Animism is the belief and/or experience of all forms of matter as being somewhat conscious and “alive,” potentially able (but not always willing) to respond to an invitation to “connect.” This may not be a complete definition of animism, but it’s good enough to include in my personal working (and witchy) hypothesis of how the cosmos works. The other part of my working hypothesis is “not everything that is conscious is visible to my eyes.” That naturally includes itty bitty things like microbes (which we do recognize as “alive”) as well as what we call spirits and deities, attached to humanly detectable matter or not.
Search the words “is matter conscious” and you’ll find many intriguing results, including the scientific term “panpsychism,” defined in this article as “the entire universe is inhabited by consciousness.” Rather than using what’s implied by the word “inhabit” I’ve come to view the entire cosmos as being informed by consciousness, feeling that consciousness is an intrinsic property of matter, though it may be organized in many different ways. It just seems like common sense. Otherwise how could it exist at all, in us or in anything else?
This idea of consciousness as an intrinsic property of matter is addressed in “Is Matter Conscious? Why the central problem in neuroscience is mirrored in physics,” Hedda Hassel Morch, April 6, 2017. Here’s a quote from the article:
“Philosophers and neuroscientists often assume that consciousness is like software, whereas the brain is like hardware. This suggestion turns this completely around. When we look at what physics tells us about the brain, we actually just find software—purely a set of relations—all the way down. And consciousness is in fact more like hardware, because of its distinctly qualitative, non-structural properties. For this reason, conscious experiences are just the kind of things that physical structure could be the structure of.
Given this solution to the hard problem of matter, the hard problem of consciousness all but dissolves. There is no longer any question of how consciousness arises from non-conscious matter, because all matter is intrinsically conscious. There is no longer a question of how consciousness depends on matter, because it is matter that depends on consciousness—as relations depend on relata, structure depends on realizer, or software on hardware.”
This is a frankly speculative blog. However, let’s agree (just for the moment) that matter is intrinsically conscious. We can also assume that the consciousness of various material substances may be organized in ways which may be “invisible” or undetectable for us in ordinary circumstances, with our ordinary senses. This is going to be true of the consciousness of most or all non-biological substances, including those organized into objects.
What are the ways that we could detect or experience a non-biological consciousness? Well, someone could invent a “consciousness detection device” (which would expand our sense perceptions). Someone might use a mathematical formula or perform scientific experiments (like those performed by quantum physicists). Or there may be intuitive, spiritual, or magical actions capable of creating such perception.
And here I’d like to point out that there are forms of synesthesia that allow the perception of consciousness and personalities in objects, numbers, days of the week, and months of the year. People with such synesthesia may have emotional responses to these personalities. (See this case study: When ‘‘3’’ is a Jerk and ‘‘E’’ is a King: Personifying Inanimate Objects in Synesthesia.) I’ve even explored the romantic, affectionate, and erotic aspect of human/object relations in Love Among the Objectum Sexuals, Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality (2010).
Plastics and the Unwise Alchemies
Just for fun, let’s assume that we have a way to perceive the consciousness experienced by artificial substances, such as plastics. Plastics are created from petrochemicals which are refined from crude oil (petroleum). To quote Wikipedia, “A fossil fuel, petroleum is formed when large quantities of dead organisms, mostly zooplankton and algae, are buried underneath sedimentary rock and subjected to both intense heat and pressure.”
So, transformed fossil remains may be found in food containers, cell phones, cars (and what fuels them), toothbrushes, clothing, medical instruments, etc.–not to mention in human and animal bodies and in our oceans and landfills. The crazy thing is, many of these plastic materials are biologically active. They contain endocrine disruptors which affect human and animal reproduction and sexual health.
Here’s some material concerning the impact of endocrine disruptors in plastics:
Not Too Pretty, The Environmental Working Group. PDF of report. 2002.
Chemicals in personal care and household products linked to earlier puberty in girls. Press release from the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, Dec. 3, 2018.
You’re not the man your father was. Neal Howe, Forbes, Oct. 2, 2017.
Temporal trends in sperm count: a systematic review and meta-regression analysis. From Levine et. al. Human Reproduction Update, July 25, 2017.
(Thanks to my friend John Kamp, MD, for alerting me to the last three study references.)
And for those fond of cheery reading, you might enjoy learning about microplastics in human feces, plastics in the ocean, and microplastics in fish (which then become microplastics in humans) which brings us back to feces again… Unholy shit!
Okay, perhaps the above explains my use of the term “unwise alchemies” to describe pretty much everything done by the petrochemical and chemistry industries since World War I. Just for irony’s sake, watch this scene from The Graduate.
However, perhaps the term “unwise necromancy” is more to the point. As Aidan Wachter points out in a 2015 blog, we’re all dealing with dead stuff all the time, including “the petrochemical plastics in your shoes…derived from way old dead things.” My impression is, instead of an inexperienced “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” spawning an army of animate brooms carrying buckets and causing floods (remember the Mickey Mouse segment in the 1940 movie, Fantasia?) we’ve got the humungous flood of plastics in every corner–and presumably every creature–of the globe caused by an industry chock full of inexperienced necromancers (uh, aka “scientists”). These feckless neophytes, oathed to the gods of capitalism and armed with a little knowledge but no sense of balance or consequence, summon the remains of ancient beings, subject them to unnatural forces and alchemies, degrade them by shoving them into “bodies” shaped like toilet brushes and Barbies, thereby causing misery for all sentient beings (and for animists, “all sentient beings” includes purty much everything).
