Animism in Zomia -Possibility of ‘Anarcho-Animism’- Part 2

Yuto Yabumoto

The image courtesy of the artist

3 Animism and Politics

3.1 Anarchism, Animism and Art
Based on the aforementioned discussion, the writer grasps ‘animism’ as an idea that transcends humans and non-human beings and emphasizes the importance of promoting the self-commitment of various beings in each world, while respecting their mutually beneficial relationships, and avoiding the fixation of a fluid world (including life and society). Until now, animism and the discussion of political theory have been considered completely separate, but from now on, it may be necessary to return to the ‘life’ of various beings and reconsider the world beyond the boundaries between life and political theory. This is because contemporary society is inundated with labor and institutions that are disconnected from life and lack a ‘sense of being alive’. The author (myself), who runs a law firm abroad, is also stuck in a kind of limbo, restrained somebody and sometimes is restrained by the laws and authorities created by global industrial civilization and modern capitalism[1].  Nevertheless, we want to continue our efforts to resist these oppressions and restraints and preserve alternative ways of ‘life’ for the future. Therefore, I would like to go beyond the realm of ‘animism as a theory of life’, quoting Keiji Iwata and James Scott, to describe the possibility of extending animism into the political sphere.
Needless to say, the religion called ‘animism’ has no doctrine, no cult, and no religious professions. Thus, by nature, it is a religion of each individual [Iwata 2020: 19].

According to Iwata, animism does not have any social disciplines or norms such as ‘doctrines’, nor does it build large social communities such as the ‘animism orders’. In other words, animism is based on ‘self-commitment’ and is a fundamental way of thinking to stand alone in the world. However, until now, politics and religions in the western world have tried to abandon animism, which is not based on ‘doctrine’ or ‘social community’, as an uncivilized faith. And they have seen the monotheistic religions of Christianity and Islam as the final form of humanity and the top of the pyramid structure. Iwata has proclaimed this structure as the evil of Charles Darwin's (1809-1882) theory of evolution, as “A weak and strong race, fighting for turf, and in a constant race for survival” [Iwata 1989: 50]. In de-territorializing this religious and political pyramid, animism should be an important concept, as Scott states.
The continued solid presence of animistic substratum beliefs in popular religions, including salvation religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, confirms that ‘real’ practical religion does not ignore worldly concerns. The majority of animist religious practices seek to influence a variety of secular concerns and are conducted with prayers for the assurance of a good harvest, the healing of illness, successful hunting, the fulfilment of love, victory in battle, the thwarting of all enemies, the passing of exams, and the procreation of children. The workings of salvation religion reflect an animistic attachment to the fulfilment of worldly affairs, despite its lofty doctrines [Scott 2013: 298-299].

In Scott's words, animistic base beliefs are firmly at the root of religion, and animism is always present behind the popular religions of the world. For example, in the society of the Karen people[2], animism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, etc. coexist in a pluralistic manner, such as‘Christian but animist’[Kubo 2014: 162][3]. In other words, no religion could have abandoned animism in order to establish a world before the emergence of social communities and a fundamental ‘self-commitment’. Furthermore, as Scott states, animism, in relation to popular religion, plays the‘back’ side of the inextricable tableau. 

As a function of this ‘behind-the-scenes’ function, the aforementioned Siamese Futurism by Montika Kham-on is one case study. In this video work, the ‘Prophecy’ and the ‘Gong’(Figure 10) are strikingly projected. The ‘Prophecy’ is a newly produced document by Montika, but as Scott states, “In the mountainous massifs of Southeast Asia, there are born prophets” [Scott 2013: 288], prophets are always in place in Zomia. In the cosmology of the prophets and charismatics, a system is always in place in which the saints revolt against the existing order as a last resort. This has served the function of preventing the fixation and perpetuation of institutions and power.

Furthermore, the ‘gongs’ in Zomia are precious or prestige goods, which serve as the starting point for the animism practice of deriving circuits to the other world, while at the same time, the percussion of the gongs induces people into a trance-like state [Okuno & Shimizu 2021: 131] and creates an anarchism resistance to power. It is noteworthy that the ‘gongs’ of Zomia are symbolically equipped with the function of connecting both animist and anarchist practices.

In light of the above discussion, the modern state and popular religion have tried to separate animism and anarchism and abandon them (but in fact have failed to do so), whereas Zomia is unique in that it does not separate animism, anarchism and art, but sees them as one and the same. Can we not see here the possibility of transcending the institutions and powers of global industrial society, of reclaiming our ‘life’ and then extending it anew?

