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Reinhabiting Reality: Towards a Recovery of Culture, Freya Mathews, University of New South Wales Press, 2005

Panpsychism is not new. From ancient animism to contemporary posthumanism, humans have ascribed sentient thought and even soul to both the organic and inorganic matter of the universe. Discussions regarding the nature of matter and mind are common philosophical ground. Collectively, panpsychists take the road less travelled as they focus on the 'mind as a naturalistic aspect of reality' and 'mind as fundamental to the nature of existence and being.' (1) The road forks, however, when philosophers deliberate the capacity of wisteria, whales, or wasps to contain will, spirit or soul. Dissimilar understandings of panpsychism have been debated by Aristotle, Aquinas, Campanella, Epicurus, Leibniz, Locke, Newton, Saint Francis and Spinoza (Skrbina, 261).

Current scholars, including Nagle, Chalmers, Sprigge, and Skrbina, have also explored metaphysical panpsychism and the ethical behaviour mandated by such belief. Pre-eminent eco-philosopher Freya Mathews moves beyond theory to panpsychic praxis in Reinhabiting Reality: Towards a Recovery of Culture, the sequel to her For the Love of Matter. (2) Mathews argues that a comprehensive change from modernity's materialism to a panpsychic metaphysical premise is the means to halting society's slide towards cultural, spiritual and ecological disaster.

Reinhabiting Reality is an uncommon blend of analytical contemplation and the emerging practice of narrative or personal scholarship. Mathews' physical engagement with the natural world, demonstrated via storytelling, provides insight into her ethical connection with place. By embodying the disembodied scholarly voice Mathews sacrifices much of her objectivity, meshing her analysis with subjective anecdotes. Grounded in nature, the creative non-fiction provides contextualisation for the work.

'The last crane: Modernity and the end of grace' begins the first section of the book, 'Culture: The love of ground,' with reflections on the semi-rural site of the author's childhood. Through the demise of Braeside, Mathews contrasts modernity--rejection of the given and violation of the world--with panpsychism--acceptance of the given and engagement with the world. Only through cherishing the world and our place in it can the human/nature dichotomy be eliminated and our ecological relationship be reordered. (8)

'Letting the world grow old' outlines the imperative to live within the world's order and not intervene in natural processes, allowing the natural decay of the built environment while rejecting development and redevelopment. While reducing resource consumption, things would also 'return to nature', thereby assuring the viability of life on earth; it also engenders in us an attitude of cherishing the given, transforming us from indifferent exploiters of the things that surround us into their custodians.' (32) The value of 'letting be' interrogates the concepts of consumerism, commodification, and productivity; a synergistic mode of 'letting be' is also extrapolated to agency, economics, and politics.

'Becoming native' contrasts the modernist concept of property with the panpsychist idea of indwelling. The reader is encouraged to commit to a place, participate in the 'landscape of your life' and nurture community, 'for the cultivation of your sense of place calls for a certain degree of continuity--a certain respect for the given'. (51) Committed emplacement of self will allow place to affect the body, mind and personality of the 'native.' Matthews inhabits her theory through experiential narrative:
 As the scene of our pig's life,
 the backyard became a vortex of
 activity, of energetic transfer and
 transformation. As the home of such
 a powerful being, the locus of all her
 needs, desires, and feelings, and the
 axis around which the weather and
 the birds and the season turned for
 her, it also became a site of richly
 layered psychic significance. (65)


Initially, the request to regard a pigpen as a 'site of richly layered psychic significance' appears slightly absurd. The deft application of the same concept of personal engagement to identity politics, ecopolitics, and globalisation rehabilitates the pigpen as a desirable situation.

