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Intriguing ideas, but confused and indulgent
on 30 June 2005
This is a difficult and fascinating book, exploring subtle and complex and ideas, not always convincingly. I found it deeply thought-provoking but was left yearning for more clarity, precision and depth of thought.
Broadly speaking the argument is that humanity has lost its intimate connection with nature, that this relates to the development of writing, and that it results in our modern capacity to disrespect and destroy nature.
In developing these themes the book dsiplays significant problems with its argumentation, its structure and its style. Together, I believe, these undermine its ability to do any more than pleasantly indulge already-committed environmentalists with muddy, half-baked thinking.
Abram develops fascinating ideas in probing the inner perspectives of cultures that have not lost their connection with nature. It was intriguing to get the beginnings of an understanding of what it might feel like to have such a different relationship with a homeland that one could almost read it, and how bereft one would be to move away from it. The connection with the development of writing is also imaginative and up to a point convincing. However, Abram is unfortunately distinctly weak at explicating subtle concepts and expressing nuances of feeling to the reader. Time and again I felt I half-grasped something that the author was muddily presenting through confused, slippery arguments. Time and again I was just not quite convinced, and just when a little more clarity was needed to help me comprehend, the author slpipped into poetic musings, seemingly abdicating explanation. The concepts of phenomonology in particular are extremely difficult. Abram is highly original in their application, but needs to be less vague.
The structural problem is the massive focus on the argument about the effect of writing on our perception of nature. This dominates the book in a way that ultimately cuts it off from its own context - i.e. may leave the reader asking 'so what?'. The context is mostly provided by a short and wholly inadequate final chapter which glosses discussion of consequences and implications. The argument about writing is also so long that it absolutely needs greater rigour and clarity, and willingness to address obvious counterarguments, to avoid being at times dull, repetitive and meandering.
Abram suggests towards the end that he doesn't want the book to be judged in terms of conventional rational argument, but rather as a story that can help us make sense of the world. I don't find this convincing. It is perfectly reasonable to question the limits of traditional rationality and critique its contribution to political and environmental problems. And it is great to present ideas in an imaginative, creative way rather than as academic philosophy. But in the case of this book it just doesn't add up: the lengthy invocation of writers such as Husserl and Merleau-Ponty left me feeling that I was undoubtedly being offered some kind of logical theoretical argument - but simply an unconvincing one. Rather than unifying theory and thought with the poetic, as many thinkers have done over the centuries, Abram sets them side-by-side in an awkward, jarring alternation. The poetic elements therefore feel like a stylistic indulgence added to soften the reading experience, to emotionally attune the reader and render them less critical of the flaws of the rest of the text.
Having said all that, I found considerable value in this book for the gems of originality in Abram's ideas, despite it being frustrating and labourious to read. And I also have an admiration for its audacity and ambition.