The Sensory Cottage
By Rachel Ward
Visual/Sensory Ethnography Project
Cottage as animate
Cottage as person
Cottage as kin
Cottage as the universe
Parallel life cycle between myself, the cottage and the universe
• Can the cottage be a person (if defined within the context of the Ojibwa worldview)?
• Can the cottage and I have a notion of kinship (as based on notions of “collective memories” and contexts of personhood in Obijwa ontology)?
• If the cottage is a “person,” does it have a biography?
• Is there a reciprocal “making” of biographies between myself and the cottage (cf., Ingold 2000)? Between the cottage and the universe? Between myself and the universe?
• How does the cottage parallel the universal biography?
• How do I parallel the universe’s life story?
• Do “inanimate” objects have memories? How can these memories be represented and articulated (based on the limitations of human perception)?
• What differences (if any) exist between myself, the cottage, and the universe (cf., Ingold 2000)?
• What then is the nature of the separation?
• Is everything ontologically equivalent (cf., Swimme 1988)?
• To construct an “ethnographic place” as based on “imagination” and “memory” (Pink 2009)
• To visually demonstrate local and universal interrelatedness
• To purport a re-envisioning of the discipline towards an “anthropology of life” (Kohn 2007)
• To unify approaches that need not be demarcated: literature, physical sciences, and anthropology
“Like the giraffe and the duck-billed platypus, the creatures
inhabiting these remoter regions of the mind are exceedingly
improbable. Nevertheless they exist, they are facts of
observation; and as such, they cannot be ignored by anyone
who is honestly trying to understand the world in which he lives.”
– Aldous Huxley, Heaven and Hell
In "More Than Just a House" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the main character, Lew, is both taken with a girl and the house that she happens to live in. Upon reaching the end of the story, both Lew and reader arrive at the mutual conclusion that his enchantment towards the house is in fact stronger than the human object of his desire. We are left speculating as to how Lew could find infatuation and enchantment in inanimacy. Of similar relevance is the methodological query: How does F. Scott Fitzgerald endeavor to enliven and animate the cottage through use of an overlaying love story (one that grows despondent in a manner reminiscent of the house itself)? Further, in Fitzgerald’s story does the house serve as the plot’s main character or merely an aspect of the setting?
Notions of personhood vary cross-culturally but generally do not transcend the human-species barrier. This is not so in the case of the Ojibwa who consider the entire earth to be animated, whereby each animal, plant or object may be considered a “person.” Kinship for the Ojibwa, is certainly an all-encompassing pursuit that transcends not only species boundaries but both metaphysical and perceptual confinements of the Western mind. Accordingly, the Ojibwa have a strong belief in the power of metamorphosis, whereby human beings have the ability to transcend the limitations of both mind and Cartesian space-time restrictions to both embody and be what we, in the West, would call inanimate objects. In these regards, I elected to incorporate this ethnographic example in an attempt to conform to the expectations of argumentative construction within the field of anthropology (which generally expects use of ethnographic example in corroboration or refutation of a contention).
How does the specific worldview of the Ojibwa parallel to an exploration of the house in which I live via methodologies commonly associated with sensory anthropology? I attempted to isolate three major themes within the field of anthropology - animism, embodiment, and kinship - in an effort to consider the ethnographic example of the Ojibwa through a local-personal ethnographic place (the cottage). Just as I inhabit the cottage, the cottage inhabits the world and the greater universe at large. In other words, this project is an exploration of my life within the cottage, the cottage’s place in the universe and, resultantly, human’s role within the universe. The cottage serves as a lens through which to view my own existential reality within the greater scheme of the universe which may, furthermore, represent a symbolic microcosmic universe (a theme that I will touch upon below).
