📙 The Spell of the Sensuous
Author: David Abram
Full Title: The Spell of the Sensuous
The color of sky, the rush of waves—every aspect of the earthly sensuous could draw us into a relationship fed with curiosity and spiced with danger. Every sound was a voice, every scrape or blunder was a meeting—with Thunder, with Oak, with Dragonfly. And from all of these relationships our collective sensibilities were nourished.
Today we participate almost exclusively with other humans and with our own human-made technologies. It is a precarious situation, given our age-old reciprocity with the many-voiced landscape. We still need that which is other than ourselves and our own creations. The simple premise of this book is that we are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.
For the magician’s intelligence is not encompassed within the society; its place is at the edge of the community, mediating between the human community and the larger community of beings upon which the village depends for its nourishment and sustenance.
The medicine person’s primary allegiance, then, is not to the human community, but to the earthly web of relations in which that community is embedded—it is from this that his or her power to alleviate human illness derives—and this sets the local magician apart from other persons.
The most sophisticated definition of “magic” that now circulates through the American counterculture is “the ability or power to alter one’s consciousness at will.” No mention is made of any reason for altering one’s consciousness. Yet in tribal cultures that which we call “magic” takes its meaning from the fact that humans, in an indigenous and oral context, experience their own consciousness as simply one form of awareness among many others.
It is this, we might say, that defines a shaman: the ability to readily slip out of the perceptual boundaries that demarcate his or her particular culture—boundaries reinforced by social customs, taboos, and most importantly, the common speech or language—in order to make contact with, and learn from, the other powers in the land.
It is not by sending his awareness out beyond the natural world that the shaman makes contact with the purveyors of life and health, nor by journeying into his personal psyche; rather, it is by propelling his awareness laterally, outward into the depths of a landscape at once both sensuous and psychological, the living dream that we share with the soaring hawk, the spider, and the stone silently sprouting lichens on its coarse surface.
Our strictly human heavens and hells have only recently been abstracted from the sensuous world that surrounds us, from this more-than-human realm that abounds in its own winged intelligences and cloven-hoofed powers. For almost all oral cultures, the enveloping and sensuous earth remains the dwelling place of both the living and the dead.
Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities.
To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our Minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.
Intermittently, I began to wonder if my culture’s assumptions regarding the lack of awareness in other animals and in the land itself was less a product of careful and judicious reasoning than of a strange inability to clearly perceive other animals—a real inability to clearly see, or focus upon, anything outside the realm of human technology, or to hear as meaningful anything other than human speech.
But perhaps we may make our stand along the edge of that civilization, like a magician, or like a person who, having lived among another tribe, can no longer wholly return to his own.
Indeed, the ostensibly “value-free” results of our culture’s investigations into biology, physics, and chemistry ultimately come to display themselves in the open and uncertain field of everyday life, whether embedded in social policies with which we must come to terms or embodied in new technologies with which we all must grapple. Thus, the living world—this ambiguous realm that we experience in anger and joy, in grief and in love—is both the soil in which all our sciences are rooted and the rich humus into which their results ultimately return, whether as nutrients or as poisons.
The fluid realm of direct experience has come to be seen as a secondary, derivative dimension, a mere consequence of events unfolding in the “realer” world of quantifiable and measurable scientific “facts.” It is a curious inversion of the actual, demonstrable state of affairs.
All my knowledge of the world, even my scientific knowledge, is gained from my own particular point of view, or from some experience of the world without which the symbols of science would be meaningless. The whole universe of science is built upon the world as directly experienced, and if we want to subject science itself to rigorous scrutiny and arrive at a precise assessment of its meaning and scope, we must begin by reawakening the basic experience of the world, of which science is the second-order expression.… To return to things themselves is to return to that world which precedes knowledge, of which knowledge always speaks, and in relation to which every scientific schematization is an abstract and derivative sign-language, as is geography in relation to the countryside in which we have learnt beforehand what a forest, a prairie or a river is.
