A Conversation with David Abram


Sensing & Knowing

In September 2010, I sat down with David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal, to film this conversation in the gardens of New College, Oxford.

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In September 2010, I sat down in the gardens of New College, Oxford to film a conversation with David Abram, the philosopher and ecologist. We had met for the first time three hours earlier, the result of an email he had sent to Dark Mountain, thanking us for writing our manifesto. It was the first time I had the experience of receiving a mail like that from someone whose own work had profoundly influenced me.

The Spell of the Sensuous is a book that moves between passages of narrative that sparkle with David’s marvellously tuned awareness of sensory experience and chapters of intense philosophical reflection in which the conclusions drawn from this experience are grounded within the history of phenomenology. It is one of those magical books that have the capacity to act as landmarks by which to find your bearings, to become aware of the assumptions running through the society in which you have grown up and to glimpse what it might mean to orient yourself by other assumptions. Another world is not just possible, it whispers, but out there already, seen from the corner of your eye, just beyond the bounds of what you think you know.

It did not come as a surprise to discover, over breakfast that morning, that David had spent time as part of the travelling circus of ideas that gathered around Ivan Illich. In Mexico, a couple of years later, I mentioned his name to Gustavo Esteva, another member of that circle, and he smiled at the memory of the young man performing magic tricks around the dinner table. By the time they met at Penn State, David’s sleight of hand had already taken him from the famed Alice’s Restaurant to the company of the radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing, with whom he began exploring how the magician’s play of awareness could open unexpected lines of communication with people whose experience of reality had been deeply disturbed.

That work with Laing set him on the path to fieldwork with traditional magicians in Bali and Nepal, going to meet them not as an anthropologist but as a fellow magician. While his starting point was the healing role of magic within traditional culture, it soon became clear that this was secondary to the role these people played in negotiating the boundary between the human world and the rest of what David talks about as ‘the more-than-human world’ within which we find ourselves. This is the starting point for The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, the book he had just finished when we sat down to record this conversation.

The camera was borrowed from a friend, placed in the grass in front of us, and I tried to keep half an eye on whether we were in shot. Ahead of us was the fragment of the old city wall that passes through the college grounds, a setting that seems appropriate to our theme. Our voices are interwoven with those of the wind and the trees. At one point, a leaf floats down between us as we speak. (Then, near the end, the battery gives out and we retire to the King’s Arms to get a few last thoughts on camera before David runs for his cab to the station, headed to Schumacher College.)

The calendar tells me that it is five years this month since we met, but it feels longer. A lot of life has passed by in those five years and somehow David’s path and mine have not yet crossed again, though I hope it won’t be long before we get the chance to pick up the conversation we began that day. It’s a rare and fine thing when a friendship begins in a morning, rarer still when part of that beginning is captured on camera.