Eduardo Kohn challenges the very foundations of anthropology, calling into question our central assumptions about what it means to be human—and thus distinct from all other life forms
Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think, University of California Press, 2013.
Can forests think? Do dogs dream? In this astonishing book, Eduardo Kohn challenges the very foundations of anthropology, calling into question our central assumptions about what it means to be human—and thus distinct from all other life forms. Based on four years of fieldwork among the Runa of Ecuador’s Upper Amazon, Eduardo Kohn draws on his rich ethnography to explore how Amazonians interact with the many creatures that inhabit one of the world’s most complex ecosystems. Whether or not we recognize it, our anthropological tools hinge on those capacities that make us distinctly human. However, when we turn our ethnographic attention to how we relate to other kinds of beings, these tools (which have the effect of divorcing us from the rest of the world) break down. How Forests Think seizes on this breakdown as an opportunity. Avoiding reductionistic solutions, and without losing sight of how our lives and those of others are caught up in the moral webs we humans spin, this book skillfully fashions new kinds of conceptual tools from the strange and unexpected properties of the living world itself. In this groundbreaking work, Kohn takes anthropology in a new and exciting direction–one that offers a more capacious way to think about the world we share with other kinds of beings.
The poets I know read two kinds of books: poetry, and things they hope to turn into poetry. The latter can be almost anything, from tabloids to scripture (though generally not literary fiction; this poets read half-ashamedly, for "fun"). Nonfiction is especially popular: history, philosophy, science. One friend swears by vintage Golden Guides, with their specialist vocabulary and their midcentury muscular prose: "Dendritic drainage patterns are those that show treelike branching because the bedrock has a uniform resistance to erosion and does not influence the direction of stream flow" (Geology by Frank H. T. Rhodes, 1972).
Since the 1970s, theory has exerted a powerful hold -- French theory, linguistics, anthropology, and cultural criticism of various stripes. Why? I think it's about structure. Theory is full of structural ideas, ways to see and understand the world, which are catnip to marauding poets. One does not even have to believe in a structure's reality to make good use of it. In fact, reading The L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E Book, Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein's 1984 anthology of the much-loved and -loathed poetry movement, I slog through good-student applications of theory -- "Its line of advance propels it across the axis of the law, lexis, as a praxis which at precisely that juncture of abrasive contact discovers itself to be not parallel to the law..." (Jed Rasula) -- then somersault with mercurial thinkers like Lyn Hejinian: "Marvelous are the dimensions and therefore marveling is understandable -- and often understanding."
Is this responsible of me or them? Does this make poets the Vikings of literature, pillaging, looting, leaving the church in flames? We shall see.
In the meantime, I have a new favorite book I'd like to turn into poetry: How Forests Think by Eduardo Kohn. Kohn's subtitle is Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human; his method is to elucidate incidents from his fieldwork among the Amazonian Runa with theoretical frameworks that reveal... but never mind all that overview, we're poets, remember? And to that end I may as well admit that great swaths of this book mean nothing to me. "It means due to a certain kind of absence of attention to difference," Kohn murmurs, putting me to sleep, and then two pages later a fierce and jagged underline scores a phrase that brought me awake wide-eyed.
For me, Kohn is at his best when offering educated observations about how the Runa and their world think and live. For example, Kohn describes a Runa family's efforts to predict when the winged ants -- a great delicacy -- near their home will take flight, employing methods that, to a Western mind, endow the ants with too much personality. They whistle, for instance, a call that they believe the ants recognize as the call of their mothers. This page-turning drama of ants trying to survive and others trying to survive on the ants ends in success for the Runa: "By treating ants as the intentional communicating selves they are," the Runa are able to harvest them.
Like that one? Here's another. Kohn trips several times on a path; when a Runa friend points this out to him, he realizes that he is merely approximating the path: "I could get away with this because my regular gait was an interpretive habit -- an image of the path -- that was good enough for the challenge at hand."
What if conditions change? Then how we approximate the world may matter more. In fact, Kohn hints that the richness of our approximation of the world -- call it our aliveness -- may determine our survival.
But these instances are not merely trinkets. They lead to Kohn's larger argument, which I half-understand thusly: he means to attach us again to the world we thought our thinking removed us from by showing us that the world too thinks. He is enchanting the real world or reifying the enchanted one: "If thoughts are alive and that which lives thinks, then perhaps the living world is enchanted. What I mean is that the world beyond the human is not a meaningless one made meaningful by humans."
Is Kohn simply redrawing the boundaries, redefining self, live, think? It's possible. But the imaginative possibility counts for us poets, or for anyone who uses words, or thinks in symbols, or interprets at all -- which, Kohn shows, is everyone, by which I mean everything.
More happens here. After my mind had already been blown enough for one book, I came across this, in which Kohn follows the philosopher Charles S. Pierce: "Because all experiences and all thoughts, for all selves, are semiotically mediated, introspection, human-to-human intersubjectivity, and even trans-species sympathy and communication are not categorically different. They are all sign processes."