'Ground studies' consists of three case studies of panpsychic engagement with the natural world. 'Julia's farm: Fertility' relates the philosophy of 'place making' as lived by a woman on a remote property in Western Australia. Resacralisation and resurrection are embraced as the farmer recycles and renews everything from old vehicles to roadkill. Fertility and forgiveness are viewed through the lenses of many cultures' sacred myths of sacrifice and rebirth. 'Hamilton Downs: Philosophy in the field ... of being' follows the author to an interdisciplinary colloquium exploring place. The participants' experiences of intersubjective encounters with nature were the results of turning towards country and away from self. 'The white heron: Grace and the native self' is an eco-feminist literary analysis of Sarah Orne Jewett's story, 'The white heron'. 'Synergistic relations of intersubjectivity' (120) are used to rework Freudian theories of identity formation, child socialisation, self-suppression and erotic engagement.

The most problematic narratives are the stories presented as scholarship within the final section of the book, 'Views from the ground.' 'The Merri Creek: To the source of the given' describes a pilgrimage the author and two companions undertook to walk Merri Creek. Although the purpose of the walk, 'an exercise in the politics of repossession and reinhabitation' (136) is admirable, Mathews' description of the pilgrimage reveals a disconcerting insularity:
 ... another, little known world still
 existed intact just off the Hume
 highway ... a world of bush pubs,
 pastoral holdings, and old homesteads.
 Somehow I could not imagine reaching
 this strangely preserved remnant of
 colonial days simply by stepping out
 my front door and ambling upstream.
 Could such romance really be within
 such easy reach? (136)


Quixotic language continues as the walkers discover a lake and find 'a place out of time. Here just a sliver of a past world of black-duck dreamings had somehow slipped out from behind the facade of the present.' (138) Locals in a pub are described as the 'veritably premodern ambience of "outback Melbourne"'. (147) Although 'premodern' may be a compliment in her vocabulary, the author seems genuinely surprised that living a life in harmony with nature is still possible and regularly practised with neither romance nor philosophical allusions/illusions in rural Australia.

'Barramunga: Return to the doorstep of night' provides Mathews' journal entries from retreats to a rustic homestead in the Otway Ranges. The rhythms of rural life are celebrated, and Mathews provides a lovely notion of 'sheep time'. (168) Yet, the sentimental entries read as if forced, striving too hard for profound implications. Even the author's generally reverential relationship with an elderly local couple is nonchalantly belittled: 'Norm told me he'd been reading up on philosophy and art last night in his dictionary/ encyclopedia and May demanded to be told what mythology was!' (175) Although apparently unintentional, Mathews' treatment of rural people with the same sentimentality as she applies to frolicking lambs is disheartening.

Concluding both 'Views from the ground' and the book is an excellent afterword entitled 'Singing the ground', in which Mathews revisits the concepts of respecting place via reenchanting local ground. Melbourne's Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies (CERES) is described as an 'integrated praxis-and-poetics of reinhabitation in an urban context'. (200) Ceremony and ritual engender opportunities for a 'new season of peaceful coexistences between people and land', (202) as well as reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians 'through their common commitment to homeplace'. (203) Predicated on panpsychism, a new relationship between humans and the natural world will restore our culture, spirit and environment.

Reading Reinhabiting Reality: Towards a Recovery of Culture is an inspirational and provocative experience. Mathews' love of country, acceptance of the given, and willingness to get muddy elevate her work above the common clean and unplaced scholarship. It is disappointing that the author privileges her theoretical elucidation of short-term, essentially superficial bush encounters over the often silent, multi-generational relationships between rural Australians and their country. Most probably, this arrogance is unintentional. Mathews is good value; she knows and writes about the good life and laments her time away from the bush. She is welcome to join us country folk anytime; we need good neighbours out here in the real world.

(1) David Skrbina, Panpsychism in the West, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2005, 2.

(2) Freya Mathews, For the Love of Matter: A Contemporary Panpsychism, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 2003.

Amy Espeseth Turner

Department of English: Literary Studies
COPYRIGHT 2006 University of Melbourne Postgraduate Association
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Title Annotation:Reinhabiting Reality: Towards a Recovery of Culture
Author:Turner, Amy Espeseth
Publication:Traffic (Parkville)
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Words:1367
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