Responding to white scholarship’s conflation of ‘animist’ identities and cultures into a monolithic category
This essay responds to Andreas Weber’s essay by intentionally disavowing a linear process of thought, meandering from fragment to fragment to perform a refusal of scholarly thinking as imposed by traditional academic structures. Nonetheless, through its meandering this work identifies the epistemological erasure of full lived realities of different indigenous cultures and communities that is enacted through white scholarship (such as Andreas Weber’s) that places these cultures into one solid, monolithic category. Through multiple threads—one tracing the writer’s own growing awareness of non-human beings in her home environment during the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown period in New Delhi, another following Weber’s process of citations and (lack of) nomenclature for ‘animist’ cultures in his essay—this work hopes to enact and highlight the ways in which careful, attentive naming and citation are ways of enacting kinship and recognising them as equal different cultural ways of knowing.
About one week into working from home as a result of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown in New Delhi, I noticed that, in one corner of the balcony adjacent to my flat’s living room, two house sparrows were diligently at work, building a nest amidst the vines and branches of along-established, sprawling Rangoon creeper.
Over the course of the next few weeks, sitting in the living room and working on the laptop that had suddenly become the primary gateway to my entire social and professional universe, I found myself frequently taking time to look away from the screen and out the balcony, to the corner of my home that I now knew I shared with the sparrows. In the eight or so hours that we spent in parallel spaces—them in the balcony, me at work at the dining table, separated by glass doors—I began to notice and eventually recognise the particular rhythms that this pair of birds followed through the day. The male, with its black-bibbed throat, coming and going more frequently, bringing back bits of grass, plants, twigs; the mornings when both were gone for long stretches of time. The song from the small flock of sparrows roosting beyond the balcony in the tall tree, a group my house pair sometimes would join, became increasingly noticeable, familiar.
In the complete absence of traffic sounds and human voices from the streets below, as the lockdown continued and migrant workers en masse began to leave Delhi’s urban centres, the sparrows’ chirps took on a voice of their own—standing out as a particular voice in the birdsong that, all at once, was louder than I had ever heard it during my lifetime in this city.
“Being kin to non-human beings is an experience. It is not just a concept,” Andreas Weber writes in his essay on animistic worldviews and ecological participation, a statement I immediately feel a resonance with, an embodied response that understands that to enact these kinships is not to follow an intellectual imperative but, instead, one that is a more ‘natural’, once-intrinsic response. I have been, in the moments of looking out the window, for instance, felt a kinship with the sparrows in my balcony, felt an interest and a stake in their lives. One of the precursors to recognising these relationships is time, attention: It is only in looking away from my laptop that the world around me, its movement and iterations of life, come into focus again, provide the possibility for recognition and for kinship.
In her book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, artist and writer Jenny Odell argues that the neoliberal subject’s time and attention have been increasingly colonised by the capitalist economy’s insisting on a singular kind of ‘productivity’, leaving us with little by way of attending to the ‘commons’ of our interrelated lives and ecologies. Making an analogy with the increasing decrease in public commons (parks, libraries) across industrialised and industrialising countries, Odell says,
“[T]hose spaces deemed commercially unproductive are always under threat, since what they can ‘produce’ can’t be measured or exploited or even easily identified… Currently, I see a similar battle playing out for our time, a colonisation of the self by capitalist ideas of productivity and efficiency. One might say that the parks and libraries of the self are always about to be turned into condos.”
From which, for me, two questions arise: How do we create the possibilities of experiencing kinship with non-human beings in lands that have managed to relegate the non-human to the margins, that have increasingly taken away our islands of greenery, trees, forests, ponds?
And secondly: How has the taking away of our ‘commons’—the green as well as the psychological, interior landscapes within us—affected our kinship with human beings who have been ‘othered’ to us through the ages along the lines of caste or class, race or ethnicity? Alongside the urgency of solidifying kinship with non-human beings, is the solidifying of kinship with human beings who have been ‘othered’ to us not equally urgent as well?
Noticing these house sparrows as (some of the many other) beings with whom I was sharing my home was a recognition in the truest sense of the word: A re-collection, a return, a knowing again. In the South Delhi home where I grew up, the small veranda and garden where I would sit with my grandmother before it was time for school was always full of sparrows: Chirping at the base of the rubber tree, from the low bushes of the crepe jasmine. I remember that my grandmother would frequently put down the newspaper she was reading to look at the birds; I remember that there would always be a nest in the nook under the stairway in the corner.
Over the years, the number of sparrows began to lessen, eventually disappearing from the garden altogether—a slow erasure that I did not notice while it was happening, until one grey morning in my mid-twenties when the silence, the absence of their song, cut cold.
