Animism and Its Form in Capitalism, 2023

In exploring spirituality within contemporary society, the perceived gap between animism and capitalism is smaller than commonly assumed. The influence of mysterious qualities in commercial products extends beyond mere triviality. Animism, as a traditional practice centered around mysterious power, envisions a cosmos where everything that is imbued with life, communication, and the potential qualities of a subject or agent. However, this practice is inseparable from its social reality no matter in what kind of regime or time. When human society becomes centralized, the authority co-opts this spiritual practice. Thus, the imagination and belief in mysterious creatures is embodied in authoritarian apparatus, like the creatures in the divine objects belonged to Chinese emperor. This is aptly captured in a citation from Jorge Luis Borges in the preface of Michael Foucault’s "Order of Things” where he wrote:

“This book first arose out of a passage in [Jorge Luis] Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought—our thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking…” [1]

This re-appropriation of spiritual practice by its social context does not signify its diminishment; rather, it signifies the evolution and development of spiritual practice as societal conditions change, leading to contemporary capitalism. the relationship between certain forms of Animism and certain forms of consumer capitalism are inextricably tied to one another — a relation that I am currently exploring in my own practice. Karl Marx, in the first chapter of "Capital: A Critique of Political Economy,"[2] highlights the commodity-form and the value-relation of products as having no intrinsic connection to the physical nature of the commodity. Instead, they represent a social relation between individuals, taking the fantastic form of a relation between things. This echoes the same practice seen in animism, where the idea of mysterious quality between objects mesmerizes us in capitalist society. The pivotal distinction lies in the fact that the powers within these objects are no longer unique once they become reproducible; they can be easily replaced, with every identical item possessing the same mesmerizing power. This power is disseminated through billboards, display windows in streets, and massive distribution centers like Amazon warehouses.

The question arises: What happens when this mass structure when it reflects its own mesmerizing power in the mirror of production and distribution? How does fetishism feed into this hypnotic power? These are the questions that I am currently grappling with in my own practice. One model, perhaps, that addresses how one might intervene in this exchange economy is suggested by the work of Nicolas Bourriaud's concept of "relational aesthetics." He suggests that artists could position themselves critically in relation to this carnivorous system by engaging directly with it: taking "their theoretical and practical point of departure [as] the whole of human relations and their social context," The strategies usually taken by the Relational Aesthetics usually intervene by “their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space”[3] By following this strategy, the  focusing on a specific social context and mirroring it can reveal the underlying dynamics.

Fried Wilson, in Mining the Museum, takes this critique one step further: he questions the limitation of the museum and its ability to critically represent and or engage in social and economic relations. If the museum is limited, then what else could function as the museum with its supposed purpose of education and representation? The artist strategically positioned these portraits in direct opposition to a line of wooden figures depicting "Indians" from the museum's collection. In doing so, he orchestrated a deliberate confrontation between the nostalgic wooden representations of the past and the contemporary subjects featured in the portraits. The effect was to underscore a stark contrast, with the present-day individuals appearing diminutive and overshadowed in comparison to the larger-than-life wooden fantasies that preceded them.[4]  My aim is to combine Wilson and Bourriaud’s idea: perhaps any social context of an artist practice could serve as the museum?

I am asking you to consider an Amazon warehouse as a museum where a poster featuring a mysterious creature (ostensibly a dog), a machine, and a female figure cleaning the kitchen functions as an advertisement. This not only mirrors the dominant power of mass reproduction but also reveals its connection to animism and contemporary spiritual practices in capitalist fetishism.

[1]Michel. Foucault, The Order of Things, (Vintage; Reissue edition)
[2] Marx, Karl, Capital,(Penguin Classics, 1990) p. 165.
[3] Bourriaud, Nicolas, Relational Aesthetics, (Les Presse Du Reel, Franc) p.113
[4]Gonzalez, Jennifer A. Subject To Display: Reframing Race in Contemporary Installation Art. MIT Press, 2011.p.84

ⓒ 2024 Tingting Cheng