The readings were Ingold, “Totemism, animism and the depiction of animals” in The Perception of the Environment and Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (Monsters, M71-106). For this class on art, I had hoped to be able to take students to an exhibition featuring work by Cathie Jamieson and Luke Swinson. Covid had other ideas.
These readings were originally for Cultural Ecology 2020. I revisited the Ingold material for a 2022 course on the history of anthropological thought:
Transcript, part 1
Today we are looking at chapter seven of Ingold, “Totemism, Animism, and the Depiction of Animals,” which is a unique chapter, in part because for most of the book Ingold is contrasting Western thought with non-Western thought or non-Western ideas. In this chapter he obviously does that, as a bigger point, but there’s a long and very detailed contrast between Totemism and Animism, or between the circumpolar North and Australia in terms of hunting and gathering, their depictions of animals, and their ontologies: their ways of understanding and being in the world.
Many of the details, especially as they concern art, are fascinating, but rather escape me. That’s a warning because you wanted to talk about different things, which are really cool, but I don’t know if I can explain them because they go over my head. I’m not an art person. . . . It’s intricate and interesting for its own sake. I struggle to wrap my mind around the bigger issues. . . . I’m not an ethnographer or reader of the art from either of these areas. I’m thinking more about the framing devices that is used.
What can we do to make sense of this? We see some of the same themes from the circumpolar North that we saw in other places, but it’s contrasting these two ontologies and even areas within each. Ingold mentions times where people in western and eastern and central Australia tackle the same problem but solve it differently. Like I said, it’s very intricate.
I want to begin with the idea of language, which will come up later, but I wanted to draw it out a little bit. We’re going to be talking mostly about art, but I think the parallel with language may help us, especially for those of us who are not art people. In the Western view of language, what is a Western language? What do they consider to be a real language?
Which is the best language?
It’s a weird question! Let’s start with Latin. For a while, to be an educated person was being educated in the classical languages: Latin, Greek. The whole idea of having a classical education, or you couldn’t even be an educated person without knowing some Latin or Greek. It is true that in today’s world English is at a pinnacle, but. I don’t know if that’s because it’s such a great language, or just because it’s become well it’s become a “lingua franca.”
Lingua franca, which means what?
The original lingua franca we get from French! French was what you needed to know to be an educated person. I don’t know if it would be the best language, but they certainly thought it was, and they probably still do. As a lingua franca, French is still spoken, on all the continents, or most of the continents. French would be up there, and German was once seen as the language of science and philosophy. They have all sorts of words for things and feelings and thoughts that we don’t even have. I don’t know if we have those thoughts, or we just don’t have the words for them. Of course, English now is up there.
The idea in Western thought is that these languages form a standard for everybody, and that the grammatical forms of these languages would be those that you would then measure other languages against or transcribe into. From the last class, the idea that all things are divided into animate and inanimate is a Western grammatical construction, which we used to categorize different languages in the world. As we saw with the Darwin quote: “the language of these people, according to our notions, scarcely deserves to be called articulate” (65). It was thought that they didn’t even have a language, or they had simple languages, or some people would refer to Caribbean Creoles as “baby talk.” The idea was that there were certain real languages, and everybody else was either striving to be, or didn’t measure up.
Now the anthropological response, which probably most people at least accept today: What would we say to this?
EVERYONE HAS LANGUAGE! Yell it, all-caps. Everybody has language. As Ingold says: “It is commonly believed that art, like language, is a species universal whose evolutionary emergence marked the advent of humanity itself” (130). Art and language are species universals, marking the advent of humanity. That’s how we become human, when we turn over to art.
There’s an interesting parallel in terms of Western art, but I want to start with the linkage between studying Art History and languages. (Note: See the student comments here for when I tried to reflect on whether “everyone has language” has been a successful strategy.)
How many languages do you need to know to study Art History?
A lot! You usually need Italian first since many art history books were written in Italian. It’s daunting, I would think. Are you daunted?
You’re not daunted yet. One of my housemates in college was an Art History major and he really got into it, and he wanted to apply to graduate school. They wanted you to have at least a reading knowledge of Italian, German, French–a reading knowledge of four or five languages. That stopped him. He went into investment banking instead, which is where a lot of the Art History people went. Why go into graduate school when you can go into banking? Then, just buy the art. Again, it’s interesting that there’s a linkage, that you do need to know all the Western languages, basically, to study art, and to study Art History. It parallels the typical Western idea of where humanity begins.
I know we do a lot better these days. We understand that there are a number of different artistic traditions. But in the old days, I think we saw art as beginning with Western-style painting, pull out a few Michelangelos, and that would be the baseline. That’s where the Greeks come in: they did some good stuff.
