Animism Beyond the Soul

Ontology, Reflexivity, and the Making of Anthropological Knowledge

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Katherine Swancutt, Mireille Mazard
  • New York, NY: 
    Berghahn Books
    , April
     160 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Since the work of revisiting and rehabilitating the old Tylorian concept of animism by Nurit Bird-David (“‘Animism’ Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology,” Current Anthropology 40 [supplement], 1999) and Graham Harvey (Animism: Respecting the Living World, Columbia University Press, 2006), as well as a growing literature on partible and distributed personhood, anthropologists and religion scholars have rediscovered the vitality and variability of the concept of animism. The six chapters in Katherine Swancutt and Mireille Mazard’s Animism Beyond the Soul,.explore the diversity of “soul” concepts across culture areas from China, Cuba, Brazil, Siberia, and Amazonia. Further, they consider what contributors Griotti and Brightman call the “double reflexivity” inherent in many conceptions of animism, understood as “a reflexivity that is both internal to the self and constituted through relationships between interlocutors” (93) and related to the “double reflexivity” that the editors find at the heart of anthropological discourse itself.

As all the essays emphasize, and as all scholars of animism should recognize, “soul” is not quite the right term to apply to cross-cultural investigations of personhood, freighted as it is with Christian connotations. Nor, of course, do all societies possess a term or notion like “animism,” another Western/scholarly imposition. A primary assumption of Christian-derived soul-talk is that the soul is unitary and immutable, but this is not what Mazard finds in southwest China, where “poly-ontological animism” (19) makes it more sensible to speak of soul “fragments” or “attributes,” “latent and malleable components of the person that, in becoming manifest, may acquire their own agency” (23). Hence, Mazard argues that it is appropriate and necessary to speak of the “algebra of souls.”

Likewise in Cuban and Brazilian spiritist traditions, Diana Espirito Santo describes a cosmos of “unpredictable shifts of categories, forms, and functions, thus defying ontological absolutes” (51) and captured in the character of the trickster. Meanwhile, among the Eveny of Siberia, the soul-aspect known as djuluchen—not locally envisioned as an “ethereal soul” but rather as “an incorporeal double of the body” (57)—not only distinguishes from but also precedes the person during his or her travels, anticipating and foreshadowing the individual’s embodied future.

Returning to southwestern China, Swancutt also redirects us to the other aforementioned theme of the volume—the local reconceptualization of religious ideas under the influence of state discourses, global imaginaries, and ethnographic encounters. In addition to ordinary Nuosu people, Swancutt meets a native ethnologist whose research, reflections, and jokes convey what she calls the “art of capture” by which locals assimilate and transform dominant Chinese understandings of animism as some sort of idyllic “eco-friendly” worldview. Turning to Amazonia, Vanessa Elisa Grotti and Marc Brightman similarly report that memory and biographical practices demonstrate the interaction between the indigenous “genre of ritual autobiography” and Western (especially missionary) conceptions of history and biography, while informing us about local beliefs about the metamorphosis of both spirits and humans.

Finally, Kathleen Richardson reasonably applies animistic analysis to humanoid machines or robots, acknowledging their “uncanny personhood.” If the very soul of animism (pardon the pun) is the attribution of will and agency to non-human actors—the acceptance if not celebration that humans are not the only kinds of persons in the world—then it makes perfect sense that personhood would extend to machines, all the more so because humans can design those devices to look, behave, and increasingly interact like persons.

In a very short space (138 pages of text) with only six essays, Animism Beyond the Soul makes an outsized contribution to our understanding of animism and to the more general issue of the construction of ethnographic knowledge. Stressing the danger of imposing one religion’s language on other cultures, as well as the inevitable multiple reflexivities of cultural encounter, the contributors open our eyes to a much wider vista of soul and person concepts and point to a rich literature that challenges our narrow assumptions about exotic and familiar religions and ontologies .

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jack David Eller retired as Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Community College of Denver.

Date of Review: 
September 15, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Katherine Swancutt is a Senior Lecturer in the Anthropology of Religion in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, King’s College London. She is the author of Fortune and the Cursed: The Sliding Scale of Time in Mongolian Divination (Berghahn Books, 2012). She has conducted fieldwork on shamanic and animistic religions across Inner Asia for two decades, with a particular focus on Southwest China and Mongolia. Her newest work is on the anthropology of dreams.

Mireille Mazard is an Independent Researcher who recently completed a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Religious and Ethnic Diversity. Her area of interest are ethnopolitics and identity among the Nusu of Southwest China. She is currently writing a monograph about Nusu religious and political transformations, which explores their engagement with Christian and Communist ideologies in creating new ontological frameworks for experiencing the world.



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