Inanimate: On Materialism and Animism

Editor’s Note: Originally published on The Dark Glory.

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

—H. P. Lovecraft


A. from Wandering Cannibals recently defended the animism some eco-radicals have espoused of late. He argues that although he “can’t be an animist like primitive peoples were animists,” he wishes he could. He knows that the germ theory of disease is probably the right one, and that stars are balls of gas, but that knowledge is enabled by the very system he opposes because of the damage it wreaks on wild nature. So, he writes:

My adherence to an “animism” is my preferring not to have known [these things]. That is of course not possible now, I can’t give myself a lobotomy regarding modern knowledge. But I can be well aware of the price, and state that it still isn’t worth it.

And then he concludes his essay with perhaps the most compelling defense of eco-radical animism I’ve come across:

Apophaticism is the theological school of thought that states that we can only approach the Divine or Transcendent through negation. That is, we know the Divine not through what it is, but through what it isn’t. My own belief in animism is that all human ideologies fall flat, all are the result of turning in to one’s own head, towards one’s ideas and certainties, rather than turning out. Eyes are meant to see things, ears to hear them, tongues to taste them, etc. Things are primary, not those faculties of ours that perceive and process them. My true being is outside of myself, and the meaning of man is outside of his own history…

But while I sympathize with A. and, sharing his Christian origins, am moved by his Western theological take on a decidedly non-Western worldview, I cannot believe as he believes. I remain a strict materialist.

Reasons for My Materialism

For a while I thought, perhaps, that this aspect of my worldview was inconsequential. More thinking on the matter has revealed to me that it is absolutely essential in motivating me to oppose modernity. There are a couple of reasons for this.

Progress is Dangerous Because Materialism is Right

First, it is precisely because the materialists are right that scientific and technical Progress is such a profound threat. That living creatures are animated by biological processes, not supernatural ones, makes genetic engineering repulsive; that all things are made of atoms that operate by fairly definable laws of Nature makes nanotechnology horrifying; that intelligence and probably consciousness is a completely mechanical process that can at least theoretically be replicated inorganically makes artificial intelligence dangerous.

I find that it is easier for men to disregard my rebukes of Progress when they, say, believe that human beings possess a spirit. It does not occur to them that if the technicians are correct that nothing lies beyond the biology of man, then genetic engineering will succeed in changing more than human physiology; it will become a sinister means of psychological control as well.

Consider the mounting evidence that propensities toward many kinds of criminal behavior are biologically based. The science in this area is getting so exact that one researcher, Kent Kiehl, was able to predict which criminals were most likely to return to crime after leaving prison based on their brain scans alone. Unsurprisingly, he writes, “Not only does this study give us a tool to predict which criminals may reoffend and which ones will not reoffend, it also provides a path forward for steering offenders into more effective targeted therapies to reduce the risk of future criminal activity.”

And genetic engineering is only a future threat. Even now the probable correctness of materialism has consequences for social control. For instance, in some well-designed shopping centers, tiles are made smaller in areas where businesses want patrons to spend more money, because smaller tiles will make the wheels of a shopping buggy click faster, encouraging the patrons to slow down. Similar techniques are applied to other areas with attractive smells or open designs. Lisa Margonelli gives a particularly interesting example of these psychological techniques in her TED Talk about the politics of oil:

Nobody gets up in the morning and thinks, “Wow! I’m going to go buy some three-carbon-to-12-carbon molecules to put in my tank and drive happily to work.” No, they think, “Ugh. I have to go buy gas. I’m so angry about it. The oil companies are ripping me off. They set the prices, and I don’t even know. I am helpless over this.” And this is what happens to us at the gas pump — and actually, gas pumps are specifically designed to diffuse that anger. You might notice that many gas pumps…are designed to look like ATMs. I’ve talked to engineers. That’s specifically to diffuse our anger, because supposedly we feel good about ATMs.

And yes, when gas pumps were redesigned to look like ATMs, people started spending more money at them.

An Embrace of Animism Misunderstands the Hunter/Gatherer Ideal

The second reason my materialism is intrinsic to my anti-modern worldview is my conviction that any adequate response to modernity has to be willing to accept with clear eyes the implications of living in the present moment.

A major reason I broke from anarcho-primitivism was the frequency with which I would encounter its adherents trying to “live as hunter/gatherers.” The pitiful results weren’t the only things that repulsed me; more important was the lack of intellectual rigor. As I explained in a response to a letter to The Wildernist, my focus on nomadic hunter/gatherer life isn’t based on the idea that that way of life was objectively better, since I can’t really say such a thing as a person only acquainted with it through books and films; nor is it based on the idea that living as a nomadic hunter/gatherer is the most appropriate option for me or most people in modern society, putting aside the fact that such a thing is presently impossible for many.

To the contrary, I very clearly could not become a hunter/gatherer, and I will probably never find myself in circumstances where I am forced to do so or die. My degree of independence from artificial systems will likely go no further than farming or being some kind of vagabond. And even if through some miracle all of industry collapsed overnight, still mankind would not return to the kind of hunting and gathering he practiced in the Stone Age, changed as the world is.

