Though I maintain a healthy amount of suspicion, I tend toward a heuristic of faith and quickly fall in love with the ideas that saturate my life. How Forests Think is described as an anthropological work, but Eduardo Kohn’s radical thinking evades categorization. Because Kohn bypasses epistemological barriers—enjoining others in the ontological turn—one might consider this a work of speculative (yet grounded) philosophy. I would go further, though, and as you will discover if you have the time to read (or listen) to my words, and call it a work of art. Reading it, for me, was an experience. I intend for this website to be a home for ideas—those “qualities entertained as objects in conceptual activity [that] are of the nature of catalytic agents—”that build toward a re-enchanted worldview. Kohn’s ideas reintroduce our thinking to the world from which it came—a world of images—and invite us to recognize how the world may indeed be thinking through us.
Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human is an estrangement and a homecoming. As the subtitle reads, Kohn seeks to take anthropology—and his readers—beyond the human. But why should the study of what makes humans human concern anything more than us? Kohn’s answer, as with the entire book, is practical: “how other beings see us matters.” Immediately we recoil. An epistemic law has been broken. How can we presume to know anything about how another (nonhuman) being sees us? Kohn might simply say, “for our own survival.” To those of us living in cities or suburbs—even rural America—this answer might seem exotic. But to human beings who live on the edge of the Amazon Rainforest—like the Runa of Ávila, the subjects of Kohn’s ethnographic meditation—our speculative question is vital. It is a matter of life and death: those who sleep face-up are recognized by the jaguar as fellow selves, while those who sleep face-down risk being seen as her object of prey. This dilemma is how Kohn introduces his “analytic beyond the human.” Our ecological crisis is forcing us to make ontological assumptions that burst our sociocultural and historically-contingent bubble. Until now “our social theory…[, which]…conflates representation with language,”[i] has bound our thoughts within a complex whole. This so-called complex whole is the axiom of human culture, understood by many proponents of the linguistic turn to be resolutely closed—all our knowledge encaged by a matrix of exclusively human-wrought meaning. But upon considering the jaguar’s perspective, we release our thoughts into a wild flock.
The heart of Chapter One, “The Open Whole,” is Kohn’s restoration of meaning to the world. The human capacity for symbolic thought may be unique, but it is not ex nihilo. The semiotic philosophy of the “weird” Charles Peirce figures largely in Kohn’s work. Kohn says, though, that his approach is not one of merely applying Peirce to the forest, but one more of “allowing the forest to think through [him (Kohn), while]…also using Peirce’s framework.”[ii] Kohn borrows his working “agnostic definition” of the word sign from Peirce’s: “something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity.”[iii] Human language includes indices, icons, and symbols, the last of which as Kohn has it, are slightly more removed from the natural world. Shooting up from the root system of icon and the stem support of index, symbols “refer to their object indirectly by virtue of the ways in which they relate systemically to other such symbols. Symbols involve convention.” As far as we know, humans are the exclusive users of symbols, but flowers don’t bloom from nowhere. To the extent that symbols rely on other forms of communication, signs can be seen to extend beyond symbolic language. Therefore, what we as humans can know and the range of beings we might commune with opens up.
The significance of asking how the jaguar sees us implies that we might grant the jaguar selfhood. And indeed, this is in line with Kohn’s definition of life as being “constitutively semiotic. That is, life is, through and through, the product of sign processes.”[iv] To Kohn, all life-forms represent the world in some way(s); life’s tendency to represent has a reciprocal effect of producing a perspective, that which observes the representation. The marriage of life and representation “allows us to situate distinctively human ways of being in the world as both emergent from and in continuity with a broader living semiotic realm.”[v] This is Kohn’s move to provincialize language as one unique way of making meaning among many along the landscape of the cosmos.
The predominant view in the social sciences is that we can only understand something by relating it to other things that make up a complex—but self-referentially closed—whole of meaning. This approach is the very reason for Kohn’s provincializing of language, for it shows how our thinking as human beings has been “colonized” by symbolic thought. Words can only mean something in relation to other words. And likewise, “we can only imagine the ways in which selves and thoughts might form associations through our assumptions about the forms of associations that structure human language.”[vi] But now, after the linguistic turn, we swerve again, this time “away from the internal analysis of social conventions and institutions towards the interactions of humans with (and between) animals, plants, physical processes, artifacts, images, and other forms of being.”[vii] Thus the Runian “word,” or sound image, “tsupu.” Similar to how we understand onomatopoeia, “words” that are really only translations of sounds into language (e.g. meeeeeow!), “tsupu” is an icon that refers “to an entity as it makes contact with and then penetrates a body of water.”[viii] Upon hearing this definition, Kohn says that people often “experience a sudden feel for its meaning.”[ix] This recognition across languages (the Runa speak Quichuan) punctures the closed whole of our colonized way of thinking and lets slip a sound of the world. Just like “meow,” the meaning of “tsupu” is not reliant on its relationship to other words for meaning.