With the concomitant theoretical personhood of Ojibwa example, the significance on kinship within the discourse of this film is tantamount as a construction of a certain kinship between a human and non-human. This notion generally has great implications to our relationship with the world at large and is a topic that has been extensively explored within the field of transpersonal psychology. The overlaying narratives within the film represent a universal connection based on shared experience (embodiment) and shared substance (atoms/elements as the nexus of creation), as well as the possibilities for drawing parallels as based on the negative (cyclical nothingness that may or may not dictate the life course of all that is extant). Specifically in this film, kinship is represented as a blinking red camera light, reflected in the cottage’s gold address placard. This effect parallels a woman’s transpersonal experience involving a tree, wherein she describes a collective experience of the arboreal life cycle and physiological processes. In effect, both embodying and becoming the tree. Shared empathy, in my opinion, both serves as the basis within the tenants of sensory anthropology (as a shared experience of feelings) but also as the basis of kinship. By sharing an empathy, with a non-human such as a tree through an application of sensory anthropology methodologies (Pink 2009), this serves as the theoretical basis for rationalizing a kinship between a human person and cottage.
Through parallels of imagery (see Appendices), I have attempted to construct the cottage as both representative of human life and as a micro-scale representation of the universe. This “scaling down” of sorts is a common human endeavor (consider theoretical analyses of religion) and may allow for a conceptualization of the universe and of being in a manner that is accessible to the limitations of the human mind. This construction is likewise represented through imagery that is both separate and inherent to the cottage (consider the snail shell on the cottage wall; existing divergently as “animate versus inanimate,” yet physically and socially connected). The symbolic morphology of the snail’s shell is likewise representative of Ingold’s quote that draws an analogy between the constructions of nature and the constructions of human dwelling. Furthermore, through the use of the transpersonal narrative in the introduction, the shell dutifully represents the theme of embodiment. This type of human-animal embodiment/kinship reappears once again in subsequent chapters, whereby the shell image serves as demonstrative of both the infant in-utero and as the container for the soul to return to upon death.
The hearth symbolism similarly represents both life and death within the film, as an overarching symbol of humanity. The hearth is often defined as the “heart” of the home, both functioning in the provision of heat and symbolic of sustenance. It was of great coincidence that within the work of both Grof and Swimme that the universe was described vis a vis the parlance of a “furnace.” Thus as the “heart of the cottage,” the hearth represents both creation and destruction as fire is both symbolic of taking and giving; as the primordial fire of creation and the fire of destruction.
Like Degnen (2009) who explores non-human kinship through development of a reciprocal relationship with plants via horticulture, I likewise advocate for an exploration of “everyday forms of knowledge in sites such as gardens.” Degnen’s work serves to “complicate several sets of anthropological understandings: of Western notions of body as mechanized in direct opposition with non-Western notions of body as part of the natural cosmos; of the ascendency of Western naturalist ontology when instead it appears that this is more uneven and less uniform than commonly assumed; and how connections between people and plants are not necessarily metaphorical but are instead reciprocal and social” (2009:165). I believe that all of these arguments are applicable in the context of my ethnography if in addition to ‘plants’ we consider the connection with the cottage as a non-human occupant within the greater scheme of the universe. I believe this serves as an analytically useful exercise, as it delves further into the question of what it means to “alive.”
But where plants have physiogenic and molecular processes, but what does this leave the cottage? If one considers Swimme’s theory of the cosmos: that a large cosmic explosion (the “big bang”) forms the basis for everything that exists within the universe, then the pre-blast material is at the core of creation and permeates everything that exists not only on this planet but within the universe at large. Generally, his theory states that the elemental composition of this primeval pre-blast substance (the elementals oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, etc.) are what formed the basis for the nascent possibilities for galaxies, stars and planets. In consideration of only our planet, Earth, these elemental particles make up both living being and environment. A human is composed of the same substances as a tree; this tree is then used as the raw materials for which to build something such as a cottage. Not considering the limitations of Swimme’s theory in this instance, it would likewise entail that we share substance with the not only the universe and all living things, but also with the materials that form the structure of the cottage.
