…the whole of nature is the setting of our own life, and our interlocutor in a sort of dialogue.

     — Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Ted Toadvine(1) is an attentive scholar of the phenomenological movement, with an abiding interest in the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. His approach to phenomenology is considerably more conservative than my own, yet his methodological writings have often prompted me to reflect on matters from an intriguingly different angle. He also has an admirable interest in environmental issues, and we share an intuition that phenomenology and ecology have much to learn from each other. Toadvine has by now written several papers dealing directly or indirectly with my work, and I have read them with interest.(2)   My interest has been tempered, however, by a deepening dismay at Toadvine’s persistent misconstrual of my project — in particular, his wierd rendering of my book, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World.  I certainly do not believe that his misreading of this work is intentional, yet it can only be sustained by overlooking much of the text. I acknowledge that the book’s animistic philosophical stance (influenced as much by my craft as a sleight-of-hand magician, and my work with indigenous peoples, as it is by phenomenology) is considerably skewed with respect to the Western philosophical tradition; it is possible that this renders some aspects of the text virtually invisible to a wholly conventional philosophic gaze. Yet Toadvine has a keen and original intelligence, and it is hard to discern how he can have missed so much of the argument. Perhaps his concern to find a good foil for his own philosophical project prevents him from carefully reading what I have actually written.

I will not try to engage each of the many points where Toadvine misreads my work, for I have no wish to bore the reader of this journal with endless textual comparisons. I am more interested in the larger themes of Toadvine’s critique, several of which I will take up, albeit briefly, in this paper. I will first engage his contention that I disparage reflection on behalf of a pre-reflective position, and that I denigrate the alphabet in favor of an ostensibly pre-literate stance. Then I will take up the remarkable assertion, to which Toadvine returns again and again, that I “exclude the symbolic” from my account, and indeed that I seek to eliminate the symbolic from our interactions with others.(3) Finally I will address his claim that the eco-phenomenology of The Spell of the Sensuous leaves no room for resistance, contradiction, and incompossibility. My reply to this curious claim will lead me directly into a discussion of one of the most crucial concerns of The Spell of the Sensuous: the manner in which the style of our discourse – our way of wielding words — tacitly works to either enable, or to stifle, the solidarity between the human community and the more-than-human earth.

Reflection and Participation

Toadvine asserts that I “castigate reflection in favor of a pre-reflective position.”(4) Yet my work has never argued for a pre-reflective position; indeed the very notion is bizarre to me, for the simple reason that I cannot imagine what a pre-reflective position would be. Reflection, it seems to me, is underway from the get-go,  since the simplest event of sensorial perception is already an instance of an organism receiving an echo of itself from the world, an interaction with the world from which one returns to oneself changed, refracted somewhat, and through which the world is also reflected, returned to itself afresh. Merleau-Ponty, describing the strange vicissitudes of what he terms “the flesh,” writes of this primordial reflection that unfolds not within me but rather between me and the world:

There is vision, touch, when a certain visible, a certain tangible, turns back upon the whole of the visible, the whole of the tangible, of which it is a part, or when suddenly it finds itself surrounded by them, or when between it and them, and through their commerce, is formed a Visibility, a Tangible in itself, which belong properly neither to the body qua fact nor to the world qua fact — as upon two mirrors facing one another where two indefinite series of images set in one another arise which belong really to neither of the two surfaces, since each is only the rejoinder of the other, and which therefore form a couple, a couple more real than either of them. Thus since the seer is caught up in what he sees, it is still himself he sees: there is a fundamental narcissism of all vision. And thus, for the same reason, the vision he exercises, he also undergoes from the things, such that, as many painters have said, I feel myself looked at by the things, my activity is equally passivity — which is the second and more profound sense of the narcissism: not to see in the outside, as the others see it, the contour of a body one inhabits, but especially to be seen by the outside, to exist within it, to emigrate into it, to be seduced, captivated, alienated by the phantom, so that the seer and the visible reciprocate one another and we no longer know which sees and which is seen.(5)

For Toadvine this interaction would have to be called “pre-reflective,” since the term “reflection,” in his paper, seems strictly reserved for abstract, verbal thought. Merleau-Ponty, however, suggests that “our whole expression and conceptualization of the mind” is derived from this primordial reciprocity between the body and the world: our flesh continually feels itself reflecting the world, and reflected by the world, and this is what leads us to construe the mind as a place of “reflection.”(6)

Perhaps, then, Professor Toadvine does not really mean to say that I “castigate” reflection per se, but rather that I disparage verbal reflection — the kind of thing we often do when we are mentally cogitating. But even this modified claim is manifestly false. I have, after all, written a highly reflective book, one which requires a considerable amount of abstract cogitation to read, and I disparage neither my own thought nor those of the writers whom I quote within the text. Many pages of the book allude to the insights, practices, and stories of various indigenous, oral peoples (some of whom I have lived among) — insights and perspectives that are quite obviously the fruit not only of rich experience but of careful and cultivated reflection. The oral teaching stories that I quote or allude to have often been honed over the course of many generations of pondering, and reflecting, in tandem with one’s community (not only one’s human community but also the more-than-human community of animals, plants, and land-forms that comprise the surrounding earth). Indeed the centrality of story, and storytelling, among indigenous peoples – and the felt experience of living within a storied cosmos that is engendered by this very verbal practice – is a recurrent theme within The Spell of the Sensuous. Hence it cannot be that this book disparages verbal reflection per se.

I am, however, critical of a particular kind of verbal reflection — that which forgets its own genesis in the interplay and tension between our animal body and the animate earth, a reflection that denies its own rootedness in the bodily field of experience. I am critical, yes, of a practice of reflection that neglects the debt that it owes to the sensuous world, that forgets to honor or even acknowledge its utter dependance upon the tactile, olfactory, visual and auditory cosmos – upon this palpable terrain that we share with the rocks and the rain. But even while my writing critiques such a reflection that closes itself off from its senses and deludedly believes in its own autonomy, The Spell of the Sensuous seeks to honor and indeed to enact another style of reflection — one that remains true to the corporeal field that inevitably supports and sustains it.

It is a way of thinking that strives for rigor without forfeiting our animal kinship with the world around us — an attempt to think in accordance with the senses, to ponder and reflect without severing our sensorial bond with the owls and the wind. It is a style of thinking, then, that associates “truth” not with static fact, but with a quality of relationship…A civilization that relentlessly destroys the living land it inhabits is not well acquainted with truth, regardless of how many supposed facts it has amassed regarding the calculable properties of its world.(7)

Toadvine claims that I associate alphabetic culture with reflection per se, and associate indigenous, oral cultures with some sort of pure perceptual coinciding with the world, wherein meaning is ever-present.(8) Yet this is very far from the case, and I can only refer the reader to my work itself — for instance, to the section entitled “Membranes and Barriers” in the chapter on “The Forgetting and Remembering of the Air.”  Indigenous, oral peoples are certainly not in any state of pure sensorial reciprocity or “fusion;” indeed, they grapple with many of the same problems of meaning and alienation that confront literate cultures — problems that necessarily arise from the human use of language, and the distance (the zone of free play, or slack) that verbal language opens between one who speaks and the perceptual world of which she speaks. Yet the animistic style of discourse common to indigenous peoples — a discourse that affirms the active agency (and the expressive potential) of virtually all phenomena — ensures that most indigenous, oral peoples rarely close their thoughts off from the sensuous surroundings.  If everything is assumed to be alive and at least potentially expressive (mountains, stormclouds and human-made artifacts no less than porcupines and cottonwood trees) then one only carelessly turns one’s reflections entirely away from the larger field of beings in which one’s village or culture is embedded.