By paying attention to certain instances, customs, or ways of knowing among the Runa, Kohn distills amplified generals of our shared world throughout the book. “Tsupu” is an example and so is the animistic orientation of the Runa (animistic, i.e., “the attribution of enchantment,” the capacity to make and interpret meaning, to “other-than-human loci”[x]). In Chapter Two, “The Living Thought,” Kohn explains the centrality of the animistic perspective to the Runa and its relevance for us:
People in Ávila, if they are to successfully penetrate the relational logics that create, connect, and sustain the beings of the forest, must in some way recognize this basic animacy. Runa animism, then, is a way of attending to living thoughts in the world that amplifies and reveals important properties of lives and thoughts…Paying attention to these engagements with the living thoughts of the world can help us think anthropology differently. It can help us imagine a set of conceptual tools we can use to attend to the ways in which our lives are shaped by how we live in a world that extends beyond the human.[xi]
Animism is not a romantic or even chosen approach to living for the Runa. It is necessary for survival. The importance of anticipating how a jaguar might respond to our behavior reveals the inherent futurity of semiosis—selves represent to continue living. “Aboutness,” writes Kohn, “—representation, intention, and purpose in their most basic forms—is an intrinsic structuring feature of living dynamics in the biological world.”[xii] The evolutionary process itself is driven by semiosis wherein selfhood extends to entire biological lineages and representation encompasses the process of adaptation. Biology thinks its way into the future. Relationality takes on a new meaning in this purview in that the “logic that structures relations among selves is the same as that which structures relations among signs.”[xiii] This is one way of understanding what Kohn means when he asserts that forests think. Living selves are the thoughts in the mind of a forest.
Chapter Three, “Soul Blindness,” discusses the relativity of identity among the ecology of selves that makes up a forest. As modeled by our relationship with the jaguar, the line between self and other is blurry at best. Self and object are co-constitutive. Kohn writes, “before living thoughts emerged on this earth nothing ever came to stand in relationship to a self as an object or as another. Objects, like selves, are also effects of semiosis.”[xiv] For Kohn, the soul is an intersubjective effect that emerges from communication between selves. To remain a self, one “must recognize the soul-stuff of the other souled selves that inhabit the cosmos.”[xv] In contrast, soul blindness refers to the loss of such a capacity. For the hunter, being able to distinguish prey from the larger environment is contingent on seeing the creature as a self. Simply put, “our lives depend on our abilities to believe in and act on the provisional guesses we make about the motivations of other selves.”[xvi] It is a tragic and dissonant fact that selves must consume other selves in order to live, and this dissonance is captured in the conversion of a self into an object. “To eat them as food,” Kohn writes, they must become “dead meat.”[xvii] Although most of us reared in industrial society are far removed from the production of our food, English names for animal products (i.e. pork, beef, veal) reflect the same necessity of abstracting from the selfhood of the once living creature now unrecognizable on our plates. Whether one is subject or object, essential to this chapter is Kohn’s point that “what kind of being one comes to be is the product of how one sees as well as how one is seen by other kinds of beings.”[xviii] What the Runa amplify for Kohn is the potential for an anthropology beyond the human to utilize a “self-reflexive defamiliarization” of natures rather than cultures; by “stepping out of our bodies and into those of other beings…we see a different world from the subjective, I, point of view of another kind of embodiment. We are able, for a moment to live in a different nature.”[xix] In wake of the Anthropocene, imagining into the selfhood of the world’s dwindling biosphere is of obvious importance.