This notion of “shared substance” (Carsten 2000) is one that has formed the basis of kinship studies within the field of anthropology since the nascency of the discipline. Often in the West, this means shared genetics or shared blood (“blood ties”), but Carsten (1998) has shown ethnographically that other types of shared substance create bonds of kinship both historically and cross-culturally. For instance, in the Middle Ages “milk kinship” was formed on the basis of a shared wet nurse. A shared nurse equated to an ascription of siblingship since it was thought you were formed/grown via the same substance. This notion of kinship as based on “shared substance” could likewise translatable to Ingold’s notion of a reciprocal “making” between human and house/dwelling. What, then, does it mean then if, according to Swimme’s theory, we share the same substance with not only the universe on the macroscopically but with the cottage on a local scale?
The notion of shared substance with a cottage could (and maybe should) be considered amusingly implausible, but at the very least could serve some benefit in consideration of academic debates within the discipline of anthropology. According to Degnen (2009:164), “recent work by Ingold and others such as Willerslev (2007) has focused on how animism is not simply metaphorical … but rather, it is suggested, is about humanizing the world, and indeed this work calls into question commonsense notions of what it means to be human itself.” In these regards, it seems plausible that living in a “sensory cottage” could serve to disequilibrate certain Western understandings of what it means to be a human or how humans should interact in and with the world around them.
Appendix A: Specification of conceptual parallels as delineated within the film
Universe: Pre-creation (primordial time)
Human: Conception (gametes)
Cottage: Conceptualization (blue prints)
Universe: Congealing/anticipation (oxygen, nitrogen, etc)
Human: Birth (shared substance)
Cottage: Construction (timber)
Universe: Creation/collision (the "big bang")
Human: Childhood (making)
Cottage: Occupancy (taking)
Universe: Symbiosis (sharing)
Human: Love (growth)
Cottage: Growth (garden)
Universe: Allurement (gravity)
Universe: Imminent self-destruction
Universe: (Environmental) degradation
Human: Nothingness or heaven (as based on individual view)
Cottage: Recycling or devaluation of materials
Universe: The permanence of matter as based on Newtonian physics
Appendix B: Specification of some visual symbologies
Vehicle for the soul; embodiment/identification with an animal; visual parallel to architectural quote by Ingold
Creator/destroyer; Life/death; nexus of universal creation; primordial fire; destructive fire; cottage’s heart
Creation; womb; purgatory
Symbol of the life cycle; visual transition between chapters
Visual representation of separation between nature and culture
Front door (closed)
An exit from life; a permeating fear of death
Front door (open)
An entrance to the world as related to birth canal sequence
Red flower (window)
Love for the cottage; also serves as symbol for both love and concomitant anger/destruction (as based on Swimme’s quote)
Pink flower in fence
Strictures associated with love; human control (fence) over nature (flower); nature vs. culture; the living’s (flower) relationship with the material (fence or cottage)
Tree shown outside of window
Aging; humans separation from nature; timber as opposed to the tree; despondency
Childhood; as based on quote by Fitzgerald
Heaven; future; desire for enlightenment/knowledge
Gold address placard
Human trait to label/compartmentalize environment; human non-human kinship; (blinking red light as representative of human presence)
Appendix C: A note on the symbolic and repetitious use of music sequences
I chose to incorporate music into this piece as many of the songs featured in the video were written and played within the cottage. According to my brother who composed the music, "those songs were born in that cottage."
The song "Cherry Blossoms" is used in both the "Love (growth)" sequence as well as the "Death (destruction sequence)." This is to draw on both a visual (the red rose window) and an aural parallel between love (or allurement) and destruction as based on the quote by Brian Swimme in which he contends that the two are inherently interrelated as based on the act of the self-imploding star as a result of (gravitational) allurement.
The song "Parade of Wounded Animals" was used in the introductory sequence, the segment on conception as well as at at the death sequence in order to elicit (short-term) memories that may have been established throughout the film. The sequence on birth (imagination) employs a modified version of this song through incorporation of an African drum as an imaginative pairing with a fiddle. Thus, the altered song is different yet the same and may conjure feelings of a dubiosity of memory.
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