Yet there is a deeper reason that this age-old practice of affirming the animate, active agency of all things — the practice of assuming some manner of spontaneity and sentience in all that one encounters — keeps one’s cogitations close to the sensorial layer of experience. For such an animistic way of speaking honors the participatory nature of perception itself. It acknowledges the dynamic solicitation of our sensing body by the things around us, and the silent espousal of the things by our body — that mutual exchange and reciprocity between the body and the breathing world that Merleau-Ponty’s investigations had disclosed as the very structure of perception. Unlike the modern discourse of “subjects” and “objects” (unlike the very civilized rhetoric that positions a disembodied and exclusively human “subject” over and against an essentially inanimate conglomeration of material “objects”), the indigenous, animistic style of speaking allows the reciprocal, dialogical structure of perception to rise into verbal reflection and speech, and so to lend its influence to conscious experience and to culture.

But if perceptual experience is inherently interactive, a dynamic exchange wherein neither the perceiver nor the perceived is entirely passive, and if indigenous peoples give expression to such experience by speaking of things — of stones and weather patterns and even of spoken words themselves — as active and animate presences with whom they find themselves in a living relation, how can it be that many of us now deploy a language that denies the animateness of rocks and of rivers? If focal perception is essentially a participatory event, disclosing the things around us as open and enigmatic powers, revealing surrounding nature as “our interlocutor in a sort of dialog,”(9) then how has it come about that most contemporary discourse in the West relentlessly forecloses this conversation between ourselves and the rest of the earth by defining nature as an assemblage of inanimate objects and mechanical processes? Surely we cannot suppose that some vast portion of humankind suddenly halted the dynamic interaction that is the very structure of perception! For to bring an end to the carnal interchange, to cut short the spontaneous and erotic interplay between our senses and the things that engage them, would be tantamount to halting perception itself, sealing our bodies up within themselves. Clearly this has not happened: we remain alive, still breathing, still creatures of experience. If we no longer encounter enveloping nature as our interlocutor — as a potentized field of animate, expressive powers — it can only mean that we have shifted the primary participation of our senses away from surrounding nature toward another locus — that some new medium has captured the synaesthetic fascination, and focus, of our senses.

The Spell of Spelling

In The Spell of the Sensuous, I try to show that it is writing — particularly alphabetic writing — that has so captured the focal attention of our senses.  Consider, after all, that virtually every oral culture we know of (every culture that has developed and thrived without a formal writing system that is tied, or coupled, to their spoken language) has maintained a deeply animistic way of seeing and of speaking, refusing to acknowledge any realm of the perceivable world as definitively inert or inanimate, insisting that each perceivable presence has its own life, and indeed that all things have at least the capacity  for expression or speech. The Pitjantjara of Australia, the Ogoni of Nigeria, the traditional Sami of Scandinavia, the Ainu of Japan, the Huarani of the Amazon, the Haida of northwest North America —  it is remarkable that each of these diverse oral cultures, despite their wildly divergent lifeways and philosophies, insists upon the active agency of all phenomena, and hence upon the need to approach any phenomenon (whether an animal or plant, a cliff or a gust of wind) with mindfulness and respect for its wild otherness, its unique influence within the world. In the absence of a formalized writing system, it would seem that human cultures spontaneously find a ready echo of their own vitality in the manifold life of the sensuous surroundings; their direct, sensory participation with those surroundings discloses a cosmos that is everywhere animate and expressive, a breathing landscape that speaks in a myriad of voices.

With the emergence of formal writing systems, however, the human community begins to shift its sensorial fascination away from the expressive, speaking landscape toward its own scratches and scripts. Only by transferring the synaesthetic magic of our senses away from the many-voiced earth to the marks inscribed on the sheet of papyrus could we make those marks — those ostensibly inanimate bits of ink — begin to speak.

Try looking at a single one of the words printed on this page without seeing what “it says.” It is not an easy thing to accomplish. Indeed, if you really attempt it, you will discover that it is well nigh impossible! As soon as we focus our gaze upon these inert bits of ink, we “see what they say.” The written letters, says Plato, “seem to talk to you, as though they were intelligent…”(10) When we open the newspaper in the morning, we train our eyes upon the clustered ink-marks on the page and straightaway we hear ourselves addressed, spoken to.  We hear voices, listen in on conversations unfolding at other times, witness strange scenes (or visions) happening in other parts of the world. This is animism. The experience is not different in kind from that of a Hopi elder who, walking outside the pueblo, finds her gaze drawn toward a spider quietly weaving its web; she focuses her eyes upon that tiny form and then abruptly, unexpectedly, feels the spider speaking to her. Or that of a Haida man out walking in the temperate rainforest when his attention is caught by a large boulder beneath the cedars; he trains his eyes upon a vivid patch of lichen on the boulder’s surface, and suddenly hears himself being addressed by the rock.

Indeed, much as cedar trees, spiders, and presumably “inanimate” rock formations once spoke to our oral ancestors, so the ostensibly ‘inert’ letters on the page now speak to us! Reading is a form of animistic participation that we take for granted, and yet it is animism nonetheless, as outrageous as a talking stone.

Written letters, and the multiple technologies made possible by the printed word, have today usurped much of the evocative power that once resided, for us, in the depths of the surrounding terrain. To briefly cite one of the many ways (examined at length in The Spell of the Sensuous) whereby such a shift came about: For virtually all indigenous, traditionally oral peoples, the linguistically encoded knowledge and practical wisdom accumulated by their ancestors over the course of numerous generations is preserved, not in books, but in spoken and chanted stories — often in large interlocking cycles of stories, and of stories embedded within other stories. Stories, we might say, are the living encyclopedias of an oral culture.(11)   The oral stories, meanwhile, are preserved by their association with the surrounding earth and its creatures. Local animals, for instance, often figure as key characters within the tales; when one encounters a particular creature in the course of one’s day, the encounter triggers the memory of certain tales in which that animal plays a vital role. More importantly, every part of the local landscape — every cluster of boulders, each meandering stream, every cave, and mountain, and old grove of trees — is associated with certain stories, or storied events, that presumably happened in that place and gave that site its specific character and quality. To wander the surrounding terrain is thus to wander through an expressive, storied landscape; each part of the topography evokes a part of some tale that quietly resounds in one’s awareness. The land, in other words, is the primary mnemonic, or memory-trigger, for recalling the ancestral stories.

When literacy first arrives in such a culture (often brought by missionaries propounding the written teachings in the Bible), the old, oral stories begin to be written down. Gradually, then, the written page becomes the primary mnemonic for remembering the originally oral stories  — the inked traces made by the pen as it traverses the page replacing the tracks made by the animals, or the traces left by the totem ancestors as they wandered the land. And the land itself, stripped of the particularizing stories that once sprouted from every hillside and riverbed, quietly begins to lose its voice, forfeiting its expressive potency and power. After two or three generations, the surrounding landscape may come to seem an entirely mute backdrop, no longer necessary to the act of thought and reflection. Only in the wake of such a process can a culture come to forget the activity and eloquence of its more-than-human locale. Only in the wake of such a process could we begin to flatten the wild and multiplicitous power of our earthly realm into a notion as vacuous and vapid as “the environment.”

