I wrote this essay during the summertime as an expression of the personal reading I’d been doing at the time. I intended to reconcile what I’d learned about the ancient approach to philosophy as praxis with the more speculative gesture toward re-enchantment I’ve entertained. How can I make re-enchantment real for myself? How am I to live? This essay first outlines what kind of ontology might make that possible. Towards its end I begin developing a basic comportment of re-enchantment, one that emphasizes aesthetic appreciation. This is, of course, an ongoing inquiry for me.
I had the chance to present these ideas more than once, with the first talk taking place at Burning Man and the second at PCC’s retreat to Bishop’s Ranch at the end of September. I’m grateful for these opportunities, for they especially help me to integrate (perform) the vision I hope to one day more fully indwell.
I’ve included the video of the latter talk below and the essay itself below it.
The Fourth Wall Has Broken
How to translate these feelings to you?
I’ll warm up the light temperature, choose a faster shutter speed (this will be slowed-down in post), close down the aperture and keep the light sensitivity low;
I don’t want noise in the image.
Prime my focus on a subject set apart by a glowing outline, backlighting
Hitting my mark, I improvise with the script, speaking to the camera, breaking the fourth wall—the wall with which performers construct a fiction for themselves and their audience: This is the vision I manually construct for you, and in calling attention to it, I call attention to your own perception, your own potential to reconstruct a world-image for living. We are, like the machine modeled after our vision, a lens of the world realizing itself. We needn’t see byway of automatism, autofocusing and adjusting according to preset values dictated by our inheritance. “Performing Re-enchantment” is a style of crafting, not theimage of reality, but animage—one among others. Re-enchantment is an image that makes room for other stories, other enchantments. It allows for stories to resonate, but it also makes itself vulnerable to discord. Re-enchantment is an ecological reality, tentatively woven between perspectives in discord, resolution, and resonance. It depends upon a “we” for its composition. It is not an image of solipsism. Against the despot of the absolute and disembodied objectivity, it celebrates the part’s etheric complicity with the larger whole of undulating magic. Even still, it champions the part’s potential for self-creation and calls it to action.
Performing re-enchantment is a way of collapsing the divide constructed between my inside and my outside. It is the practice of tying myself back with the world. Through sense, I fall in love with the world as my own body. It is the way that I make my partial perspective a “truth,” a scaffolding of belief. Performing re-enchantment is my wakefulness to the art of perception. Perception becomes the primary medium, like the manual relationship of camera to world, for stylizing my participation and efficacy in the continuous medium of the ether, the cosmic imagination dreaming all into being.
Performing re-enchantment is grounded in the groundlessness of an aesthetic ontology. Following Matthew Segall in his dissertation, “The Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead,” I think thinking as a special form of feeling. An aesthetic ontology therefore bounds knowledge to the cosmically sensate. As Segall has it, thought has no privileged access outside of space-time, rather,
when we try to peer beyond the cosmos outside us, or plumb the depths of the psyche within us, we find only more appearances, an infinite ingression of appearances. When the understanding tries to reflectively grasp the infinity of aesthesis, it slips into an infinite regression. It fails to find an original ground or fundamental reason for the ongoing aesthetic genesis of the Universe. Only the creative imagination can intuit the meaning of the infinite aesthetic ingression of Beauty’s appearances.
Like the camera, the eye of the imagination is bound to thisworld—to others—and cannot create a pure image of what the world is really like. Rather, as waking dreams ourselves, we are lured toward instantiations of Beauty for “truth,” those mysterious, living symbols of intelligibility that confound mechanistic reductionism. For German idealist philosopher Fredrich W. J. Schelling, the order apparent in the bodily synchrony of organisms and human art bespeaks the larger etheric undulation of universal organism. But rather than declare this ontology absolutely, Schelling more modestly postulatesthe ether as “the first principle of the universal dualism of nature.”I draw attention to the word “postulates” because, as Keith R. Peterson explains,
the discussion of the “postulate” in Schelling is meant to emphasize the deliberate collapse of theoretical into practical philosophy, or the mediation of all theory by practice, typical of the post-Kantian tradition. This is critical with reference to Schelling’s philosophy of nature, because unless it is seen as an attempt to reground science itself in the soil of practical philosophy, it will be (and has been) viewed at best as merely another narrative, myth, or story about nature.
