Bob Trubshaw notes how culture requires imagined scenarios that reflect both the present and the past, while constructing alternative narratives
On the one hand there’s the real world. And on the other there’s how we – or others – imagine the world to be. However, only in the Western world has the imagination been deemed to be ‘outside’ the domain of reality. Such a dichotomy would be alien to most traditional societies, including European ones.
Western ethnographers used to be rather too fond of describing traditional worldviews as ‘animistic’. This term was rarely defined, but imputed that ‘primitive people’ thought that inanimate objects – such as stones or rivers – were alive and had some sort of sentience. Those who think there is intelligent life on inhospitable planets such as Mars and Venus are also animists, although they are unlikely to think of themselves in such terms.
More informed studies of ‘animistic’ cultures reveals that their whole way of being is alive in a very different way to Christian worldviews and their secular successors. Instead, people, animals and plants are aspects of a world in continuous creation. In this worldview the world is not a ‘ready-made’, but something continually being woven from the relationships between the various animate and ostensibly inanimate aspects. There is a continuous flow of power and life through the cosmos, with changes arising in response to a wide variety of conflicts.
Western scientific worldviews remove this inherent creative impulse and state of ‘emergency’ and thereby remove life itself. In its place come abstract concepts such as ‘agency’. Despite rather too many academic assertions to the contrary, traditional ways of living do not require a magical and invisible ingredient called ‘agency’. There is no agency holding the parts together – the whole process emerges from the interactions of living creatures, human and otherwise, with their environment.
This means that ‘cultures’ – or however you prefer to refer to the processes, events and relationships which make up ‘societies’ – are not fixed entities. Instead, they are performed and negotiated. And continually evolving. Think of Heraclitus, who lived around 500 BCE, and his observation that ‘all is flow’. Daoist ideas of the ‘ever-changing changeless’ can be traced back to the same time.
One aspect is the process of imagining landscapes and environments. Westerners tend to think of their environment as specific places. Traditional sensibilities would instead think in terms of lines of movement, the passage around lived spaces, and the changes experienced along the way. For example, as soon as an Inuit person moves, he or she becomes a line. This means their understanding of terrain is a mesh of interwoven lines. The way – or, better still, the wayfaring – is ‘the landscape’. The extent to which this is alien to Western thinking is directly correlated with the extent to which Western sensibilities have lost contact with traditional realities.
Even something as specific as a house is better thought of as a process. There are numerous social interactions necessary to obtain the materials and then erect or refurbish traditionally‑built houses. Also part of the cultural process is their abandonment as access to modern building materials makes the former methods of construction obsolete. ‘Natives’ have conflicting opinions of whether examples of the traditional buildings should be preserved as part of heritage projects. And when they are preserved, there may be considerable conflict with heritage managers over how the houses and the lifestyle associated with them should be represented. And all this applies not only to some ‘exotic jungle dwellings’, but also in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland – where exactly these debates arise around the conservation of mud‑walled and thatched ‘blackhouses’.
Blackhouse at Na Gearrannan on the Isle of Lewis
Part of the conflict is over which ‘narratives of the past’ are most appropriate – in other words, these buildings tell more than one story, depending on the ‘storyteller’ and the preconceptions of the different ‘audiences’. Contrary to the convictions of science, knowing is always a product of storytelling. Which means that knowledge is a continually emergent product of the process of living.
The more traditional the society – say, the Highlands of Papua New Guinea rather than of Scotland – then the more these narratives invoke imaginary as well as tangible realities. The imaginary is the Western way of deeming that something does not exist. We define reality and normality not by a process of inclusion, but by one of exclusion – the unreal, the abnormal, with an ever-changing boundary deemed ‘paranormal’. But the excluded other is never far from our conscious thinking, and often part of our fantasies, dreams and nightmares.
Every parent instils in their offspring the certain knowledge that there’s no such thing as a dragon. Yet we can all imagine a dragon. Indeed, they are so much part of our culture that we know how they would behave if one did appear. Pretty much the same can be said about aliens – they probably don’t exist, but we know what they look like. And a close encounter would involve either a request along the lines of ‘Take me to your leader’ or the involuntary insertion of an anal probe…
Medieval masons and woodcarvers depicted monsters inside and outside churches because they were God’s creation. Since the Reformation we have forgotten that the sacred also included the ‘scary’ – the awful as well as the awesome. Dragons and their ilk ‘gave shape’ to powerful emotions such as fear and the awesome-ness of God in exactly the same way that ‘aliens from outer space’ are manifestations of xenophobia. Imaginary beings, whether encountered in dreams or in stone, open up our world. Through them emerge a wide range of cultural values. We need monsters for the narratives of the ‘hero myths’ which span sacred texts, epic sagas and popularist comics alike. For every Beowulf there needs to be at least one Grendel.
Most people still feel an urge to ‘understand’ their dreams, giving them the status of powerful mantic predictions. Nevertheless, in the West dreams are deemed to be not really real. Such ideas would be quite alien to many traditional New World societies. The exact opposite is true among the Ojibwa people, whose traditional lands straddle the USA/Canada border. So when a flesh-and-feather bird is seen, it is regarded as only a manifestation of the ‘real’ dream-bird and could not exist without the dream-bird giving shape to the flesh and feathers. There is a circularity here as the Ojibwa ontology is a close cousin to Platonic Idealism, which became the bedrock of medieval Christianity – with God as the ‘shaper and maker’. And those timeless Platonic Ideals are still to the fore when modern science seeks ‘the all-time truth’, rather than the realisation that reality is continually emergent.
Ingold, Tim, 2011, Being Alive: Essays on movement, knowledge and description, Routledge.
Ingold, Tim, 2013, ‘Dreaming of dragons: on the imagination of real life’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Vol.19:4, p734–52.
Janowski, Monica, and Tim Ingold (eds), 2012, Imagining Landscapes: Past, present and future, Ashgate.
Published in NE143, December 2015, pp.10-12. https://northernearth.co.uk/subscription/