Reading of Hilan Bensusan’s book Lines of future animism

1The nine texts of Hilan Bensusan’s Lines of future animism deal with the sprawling dimensions of possible animisms, from witches to cyborgs, from shamans to Leibniz’s monads, from Quibungo to Pasolini’s fireflies. By exhibiting and by analyzing the perspectives of a future animism, in a close dialogue with the theses and concepts of authors such as Giorgio Agamben, Bruno Latour, Philippe Descola, Daniel Dennett, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and Galen Strawson (to only cite the most relevant), Bensusan puts together a dynamic, prismatic, living work. Rejecting the dull format of the “treatise,” this work weaves these different threads together into a compact, coherent and organic essay. These vitalist metaphors (“living work,” “organic essay”) refer to a highly animist aspect of the work, perhaps only tangentially perceptible: a Derridian aspect of language, concerning the relationship between writing, form and content: the force, the violence or the trace of writing and the aporias of a text’s paternity.

2If it is indeed a force that traverses the entire book, it is, within the different possible animist perspectives, a storyteller attitude that puts the dispositional properties of all things into action. “The animists call upon this possibility, that is not simply referencing a different animation, it is also highlighting the originality of a different animation” (p. 23). Animism, for Bensusan, therefore entails a conversation and not merely an attribution of animation to that which is generally considered as inanimate. This conversation expands, complicates or disorganizes the we by which we identify ourselves as thinkers, agents, sovereigns. “It is of course delicate to attribute the ability to build alliances or to dialogue with another person. The attribution of an animation is only possible if the animation is not in itself an abbreviation of human life” (p. 24). Or else: “Considering the aspects of human animation in a way that does not limit it to human experience is an exercise in speculation – in the sense of a leap beyond the experience that illuminates it and that gives it a meaning – guided by an objective of transversality in which the established categories of experience do not limit experience to its original categories” (ibid.).

3The point of departure – which immediately explains the epistemic, metaphysical and political upheaval of animism – is the negation of naturalism, of the modern distinction between a physical human/non-human equality (everything is composed of or shares physical aspects: matter, energy, etc.) and an inequality in interiority (only humans have interiority: agency, animation, consciousness, freedom, etc.); or else the negation of the separation between the domain of the what, of matter, of right, of necessity, from the domain of the who, of humans, of freedom, of sovereignty (or that which is allowed to recognize sovereignty, the arche or the principle of things). One of the merits of Bensusan’s book is, in a manner of speaking, his storyteller economy. Indeed, he does not content himself with going through the animisms, presenting them and systematizing the perspectives of so many authors on the subject; he tangles them in storyteller argumentation, letting us glimpse a different text in which the primitive, the past, the future, cyborgs, witches and fireflies tell us what we have trouble understanding.

4“But some of us are courageous.” Bensusan shows us the courage of entering into an “agreement with the politics of others,” of these non-human others, has nothing to do with straightforward respect for animist conceptions of a “human other,” Indians, witches. Working from Philippe Descola (p. 59-66) and from Daniel Dennett (p. 47-48), Bensusan maintains that, of course, animism entails a diplomacy and a good intention, a good intentionality, but this does not mean a dive into the “New Age,” into a spiritualization or a sacralization “of nature,” a simple anthropomorphic projection of a supposedly more original real – what modern naturalists do with Indians or witches, thinking that they recognize a simple broadening of human nature in their cultures. In the most inoffensive cases, the anthropomorphic perspective allows for a straightforward leak of the system and, in its most common political version, conserves nature as an “object of tutelage”: “[…] it is not that the environment that surrounds us must be preserved or that we must stop entering into conflict with it, but there exists a request for protagonism that draws back into question the very dimension of the bubble of animation that we typically presume” (p. 22).

5Animism brings us directly to the intersection of ontology and politics and forces us to confront the spreading of souls beyond the other of the human, an other (always? Inevitably?) conceived of from human categories. It is a question of “invoking” this dispersion, of being prepared to speak to the alterity of non-human agency. The opposition between humans and non-humans seems inseparable from the opposition between us (beings that have agency, sovereignty) and them (those who do not have these). Admittedly, anthropology has always highlighted the many philosophical, ontological, epistemic and political learning processes for the Moderns: those that one finds in the analyses of totems, of gods, of spirits, of orixás, of shamans – hints of the complexity of the “world of the other” that allows us to better understand “our world” through many mirrors. But Bensusan’s text invites us to think that these learning processes will neither be undertaken by the supposition of the presence of a hypostasized, metaphysical Other, nor by the straightforward interpretation of that which is foreign to us, in the sense of Unheimlich: would the very designation of “the savage mind,” for example, not already be a synonym for domestication? The idea of a conversation with the non-human radicalizes the political dimension and the omnipresence of the problem.