Rather, my focus on hunter/gatherer life is based on a tradition in political philosophy that considers the natural state of man before moving on to an analysis of the civilized state of man. This is the tradition of Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, Hume, Paine… The latter writes explicitly, “To understand what the state of society ought to be, it is necessary to have some idea of the natural and primitive state of man.” After this consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am willing to oppose this society even to the point of becoming a hunter/gatherer as a consequence.

Put briefly, the logic is this: (a) the consequences of technical regression and collapse in regions unamenable to agriculture would be a forced return to scavenging or hunting and gathering; (b) social and technological reform is both insufficient for my values and undesirable; (c) therefore, eco-defense must entail threatening technical regression, and those undertaking it must be willing to accept the consequences. So if, for instance, an eco-defender monkeywrenched a vital computer system and someone complained that it could “bring us back to the Stone Age,” that eco-defender has already openly declared that he is alright with that.

This is quite different from the headspace of the normal primitivist. Rather than being a practical or philosophical consideration, the hunter/gatherer ideal is for him akin to the Torah of the Jews. He learns what hunter/gatherers did and intends to mimic them, often degrading politics into aesthetics in the process.

The recent move for some eco-radicals to espouse an animistic worldview smells suspiciously like this kind of reasoning. The logic is: (a) we should live like hunter/gatherers; (b) hunter/gatherers were animistic; (c) therefore, we should be animistic. It makes sense given the premises, except the premises are pretty different. In lieu of a focus on rewilding (i.e., decreasing artificial control over nature), the focus is on defending a certain kind of living. This is absurd when it comes from city-folk or suburbanites, the majority of US eco-radicals. It’s the stuff of comedy, really, and I don’t think anything good can come from it.

The only exception I’m willing to grant here is for eco-radicals from indigenous cultures. I do not mean those who live a mostly Western lifestyle except for the one or two sacred tokens on their work desk. I mean those who are ingrained in an indigenous peoples’ traditional way of life, or those who are a few generations removed from such a life, but have context for it, and wish to reclaim it. But even here, while the pursuit is not laughable like it is for dreadlocked city-slicking pagans, it must be understood as a perhaps related, but still separate concern from rewilding. It is more like a farmer who opposes the fracking machinery on his land because it disrupts his way of life: his concerns might make him an ally, but it does not necessarily mean he cares for the land in the same sense as the environmentalist.

Living in the Present

From my admittedly limited knowledge of the Latin American eco-extremists, those who have adopted animism fall under the exception. In my interview with one of the propagandists, MictlanTepetli took issue with my charge that eco-extremist animism was about aesthetics:

I come from a family with indigenous roots: my great-grandfather when he was still alive venerated the deer before he went hunting in the mountains. My great-grandmother made great use of natural medicines that came from the Earth to cure various illnesses. She gave these wild medicines growing at various seasons of the year a touch of mysticism. The fact that you attribute my paganism simply to a desire to have a “primitive aesthetic,” like I was one of those punks with a bunch of patches, is something that I find rather insulting. You or no one else knows my personal journey, and you should know that the beliefs that I have rediscovered from history, my family history, deserve respect.

But those eco-radicals who do not have a way of life to defend should not feel obligated to adopt an animistic worldview. It is not a necessary aspect of rewilding or reaction.

Let us revisit a moment the fantastical scenario where all industry collapsed overnight. We now know from psychology that animistic thinking probably arose as an evolutionary shortcut for understanding the world: because evolution would not have endowed us with innate knowledge of germ theory, animating the world around us with spirits gave us a framework for understanding why, e.g., we shouldn’t touch the person with a ghastly skin disease–and that did the trick well enough to keep us alive to reproductive age. So should industry collapse, we will not suddenly all become animists, but the belief systems in regions unamenable to agriculture would likely develop animistic elements naturally. And of course, eco-radicals who say they are willing to face the consequences of collapse will have already accepted that the loss of scientific knowledge is a consequence worth facing–maybe even a benefit.

This process is comparable to the way a river ecosystem rebounds after a dam removal. Slowly, because of the removal of the artificial impediment, wild processes take over again. But, crucially, it is impossible to achieve the same thing with the dam still there. Say we want to keep the dam but we also possessed the scientific knowledge and technical power to make the ecosystem exist in the same physical state as the rebounded, post-dam ecosystem. What we have achieved amounts only to aesthetics because the end result lacks the crucial quality of wildness, which was presumably the core concern in the first place.

Keeping with the analogy, forcing an animistic worldview onto a modern human feels much like forcing a river ecosystem into a wild-like state artificially but without any actual rewilding. To rewild, the artificial impediments must be removed, and we must also wait for time to take its course. There are, unfortunately, no shortcuts. So you, reader, and I, are mostly stuck as we are. We have missed out on some things for good, and it is our job as modern humans not to try to cover this up with illusions and fantasies, but to come to terms with our losses.