That was the standard for what art would be. The anthropological response, which has not just been from anthropology and has been with us for a while now as a popular notion, with people like Picasso going into different art traditions to draw from them. As Ingold says, they are now sometimes quite expensive, sometimes you get high prices for the art of hunters and gatherers or non-Western art. The idea is that, like language, everyone has art. Art and language are species universals. We believe that everyone around the world, although we may not be equally skilled, or I might not be very artistic, but we have a capacity as human beings for art, which is expressed in various ways.
At the beginning of this chapter, Ingold makes a bold declaration that the idea of art as symbolic representation or as a species universal “is almost entirely false” (111).
I look at my notes, and I see an exclamation point. Because if you’re going to say that, that’s a tough one to do. You’re going to try and tell me that the idea–everybody wants to believe that art is a species universal, that we all have a capacity for art–and Ingold is going to try and tell us that it’s almost entirely false. Bold.
Before we get into what he means I think we need to know what he’s trying to say by that. I think what he’s saying, or perhaps just to repeat what he’s saying. He’s saying that people do have skills that they develop. We sometimes call those “art.”
Do non-human animals also develop skills? Yes, and if we were to look at this in a certain way, we might also call those “art.” If we’re not being too prejudiced toward the human.
The idea is that in other societies, or for the people who were making these artworks, the idea is not to pull yourself out from reality and represent it, or think about it in a different way, but to probe more deeply into it (112). To reveal deeper levels of what it is you’re trying to depict (130). What he says is that the idea that there is simply a universal capacity for art, rather than these specific skills emanating from the activities of things like painting and carving, which are skills that are developed in a context through practice and training in the environment, that they are not simply different dialects of some other thing that would be called “art.”
We might think about this again in terms of languages. Ingold will eventually argue that yes, we are all as human beings uniquely skilled in our ability to verbally–and with our gestures in some cases–use symbols and weave materials together verbally. But the idea that there is some “capacity for language” or “capacity for art,” and that all these other things are like dialects is what he’s trying to argue against. He’s saying that by claiming everyone has art, everyone has culture, or everyone has language is in fact simply glorifying a certain Western view of these capacities, which are progressively brought out in historical development. I think that’s the big argument.
Let me show you a different way, perhaps, of illustrating this. A few years ago, a person who did Hopi pottery, and the paintings or etchings on that pottery, came to Hartwick to talk. As you can see, this is quite beautiful and detailed work, and it was an interesting talk from the artist about how she did her work. There was an archaeologist in the audience . . . who then raised their hand to ask a question, what I would consider to be the classic anthropological question. What do you think they asked? . . . What does the anthropologist want to know?
The question was: where do you get your designs from? Do you have a design when you start? The artist said no, that she just starts, and the design emerges from the process itself. I was like, “take that archaeology,” because in some ways that’s what some of these sculptors and painters are saying about their work as well: that the design is not something that you have already. It’s not that you don’t have an idea. Of course she has an idea. Of course she is imagining as she starts to work with the material. I think she said she starts by making a line, and from that line other attributes grow. Now the anthropologist wants to know: is this culture? Is this some cultural tradition? What does it mean? Has it been copied from somewhere else? Is it handed down? Where did you get that from? To what extent does this live in the mind rather than in the sensuous experience of working with these materials?
Art Transcript, part 2
I like that film clip for a lot of reasons, because it shows us how in architecture, in a certain form of Western architecture as well, this idea that you ask brick: what should you be brick? Brick talks back to you and says what it will be, and you must honor the materials.
I also like looking at the people who are so into being in class. Maybe because you could smoke in class. At least as my dad describes it, he’d come into these classes, and everybody was smoking. You’d be sitting around; the professor was there with full ashtrays all over the place. I like it also because Louis Khan was also the designer, I later found out, of the library where I went to high school in New Hampshire. There are people who come to this campus and only take a picture of the library. They just come there, take a picture, then walk off because they’ve seen it all.
Have you ever heard the old story about when they designed this library, they didn’t calculate the weight of the books? It’s now slowly sinking into the ground.
People say that about many libraries. It’s like a joke, a genre, that some architect has forgotten the weight of the books. I’ve heard that story about at least three different libraries in my time. These days it doesn’t matter, nobody has any books anymore, so you don’t have to calculate the weight.
In any case, these days and other times, all over the place, people do ask the natural materials. They ask the materials themselves what needs to emerge. Alright so far.
