Naturalistic Paganism’s Spectral Challenge – Part Three: Preparing to Encounter the Specters by Émile Wayne

Part Three will move us from the speculative and theoretical discussion of specters into more practical, ethical considerations. First, we need to think about why these encounters are necessary, and how to prepare for an ethically sound, constructive encounter.

Why Encounter Specters?

We already encounter the specters in our everyday lives. If we sit still long enough, we can hear their wailing and groaning. The specters haunt. They are rooted in the past, yet cross generations. They throw time out of joint; the past becomes the present, and future horizons shrink and are dimmed by the presence of so many shades. Can specters ever truly be “banished”? Is exorcism a possibility, or just wishful thinking?

If these specters are not just “painful memories” but also material conditions, institutions, cultural formations, and even adaptive strategies for survival, then mere banishment cannot – and should not – be our goal. For better or worse, we are because they were, and they continue to haunt the present as part of our own continued being. The wounds, disjunctions, and ruptures – out of which these specters pour – in part gave rise to us.  And perhaps, like Evelyn White on her rafting trip, it is possible to draw strength and courage, important lessons, from an intentional encounter with these specters. Perhaps, when you face a specter, call it by name, and give it recognition, it ceases to be a specter. Perhaps it becomes an ancestor.

We are all the living, breathing emergence out of complex legacies, and so were those who gave rise to us. As Anna Tsing writes,

We are contaminated by our encounters; they change who we are as we make way for others. As contamination changes world-making projects, mutual worlds – and new directions – may emerge. Everyone carries a history of contamination; purity is not an option. One value of keeping precarity in mind is that it makes us remember that changing with circumstances is the stuff of survival. But what is survival? […] [Staying] alive – for every species – requires livable collaborations. Collaboration means working across difference, which leads to contamination. Without collaborations, we all die.

We do not neatly fit into categories, or obey expectations. We are, none of us, only victims, or heroes, or villains. And if we truly mean to live in communion, we must accept this. This mutual, inter-penetrating, contaminating encounter exposes our vulnerability, but collaboration is impossible without it. Through intentional encounter with our complex legacies, our border-crossing specters, we are reminded of our precarity, and of the need to transform “contamination” into “livable collaborations.” Instead of sterilizing and rejecting messy legacies, we can acknowledge them, and then draw upon our own chaotic depths as a great source of creative potential, to live into a new kind of future.

How should we prepare?

Against Absolution

Recognizing specters as ancestors, and accepting inheritance of their legacy, involves pursuing goals of restorative justice with respect to those who continue to be harmed by that legacy. We inherit the problems caused by our own ancestors, as well as the responsibility to respond to those problems. The responsibility to pursue justice falls not necessarily on those who are morally culpable, but rather on those who, due to their place in a complex web of historical inter-relationality, have inherited the burden. These may also be the same people who benefit in some way from this legacy, just as others continue to suffer harm from it.

The challenge is to encourage those inheritors to be responsible, and if necessary, renounce those benefits for the sake of justice. Specter-ancestors which emerged out of historical wounds coexist, we must also remember, with ancestral legacies born of survival, cooperation, and hope. We must learn the names of these ancestors – whether actual historical people, the lessons of traditional knowledges, important plant or animal teachers, or enduring values – and call upon them as allies as we seek to face those who haunt us. This kind of ethics isn’t about an “accounting” or “absolution.” This is about encountering our specters, recognizing them, and seeking transformation. Perhaps “forgiveness” doesn’t enter into this – maybe it can’t. The causal links are so stretched, the responsibility so distributed, how could asking for or granting forgiveness between living people be enough? And in this scenario, who speaks for the land? Are we so concerned about absolution that we are not prepared to face the reality, and responsibility, of seeking other ways to mend broken relationships?