The striving for objectivity is thus understood, phenomenologically, as a striving to achieve greater consensus, greater agreement or consonance among a plurality of subjects, rather than as an attempt to avoid subjectivity altogether. The pure “objective reality” commonly assumed by modern science, far from being the concrete basis underlying all experience, was, according to Husserl, a theoretical construction, an unwarranted idealization of intersubjective experience.
It was Husserl’s genius to realize that the assumption of objectivity had led to an almost total eclipse of the life-world in the modern era, to a nearly complete forgetting of this living dimension in which all of our endeavors are rooted. In their striving to attain a finished blueprint of the world, the sciences had become frightfully estranged from our direct human experience.
(Descartes’s philosophical disjunction of the mind from the body was surely prompted by this already existing state of affairs—it was necessary, for the maintenance of the new, Copernican worldview, that the rational intellect hold itself apart from the experiencing body.)
For Merleau-Ponty, all of the creativity and free-ranging mobility that we have come to associate with the human intellect is, in truth, an elaboration, or recapitulation, of a profound creativity already underway at the most immediate level of sensory perception. The
By asserting that perception, phenomenologically considered, is inherently participatory, we mean that perception always involves, at its most intimate level, the experience of an active interplay, or coupling, between the perceiving body and that which it perceives.
Synaesthetic perception is the rule, and we are unaware of it only because scientific knowledge shifts the center of gravity of experience, so that we have unlearned how to see, hear, and generally speaking, feel, in order to deduce, from our bodily organization and the world as the physicist conceives it, what we are to see, hear, and feel.
My various senses, diverging as they do from a single, coherent body, coherently converge, as well, in the perceived thing, just as the separate perspectives of my two eyes converge upon the raven and convene there into a single focus.
Even an ant crawling along my arm, visible to my eyes and tactile to my skin, displays at the same time its own sentience, responding immediately to my movements, even to the chemical changes of my mood. In relation to the ant I feel myself as a dense and material object, as capricious in my actions as the undulating earth itself.
To touch the coarse skin of a tree is thus, at the same time, to experience one’s own tactility, to feel oneself touched by the tree.
We can perceive things at all only because we ourselves are entirely a part of the sensible world that we perceive! We might as well say that we are organs of this world, flesh of its flesh, and that the world is perceiving itself through us.
Communicative meaning is always, in its depths, affective; it remains rooted in the sensual dimension of experience, born of the body’s native capacity to resonate with other bodies and with the landscape as a whole.
We appropriate new words and phrases first through their expressive tonality and texture, through the way they feel in the mouth or roll off the tongue, and it is this direct, felt significance—the taste of a word or phrase, the way it influences or modulates the body—that provides the fertile, polyvalent source for all the more refined and rarefied meanings which that term may come to have for us.
Merleau-Ponty’s first point is that words, even when they finally achieve the ability to carry referential and, eventually, conceptual levels of meaning, never completely lose that primitive, strictly phonemic, level of ‘affective’ meaning which is not translatable into their conceptual definitions. There is, he argues, an affective tonality, a mode of conveying meaning beneath the level of thought, beneath the level of the words themselves … which is contained in the words just insofar as they are Patterned sounds, as just the sounds which this particular historical language uniquely uses, and which are much more like a melody—a ‘singing of the world’—than fully translatable, conceptual thought. Merleau-Ponty is almost alone among philosophers of language in his sensitivity to this level of meaning.…3
In our own time it is language, conceived as an exclusively human property, that is most often used to demonstrate the excellence of humankind relative to all other species.
Only by overlooking the sensuous, evocative dimension of human discourse, and attending solely to the denotative and conventional aspect of verbal communication, can we hold ourselves apart from, and outside of, the rest of animate Nature.
It is by a complementary shift of attention that one may suddenly come to hear the familiar song of a blackbird or a thrush in a surprisingly new manner—not just as a pleasant melody repeated mechanically, as on a tape player in the background, but as active, meaningful speech.
The enigma that is language, constituted as much by silence as by sounds, is not an inert or static structure, but an evolving bodily field. It is like a vast, living fabric continually being woven by those who speak.
