THE SPELL OF THE SENSUOUS: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram

THE SPELL OF THE SENSUOUS: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Philosopher and ecologist Abram writes an absorbing, challenging treatise on the power of written language to separate human beings from their experiential relationship to the nonhuman environment, permitting, in the process, the abuse of nature. Abram contrasts the sensuous relationship between oral indigenous peoples and their surroundings with the physical detachment inherent in an alphabet-based culture such as ours. Oral cultures relate by necessity to the earth and sky, transmitting knowledge through stories that can be adapted to changing circumstances, always attending to the ""language"" of the biotica and inanimate objects. Written language, conversely, demands participation of eyes and ears only, rather than of all the senses, and has become a ""wholly self-reflexive mode of animism."" While pictographs and ideographs were written language, they retained visual participation with the natural world; the alphabet's legacy has been to isolate humans from their natural origins. Abram discusses how the ancient Hebrew alphabet--which excludes vowel sounds, he speculates, out of a respect for their essence as ""sounded breath,"" a ""reverence for the air""--was coopted by the Greeks, who obliterated its pictographic quality and added vowels, which eradicated the ""interactive, synaesthetic participation"" of the reader and ""effectively desacralized the breath and the air."" In other parts of this work, Abram presents more contemporary examples of oral indigenous cultures, including the Australian aborigine and the Apache of the American Southwest, who existed by participating in the language of their particular landscapes and who, once forced from these places, lost the basis for coherence in their cultures. It is only through greater responsiveness to their surroundings on this local scale, Abram maintains, that people can effectively address the pressing needs of the planet. Despite a few philosophically dense passages, Abram delivers an original and convincing premise for our dissociation from the natural world.

Pub Date: Jan. 23rd, 1996
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Pantheon