Subversive Spiritualities: How Rituals Enact the World

Subversive Spiritualities: How Rituals Enact the World

Subversive Spiritualities: How Rituals Enact the World

Subversive Spiritualities: How Rituals Enact the World


Even in the twenty-first century, some two-thirds of the world's peoples quietly live in non-modern, non-cosmopolitan places. In such places the multitudinous voices of the spirits, deities, and other denizens of the other-than-human world continue to be heard, continue to be loved or feared or both, continue to accompany human beings in all their activities. In Subversive Spiritualities, Frédérique Apffel-Marglin draws on a lifetime of work with the indigenous peoples of Peru and India to support her argument that the beliefs, values, and practices of such traditional peoples are "eco-metaphysically true." In other words, they recognize that human beings are in communion with other beings in nature that have agency and are kinds of spiritual intelligences, with whom humans can be in relationship and communion.

Ritual is the medium for communicating, reciprocating, creating and working with the other-than-humans, who daily remind the humans that the world is not for humans' exclusive use. Apffel-Marglin argues that when such relationships are appropriately robust, human lifeways are rich, rewarding and, in the contemporary jargon, environmentally sustainable. Her ultimate objective is to "re-entangle" humans in nature, by promoting a spirituality and ecology of belonging and connection to nature, and an appreciation of animistic perception and ecologies. Along the way she offers provocative and poignant critiques of many assumptions: of the "development" paradigm as benign (including feminist forms of development advocacy), of most anthropological and other social scientific understandings of indigenous religions, and of common views about peasant and indigenous agronomy. She concludes with a case study of the fair trade movement, illuminating both its shortcomings (how it echoes some of the assumptions in the development paradigms) and its promise as a way to rekindle community between humans as well as between humans and the other-than-human world.


So drastic is our dependence upon the council of creatures that they are the real auditors of earth’s books.
They are the true congregation, the real tribe, the original extended family. and the kind of performance
they require is ritualistic

—Ronald L. Grimes, Rite Out of Place: Ritual, Media, and the Arts

1. abandoned by the OTHER-THAN-HUMANS

We modern cosmopolitans, heirs to the scientific revolution and to the enlightenment, are like abandoned children. We have lost the safety net of a web of extended relations and human community and find ourselves increasingly on our own, competing with others like us for the social space and the rewards that make us feel like we really belong, really exist, really matter. These feelings are no longer our birth right; increasingly they must be won through tough, solitary elbowing. This social aloneness, however, does not begin to match a vaster, deeper, and more radical abandonment.

Before the triumph of modernity—sealed in Western Europe of the seventeenth century by the advent of the scientific revolution—people lived in constant interaction with a host of beings, powers, and spirits who tricked us, protected us, quarreled with us, guided us, taught us, punished us, and conversed with us. We were wealthy in our human and other-than-human communities. There was an abundance of beings to accompany us in our earthly journey. the multifarious beings of this world taught us to share the bounty of the world with them; they taught us the gestures of reciprocity; they taught us to fear greediness and accumulation. They taught us that the wealth of the plant beings, the tree beings, the water beings, the soil beings, the mineral beings, was not only ours, was not there for the sole purpose of . . .

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