Schelling’s replanting of theoretical philosophy back in the dirt of the practical from which it arose effectively restores mind to body, soul to world—the relationship par excellence of dipolarity. It is a move that leads Segall to classify Schelling as a descendental philosopher, implying the genetic and this-worldliness of his epistemic approach. In contrast to the eminent transcendental philosopher himself—Immanuel Kant—Schelling accepted that the critical turn in philosophy ultimately reveals the human mind’s codependence with a world for the birth of knowledge. This is what leads Schelling to postulate his notion of “original forces”—or the expanding and contracting dipolarity of universal organism—“not as absolute explanation, but [as] limit concepts” which allow the explanation of “all phenomenon empirically, that is, from the reciprocity of diverse matters.”With the theoretical returned to actual experience, philosophy can no longer be understood as a neutral activity, rather, to philosophize is to act.
The dipolar dynamism of Schelling’s universal organism finds an analog in the process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s concept of creativity. But the similarities go deeper; as Segall writes, “the [descendental] philosophies of Schelling and Whitehead can evidently be understood to orbit around a common intuition, namely that the conceptual division opposing objective reality to subjective ideality can be healed only through an aesthetic act of creative imagination.” Despite their affirmation of creative philosophy, neither Schelling nor Whitehead would support a vacuous relativity where any story goes. Rather, the very structure of story—with its organs of (at least) teller and listener, time and space—calls for the coincidence of perspective and world. For Schelling, Peterson explains, this means that “nature philosophy is not merely another “representation” of a nature to which human beings maintain only a distant and instrumental relation,” bug is rather intrinsic to human experience and thus “the first postulate of philosophy must express the dynamic synthesis of self and world…as an ontological unity from which both terms are derived.” All logos is therefore genetic logos. Unlike Kant, who, to save science from belief and freedom from mechanism, stamps the human subject with exclusive rights to the codex of knowledge, Schelling maintains that the latter relies upon an agreement. That agreement is the unity-in-dipolarity animating the larger dynamism of Schelling’s universal organism. “[To Schelling] self and world,” Peterson tells us, “are of one substance, and we will continue to misunderstand ourselves and undervalue the natural world unless this ontological identity is expressed philosophically.” This is the gist of the term re-enchantment as I use it here, an image for seeing the world and its composition of perceiving creatures as continuous.
If our very subjectivity, like a skipping rock rippling across a pond, is continuous with the world and has affect—makes waves—then accepting this makes all the difference. It means that the images we have of ourselves and the world matter. Schelling’s commitment to creating an image that honors the relationship between self and world has special relevance for the contemporary moment in its crisis of belief. Threatened by the specters of “alternative facts,” climate science skepticism, and the rise of charismatic demagogues, the main character in the crisis of belief is the King, objectivity. The controversy? An unveiling—an image has surfaced of objectivity caught in intimacy with the world. Its reputation stained, objectivity can no longer pretend to be above and beyond the commons. Society scrambles—who to believe? Who holds the image of Truth?
During a time when primary and secondary qualities collapse, artists—those spellcasters of the sensual—have much to contribute to the re-visioning of objectivity. Writing in her 1968 compendium of theory, The Novel of the Future, literary artist Anaïs Nin suggests that “the only objectivity we can reach is achieved, first of all, by an examination of our self as lens, as camera, as recorder, as mirror. Only once we know its idiosyncrasies, its areas of prejudice or blindness can we proceed to relate with others.” In Nin’s vision, the transfiguration of objectivity makes it something to be achieved, a goal that inextricably includes others. For the practice of science, philosopher-witch Isabelle Stengers defines objectivity as “the creation of a situation enabling what the scientists question to put their questions at risk, to make the difference between relevant questions and unilaterally imposed ones.” The notion of objectivity as achieved and relational repeats. Stengers continues, saying “objectivity thus depends on a very particular creative art, and a very selective one, because it means that what is addressed must successfully be enrolled as a “partner” in a very unusual tangled relation.”In Stengers view, the practice of science resembles an artful dialogue. Scientists translate back and forth with other cosmopolites, whether they be subatomic particles or the Earth’s undulating ocean, and between them something new is born. Knowledge, but a tentative, metaphoric kind that never ceases uncurling question marks. Facts that are living, evolving, dying. Objectivity reborn as a living, breathing lovechild. Why should the stories we tell be sensitive to this newborn creative, intersubjective objectivity? The threat of ecological collapse signaled by climate change, mass extinction of species, and the displacement of human beings already suffering from symptomatic natural disasters has made the interdependence of Earth systems explicit. Lines between “me” and “we” blur. Philosophers of science like Stengers take their cue, re-storying theory and practice in lieu of radical interconnectivity.