Toadvine’s paper suggests that I disdain and denigrate the alphabet — and that, by associating the alphabet with what he calls a “purely mental” process, and oral culture with a purely bodily relation to the world, I am tacitly propounding “some version of mind-body dualism.”(12) But this is an egregious misreading of my work. First: it is obvious that indigenous, oral persons are no less cognitive and thoughtful than literate persons. My point is simply that oral modes of reflection are far less prone to exclusively human abstractions that neglect the breathing body and the earth; the oral intellect remains open – of necessity – to the wider intelligence of the living land.

Second: phonetic literacy is not at all, for me, a “purely mental process” – it is a profoundly sensorial participation between the human organism and its own scratches and scripts. As I argue at length in The Spell of the Sensuous, reading itself should be recognized as a deeply synaesthetic interaction with the visible shapes on the page, wherein a purely visual stimulus provokes an auditory experience. (The printed letters on the page seem to trade our eyes for our ears…(13) ) Indeed, much of Western rationality – the highly abstract mode of reasoning that has commonly been associated, since Plato, with a bodiless dimension of pure ideas – is tacitly dependant upon this very carnal, synaesthetic participation with the written letters of the alphabet.(14) Hence alphabetic reading, for me, is an especially embodied, sensorial activity, rather a “purely mental process.”

Third: I am hardly engaged in demeaning or denigrating the alphabet. To the contrary, I am arguing that the alphabet can best be understood as a new and uniquely powerful form of magic. Indeed I have tried to demonstrate that alphabetic literacy is an intensely concentrated form of animism, a synaesthetic participation so vivid that it readily eclipses all the other styles of participation, or magic, in which we humans once engaged. Hence The Spell of the Sensuous is not at all engaged in a put-down or a rejection of literacy; rather it suggests that alphabetic literacy should be recognized as an especially profound magic. For it is only by acknowledging its not-entirely-rational, world-altering power that we have a chance of wielding this power responsibly, rather than falling under its remarkable spell. (It is not, after all, by chance that the word “spell” has such a curious double-meaning: to cast a potent magic into the world, or to arrange the alphabetic letters in a correct manner. The Hebrews — the very first culture of the alphabet — never lost this awareness of writing as a particularly potent magic; much of the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, is concerned with the numinous and unruly powers inherent in the written letters themselves).(15) If, however, we simply take the alphabet for granted, regarding it merely as a neutral, mechanical technique for recording spoken utterance, then we readily fall prey to a host of delusions — such as the assumption that meaningful speech is an exclusively human property; or a belief that the reflective mind is a wholly autonomous power, independent of the body and the earth; or the related faith that modern science will someday achieve a wholly objective representation of “what is.”

All of these peculiarly Western presumptions stem from the extraordinary self-reflexivity made possible by the alphabet, from the ability it offers us to continuously converse with our own signs in the complete absence of other expressive beings, and hence to neglect and finally forget the myriad non-verbal forms of exchange by which we are steadily nourished and sustained by the more-than-human earth. (16)

Yet while such forgetfulness is made possible by the alphabet, the alphabet does not necessitate or cause this oblivion. The Spell of the Sensuous itself, after all, is intended to display a very different manner of wielding alphabetic reason, and there have always been writers who wrote in service to the more-than-human earth — from Goethe to Rilke, from John Muir to Jean Giono, from Wendell Berry to Barbara Kingsolver and Rick Bass. Phonetic writing was a necessary ingredient in our estrangement from the more-than-human world; but it is hardly a sufficient cause of our obliviousness.(17)

Professor Toadvine, critiquing The Spell of the Sensuous, writes again and again of the “fall” into the alphabet, or the “fall” into literate reflection, and by each time placing this “fall” in quotation marks, he seems to indicate that it is my phrase — as though it were a trope that I deploy throughout The Spell of the Sensuous.(18) In an earlier paper on my work, he decries my “rhetoric about a ‘fall’ from the state of nature into alphabetical civilization.”(19) Yet there is no such rhetoric anywhere in The Spell of the Sensuous — and certainly no mention anywhere of a “fall,” whether into literacy or anything else. The “fall” is Toadvine’s own assimilation of my work to a Christian metaphysics, but that metaphysics simply cannot be found, I believe, anywhere within my writing. Of course, it is easy (and very common, these days) to interpret any respectful or appreciative description of indigenous lifeways as necessarily succumbing to a Western, biblical tendency to valorize an Edenic past while despising the ‘fallen’ present. Yet there are many other ways of construing time besides the notion of a linear descent, or fall, from an idealized origin. Toadvine, for his part, seems snared in the inverse, and equally metaphysical, notion of time as a linear ascent, or progress, toward a predetermined end or telos. Hence his insistence that the historical shift from oral cultures to alphabetic civilization should be understood not as contingent event but as “a symptom of a deeper necessity… an expression of the fact that we have been essentially alphabetical from the outset.” It “expresses a telos already inscribed in the oral mode of thought and awaiting its later fulfillment.”(20)

In my own work I steer clear of such teleological notions, which would necessarily cast non-alphabetic peoples as less “evolved” than we are. Indeed, I have explicitly tried to avoid any such linear conceptions of time, whether as a fall or as an ascent, since neither seems to leave room for that experience of time to which our senses are most attuned — the awareness (born of witnessing the sun arc across the sky each day and slip into the ground each evening, only to arise the next morning on the far side of the earth; born of witnessing the changing hue of the autumn leaves before they fall to the ground, and then the return of the snows every winter, blanketing the dark soil, and the subsequent rebirth of the greening earth every spring, and then the blossoming and the fruiting and then once again the falling leaves; born of watching the cycling phases of the moon and the cycling phases of one’s life) that time is not a rectilinear arrow going from a distant past toward a distant future, but is a round thing, like the encircling horizon:

It is surely not a matter of “going back,” but rather of coming full circle, uniting our capacity for cool reason with those more sensorial and mimetic ways of knowing, letting the vision of a common world root itself in our direct, participatory engagement with the local and the particular.(21)

A genuinely ecological approach does not work to attain a mentally envisioned future, but strives to enter, ever more deeply, into the sensorial present. It strives to become ever more awake to the other lives, the other forms of sentience and sensibility that surround us in the open field of the present moment. For the other animals and the gathering clouds do not exist in linear time. We meet them only when the thrust of historical time begins to open outward, when we walk out of our heads into the cycling life of the land around us. This wild expanse has its own timing, its rhythms of dawning and dusk, its seasons of gestation and bud and blossom. It is here, and not in linear history, that the ravens reside.(22)

Toadvine is concerned that my association of oral, or non-literate cultures with more bodily, sensorial ways of knowing “runs the danger of ‘orientalism,'” romanticizing indigenous peoples while “denying them access to Western rationality.”(23) Yet here again Toadvine has misunderstood the argument. By showing that Western rationality has never really broken with animism — by disclosing that Western reason is itself sustained by a unique form of animism — my work makes clear that indigenous, animistic peoples have ready access to Western rationality if they choose it.