[1] As David Graeber describes in The Bullshit Job - The Theory of the Bullshit Job and other books, the work of lawyers has actually become a "document filler" and a "scaremonger".
[2] The Karen are one of the minorities of the Zomia world, a generic name for a mountainous ethnic group living in north-west Thailand and south-east Myanmar.
[3] As Scott has also stated, "Burmese Theravada Buddhists' Nat beliefs and Siamese Theravada Buddhists' Peeth beliefs penetrate deep into society and the general public seldom builds on the tension between popular animism and normative Buddhism" [Scott 2013:298-299]. there is a tension or equilibrium between the two. In this respect, in Thailand, there is a history of the late 19th and early 20th century when Buddhism was nationalised by the central government, and animism was placed on the periphery as the superiority of Buddhism and other faiths was clearly divided. However, the Buddha in Buddhism was born into a royal family, but renounced authority without succeeding the royal family and followed the path of enlightenment. He lived freely, and through the gift of mendicancy, he lived an anarchistic way of life, unbound by anything [Mori 2017: 19]. In contemporary Southeast Asian Buddhist countries, Buddhism has an aspect of being closely related to the state and used as a means of strengthening power, but I feel that animism, which occupies a fundamental position, and anarchistic practice, which overlaps with Buddha's root thought, are deeply connected. The writer would like to deepen this point in the future.

  • Figure 10: Siamese Futurism exhibition view (photo: taken by the writer at the Reborn Art Festival).

3.2 Animism = Anarchism?
As I have mentioned previously, in addition to ‘self-commitment’ and ‘mutually beneficial connections between various beings beyond the human and non-human’, as discussed in quotations from Ingold and others, the writer believes that animism, while based on the constant flux and generation of the world, may have elements of resistance to the ‘fixing’ of not only life, but also of society (this point requires further exploration in the future). We would like to examine whether the ‘fluidization’ and ‘avoidance of fixation elements’ of animism can be joined to anarchist theory. In this respect, animism has not been considered to have an impact on realistic communal composition, but it may be possible to extend the idea further by forming a complementary relationship with anarchism, a socio-political theory that has an impact on contemporary democracy and community.
3.2.1 From anarchism to self-commitment

To begin with, ‘anarchy’ is derived from the Greek word ‘anarchos’, meaning a state of ‘absence (an-)’ of ‘power (arche)’. In other words, anarchy means ‘a state of no government’ and ‘anarchism’, derived from it, is a ‘socio-political theory’ that essentially means ‘a state of no government (anarchism)’ [Kojien 2018: 71]. However, with the rare exception of ‘Zomia’, it is a difficult state to imagine. This is due to the fact that, as Scott states, “Practically every major successful revolution ends up creating a state even more powerful than the one it overthrew” [Scott 2017: vi], and the more you try to eliminate the state, the more powerful one it creates[4]. Considering the importance of the state’s financial policy and its ability to address issues such as poverty through social security, it is hard for me to say that ‘non-government’ is desirable. In this sense, the philosopher Hiroaki Yamada (1956-)said that “Anarchists are not oriented in any sense towards the seizure of power”. He also stated that “On the basis of being anti-authoritarian, the basic principle of anarchists is their permanent refusal to allow power to rise within themselves and society [Yamada 2021:197]”. In brief, it can be said that an important element of contemporary ‘anarchism’ theory is the constant fluidization of ‘power’, which does not fix ‘power’ in society.

Moreover, as Michel Foucault (1926-1984) states that ‘power comes from everywhere’ [Foucault 1986: 120], the state is not the only entity that exercises ‘power’. ‘Power’ is always embedded in everyday life. Therefore, it is necessary to rethink anarchism, not as an inherently political theory of ‘anarchism (abolition of the state)’, but as an idea of practical resistance to oppression in everyday life. 'In Anarchism of Life', anthropologist Keiichiro Matsumura (1975-) states that anarchism is the wisdom of “how to rebuild our own lives under a powerless and incompetent state, how to rebuild the ‘public' from underneath” [Matsumura 2021:13]. In other words, just as animism was a way of thinking to stand alone, anarchism has no doctrine, etc., but is a real and concrete way of thinking to stand alone in the midst of social customs.

This is backed by Shunsuke Tsurumi's (1922-2015) ‘substantive anarchism' [Tsurumi & Kurokawa 2019: 184-185]. Tsurumi states that ‘substantive anarchism' differs from ‘original anarchism' in that “It is an attitude of not relying on the state or the community, but when one is confident that one can do it on one's own until one finally collapses, then one will do it forever”. That is, anarchism is a way of thinking and acting on one's own and resisting all forms of oppression through a commitment that can be carried out on one's own [see Tanigawa 2022: 244-253].

