The Roots of (Radical) Animism: A Conversation with Jemma Deer

Close-up photograph of slender plant roots

Climate change and mass extinction have challenged Western assumptions about human superiority and rationality. In this new era, the undeniable agencies of nonhumans—living and nonliving, alike—can be ignored no longer. What new roles might literature, language, and imagination play now? How should we read the Anthropocene? How is the Anthropocene reading us? These are some of the questions that literary scholar Dr. Jemma Deer seeks to answer in her recent book, Radical Animism: Reading for the End of the World (Bloomsbury, 2020).

Dr. Jemma Deer is a Researcher-in-Residence at the Rachel Carson Center. In this conversation, we discuss the problem of human narcissism, the strange liveliness of language, and how “reading for the end of the world” is more hopeful than it seems.

Stream or download our conversation here.

Interview Highlights

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Shelby Brewster: Thank you for coming to discuss your recent book, Radical Animism. Can you talk about how this project came to be? How did you get interested in working on it?

Jemma Deer: Like many first books, this grew out of my Ph.D. work, which I did at the University of Sussex in England. And actually, when I began my Ph.D., the environmental aspect which is so strong in my book wasn’t really in the foreground. The initial idea was just to do a project on animism and modernist authors. During the first year of my Ph.D., I got really disillusioned with the notion of doing a literary Ph.D. when around me the environment was breaking down. So I intermitted, I took a year out, and I didn’t really intend to go back because I just thought that my energy would be better spent elsewhere. I had a conversation with my supervisor at Sussex, and he managed to change my mind. But I knew that if I was going to go back and finish the Ph.D., that it really had to be much more environmentally focused and environmentally engaged if I was going to see the thing through—if I was going to see the point in it.

SB: You’ve said that this project ended up a lot more environmentally and ecologically focused than you originally intended. Can you talk about the main intervention you’re making?

JD: I think it’s probably helpful here for me to clarify a little bit about animism and the origins of this term. The term came from a Victorian anthropologist, E. B. Tylor, who originally used it in a derogatory sense to refer to so-called “primitive” religions—belief systems that see life or agency in nonhuman or nonliving things like trees and rocks and rivers. And my book is trying to put forth a notion of “radical” animism. Although “radical” now has this connotation of revolutionary or left-wing, it literally means “at root.” So although I don’t want to distance myself from those kind of revolutionary connotations, I’m also concerned with a kind of an animism that is fundamental—that is at root—to the human way of being in the world. This way of seeing life or agency beyond the living and beyond the human is really resonant in an age of climate breakdown. Another aspect of animism that I really tried to bring out in the book is the animism of language and literature—recognizing that language and literature have a certain life, or agency, of their own.

Just because humans have consciousness doesn’t mean that they are intentional or purely rational agents.

The book is framed around what Freud named as three great blows to human narcissism: the first being the Copernican revolution, when humans realized they were not the center of the universe; the second being the Darwinian revolution, when humans realize that they’re related to other animals; the third, Freud says, without so much of a hint of irony, is his own work, the work of psychoanalysis, when humans realize that they’re not the agents of a conscious will. But when we look at the history of these blows, we don’t see human narcissism being reduced: what we see is the resilience of human narcissism. It’s not that we deny the truth of these discoveries, but rather that we have failed to take them into account. We continue to act as if we are the center of the universe, that we’re separable from other animals, and that we’re the agents of a conscious will. Climate change comes as the fourth blow to human narcissism, which animistically issues from the earth itself.

SB:  I’m wondering if we can expand on the connections between the Anthropocene as a concept and human narcissism. If we think about the Anthropocene as humans marking on the planet’s geological record, in some interpretations it becomes recentering of the human rather than the disruption or decentering of the human. In your book, you talk about the importance of naming rights—naming the Anthropocene as the age of the human. What do you make of the interpretation of the Anthropocene as itself narcissistic?

Photograph of woman with long brown hair.
Dr. Jemma Deer, author of Radical Animism (Bloomsbury, 2020).

JD: There are two main critiques of the Anthropocene term. First, it’s criticized for figuring human agency as this unified force. And then secondly, that it’s narcissistic—that it’s a way of saying, look, we’re so powerful that we’re a geological force now.

I fall on different sides with these two criticisms. So the first one is, of course, extremely important. And I think any thinking of the Anthropocene really needs to take into account this unequal distribution of responsibility. But that second one, I don’t see it as narcissistic, since what characterizes these geological traces—what characterizes the becoming-geological of the human—is entirely unintentional. We didn’t start burning fossil fuels in order to warm the planet. And we didn’t start using nuclear weapons in order to leave traces in the strata. And so the naming of the Anthropocene, somewhat counterintuitively, actually marks the limits of our agency; it acknowledges that we’re not actually in control of the effects of our actions. So it’s not really a monumentalization. Rather, it’s a strong revelation of our own materiality and the way that this materiality undercuts the idea that we are primarily rational, thinking beings.

