Critical Spirits: New Animism as Historical Materialism

New Formations - ISSN 0950-2378
Volume 2021 Number 104 & 105

Critical Spirits: New Animism as Historical Materialism
Sam Durrant pages 50-76
DOI: 10.3898/NewF:104-105.03.2021


This essay reads the so-called ’new animism’ alongside the historical materialism of Benjamin, Horkheimer and Adorno. The aim is to draw out the political dimensions of the former and the ecological dimensions of the latter. New animism shares with historical materialism a critique of modernity and the alienation produced by the separation of the human sphere of culture from the nonhuman field of nature. Both theories are interested in animism as exemplary refusals of this separation and both seek a mimetic, non-objectifying, relation to the world. New animism operates to correct historical materialism’s Eurocentric tendency to think of such ‘naturecultures’ as premodern and thus superceded, showing what can still be learnt from the example of specific indigenous peoples and their animistic engagement with the more than human world. But historical materialism’s dialectical approach to history also helps to guard against the romanticisation of animism and dehistoricised models of animistic relations to ‘nature’. Capitalist modernity is not simply the extirpation of animism, the turning of souls into things, but also itself a modified form of animism, the turning of things into magical commodities. Once we understand the mythic nature of capitalism, the critical task becomes not to reanimate the world but to counter-animate it. Both new animism and historical materialism are utopian in their investment in a spirited, more than human world, but the latter also seeks to promote what I call a critical spiritedness, an ironised, melancholic identification with our fellow beings, both human and nonhuman, as subject to history and thus, in Adorno’s phrasing, ‘damaged life’. In the final part of my essay, I consider the way in which art can channel this critical spirit through an exploration of Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film Dead Man, and its counter-animation of the cinematic tradition of the Western. The film is at once a melancholic critique of the deanimating, ecocidal and genocidal consequences of Western expansion and an attempt to respiritualise the cinematic gaze through a creaturely identification with damaged life.

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To cite this article
Sam Durrant (2021) Critical Spirits: New Animism as Historical Materialism, New Formations, 2021(104 & 105 ), 50-76.

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