3.2.2 Anarchism and Mutual Aid

Matsumura also states that anarchism is the wisdom of living to rebuild one's life through its ‘self-commitment' and to construct a mutually beneficial public space [Matsumura 2021: 13]. Indeed, ‘personal freedom' and ‘the pursuit of solidarity (the construction of mutually beneficial public space)' may seem to contradict each other, however as Yamada states, “Securing personal freedom is the condition for true solidarity” [Yamada 2021: 195], anarchism and solidarity are never contradictory. That is to say, anarchism is the idea of building a society without domination through the free agreement of various beings, while rejecting coercion and oppression by any authority. And it does not necessarily have to aim at “building a sustainable organization”, as Yamada states [Yamada 2021:197]. This is similar to the way of thinking and moving of the people of Zomia, who constantly move and disperse and, depending on the situation, celebrate personal freedom and solidarity.
Anarchism does not and will not have a coherent theoretical work like Thomas Aquinas’s ‘Summa Theologicae’ or Marx. This is because it is an idea that has lived alongside human history, hidden within the social customs of mankind. It is largely an unacknowledged form of habit, and the part that can be clearly stated to oneself and others is small. Let us begin by roughly defining anarchism as the ideal of human beings helping each other to live without coercion by authority [Tsurumi 1991: 3].
The discussion so far overlaps with Tsurumi's words above. It was the Russian political thinker Pjotr Kropotkin (1842-1921) who first used the term ‘anarchism’ in this reciprocal sense from the dimension of anarchist theory of ‘non-domination'[5]. Through his observations of wildlife in Siberia, Kropotkin pointed out that, in fact, living creatures are not the stronger in a world where the strong prey on the weak, but that species that voluntarily build relationships in which they help each other succeed in survival, and called the principle of social formation based on cooperation from the principle of competition ‘mutual aid’. [see Mori 2017:161-162]. The elements of this mutual aid ‘anarchism' overlap with the elements of ‘animism', which builds mutually beneficial relationships.
And its range applies to non-humans as well as animism. Kropotkin proposed anarchism mutual aid from the various relationships between plants and animals. In other words, mutual aid and symbiotic relationships in nature are a kind of ‘state of nature’ [Mori 2017: 160-162]. Naturally, given that humans are also a type of animal and therefore part of nature, anarchism is not a concept exclusive to humans, but a concept that can be applied to  many and various beings.
For instance, in Irwan and Tita's ‘Harvest from Atlantis’(Figure 11), the pure gift by mussels to other species and the rituals of  Indonesian locals in return are rich expressions of animistic ideas and their connection to life. On the other hand, in addition to the small communities that are composed of human beings cooperating with each other, real-life co-operation with trees, mussels, and chickens, etc., can be seen to be unconsciously embedded in the inner workings of life. The author is not alone in feeling that the landscape of life glimpsed in this video visualizes the very relationship between the two concepts before modernization, when animism and anarchism were separated.

Based on the above, animism contributes to the composition of community in the ideological dimension by building mutually beneficial links between various beings, while encouraging the fostering of ‘self-commitment' by each individual. On the other hand, anarchism, while encouraging the ‘self-commitment' of each individual, gives wisdom in the concrete dimension to the composition of solidarity through practical mutual assistance. In consequence, when the complementary relationship between the two concepts is intertwined and driven, the unique ‘life' of each individual will presumably expand, operating autonomously, away from the domination of power and authorities.

[4] As Scott states that he "does not believe that the state is an enemy to freedom anywhere at any time" and that "the state may, depending on the circumstances, assume an emancipatory role and even extend the free domain" [Scott 2017: x].
[5] The term 'anarchism' was used by both Proudhon and Berkunin, but it was Kropotkin who first used the term 'anarchism' [Mori 2017:124]. Unlike Proudhon and Berkunin, who were closer to revolutionaries, Kropotkin theorised anarchism [Mori 201: see also Mori 201] and is known as someone who contributed to the development of the theory of 'mutual aid' [Okuno and Ishikura 2018: 132-133].

  • Figure 11: ‘Harvest from Atlantis’ exhibition view (photo: taken by the writer at the Reborn Art Festival).

4 Conclusion - Anarcho-Animistic Artistic Expression

Now, in the light of the previous discussion, it seems that ‘animism' and ‘anarchism' are ideas that apply to all beings and are used to prevent the fixation of the world and society by gaining freedom through self-commitment and, at the same time, by building reciprocal relationships with those beings. In this sense, the writer would like to propose ‘Anarcho-Animism' as a tirial theory as a way of thinking and rethinking our ‘life' in a new way, crossing the boundaries of both concepts of life and political theory.

Finally, the writer presents an expression of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who presents the most anarcho-animistic image in Zomia. The writer has had several dialogues with Apichatpong, and when it comes to political talk about Isan and its neighboring countries, his words suddenly begin to heat up. Could this be due to the complex history of Isan and stories that have been altered or erased as animistic Phi beliefs have been marginalized in the process of Thailand’s centralization, and the nationalization of Buddhism? Imagining these backgrounds, the writer experienced the strength of Apichatpong’s ‘self-commitment’ (a commitment that one can carry through on one's own)[6].