To mitigate the loss of species occurring in our time we must sensitize ourselves to the needs of those nonhuman others we are so inextricably tied to. Chapter Four, “Trans-Species Pidgins,” explores the Runa-forest relationship for glimmers of that possibility. To develop an ethic of care “that does not simply project human qualities everywhere,” Kohn writes, “we must situate morality ontologically.”[xx] We may simplify our problem by understanding the human capacity for morals in relation to symbolic reference: “It [symbolic reference] requires the ability to momentarily distance ourselves from the world and our actions in it to reflect on our possible modes of future conduct.”[xxi] Morality, then, is emergent, and its roots are in value. All livings beings participate in value by discerning good from bad. Sensitizing ourselves to the needs of nonhumans “forces us to think beyond our moral worlds in ways that can help us imagine and realize better worlds.”[xxii] That the Quichuan word runa is equivalent to the English word person is a clue as to how. “Runa,” Kohn explains, “is used as a sort of pronominal marker of the subject position—for all selves see themselves as persons.”[xxiii] Here again is the distinction of natures versus cultures. Rather than attempt in vain to enter another closed whole (culture), the Runa model a way of slipping in and out of other bodies, becoming-with other natures. This is the opposite extreme of soul blindness. Both come with a cost; the former, a loss of our humanity, the latter, the solipsism of “monadic isolation.” Consider the Runian phrase runa-puma. If runa means person, then runa-puma refers to a person-jaguar, or person-predator. Our experience of meeting the eyes of a jaguar makes us into “beings who can see themselves being seen by jaguars as fellow predators, and who also sometimes see other humans the way jaguars do, as prey.”[xxiv] Implicit in this example is the importance either way of walking a middle path—if we identify completely as runa-puma, we may end up cannibals, but if we shirk the gaze of a jaguar, we may end up her meal.
In our struggle to communicate with other beings, we must grapple with the constraints of their unique semiotic modalities.[xxv] Chapter Five, “Form’s Effortless Efficacy,” builds on our wish to make contact by exploring “how certain configurations of constraint on possibility emerge and…the particular manner in which such configurations propagate in the world in ways that result in a sort of pattern.”[xxvi] This is what Kohn calls form. The decolonization of our thoughts extends to the status of form and challenges us to rethink what we might otherwise assume as something we humans make up. Kohn’s perspective is an anti-nominalist one, after all. Riverine networks of the Amazon are a prime example of this kind of immanent patterning in their “self-similarity across scale,” with their creeks and streams as fractal echoes of a basic form. Thus, navigating a river system is one way of being inside of and harnessing the “effortless efficacy” of form. Another is hunting. Kohn explains:
Because of the high species diversity and the local rarity of species and the lack of any one fruiting season, the fruits that animals eat are highly dispersed…This means that at any given time there will exist a different geometrical constellation of fruiting resources that attracts animals…that predators are, in turn, attracted to this concentration of animals further amplifies the pattern of distribution of life across the forest landscape. This results in a particular pattern of potential game meat…[xxvii]
Rather than expend energy and time hunting animals directly, Ávila hunters allow the formal patterning of the forest to think through them and follow it to those constellations of fruiting trees and game meat. Kohn’s understanding of form as something one is “inside,” “quite different from the push-and-pull logic we usually associate with the physical effort needed to do something,” is wonderfully evocative of concepts like wu wei (non-action) from the Daoist tradition.[xxviii] Kohn’s ethnographic artistry abounds in examples (e.g. dreaming, rubber-trapping, shamanic empowerment) of form that I enthusiastically encourage readers to discover for themselves.
Chapter Six, “The Living Future (and the Imponderable Weight of the Dead),” considers how an anthropology beyond the human might understand the paradox of life—its inherent futurity and mandate of death. The semiotic nature of life has representation concerned with survival; in Kohn’s words, “we all always have one foot (or paw) in the future,” but as he goes on to say, “this living future…cannot be understood without further reflecting on the special links that life has to all the dead that make life possible. It is in this sense that the living forest is also one that is haunted.”[xxix] What the Runa amplify for Kohn about the continuity of life is tied up with their relationship to the forest’s emergent spirit realm, the afterlife. The earlier translation of runa as person was a hint that it does not refer specifically to an ethnic group (ours and Kohn’s use of it as a proper noun is for the sake of communication). In fact, the Runa of Ávila don’t even identify themselves that way or any other. For them, runa has a much more general meaning:
“Runa” more accurately marks a relational subject position in a cosmic ecology of selves in which all beings see themselves as persons. “Runa” here is the self, in continuity of form. All beings are, from their points of view, in a sense “Runa,” because this is how they would experience themselves when saying “I.”[xxx]
“Death for the self,” then, as Kohn puts it, “is ineffable, for the self is simply a continuation of life. The self is a general…it is the experience of the death of others by the living that is so hard to bear, because it is what is palpable.”[xxxi] Kohn’s assertion that the self continues may seem strange to us, but as that reciprocal effect of life’s tendency to represent the world, self as defined by Kohn transcends any reductionist ontology that would terminate it at bodily death. When we stop to ponder our own deaths and arrive only at mystery we might nod our heads—how else could we be but in being? With the problem of death aside, I now turn to that ethereal future realm and how one’s relationship to it in the present determines one’s survival.
