Gizem Oktay
I am an interdisciplinary designer based in Bursa, Turkey, and a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). My research is about converging ancestral knowledge with today's ecological and interaction design practices.

In the Process of a Relational Becoming



The advent of quantum theory brought about a new understanding of how the world works. The convergence of mind and matter on the microscopic level indicates a reciprocity between the two, thus challenging the position of mind over matter. In the realm of scientific discovery, this is groundbreaking news. However, similar ways of thinking are observable in the Aboriginal peoples’ worldview which long precedes scientific methodologies. In the Animist belief system, mind is not superior to matter and the personhood of animate and inanimate agencies are recognized. This understanding allows a non-dualist lens into the world where the division of human and non-human is dissolved into an entangled state of relational becoming.


I. Starting with Physics

     “For better or for worse, humans have tended to pattern their domestic, social, and political arrangements according to the dominant vision of physical reality. Inevitably the cosmic view trickles down to the most mundane details of everyday life.” [1]


The above quote belongs to the quantum physicist Nick Herbert. For him, the fact that physics permeates our understanding of reality must have come naturally. For non-physicists, the story may be different, but the ending does not have to be. How we understand and perceive reality is indeed a reflection of physics and if we want to change the way we think about the world, it might be a good place to start.

  • Movement from one to both poles simultaneously of various dualities in the transition from classical to modern physics
    Movement from one to both poles simultaneously of various dualities in the transition from classical to modern physics

As classical physics evolved into quantum theory, so did our understanding of time and space, ergo reality[2]. Herbert in his book Quantum Reality goes on to explain this and compares how societal forms reflected the dominant vision of physics of their time:


                    “…Newtonian revolution toppled the reign of the crystal spheres of Dante and replaced it with a physics of ordinary matter governed by mathematical laws rather than divine command. Coincident with the rise of Newtonian physics was the ascent of the modern democracy which stresses a “rule of laws rather than men.” [3]



Along with the rule-based, deterministic view of the world, Newtonian physics brought about a dualist perspective regarding our understanding of body and space, mind and matter. In Newtonian mechanics, space is a mere container for the body, with no material exchange between the two. Combined with Cartesian dualism[4], which considers mind to be superior to matter, these dualist and thus hierarchical perspectives dominated social, political, and even biological realms of thought for a very long time. We had labelled opposites neatly, put them far away from each other, refusing to let them mingle. Mind and matter, body and space, nature and culture, subject and object, and ancient and modern are some of these paradigms that are only seen as opposites because of the demarcation that humans created. The distancing between these conceptual couplings may have been the cause to position them as opposites, however, this is far from being true. The distance exists only as an abstraction, but not in reality.

On the realm of physics, the advent of quantum theory tells us how the convergence between mind and matter works on the microscopic level, and therefore proves that they are not opposed to each other, but they are in an entangled, reciprocal state.


                    “…quantum mechanical entanglement in which the gap between mind and matter is collapsed. The electron (or photon) does not come with a pre-existing nature or location in space. It is only through the combination of a physicist’s experimental plans, the equipment, and the object that the electron becomes identified as either a wave or particle and its location becomes known. The physicist builds an experiment and asks the electron if it is a wave not a particle, and the electron responds yes. In another experiment, the electron is asked if it is a particle and not a wave, and the electron again responds yes.” [5]



Similar to Nick Herbert’s positioning, if the cosmic view eventually trickles down to the most mundane details of everyday life, then our duty should be to mine and dig up those details. With her post-humanist performativity theory, Karen Barad points out that the nature of the electron is not intrinsic to the electron but result from the entanglement with the human mind. The electron as we think we know it, exists only in relation to us and other things.[6]

The relationality between the electron and the human is crucial because in it, there is the potential that challenges the position of mind over matter and its assumed superior ontological status. If the relationship between mind and matter is not hierarchical but relational, then possibilities open to reflect this relationality onto other couplings that we mentioned earlier such as nature and culture, human and non-human, and ancient and modern.

How can we turn our dualist understanding of these couplings into something relational? After all, physics only give us a glimpse of what is happening on the microscopic level. In order to carry our understanding to the macroscopic and systems level, we need to track down forms of belief and ways of living that do not have the dualist overtone in their nature. Animist beliefs and the phenomena of liminality are two similar examples that have existed for way long than the scientific advancement of the West, which perpetuated the kind of approach to life that assumes every whole is a sum of its parts, something also called as reductionism. These examples will be regarded as non-reductionist forms of thinking that can be of guidance to live a relational life.


