The following is an essay that appeared in Rare Earth, the wonderful catalog for an art show devoted to the crossover of myth, the new materialism, and the geopolitics of rare earth elements. The show, which took place at Austria’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary from Feb-May 2015, was curated by Nadim Samman and Boris Ondreička, who also edited the volume.


Today we are witnessing the dissolution of the autonomous human subject, a collapse of humanist agency that, at least from some angles, resembles a dystopian Sci-Fi submission to the technological apparatus and its various algorithmic controls, affect networks, and neuro-economic behavioral protocols. And yet, this radically disenchanted posthumanist condition has also been accompanied by a startling return of animism–or as an astrologer-coder named Matthew Souzis calls it, a movement of re-animism. What gives re-animism its force today is precisely the heterogeneity of the discourses, practices, and experiences allied in their hunch that the world is, if not alive, than at least agential: indigenous rights movements, social anthropology, object-oriented ontology, ecophilosophy, global ayahuasca culture, digital hauntology, and what one might call the uncanny phenomenological blowback from the algorithmic agents and measureless surveillance functions that now saturate the social field and increasingly the subject. Clearly all these factors cannot be brought together here, nor can they be squared with the question of whether or not something authentically archaic has returned in all of this. But I would like to try and hammer out a few points.

What, then, do we mean by animism? In Edward Tylor’s hoary use of the term, whose emergence at the origins of the anthropology of religion has until recently damned the term to the dustbin of theory, animism marks the fundamental act of attributing “spirit” to nonhuman objects. (Tylor, who attended séances and believed they were evidence of the persistence of this gesture, considered naming his concept spiritualism.) Animism here is nothing more than the operation of human projection onto what remains, in actuality, the bare and concrete world best known by scientists and their instruments. Animism is nothing but believing in the faces that appear in rocks or clouds, something that comes natural to children or “early man”, something abandoned in lonely maturity, or enjoyed only on a pop culture whim. Animism is thus a double attribution: the fundamental religious attribution of spirit to objects, and the fundamental theoretical act of attributing delusional religious fantasies to other human beings.

But step gingerly, for with this projection theory we are already within the circle of the West’s own peculiar witchery. According to Bruno Latour, it is the moderns who are the believers, and that they believe, naively, that other people have naïve beliefs. After all, the concrete objects that naturalism purportedly contrasts to naïve animist beliefs possess an oddly spectral sort of substance. In Descartes’ influential account, the sensory elements that you and I actually encounter in an object, its color and scent, are nothing but “secondary qualities” constructed through our evolved sensory apparatus—another form of projection essentially. Strip these qualities away—and naturalism loves to strip away—and what remains are the “primary qualities” of the matter that root it in the real—the mass, location, and other properties that lock it in spacetime. And yet, through their very abstract and bloodless character, these most concrete qualities become strangely disembodied, even ghostly. Tylor’s projective theory of animism is already an act of theoretical prestidigitation that disguises its own invocation of “matter.”

Today’s re-animism makes a stronger, more political, and—even for sympathizers—more vexing claim than the presence of mana or some other vitalist power: the world is primarily woven out of relationships of reciprocity (and sometimes trickery) between persons, only some of whom happen to be human. Not intelligence, or vitality, or even exactly agency, but person. The illuminating articulations of animism or “perspectivalism” provided by Amerindian anthropologists Phillipe Descola and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro describe an indigenous world within which the space between humans and non-humans is eminently social. The instinctive life of animals that naturalistic ethologists perceive is, within this other perspectival world, a cultural existence, where the raw blood of prey is actually delicious manioc beer. “Nature” is nowhere to be found, which is also the reason that the gestures, recipes and hexes that pass between shamans and their animist allies have nothing at all to do with the “supernatural.”

