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The Ecology of Magic
August 29, 2006 9:44 AM   Subscribe

The Ecology of Magic is the abbreviated first chapter of David Abram's Spell of the Sensuous. Abram explores the intersection of phenomenology, synesthesia and linguistics to discover the magic of the alphabet, the sacred winds, and ultimately, the root of animism. Abram finds the locus of these superstitions not in an imagined metaphysical sphere, but rooted in our sensuous experience of the world around us. He attributes much of our cavalier attitude towards our environment to our separation from our own experience, and ultimately, our loss of magic. "The fate of the earth depends on a return to our senses."
posted by jefgodesky (21 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Interesting stuff. I'm not sure the spiritual vs. physical generalizations are accurate to every culture -- it's not like every "traditional magician" is a shaman -- but insightful anyway.

Of course most of us want to be disconnected from most of the natural world most of the time. We'd prefer not to really know where our food and other stuff came from, nor what happens to it when we're finished with it. If we don't know, we can consider ourselves not responsible.

I know I want to be disconnected from mosquitos, centipedes, OMG bears, August heat, etc.
posted by Foosnark at 10:04 AM on August 29, 2006


"The fate of the earth depends on a return to our senses."

And if you sign up for Scientology's new Super Power training in the next seven days, we can improve all fifty seven senses at the low, low price of just $200,000.

Just think. You too can get an invitation to meet Tom Cruise and Kirsty Alley at the next Celebrity Centre shindig, and play a leading role in saving the world!

And if that's not enough, we'll also throw in a free copy of Battleship Earth and Dianetics: the modern science of mental health -- normally a each book has a seven cents value -- but to you, absolutely free!
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:23 AM on August 29, 2006


I think there's a good bit of difference between believing in your own senses, and believing in Prince Xenu.
posted by jefgodesky at 10:37 AM on August 29, 2006


Transformational linguistics (Noam Chomsky) roughly says that our words are "surface structures" that we manufacture from our actual experience.

The transformation of sensory experience into words, however, requires the use of generalization, deletion and distortion. This creates a fictional shorthand of the person's experience.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy (Refective Happiness, Feeling Good, Resilience) seems to be mostly about a) noticing and b) retraining the habit of basing emotions and behaviors on the words we say inside our head -- words that have been distorted away from the actual experience.

The precise way a particular human generalizes, deletes and distorts themselves away from their own experience (and flexibility) leaves noticeable clues in the person's language itself.

I've found two reliable resources for noticing exactly how my internal verbal fictions keep me from my own senses -- and happiness: Beck's Cognitive Distortions and the NLP Meta-Model.
posted by Moistener at 10:46 AM on August 29, 2006 [2 favorites]


Nice selection of links. Strange how we've come to think that we dwell in a space somewhere behind our eyes and that there is a body attached below.
posted by kozad at 10:52 AM on August 29, 2006


Yes, we're disconnected from the natural world, and yes, that's a bad thing. I remain unconvinced of any "truest world of all, the primary realm that secretly supports all those other ‘realities’", etc. This guy has a few good arguments buried under a pile of dippy junk. I don't trust any article that quotes Ishmael without a footnote...
posted by vorfeed at 10:55 AM on August 29, 2006


I remain unconvinced of any "truest world of all, the primary realm that secretly supports all those other ‘realities’",

well if what you say is so, vorfeed, then i'm sure you find your own skeptism about the existence of such a reality as unconvincing as I do, no?

/liljoke

more seriously though (and more on-topic), very cool stuff. thx Jefgodesky!
posted by saulgoodman at 11:51 AM on August 29, 2006


Skepticism is about the only thing I do find convincing, actually. That's the problem -- the existence of a "secret world beneath the world blah blah blah" requires such a huge suspension of skepticism that I can't deal with it. The answer to the barest skeptical question ("well, where is the evidence for this world, then? Can you show it to me?") destroys it. In contrast, even though my senses are obviously not perfect, their impression of the physical world does a much better job of withstanding skepticism.

In short, the world may very well be a lie, but if so, it is much better told than the lie in the linked articles!
posted by vorfeed at 12:04 PM on August 29, 2006


not to extend this side rail too much, but vorfeed, surely you believe there's evidence of the existence of some kind of world, right? well, that world has to be, in some sense, a true world doesn't it? i mean, if it weren't, then there'd be no such thing as a 'false world' either... in other words, i'm skeptical of your skepticism: what's it made of?
posted by saulgoodman at 12:14 PM on August 29, 2006 [1 favorite]


Perhpas you're having a purely visceral reaction to the word "secret"? Because the "secret world" in question is precisely the one you see, touch, taste, smell, etc. It's the other worlds--the Einsteinian or Euclidean or Platonic worlds, etc.--that he's arguing must ultimately rely on the world we experience with our own senses. THAT's exactly the world he's talking about: the one you can see for yourself.
posted by jefgodesky at 12:26 PM on August 29, 2006


THAT's exactly the world he's talking about: the one you can see for yourself.