More from Jenny Odell, this time on bird-watching:
“What amazed and humbled me about bird-watching was the way it changed the granularity of my perception, which had been pretty ‘low-res’. At first, I just noticed birdsong more. Of course it had been there all along, but now that I was paying attention to it, I realised that it was almost everywhere, all day, all the time. And then, one by one, I started learning each song and associating it with a bird, so that now when I walk into the Rose Garden, I inadvertently acknowledge them in my head as though they were people: ‘Hi, raven, robin, song sparrow, chickadee, goldfinch, towhee, hawk, nuthatch…’ and so on. The sounds have become so familiar to me that I no longer strain to identify them; they register instead like speech.”
In being attentive to the other beings around her, in listening to the sounds of the non-human world and slowly coming to correlate a particular kind of song with a particular kind of bird, the earlier undistinguished whole of ‘birdsong’ reveals itself to the human subject to be comprised in fact of many different voices, of many different non-human agents. Ravens, with their own particular habits and intelligences, the soaring and swooping cries of hawks, the staccato of the smaller finches.
To name the non-human that has been cast into a category of being all of its own, to differentiate and name the particular and the unique amongst what has been shoved into an amassment of ‘background noise’ or ‘other’ for the neoliberal human subject’s experience—to do this is to acknowledge the richness of being, the difference of subjectivities, the particularities of the non-humans that surround us. A step towards recognising that the world outside the human individual’s subjective experience is as rich, varied, complex as what is within. A step towards recognising the non-human as equal, a step towards kinship.
What one notices almost immediately while reading Andreas Weber’s essay is that there is, in the author’s descriptions of ‘animist’ traditions and cultures as well as those of the ‘western subject’, a particular lack of particularity. Which is to say: Weber does not, through the majority of his essay, attend to the names of the cultures and thought systems he is thinking about, thinking through. The locations and cultures where this thinking emerges from are not named, the names these locations and cultures give themselves are not named. The reader is left to believe that one culture is, in fact, interchangeable with the other, connected to each other in their ‘animism’—with their differences and particularities completely erased.
The erasure enacted by this conflation of cultures into one category is taken further by the use of the word ‘animist’. Weber writes: “As we know, no indigenous community describes itself as ‘animist’ – at least outside of the need to adopt a western vocabulary. Referring to themselves, people use much more concrete identifiers.” If that is the case, then why does the writer persist in classifying a varied set of cultures, practices, beliefs into the undifferentiated, generalised category of ‘animist’? While acknowledging that the western human subject needs to expand a sense of kinship and equality to non-human beings, does the western human subject not see that he is, still, not quite expanding a sense of kinship and equality to the non-western human beings whose complexities he is reducing to a category or label that they themselves would not use?
Perhaps in some ways it’s clear that, in his essay, Weber is addressing only the western subject, speaking to said subject about the urgent need for self-decolonisation. But even so, one would think that self-decolonisation would include, too, an eschewing of western vocabulary, choosing instead to speak of and with the ‘other’ through the ‘more concrete identifiers’ they might use—with recognising their speech as speech, their names as names.
Who is human, who is ‘other’, and who is kin?
Naga peace activist Aküm Longchari, in his book Self Determination: A Resource for JustPeace, thinks alongside anthropologist and African Studies scholar Marimba Ani, saying:
“Ani reminds us that a crucial aspect of European culture for understanding its imperialistic posture is the European cultural creation of the ‘cultural other’, constructed in part to answer the needs for its expansionism. Ani explains that in European ideology the ‘cultural other’ is like the land, territory or space into which they expand themselves and describe their new awareness of objects, peoples and territories as their discovery… The conception of the ‘cultural other’ contributed to the survival of European culture, but simultaneously reduced the ‘cultural other’ to the status of a nonhuman, stripping away the characteristics of ‘humanness’.”
Questions of ‘humanness’ have been at the centre of oppressive systems as well as rights-based movements for decades, if not longer. And while European culture is responsible for a global ‘othering’ of non-European subjects, it is not the only culture to do so. For instance, even an introductory confrontation with the caste system inherent to Hinduism’s core philosophies (which do not fit neatly into the false dichotomy Weber’s essay makes of ‘western’ vs ‘animistic’ worldviews) points to the ways in which the savarna or ‘upper’ castes have systemically dehumanised people from ‘lower’ castes as well as those from tribal (or indigenous) communities for millennia. A dehumanisation so complete that kinship, too, is disallowed, disavowed.
This essay does not, unlike the one it is responding to, follow a linear train of thought, the model of traditional academic thinking that develops a thesis through sustained argument, subsections, rigour. Instead, I intend for it to meander from one thought to the next, one fragment to the next: Picking grass, plants, twigs and putting them together in the hopes of forming a durable home, a nest.
Queer feminist theorist Sara Ahmed, in her work Living a Feminist Life, speaks in the introduction to the book about the citation policy that she follows in it: She does not cite any white men.
By ‘white men’, Ahmed clarifies, she is ‘referring to an institution’:
“Instead, I cite those who have contributed to the intellectual genealogy of feminism and antiracism, including work that has been too quickly (in my view) cast aside or left behind, work that lays out other paths, paths we can call desire lines, created by not following the official paths laid out by disciplines. [...] Citation is feminist memory. Citation is how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before... Citations can be feminist bricks: They are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings.”