In contrast to a long-standing tendency of Western social science, this work has not attempted to provide a rational explanation of animistic beliefs and practices. On the contrary, it has presented an animistic or participatory account of rationality. It has suggested that civilized reason is sustained only by a deeply animistic engagement with our own signs. To tell the story in this manner — to provide an animistic account of reason, rather than the other way around — is to imply that animism is the wider and more inclusive term, and that oral, mimetic modes of experience still underlie, and support, all our literate and technological modes of reflection. When reflection’s rootedness in such bodily, participatory modes of experience is entirely unacknowledged or unconscious, reflective reason becomes dysfunctional, unintentionally destroying the corporeal, sensuous world that sustains it. (24)

An appreciation of the myriad differences wrought by alphabetic literacy is simply necessary for any attempt to understand, from a Western perspective, the thought-style of oral cultures, or – what is to me much more interesting — to understand Western rationality from an oral perspective(25) . If we overlook the very real perceptual and cognitive effects if the written word we risk subsuming the diverse cognitive styles of indigenous, oral peoples within our own alphabetic universe (in the manner of much 19th and 20th century ethnology), defining what is genuinely other as an undeveloped version of oneself.  In my own work I have sometimes referred to oral cultures as “non-literate,” but never have I spoken of such cultures as “pre-literate” or (in Toadvine’s terminology) “pre-alphabetical.”(26)    Traditional oral cultures inhabit experiential worlds that are, in many ways, very different from the specific lifeworld of Western civilization, but their lifeworlds are not at all inferioror preliminary to the alphabetized lifeworld — they are different. Toadvine, however, argues that the move from oral culture to alphabetic civilization “expresses a telos already inscribed in the oral mode of thought and awaiting its later fulfillment.” It is “an expression of the fact that we have been essentially alphabetical from the outset.”(27) Such a view cannot help but lead us to construe indigenous, oral cultures as a subordinate stage in cultural evolution, as a prior moment in the linear progress of humankind — casting oral peoples not as non-literate, but rather as pre-literate. This is an arrogance that philosophy, and phenomenology, can no longer afford.(28)

The Earthly (or Material) Symbolic

To my mind, the strangest contention that runs through Toadvine’s paper is his repeated assertion that I “exclude,”  “deny,” or “pay no attention to” the symbolic dimension.(29) To more careful readers, there is very little in The Spell of the Sensuous that is not about the symbolic. Toadvine, it seems, can only recognize a symbolic that lacks all materiality and weight; the very notion of a symbolic dimension that partakes of materiality, or that evinces sensorial qualities — like smells and tactile textures — seems inconceivable to him. Hence he is unable to discern that the entire book is about the symbolic dimension, albeit a modality of the symbolic largely alien to philosophy in the modern and hypermodern era — a modality which we might speak of as the material, or earthly, symbolic.

Still, it is hard to see how he has managed to overlook the central attention given to storytelling throughout this work, the examination of story both as an ancient and primary mode of human languaging, and as a primary way that the more-than-human world discloses itself to us symbolically, both in wakeful consciousness and in the oneiric realm of the dream. The centrality of story is particularly pervasive in chapters 1, 4, 5, 6, and the Coda — that is, almost two thirds of the text, yet Toadvine mentions it nowhere in his paper. Perhaps the only theme more central to this work is that of magic — a thematic explored at length in the very first chapter, “The Ecology of Magic,” and one that continues and deepens throughout the text.(30) The animistic notion of magic articulated in this work provides of way of disclosing the perceptual field, itself, as symbolic through and through — a way of indicating that there is no aspect of the sensuous or corporeal world that is utterly free of symbolic resonance. Within the perceptual world, says Merleau-Ponty, “all corporeality is already symbolism.”(31)

Yet Toadvine entirely neglects the theme of magic. Had he noticed and reflected upon the centrality of this subject to The Spell of the Sensuous, he would have been unable to conclude that I equate Merleau-Ponty’s ‘flesh’ with the mundane natural world,”(32) or that I “assimilate the ontology of flesh to a realist conception of environmental holism,” identifying the flesh with “simply a world of things.”(33)  Within the style of speech, or writing, enacted within The Spell, there is no portion of the perceivable world (no fundament or strictly inanimate layer ofmateriality) that is not already at play, no element that does not radiate beyond itself, no thing that does not echo other things, infecting and altering the world around it, instilling a metamorphosis — whether rhythmic or chaotic — in the fabric of the real. There is no shred of sensuous or material “reality” that is void of symbolic activity! For the cosmos invoked within The Spell of the Sensuous is not an in-itself; it is the cosmos as  experienced and enacted — enacted not only by us two-leggeds, but also by frogs thrumming in the downpouring rain, and wild salmon dreaming their way through gradients of scent toward their natal streams, by the gibbous moon gazing the earth and the night-grasses basking in that gaze. Hence it is a cosmos constituted of experience and interchange — a cosmos experiencing itself, communicating with itself. Such is this world in which we are carnally immersed: a cosmos we are utterly in and of, and which we cannot, therefore, conceive or describe from outside. It is the world experienced as both the ground and the horizon of all our knowing, as our constant and inexhaustibly mysterious interlocutor, and when Toadvine complains that I pay “no attention…to the specifically symbolic level of human interaction,”(34) he neglects to realize that within such a world “the symbolic” is not at all a human possession, but is a property of the enveloping cosmos.

For the Amahuaca, the Koyukon, the Western Apache, and the diverse Aboriginal peoples of Australia. . . the coherence of human language is inseparable from the coherence of the surrounding ecology, from the expressive vitality of the more-than-human terrain. It is the animate earth that speaks: human speech is but a part of that vaster discourse.(35)

From within such a world, it makes little sense to speak of a “specifically symbolic level of human interaction,” just as it makes little sense to speak of a strictly material  level of nature. For just as there is no clump of matter that is definitively inert, no thing that is definitively void of expressive potency (since “expression” as Merleau-Ponty writes, “is the language of the thing itself”),(36) so there is no aspect of language, indeed no region of “the symbolic” that entirely breaks free from materiality and the sensuous. “The enigmatic nature of language echoes and ‘prolongs unto the invisible’ the wild, interpenetrating, interdependent nature of the sensible landscape itself.”(37)

And yet matter has its thickness, its density and weight, and this palpability cannot help but influence even the most ephemeral regions of the symbolic. In The Spell of the Sensuous, language, like all carnal phenomena, lives under the influence of gravity. A dramatic shift, or change, within the material ecology of the earth brings a transformation, as well, within the symbolic:

As there are fewer and fewer songbirds in the air, due to the destruction of their forests and wetlands, human speech loses more and more of its evocative power. For when we no longer hear the voices of warbler and wren, our own speaking can no longer be nourished by their cadences. As the splashing speech of the rivers is silenced by more and more dams, as we drive more and more of the land’s wild voices into the oblivion of extinction, our own languages become increasingly impoverished and weightless, progressively emptied of their earthly resonance.(38)