II. Animism: A Relational Life


The original meaning of the term ‘Animism’ referred to a religious belief, said to be held by indigenous peoples of the world, namely that natural objects and beings, both animate and inanimate, possess mental and spiritual faculties and powers.[7] Animism was eventually abandoned as a useful analytic tool because of its founder Sir Edward Tylor's condescending description of animistic societies as primitive, childish, and typical of “cognitive underdevelopment” and the false account of Christian metaphors like soul and spirit being used in the description of Animism as objects and animals having souls.[8]

However, with the works of academics like Graham Harvey, Deborah Bird Rose, Philippe Descola and Nurit Bird-David, a new Animism emerged. This new Animism proposes that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others[9]. To emphasize ‘relationship', anthropologist Nurit Bird-David coined the term "relational epistemology" to describe the essence of Animism as the belief that people, places and things establish relationship with each other and that these relations are more fundamental than the entities themselves.[10]

As an example of these relations, Graham Harvey paraphrases the sentence “My father is lying down” to exemplify Aboriginal peoples’ description of a rock formation in his book Animism: Respecting the Living World. In the Māori understanding, the lands are the result of creation by ancestral beings in timeless and/or exceptional state[11]. Therefore when an Aboriginal individual says “My father is lying down” to talk about/with a rock, it means they are relating to the land by forming a kinship that transcends species borders. This form of thinking is in line with many thinkers and academics who call for a multi-species kinship, and amongst them is the biologist and philosopher Donna Haraway. She writes: “A close look at human skins, guts, and genomes reveal that human beings are a consortium of sorts, a medley of microbial becomings.”[12] Haraway claims that becoming is always with, and that human exceptionalism is a trap that we should not fall for. Within the Animist tradition, the dualist human/non-human coupling dissolves with multi-species kinship that is achieved by relating to land, animals, rocks, rivers, bacteria, and so on.

The multi-centered politics of life and land, kinship between humans and other living things, and “...a kind of meta-communication that is possible among beings of different species”[13] are key elements of the new Animism and the type of relationality we are looking at the macroscopic level along with the quantum entanglement on the microscopic level mentioned earlier in this article. 

When we stop thinking of our human condition with strict boundaries, lines begin to dissolve. The performative aspect of relating to our world changes us. We start to become rocks, rivers, animals, bacteria, roads, and plants. We stop being subjects that observe objects, but we become something in-between. The ontological trace of in-betweenness is also found in the phenomena of liminality, a stage in a rite of passage, which will be explained in detail below.


III. Liminality: An In-Between Life

Liminality is a concept in anthropology developed by folklorist Arnold van Gennep and later taken up by 20th-century anthropologist Victor Turner with his research on Ndembu people of Zambia. The term refers to the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete.[14]

Initially, liminality was defined as a phenomena observed in small-scale societies that happened during an initiation ceremony or a rite of passage to adulthood. Later, we see academics like Graham Harvey expanding the scope of liminality by defining shamans and cyborgs as liminal beings, for shamans’ ability to mediate this and the other world; their presence being betwixt and between the human and supernatural[15] and the cyborgs’ bundled existence that contains multitudes within itself. Now, liminality is used as an umbrella term to define a specific spatiotemporal happening that is experienced individually or by a group to define neither-here-nor-there situations in life. These situations range from sudden events affecting one’s life such as death, divorce to a sudden event experienced by a whole society such as a natural disaster or a pandemic —like the one we are having now— where "the very structure of society [is] temporarily suspended." According to Victor Turner, this suspension is the equivalent of an 'anti-structure', which brings out the arbitrariness and artificiality of social structure and social norms and it can lead to significant social change.[16]

The in-betweenness aspect of liminality, the neither-here-nor-there situation that it creates in an individual’s or a society's spatio-temporality gives many clues on how to use it as a thinking tool in the becoming of a relational human. If our aim is to dissolve boundaries between dual couplings to accept the unknowable complexities around us, then one needs to create a liminal space between the opposites to converge them. The dual perception of nature and culture, ancient and modern, human and non-human is dissolved by performing in-betweenness, by thinking of ourselves as not just a human separated from the rest of the nature due to its so-called superior consciousness, but as a compound being where species converge in one’s body and their qualities performed in rituals, behaviors, and thoughts that can create a social change in our reductionist perception of nature. When we perform the qualities of multiple worlds around us, we put ourselves in their shoes, becoming them. By empathizing, we create a liminal space between us and the world where we become the world and it becomes us. The boundaries between us dissolve and make space for a new entity that is not just us nor them. Knowing this makes it clear that what we are part of the process of becoming and it is entirely up to us to change our historical condition from the exceptional human to relational human.