Like navigating a river, our relationship to the living future is participatory. In Kohn’s view, the spirit realm the Runa interact with is a co-creative emergence of Amazonia’s various denizens. Yet, while it is collaborative, it is also heavily saturated with the “all too human.” It’s formal logic, then, comes to reflect all of the forest’s historical (i.e. colonial) influence “and thus permits and constrains, who and how an I can be, at the same time that it provides the vessel for continuity—the survival—of that I.”[xxxii] For the Runa, “who have long lived in a world where whites…have stood in manifest dominance over them,” this often means becoming white.[xxxiii] Oswaldo, one of Kohn’s ethnographic subjects, gives an example as he recounts a dream for us in which appeared a “’menacing[, white] policeman’” whose “’shirt was covered with clippings from a haircut.’”[xxxiv] For Oswaldo, this dream—an intimation of the future—was initially interpreted as a bad sign, for he had understood the white policeman to be his own predator. But as things would have it, Oswaldo ended up occupying the position of the predator when he successfully killed a peccary in the forest later on. Kohn elaborates further,
That Oswaldo at a certain moment in the forest can—perhaps must—be a white policeman, involves the particular and sometimes disjointed and even painful ways in which some aspect of his future self reaches back to affect him from the realm of the masters…The spirit realm that emerges, as a product of a whole host of relations that cross species lines and temporal epochs, is then a zone of continuity and possibility: Oswaldo’s survival depends on his ability to access it.” [xxxv]
Aside from challenging our understanding of both positionality and causality, what the Runa amplify for us once again is the extent to which our selfhood—our survival—is bound up with the way others see us. There is much more to this chapter and to the spirit realm of the forest than can be dwelt on here, and so again, I encourage the reader to dive into Kohn’s artistry.
How Forests Think, a seminal work ten years in the making, naturally ends with an epilogue titled, “Beyond.” Kohn’s central aim was to think like a forest, that is, in images, and in doing so, make us over—take us beyond our “doubt-ridden human housing.”[xxxvi] Indeed, even in this review, we taste the bidden fruit of Eden and in some way re-member what it’s like to see nonhuman selves seeing us. Yet, paradoxically, we bite the apple and gain a more refined understanding of what it means to be human. It is all necessary, as Kohn heroically explains, for “if ‘we’ are to survive the Anthropocene—this indeterminate epoch of ours in which the world beyond the human is being increasingly made-over by the all-too-human—we will have to actively cultivate these ways of thinking with and like forests.”[xxxvii] Sadly, what is lost in the review of this artful book is the phantasmagoria of images—“be they oneiric, aural, anecdotal, mythic, or even photographic”[xxxviii]—that make it. And once more—rather than goad—I lovingly wish that you, the reader, find a copy in your hands one day, so that you might join in on its gift to posterity—our, hopefully, living future.
[i] Kohn, How Forests Think, 8.
[ii] Kohn being interviewed by Marshall Poe in New Books in Latin American Studies.
[iii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 29.
[iv] Kohn, How Forests Think, 9.
[v] Kohn, How Forests Think, 16.
[vi] Kohn, How Forests Think, 20.
[vii] Phillipe Descola, “All Too Human (still),” 268.
[viii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 27.
[x] Kohn, How Forests Think, 72.
[xii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 73-74.
[xiii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 83.
[xiv] Kohn, How Forests Think, 104.
[xv] Kohn, How Forests Think, 111.
[xvi] Kohn, How Forests Think, 118.
[xvii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 119.
[xviii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 120.
[xix] Kohn, How Forests Think, 126.
[xx] Kohn, How Forests Think, 133.
[xxii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 134.
[xxiii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 139.
[xxiv] Kohn, How Forests Think, 2.
[xxv] Kohn, How Forests Think, 148.
[xxvi] Kohn, How Forests Think, 156.
[xxvii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 163.
[xxix] Kohn, How Forests Think, 194.
[xxx] Kohn, How Forests Think, 200.
[xxxi] Kohn, How Forests Think, 211.
[xxxii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 213.
[xxxiii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 192.
[xxxiv] Kohn, How Forests Think, 191.
[xxxv] Kohn, How Forests Think, 200.
[xxxvi] Kohn, How Forests Think, 228.
[xxxvii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 227.
[xxxviii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 222.
Descola, Phillipe. “All too human (still) A comment on Eduardo Kohn’s How forests think.” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4, no. 2 (2014): 267–273, http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.2.015
Kohn, Eduardo. How Forests Think: An Antrhopology Beyond the Human. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013.
Eduardo Kohn, interview with Marshall Poe, New Books in Latin American Studies, podcast audio, February 9th, 2014, https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/new-books-in-latin-american-studies/id425192236?mt=2