Expanding Kinship Ethics to Non-Humans

If we are to avoid perpetuating old anthropocentrisms, we must invite the land to speak for itself, to address the land and non-human persons as present, acknowledged, honored cohabiters and members of a common community of persons. The goal is not to equalize human ownership of the land, but to imbue with a sense of justice the human and non-human co-habitation of place. The land itself is an ancestor, whose greater Body holds the bones of genetic and cultural human ancestors in its own flesh, whose Flesh has been poisoned by their actions, but which is also nourished by their decomposition.

Tim Ingold describes how, in the “relational model” of ancestry shared by various indigenous groups, non-humans such as animal spirits, rivers, and features of the landscape can be engaged as ancestors.   Contrary to what he labels the “genealogical model,” and contrary also to traditional anthropological classifications such as “fictive kinship,” the relational model defines parents and ancestors as those who, “by their presence, their activities and the nurturance they provide … establish the necessary conditions in the environment for their children’s growth and development.”  It is in this sense, by understanding all those who contribute to “a sphere of nurturance” as kin, that we can extend our networks of relationality to include the non-human persons who give rise to us. The question of who speaks for the land must be rephrased and extended: What steps must we take to allow the voices of our non-human kin to reach us? What depth of silence, what sensitivity of listening must we adopt? Can we merely “hold space” for those presences, or is a more active engagement possible? One form of active engagement may be a bold “plunge” into the “flesh of the world.”

Deep Materiality and the Flesh-of-the-World

One of the perspectives at the core of dark green religion is the notion that humans, along with all other animals, plants, and the earth’s biotic systems, are members of a common web of inter-being. Understanding this claim, and expanding upon it, is key to developing a dark green religiosity which can bear the weight of its specters.  If we want to understand why these specters linger, we need to develop a more detailed, dynamic picture of ourselves and our world. We need to quicken our materiality with vibrancy, and endow our ideologies with the substance and consequence of matter. Specters haunt blood, bone, soil, speech, memory, CO2 emissions, government policy, and family dynamics.

Our flesh extends beyond the layer of skin – we share flesh with the world. When we enter deep engagement with others – to include non-humans and the land, we feel ourselves “penetrated by something more primordial than our culture and ego,” Kenneth Liberman writes of the value of the “wilderness experience” through the lens of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology.  The humility generated in this experience can lead to a kind of “anonymity,” whereby individual identities are diffused and extended across the many inter-penetrating encounters which co-create them. What might we learn through this deliberate “plunging” into the flesh of the world, even as it makes us more intimate with the specters that haunt us?

Recognize Asymmetrical Relations

It is important to recognize the deeply asymmetrical nature of current conditions. To those for whom the power of self-determination has been taken away, “collaboration” can become just another method of colonization. Tsing’s “contamination as collaboration” model is a neutral one, and is not meant to comment on the ethics of such contamination.

Ethically encountering each other’s specters, and responsibly seeking to welcome the gift of the future, requires that the various inheritors of those painful legacies adopt different attitudes and behaviors, so that the experience does not become a re-traumatization for some, and a self-indulgent guilt-party for others. This requires that some take a more active role, while others simply hold space by listening. Regardless of how “contaminated” our specters and histories are, no matter how entangled, some communities have long histories of haunting that are not shared to the same extent with others. A recommendation from the Standing Rock Allies Resource Packet is helpful here:

Ask Permission. Asking permission fundamentally shifts the entitlement inherent to the settler experience. Cultural appropriation is an extension of genocide, forced removals, and land theft, as settlers take what does not belong to them as if it is rightfully theirs. […] This practice can be extended in a variety of ways and open up new modes of relating and relationships.

If specters can be understood as ancestors, as difficult relatives, then it makes sense that they would “belong” more to some communities, some legacies, than others. It is essential, then, that we do not invoke specters who are not ours to claim, but instead gather in solidarity with those who are ready and willing to engage with the specters on their own terms.

