Friday, November 30, 2012

David Abram, Becoming Animal

"the inexhaustible otherness of things"

David Abram, in the wild
It's inaccurate to say that everybody loves David Abram, environmental philosopher and sleight-of-hand musician, because there are those who don't. His incorrigible earnestness, his (deliberately?) goofy author photo, his unfashionably committed approach to phenomenology: some options exist, if you want to mock him, but I don't know that he'd mind, and certainly it wouldn't change him. Mostly, people love David Abram, and mostly this love marks them as good people.

Now, Abram writes as an outsider academic, a philosopher of environmental ethics (among other things) from outside the university system. At the literature/environment conferences I normally attend, you might hear objections to Abram's approach over a drink, and some eyes will roll if someone else raises him in conversation, but I've rarely heard such things expressed formally. When his name gets mentioned, most often it's mentioned with respect, with fondness, with faith.

There have been serious critiques of Abram, of course: Lorraine Brundige and Douglas Rabb on his appropriation of Indigenous voices and ideas, for example, or Anne Zavalkoff's feminist critique of how Abram understands language (behind paywall), but my point is that it's unusual to see formal objections that aren't prolonged discussions. For some reason, you can't just briefly object and move on, the way you can apparently praise him briefly and move on.

And the people who love David Abram? Wow, do they ever. Blurbs are inherently false, representing a cobbling-together of essentially random statements of love, but the covers of Abram's books (and their inside pages, too) offer but a tiny sampling of the overflow of appreciation that his work tends to generate. I never would have expected the confrontational Derrick Jensen to be an Abramite, for example, but his blurbing of this book doesn't represent the barest start of Jensen's appreciation.

In Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, Abram pursues many of the same objectives that animated his first book, 1997's The Spell of the Sensuous, which until now was his only book and hence has been responsible for the majority of the love shown him over the years. I have a deep respect for these objectives, even if I worry about his writing and his approach:
"I’m trying to understand how it’s possible that a culture of intelligent critters like ourselves can so recklessly and so casually destroy so much that is mysterious and alive, and in the course of it destroy so much of ourselves and our own capacity for wonder." (link)
Lovely, right? Lovely. And yet somehow, I found this book hard to take seriously, difficult to persist with, and strangely unhelpful.

First of all, Abram bases much of his thinking on the idea that something important was lost when humans developed linguistic abstraction and written language. This monumental shift meant that humans no longer experienced things of the world directly: everything had now to be considered either metaphoric or literal, never both. Nothing could ever again simply be. Abram's goal in relation to language, at heart, is to help us to find a way ourselves simply to be, and simply to be in company with other things that themselves can simply be.

People, you understand, also being to this extent things, and things being to just the same extent people.
Second, the new human reliance on language meant that we abandoned, or surrendered, or failed, our felt kinship with the rest of the world, both with individual things and with things en masse. More particularly, it's this failure of sensuous allegiance that has doomed the non-human world to suffer our predations, and doomed us to suffer in turn the predations we've inflicted on the non-human world (and on each other, but in important ways we also count to Abram as "non-human" in the way I'm using the term).

So it's fascinating to see how Abram plays with language, with rhetoric, such that agency resides not with the human but with the rest of the world. The scent of apricot blossoms opens your nostrils, the hair stands up on the back of your neck, a rock sits in judgment: our place in the world is intensely mutual (meaning that if we can smell the odour of pine needles, for example, we should remember that our scent is similarly perceptible and material). At times it's brilliantly effective, at others it's a party trick, and for me it gets old:
"And just as we can sense the relative speed of its [the air's] motion, the dryness or dampness of its touch, so we can also sense the breeze sampling our qualities as it brushes against us, tasting the intensity of our sweat, the mottled texture of our skin. We can feel it lambent on our shoulders, can feel the breeze's caress on our ankles and its tickling play on our spine as it slides under our billowing shirttails." (p.61)
Many of his readers adore this sort of thing, and maybe you're one of them, but for me it seemed like an unnecessarily protracted performance.