Indeed, all truly meaningful speech is inherently creative, using established words in ways they have never quite been used before, and thus altering, ever so slightly, the whole webwork of the language. Wild, living speech takes up, from within, the interconnected matrix of the language and gestures with it, subjecting the whole structure to a “coherent deformation.”
While individual speech acts are surely guided by the structured lattice of the language, that lattice is nothing other than the sedimented result of all previous acts of speech, and will itself be altered by the very expressive activity it now guides.
Language is not a fixed or ideal form, but an evolving medium we collectively inhabit, a vast topological matrix in which the speaking bodies are generative sites, vortices where the matrix itself is continually being spun out of the silence of sensorial experience.
Ultimately, then, it is not the human body alone but rather the whole of the sensuous world that provides the deep structure of language. As we ourselves dwell and move within language, so, ultimately, do the other animals and animate things of the world; if we do not notice them there, it is only because language has forgotten its expressive depths.
Only if words are felt, bodily presences, like echoes or waterfalls, can we understand the power of spoken language to influence, alter, and transform the perceptual world.
The complex interchange that we call “language” is rooted in the non-verbal exchange always already going on between our own flesh and the flesh of the world.
Nonhuman nature seems to have withdrawn from both our speaking and our senses. What event could have precipitated this double withdrawal, constricting our ways of speaking even as it muffled our ears and set a veil before our eyes?
The fecundity and flourishing diversity of the North American continent led the earliest European explorers to speak of this terrain as a primeval and unsettled wilderness—yet this continent had been continuously inhabited by human cultures for at least ten thousand years.
European civilization’s neglect of the natural world and its needs has clearly been encouraged by a style of awareness that disparages sensorial reality, denigrating the visible and tangible order of things on behalf of some absolute source assumed to exist entirely beyond, or outside of, the bodily world.
These letters I print across the page, the scratches and scrawls you now focus upon, trailing off across the white surface, are hardly different from the footprints of prey left in the snow. We read these traces with organs honed over millennia by our tribal ancestors, moving instinctively from one track to the next, picking up the trail afresh whenever it leaves off, hunting the meaning, which would be the meeting with the Other.
With the advent of the aleph-beth, a new distance opens between human culture and the rest of Nature.
While the Semitic name had served as a reminder of the worldy origin of the letter, the Greek name served only to designate the human-made letter itself.
The written fragments of Heraclitus or of Empedocles give evidence of a radically new, literate reflection combined with a more traditional, oral preoccupation with a sensuous nature still felt to be mysteriously animate and alive, filled with immanent powers. In the words of the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales, “all things are full of gods.”
Plato, or rather the association between the literate Plato and his mostly nonliterate teacher Socrates (469?–399 B.C.E.), may be recognized as the hinge on which the sensuous, mimetic, profoundly embodied style of consciousness proper to orality gave way to the more detached, abstract mode of thinking engendered by alphabetic literacy.
Eric Havelock has suggested that the famed “Socratic dialectic”—which, in its simplest form, consisted in asking a speaker to explain what he has said—was primarily a method for disrupting the mimetic thought patterns of oral culture.
By asking the speaker to explain himself or to repeat his statement in different terms, Socrates forced his interlocutors to separate themselves, for the first time, from their own words—to separate themselves, that is, from the phrases and formulas that had become habitual through the constant repetition of traditional teaching stories.
By continually asking his interlocutors to repeat and explain what they had said in other words, by getting them thus to listen to and ponder their own speaking, Socrates stunned his listeners out of the mnemonic trance demanded by orality, and hence out of the sensuous, storied realm to which they were accustomed. Small wonder that some Athenians complained that Socrates’ conversation had the numbing effect of a stingray’s electric shock.
This new, seemingly autonomous, reflective awareness is called, by Socrates, the psyche, a term he thus twists from its earlier, Homeric significance as the invisible breath that animates the living body and that remains, as kind of wraith or ghost, after the body’s death. (The term psychê was derived from an older Greek term, psychein, which meant “to breathe” or “to blow”.) For Plato, as for Socrates, the psychê is now that aspect of oneself that is refined and strengthened by turning away from the ordinary sensory world in order to contemplate the Intelligible Ideas, the pure and eternal forms that, alone, truly exist.