Let’s talk about the contrast between these paradigms. As Ingold says, the reason that we have these terms, Totemism and Animism, is in part because of some strange history of anthropological terminology. The idea had something to do with what Totem Poles were called, but then got transmitted onto Australia, “for various reasons, internal to the history of social anthropology, the _locus classicus_ for such systems subsequently shifted from North America to Australia” (112). We’re not exactly sure how that happened, but Totemism is basically going to be what we talk about in the Australian context, versus Animism for the circumpolar North.
In Totemism, the land, and what the ancestors were able to congeal into the land during this time of the Dreaming (113) is the creative source of everything that’s amazing in the world. Ingold sums it up in one perhaps confusing sentence: “The totemic world is essential, the animic world dialogical” (114). In Totemism, people are sharing in the substance of the animals, which also share in the substance of the land. It is in taking care of the land and moving about on the land that you do your stuff. Whereas in Animism the central idea is that of a circulating vital force.
“At the most fundamental level, the contrast is about the relative priority of form and process. With a totemic ontology, the forms life takes are already given, congealed in perpetuity in the features, textures and contours of the land. And it is the land that harbours the vital forces which animate the plants, animals and people it engenders. With an animic ontology, to the contrary, life is itself generative of form. Vital force, far from being petrified in the solid medium, is free-flowing like the wind, and it is on its uninterrupted circulation that the continuity of the living world depends.” (112)
Ingold says “the totemic world is essential, the animic world dialogical” (114), circulating in a dialogue between the humans and non-human animals who make it up.
There’s a central or distinguishing feature both of the thought, or the ontology–thoughts about being–which comes out in the depictions of animals. Basically pages 115-117, where you have these paintings, as Totemism tends to have more paintings, and some very interesting features of the kangaroo with a human-like spirit. Ingold says this human-anthropomorphized spirit is moving and doing all this activity, but the kangaroo is still. In some cases you can see the organs of the kangaroo, in other cases you can see that it’s already cut up, or it looks like a map on the land. It’s basically inert, part of the land, and is expressed mostly in painting. Interestingly too, in Australia there is a tradition of painting the body, especially in preparation for dances and ceremonies.
Ingold compares that to the use of masks in the circumpolar North. In Animism, things are often more along the lines of carving. These carved emblems and icons, the animals, are much more active. Interestingly, as we discussed in the last chapter, they would dress in the skins of animals. Ingold says, yes you need to keep warm, but there’s more to it than that. You take on the properties or the capacities of the animals, whereas in Australia there is hardly ever a dressing in the skins of animals. In Animism, there’s not so much painting of bodies. But the painting of masks, which are parallel in some ways to the taking upon the characteristics of the animal when you peer through the mask, it becomes another face. You would take up the body, since the clothing *is* the body. The clothing furnishes you with those capacities. There’s quite an interesting contrast here.
I was trying to find some different images from Australia and the circumpolar North. I found one that was for sale or sold in an art gallery by the same painter, Namerredje Guymala. The spirits are being active, but there’s that cross-hatching, a very passive or inert, perhaps already dead kangaroo, which seems to represent a landscape or a map of the land more than anything.
Whereas we have here, and I couldn’t find another drawing, these seem to be from a personal collection by Davidialuk Alasuaq, who is a famous storyteller and artist in the Inuit world. This one is, “On killing a hoodless caribou” (122). This hunter is thinking of firing an arrow but is met or is contemplating whether or not he should do that, because this is not a good moment. The caribou has not given itself to the hunter. It has in fact revealed itself to be something, and this is not a friendly encounter. In fact, even though the hunter has killed the caribou, “to kill without the animals active connivance would be an act of violence, carrying the threat of equally violent retribution in the future. How, then, can a hunter know for sure whether an animal means to give itself up or not?” (122). This is a dilemma. In another picture, “the arrow has already penetrated the body of the caribou, whose forelegs are giving way in a posture that vividly portrays its imminent death. But look at the faces of the hunter and his prey! The man stares at us with an expression of wide-eyed terror. The gentle caribou has turned into a frightening predator, and we are left wondering who, in fact, is hunting whom” (122).
So, a very different representation of what is going on in the hunting process. In the Australian depictions, the animal is often depicted as already dead, as cut up, as being part of the land itself, whereas in the circumpolar North, as we’ve seen in other examples, this is a constant circulation of life force, which can in some cases go back upon the hunter. It’s quite striking, according to the ethnographers in Australia, for the people in Australia they called hunting a “mundane activity” (Descola in Ingold, 113). “The actual pursuit of animals lacks cosmological significance” (113). Just need to get food to survive because it is the land that is providing. Hunting is a way of moving about on the land.
