The Ecology of Magic:
A phenomenological approach to our world

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, Atlanta, May 17, 1998)

Earth Day, April 22 , came and went completely unnoticed by me this year. Like many people, I've let the Earth's ecological concerns slip relatively out of personal consciousness. The conspicuous efforts by people to practice ecological mindfulness -- recycling, mainly -- seem almost comically useless to me. In our monstrously consumerist and militaristic society, there isn't even agreement that nuclear weapons pose a significant threat of world annihilation. The perishing of other species is considered acceptable. So, doing battle over Styrofoam cup use seems pathetic.

It certainly isn't that I haven't seen the effects of environmental disregard. In the mid-'80s, on assignment with a magazine, I visited a Texas subdivision built over what turned out to be a toxic waste dump. The bizarre effects on the landscape's vegetation, to say nothing of the apparent effects on children's health, were obvious but, of course, the original polluter and developer had managed to tie the matter up in court for years. It didn't matter much, because there was at the time no really effective technology for cleaning up the neighborhood. Eventually, I heard, the EPA interceded and scraped the neighborhood's topsoil into a gigantic, football field-sized dome that it covered in concrete.

Images such as this are unforgettable but the psyche seems to have no effective way of accommodating them. They belong to the absurd imagery of my childhood. I literally remember waking up early on Saturday mornings in summer and running into the streets when the DDT trucks came through the neighborhood. We ran in the mist that blocked the rising sun and, we later learned, killed all manner of animal life besides mosquitoes. To this day I can recall the sting of DDT in my throat.

I remember too when we hid under our school desks during mock nuclear attacks. I remember feeling utterly enraged at my parents for not building a fallout shelter during the Cuban Missile Crisis. While our neighbors at the least (ridiculously) sandbagged their basements and stocked them with canned soup for the apocalypse, my hard mother filed her nails and told me we would not be living in a hole in the ground in order to recolonize a dead planet. The mushroom cloud, the Earth's annihilation, is an image that haunts the psyche of every person of my generation.

But, as I said, these images of the Earth's death are pushed out of consciousness, just as we forget our own eventual deaths in our daily life. But there can be little doubt that the power of the images grows stronger. As seldom before in modern times, people seem almost frantic for a taste of unpolluted life. In increasing numbers, people flee the cities on weekends to claim some experience of nature -- at (often comically overcrowded) camp grounds and resort communities. Hiking and mountain cycling are more popular than team sports with many kids today.

One way to look at this -- if we dare "personify" the Earth as "Gaia" or "Mother Earth" -- is to say that, threatened by pollution and nuclear devastation, the earth is calling us back to an experience of what it is like to be in her nature.

And what is the experience of being fully "in nature" like?

Nothing less than the reclamation of an animistic, magical existence, says David Abram, author of "The Spell of the Sensuous" (Vintage Books, 1997), one of the most interesting books I have read in several years. Abram, who was also recently one of my teachers at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif., is an ecologist, a philosopher and a sleight-of-hand magician. (His skill as a magician has given him unusual access to the indigenous magicians, shamans, of Indonesia, Nepal and the Americas. Normally, in the face of the typical anthropologist, the shaman becomes quite close-mouthed.)

Abram's book, which has been widely praised for its science and its poetic style, is grounded in the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Phenomenology, which, incidentally, is the philosophical ground of the Department of Psychology at West Georgia College, developed out of Husserl's frustration in the early 1900s with science's dubious assumption that the knowledge it develops is purely objective or "value-free." Husserl recognized that the ground of all knowledge is direct experience, so he wanted to develop a method of inquiry that describes rather than explains phenomena in our first sensorial encounter with them. This world, the "life-world" of immediate experience before being subjected to analysis, was forgotten by scientists, even though their own work was inevitably influenced by it.

Merleau-Ponty sought to radicalize Husserl's phenomenology. He dared to suggest that without the body there is no experiencing self. Ever since the Cartesian separation of body and mind, the "self" had been characterized as something incorporeal (and Husserl did not completely abandon this idea). Science regarded the body and all of nature as "matter" whose meaning only derived from the mind's analysis. With Merleau-Ponty, phenomenology became a method of looking at the world entirely from within the body's lived experience of it.

If perception is a sensorial experience that precedes the mental conceptualization of it -- if it is an experience of the body and if we are left with only the option of describing (rather than explaining) it -- we can make one consistent observation: Perception is dialogic. That is to say, there is no experience of, say, seeing and smelling the flower without the flower's presence. This seems simple enough, but under Merleau-Ponty's rules, we can't really say that our perception of the flower is an internal neurological process. We can say that the perceived flower and the perceiver mutually participate in the process of perceiving that makes the flower manifest. Of course, Abram's favorite analogy, which he demonstrates by pulling coins and cards out of the air, is magic. The magician's illusions depend completely on the perceptual complicity of his audience.

The implication is clear: We are in constant dialog with the phenomena of the world. Our psyches are formed in participation with the world's phenomena. (Indeed, Carl Jung said that "originally psyche was the world.") Ultimately, this recognition led Merleau-Ponty to develop a theory of the "flesh of the world," a mysterious matrix that produces both the perceived and the perceiver as aspects of itself. (Unfortunately, Merleau-Ponty died in 1961 while still working on this theory in his last published book, The Visible and the Invisible.)

For David Abram, phenomenology is the method by which we can reconcile our experience of the world, of nature, with the soulless claims of science. In his book, he theorizes -- convincingly -- that written language and the loss of oral tradition mainly explain the way experience became mental instead of sensorial. He demonstrates, through poetic storytelling, endless examples of what it is like for indigenous people to live in a world acknowledged to be animate in every detail. He likewise demonstrates what happens when we reclaim that experience for ourselves. (And he is adamant that he does not advocate abandoning the literate tradition but that it be revisioned in a context that acknowledges that "alphabetic knowing" concretizes meanings that would otherwise be fluid in their original experience.)

In this phenomenological view of ecology, where the phenomena of the world are participating in our consciousness, there is an inevitable conclusion: Nothing in nature can be taken for granted. For Abram, the ultimate metaphor for the "respiration" of consciousness, as an interactive process -- observed throughout time and across cultures -- is the air itself. Conceptually and linguistically linking wind, breath, speech and language, the visible and the invisible, cultures throughout time have used the air as a metaphor to express this ecology of consciousness.

Abram, in short, is directing us back to ancient wisdom, not proposing a particularly radical new view. In fact, he refuses to claim the book's ideas as his "own thinking." Nevertheless, you should read it. It is truly a landmark in ecological thinking.

Copyright 1998 by Creative Loafing | Published May 17, 1997

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