Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description by Tim Ingold. Reviewed by Sharon Blackie. This review appeared in Issue 1 (May 2012) of EarthLines Magazine.
In the world of anthropology, Tim Ingold is unquestionably a star. Outside that world, his work is quite well known in selected related academic circles – but once you step out of the academic arena, awareness of his work begins to reduce dramatically, even among those writing in the field of ecoliterature. Which is a great pity, because Ingold’s work is among the most transformative – or let’s just say life-changing – that I’ve read for a very long time. Undoubtedly the reason for a narrower sphere of influence than they deserve is that Ingold’s books are marketed as academic titles and aren’t exactly easy reading: although they’re certainly not difficult (he expresses his complex ideas beautifully) they require a good deal of attention to be paid to them for the full meaning to be extracted. They may even require you to read them more than once – anathema in this attention-deficit-haunted world. All I can tell you is that if you consider it an effort to read books like this, make the effort nevertheless for this book. In an ongoing decades-long search for books that genuinely and meaningfully transform the way I look at the world, this one is right up there at the top of the pile. There are a great many books that purport to talk about the connection between people and the natural world, that purport to help us ‘reconnect’. Believe me when I say that they pale into insignificance beside this book. If you want to read something that not only challenges the way you think about the world, but that challenges the very foundations of your perception of it and your relationship with it, and in so doing offers you a whole new platform for being, this is that book. Ingold shows us, quite simply, that we have forgotten how to be alive in the world. And then addresses the ways in which we might rectify the problem – and how to reanimate western thought in the process.
Is all of this, though, really what anthropology is about? Well, yes; apparently. Anthropology, Ingold tells us at the end of the book, is not simply ethnography. If you’ve got that far, of course, you’ll be well aware of this; Ingold’s anthropology is certainly a very long way from my original stunted impression of what the discipline is. And for someone whose academic training is predominantly in the related discipline of psychology, that’s a pretty pitiful admission – but one that I suspect is shared by a large number of people who really ought to be better informed. To me, an anthropologist was always precisely an ethnographer: someone who (according to Ingold) ‘describe[s] the lives of people other than ourselves’. To Ingold, anthropology is so very much more: it is ‘to seek a generous, comparative but critical understanding of human being and knowing in the one world we all inhabit’. Anthropology is, in other words, the study of what it is to be human. But Ingold, as ever, puts it more poetically than that: it ‘is the study of human becomings as they unfold within the weave of the world.’ Now that’s an entirely different, and much more significant and interesting – no, essential – proposition.
Ingold is not coy about his influences, though interestingly they appear to be derived more from the fields of psychology and philosophy than from other anthropologists. The same names appear over and over again: James J. Gibson, one of the original post-behavioural, post-cognitive ‘ecological psychologists’, working in the field of visual perception (see The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, 1979) before what lately passes for ‘ecopsychology’ (a term actually coined by a historian, Theodore Roszak, in 1992) was even conceived of; and the philosophers Martin Heidegger, Alfred North Whitehead, Henri Bergson, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Gilles Deleuze.
So what are the essays in Being Alive actually about? Well, they’re about skills like sawing and kite flying; about Chinese calligraphy, line drawing, Australian aboriginal painting, native Alaskan storytelling, spiders, the art of walking, the art of being in weather … But that isn’t the half of it. These essays are really about becoming. About breaking down the great divide between human beings and the natural world. It’s impossible to cover all of the subjects and ideas that are part of Being Alive in this review, so I’ll focus briefly on the concepts that made most impact on me and that I believe will be of most interest to readers of EarthLines.
The key theme that runs throughout Ingold’s work is movement. Our humanity, whatever that might be, doesn’t come fully formed but is continually made and remade in our movements along the ways of life. Life, for Ingold, is an ongoing, unending process of wayfaring: ‘My contention is that wayfaring is the fundamental mode by which living beings inhabit the earth. Every such being has, accordingly, to be imagined as the line of its own movement or – more realistically – as a bundle of lines.’ This theme of movement was developed in his 2007 book Lines, which I have yet to read but which is working its way very rapidly to the top of my list.