I invoke Ahmed here because her understanding of the crucial role citation plays in granting authority, within academic and literary frameworks, to the analyses and reasoning arising from privileged social positions is completely relevant in regards to Weber’s essay. Paul Kingsnorth, Richard Nelson, Boaventure de Sousa Santos, Gary Snyder: These are the names with which Weber’s essay begins, an immediate solicitation to the institutions of white, male thinking—of which Weber, too, is a part.
In an essay that aims to think through ‘animistic’ or non-western worldviews and ways of being, where are the names and the foundational thinking of indigenous writers, feminist poets, non-western scholars? When they do appear, why do they remain in the minority?
An exclusion is being enacted here in this essay as it lays down its foundational bricks of Latour, de Sousa Santos, Durkheim and other white male theorists while relegating most indigenous voices to much later chapters. Whose names and whose speech are present in the majority in this work, whose are missing? Who is kin, who remains other?
To criticise the foundational bricks of Weber’s text is not to deny value of thinking through Latour, de Sousa Santos, or Timothy Morton. But for an essay on decolonisation to deny primacy of place to thevery voices and perspectives it frames as essential for a new mode of being is, to say the least, ironic.
Seen one way, a ‘desire line’—which Ahmed mentions in her paragraph on citation—or a meandering path taken informally and outside the regulated, established one, can also be the beginning of a new path: One created primarily with the aid of writers and thinkers outside the institutions of white academia. A path made by centring the non-human as well as the humans who have, as Weber notes in chapter two, been meted out ‘violent treatment’ under the colonialist ‘cognitive empire’ as ‘extra societal others (humans not adhering to societal norms, other peoples, other beings, other elements of the earth system).’
I think a lot about the parts of the Delhi-specific birdsong that have remained an undifferentiated mass of sound for me through my life so far. The birds that I did not pay particular attention to because they, unlike the house sparrows, did not appear in my life at close range, were not pointed out to me by my grandmother. If, like the house sparrows, there are other birds that have disappeared from the landscape of this polluted, increasingly uninhabitable city, the absence of their song has gone by unnoticed for me. The lack has not, on a grey morning, cut cold.
“A person is always related. A subject is always dependent on other subjects. A subject is always intersubjective. Subject means already to be ‘inter’ – to be a relational process itself,” writes Weber. And it is this intersubjectivity, the relational lines that connect us to each other—human person to human person, human person to sparrow person, sparrow person to tree person—that require urgent attention and care in the moment we are in.
The anti-CAA protests in India before the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect the country; the uprising in the United States against the murder of George Floyd, which has carried on in the midst of the pandemic: These social movements, these voices, they are reminding us that to be a subject is to be dependent on other subjects; they are showing us that we do not, yet, see each other as equal, as kin. As such, I fundamentally disagree with Weber’s claim that true decolonisation “needs to set forth from the self-liberation of those who exert violence”. The privileging of the healing of the western subject over the emancipation of those who have been at the receiving end of this violence for centuries is not, to me, a decolonial approach. These are processes that must, at the very least, be enacted simultaneously.
As we move towards expanding our relationships with the non-human world, our relationships with the human, too, need tending, attending. In the framework of attending and attention this response has discussed: Citations are to be cited, names are to be named, speech is to be acknowledged as such, voices are to be listened to, kinships are to be made.
Jenny Odell’s quote on bird watching, cited earlier, carries on a little further, enacting an immediate kinship in how she connects learning about the speech of birds to a moment when she learned (recognised) something new about her own family:
“The [bird] sounds have become so familiar to me that I no longer strain to identify them; they register instead like speech. This might sound familiar to anyone who has ever learned another (human) language as an adult. Indeed, the diversification of what was previously ‘bird sounds’—into discrete sounds that mean something to me—is something I can only compare to the moment that I realised that my mom spoke three languages, not two.”
My own learning of the sparrows’ tongue has been interrupted. Since those early lockdown weeks of their trying to build a home alongside my own, those two birds have flown. Another life, with its own particular imperatives and leanings, disrupted their nesting: The neighbourhood cat, with its black, white and grizzled fur, began to rest in the shade of the balcony, too, endangering the safety of the space for the birds—which they were quick to take note of.
In the months since, I have still been looking out at the balcony and the skies when I am not working on my laptop and, in time, have come to identify by their feathers, size and colours so many of the kinds of birds that visit the space. Crows and pigeons, yes, but bulbuls too, babblers too, mynas too, koels too. Purple sunbirds, rose-ringed parakeets; once a kite, once a laughing dove. I have learned to recognise their particularities by sight (with some help from a couple of field guides to birds of northern India), but am still learning to listen to their speech so as to hear their individualities, recognise their wholeness.
This contribution is part of Alternative Worldviews.