Animism and The Porous Self

I’m reading the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s epic new work, A Secular Age, which looks at what we mean when we say ours is a secular age, and how it differs from all previous ages, how we came to be ‘disenchanted’ as Max Weber put it.

Taylor makes a good contrast between the self in the previous era, the era of animism and spirits, and the self in the modern, disenchanted era.

He writes how the self in the age of animism and spirits is a porous self:

“Whether for good or evil, influence does away with sharp boundaries. [The self becomes] porous to some outside power, a person-like power…This porousness is most clearly in evidence in the fear of possession. Demons can take us over. And indeed, five centuries ago, many of the more spectacular manifestations of mental illness, what we would class as psychotic behaviour, were laid at the door of possession, as in the New Testament times….”

And this power, as Taylor writes, can equally be seen as benevolent – we are filled with the Holy Spirit, or with the spirit of our elders, we become an instrument of God.

The modern self, by contrast, is what Taylor describes as a “buffered self”, in that a much stronger buffer exists between us and our outside environment, and we are much less likely to become possessed by spirits or forces:

“As a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer [between me and outside forces], such that things beyond don’t need to ‘get to me’, to use the contemporary expression…This self can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings of things for it.”

He goes on: “Perhaps the clearest sign of the transformation in our world is that today many people look back to the world of the porous self with nostalgia. As though the creation of a thick emotional boundary between us and the cosmos were now lived as a loss. The aim is to recover some measure of this lost feeling. So people go to movies about the uncanny in order to experience a frisson. Our peasant ancestors would have thought us insane. You can’t get a frisson from what is really in fact terrifying you.”

I was writing about this at the start of this year, when I tried to sell a book on the link between animism and animation (no publishers have gone for it yet unfortunately). My basic argument was that while we did indeed live in a post-animistic age of disenchantment, we are still “haunted by the ghosts of old religions” to use another phrase of Weber’s.

And we see old animist ideas of the porous self re-appearing in popular culture, particularly in animation, in sci-fi and in fantasy.

The best metaphor of the porous self, for example, is probably the rickety old hut in Evil Dead II. The self in the animistic universe is like that hut – constantly assailed by external forces, by nature spirits from the surrounding forest, by zombies from the basement, with every object in the hut conceivably housing some benevolent or malevolent spirit.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9o9Pp1EjAQ]

On the other hand, the flipside of this porous self is that you can become infused by benevolent spirits, and become superhuman. This is what we see happen in many superhero comics, and in a great deal of animation. Take He-Man, for example – he finds a magical sword, utters an incantation, and suddenly he is infused with a magical spirit and becomes “the most powerful man in the universe”.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JEsHUel04dY]

Here the porous self is experienced as something beneficial and empowering. All you need is some magical amulet or charm, and you can draw down the powers of the cosmos and become stronger, fitter, luckier than you normally are.

What I’ve noticed speaking to a schizophrenic friend of mine is that he, along with many other psychotics, has a very porous sense of his self. He believes that demons are trying to destroy him, and he lives in perpetual fear that they will succeed, so he needs the power of Christ to defend him from these regular assaults on his self.

Many other psychotics have similar fears of intrusions into their self, by demons, or by foreign powers, like the CIA. They fear their minds are being secretly controlled or manipulated. They do not have confidence in their autonomy from outside influences.

Perhaps all mental illness is in some ways a vulnerability to outside forces, real or imagined. And returning to sanity is when you once again assert your independence, your free will and autonomy, when you mark the zone of the self where external forces cannot impinge.

In this sense, you’d have to see Stoicism as a crucial moment in the development of the modern, buffered, ‘sane’ self, which asserts that a zone of free will exists in the human psyche, which if properly developed and exercised, no external force, spirit or power can manipulate or overcome.

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