6Through an image, we could come back to the question of paternity, of the text, of the word and of speech (which is actually a central theme of David Kopenawa and Bruce Albert’s book The Falling Sky, mentioned by the author on p. 63) and thinking in the place where the word is and his reading are inseparable from the anthropogenic debris that circulates in each of our modern gestures: the remains or traces of the computer, of one’s canvas or paper on which ink, ink itself, is written, the niobium and all material often extracted from invaded and devastated indigenous lands. A politics of the us is always inseparable from materialities and intentionalities, regardless of where we are or who we are; materialities and intentionalities that open up and confuse borders, those between mind and matter, human and nonhuman, agency and the inanimate. But it is not a question of crossing borders between types of entities: “It is not a question of separating things from each other, but of asking questions in a different way, preferring not to speak about borders, but rather about masks, about camouflage, and insisting on the fact that it is of the nature of nature to like to hide itself” (p. 48).

7This animist ontology is already a political and historical difference of opinion: “It seems to be a thing of the past to imagine that there is a politics to be made with wolves, foxes, whales, riverbeds or glaciers” (p. 27). From the point of view of naturalists, animism, commonly called “simple anthropomorphism,” would be a thing of the past and would have been definitively surpassed by modern societies. But the past is narrative in perpetual dispute for the Moderns. In this conflict of interpretations, the analysis of Lines of Future Animism gains a great political intensity, beginning with its last two chapters, entitled “Without fireflies, without bees: the inanimate under supervision and as catastrophe” and “The pirates’ sumak kawsay.” The disappointment of the world, as a “gradual process of alienation of human populations from its environment,” of proletarianization, of gentrification, of forced migrations, of colonization and of impoverishment, eliminates all possible negotiations in traditional relations that man always set up with the earth, with wolves, with whales and with riverbeds, and we can easily recall countless literary stories that take up this conflict, like Jack London’s White Fang (wolves), Melville’s Moby Dick (the whale) and Guimarães Rosa’s O burrinho pedrês (the riverbed), in which the minimal moral of the story is that horrible things happen when dealing with the non-human, this dispenses with negotiation, with struggle, with diplomacy in the name of domination, of greed, of possession.

8Animism does not therefore entail a straightforward defense of traditional ways of life: it increases the importance of “primitive” or “outmoded” ways of life, in the idea of a break with a linear historical perspective in which things, humans and the planet itself are submitted to a function and a property that is without distinction, without negotiation, without struggle, without politics; or rather under a politics of violence, of death and of burnt earth. Unlike the temporality presupposed by the moderns, the past, in the scope of the tendency of nonhuman things, of its authentic tendencies, returns, never stops returning (why would the call to ancestors, in which the multiplicity of past experience is revived as an always negotiated present, be less “objective” than a genetic description?). But the past also returns in the forms of forces that are non-negotiable, inaudible and destructive against which there are no levees, no safe havens, no techniques, nor even any codes or rites of lamentation (note the striking stories of Chernobyl told by Svetlana Alexievich and commented upon by the author).

9The endeavor of the book’s last chapters does not however only consist in demonstrating the plausibility and urgency of animism as a political trench faced with catastrophe (which always risks to fall back into the modern perspective that consists in conceiving of nature as an element to be preserved for us). It is mostly a question of thinking about availability (the tendency of things, in dialogue with Heidegger’s Ge-Stell), about usufruct (in opposition with use), about territory (in opposition with property) and about the body qua zones of resistance and of political recreation. The performative animism proposed by Bensusan does not only consist in being attentive to agency or to “authentic tendencies” of things that are considered to be inanimate, but also the promotion of these things politically speaking, by opposing risk with survival.


  • [1]
    Hilan Benssusan, Lignes d’animisme futur, Brasilia (DF): IEB/Mil Folhas, 2017.