Such views contrast sharply with dominant Western logics, of course, which precisely naturalize relations with and within the surrounding manifold of organic and inorganic life. Naturalism accords objects a mute facticity that invites the non-reciprocal instrumentality typified by the extractive protocols of global capital, for whom “the environment” remains an infinite resource rather than a crowd of Others we must wrangle with whether we want to or not. But though the re-animist recognizes these Others as persons, they are not exactly neighbors. Arising beyond the human (hermeneutic) circle, they rear up and make their demands often without language, and therefore elude the Levinasian discourse of the Other, whose anthropocentric fixation on language renders it ill-equipped to deal with entities we encounter outside. Here we would do better to return to the ontological spaces of the “in-between” described by the proto-re-animist Martin Buber, who recognized two essential forms of founding relation: I-It and I-You. For Buber, the narcissistic and instrumental experience of the I-It world is capable, through practice and grace, of transmuting into a webwork of encounters with Yous that, in Buber’s view anyway, might include trees, cats, icons, even “spirits.”

In an essay on the god Pan, the British writer Russell Hoban offers a Buberian definition of religion as “a mode of being and perception in which everything is Thou and nothing is It.”[1] This is an overwhelming vision of course, Dionysian if not psychotic in its excess, and we might feel great relief at Buber’s reminder that the return of the It-world and its manipulable things is inevitable, even in our most intimate and aesthetically charged relations. And yet Hoban’s definition also allows us another way of framing and understanding today’s return of religion as an animist and political vector that shuttles all manner of persons into a social field previously restricted to humans. This is, in any case, how we might understand one of the most remarkable re-animist events in recent years: the declaration of the Rights of Nature adopted into the Ecuadorian constitution in 2008. This declaration, which has already been used in concrete environmental struggles in the countery, represents indigenous modes of perception, but what makes it re-animist is that this vital imagination is tucked within a legalistic expansion of rights, and therefore an extension of the Enlightenment language of social contract whose underlying nature/culture divide is paradoxically subverted in its very extension.

The constitution did not just name la naturaleza, but Pachamama, the bountiful Andean earth mother who is also the goddess of time. Many intellectuals would of course insist that Pachamama here is a political construction with its own complex history of claimants, and only becomes legible through its deployment within the contemporary context of indigenous struggle. But this does not, for the re-animist anyway, cancel out the Pachamama that enlivens modes of perception, that moves through the worlds she breeds in the bootstrap logic that produces all agents in this world. Zizek famously reminds us that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Similarly, the establishment of Pachamama as a legal person with rights appears far more bizarre and unthinkable to many of us than the legal system’s roughly equivalent construction of corporations as persons with rights that go well beyond the specific legal fiction required to define an entity capable of limiting the liability of shareholders. However, the re-animist would remind us that even fictions have their modes of being, and that corporate personhood is not a legal ruse to be contrasted to the truth of indigenous perception so much as a thaumaturgical construction in its own right, a sort of collective “thoughtform” or egregore conjured through the Western protocols of legal language, finance, and, later, the magic of brands. Through its very disavowal of animist obligations, modernity remains, through its spawning of corporations, the original sorcerer’s apprentice.

The contemporary arrival of non-human entities onto the historical stage reverberates beyond the language of liberal rights, and enters into the more pertinent and elusive flows and encounters that form the subject. Here the task, in Felix Guattari’s words, is to “rethink the Object, the Other, as a potential bearer of dimensions of partial subjectivity.” In his deeply ecosophical thought, which recognizes the embedding of human drives and desires within vast and technologically infused assemblages, Guattari recognized nonetheless the advantages of an animist turn within the subject. Increasingly he came to propose what he called “a model of the unconscious akin to that of a Mexican Cuandero or of a Bororo, starting with the idea that spirits populate things, landscapes, groups, and that there are all sorts of becomings, of haecceities everywhere and thus, a sort of objective subjectivity.” This objective subjectivity does not congeal itself in persons, of course, but “finds itself bundled together, broken apart, and shuffled at the whims of assemblages.” [2] In Guattari’s work with Deleuze, this more mobile and event-bound vision of animist flux was of course most beautifully and brilliantly forged in their vital nomadological account of the most recalcitrant object-flows we confront: geological materials, the inspiration for Rare Earths.

