected me and it has made me desperate, realizing how I’ve been caught up in language and separated from the natural world and so on, what can I do?”
David Abram: Ah, there’s so much to do. I would say, for one thing, that there’s no problem with being caught up in language because language is not the culprit. There are wonderful ways of speaking that are true to our direct sensory experience. What we need to do is slow down, quiet the incessant chatter in the brain for a moment, and give some room for our eyes and our ears to listen to all the other voices that surround us.
So why not try listening to the sounds, and letting them be voices. Allow all these other sounds to be meaningful. Sure, they don’t speak in words, but it’s still speech; it’s still meaningful. How much more open our ears become then! Beginning to listen with our animal ears and to gaze into the world with our animal eyes! Beginning to value our bodies again, and our animal embodiment. And so feeling our embeddedness in the flesh of this living earth, giving time to the pleasures of sensual contact with the ground underfoot and the air that caresses our skin. So peeling off my shirt, even in the middle of winter, and feeling what it feels like on my flesh. Taking off my shoes and walking on the ground, barefoot, renewing the direct contact between ourselves and that which is not just human.
These gestures are so important, and yet they are not sufficient, because we also have to communicate with one another. It’s necessary to move from that silence back into the world of expression, but to find ways of speaking that are true to our direct sensory experience of the world, true to our animal kinship with the rest of the animate world.
Many people have developed an incredible distrust of words and feel that language violates genuine experience. Well, it’s not true. It’s just that we’ve largely forgotten how to speak as earthly, sensorial, bodily beings. Story is an important key, and another great key is poetry, by which I simply mean speaking beautifully, speaking as a body speaks, rather than as a mind. Taking care that I use words that move my flesh, that have some physical resonance to them, that resound in my mouth and my muscles. Taking care to use words that are not just abstract terms, words that still have the soil clinging to their roots, that feel earthy, that are appropriate to the body and the land.
Life and Depth
Jeremy Hayward: What about the television and the computer?
David Abram: With writing, we began to enter into relation with the flat surface of the sheet of papyrus, the flat page. That later became the flat screen of the television or the computer monitor we gaze at. It’s these flat surfaces that we spend so much time staring at which really defy the primordial experience of the perceptual world as something that exists in depth—as something that envelops us, that has a near and a far and a topology that shifts as we move within it.
Depth is the experience of being immersed. There’s no depth dimension to the world unless you are in it. You don’t get a near and a far unless you are yourself embedded in that visual field, situated in it somewhere.
When we and our children stare at screens, there isn’t that full-body experience of being situated in the thick of the perceptual field. What that communicates to my body as a child is that nature, even the nature I watch on the splendid PBS program, is something I look at. It’s not something that I am a part of. To me this is perhaps the greatest danger of the screen consciousness that seems to be overcoming our civilization—that we increasingly relate to the world as something we look at rather than something we are immersed in and permeated by.
I think the deepest impulse in my work, Jeremy, is to renew the experience of being immersed, embedded, in the depths of a living world. To me that’s what that phrase “deep ecology” is all about. It simply means being in the depths of the ecology, in the thick of this very world that we mistakenly objectify as if we were outside of it.
But we’re not outside of it. We don’t have any privileged vantage point from which to gaze at the world and get a finished blueprint of it, because we are entirely a part of it, situated within it by virtue of being bodily entities. We are embedded in the thick of things. Our life is continuous with that of the world that surrounds us. So to invite people to speak of the earth as alive is simply to invite people to notice that they are inside of it.