Many years ago, when I was in my Anthroposophical phase, I had a conversation with a man who was involved in the founding of a Northern California Waldorf School and who also served as a Christian Community (Steiner spin-off church) priest. We were talking about environmental illness and he asked me to consider the state of health of the “beings” who had such a toxic impact on me. The impression he left me with was one of beings formed outside of “lawful” creation (lacking a “protocol” for their existence?), who were tortured, unwelcome and/or disoriented. All they could do was cause sickness and distress because that was their experience, how they came into being. I’ve never forgotten that conversation and it took me a long time to wrap my mind around it. It was also the first conversation I ever had where I “saw” a person with a spirit eye. Very strange indeed.
Further along in Aidan Wachter’s blog post, I find this key paragraph:
“All manifestations in the field of experienceable existence come about by fluctuations of energy. This energy for the most part changes continuously. However, ‘strong’ events & disturbances cause ‘energy swirls’ that I perceived like a storm going cyclonic (like a tornado), they keep themselves together for awhile and have notable effects. If this ‘swirl’ lasts for awhile, it in essence becomes its own continuous cause. If it persists for a longish time (say moving from moments to hours to days and into weeks or months or years) it becomes a ‘persistent presence’. All persistent presences behave ‘as if’ sentient. For whatever fucked up reason (it’s quite unfair, really!) the Bad Nasties tend to persist more than the good shit. I expect this is because being hurt really horribly produces an inward turning motion where the cyclonic action is a tightening spiral, which, like twisting fibers together to make cord, gets stronger and more durable as it gets more tightly wound. Happiness and joy tend to be expansive and so tend to dissipate fairly quickly.”
So I am reading this and thinking on the one hand of the swirling currents of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” and other oceanic plastic patches and also of the chemistries used to force the ancestral remains into all the consumer products we’re addicted to today. Do these chemistries “hurt” these ancestors “really horribly,” causing them to spiral inward, as Wachter says? And are we humans “charmed” by the machinations of marketing and consumerism to continue to inflict such hurt for our own immediate notions of convenience and to the detriment of all life on this planet?
It’s both an intriguing and a tragic train of thought…deeply, mind-numbingly tragic. Is there any hope at all of reversing this situation, even as we deal with other massive challenges such as climate change and the die-off of millions of species?
What Would Witches Do?
As a person with almost thirty years of multiple chemical sensitivity behind me (almost half my life now), I shudder at the next, logical step. I’m going way off the deep end here, because I believe that aside from doing all the right environmental activist things, such as advocating for the precautionary principle in public policy and and weaning ourselves of plastics…there’s something we can do on esoteric and spiritual levels.
Capitalist science has failed us. I am not anti-science, but I am anti-thoughtless, consumer-driven, money-hungering science divorced from common sense. And it’s not just science. Cultures and counter-cultures have failed us. Politics and politicians have failed us. Our knowledge and clever technologies fail us. Even as neo-pagans, we have failed us. That’s because we haven’t thought our situation through. What follows is not yet a part of neopagan thinking.
We the witches, magicians, sorcerers, shamans, and all mystic ritualists who work with spirits, deities, thoughtforms, wights, and ancestors, have an interesting skill set which might be useful here.
We could attempt to correct this situation. We could create the new animist or panpsychic protocols for encountering artificial substances, even those that are most toxic and problematic. If we are truly living our animism, we must welcome, bless, and ritually engage with these beings which are also conscious, though artificially and painfully so. We must offer healing, love, acceptance (wow, “unconditional positive regard” to a designer fragrance!) and ask what we can do to help ease this situation for them. It would be a kindness.
It seems to be one of the few acts of grace and generosity we haven’t tried yet, we witches. Instead of casting out these substances, we could acknowledge the hurt of these far distant ancestors of ours and ask how we can comfort them instead. I find it interesting that even as we make more of “them,” they have the capacity to prevent us from making more of “us” (via endocrine disruption of our reproductive systems). Is that their only way of managing this situation? Could we collaborate in some other way?
Let’s get to work on some rituals and magic actions, some “rules of engagement.” Anyone got any ideas about this? Welcoming all suggestions here.
6 thoughts on “Animism, Plastics, and the Unwise Alchemies”
Interesting thoughts… I’ve also had a sense of the personhood of plastics… of the dead being alchemised into something that it’s unlikely they would have wanted to be. There’s a sadness about them about them but they also possess a strange and warped kind of ?beauty? that I can’t explain. I’ve written a bit on the topic here – https://godsandradicals.org/2018/04/18/the-alchemy-of-waste/
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Thank you! Your article sounds very interesting. Will go read!
I have found that there is a mechanism for observing consciousness in sentient and nonsentient matter, and it is consciousness. Must it always be a device, oh Western scientific materialism? ‘Twas good for the pagans (nearly everyone) who were esotetically inclined, why not now?
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