Of course, this sounds much like what the eco-extremists say in parts of their communiques, which is why their unabashed animism strikes me sometimes as odd, even optimistic. Because even MictlanTepetli said, as A. did, that he does not totally embrace animism in the same sense as primitive peoples:

Sure, I’m a civilized person living in the modern, technological, and industrial world. It’s hard for me to separate myself from the teachings that the schools indoctrinated me with when I was young. It’s hard for me to reject the idea that rain (for example) comes from a process within the hydrological cycle. Or that a river is just water, or that fire is a mere grouping of incandescent molecules. Or that the explosives that ITS utilizes are the product of an exothermic reaction. For before I believed in the “Spirits of the Earth” (for lack of a better term) I was also an atheistic materialist who based my beliefs more in the scientific method than animism… So to reiterate, I am a civilized human being, but I’m over that. I prefer to recover my past as a Teochichimeca and to fight for it with tooth and claw. And even though I am well aware that I am not capable of a complete return to that worldview, it’s in this manner that my opposition to the techno-industrial system and modern civilization are fostered.

It seems, however, that a much more coherent framework would be similar to the Dark Mountain crew’s emphasis on mourning. Paul Kingsnorth, a co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project, points out that all the species going extinct are gone forever; that the wilderness being lost will not be renewed in time for this generation; that most modern humans have been permanently deprived of many aspects of natural human interaction. We should continue to conserve and rewild, he says, but given the magnitude of our losses, we might need to do it in black and with ashes on our faces.

An Alternative to Animism

Of course, there is one last element to this discussion on animism and materialism: the innate human drive for spiritual fulfillment. Here I do not think materialism leaves us lacking, to the contrary. What’s more, some of the most prominent eco-radicals have already addressed spirituality within the context of materialism, or something close, and produced something that I find rather fulfilling.

First, let’s get out of the way the idea that materialism only leaves room for thinking of nature in terms of mathematics or mechanism, or that thinking of nature in these terms degrades it at all. Far from it. Learning how evolution works has greatly improved my appreciation of nature, as have scientific accounts of the origin of the universe, both of which only reinforce the smallness of mankind in this terrifyingly enormous and complex world.

Further, although few modern people would identify nature with traditional Divinity, it is clearly for many of them a source for the numinous and sublime. This is the basis of much environmentalist spirituality, which tends to waver between materialism and pantheism. Consider Mary Oliver, who states that her poetry is an expression of her “feeling and gratitude for life by praising the world and whoever made all these things.” She writes in one poem:

Why do people keep asking to see
God’s identity papers
when the darkness opening into morning
is more than enough?

Or consider Edward Abbey, who consistently rebuked belief in the supernatural (it’s a “failure of the imagination,” he said pithily), but who just as surely declared, “Belief? What do I believe in? I believe in sun. In rock. In the dogma of the sun and the doctrine of the rock. I believe in blood, fire, woman, rivers, eagles, storm, drums, flutes, banjos, and broom-tailed horses…” Similarly, in his book Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, Dave Foreman, a founder of the radical conservationist organization Earth First! and a friend of Abbey’s, stated in no uncertain terms that he was a strict materialist, but the man never shied away from spiritual language, often referring to Earth as “the Goddess.”

Even Robinson Jeffers, who A. quotes at the end of his essay, had a worldview indistinguishable from materialism except in that it declared the material world as synonymous with Divinity. Strictly speaking, if Jeffers was being more than metaphorical, this is pantheistic, but it makes no real difference. (Richard Dawkins was probably right when he stated, albeit in a characteristically arrogant manner, that pantheism is simply “sexed-up atheism.”) Jeffers himself states that his poetry is an attempt to express “philosophic and scientific ideas in verse” to “reclaim…physical and psychological reality.” In his study on what he calls “ecomysticism” in authors like Abbey, Stephen Crane, and Jeffers, David Tagnani writes:

Everywhere we look in Jeffers’s work, he is preaching holism and humility. Not rhetorical humility merely, not humility as means to an end, but actual humility based upon the ecological awareness of material reality and humankind’s fairly insignificant role within that reality. It is evident in both his prose and his verse.

Another critic, Christopher Damien, writes, “The assertion of the integrity of all things, present in Jeffer’s poetry, is due in part to his philosophical materialism, which was thoroughly naturalistic [and] also a product of his unique theology of the divinity of nature.”

I remain a strict materialist, but I strongly support fostering a spiritual relationship to nature, and it seems that here we have an alternative to the clumsy attempt to “rebelieve” animism–one that is not only well-suited to modern man’s present conditions, but already deeply embedded in the eco-radical tradition. A. is, of course, right: an ecological “theology” ought to make central elements of awe and humility, a recognition of the darkness surrounding the frail illuminated circle of human knowledge. But play-acting ignorance of scientific knowledge is not a satisfying approach. Indeed, it was Einstein who pointed out that scientific advance only makes man more aware of his profound ignorance: “As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.” I point, then, to the opening quote, where Lovecraft muses on a possible willing plunge into a new dark age as a direct response to our civilizational Progress; in other words, he muses that Progress contains in its pursuits the seeds of its own destruction. There is, I think, a certain beauty to that.

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