So I am a forest and you are a forest. Kohn tells us that the Runa especially value stories, dreams, and thoughts that cross species perspectives -- perhaps because the better the Runa think as other beings, the better they hunt and survive. He goes on to suggest that thinking may be, in essence, crossing perspectives.
And this is why I do not think poets need to fear their desire to make off with the tasty bits here. This is not always true. Can we agree amongst ourselves to write no more Anthropologie poems? You know what I mean: the poems that seize a picturesque "cultural" detail against which to set a bourgeois realization. That is poet as marauder in the worst way. But to play with Kohn's thoughts is to enter the enchanted forest -- not as a conqueror but as another animal, thought, self.
I am thinking, now, of the highway I drive to work, which is always smeared with blood and littered with deer carcasses. I've never seen a road so gory. I'm also thinking of how Kohn defines a soul as an essence in relation; all who perceive others have these auras, almas, souls that others in turn perceive. The other day I saw a live deer by the road for the first time. Small, rumpled, he grazed with his rump to the traffic. He did not look up for me, but I knew he could; I was possessed briefly by that life as I flew by him at seventy miles an hour.
Come to think of it, perhaps I mean Books for Artists. I know dancers and painters who would groove to Kohn's expansion of self and thought and living, and I want to see the dances, paintings, films, buildings that come out of dreaming over this book.
Or perhaps I mean simply Books for People. Don't we all read this way -- or wouldn't we like to: dropping external demands and letting the aesthetic, like a muscle, like a tongue, run over the text before us? Or perhaps I mean Books for People because the aesthetic seeks what it needs, and everyone needs structures, needs new ways to think about what happens. This passage arrested me:
The I is in form and outside of history.... This is why nothing can happen to it. Heaven is a continuation of form. Hell is history; it is what happens to others. Heaven is a realm where people are not subject to time. They never age. They never die there. Only its can be in time. Only they can be affected, subject to dyadic cause-and-effect, out of form, subject to history -- punished.What do you need to understand or imagine? Do it here. - Lightsey Darst
There is a long genealogy of anthropologists who have borrowed their titles from the translation of Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s La mentalité primitive — How Natives Think. Running from Marshall Sahlins’ How “Natives” Think to Maurice Bloch’s How We Think They Think, these transformations run parallel to those of the discipline itself. By entitling his book How Forests Think, Eduardo Kohn indicates that he doesn’t study the way the people he worked with in Ecuador thought about forests, but the way forests actually think. By making a claim about the relation between life and thought, this book takes part in the ontological turn (Candea 2010) that decenters anthropologists’ longstanding focus on cultural representations to ask how representations emerge within forms of life. Following Philippe Descola and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo Kohn shows that Amazonian ethnography challenges our conceptions of life and thought in a way that raises the ontological question of what there is. As the ecological crisis leads to a proliferation of new entities that both blur the opposition between nature and culture and ask for political recognition – “pets, weeds, pests, commensals, new pathogens, ‘wild’ animals, or technoscientific ‘mutants,’” (9) this kind of ethnography cautiously scrutinizes the continuities and discontinuities between humans and nonhumans. The book is ethnographic in a classical sense, and yet its chapters follow a theoretical progression, while powerful images plunge into an “enchanted” world – a term Kohn takes up deliberately – entangling humans and nonhumans in puzzling ways.
The main thesis of the book is about semiosis, the life of signs. If we are troubled by the idea that forests think, it is because we conceive thinking as a conventional relation to the world. Following 19th century American philosopher Charles Saunders Peirce, Kohn argues that all signs are not conventional symbols, and that there are other ways to learn the meaning of signs than to relate them to each other in a cultural context. When a hunter describes the fall of a palm tree under the weight of a monkey as pu’oh, the meaning of this sign is felt with evidence, without knowledge of Quichua (the language spoken by Kohn’s informants), because it relates hunters, monkeys and trees in a complex ecosystem. Kohn asks for “decolonizing thought” and “provincializing language” by looking at relations between signs that are not symbolic. Hence the program of an “anthropology beyond the human” that places human symbols in the forms of life from which they emerge. Without romanticizing tropical nature, Kohn argues that most of our problems are ill-shaped, or filled with anxiety – as in a wonderful description of the bus trip that led him to Avila – if we don’t place them in a larger semiotic field.
Following Terrence Deacon’s interpretation of Peirce (2012), Kohn is less interested in the classifications of signs into indices, icons and symbols than in the process through which they emerge one from the other. A sign refers to something absent that exists in futuro, just as the crashing of the palm tree under the weight of a monkey refers to a coming danger for the monkey, and a possible catch for the hunter. Habits fix the meaning of signs by producing similarity, and are considered as “interpretants” of signs. Using the example of the walking-stick insect, Kohn argues that what appears to look similar is actually the product of a selection from beings that looked different. Signs thus refer to the past as a memory of beings who have disappeared. Since this relation to the past and future is what, for Peirce, constitutes selves, all living beings, and not only humans, can be considered as selves.
