Review: The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World

The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World(The weirdest thing happened this summer, Dear Readers. I made some shorts and t-shirts for myself and Frances and Mysterious Others, and I thought — you know, I have enough summer clothes now. There’s really no need to sew another dress or skirt. Let’s do something else. You’ll probably be seeing bits and pieces of those Something Elses over the next little while, plus there are some unblogged clothes that I’m hoping to get to, but in the meantime, here is an unrelated book review on environmental philosophy.)
The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book makes absolutely no sense.

Look, I understand that the alphabet is a phenomenal technology that has transformed human thought and consciousness, but if you are able to make your argument using that technology then obviously the technology is not mutually exclusive with that argument.

The thesis of the book–so far as it has one–is that closeness with and participation with the earth as a thing with value in its own right was, for many cultures, enacted within a spiritual system that saw breath, air and spirit as all-encompassing and synonymous; and that, as the alphabet codified breath, it must also be responsible for the separation of breath and spirit, and our divisions from each other and from the world around us. But if you are capable of making that argument with the alphabet then obviously the alphabet is not to blame. He makes outright nonsensical assertions such as: “It was not enough to preach the Christian faith: one had to induce the unlettered, tribal peoples to begin to use the technology [alphabet] upon which that faith depended.” To which I can only say: oh please. The vast majority of christian converts throughout history have been illiterate, and for a good chunk of that time the bible was only available in a language none of them could read or understand!

Oh but that’s ok, because, as he says later on, “It is a style of thinking, then, that associates truth not with static fact, but with a quality of relationship …. A human community that lives in a mutually beneficial relationship with the surrounding earth is a community, we might say, that lives in truth.”

How about not. How about you say that, and I throw rotten tomatoes at you for doing so.

First off: truth is a perfectly good word already with a good, valuable, and necessary meaning of its own. You want a word that means “living in a good relationship with the earth?” Come up with a new one.

Second: Who gets to define what “mutually beneficial relationship” is or looks like? And how is that determined without reference to “static fact,” or outside, objective reality? How would anyone ever arrive at this relationship from the place we currently inhabit WITHOUT reference to truth using its current meaning?

Third: Even once that relationship has been arrived at, we are going to need to be able to reference “truth” as we currently understand it to pursue other important goals, such as human equality. For centuries now women and people of colour have had to fight slowly and with incredible push-back against inequitable and incredibly unjust systems by referencing external facts such as “in fact no black people are not stupid or violent” and “woman are not motherbots.” And let’s be clear: it is entirely possible, and has been the case for much of human history, that it is very possible for a human civilization to treat its constituent members like disposable shit while still maintaining their local environments in a fairly serviceable condition, so figuring out the earth-relationship part is no guarantee that it will lead to a just, equitable, meaningful or fair way of life for the people who make up that society.

But the whole book is like this, and his attitude toward “truth” as a concept worth preserving in its current state may be why he plays so fast and loose with actual truth.

Like this one:

“Of course, not all stories are successful. There are good stories and mediocre stories and downright bad stories. How are they to be judged? If they do not aim at a static or ‘literal’ reality, how can we discern whether one telling of events is any better or more worthy than another? The answer is this: a story must be judged according to whether it makes sense. And ‘making sense’ must here be understood in its most direct meaning: to make sense is to enliven the senses.”

Yeah. Ok. Find your nearest MRA or Nazi sympathizer and ask them what stories “enliven their senses.”

So you may be asking yourself then why I gave the book even two stars.

There are parts of it that are written beautifully, and I do feel that I learned a fair bit about the cosmology and spiritual systems of a great number of societies worldwide, which was interesting, though I’m not sure I trust his representations and I’d want to double-check his references before assuming that the information is fair or accurate. After all, maybe they were just stories that properly enlivened his senses. He presents a way of thinking in parts of the book that is fascinating–not his own, to be sure, but that of the cultures he writes about.

So that’s worth a star. And I do believe, as he does, that we need to re-embed ourselves with the rest of nature (conceptually and psychologically–we have never actually severed ourselves from it, but our belief that we have is responsible for most if not all of our environmental problems). But I believe that we need to do so with proper respect and relationship to the relevant facts, not on the backs of insubstantial just-so stories that can’t bear the weight.

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2 thoughts on “Review: The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World”

  1. Sounds like this guy could have used some good oppositional debate while forming the ideas for this book. I hope you enjoy your Something Elses! I loved seeing your owl embroidery piece – is that one of them?

    1. Yes it is! It’s going to take forever to finish and post, though.

      An oppositional debate would have been very useful. I kept thinking, though, that surely that was the editor’s job. But in this case evidently not.

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