Apichatpong’s visual expressions also evoke the inner imagination and bring to spirits and ghosts that were invisible, as well as memories of the land [Nakamura 2022: 71]. Apichatpong’s view of life is full of rich animistic ideas about the greater life behind things. For example, the shifting ‘memory of things’ is often dealt with in Apichatpong’s works. In the short film ‘Emerald’ (2007)(Figure 12), a floating feather-like object in a closed hotel describes memories of the past, while in the latest feature film ‘Memoria’ (2021), a man named Ernan, who can read the past memories of objects, appears, reading the ‘memories’ recorded on stones and trees. The story unfolds by reading the ‘memories’ recorded on stones, trees, etc. This is easily understood in light of Ingold’s statement that ‘things are in life’.

The broadleaf evergreen forests that evoke the mountainous regions of Zomia are also symbolic of Apichatpong's animistic expression. In ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’ (2010), Boonmee, who has kidney disease and little time left to live, summons his wife’s sister Jen, and nephew Tong, to his plantation in Isan. There, his wife Faye, who died 19 years ago, visits him as a ghost, concerned about her husband’s illness, and his son Bun Song, who disappeared a few years ago, comes as a monkey spirit to welcome Boonmee. Boonmee sits around the table with his wife’s ghost, the monkey spirit and other beings, and receives help and support from them in the ‘forest’, which is like a mother’s womb, on his way to death.

In addition to this belief in life and mutual support based on such a fundamental maternal conception, another characteristic of Apichatpong is his ‘supple resistance’ to the state and authority. For example, in the video work ‘Phantoms of Nabua’ (2009)(Figure 13), in the Primitive Project, a group of boys are playing football on a grassy field at night in the village of Nabua, Isan. A blazing mass of fire (anima) is treated as a ball, which then catches fire on a white screen, which eventually burns down. Nabua village was the site of a US airbase for air strikes in Indochina in the late 1960s, when the US invasion of Viet Nam was in full swing; in the 1970s, anti-government student groups were based on the Thai-Laos border, and as a corresponding measure, the Thai National Army established a base in Isan. Civilians fled into the forest to escape the violence, but some of these people were labelled communists and they were caught in the crossfire [Yomota : 2016]. The ‘fire’ projected on the screen exposes the memory of the firearms and the massacre, generating an ideological centripetal force against the place. On the other hand, through the teamwork-based sport of football, the film shows the possibility of organized resistance to the violence of the state and power, while building a small community in reality.

However, Apichatpong does not vocally advocate resistance to the violent nature of power. Like Tsurumi’s ‘substantive anarchism’ and Matsumura’s ‘Anarchism of Life’, Apichatpong does not expect anything from the government or the state. Rather, it seems to me that he attaches more importance to cooperation and mutual assistance beyond human and non-human relationships. For example, in the Primitive Project, Apichatpong played together with the youth of Nabua village, talked about the future, collaborated with them and created a ‘spaceship’ together, utilizing various materials [Minato 2016: 88-91]. In this way, Apichatpong (whether he is aware of it or not, and whether he intends it or not) moves back and forth between the concepts of ‘animism’ and ‘anarchism’, trying to promote the self-commitment of other beings through art projects and to rebuild mutual support and reciprocity in a small community. The writer would like to continue to follow the idea and artistic practice of ‘anarcho-animism’, using this artistic practice of Apichatpong as an example.

The relationship between ‘anarcho-animism’ and ‘making (art)’ could not be fully described this time due to the space available, but this is an issue for the future, and we would like to further deepen the relationship between ‘animism’, ‘anarchism’ and ‘art’ as we reconsider and reclaim the ‘lives’ of various beings.

  • Figure 12: Emerald exhibition view (photo: at Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, photo by the writer).

  • Figure 13: Phantoms of Nabua (Exhibit: artscape ‘Apichatpong Weerasethakul - Politics and the intimacy of the everyday[2]’)

[6] Apichatpong has, from past interviews, basically positioned himself clearly as an artist, rather than a revolutionary, political activist or the like. He rarely directly denounces the state, government, etc. This overlaps in part with Tsurumi's attitude towards the government and the state. Rather than denouncing others, Tsurumi would rather transform himself, which is said to be at the heart of his animist philosophy [Tanikawa 2022: 245], and such a philosophy can be felt to a great extent in his dialogue with Apichatpong.
[7] For more information, see Takuichi Tokuyama (author), Apichatpong Weerasethakul - Politics and the Intimacy of the Everyday, Artscape, website.

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