Monday, November 14, 2011


The research for this liturgy project keeps luring me off into side trails. One of the most interesting just turned up when I tried to research a concept called “animacy.” That’s when you see something you think is alive. The first example I heard of -- though there was no label for it then except the idea that people see things that aren’t there -- was a guy who saw a rabbit on his lawn. He wanted it gone, and ran at it, but halfway there could see it wasn’t reacting, so he slowed down, thinking after all it was a piece of crumpled paper. But when he finally got to it, the object turned out to be a patch of extra bright sunlight coming through the trees.

“Animacy” is one of those little brain/culture modules that is developed by experience. It’s vital to know what is and is not alive, but the quality is not so unambiguous as we might think, especially when it comes to thinking of religious concepts like God or angels. But also in daily life, some people, either because of cultural assumptions or because of their own predilections and wiring, see the things around them as alive. Emily Carr, if you look at her writing, saw the broom as “taking its place in the corner” and the chair as “tripping her up” as much as she had a great mystical conviction that the forest and sky were living entities with purposes and souls of their own, which is what shines through in her paintings.

Here’s a little experiment a professor ran to see what people interpret as “alive.”


Here are a couple more ingenious “morphing” exercises. In the Victorian times a great fuss was made about “worshipping statues” and praying to them for interventions -- the rationalists wanted to mock that. At what point do you stop seeing a human being and begin to see a doll or a statue? This one is reversible. Most of the cues seem to come from the eyes.

animacy demo

animacy demo

(If these links don't work, just google "animacy.")

Here’s the formal Wikipedia explanation for the term “animacy” which was originally addressed as a grammar concept. In fact, Blackfeet has three modulations for words depending on whether you are discussing a person, an animate object like a talking tree or rock, or a supernatural being. Some systems, like Navajo, have as many as nine different DEGREES of animacy to which their language responds with changes to their names.

Animacy is a grammatical and/or semantic category of nouns based on how sentient or alive the referent of the noun in a given taxonomic scheme is. Animacy can have various effects on the grammar of a language, such as choice of pronoun (what/who), case endings, word order, or the form a verb takes when it is associated with that noun.

In languages which demonstrate animacy, some have simple systems where nouns are either animate (e.g. people, animals) or inanimate (e.g. buildings, trees, abstract ideas), whereas others have complex hierarchical systems. In such a system, personal pronouns generally have the highest animacy (with the first person being highest among them), followed by other humans, animals, plants, natural forces such as wind, concrete objects, and abstractions, in that order. However, it is impossible to generalize completely, and different languages with animacy hierarchies could rank nouns in very different ways. For example, deities, spirits, or certain types of plant or animal could be ranked very highly because of spiritual beliefs.

We always pay more attention to persons than things -- the French and others further distinguish intimates from strangers. In the hunter/gatherer context when these modules formed in the paleohuman times, one’s survival depended on the ability to spot living creatures, either because you wanted to eat them or because they wanted to eat you. You would also need to distinguish between those that mattered (saber-toothed tigers) and those that didn’t (mice). Hence, it’s easy to see why those that mattered got painted onto cave walls to show their importance and how aware of them every person had to be.

My cousins lived on a ranch that ran sheep. On summer evenings the deer would come down from the timber and mingle with the flocks. The family enjoyed driving out to look at them. Once my cousin, who was still small, couldn’t spot a deer everyone was exclaiming over. His mother took his head between her hands and turned his face in the right direction. After that, when he had trouble locating something, he would cry out, “Quick, Mom! Point my head!” Soon he was better at spotting the deer.

Driving through Marias Pass in the Sixties, the road followed the Middle Fork of the Flathead River through its canyon. Across the river was a hillside that had burned off a few years before. Elk browsed there but Bob Scriver had to teach me how to see them. It took practice to get my brain to register the patterns of their bodies, interrupted and mimicked by brush. I was learning animacy.

City dwellers seem to have trouble realizing the animacy of anything but humans. No that’s wrong. They see their computers and cars as sentient, maybe more real to them than their families. Maybe it’s a matter of interaction. What impact does it have on our humanness when we watch so many flat-screen simulations of sentience, have the idea that there can be monsters we’ve never seen (and, in fact, know don’t exist), who have intentions towards us. What about the soldier who cut fingers off dead people because he maintained they were no longer sentient, no longer mattered?

The simulation of sentience in representational art or photography is to some people part of the allure, but to others it is only a distraction from the patterns of shape and color. What does that mean? Is this what the Islamic and Puritan peoples have been after in their prohibition of images? Neither rejects the idea of a sentient and engaged God, so why would they want to prohibit “graven images”? Too powerful? A distraction?

Most recently we have shifted to seeing the patterns of ecologies as the locus of life, though I don’t think most people see the planet as having much of a mental life. Still, it is a responding, moving, life-supporting being. It seems to have intentions.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like this post. I had not heard of animacy. This helps connect some thoughts, now that I have a term to hang some disparate animistic thoughts on.

When things look like something else, this is a simulacra.