No, he goes way beyond that, and that's my problem with his argument. He is claiming, for instance, that rocks can be said to move because they "move" people on a spiritual level. But this spiritual "motion" ISN'T something I can see for myself. It is, by definition, not something that can be measured by anyone other than the person being "moved".

If I'm not "moved" by that rock, and you are, then we are living in two different and contradictory worlds -- one in which that rock moves, and one in which it does not. If we accept both experiences as being valid, how can one say whether, in the True World, rocks move? Unless there are infinite and contradictory True Worlds, in which case the definition of Truth seems rather useless to me, subjectivity is not the best tool for exploring this issue.

Abram writes, "The world we experience with our unaided senses is fluid and animate, shifting and transforming in response to our own shifts of position and of mood." It's interesting that he chose "our" as the pronoun, here... to me, the contradictions that arise as soon as two people are observing the same object in such a world are insurmountable. What's the use of a True World if you can never make a single objectively true statement about it?

Abram has got a lot of good things to say about the value of connectedness, but I don't see much worth in the arguments he uses to get there.
posted by vorfeed at 1:18 PM on August 29, 2006


Your argument is with phenomenology itself, then: it's Hegel, Husserl and Heidigger you take issue with.
posted by jefgodesky at 1:49 PM on August 29, 2006


Right then, the book's obviously not for you, vorfeed.

Moving on then, thanks for the post! This paragraph from the last link really changed the mood of my whole afternoon:

"If we continue to speak of other animals as less mysterious than ourselves, if we speak of the forests as insentient systems, and of rivers and winds as basically passive elements, then we deny our direct, visceral experience of those forces. And so we close down our senses and come to live more and more in our heads. We seal our intelligence in on itself and begin to look out at the world only as spectators–never as participants. If, on the other hand, we wish to recall what it is like to feel fully a part of this wild earth, then we shall have to start speaking somewhat differently. It will be a difficult change, but it will also be curiously simple, and strangely familiar, something our children can help us remember. If we really wish to awaken our senses, and so to renew the solidarity between our selves and the rest of the earth, then we must acknowledge that the myriad things around us have their own active influence upon our lives and our thoughts (and also, of course, upon one another). We must begin to speak of our sensuous surroundings in the way that our breathing bodies really experience them–as active, as animate, as alive."
posted by hermitosis at 2:07 PM on August 29, 2006


Some of this does get into semantics. But reciprocity is the key to any good relationship. And I’ve always found the patronizing manner with which we address some ‘primative’ cultures on - for example - science or history shows somewhat irritating. I saw a show on the Mayans and much of the focus was on their calender and the end of the world thing - and clearly it was a misapplication of concept on the part of the producers. To their credit they showed several anthropologists saying exactly that - that the Mayan calander was using symbolic references differently and impressing our judeo-christian reference of “end of the world” on them was a mistake. But then of course they jumped right back in showing hurricane and earthquake footage and going on about the increases in political strife and backlash from nature, etc. etc. and so forth in the context of the end of the world.
One of the things that irked me was the disbelief that a people who apparently hadn’t had much use for the wheel - could build ziggurats that created undulating snake shadows along their sides during certain celestial events and times of the year.
Such a thing can (and has) been done with mere powers of observation and straightforward application of mechanical concepts.
Certain details aside, I think the point is valid that few people have any idea how connected we are with the natural forces around us and we have been very much divorced from direct observation of the rhythms and patterns (or ‘spirits’ - ugh) of the life and nature around us. I can’t say I agree with the use of the term ‘magician’ - et.al. Particularly if the point is to draw folks into communication (so I'm with you on that vorfeed). But yeah, ‘reality’ is currently something created by advertising in which a new brand of floor cleaner creates in housewives an orgasmic frenzy.
I cut down trees on my property myself. My neighbors seemed amazed that a white (looking) suburbanite would do his own manual labor - much less without hired help. One of them came over and asked how I felled a very large tree through a tight spot (between another tree and a neighbor’s garage) using only some rope and the chainsaw.
I said: “Geometry.” But even that sidesteps the reality. I had to pay attention to the weather, wind speed, direction, etc. These things are relatively easy. Taken a step further - survival in the wilderness. I can do that. It’s about observation and patience. But there are things people who live close to nature know that I never will. And it seems to me those simple powers of observation and knowlege of natural integration which in some cultures (some native american tribes) had been refined to a science are discarded as useless. ‘Cause really - it’s still wilderness beyond the drywall and vinyl siding.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:08 PM on August 29, 2006


If, on the other hand, we wish to recall what it is like to feel fully a part of this wild earth, then we shall have to start speaking somewhat differently.