Toadvine continually asserts that my argument seeks to reduce all linguistic communication to bodily gestures, and hence allows no room for the many aspects of human language that transcend the merely gestural – those that open up “new levels of fantasy, play, and deception.”(39) Yet this is an extreme distortion of what I have written; I have nowhere claimed that all of human language is reducible to physical gestures, and have never held such a nonsensical notion. My argument, like Merleau-Ponty’s, is simply that linguistic meaning, no matter how abstract or conceptual, always remains rooted in the gestural layer of “affective,” or corporeally felt, expressiveness. I wish to call attention to this material dimension of language – to the way that spoken phrases affect the body by their tonality and texture, by their very existence as patterned sounds  — not in order to dismiss all other dimensions of meaning, but in order to show that this ground of visceral, felt meaning remains subtly operative in all those other levels. “It is this direct, felt significance – the taste of a word or phrase, the way it influences or modulates the body – that provides the fertile, polyvalent source for all the more refined and rarefied meanings which that term may come to have for us.”(40) I would never deny the existence of these more refined and rarefied meanings; my claim is simply that these more abstract levels of sense can never entirely break free from the more corporeal layer of immanent, felt expressiveness – at least not without forfeiting all their meaning. For if we are not immaterial minds merely housed in earthly bodies, but are from the first material, corporeal beings, then it is the sensuous significance of spoken sounds – their direct bodily resonance – that makes verbal communication possible at all.(41)

I hope it is obvious, at this juncture, that my work is not at all the sort of reductive or foundationalist endeavor that Toadvine seems to believe it is (rejecting reflective thought, reducing all symbols to unambiguous signs, reducing all language to physical gestures, reducing all meaning to what is directly perceived). To be sure, I wish to demonstrate that our thoughts and our dreams are all borne by, and profoundly constrained by, the tension and reciprocity between our bodies and the breathing earth. Yet this is hardly to reduce the mystery of imagination and mind to the mundane material world; it is rather to show that this palpable, sensuous earth is already participant in that mystery. The dynamic relation between the body and the earth — erotic, improvisational, and animistic — provides neither a fixed nor a definable foundation on which to erect any new doctrine; this uncanny dance, influenced by ever-shifting forces, by tidal affinities and antipathies, simply cannot be pinned down — we can only engage with it more attentively, learning to move within it somewhat more gracefully, ever more awake to the dangerous and difficult wonder of this earthly cosmos.

Thus the flesh, for me, is hardly “a realist conception” of “the mundane natural world,” nor is it “simply a world of things.”(42) The association of flesh with story in the final sentence of The Spell of the Sensuous is as explicit on this as the rest of the book. Here is the last paragraph:

An alder leaf, loosened by wind, is drifting out with the tide. As it drifts, it bumps into the slender leg of a great blue heron staring intently through the rippled surface, then drifts on. The heron raises one leg out of the water and replaces it, a single step. As I watch I, too, am drawn into the spread of silence. Slowly, a bank of cloud approaches, slipping its bulged and billowing texture over the earth, folding the heron and the alder trees and my gazing body into the depths of a vast breathing being, enfolding us all within a common flesh, a common story now bursting with rain (43)

Alterity and Speech

The sense of closure invoked in the quote immediately above (drawn, after all, from the closing lines of the book) might suggest a kind of holism, an all-inclusive commonality with no room for otherness and contradiction, were it not for the fact that this common flesh — the common story shared by the heron, the trees, the author’s wonder-struck body and the now-falling rain — is held together only by reticence and strangeness, were this flesh not a living web woven of divergence and encroachment, of allurement, confusion, and incompossibility.

…this stranger who stands before me and is an object for my gaze suddenly opens his mouth and speaks to me, forcing me to acknowledge that he is a sentient subject like myself, and that I, too, am an object for his gaze. Each of us, in relation to the other, is both subject and object, sensible and sentient. Why, then, might not this also be the case in relation to another, nonhuman entity — a mountain lion, for instance, that I unexpectedly encounter in the northern forest? Indeed, such a meeting brings home to me even more forcefully that am not just a sentient subject but also a sensible object, even an edible object, in the eyes (and nose) of the other.(44)

Yet Toadvine feels that the radically relational world disclosed by The Spell of the Sensuous leaves no space for separateness, resistance and contrareity. He is particularly disturbed by the word “kinship,” a term used only incidentally in the book to connote the reciprocity between the senses and the sensuous field, or to recall the consanguineous relationship claimed by many indigenous peoples to the animals, plants, and natural elements that constitute the local terrain.(45) Toadvine makes “kinship” out to be a theme of the book, and to him it seems to imply a purely harmonious relation, even a kind of fusion. He is properly critical of the notion that “our original state is a harmony with nature;” he  debunks “the lost state of original harmony,” and questions the “immersion in a harmonious oneness with the world.”(46) Such facile notions are eminently worth debunking, and I would love to do away with them, but they are nowhere to be found in The Spell of the Sensuous. “Harmony,” “holism,” and “oneness” have no place in my vocabulary, for they have no place whatsoever in my thinking.

Does the sense of kinship claimed by diverse indigenous peoples with the animals, plants, mountains and rivers of their locale really imply the kind of purity and harmony, and the homogenizing of all difference and divergence, that Toadvine indicates? Hardly. The animate world of powers in which native peoples participate is a difficult and dangerous realm — a deeply shadowed world laced with beauty and grief, and bristling with uncertainty.  The multiform animal, plant and elemental intelligences to which native peoples sometimes claim kinship are not sentimental representations — they are inscrutable, capricious, and often destructive powers upon whose vitality the human community nevertheless depends. The common field that we share with these manifold lives (with “Mitakuye Oyasin,” or “All Our Relations”) is a commonality of otherness, a complex, mutual entanglement of often-incommensurable powers. To accept one’s inherence in such a darkly immanent world of wonders is to feel both one’s own remarkable power and one’s utter vulnerability, and to act on the basis of this paradox.

Yet Toadvine, oddly, insists that such kinship precludes real incompossibility and otherness. Odder still, when I articulate an obvious instance of such incompossibility, Toadvine rejects it as immoral. That is, when I write at length of tracking other animals, and of the hunt — surely a strong example of mutual contradiction and incompossibility — Toadvine immediately objects to the very thought of killing another animal: “We might wonder how such ‘kinship’ can provide the basis for ethical relations when the murder of one of the kin is the goal.”(47)  Hunting (and predation in general) is simply too unnerving and immoral for the placid harmony that he wishes to project upon my work. Instead of recognizing that the necessity of hunting, for many indigenous peoples, calls into question any facile interpretation of “kinship” as an erasure of all disturbance and contrareity (and instead of reflecting upon the mutual incompossibility entailed not just by the hunt but by eating in general) Toadvine straightaway falls back upon a response laden with political correctness: Abram is here propounding an unethical ideology — the ideology of “murder.”(48) But really: whose position lacks room for incompossibility and contrariety here?

