Becoming Animal: Book Review

Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram.

This one’s a keeper. Came across it while browsing at Amazon, and it sounded so intriguing that I sent for the hardcover. It was published last year and isn’t out in paperback yet.

All I can say is Wow! David Abram is a genius, boggling my mind in a tingle-y way on nearly every page. The radical ideas are couched in a muscular vibrant prose that sails out into space and comes sailing back to here and now. And I’m not even halfway through the book yet.

The big idea is that we humans are animals–living organisms inextricably linked to the landscape that produced and sustains us, as well as to other organisms. It is an abstract perception that makes us believe that we are somehow separate from nature. Our language, especially written language, and our technology detaches us from the physicality of our bodies and how they function in the world. Abram questions the notions of animate and inanimate, objective and subjective–the sort of dualistic ideas that have pushed us forward as well as limited us since the time of Descartes in the seventeenth century. In my opinion, much of the tension among humans in our own time is a result of “either/or” thinking. You’re either with us or against us. The situation has to be black and white to some people. Abram posits that the world is very mysterious and ambiguous, and our brains are designed to perceive and interpret it from a two-legged upright terrestrial stance. There’s just no way we can take it all in, and therefore the abstractions. Nothing wrong with abstractions, but we need to be aware and remember that our abstractions are thoughts rather than direct experiences. Our animal senses and the muscles on our bones allow us to interact with the world in the most immediate way.

Since I am an eternal graduate student, I lap this stuff up eagerly. I can’t wait for the author to dismantle Descartes, something I have been wanting to do since the 1990s when I learned the phrase “shifting paradigms”. The irony of reading a book to acquire these ideas is not lost on me. I am a Dirt Person, magnetically drawn to soil and rocks and living things, as well the work of the body. Finding a way to articulate what the body knows and how the senses inform it is something I’ve been mulling over for a long time. A book is an abstraction, is it not? On the one hand, I have a sensory experience of holding it in my hands and seeing the words on the page as birds chirp outside and the sun moves across the sky. On the other hand, the literate part of my brain is busily firing synapses, taking in meaning, and interpreting. Reading is both a physical and mental exercise.

And that, I reckon, is the point. When we can reconcile the animal body with our thinking brains, and live as creatures of our senses, maybe there’s hope. Hope that we can step away from the trap of either/or, the hubristic behavior that causes us to commit atrocities toward ourselves and the planet. Strict intellectuals and rationalists will not care for this book. It will come across as too much Gaia theory and Deep Ecology and New Age woo-woo. But it does reflect a growing interest in changing worldviews these days, and the more open-minded will be delighted with Abram’s writing.

Now, reader, shut off this soul-sucking machine and step outside in your bare feet. Feel the grass feeling your skin, and follow the sun as if you are a leaf. It’s a great day.

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