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The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human… (1996)

by David Abram

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938916,578 (4.27)8
[In this book, the author] draws on sources as diverse as the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, Balinese shamanism, Apache storytelling, and his own experience as an accomplished sleight-of-hand magician to reveal the subtle dependence of human cognition on the natural environment. He explores the character of perception and excavates the sensual foundations of language, which - even at its most abstract - echoes the calls and cries of the earth.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
This is a brilliant and subtle book whichc makes us question about our relation with nature, perception and our environment. It is really a spiritual book. ( )
  phcallefr | Aug 15, 2020 |
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. ( )
  andrea_mcd | Mar 10, 2020 |
I read this because it informed Jenny Odell's wonderful talk how to do nothing.

I got a pretty distasteful primitivist, psuedosciency vibe from lots of it. But setting that aside I think there's still a lot of interesting stuff in here. Abram dives deep into the effects of language, especially phonetically written language, on how we abstract the world around us. To me the valuable thing is the act of investigating language and other tools for abstraction, as opposed to the specific analysis & evidence he gives for his points. Peripherally there's also lots of fun stuff about the reciprocity of perception and the conceptual barriers between the senses.

I can definitely see how this book can read as anti-progress, anti-abstraction, or anti-civilization. However if you take him at his word that it is not these things maybe you'll have a better time with the book. In my view he is arguing that we are living too much in our own constructed worlds, but that the way forward is not to reject abstraction but to learn to have it coexist with direct sensory perception.

If I were to read it again, or recommend someone else read it, I would say the beginning and end are quite good but the middle is eminently skimmable, filled with kind of cringey Noble Savage stuff. All the points he makes in the middle get summarized at the beginning and the end anyways. ( )
1 vote haagen_daz | Jun 6, 2019 |
( )
  MattMackane | Dec 9, 2017 |
At first glance, you might think that the is a book about philosophy. Abram does cover German philosopher Edmund Husserl and French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Both of these thinkers were "phenomenologists," focused on human perception and the study of sensory experience.

And yet this book is much more than that. If you can get past the biting critique of the written word [which many will take personally], then you can come to appreciate that Abram is suggesting nothing less than a deeply beautiful paradigm shift about how we relate to and experience the world.

The book covers the evolution and emergence of the written word:
* beginning with the first conventionalized pictographic system: Egyptian hieroglyphics, 3,000 BC, thousands of symbols directly representing the natural world,
* moving on to the first hybrid: Semitic aleph-beth, 1,500BC, 22 phonetic characters [no vowels], but with pictographic references
* and concluding with the first modern alphabet: Greek, 700BC, totally abstract characters, adapted from the aleph-beth

Before writing, it was place that held our memories and culture. Jews are archetypically nomadic, and it's no coincidence that they also happened to create the first written language describing human-made sounds as opposed to observable elements of nature. Their written word became their homeland.

The book goes on to highlight a series of breathtaking stories about the world views of indigenous peoples.

Did you know that the Western Apache of Arizona have a name for every place in their homeland, and that these places correspond with allegorical stories? In Apache, you can't tell a story without naming the physical location in which it took place.

Did you know that in Aboriginal Australia, women conceive their babies through the song of a specific place? Elders go back to the place when the mother first felt the presence of her child within, and listen to the song of that place. Once born, the baby is then responsible for the tending of that specific song line, and that specific place. When they die, they are again buried in the place in which they were conceived.

Abram then goes on to discuss theories of time and place. Or rather, he critiques those abstract concepts, and searches for a way to ground something like them in experience. His results: The future is withheld behind the horizon. The past is refused inside the ground. The present is held within the air, invisible and subconscious. In other words, time and space are inherently linked, and referring to them as separate dimensions can only confuse us.

This trend of wholeness and integrity recurs throughout Abram's narrative in an experience that he describes as synesthesia. Traditionally, this term refers to the overlapping of multiple senses. But what if the concept of five distinct senses is contrived to begin with?

The book both begins and ends with a grounding in the pain of both humanity and the earth experiences as a result of artificial separation due to our innovations with the written word:

“From an animistic perspective, the clearest source of all this distress, both physical and psychological, lies in the aforementioned violence needlessly perpetrated by our civilization on the ecology of the planet; only by alleviating the latter will we be able to heal the former. While this may sound at first like a simple statement of faith, it makes eminent and obvious sense as soon as we acknowledge our thorough dependence upon the countless other organisms with whom we have evolved.” [Page 22]

“It was as though after the demise of the ancestral, pagan gods, Western civilization’s burnt offerings had become ever more constant, more extravagant, more acrid—as though we were petitioning some unknown and slumbering power, trying to stir some vast dragon, striving to invoke some unknown or long-forgetter power that, awakening, might call us back into relation with something other than ourselves and our own designs.” [Page 258-9]

Maybe as opposed to having it’s roots in agriculture or civilization, climate change is more closely tied to the thought patterns perpetrated by those who write and read?

Abram ends on a hopeful note, citing the emergence of a movement of people focused on “re-inhabitation”—a return to a place-centric way of life. Such calls echo that of Martín Prechtel’s school of “re-indigenosity.” I myself am amongst this class of individuals bound and faithful to a place.

Not once does he touch on the irony of his medium: a book. ( )
1 vote willszal | Feb 11, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
David Abram's much talked about, long-awaited, revolutionary book ponders the violent disconnection of the body from the natural world and what this means about how we live and die in it, in our work clothes, commuting, standing tall in the saddle, dead.
Speculative, learned, and always 'lucid and precise' as the eye of the vulture that confronted him once on a cliff ledge, Abram has one of those rare minds which, like the mind of a musician or a great mathematician, fuses dreaminess with smarts.
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As the crickets' soft autumn hum
is to us
so are we to the trees
as are they
to the rocks and hills
---Gary Snyder
to the endangered and vanishing ones
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Late one evening I stepped out of my little hut in the rice paddies of eastern Bali and found myself falling through space.
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[In this book, the author] draws on sources as diverse as the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, Balinese shamanism, Apache storytelling, and his own experience as an accomplished sleight-of-hand magician to reveal the subtle dependence of human cognition on the natural environment. He explores the character of perception and excavates the sensual foundations of language, which - even at its most abstract - echoes the calls and cries of the earth.

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