Toadvine is also alarmed to discover that, for me, another animal is more other than a human being.(49) But how could this not be the case? How could it be that a humpback whale that suddenly surfaces near your kayak — drenching you with the spray from it’s exhaled breath — is not more other to you than is another human person? Or a wolf whose eerie late-night howls stir you from your sleeping-bag-enshrouded slumber – how could such a being not be more other, more strange, to you than your fellow tent-mates? Only if that creature is not acknowledged as an actual subject; only if it is not recognized as a vital center of forces in its own right. Only, that is, if other animals are not really considered to be different in kind from us, but are rather viewed as deficient or compromised versions of ourselves (since, after all, they can be readily comprehended by a purely human rationality). To be sure, humpbacks and timber wolves are not possessed of verbal language, but to assume that the mere absence of our specific style of discourse entails that a whale or wolf has no subjectivity of its own, suggests (at least to me) a startling lack of imagination. Such, however, is the assumption that today handily justifies the genetic modification of other animals to serve purely human ends – clearly other animals are not really ends in their own right. This is a prejudice that phenomenology inherited directly from the European philosophical tradition, yet it is a prejudice gradually undermined by the careful practice of phenomenology — by the way that the phenomenological method ultimately opens us onto that which exceeds and confounds the domesticating aspirations of philosophy. And it is surely an obsolete stance for any genuine ethics striving to articulate itself at this historical moment, when as a result of human self-centeredness so many other species are disappearing with a rapidity unprecedented since the dinosaurs bit the dust.

This drastic and precipitous loss of otherness from the world is a horror not merely for those vanishing species, but surely for humankind as well, particularly if (as Merleau-Ponty’s late work was beginning to show) a human person is constituted not only by his or her explicit relations with other human persons, but also by her more implicit and ongoing exchange (at once physiological, sensorial, and imaginative) with the elemental, many-voiced earth. For it is likely that we are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.(50) At a moment when our burgeoning numbers are squeezing so many other styles of sensitivity and sentience into oblivion, a moment when human acquisitiveness is drastically altering the climate and atmosphere with which all contemporary creatures have co-evolved, a moment when biotechnology is gallantly promising to transform the rest of earth-born nature into merely a mirror of ourselves…may we dare to suggest that a new humility is called for? Might it be that in trying to eradicate all adversity, all difficulty, all alterity from our lives, we are making our lives unliveable? That in making the world over into what we think we desire, we are steadily eradicating the possibility of real eros from our existence?

But of course Ted Toadvine is also interested in the stirring of eros, in the recuperation of an alterity to which we are beholden prior to all our thematizations. He would like to suggest, if I understand the last lines of his paper, that this otherness resides in what Levinas terms the  il y a,  in the anonymous rustling of being, in that murmuring of existence that lies behind, or beyond, any particular existent. It is a fruitful notion, and I am eager to see how he will develop it. My own strategy has been to acknowledge an inexhaustible strangeness, a unique mystery at the heart of any entity toward which I turn. Not only other animals, then — but trees, rocks, artifacts, words, gusts of wind, ideas. And you, befuddled reader: you, too. Wherever I turn I am summoned into relations with enigmatic and inscrutable powers, and when I lend them my focus I am shifted and transformed by these powers, rendered other to myself yet again, and again.(51)

Yet in order to awaken an ethical field that moves not only between ourselves and other persons, but holds sway between ourselves and the supporting earth, an eros that compels us in our interactions with the soil, the air, and the waters, and that renders our awareness susceptible to the call of other, entirely different kinds of awareness — to the call of clearcut mountainsides, and great horned owls, and salmon surging up the streams — then we shall have to begin speaking, and writing, somewhat differently. Philosophy still, by and large, speaks about the world it ponders, wielding its words as though their sounds and shapes were not a part of that breathing world, as though language were meant to get at the world from outside, rather than to invoke and to vibrate the world from within its own depths. The cool abstraction of our arguments, the rarefied terms, the lack of attention to the song of our sentences or the rhythm of our phrases, all make it obvious that, whether or not we contest the distinction between the mind and the body, we are still speaking as disembodied intellects to other bodiless intellects. No matter whether we are overtly propounding a representational view of language or trying to explode such a view, our own language ensures that we’ll maintain our grip over things, that we’ll not find ourselves unnecessarily vulnerable, or susceptible, to the suffering of the things. However deeply we empathize with the dwindling frogs or the schools of fish choking on our toxins, we know that the language that speaks of such things is an exclusively human power, that it grants us a freedom unknown to those mute beings, whose earth, after all, is a more material sphere than our own. As bearers of meaningful speech, we inhabit a separate realm, and hence are not really a part of the same story as those whales or those vanishing frogs, since we breathe the air of a symbolic that is closed to all other species.

Such, at any rate, is the presumption that we perpetuate by writing our endless papers filled with the jargon of our particular disciplines, arguing in the most abstract terms on behalf of notions that may indeed be very worthy, yet are themselves couched in a rhetoric meant to minimize the involvement of anything other than cool reason. So many academic papers — including, alas, this one — enact a language that shuts out the involvement of our skin and our animal senses, and thereby keeps us impervious to the summons of the animal and the animate earth. In truth, we do not know that the mind, or the symbolic, is an exclusively human sphere;  but we know well how to wield our words in a manner that continually closes out all those Others, how to speak in such a way as to be speaking only to ourselves.

Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology has been exemplary in shattering our static,  objectified, totalizing concepts of things to reveal, breathing behind those projections, the poised and pulsing things themselves — beckoning to us even while they resolutely resist our advances, slowly tutoring our bodies in the right mode of engagement, discoursing with us and with one another. His phenomenology has disclosed the myriad things — the city buildings, the forests, the blue sky darkening toward evening — as our interlocutors; not only as animate, therefore, but also as expressive, even addressive powers. Yet if the river is an expressive power — if the river itself speaks — how then can I continue to speak only about the river, as though the river itself has no voice? How can I still speak in a manner that denies the river its own part in the conversation? The phenomenologist, originally dedicated to the careful description of the way things present themselves to her awareness, gradually discovers through such attentive description that the things are already engaging her as active, expressive powers; she begins to realize that by solely describing things — by using language only to paint a picture of things, and never to consult or to speak with the things themselves — she is insulting those things, holding herself aloof from a full encounter with those beings, and hence closing herself off from the wider conversation. If every entity is indeed fathomless, if each has its own dynamism, its own uncertainty and openness, then how can she persist in talking about them only behind their back, as it were, treating them as closed objects, rather than as open and indeterminate subjects?

In The Spell of the Sensuous, then, I have tried to show that if we wish to awaken an ethical dimension between ourselves and the rest of the earth, then our phenomenological descriptions must open, ultimately, onto other, more performative and participatory modes of discourse, modes that are common to oral cultures — such as story, invocation, and praise. And perhaps even, in its most basic sense, prayer.