In the context of developing his ideas about movement, Ingold discusses ‘dwelling’, a term and concept usually attributed to philosopher Martin Heidegger, originating from his 1951 lecture ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ (published in Poetry, Language, Thought, 1971). You can’t read a work of academic criticism on eco-literature, it seems, without running right into Heidegger and dwelling: Heidegger has become the darling of the ecocritics. But Ingold would have us believe that Heidegger’s statement of what it is to ‘dwell’ on the earth misses a key point: for Ingold, dwelling is ‘literally, to be embarked upon a movement along a way of life.’ For him it is not, as Heidegger suggests, to be in place, but to be along paths. The path, and not the place, is the primary condition of being – of becoming.
Amidst all these lines of movement-in-being (‘The wind is its blowing, the stream is the running of water. I am what I am doing. I am not an agent but a hive of activity’) Ingold sees the human being as so perfectly entangled in his environment that the two become inextricable. In this context, the concept of ‘meshwork’ is critical to Ingold, and so much more adequately represents what he is saying than the concept of ‘network’: ‘The web of life is not a network of connected points, but a meshwork of interwoven lines.’
We travel through the meshwork of life, Ingold tells us, acquiring knowledge through that process of travelling, and through that knowledge, becoming as we go. The lifelines we create while we’re doing this aren’t like lines on a map, superimposed on a world that’s already laid out for us. They’re lines that go through a world that is perpetually transforming itself through us, just as we are transforming ourselves through it. In this world there is no possibility of true disconnection, just our own blindness and forgetting. The beauty of Ingold’s conception of what it is to be alive is that he makes us see again; he makes us remember not only what the world is to us, but what we are to the world.
Ingold’s world also is a storied world. Stories help us navigate the world of movement; they help us integrate the knowledge that comes from our ever-unfolding paths. There’s no point at which stories end and life begins, he tells us, in words that will give heart to every storyteller who’s ever been accused of childish irrelevance, or of doing no more than providing ‘entertainment’. ‘To tell … is not to represent the world but to trace a path through it that others can follow … Like following trails through a landscape – each story will take you so far, till you come across another that will take you further.’ This following of the trails of stories is yet another example of wayfaring. Wayfarers are their stories, and the stories are unending. ‘Wayfaring always overshoots its destinations, since wherever you may be at any particular moment, you are already on your way somewhere else.’ Not so much, as the title of the bestselling book on mindfulness by Buddhist therapist John Kabat-Zinn would have us consider, a question of ‘Wherever You Go, There You Are’, so much as ‘Wherever you are, there you go again.’
I found Ingold’s writings on animism especially intriguing, and indeed Ingold has been an ethnographer, carefully observing cultures that still adhere to an animistic world view. ‘In this animistic ontology,’ he argues, ‘beings do not propel themselves across a ready-made world but rather issue forth through a world-in-formation, along the lines of their relationships … Animacy, then, is … the dynamic transformative potential of the entire field of relations within which beings of all kinds, more or less person-like or thing-like, continually and reciprocally bring one another into existence … Life in the animic ontology is not an emanation but a generation of being, in a world that is not preordained but incipient, forever on the edge of the actual … One is continually present as witness to that moment, always moving like the crest of a wave, at which the world is about to disclose itself for what it is.’
This is a book that can bring you to the point of weeping with the sudden onslaught of new understandings.
I’ll end this review with another exhortation to read this book, and with a final quote from Being Alive, one that expresses the full extent of Ingold’s ambition to reanimate western thought: ‘The world of becoming gives cause for astonishment – that comes from treasuring every moment, as if, in that moment, we were encountering the world for the first time, seeing its pulse, marvelling at its beauty, and wondering how such a world is possible. Reanimating the western tradition of thought, I argue, means recovering the sense of astonishment banished from official science.’
We should treasure – and indeed by astonished by – Tim Ingold’s view of what it is truly to be alive.
BEING ALIVE: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. Tim Ingold. Routledge 2011; £24.99