- Movements of the Soul:Traversing Animism, Fetishism, and the Uncanny
It is a thin insubstantial human image, its nature a sort of vapour, film or shadow; the cause of life and thought in the individual it animates; independently possessing the personal consciousness and volition of its corporeal owner, past or present; capable of leaving the body far behind to flash swiftly from place to place; mostly impalpable and yet also manifesting physical power and especially appearing to men walking or asleep as a phantasm separate from the body of which it bears the likeness; continuing to exist and appear to men after the death of that body; able to enter in possess and act in the bodies of other men, of animals and even of things.—Edward Burnett Tylor, Primitive Culture [End Page 185]
Soul, the traveling substance described above by Edward Tylor, is then movement disincarnate. Three-dimensional bodies are mere containers of this mobile entity that is either invisible or flashing, intermittently, and at the very threshold of the visible. Notice how the narrative swiftly moves parallel to that soul from place to place, from life to death, and from sleep to consciousness in a quasi-cinematographic way. Kinesis is the fixed core of animation. The value of the anima, or soul, lies in its endless promiscuity, its inability to be permanently attached to any person, thing, or concept.
Such aberrant mobility may also apply to the idea of animism, a concept that intruded Western territory following ethnographic descriptions in the second half of the nineteenth century to describe the religious attitudes of so-called primitive people who ascribed souls to what Westerners considered as inanimate things. Perhaps in an attempt to make this idea less strange, anthropologists would compare it with earlier Western philosophical discourses on the soul, such as Aristotle’s De Anima, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s Monadology,1 the animistic theories of the seventeenth-century medical philosopher G. E. Stahl,2 or the panpsychist theories of mid-nineteenth-century multiscientists such as Gustav Theodor Fechner, whose works regained popularity during the fin de siècle.3 Although animation, animism, animatism, and animosity are independent concepts, they share the same etymological root in the Latin anima, or soul, based on the Greek ἄνεμος (anemos), meaning wind, breeze, or simply, air. But this ethereal origin also discloses the enigmatic plasticity of all of these ideas and their ability to illusively fuse with one another. It was this strange invisible “air” behind such abstract notions that would fundamentally bewilder modern scientists. Air suffused everything with an enigmatic buoyancy; it made words and things move when they were not supposed to be swaying. It is as if movement prevailed not only as physical manifestation but also as an epistemological trope.
The first systematic attempt to organize non-Western ideas about the soul into a religious and philosophical doctrine is presented in Tylor’s voluminous anthropological study Primitive Culture (1871), a large portion of which is entirely devoted to the principles of animism.4 “Savages,” according to Tylor, perceive souls everywhere: “rivers, stones, trees, weapons and so forth, are treated as living intelligent beings, talked to, propitiated, punished for the harm they do.”5 The very idea of the anima is thus associated with a type of menacing behavior on the part of objects (“the harm they do”), which is reciprocated by an ambivalent performance (“punished,” “propitiated,” “talked to”) by the afflicted subject. As Tylor observes, [End Page 186] this habit of animated exchange had been already invoked in the studies on fetishism by De Brosses, as well as David Hume’s Natural History of Religion, and Auguste Comte’s Philosophie Positive.6 However, Tylor insists on a distinction between animism and fetishism. Unlike fetishism, animism does not refer to a singular object; instead, the anima is a property common to all natural bodies: human, animal, vegetal, and mineral. Value is produced not by the fixation of power on a single object, but instead by its constant redistribution among a collectivity of persons and things. The soul of animism is not the domineering entity that takes hold of both subjects and objects in fetishism, but rather is something...