IV. Applications

The multi-species kinship achieved in the Animist belief also reflects itself in the design practices of the Māori. The design of wharenui (the big house) is the result of relating the structure itself to the Ancestor. The porch is termed the roro (brain), the door is the kuwaha (mouth), and the window is the matapihi (eye) [17]. All these organs represent the ancestor and out of respect for the ancestor, the construction of the wharenui is carried out to reflect that. Here, it might be helpful to note that the brain, the mouth, and the eye may or may not represent a human, since the land, rocks, mountains and rivers are also seen as ancestors within the Animist view.

One of two more recent examples is an article written by Betti Marenko and Philip van Allen, where Animism is being turned into a design framework to reimagine digital interaction between human and nonhuman[18]. Lastly, the book Lo-Tek: Radical Indigenism written by designer, academic, and activist Julia Watson provides an expert view on how to translate ancestral knowledge to modern practices by combining indigenous philosophy and vernacular architecture[19].


V. Conclusion

Karen Barad, in the beginning of her essay Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter quotes Steve Shaviro:


                        “Where did we ever get the strange idea that nature — as opposed to culture— is ahistorical and timeless? We are far too impressed by our own cleverness and self-consciousness… We need to stop telling ourselves the same old anthropocentric bedtime stories.”[20]



In order to stop telling ourselves the same old anthropocentric bedtime stories, we first need to decentralize our position as the anthropos. The way to that begins with the acceptance of autopoietic skills of life itself, from a single cell to a whale, with gradually changing levels of self-organization and consciousness capacity in accordance with the organism’s evolutionary complexity.

Animism regards land and life with such acceptance and it is a liminal way of thinking in the way that it converges human with both animate and inanimate persons of life. This type of liminal thinking can be a tool to decentralize the position of humans and converge it to whatever is wrongfully considered beneath it. The reason why this article exemplifies animism and liminality is that the answers we are looking for may have already been found, and if we dig deep enough and beyond the de facto narratives, then we may have a chance in becoming the relational human.


Works cited:

[1] Herbert, Nick. Quantum Reality: Beyond The New Physics. New York, Anchor Press, 1985.

[2] Eastman, Timothy E. & Keeton, H. (eds). Duality without Dualism in Physics and Whitehead: Quantum, Process, and Experience. New York, Suny Press, 2004.

[3] Herbert, Nick.

[4] For more on Cartesian dualism:

[5] Malville, J. McKim. Animism, Reciprocity, Entanglement. Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaometry, Vol. 16, No 4, 2016, pp. 51-58

[6] Malville, J. McKim.

[7] Wright, Robin M. Graham Harvey, Animism: Respecting the Living World. Book review in Journal for the Study of Religion Nature and Culture, 2010, pp. 95-97

[8] Malville, J. McKim.

[9] Harvey, Graham. Animism: Respecting the Living World. Columbia, Columbia University Press, 2006. pp. 11-189

[10] Malville, J. McKim.

[11] Harvey, Graham.

[12] Kirksey, S. Eben & Helmreich, Stefan. The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography. Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 25, Issue 4, 2010. pp. 545-576

[13] Wright, Robin M.

[14] Turner, Victor. Liminal to liminoid in play, flow and ritual: An essay in comparative symbology. Rice University Studies. 60 (3), 1974. pp. 53-92

[15] Harvey, Graham.

[16] Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New Brunswick, Aldine Transaction Press, 2008.

[17]] Tyler, Linda. Interpreting indigenous art in university collections. Retrieved from:

[18] Marenko, Betti & van Allen, Philip. Animistic design: how to reimagine digital interaction between the human and the nonhuman. Digital Creativity, Vol. 27, Issue 1, 2016. pp. 52-70

[19] Julia Watson’s website:

[20] Barad, Karen. Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter. Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 28, No. 3, 2003. pp. 802-831