English Prime is another tactic.
posted by Moistener at 2:32 PM on August 29, 2006


interesting post...but what does the link under the word "linguistics" have to do with linguistics? and...

Transformational linguistics (Noam Chomsky) roughly says that our words are "surface structures" that we manufacture from our actual experience.

This is an extreme mischaracterization of transformational linguistics, I think, though it's not entirely clear what "manufacture from our actual experience" means in the context of linguistics. Transformational linguistics gives a formal procedure (i.e. a mathematical algorithm) for generating sentences of English and other languages by building and manipulating (transforming) labelled trees. "Surface structure" is the technical term for a tree that corresponds to the word order that we pronounce (also note that current syntactic theory basically doesn't assume what I'm describing, so it is even an out of date procedure). This procedure has nothing to do with "experience", and does not even clearly correspond to the details of what actual speakers do when they utter a sentence, though at some level it does provide an accurate abstraction of that (in that the results are the same).
posted by advil at 2:49 PM on August 29, 2006


English Prime is another tactic.

E-Prime might be a start, but I doubt it's sufficient in itself for the kind of transformation of language Abram's talking about.

what does the link under the word "linguistics" have to do with linguistics?

It takes getting into it pretty far, but eventually it comes to this:

Exploring Kaluli echo-muse-ecology in the Bosavi rainforests lead me to realize that what I was trying to understand all along was that the language and music of nature are intimately connected with the nature of language and music. Shifting from the realm of ritual performances to that of everyday experience and expression I learned that sounds are heard as time of day, season of year, vegetation cycles, migratory patterns, forest heights and depths. Place resounds as a fused human locus of space and time. Local acoustic ecology can thus be considered a kind of aesthetic adaptation, a naturalization of place, or, put differently, a pattern of ecological and aesthetic co-evolution.

Abram makes the same argument: that between onomatopoeia, sound symbolism, and phonesthesia, our ecology informs our language and creates its ambient sound. So, language isn't really arbitrary at all, Abram argues: it's rooted in the human sensual experience of a specific ecology.
posted by jefgodesky at 5:04 PM on August 29, 2006 [1 favorite]


On one hand...

This is an extreme mischaracterization of transformational linguistics...

... and on the other...

though at some level it does provide an accurate abstraction of that (in that the results are the same)

Ok. I agree with both of you.

it's not entirely clear what "manufacture from our actual experience" means in the context of linguistics

This construct/model called "transformational linguistics" has to have something to transform: sensory input (aka actual experience? fair enough?).

E-Prime might be a start, but I doubt it's sufficient in itself for the kind of transformation of language Abram's talking about.

Don't knock it (or the meta-model) til you've tried it on yourself a while. It's a way to gently train your brain to head back to the actual experience (vs. the linguistic shorthand of it).

The author seems to me to reference a culture that has forgotten that science (and the language that transmits it) is simply describing something. The meta-model (and e-Prime) are in-the-moment brain tactics that direct a human's attention to that something (or the best proxy we know): his/her senses.

A human speaking closer to their senses sounds way different than the usual mindless chit chat.
posted by Moistener at 7:15 PM on August 29, 2006


This construct/model called "transformational linguistics" has to have something to transform: sensory input (aka actual experience? fair enough?).

Well, transformational grammar is quite explicit about what it is transforming -- it is transforming mathematical objects called trees. These trees have nothing whatsoever to do with sensory input, experience, etc. I'll try to say it again in a slightly different way: a transformational grammar is a mathematical algorithm that (if it is designed correctly) enumerates all and only the grammatical sentences of a particular language. Transformations are simply one of the mathematical tools used, and surface structure is nothing more or less than the end result of the algorithm.
posted by advil at 10:03 PM on August 29, 2006


These trees have nothing whatsoever to do with sensory input, experience, etc.

Apparently not.
posted by Moistener at 10:18 PM on August 29, 2006 [1 favorite]


Don't knock it (or the meta-model) til you've tried it on yourself a while. It's a way to gently train your brain to head back to the actual experience (vs. the linguistic shorthand of it).

It is, and I did. It's a good step in a good direction, I think; I just don't think it really gets you "all the way there," so to speak.
posted by jefgodesky at 7:22 AM on August 30, 2006


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