SB: So I want to ask you a little bit more specifically about the animism of language, which is one of the overarching ideas of your book. Can speak more about what that means and how that shapes ways of being human?

JD: Language is the water that we swim in. It’s the air that we breathe. In the same way that we see science as being capable of objectivity, we see language as this tool that allows us to communicate, and quite often fail to notice that grammar, syntax, and vocabulary are inherited. It’s not an invention of any single human. It too evolved by natural selection. Everything that I’m saying now is flowing reasonably fluently out of my mouth; I’m not particularly constructing the sentences. I have somehow absorbed this grammar and this vocabulary; it allows me to express myself, and it allows me to conceive of myself as a self. And yet, it really has an agency of its own. And the reason that I privilege literature is because literature is the kind of writing that pays attention to those effects and admits of those agential effects. So, while those kind of linguistics effects are in fact at work in all language, it’s really in literature where you see them come to the fore.

Photograph of a woman with blonde hair and glasses.
Shelby Brewster, Ph.D. candidate and Cultural Studies Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh.

SB: The differences between intent, consciousness, and agency come up many times in your book. By recognizing “radical animism,” we recognize the need for a concept of agency that does not necessarily require consciousness.

JD: We often conflate consciousness with agency, with free will, and that’s because that’s the illusion that our brains paint for us. We know from neuroscience that this is not actually the case; there’s something like a seven second gap between your brain deciding to do something and that decision entering your conscious awareness. This is a more modern way to think about Freud’s notion of the unconscious—the recognition that there’s all this stuff going on underneath the linear, stable self that we think we have. So, just because humans have consciousness doesn’t mean that they are intentional agents or purely rational agents.

On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of agency that doesn’t require consciousness at all. One of the examples that I give in my book is from Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, when he’s talking about the way that we see symbiotic relationships between other organisms. Bees and apple trees, for example: the bees are getting the nectar and the apple trees are getting their pollen dispersed. We can quite easily see this relationship, and we don’t need to say, “Oh, one of them is controlling this.” It’s this kind of chancy, co-evolutionary process. And actually, the same thing happens with our interactions with the nonhuman world. Pollan uses the example of agriculture. We clear vast swathes of forests to plant grain. If we take the plants’ eye view, then it looks like we’re doing it for them rather than for ourselves. It’s just because we have linguistic consciousness that we have the illusion we’re in control of the interaction. But actually, these human-and-nonhuman relationships are just as entangled and co-implicated as relationships in which there is no consciousness at play at all.

SB: What is the most important thing you hope readers take away after finishing your book?

JD: The strangeness and liveliness of language and literature—and a sense of hopefulness about the current situation that grows out of that. Although it is a very depressing topic, I hope it’s also a hopeful book. Actually, the subtitle, which sounds very apocalyptic—“Reading for the End of the World”—has a double meaning. The word “world” comes from the Old Danish “wær-æld,” so the that “were” is the same “were” as in “werewolf—it means “man”. And the “æld” means “age”. So, “wær-æld” actually means “man-age”: the “world” is the age of man. When I say, “Reading for the End of the World,” it can be read in this very apocalyptic tone, a mode of reading appropriate to this age of catastrophic climate change, the end of the world. But it is also a reading for the end of the age of man, by which I mean not the extinction of the human, but rather the end of an age of Man with a capital M—this kind of human self-conception that has been so pathological. It’s reading in this hopeful mode for a new world to emerge.

SB: Yeah, and that’s definitely something that I feel is rare in ecocriticism. There’s so much gloom and doom—the feeling that things are a lost cause. So this is definitely a useful counter or balance. So what’s coming up next for you? What are you working on now?

I am starting on a new project currently under the title “Mycomorphism: Fungi and the Human Imagination.” I’m basically trying to think about how all fungi are mind-altering, not just the hallucinogenic kind. They have this power to transform the way that we think.

They are also really great for thinking about the Anthropocene. Mushrooms are just these visible fruiting bodies and the main body of the fungus is actually underground in these networks of mycelium. I feel that’s a really good metaphor for thinking about the Anthropocene too, because we’re being forced to recognize all these underground connections or these connections that we can’t necessarily see. We just see these effects that come out in certain places. So that’s where I’m going now. Underground.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Featured image: Photo by Adam Roberts.

Shelby Brewster is a Ph.D. candidate and Cultural Studies Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh. She recently defended her dissertation, “Planetary Praxes: Performing Humanity under Ecological Emergency,” which examines multiple ways of being human emerging at the point of environmental crisis. She serves on the editorial team at Environmental History NowWebsite. Twitter. Contact.

Jemma Deer is a Researcher-in-Residence at the Rachel Carson Center. She works at the intersection of literary studies and the environmental humanities, and is interested in how ecological crises are transforming our understanding of the world and our place within it. She co-hosts ASLE’s EcoCast, and is Narrator and Associate Producer of Shakespeare for All. She is the author of Radical Animism: Reading for the End of the World (Bloomsbury, 2020), and she is currently working on a project on fungi in literature. Website. Twitter. Contact.