Stengers is especially inspired by the rhizomatic thinking of Deleuze and Guattari in their revelation of the assemblage,or the larger networks we as individuals are always already a part and formed by. One of her exemplary human models in the purview of the assemblage is the practitioner of magic—the witch:
What the witches challenge us to accept is the possibility of giving up criteria that claim to transcend assemblages, and that reinforce, again and again, the epic of critical reason. What they cultivate, as part of their craft (it is a part of any craft), is an art of immanent attention, an empirical art about what is good or toxic—an art which our addiction to the truth has too often despised as superstition.
Aesthetic ontology is resident in the word “witchcraft” as a subversive practice of recreation. What we, whether artists, scientists, or philosophers, are to learn from the witches is how, foremost, “to be compromised by magic.”This comes from an essay by Stengers titled “Reclaiming Animism,” in which she reclaims the former term along with magic to revise our basic sense of intentionality. As a prescient example, Stengers describes writing “as an experience of metamorphic transformation. It makes ones feel that ideas are not the author’s, that they demand some kind of cerebral—that is—bodily contortion that defeats any preformed intention.”Writing is no longer a rendering of the ideas that are mine, not an expression of only mycreativity, but is rather the expression of powers feeling through the unique nexus point of “me.” The same goes with reading and interpretation; what counts now as objective truth is much more fragile, more precious—a diplomatic achievement between a particular group in peer review, a “we” that includes nonhumans.
Rather than craft understanding with concept-images like Deleuze and Guattari’s “assemblage,” Stengers prefers the reclamation of the word “magic” from its trivialized status as mere metaphor, for it has protected our human intentionality from “the experience of an agency that does not belong to us even if it includes us, but an “us” as it is lured into feeling.”Instead of pretending that there indefinitely exists some means of explaining away the experience of being moved by something, Stengers proposes we “forfeit this protection in order to relieve ourselves of the sad, monotonous little critical or reflexive voice whispering that we should not accept being mystified.”The impulse of reason to reduce and reveal is recast as a powerful, inherited craft of magic animating human perception, hypnotizing its subjects with images that separate soul and world. Art, philosophy, science, history—all practices of sense-making, recast and reclaimed as magical arts of participation in the universal dreaming.
Etymologically, enchantment roots back to the Latin incantare, to in-sing. Feeling “back” through space-time, the word carries a translation of bewitchment, a means of singing a rhythm-image to sway others into dancing along. A certain song called disenchantment has prevailed over much of human perception, one that translates an image of soul as human-exclusive-meaning-seeker ina world that is ultimately meaningless. It is what allows for the capitalist delusion of unlimited Earthly resources and the myopic destruction of life systems. It atrophies feeling, is anesthetic. Re-enchantment is a song that rouses its hearer to sensation, like the epiphanic touch of art. It is a style of phenomenology, or “a reflexive awareness of perception.”
Images of re-enchantment recast the self-evidence of ordinary “perception” into “a disciplined, stylized and creative expression of the world…[a] reflexive, situated, engaged expression of the truth of being within being.”A camera on manual with special attention given to the aesthetic arrangement of the image. “Aesthetics,” Anaïs Nin says, “was [originally] an expression of man’s need to be in love with his world.”Living is an artistic practice all its own and for Nin, the artist’s role in society is thus essential. As image maker (whether sonic, pictoral, or sculptural) the artist’s role is to shake up the habitual by shocking others into a renewal of perception—what Nin takes as the basic function of art. The artists of a given culture are therefore “responsible for our image of the world, and our relation to others.”But not just any image goes, rather, the exemplary artist is a poetic one who aspires to make us fall in love with the world via Beautiful images. This achievement requires a level of insight and self-discipline that is a function of an artist’s own self-examination. “The artist,” Nin says, “is aware of his self. He is aware that it is more than his self, that it is at once his guniea pig for experiments, his potential tool, his instrument, his camera, to be nourished, his medium.”
Though disenchantment has reigned over the modern period, robbing world of soul, perceiving (unselfconsciously) as a self over and against the world is perhaps basic animal instinct.Indeed, Hadot confirms that even philosophers of antiquity suspected this, for then too it was understood that “we must separate ourselves from the world qua world in order to live our daily life…[and thus] must separate ourselves from the “everyday” world in order to rediscover the world qua world.”There is thus an older image to reclaim, one dreamed by the cosmic imagination before becoming lucid of itself, before the invention of the cell membrane. To break through the fourth wall, we must become aware of our perceptual palette. What colors do we unconsciously paint the world with? Translating her own insight into the waking dream, Nin describes how
we carefully observe and watch the happenings of the entire world without realizing they are projections of our inner selves. What we are watching outside is a representation, a projection of our inner world into the universal. There is no distinction… It seems to me that such a view is far more reassuring than that of considering the world as completely insane, absurd, or else ourselves insane or meaningless…You can only dispel the nightmare by awareness that it is our personal nightmare, projected on a multiscreen cinerama.