Here is Plato, from whom virtually all Western philosophers draw their literary ancestry, disparaging writing as nothing more than a pastime! What are we to make of these statements?
But it was hardly possible to discern the pervasive influence of letters upon patterns of perception and contemplation in general. Similarly, today we are simply unable to discern with any clarity the manner in which our own perceptions and thoughts are being shifted by our sensory involvement with electronic technologies, since any thinking that seeks to discern such a shift is itself subject to the very effect that it strives to thematize.
Socrates’ claim that trees have nothing to teach is a vivid indicator of the extent to which the human senses in Athens had already withdrawn from direct participation with the natural landscape.
Without writing, knowledge of the diverse properties of particular animals, plants, and places can be preserved only by being woven into stories, into vital tales wherein the specific characteristics of the plant are made evident through a narrated series of events and interactions.
In this light, that which we literates misconstrue as a naïve attempt at causal explanation may be recognized as a sophisticated mnemonic method whereby precise knowledge is preserved and passed along from generation to generation.
Thus, my divergent senses meet up with each other in the surrounding world, converging and commingling in the things I perceive.
We may think of the sensing body as a kind of open circuit that completes itself only in things, and in the world.
As a Zuñi elder focuses her eyes upon a cactus and hears the cactus begin to speak, so we focus our eyes upon these printed marks and immediately hear voices. We hear spoken words, witness strange scenes or visions, even experience other lives. As nonhuman animals, plants, and even “inanimate” rivers once spoke to our tribal ancestors, so the “inert” letters on the page now speak to us! This is a form of animism that we take for granted, but it is animism nonetheless—as mysterious as a talking stone.
Only when the written characters lost all explicit reference to visible, natural phenomena did we move into a new order of participation. Only when those images came to be associated, alphabetically, with purely human-made sounds, and even the names of the letters lost all worldly, extrahuman significance, could speech or language come to be experienced as an exclusively human power.
One time I went to L.A., training for mechanic. It was no good, sure no good. I start drinking, hang around bars all the time. I start getting into trouble with my wife, fight sometimes with her. It was bad. I forget about this country here around Cibecue. I forget all the names and stories. I don’t hear them in my mind anymore. I forget how to live right, forget how to be strong.
The telling of stories, like singing and praying, would seem to be an almost ceremonial act, an ancient and necessary mode of speech that tends the earthly rootedness of human language. For narrated events, as Basso reminds us, always happen somewhere. And for an oral culture, that locus is never merely incidental to those occurrences. The events belong, as it were, to the place, and to tell the Story of those events is to let the place itself speak through the telling.
As we have also discerned, the ancient aleph-beth, as the first thoroughly phonetic writing system, prioritized the human voice. The increasingly literate Israelites found themselves caught up in a vital relationship not with the expressive natural forms around them, nor with the static images or idols common to pictographic or ideographic cultures, but with an all-powerful human voice. It was a voice that clearly preceded, and outlasted, every individual life—the voice, it would seem, of eternity itself—but which nevertheless addressed the Hebrew nation directly, speaking, first and foremost, through the written letters.
By carrying on its lettered surface the vital stories earlier carried by the terrain itself, the written text became a kind of portable homeland for the Hebrew people. And indeed it is only thus, by virtue of this portable ground, that the Jewish people have been able to preserve their singular culture, and thus themselves, while in an almost perpetual state of exile from the actual lands where their ancestral stories unfolded.
The Jewish sense of exile was never merely a state of separation from a specific locale, from a particular ground; it was (and is) also a sense of separation from the very possibility of being placed, from the very possibility of being entirely at Home. This deeper sense of displacement, this sense of always already being in exile, is inseparable, I suggest, from alphabetic literacy, this great and difficult magic of which the Hebrews were the first real caretakers.