Moving on, I should note that one key approach for Abram is to ground his discussions in Indigenous stories and lifeways: like The Spell of the Sensuous, this new volume is studded with references to Haida tales and Nepalese tradition and Navajo place-based story. He makes excellent use of the references and the grounding, but persistently I distrust them, not because of the individual references or because of the uses he makes of them, but because they lead him to what feel like unhelpfully broad, collapsed categories. The category "oral culture" doesn't precisely overlap with the category "indigenous culture," and neither of those maps precisely onto the category "barter economy," but it matters greatly for Abram that the same lessons can be drawn from each of the categories.

And of course there's not just one kind of Indigenous, either.
Brown woman, naturally
just part of nature?!?

Fundamentally, once he collapses these categories together like this, we're left with a purely binaristic worldview: you are on the side of abstractions and dead language, or you are on the side of a vibrant, living world. Politically, this kind of equation works extremely well, and Abram is enormously persuasive for readers looking for commitment (either to pick up a new one, or to sustain an older one).

Me, I found it simplistic and overly schematic.

You're never going to hear me romanticizing my upbringing in a small resource-industry town, here in British Columbia, because ultimately I grew up on the side of a persistent colonialism with a largely instrumental view of nature as a set of objects to be used. The binary, though, precisely to the extent that Abram draws it carefully and thoroughly, seems like a city kid's imposition on rural lives. Particular rocks and trees do have being for us; the stars can lead us into mind-spinning silence; nature is creative, not just created. Who are these straw men, exactly, that provide the basis for his argumentation?

One of Abram's final questions is meant to be powerful, but something about it distracts me: "Why is this simple and rather obvious intuition--this recognition of matter as generative and animate--so disturbing to civilized thought?" (p.303). He goes on to speculate that we fear, that we must fear, as we fear so many taboos, the power of Earth as a kind of darkness, opposed to the abstract light and air. If life and its novelty can come from soil, then we must surrender some of our faith in our mastery, so yes, of course, yes, my goodness he's right, it's so very disturbing!

But why am I distracted by the question? Because in consequence, I wonder if maybe my thought just isn't civilized, and my lack of civility explains why I can't see Abram's binary as anything other than schematic. He's wrong that the idea is disturbing; he's right that it's a simple and rather obvious intuition, this idea that underpins Becoming Animal.

In spite of the book's rhetorical brilliance, in spite of its innovative phenomenology, in spite of its good-hearted politics, I couldn't help finding it flashy and overstated. People love it -- people love David Abram -- and good for them, but if they thought a little better of themselves and their fellows, they'd have a more clear-eyed view of Becoming Animal.

(This post's in-text title, incidentally, is a phrase quoted from page 45 of Becoming Animal that struck me as especially resonant.)


david thurman said...

I would totally agree with you but I think you understand david in terms of critue of language ,I see him in tetms of critique of book technology.that's two very different perspectives.

richard said...

In retrospect, I may not have been as careful as I should've been: Abram focuses his critique consistently on written language, not on human language, and certainly not on everything that might count as language.

And yeah, a lot of his argumentation looks at book technology, but for me, not enough to mean that his argument is primarily about the technology.

david thurman said...

Yes that's clearer!!! And you are right this book doesn't deal much at all with book technology directly. He goes much further in "spell of the senseous". It appears you haven't read that and I think there you will find the meat of davids thinking on this topic. Its a very excellent book worth reading. Becoming animal is less philosophy more touch than his first book!!!

richard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
richard said...

Um.... Why on Earth would you say that you understand Abram in terms of book technology, and hence object to my talking about his views on language, when you admit that this book DOESN'T DEAL WITH BOOK TECHNOLOGY?

This may have something to do with my argument here that he's NOT talking about book technology.

And in fact I have read Spell of the Sensuous: it didn't remind me nearly as much of Richard Bach as did Becoming Animal.

david thurman said...

You are right it's not Wittgenstein on solipsism.