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The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and…
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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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875716,230 (4.32)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 7 (next | show all)
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 |
Incredible.
( )
  Matt.Kay | 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 |
This book has become a touchstone for me since I read it: one of the most thought-provoking and life-changing books i've read. That said, it's been a while, so I don't want to try to write a detailed review at the moment, but the others currently here ring true to me. ( )
  sweetsapling | Jan 27, 2012 |
Beautiful language, refreshing insight, inspirational descriptions and lines of thinking... Right from the first sentence, the writing reverberates with the awe Abram has for the world around him, a world he explores and helps us to understand. His work comes to focus on _how the hell_ we could have forgotten this innate sense of wonder and enchantment, how we could have grown so apart from the natural world, and in so doing gives us a path and the means to reunite with it again. ( )
  moiraji | Feb 28, 2008 |
Showing 1-5 of 7 (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.
added by jburlinson | editVillage Voice
 
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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
Dedication
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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