It is thus that, in Hebrew tradition, the expulsion from the eternity of Eden (and, later, the destruction of the Temple) is mirrored, at the other end of sequential history, by the promised return from exile, the coming of the Messiah, and an end to separated time. The forward trajectory of time, that is, will at last open outward, flowing back into the spacious eternity of living place (the “promised land”), and so into a golden age of Peace between all nations.
The burning alive of tens of thousands of women (most of them herbalists and midwives from peasant backgrounds) as “witches” during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries may usefully be understood as the attempted, and nearly successful, extermination of the last orally preserved traditions of Europe—the last traditions rooted in the direct, participatory experience of plants, animals, and elements—in order to clear the way for the dominion of alphabetic reason over a natural world increasingly construed as a passive and mechanical set of objects.
It is this remarkable fit between temporal concept (the “present”) and spatial percept (the enveloping presence of the land) that accounts, I believe, for the relatively stable and solid nature of this experience, and that prompts me to wonder whether “time” and “space” are really as distinct as I was taught to believe.
The conceptual abstraction that we commonly term “the future” would seem to be born from our bodily awareness of that which is hidden beyond the horizon—of that which exceeds, and thus holds open, the living present. What we commonly term “the past” would seem to be rooted in our carnal sense of that which is hidden under the ground—of that which resists, and thus supports, the living present. As ground and horizon, these dimensions are no more temporal than they are spatial, no more mental than they are bodily and sensorial.
In Being and Time, Heidegger asserts that the present has its own ecstasy, its own proper transcendence, its own “ ‘whither’ to which one is carried away.”54 The implication is that phenomena can be hidden not just within the past or the future, but also within the very thickness of the present, itself—that there is an enigmatic, hidden dimension at the very heart of the sensible present, into which phenomena may withdraw and out of which they continually emerge.
Indeed, the ineffability of the air seems akin to the ineffability of awareness itself, and we should not be surprised that many indigenous peoples construe awareness, or “Mind,” not as a power that resides inside their heads, but rather as a quality that they themselves are inside of, along with the other animals and the plants, the mountains and the clouds.
When a Navajo person wishes to renew or reestablish, in the world, the harmonious condition of well-being and beauty expressed by the Navajo word hozho he must first strive, through Ritual, to create this harmony and peacefulness within his own being. Having established such hozho within himself, he can then actively impart this state of well-being to the enveloping cosmos, through the transforming power of song or prayer.
For the Navajo, then, the Air—particularly in its capacity to provide awareness, thought, and speech—has properties that European, alphabetic civilization has traditionally ascribed to an Interior, individual human “Mind” or “psyche.” Yet by attributing these powers to the Air, and by insisting that the “Winds within us” are thoroughly continuous with the Wind at large—with the invisible medium in which we are immersed—the Navajo elders suggest that that which we call the “Mind” is not ours, is not a human possession. Rather, Mind as Wind is a property of the encompassing world, in which humans—like all other beings—participate.
In contact with the written word a new, apparently autonomous, sensibility emerges into experience, a new self that can enter into relation with its own verbal traces, can view and ponder its own statements even as it is formulating them, and can thus reflexively interact with itself in isolation from other persons and from the surrounding, animate earth.
Within alphabetic civilization, virtually every human psyche construes itself as just such an individual “Interior,” a private “Mind” or “consciousness” unrelated to the other “Minds” that surround it, or to the environing earth. For there is no longer any common medium, no reciprocity, no respiration between the inside and the outside.
It was as though after the demise of the ancestral, pagan gods, Western civilization’s burnt offerings had become ever more constant, more extravagant, more acrid—as though we were petitioning some unknown and slumbering power, trying to stir some vast dragon, striving to invoke some unknown or long-forgotten power that, awakening, might call us back into relation with something other than ourselves and our own designs.
The human Mind is not some otherworldly essence that comes to house itself inside our physiology. Rather, it is instilled and provoked by the sensorial field itself, induced by the tensions and participations between the human body and the animate earth.