In its oldest form, prayer consists simply in speaking to the world, rather than solely about the world. We should recognize that it is lousy etiquette to speak only about the other animals, only about the mountain forest and the black bears and the storms, since by doing so we treat such entities as totalizeable objects, able to be comprehended and represented by us, rather than as enigmatic powers with whom our lives are entwined and to whom we are beholden. Can we not also speak to these powers, and listen for their replies? Can we not cry out to the winds, whisper to the river and the deer, offer our tears to a tree, challenge the mountain with our questions? Outrageous as it may seem, such animistic (or participatory) modes of discourse are simply necessary, I believe, if we wish to really enact a respectful relation to these other beings, to remember the wild alterity of the waters, the winds, and the breathing land itself. If, finally, we wish to ensure an ethic of restraint in our human engagements with the more-than-human earth.(52)

But is it not ludicrous to address the world directly, to speak to other organisms and elements as though they could understand? Certainly not, if such is the simplest way to open our ears toward those others, compelling us to listen, with all our senses, for the reply of the things. To be sure, the valleys and the oaks do not speak in words. But neither do humans speak only in words. We speak with our whole bodies, deploying a language of gesture, tone, and rhythm that animates all our discourse. This is most obvious, of course, when we are speaking aloud, yet even our written words can be much more than verbal — if, that is, we’re awake to the magic of the written medium. Merleau-Ponty’s last writings demonstrated, in manifold ways, that our philosophical language need not remain aloof from the world, that it could espouse the rhythms and textures of the phenomena themselves — the swerve of the way the things walk — and thus that philosophy could open its rhythms and its music to the polyphony of the things themselves. To me, this is one of the most crucial aspects of Merleau-Ponty’s work: he showed that phenomenology ultimately blurs the distinction between linguistic content and form, since the sound, rhythm, and shape of our words are themselves expressive phenomena in their own right — affecting and influencing the bodies that hear them (whether these be human bodies, or the tensed and muscled flesh of a moose protecting her young, or the wooden walls of one’s room, or even the ambient air itself). I have never understood those who can debate Merleau-Ponty’s notions without taking up his poetics, either to transform it and make it their own, or else to contest it with another poetics — one perhaps more startling, more disruptive of commodified discourse. Nor have I understood how certain scholars could deploy particular terms from Merleau-Ponty’s work as though those terms were doctrines, as though Merleau-Ponty had ever defined those terms once and for all; as though his work was not precisely an effort to keep those words from becoming fixed, since what he was striving to convey was a style, not an ossified set of terms but a living way of speaking, and thinking, while keeping faith with the voices of silence.

Surely any genuine phenomenology, after Merleau-Ponty, must also take form as a poetics. Yet how much more must this be the case when it comes to the phenomenology of nature, or an ecological phenomenology, where it is a matter of making evident our relations with other beings who speak not in words but in shifting patterns and expressive movements, in pulsing rhythms and cascades of song. A genuinely ecological philosophy must simultaneously be a poetics; otherwise, it can only perpetuate the rift and distance between a humankind that listens only to itself, dazzled by its own technologies, and an animate earth that withers and chokes from our lack of attention. Such, at any rate, is what I have tried to suggest in my work. In The Spell of the Sensuous I have attempted — albeit in a very clumsy and fumbling manner — to practice a way of wielding words that is somewhat different from that which holds sway within my culture, to enact a way of speaking and of storying that does notstifle our sensory reciprocity with the rest of the sensuous, but rather allows that reciprocity to come to voice. I am struggling, there, to find a way of speaking in accordance with my animal senses — a way of speaking and thinking as an animal in my own right, and hence as a full participant in this earthly cosmos. I am interested, after all, in shifting the language, in transforming (however slightly) our ordinary ways of speaking, and thus our common ways of thinking and seeing and feeling. Is Toadvine, my fellow phenomenologist, motivated by any such interest? I cannot quite tell.

I believe nonetheless that this is a work we must all, to some extent, be engaged in (whether we are philosophers or farmers, professors or piano-tuners): the struggle to disclose a new way of speaking — one that affirms the wild alterity of this multiform Earth even as it enacts and brings to voice our thorough interdependence with that which we cannot fathom, cannot determine, and cannot control.

(1) Toadvine’s paper, “Limits of the Flesh: The Role of Reflection in David Abram’s Ecophenomenology” was published along with this response in the same issue of Environmental Ethics, issue 27 (2005). Both were then published in Interrogating Ethics, edited by Hatley, McLane and Diehm, Dusquesne U. Press, 2006.

(2) In addition to the present paper see, in particular, Professor Toadvine’s  “Naturalizing Phenomenology,” presented at the 1999 conference of the Society for Existential and Phenomenological Philosophy, as well as an earlier version of the current paper, entitled “The Organic and the Inside-Out: Alterity in Abram’s Eco-Phenomenology.”

(3) Toadvine, p. 19.

(4) Toadvine, p. 10.

(5) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, p.139.

(6) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, p. 271: “Show that our whole expression and conceptualization of the mind is derived from these structures: for example reflection.” See also p. 248: “…that this flesh of my body is shared by the world, the world reflects it, encroaches upon it and it encroaches upon the world…” (emphases in original).

(7) Spell, p. 264

(8) Toadvine, p. 26.

(9) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, p. 320.

(10) Plato, Phaedrus, 275d.

(11) For a new translation of one such group  of tales hitherto known in the literate West, see Robert Bringhurst’s stunning three-volume translation of the great Haida epics: Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.  See also Sean Kane’s classic work, Wisdom of the Mythtellers. Broadview Press, 1998.

(12) Toadvine, pp. 14 – 15.

(13) The Spell, p. 112.

(14) The young Plato, in the early fourth century BCE, was teaching precisely at the moment when alphabetic literacy was shedding its specialized “cult” status and finally spreading, by means of the Athenian curriculum, into the culture at large (see “The Spell of the Sensuous,” pp 102 – 123).  In truth, that which we conventionally call “Western civilization” could more precisely be termed “alphabetic civilizaton.”

(15) The Spell, pp. 132 – 133.

(16) Although for reasons of brevity I am alluding, in this paper, only to the influence of alphabetic writing, I do not mean to conflate the alphabet with other forms of writing — such as the ideographic writing of China, or the recently deciphered Mayan hieroglyphics. The contrasting  effects of various non-alphabetic scripts — and even the contrasting influence of different alphabetic systems — are nevertheless examined at length in The Spell (see esp. pp. 93 – 102, and pp. 237 – 257).

(17) See The Spell, bottom p. 263 – p. 264.

(18) Toadvine, pp. 27, 31.

(19) Toadvine, “The Organic and the Inside-Out: Alterity in Abram’s Eco-Phenomenology,” p. 11.

(20) Toadvine, p. 27.

(21) Spell, p. 270.

(22) Spell, pp. 272-273. See also the whole of chapter 6: “Time, Space, and the Eclipse of the Earth.”

(23) Toadvine, pp. 11, 15.

(24) The Spell, p. 303, note  2.

(25) For a different yet complementary argument regarding the inevitable persistence of ostensibly “pre-modern,” animistic modes of thought, see Bruno Latour,  We Have Never Been Modern (Harvard University Press, 1993).

(26) Toadvine, p. 15.

(27) Toadvine, p. 27.

(28) As to Toadvine’s suggestion that my work risks “orientalizing” indigenous peoples — I will only mention that the first Spanish translation of The Spell of the Sensuous was accomplished by a movement of indigenous peasants and small-scale farmers in the Peruvian Andes that have organized under the name PRATEC —Proyecto Andino de Tecnologias Campesinas, or the ‘Andean Project of Peasant Technologies’– to protect the living land and the indigenous ways of working that land from colonization by the new, corporate modes of agriculture and development steadily being urged upon them both by transnational corporations and by the Peruvian government. Two native-born scholars within this collective translated The Spell of the Sensuous chapter by chapter, distributing copies of each translated chapter, free, to literate members of this broad movement, in the belief that it could aid in the conceptual and practical work of “decolonization.” I first learned of this translation project only after it had already been underway for half a year; it was gratifying to discover that my writing could be put directly to work in the contemporary struggle by indigenous peoples to defend and protect their traditional, land-based practices against the homogenizing power of the global economy.  For a rich overview of the work of PRATEC, see The Spirit of Regeneration: Andean Culture Confronting Western Notions of Development, edited by Frederique Apffel-Marglin with PRATEC, Zed Books, New York, 1998. A more recent Spanish translation of The Spell of the Sensuous, entitled La Magia De Los Sentidos, was published in Spain by Chairos Books, in 2000  (Russian, German, Norwegian, and French editions are in production).