Interestingly, which makes sense in contrast to all the ornamentation of weapons and the art forms that we see in the circumpolar North, in Australia “the ornamentation of equipment is conspicuously absent” (127). It’s as if they want to say it’s not a big deal, it’s more like simply provisioning. The important part is living with and on the land, not the hunting process.
Whereas in Animism, it is the hunt that has cosmological significance and is a form of regeneration. It’s not the land that’s providing as much as it is the animals that are providing. As we’ve just been talking about, there’s a dialogue or a conversation. The animal is supposed to consent, or give itself up to be killed, and thus regenerate the life spirit. The life process goes on.
This is an interesting contrast between the ontology of the Australian systems and the ontology of the circumpolar North, which comes out in everyday activities, and in the depiction of animals.
. . .
There are also things about metaphor and metonym, but that’s tough going. I think it’s enough to get the major contrast between them. There are variations within, or different ways of solving the issues within each society. Interesting material!
I also wanted to revisit something that we talked about in the last class, which was the idea of ontology, as a way of being. In the last class I said, well maybe we need to take seriously the ontology of the Ojibwa as potentially solving an issue or a problem that we have with human potential. In this chapter, of course, Ingold is himself pluralizing ontologies. He’s comparing two very different ontologies from two different parts of the world, which made me wonder again about “the ontological turn” and Wikipedia. I pointed to where it says it’s not a “difference in world views, but differences in worlds and all of these worlds are of equal validity.”
In the last class I said that this was one place where I thought I agreed more with Ingold, that we live in, as Ingold has put it, we share one world of manifest difference. To say that people live in completely different worlds of equal validity is pretty close to a sealed-off cultural relativism approach. (Note: see this class on Ingold’s Anthropology for related reflections.)
Certainly in this chapter, it does seem that if we’re going to grant that they are very different ontologies, and both very different ontologies from our own, to what extent then are they describing the really real of the world?
This point is perplexing for me, but I think that I’m going to try to preliminarily solve it by saying that I think that sometimes we in the West think that we can cut away the philosophy part or the ideas about reality from the actual engagement in reality. We can take science and apply it anywhere. I think that when we talk about the ontology of other peoples and if it’s not simply a cultural construction imposed upon a reality, which we can only truly know by Western science, we would also say that those ideas–be it Ojibwa or in the circumpolar North or in different parts of Australia–you can’t just cut those ideas away and say I’m going to become an Ojibwa ontologist. In the sense that they can’t be separated from living in a place and from a tradition of people who are actively thinking and talking through them, and the specific plants and animals that make that place up.
I think that maybe it’s difficult to dress up as a kangaroo, but dressing up as a bear is in a different climate and a different environment. It might be nicer to have bare skin–living in a kangaroo skin in Australia is probably not the best idea. There are different features of the landscape, different people, plants, and animals. In some ways our ontology grows out of our engagement in the real world. I think that one of the interesting things about an ontology of say Western science, and even some ideas in other societies, is that the ideas can migrate or travel or be applied in different places: as do people, plants, and animals. Sometimes they come together, when the Europeans show up with their own plants, animals, and ideas, and start imposing them on places like Australia, they came as a package. But sometimes they travel in different ways and independently of each other and intermingle and do different things. I think that we do need to insist that we live in one world. We only have one. We all share one world, which is potentially constantly proliferating difference in the process of life. But is there one ontology or one way of being in the world? No. We can draw upon these other poetics for ways to do science.
So, back to the big point. I don’t know if this makes a little bit more sense now. Ingold has said that the idea that art is a capacity of humanity needs to be rethought. He’s saying that what they share, even though they’re very different–the paintings, the carvings, the different ways of being in the world–what they do both share is that their way of depicting is not that of pulling yourself out of the world, but to try and reveal it. It’s not representational. At the end, Ingold says that if we’re trying to understand what people of the past were doing with those cave paintings or the history of art . . . that “we must cease thinking of painting and carving as modalities of the production of art” (131). There’s this idea that there’s a capacity for art, and some people paint, some people carve, some people dance, but it’s all part of a human capacity for art. But we should “view art instead as one rather particular, and historically very specific objectification of the activities of painting and carving” (131).
The activities are skills, our skills that we develop. I’ve been thinking about that question a lot since you asked. “We are right to admire the skills of Australian Aboriginal painters, and of Inuit and Yup’ik carvers. Like all skills, they are acquired through practice and training within an environment” (131). And some of them are now being sold as art, but Ingold would say that’s a very recent thing that they’re able to sell them as art or get money for them.
“They are not, however, culturally specific dialects of a naturally evolved, and developmentally preconstituted ‘capacity for art’. The existence of such a capacity is a figment of the Western imagination” (131).