Rhizomatic Animism

Last night I was reading Wooden Leg (1931), a classic ethnohistory about the famous Cheyenne warrior who fought at the Little Bighorn, and came across this passage:

Another thing the white people appear not to understand: The old Indian teaching was that it is wrong to tear loose from its place on the earth anything that may be growing there. It may be cut off, but it should not be uprooted. The trees and the grass have spirits. Whatever one of such growths may be destroyed by some good Indian, his act is done in sadness and with a prayer for forgiveness because of his necessities, the same as we were taught to do in killing animals for food or skins (Bison ed. at 374).

In the past I’ve interpreted these kinds of comments primarily through a standard animist (or Tylorian) lens, and may have glossed it secondarily with some ideas derived from cultural ecology. But after reading Tim Ingold’s (2006) “Rethinking the Animate, Re-Animating Thought,” my understanding of this comment is now rooted in richer animist loam.

Ingold starts with a simple diagram that depicts the way in which we, heirs of a peculiar kind of Cartesian dualism, perceive ourselves as beings in the world:

In this depiction, the self is experienced as a bundle or capsule. The inner (and supposedly) autonomous self is set off against an external environment, which we typically and categorically call “nature.” Given this way of perceiving, experiencing, and being, we say “I am in here; nature is out there.”

There is nothing given, necessary, or a priori about this particular way of perceiving, experiencing, and being (in the world). We can, therefore, depict the self differently:

In this depiction, there is no self “in here” that interacts with nature “out there.” There are no boundary conditions which set the internal (self) off or against an external (environment). As Ingold observes:

[T]here is no inside or outside, and no boundary separating the two domains. Rather there is a trail of movement or growth. Every such trail traces a relation. But the relation is not between one thing and another — between the organism “here” and the environment “there.” It is rather a trail along which life is lived.

What is most remarkable, however, is the way in which this relational conception of being alters our taken-for-granted ideas about “in here” and “out there.” What seemed so natural no longer seems so natural.

This conception of self and being, however, is not properly depicted with a single trail. A single line implies an encapsulated or bounded self, moving from one point or moment to another without being much affected by encounters along the way. But when life is conceived as a relational unfolding, movement along the trail does not simply bring the self into contact with other bounded beings or things: it brings the self into relation with other beings and things. In this way, the self becomes enmeshed in a tangle of relations that are better depicted this way:

Life, in other words, is more like lattice-work or what Ingold calls a “meshwork.” An organism (or person) should be imagined “not as a self-contained object like a ball that can propel itself from place to place, but as an ever ramifying web of lines of growth. The philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1983) famously likened this web to a rhizome.”

The point of all this, Ingold asserts, is that animists conceive of life in this way. Several scholars agree, and I must admit that this conception has enabled me to make some sense of things in the hunter-gatherer ethnohistoric record that used to puzzle me, or which I simply ignored because it didn’t fit my habitual binary of inner-outer.

It is at this point (or line) that Ingold grows the rhizomatic metaphor in a manner that deserves extended consideration:

But what, now, has happened to the environment? It cannot be what literally surrounds the organism or person, since you cannot surround a web without drawing a line around it. And that would immediately be to effect an inversion, converting those relations along which the organism-person lives its life in the world into internal properties of which its life is but the outward expression. We can imagine, however, that lines of growth issuing from multiple sources become comprehensively entangled with one another, rather like the vines and creepers of a dense patch of tropical forest, or the tangled root systems that you cut through with your spade every time you dig the garden.

What we have been accustomed to calling ‘the environment’ might, then, be better envisaged as a domain of entanglement. It is within such a tangle of interlaced trails, continually ravelling here and unravelling there, that beings grow or ‘issue forth’ along the lines of their relationships.

This tangle is the texture of the world. In the animic ontology, beings do not simply occupy the world, they inhabit it, and in so doing — in threading their own paths through the meshwork – they contribute to its ever-evolving weave. Thus we must cease regarding the world as an inert substratum, over which living things propel themselves about like counters on a board or actors on a stage, where artefacts and the landscape take the place, respectively, of properties and scenery. By the same token, beings that inhabit the world (or that are truly indigenous in this sense) are not objects that move, undergoing displacement from point to point across the world’s surface. Indeed the inhabited world, as such, has no surface.

Brilliant. It makes me think that when Wooden Leg said “the trees and grass have spirits,” what he meant and what most of understand are probably two different things.