The strangeness of Kohn’s text come from the way it interlaces these theoretical analyses of signs with an account of the life of the Runa people, considered not as a cultural context but as “amplifying” certain ontological properties of life itself. “Living beings are loci of selfhood,” Kohn writes. “I make this claim empirically. It grows out of my attention to Runa relations with nonhuman beings as these reveal themselves ethnographically. These relations amplify certain properties of the world, and this amplification can infect and affect our thinking about the world,” (94). This is an original intervention in the ontological reappraisal of animism. Kohn neither contrasts animism to naturalism as two inverse ontologies in the mode of Descola, nor does he engage in the paradoxes of perspectivism like Viveiros. Instead, he considers living beings as selves in relation to past and future relations, and social life as an amplification of this process of self-formation.
Thus, puma designates both predators like jaguars and shamans who can see the way that jaguars see. Runa people need to learn how jaguars see in order not to be eaten by them. The soul, as what exceeds the limits of the body, is “an effect of intersubjective semiotic interpretance,” (107). What Kohn calls “soul blindness” is an inattention to the effects of the souls of other living beings. The problem is how to live with runa puma: jaguars who act like humans, and kill to revenge other killings, who are dreaded but also considered to be mature selves.
Dreams, analyzed in Chapter 4, are common ways of communication with souls and remediating “soul blindness.” Runa people give hallucinatory drugs to dogs so that they will dream, and their barks during dreaming are interpreted literally—in the same way as their daytime barks–while human dreams of hunting are interpreted metaphorically. Rather than doing a symbolic analysis of dreams, Kohn places them in the semiotic life they express, between humans, dogs and jaguars. Dreams are ways of communicating between species without abolishing them, constituting a “trans-species pidgin.”
In Chapter 5, Kohn makes an important distinction between form and sign. “Whereas semiosis is in and of the living world beyond the human, form emerges from and is part and parcel of the nonliving one as well,” (174). The question he asks is that of the efficacy of form, the constraint it exerts on living beings. Taking the example of the distribution of rubber trees in the Amazonian forest, which depends on the ecology of parasites as well as on the network of rivers, he argues that shamanistic hunting and the colonial extraction of rubber were both constrained by the same form. Forms have a causality that is not moral but that can be called hierarchical: signs emerge from forms, and symbols from signs, in a hierarchy between levels of emergence that cannot be inversed. This is a powerful interpretation of the insertion of colonial extraction in forms that historically precede it: if power brings with it moral categories, this insertion cannot be thought of as an imposition from above, but rather as a fall-out or an incidental movement.
Kohn links this morphodynamic analysis of colonialism to Lévi-Strauss’s analysis of “la pensée sauvage” - a form of thought emerging from relations between signs rather than being imposed upon them. Through forms and signs, Runa people have “frozen” history in such a way that they can interpret events through their dreams. The dream of Oswaldo, who saw a policeman with hair on his shirt, is ambivalent: does it mean he will be caught by the white man, or that he will be successful in hunting peccaries? The final chapter of the book analyses the reversals in relation between the Runa and White missionaries or policemen, as well as the pronouns by which Runa people refer to themselves as subjects, such as amu. “Amu is a particular colonially inflected way of being a self in an ecology of selves filled with a growing array of future-making habits, many of which are not human. In the process, amu renders visible how a living future gives life some of its special properties and how this involves a dynamic that implicates (but is not reducible to) the past. In doing so, amu, and the spirit realm upon which it draws its power, amplifies something general about life—namely, life’s quality of being in futuro,” (208). The question for Runa people is how they can access the realm of the White masters, that is also the heaven of saints: what is generally called the “super-natural.” To live is to survive, Kohn argues, that is to live beyond life, in the many absences that constitute life as a semiotic process.
The strength of this book is to propose a rigorous demonstration while never leaving empirical analysis. Starting on the level of signs in their triadic mode of existence, Kohn finds form on one side and history on the other, and describes their constraints and ambivalent relationships. This is not a dualism between nature and culture that would be solved through the concept of life – and Kohn tries to avoid an all-encompassing anthropology of life – but a logical tension that is amplified by humans, almost in the way that genetic material is amplified inside and outside the laboratory (Rabinow 1996). Kohn’s anthropology “beyond the human” – but not of the “post-human” – grounds itself in the life of signs where humans emerge to amplify them. The ambition of this ontological claim, its clarity and its theoretical productivity will not doubt be amplified by other ethnographic inquiries on life. - Frédéric Keck
Candea, Matei (2010) Debate: Ontology Is Just Another Word for Culture. Critique of Anthropology 30 (2): 172-179
Deacon, Terrence (2012) Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter. New York: Norton.
Descola, Philippe (2005) Par-delà nature et culture. Paris: Gallimard.
Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo (1998) Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, n.s., 4, 469-488.
Rabinow, Paul (1996) Making PCR, A Story of Biotechnology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.