The Power of Creativity and Ritual

Creativity can be an “escape hatch” out of conformity to the given (repetition of established patterns of emotion, empathy, etc.), and into the inventive excess that comes with embracing creaturely vitality. According to Brian Massumi, our potential for self-surpassing is rooted deeply in our animal legacy. It is an old, instinctive, intuitive ability, deeply connected to sympathy, which emerges out of the “ludic gesture” of play or play-like behavior.  “Ludic” behavior registers affectively, intuitively, sympathetically, and performs the possibility of transforming the given into something new. Massumi points to a reservoir of strategies for transformation, ecstasy, and sympathy, hidden in our very instincts, which we’ve clouded over by this facile distinction between animals and humans.

The power of ritual is rooted in these creative legacies. Ritualization makes a set of actions distinct from those of commonplace, everyday behavior, and sets them apart for special consideration, with their own kind of intensity. Ritual is a way of marking off space and time from usual, quotidian experience. Ritual stages the bodies of the participants into a new, intentionally-crafted kind of relationship to space and time, and to each other. It deliberately sets time “out of joint.” Where better to encounter a specter?

Ritual and Inter-Religious Community Building

Those strategies for reorientation discussed above offer one guide to the kind of preparations needed, but the truly essential preparatory task is to grow the kind of inter-religious and inter-cultural relationships which can more fully integrate communities into kinship networks, cognizant of asymmetrical power relations and differential histories; however, this task may be more difficult as the scale of communities involved increases.

The aim of a ritual of encounter would be to re-consecrate the public grounds of a given community – not to “cleanse” the land of the memory of past evils, but rather to transform the relationships between all participants, to rebalance asymmetrical relationships between humans – that is, community members of different inheritances – non-human people, and the land itself. It could not be confined within discrete, traditional boundaries; the land has no religion, nor do the animals, our communities are religiously diverse, and our specters haunt across time and traditions. Even so, religious traditions have given and continue to give life to these specters.

In light of these issues, any ritual would need to be developed democratically, with contributions from representatives of the different traditions practiced by members of a given community. During the ritual, participants would then be able to speak from their own traditions, drawing strength from (and addressing the complicity of) their specific inheritances, rather than attempting to ignore or transcend these legacies. Members of every religious tradition, regardless of belief, share the desire to cultivate right relationship with all beings, to dismantle systems of injustice, and heal deep wounds dividing members of a common community.

Part Four will end this series with an attempt to frame such a ritual of encounter.


Bell, Catherine. “Action and Practice.” In Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, 67–93. Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 1992.

Ingold, Tim. “A Circumpolar Night’s Dream.” In The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling & Skill, 89–110. New York: Routledge, 2000.

———. “Ancestry, Generation, Substance, Memory, Land.” In The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling, and Skill, 132–51. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Liberman, Kenneth. “An Inquiry into the Intercorporeal Relations Between Humans and the Earth.” In Merleau-Ponty and Environmental Philosophy: Dwelling on the Landscapes of Thought, edited by Sue L Cataldi and William S Hamrick, 37–49. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.

Massumi, Brian. What Animals Teach Us about Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Standing Rock Solidarity Network. “Standing Rock Allies Resource Packet: When You Return Home,” 2016.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, 2015.

Emile’s blog is here.

Emile WayneAmelia “Émile” Wayne has studied the intersections of religion, history, and culture for eight years, and has spent the last two years teaching undergraduates in various Humanities courses as an adjunct professor. Émile’s personal spiritual quest flowed along lines of inquiry laid out by research, and eventually led them to seek out a form of religion which could counterbalance Émile’s tendency toward intellectual abstraction through a radical affirmation of lived experience. It was through participating in Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF) style rituals that Émile came to embrace Paganism. Émile will be pursuing a PhD in Philosophy and Theology at Drew University in New Jersey from 2016-2019. Their goal is to construct a naturalistic pagan philosophy which engages Queer Theory, Process Philosophy, and Ecstatic Naturalism, while remaining firmly rooted in actual soil and actual lives. While not studying or teaching, Emile enjoys horseback riding, mystery dramas, and craft beer.

Read Emile’s previous posts here.

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