Ingold, Tim. (2006). Rethinking the Animate, Re-Animating Thought. Ethnos, 71 (1), 9-20 DOI: 10.1080/00141840600603111


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7 thoughts on “Rhizomatic Animism

  1. Chris Tolworthy

    Just found your site a few weeks ago and have been reading avidly, nodding my head so much that I think I must replace my usual background music (Faure, Grieg, etc.) with some thrash metal.

    I’m a former Mormon who left because the church did not seem to live up its original utopian dreams, and I’m working on a web site that tries to navigate a better approach to religion. It’s heartening to know that when I discover some “new” insight, if it has any merit, then usually millions of people have got there before me.

    The current topic, animism and death, is of particular interest. Over the years I’m coming to see the Bible’s attitude to death as essentially animist: we are part of nature, and the rest is metaphor. E.g. Moses’ God was nature, and the Old Testament folk saw immortality in terms of living through their heirs. My page on God (still very much work in progress, expect many changes) hopefully makes it clearer.

    After finishing my pages on God, Religion the Bible I plan to move to a section on life after death. It seems to me that the idea that humanity is isolated from its surroundings is utter nonsense and the cause of much unnecessary grief. I think the idea that we are our bodies (and therefore can die) is a temporary error that appeared when technology gave individuals the illusion of being able to exist apart from nature and from family groups. It is thankfully disappearing as the Internet gets us once more used to the idea that we are networks and a physical presence is merely an avatar. My point is that being separate from God is a very temporary blink of an eye in human history (maybe 6 thousand years, since the invention of writing, and even not for everybody), and the irony is it fits very neatly into the Bible’s “fall -> God embodied in a man -> return to God” narrative.

    Good grief, this sounds horribly New Age. But you must be used to getting lengthy earnest screeds from crank amateur theologians, so I suppose you won’t mind one more.

    Keep up the good work!

    PS if you like the God page, check out the unfinished Bible page:

    I’m tacking religion and life after death first because of my Mormon roots, and I use a simple words and simple pictures approach in the naive hope of reaching more people. But most of the final site will be mainly about economics and philosophy.

  2. John

    This article reminds me of what I’ve been reading lately from scholars working on cosmology in Chinese philosophy. In particular, a lot of them highlight how while the Western mode inherited from the Greco-Romans takes matter as its base of reality, the Chinese instead take energy (ch’i) as the base. It gets even more interesting if you consider the fact that both anima (the Latin word for breath which also takes on the meaning of soul) and ch’i are linked to the concept of breath. It seems that in the Western system, we assume that there is “living” stuff and “dead” stuff, and that the difference is “breath,” or anima, dead matter needs a force to “animate” it. However, in the Chinese sense, all things are against a backdrop of shifting, moving energy, and different forms of life are characterized instead by their li, or pattern (caveat: I’m privileging the Neo-Confucian perspective pretty heavily here).

    This is perhaps a good example of what you call the “China Rule,” but I think it speaks to traditional treatments of animism as well. Even the word animism is rooted in the concept of “animating” spirits, which with the traces of Cartesian dualism still evident in our outlook, forces us to either reduce the self outof existence or simply refer to it as the ‘ghost in the machine,” which we can neither prove nor analyze. The point of this is that maybe all of these logical backflips aren’t totally necessary, but maybe they’re simply tied to our attachment to “matter” and solid “stuff” as the root of reality. Atomism has been dismantled pretty thoroughly by quantum physics, but its philosophical traces are still running strong.

  3. Cris Post author

    Chris — sorry it has taken so long to get to your comment. Am I correct in assuming that your goals are to somehow preserve theology and make theological texts square with naturalism? To explain theological texts as metaphors for something else? If these texts are standing in for something else, or are metaphorical attempts to explain some deeper (and more naturalist) reality, then what would the justification be for paying any attention to these texts? Why should we give them any credence when it comes to naturalism and the metaphysics that might flow from naturalism?

  4. Stu Grimson


    The old idea was that animism was a characteristic spontaneously adopted by young children. The meshwork related to the sphere as an unconsolidated ego relates to an encapsulated, realized self. I’m assuming that this point of view is no longer fashionable; is there any good work speaking against it?


  5. Cris Post author

    I’m not sure what’s old or new because most scholars of animism or the animist worldview seem to think (and I agree) that such a worldview is the normal or default not just for children, but for everyone who isn’t subjected to the peculiarities of western or modern educations. We are all animists, until and unless we experience an educational override or overwrite. Even then, the override is never complete, and this accounts for the persistence of animist concepts, perceptions, and ideas among all but the most hardened scientific materialists. I suspect that even they have animist ideas when not posturing in public.

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