Compared with animals, plants, winds, and even stars, the density and fixity of geological materials would seem to resist the encounters that found animist perception. However, here we must recall a story told by the anthropologist A. Irving Hallowell, who developed the crucial re-animist notion of “other-than-human persons” based on his time living with the Ojibwa in the middle of the last century. Hallowell recognized that, like the “genders” in European languages, the Ojibwa tongue distinguished between animate and inanimate things; he further noted that objects like thunder and stones, but also crafted items like kettles and pipes, were considered animate. One day he asked an old man, “Are all the stones we see around us alive?” The fellow thought for a spell before answering: “No! But some are.”[3] In other words, the animation of stones des not depend on a fixed identity or even continuous life, but on an always potential event that evokes its own agency through what Latour calls the “slight surprise of action.” The life of objects, even as persons, flickers, like Foucault’s account of Stoic simulacra, peeling off the surface of materials to float through the theater of thought as 2D traces of things.

One step from the stone is the ore, and one step more finds you in the domain of metals, the most vibrant exemplars of non-organic life according to Deleuze and Guattari. The metallurgist is the paragon of nomad science, which does not impose abstract “hylomorphic” templates upon dead matter but instead follows the flows of material singularities, not unlike the famous butcher in the Zhuangzi, who never needs to sharpen his knife because his micro-perceptions so sharply recognize and probe the “openings” of the joints. The singularities and bifurcations of ore and metals, which already dictate the derive of mining the earth, are simply intensified and multiplied through the work of the furnace and the forge, which both separate through smelting and hybridize through the polymorphous, nonhierarchical modulation of alloys. As the great historian of metallurgy Cyril Stanley Smith reminds us, the art and science of metals depends fundamentally on the sensitive encounter with real materials, as the desirable features and demands of metals are neither dictated by pure elemental constitution nor their large molar aggregates, but rather by complex partial crystallization and other microstructures. “This realistic concern with structure was the metallurgists’ particular contribution to science,” writes Smith, noting that such metallography led directly to solid-state physics, and thus the integrated circuit and all that follows.[4]

The transition from industrial steel to post-industrial circuitry thus represents an intensification rather than a rupture in the stream of singularities that characterize the non-organic life of geological materials. This means that the contemporary re-animist, critically engaged in ecosophical questions, would do well to recall the sometimes diabolical ambivalence of metallurgy. In his magisterial study The Forge and the Crucible, Mircae Eliade traces the dark lore of ores, smiths, and the forge, and one of the central strands of his characteristically comparativist tale is the sacred life of materials—a sacrality that, in Eliade’s sense, is not “holy” so much as mercurial if not menacing. As it is worked by the smelter and the metalsmith, this “natural” or given life is artificially intensified, as materials scattered on the surface of earth or extracted from its womb-like interiors are literally quickened in the forge. “By accelerating the process of the growth of metals, the metallurgist was precipitating temporal growth: geological tempo was by him changed to living tempo.”[5] The rupture of relations and temporality introduced by this acceleration of geological gestation marks metallurgical myth in various ways, in images of human sacrifice, sinister genealogies, and fiery, apocalyptic transformations. Blacksmiths from West Africa to Malaysia lived in a world apart, fringed with sexual taboos. Egyptians considered iron to be the bones of Set, lord of chaos, while faeries traditionally abhorred the stuff, whose first forms, it must be recalled, fell from the heavens. A host of smith-gods and divine crafters—Hephaestus, Weyland, the Canaanite Kothar-wa-Khasis, Ptah—were both canny and lame or deformed, as if to incarnate Marshall McLuhan’s proto-cyborg argument that the very technologies that extend the human sensorium simultaneously amputate our sensible flesh.