(29) Toadvine, pp. 18, 24.

(30) My own fascination with perception — and with the phenomenology of perceptual experience — was instilled by my occupation as a professional sleight-of-hand magician. It is this craft that later led me into contact with various traditional, indigenous shamans in Indonesia, Nepal, and the Americas – an experience discussed in the first chapter of The Spell.

(31) Merleau-Ponty, In Praise of Philosophy and Other Essays. Northwestern U. Press, 1963; p.166.

(32) Toadvine, p. 30, note 42.

(33) Toadvine, p. 30.

(34) Toadvine, p. 24.

(35) The Spell of the Sensuous, p. 179.

(36) Phenomenology of Perception, p. 322. Earlier in the Phenomenology,  Merleau-Ponty writes of how  “our gaze, prompted by the experience of our own body, will discover in all other ‘objects’ the miracle of expression.” Phenomenology of Perception, p. 197.

(37) Spell, p. 85

(38) Spell, p. 86.

(39) Toadvine, pp. 20 – 25.

(40) The Spell, p. 75.

(41) For the nuances of this argument, and evidence supporting it, see the chapter entitled “The Flesh of Language” in The Spell, pp. 73—92, and the footnotes accompanying that chapter. For a comprehensive account  of the scientific evidence for the gestural genesis of human language, see Michael C. Corballis, From Hand to Mouth: The Origins of Human Language, Princeton University Press, 2002.

(42) Toadvine, pp. 30, both in the text and note 42. In that note, Toadvine claims that I equate Merleau-Ponty’s “flesh” with the mundane natural world, and hence that I remain within within what phenomenology terms “the natural attitude” – that is, the naïve or uncritical stance that views the perceivable world merely as a set of physical things and processes perfectly amenable to objective measurement and description. The closest The Spell comes to associating “the flesh” with “the mundane natural world” is on p. 65, where I suggest that Husserl’s lifeworld is “nothing other than the biosphere — the matrix of earthly life in which we ourselves are embedded.” Yet [the text straightaway goes on to say] “this is not the biosphere as it is conceived by an abstract and objectifying science, not that complex assemblage of planetary mechanisms presumably being mapped and measured by our remote sensing satellites; it is, rather, the biosphere as it is experienced and lived from within by the intelligent body — by the attentive human animal who is entirely a part of the world that he, or she, experiences.”
This is hardly remaining within the so-called natural attitude. Indeed, the insistence in this passage on embeddedness, on the world “as it is experienced and lived from within…by the attentive human animal who is entirely a part of the world that he, or she, experiences,” is sufficient to wreck any objectivist or conventionally realist account of things. For such representational accounts of the world implicitly (and inevitably) situate the perceiving subject outside of the world that she describes. Conversely, a rigorous intention to describe or  express the world as it is experienced from within — that is, from a situation entirely interior to that world — cannot help but open onto the experience of wonder and the magical. Indeed, “magic” is a favored notion of Merleau-Ponty’s — one he uses sparingly but very effectively.

(43) Spell, p. 274.

(44) Spell, p. 67.

(45) Mitakuye Oyasin!–  “All My Relations!” is the ritual phrase uttered by the Lakota at the start and the close of any ceremony. It is a phrase meant to acknowledge and honor all of nature, including all other humans. Similarly, at the opening of any community gathering or deliberation, the Iroquois (the Haudenausaunee, or “People of the Longhouse”) make a thanksgiving address “to the Earth Mother,”  “to our eldest Brother the Sun” and “our Grandmother the Moon,” to “our Grandfathers the Thunderstorms,” etc., etc… All beings are here affirmed as members of a vast family.

(46) Toadvine, pp. 15-16.

(47) Toadvine, p. 20, note 26.

(48) Ibid. As a counter to such interpretations of traditional hunting as necessarily callous and void of ethics, see the remarkable works of ethnobiologist Richard Nelson, especially The Island Within (Vintage, 1991).  But Toadvine’s allusion to my discussion of a hunter’s tracking skills is already a thorough misconstrual of my argument. He writes that “for Abram, the proper metaphor for ‘meeting the Other’ would be that of a hunter reading tracks…” (Toadvine, p. 19)  but this is hardly the case. Rather, the ancient art of reading animal tracks is a useful metaphor for reading the writing of another person. More specifically, I argue that the indigenous hunter’s art of tracking animals is homologous to the act of reading printed texts such as this one — that indeed our ability to read was first developed and honed (over several thousands of generations) by our tracking ancestors. Hence my suggestion that, in a sense,  “that which lurks behind all the [written] texts that we read is not a human subject but another animal, another shape of awareness (ultimately the otherness of animate nature itself).” Spell, p. 95—96, andp. 282, n. 2.

(49) Toadvine, p. 24.

(50) Spell, p. ix, and p. 22.

(51) Toadvine maintains that Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the flesh does not yield, of itself, any ethical exigency. Yet it seems to me that the whole of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy is an approach to the ethical, and indeed that his late, unfinished ontology constitutes, at one and the same time, an unfinished ethics. By early on shifting the locus of subjectivity from an ostensibly immaterial mind to the sentient body itself, and by demonstrating that bodily, sensorial perception is from the first a kind of participation with things (a primordial entwinement of the perceiver with that which he or she perceives) Merleau-Ponty’s investigations brought to light a latent solidarity, an implicit empathy already operative not only between oneself and other persons, but between oneself and every aspect of the sensuous surroundings   –  between one’s own flesh and the Flesh of the world. It is this deep somatic participation, or entanglement, with things – this primordial empathy, or com-passion, with the world – that, surfacing into one’s language, gives rise to an ethical way of life.

(52) Does this amount to dropping out of literate, technological civilization and somehow “going back” to an oral mode of culture?  Not at all. It is quite common to engage in different modes of discourse, some more abstract and some more concrete, in the course of a single day. Each form of discourse fills a different function, each engaging us  in a different kind of community. Literate discourse — the discursive practices informed by books, newspapers, and other written media – tends by its nature to be cosmopolitan, mingling insights and experiences drawn from diverse traditions and different places. Conversely, our participation in the world-wide-web and the internet involves a rather more abstract and rapidly evolving form of discourse that is ever more global and globalizing. Oral culture, meanwhile – the face-to-face telling of stories that are NOT written down  — tends, by and large, to be rather more concrete and local than those other modes. Genuinely oral culture is local culture; it binds us  not only to our ancestors, and to our immediate human community, but to the more-than-human community – the particular ecology of animals, plants and earthly elements in which we materially participate. As the most ancient and longstanding form of human discourse, it provides the necessary soil and support for those other, more abstract styles of speech and thought. Indeed, we may suspect that the globalizing culture of computers and the internet, as well as the cosmopolitan culture of literature and “the book,” will become sustainable only when they are both rooted in a thriving oral culture – or rather, a thriving diversity of oral cultures, each of them tuned to the specific rhythms of the earthly place, the particular ecology or bioregion, that sustains it.


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