Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Society for Cultural Anthropology
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Teachers of Anthropology in Community Colleges, Students, Those Involved in Mentoring Activities
Primary Theme: Anthropocene
Secondary Theme: Indigeneity
Anthropologists are today raising a fundamental challenge to the modern assumption that the “despiritualization” characteristic of the (ongoing) colonial epoch was the result of an effectively teleological necessity, one by which a small portion of humanity finally realized thought’s supposed end of being in representational, scientific conformity with physical nature. And yet “spirits”—a poor but perhaps necessary term here¬ for a variety of “border subjects” that lack bodies and/or relate to them in ways deemed impossible—currently seem to be vigorously reasserting themselves against that attempt at expelling them from the scene of existence, and apparently in response to the devastation of their “corporeal” hosts, counterparts, allies, and flocks among animals, plants, minerals, water, air, and “humans.”
For its part, a certain anthropology’s demonstration that certain nonphysical entities are easily perceived and engaged in collectives that do not force them to either side of the modern material-natural-mental vs. mental-social-supernatural ontological distribution has led it to broach the question of the existence of “spirits.” In what ways, some of us are being forced to ask, might extramodern claims on their presence be accurate?, what, then, might their peculiar mode of presence be?, and what sort of intellectual method might acknowledge that presence without reducing it to “reality”? In parallel, native work on indigenous politics is showing that the continued absenting of peoples and animal species in colonialism suggests the relevance of these questions to the problem of how American Indian and First Nations peoples might best persevere through and dismantle colonialism. Finally, the stakes of inquiring into spirits as spirits (versus as something else) touch, surprisingly, on race and blackness: If the racialization of enslaved Africans had as a primary condition, per Hortense Spillers’s classic argument, the destruction of forms of kinship in which, it must be added, ancestral spirits were real agencies, then the loss of bonds with those “unreal” spirits might have been as integral to racialized desubjectivation and social death as was the loss of cultural order. A post-materialist assessment of coloniality (and thus, too, of critical theory) might be in order.
The events that are forcing us to think these issues include the haunting of nuclear and settler afterlives on Native Lands; the extinctions and perils unleashed by “weaponized fossil-kin” on (un)settled Alberta plains; Amazonian shamanic activism and the demands it makes on politics as we know it; and the dawning realization among intellectuals that materialism has reached its politico-speculative expiration date. Alongside the intellectual character of our inquiries, we will together ask how our work might contribute to the forging of viable alliances with shamanic and other mediators between humans and spirits, and therefore also to a politics that finally counters both colonialism and “misterrany” with animate techniques.