Ecologically considered, it is not primarily our verbal statements that are “true” or “false,” but rather the kind of relations that we sustain with the the rest of Nature.
A civilization that relentlessly destroys the living land it inhabits is not well acquainted with truth, regardless of how many supposed facts it has amassed regarding the calculable properties of its world.
THE APPARENTLY AUTONOMOUS, MENTAL DIMENSION ORIGINALLY opened by the alphabet—the ability to interact with our own signs in utter abstraction from our earthly surroundings—has today blossomed into a vast, cognitive realm, a horizonless expanse of virtual interactions and encounters.
Transfixed by our technologies, we short-circuit the sensorial reciprocity between our breathing bodies and the bodily terrain. Human awareness folds in upon itself, and the senses—once the crucial site of our engagement with the wild and animate earth—become mere adjuncts of an isolate and abstract Mind bent on overcoming an organic reality that now seems disturbingly aloof and arbitrary.
A genuinely ecological approach does not work to attain a mentally envisioned future, but strives to enter, ever more deeply, into the sensorial present.
While individual speech acts are surely guided by the structured lattice of the language, that lattice is nothing other than the sedimented result of all previous acts of speech, and will itself be altered by the very expressive activity it now guides. Language is not a fixed or ideal form, but an evolving medium we collectively inhabit, a vast topological matrix in which the speaking bodies are generative sites, vortices where the matrix itself is continually being spun out of the silence of sensorial experience.
magicians rarely dwell at the heart of their village; rather, their Dwellings are commonly at the spatial periphery of the community or, more often, out beyond the edges
The traditional or tribal shaman, I came to discern, acts as an intermediary between the human community and the larger ecological field, ensuring that there is an appropriate flow of nourishment, not just from the landscape to the human inhabitants, but from the human community back to the local earth.
But the shaman or sorcerer is the exemplary voyager in the intermediate realm between the human and the more-than-human worlds,
The sorcerer derives her ability to cure ailments from her more continuous practice of “healing” or balancing the community’s relation to the surrounding land.
we must renew our acquaintance with the sensuous world in which our techniques and technologies are all rooted.
Direct sensuous reality, in all its more-than-human mystery, remains the sole solid touchstone for an experiential world now inundated with electronically-generated vistas and engineered pleasures; only in regular contact with the tangible ground and sky can we learn how to orient and to navigate in the multiple dimensions that now claim us.
The pipe smoke makes the invisible breath visible, and as it rises from the pipe, it makes visible the flows and currents in the air itself, makes visible the unseen connections between those who smoke the pipe in offering and all other entities that dwell within the world: the winged peoples, the other walking and crawling peoples, and the multiple rooted beings—trees, grasses, shrubs, mosses. Further, the rising smoke carries the prayers of the Lakota people to the sky beings—to the sun and the moon, to the stars, to the thunder beings and the clouds, to all those powers embraced by woniya wakan, the holy air.
With the phonetic aleph-beth, however, the written character no longer refers us to any sensible phenomenon out in the world, or even to the name of such a phenomenon (as with the rebus), but solely to a gesture to be made by the human mouth. There is a concerted shift of attention away from any outward or worldly reference of the pictorial image, away from the sensible phenomenon that had previously called forth the spoken utterance, to the shape of the utterance itself, now invoked directly by the written character.
IT WAS ONLY, HOWEVER, WITH THE TRANSFER OF PHONETIC WRITING to Greece, and the consequent transformation of the Semitic aleph-beth into the Greek “alphabet,” that the progressive abstraction of linguistic meaning from the enveloping life-world reached a type of completion.
“language” was beginning to separate itself from the animate flux of the world,
A new power of reflexivity was thus coming into existence, borne by the relation between the scribe and his scripted text.
If tobacco smoking were harmless to the body, it would be an exquisite example. Imagine going out to a bench under a tree in the garden, with companions, packing pouches of aromatic leaves in pipes of briar, talking convivially while streams of smoke intermingle in the air, like the Lakota ritual in 📙 The Spell of the Sensuous: