2005/05/15

Answers for contemporary visual arts (Part 2: animism)

1. In animist times.

Animism is a worldview that was generally shared in early tribal societies and that is still prevalent nowadays for a significant portion of the world population. Those societies are assemblings of small quantities of people, small groups of a few hundred families at most that we came to describe as tribal societies. Anthropologists describe such societies as having no state, no authority, no religion and so on.
But does it make sense trying to understand the tribal world through our modern lenses? Reality for tribesmen is simply "other" than our modern reality and saying that they don't have the institutional or cultural attributes of our modern world in no way helps us understanding how those societies were functioning.

The term "Animism", derived from the Latin word "anima" meaning breath or soul, was coined by British anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor in his "Religion in Primitive Culture" (1871) . He defined Animism as "the doctrine of Spiritual Beings" : "Animism, in its full development, includes the belief in souls and in a future state, in controlling deities and subordinate spirits, . . . resulting in some kind of active worship".

Animists identify with an "Absolute truth" that they call "the One" which they conceive of as the energy, the force, the power, the mind, the divine being (later concept) that tribal groups worshiped as the ENERGY that nourishes the movement of change within the whole of reality.
One of the best descriptions of this idea is expressed by HOBHOUSE, L. T., in "Morals in Evolution", published in New York in 1907 : "I would describe (primitive man's) mental attitude as a piecemeal conception of the universe as alive, just as he looks upon his fellow man as alive without analyzing him into the two distinct entities of body and soul."
This citation leaves an after taste of irony in our minds, to us late-moderns, HOBHOUSE's judgment appears indeed as the negative judgment of a pesky narrow-minded Euro-centric and in the end it's the primitive man whose description he intended to be degrading that appears to be resonating better in our modern ears.

Individuals sharing an animist worldview thought and continue to think that many powers are in charge of the management of "the one" and so the decisions of some of those powers might be contrary to their own personal interests. Early humans were pragmatists and believed that they could use, or to be more accurate, that they could manipulate moments, instants, of reality in such a way that the powers to be might be incited to take decisions more favorable for their interests. In consequence they desperately searched for information to ward off any negativities and manipulate the present in order for the powers to be to do their bidding at favors the moment after. Manipulation was meant indeed to bring changes in some constitutive elements of the present that would induce a more favorable outcome in the future.
Manipulation was also meant, in a more direct sense, as tricking or as cheating the powers to be into other decisions than the ones they would have otherwise taken. There is a Chinese popular story that illustrates admirably this kind of direct manipulation of the powers to be. During one of my first Chinese new-year celebrations in Beijing with my wife's family I was offered "guang tong sticky candy" that I liked for its resemblance with a candy that was customarily offered during my childhood in Flanders. I inquired why one could not find this kind of candy out of the spring festival period and my wife's grand-mother told me a story that remains as vivid in my mind today as when I heard it for the first time some fifteen years ago. "Guang Tong" is the Chinese "stove god". His mission is to observe the family's behavior along the year and coming "Spring Festival" he goes reporting to the "heavenly emperor" about the family's conduct. "We Chinese" she told me "make an offering of sticky candy to 'Guang Tong' before his departure for heaven in the hope that his teeth will be glued in the candy when he meets the /heavenly emperor'..."

Pragmatic and lucid the tribesmen did not fail to recognize that they were largely ignorant so they naturally favored the emergence of specialists, who would be devoting all their time inquiring about the workings of reality and would then help them in case of necessity.
They thus vested permanently recognized power exclusively on the shaman, their "man of knowledge", who was kind of the tribe's reader and interpreter of reality, its diviner who predicted the future course of events, its medicine men who helped the sick and hurt to recover and more generally its master of ceremonies and feasts.
The shaman or whatever the tribal "men of knowledge" are called, from place to place, garner their knowledge through initiation by their "benefactor", elder shaman, into the body of observations of the natural cycles as transmitted by the line of their predecessors that they then confirm through their personal observation of those same cycles. The observation of the natural cycles and elements is what grounded their knowledge, it should thus not come as a surprise that tribal knowledge was and remains fairly identical all over the world: the presence of men or women of knowledge, visions, trances, dances, sacred items, sacred spaces for worship and the trial at connecting with the spirits of ancestors, the spirits of animals and plants those are indeed general characteristics of animistic societies. Animals, plants, stars were "deified" but not much thought was expressed about a "creator god" only about the "spirits" inhabiting the gods within those animals, plants and stars that can help or hurt and that sometimes were called "gods", "demons" or even simply a "lie".

There is no trial, in animism, at establishing abstract models out-of the exercise of the mind, no stories that personify the energy or the power of the one or of the spirits.
In an animist worldview humans are conceived of as atoms of a larger body that remains mostly inaccessible through human sensors. Wikipedia gives this excellent summary: "This can be stated simply as everything is alive, everything is conscious or everything has a soul". So the mind in an animist environment focuses on what the sensors (senses) give to perceive in the hope to SEE the living ONE and the spirits operating its parts. And what does the mind see ?

The night follows the day; winter comes after summer, spring and autumn being no more than their gradual passage from the one to the other, as daybreak or dawn signals the passage from night to day and dusk from day to night.
Those natural rhythms are the foundational signs upon which animist "men of knowledge" built their understanding of reality. They understood, and still understand where they survive, that there is simply no escape from those rhythms and that humans have to move and act in humility and acceptance of the "whole one" or reality. For them plants, animals and trees have been considered sacred because they were thought to be home to spirits that were taking part in regulating the works of the one. This formed the base of an attitude of deep respect for nature that can be found in all tribal societies.

From such simple and basic facts of reality the shaman, animist "men of knowledge", conceived fairly identical worldviews the whole world over.
Described with modern concepts the animist worldview is seen as "pantheist" : a mountain is god, a rock, an animal, a planet, and even a cockroach can be a god or a spirit, you can be god so you can also be a spirit. From all this is thus also derived that animism is "polytheist" : there are thousands of gods thus the concept of 333 million deities. But pantheism and polytheism are later concepts that have been derived as opposites of the recognized and accepted concepts of religious and modern times; as such they generate negative images in our minds and are blinding us from the substance of animist daily life practice.

The observation of those natural rhythms led early Chinese to derive the abstractions of full line and broken line ( _______ , ___ ___ ) as the visual signs of the polarities of the cycles that they observed and conceived of as natural rhythms or repeating time units: day/night, summer/winter that were easily associated with warm/cold and so on. Those signs illustrating the polarities within single-units, or ensembles, were then further refined into ever more complex systems of understanding of the forces at play inside the cycles of change. Such signs can be seen on recently excavated carved stones finding their origin some BC 6000 years or 8000 years ago according to the dating results obtained with "carbon 14" techniques. What is even more remarkable, I think, is that those visual signs are the foundation, the roots, upon which the Chinese built their written language that survives to this day. It's as if their early understandings about reality had been inscribed once and for all in their written language.

Abstract signs are found in all animist societies. They decorate textiles, daily use objects, totems and other. Those "visual signs" are the "writing-down", at the attention of all the members of the group, of the meaning of what is going on in the reality encompassing it. Visual signs don't need many words they are accessible to all so they diffuse uniformly through the whole of the body-social and bind it, glue it, together. The creation of visual signs is thus conceived of as a technique for gluing the individual social atoms and solidifying the body collective, the group, the tribe.

Tribes had no equivalent of kings, emperors nor prime ministers, their small groups had simply no need for those kinds of power symbols and institutions. Any individual tribesman was known by the others and all families had a very strong consciousness of their survival being in the hands of the group. There was thus no functional need for a permanent military or political power structure. When a situation of conflict arose with another tribe the strongest man of the tribe, kind of naturally, was endorsed with leading the defense of the group and when the conflict subsided he returned to his normal activities within the group. The same process of recoursing to the most able must have been at work as well in other situations than military conflict.
The notable exception to such a temporary exercise of a power-function remains with the "man of knowledge" who was given by the tribe his entire time, freed from all domestic chores, to read reality and to give to all an understandable visual representation of it. It appears to me that the shaman or "man of knowledge" is the first personification in history of a societal function that has been "remunerated" by the collectivity or to say this otherwise, for the first time in history, has society taken in charge to supply for the material needs of a specialized function that was considered to being exercised in the benefit of all.

The organization of tribal small groups was quite straightforward. They were basically an assembling of individuals glued together by a shared worldview. The shaman was in charge of telling to his fellow tribesmen a credible and simple story that would unify their vision of the world and of the reality around them. Story telling was thus an important component of living in a tribe. Stories were what constituted the shared knowledge of all the tribesmen and their content would then be visually illustrated in drawings and paintings that were directly accessible to all even to small children.

Those visual signs, that can be seen in what European thinkers by the end of the nineteenth century, came to call "primitive art" are humanity's first systematization of ideas about the rhythm of time, about space and the cosmic circus. Those ideas were recorded in abstract symbols and signs that amount to a symbolic writing about our distant ancestors' understanding of reality, how they perceived the main phenomena and properties of a complex world. For us moderns those signs are an enigma. Though the visual signs are visible the meaning of the stories behind those signs remains largely hidden to us.

Three themes reappear, from place to place around the world, showing what our ancestors were concerned about, showing how they perceived reality or themselves within the one:
- fertility (reproduction of the family, the group, the specie): The pronounced female forms of the "Venus of Willendorf" established it as an animist icon of fertility. It has been dated BC 22 - 24,000.
- wild animals and the ritual of hunting (the satisfaction of the individuals' "objective needs" and more particularly feeding):
- the eternal questions of the workings of the universe.

The earliest of those animist visual signs come from the Paleolitic, or Old Stone Age period, about BC 40,000. But the level of refinement of those signs suggests a much earlier beginning, about which we unfortunately have practically no knowledge. Most material predating 40,000 years ago reflect utilitarian concerns but an article from the Encyclopedia of Columbia University indicates that "there is now scattered African archaeological evidence from before that time (in one case as early as 90,000 years ago) of the production by H. sapiens of beads and other decorative work, perhaps indicating a gradual development of the aesthetic concerns and other symbolic thinking characteristic of later human societies".

Early hominids (from 2 million to 30,000 years ago) and modern homo sapiens, until 10,000 years ago approximately, lived exclusively as hunters and gatherers taking their food directly from the environment rather than producing it by tilting the land. Our knowledge of the life of our ancestors is very limited and we can only conclude that their worldview was animistic at least in the last phase of their history from 30,000 to 10,000 years ago. We also know that the economic revolution that took place with the emergence of agriculture did not displace animism. The worldview continued to prosper, unabashed, fashioning the attitudes of small tribal agricultural societies around the world for thousands more years.
Only the political revolution that ensued after the unification of tribes into kingdoms/empires eventually created the conditions for displacing animism in favor of religions but we'll see in the next post that this political unification did not engender a unified response around the world.


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