Techno-animism in Japan: Shinto Cosmograms, Actor-network Theory, and the Enabling Powers of Non-human Agencies

Theory, Culture and Society 30 (2):84-115 (2013)
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Abstract

In a wide range of contemporary debates on Japanese cultures of technological practice, brief reference is often made to distinct Shinto legacies, as forming an animist substratum of indigenous spiritual beliefs and cosmological imaginations. Japan has been described as a land of Shinto-infused ‘techno-animism’: exhibiting a ‘polymorphous perversity’ that resolutely ignores boundaries between human, animal, spiritual and mechanical beings. In this article, we deploy instances of Japanese techno-animism as sites of theoretical experimentation on what Bruno Latour calls a symmetrical anthropology of nature-cultures. In staging a dialogue between actor-network theory and Japanese techno-animism, we show how Shinto cosmograms provide an enlivening and alternative diffraction device on several of the ontological motifs manifested in Latour’s work. In particular, by mobilizing the territory of a ‘new’ animism debate in anthropology – manifested in the work of Philippe Descola and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro – we attempt to infuse Latourian ‘multinaturalism’ with new, other-than-western analytical energy. Extending actor-network theory, we argue, Shinto cosmograms offer an interesting vantage point for interpreting the immanent, affective, enchanting and enabling powers of non-humans in contributing to collective life. By thus broadening the ‘cosmopolitical’ imagination beyond Latour’s own European-Catholic frame of reference, Shinto techno-animism offers up a wider reflection on contemporary entanglements of science, politics, ecology and cosmos. This reflection, we conclude, opens up a new intellectual territory, allowing us to trace techno-animist streams of thinking both ‘East’ and ‘West’, beyond the confines of the scientific naturalism indigenous to European thinking.

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