In the Hebrew Bible, God’s preference for the shepherd Abel over the murderous crop farmer Cain represents the tension between pastoral livelihood and the emergence of agriculture. But agriculture also means toolcraft and metallurgy, and indeed some scholars link Cain/Qayin to the South Arabian word qyn, meaning metalsmith. Cain’s descendent Tubal Cain, we learn later in Genesis, is a forger of bronze and iron instruments, and he also came to play a hierophantic role in both esoteric Freemasonry and British traditional witchcraft, both of which emphasized his Luciferic or Promethean cast. The doubling of the name of his wicked ancestor also reminds us of the rabbinic lore that holds that Cain’s father was not Adam but Samael, the accuser. This sinister genealogy in turn recalls the Watchers spoken of in the apocryphal Book of Enoch, fallen angels whose leader Azazel passed the arts of metals and precious stones to early humans—a pact or alliance that not only gave us weapons of war, but also bracelets, jewels, and the alchemy of antimony and other cosmetics. The Nephilim, the children of the Watchers and human women, were also known as giants, which therefore take their place alongside gnomes, dwarves, elves, genies and other elemental entities said to work with metals and inhabit mines and the bowels of earth. In other words, the mine and the forge are filled with mutant breeds of Others.

The mythology of metals is ambivalent to say the least, but can we say anything of the rare earths, which were identified and mined only relatively recently? Like antimony, these materials are not technically metals, although one publication from the U.S. Department of Energy charmingly referred to them as “technology metals.” Given their extraordinary and occasionally bizarre characteristics, the rare earths play such a pivotal role in our current technological infrastructure that they seem to issue from a higher metallurgy. They recall Deleuze comment that it is metal that brings matter to consciousness, in part by forcing us to think matter as continuous variation, a perpetual modulation that is fully realized in electronics. At the same time, the re-animist reminds us that the institution of such an assemblage is also an alliance, an exchange with elemental spirits or fallen angels, what Deleuze and Guattari call the “pact with the anomalous as exceptional being.” And if it is too much to call such a pact infernal, the re-animist still needs to remind us that the “smelting” of these technology metals involves their separation from the radioactive particles that always glom onto them in the wild, resulting in a nasty slag that, along with the vast amounts of water and energy required for their extraction, makes rare earths also rare in their toxic intensity.

Re-animism is not just earth mothers and charming native stories, nor a return to irrationalism, to the old, pre-critical myths. To intuit this is to reject the pervasive demand that critical thought swear unwavering fidelity to demystification, to a swordplay of exposure and suspicion that has no place for animist encounters—for dreams, pacts, or the shimmering ontologies that flicker at the edge of our vision, in half-heard murmurings and memories. For such critical demystifiers, all animist talk of non-human persons, let alone mother earths, is nothing but rhetorical ventriloquism, ideological opium, the glamour not of the fae but of the bewitching commodity. As such, critical thinkers totalize Max Weber’s (inadequate) diagnosis of modernity’s disenchantment into an almost paranoid ethos of refusal and cynical reason. And yet it seems to me that any sort of materialism that truly engages the agencies of objects and assemblages must broaden the very meaning of “engagement.” This begins with risking what Jane Bennet calls a certain “methodological naivete”: the generous wager of an “as if” ontology, and the cultivation of an almost occult capacity to resonate with anomalous perceptions that is itself inextricable from the refined tuning or modulation of perception itself.


[1] Russell Hoban, “Pan”, in The Moment under the Moment (London: Jonathan Cape, 1992), 139.

[2] Cited in Angela Melitopoulos and Maurizio Lazzarato, “Machinic Animism” Deleuze Studies, 6:2, 240.

[3] A. Irving Hallowell, “Ojibwq Ontology, Behavior, and World View” in Stanley Diamond, ed. Culture in History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), 19-52. See discussion in Graham Harvey, Animism: Respecting the Living World(New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 33-49.

[4] See Cyril Stanley Smith, “Matter versus Materials: A Historical View,” in A Search for Structure: Selected Essays on Science, Art, and History(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983) 122.

[5] Mircae Eliade, The Forge and the Crucible: the Origins and Structure of Alchemy(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), 42.