Practical Magic: Shapeshifting as Survival Tactic

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

Practical Magic: Shapeshifting as Survival Tactic
Brendon Nicholls pages 128-158
DOI: 10.3898/NewF:104-105.06.2021


This article argues for a decolonising, democratic engagement with environmental knowledges formed outside the academy in the Global South. Drawing upon Bruno Latour’s claim that our contemporary environmental precarity was first trialled upon colonised peoples, I argue that historically remote – and even conceptually obscure – African popular knowledges should be treated as forms of theory in their own right. Sigmund Freud’s teleological account of animism – inspired by Edward Burnett Tylor – saw animism as an evolutionary stage in the development of universal reason. Refusing Freud’s and Tylor’s perspectives, I argue instead that indigenous animism presages the imminent crisis in global food security. In this sense, animism is an early stage in the teleology of environmental precarity. Retranslating an indigenous song, ‘The Broken String’, from the nineteenth century Southern African Bleek-Lloyd archive, I show that the /Xam language engineered animist techniques and linguistic protocols for securing food and water. Specifically, /Xam was a template for transmutation – a language that instructed polyvalent conversions between species and lifespans. These versatile changes were geared towards the community’s survival of catastrophic environmental change. Faced with their own colonial disposability, the /Xam opted to metamorphose and live on. Accordingly, the indigene’s ‘magical’ metamorphoses were straightforward strategic gambles with life and death amid scant survival options. As forerunners of our own global moment, the /Xam prompt us to identify ‘animistically’ with our object-world. I argue that /Xam’s shapeshifting poetics might lead us to derive replenishing registers of address for our world. Furthermore, institutionalising new protocols of embodiment, as the /Xam once did, might help us to order the urgent task of replenishing our planet, by allowing environmental political interest and global species’ behaviours to iterate themselves through us.

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To cite this article
Brendon Nicholls (2021) Practical Magic: Shapeshifting as Survival Tactic, New Formations, 2021(104 & 105 ), 128-158.

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