Like the artist, the philosopher has been translated as a “stranger to the given.” Inspired by Pierre Hadot’s translations of ancient Greek philosophy, Adam Robbert describes philosophy as a practice and performance of perceptual reconfiguration, a wayof“enacting a shift in the phenomenological display, re-inscribing it with a new arrangement of meaning and significance.”The so-called “side view” or praxis view of philosophy implies askēsis, or the practice of constructing a relationship to oneself by differentiating “oneself from the repetitions of the past, making explicit what were previously orderings in action and perception.”The road to re-inscription is lifelong, for the self-duplication of askēsis implies a move away from pedagogy to psychagogy, what Ed Cohen—following Michel Foucault—describes as an “ontology of the present.”Similar to aesthetic ontology, pychagogy concerns the soul with questions immediate to perception. The double within me is Socrates resurrected, leading me to the “true life” through a dialectic that ends only in death. I am my own lantern. Truth-telling becomes a craft that requires de-cision from the realm of possibilities. It means differentiating ourselves from the self-evidence of ordinary perception, turning the dial on our cameras from automatic to manual. Like witches, philosophers craft with magic, but cast spells foremost over themselves. They perform their spells and, like artist’s and their images, inspire others to fellow-feeling by their very being. They manually adjust themselves as cameras and are the living images they capture. I am before the camera, speaking to you, breaking the fourth wall.
Re-enchantment is the performance of a certain song that stories an image of reconciliation, an image that is—as Hadot would translate it—essentially philosophical: “in all schools [of classical Greece] – with the exception of Skepticism – philosophy was held to be an exercise consisting in learning to regard both society and the individuals who comprise it from the point of view of universality.”Hadot does not attempt to interpret classical Greek philosophy for systematic consistency, but instead focuses on the practical nature of its discourse:
discourse was not systematic because it wanted to provide a total, systematic explanation of the whole of reality. Rather, it was systematic in order that it might provide the mind with a small number of principles, tightly linked together, which derived greater persuasive force and mnemonic effectiveness precisely from such systemization.
For Hadot, ancient philosophers treated discourse as one exercise among others in soteriological spiritual practice. Aesthetics were therefore given special attention. Especially for the initiate, discourse may act as the guardian of the threshold, snowballing into a reciprocal causality where practice and discourse blur into one. This is the essence of virtue epistemology, a way of knowing that honors “noncognitive accessibility conditions for what remains genuinely cognitive insights.”Indeed, as Segall outlines in his dissertation, bridging Kant’s centuries-wide chasm between soul and world requires an imaginative act—what, for those reared by a world-image of dualism, may feel like a leap of faith. For the sake of more interesting propositions, for the soul of the world, I release my grasp on capital T-truth, leap, and freefall into the bottomless rabbit hole of aesthetic ontology. The only way beyond the correlation is through it. Casting a spell of symbolic reference, Whitehead’s space-time synthesizing mode of perception which can either maintain orcreatively disrupt perceptual habits “in favor of alternative imaginations in the flow of etheric space-time,”Segall conjures a voluntary organ called the etheric imagination:
Only with etheric imagination can the process philosopher intuit the formative forces flowing through the natural world beneath or withinits outward sensory surfaces. Such an imaginative thinking represents the individual’s discovery within themselves of the etheric forces of Natura naturans, the inner dimension of Nature that is always in dynamic tension, sloughing off external Nature (Natura naturarata) like a snake shedding its skin.
Etheric imagination is a particular form of symbolic reference, a particular configuration of the manual settings on my camera. But this is where camera metaphor breaks down, for in this ontology there are no fixed and final settings for perception to exhaust.
Reclaiming philosophy as a magical art, I recreate from my inheritance a book of spells for reconciliation. I call my craft “Performing Re-enchantment.” Turning round with the latest wave of ritual, characterized by its overcoming of “the putative duality between constructive and realist approaches,” I align my praxis with Jacob Sherman’s suggestion that we begin to think with, rather than about, ritual.My metaphorical comparison of the camera to human perception breaks down, but its true limitation lies in the imagination of the human perceiver. It is the enchantment I perform which determines my interpretation, and here the notion of performance takes the stage, for its cameo has everything to do with the possibility of otherwise. The aesthetic ontology I freefall through does not permit any finality of self-image. The mystery of me only shines forth through my Beauty, the divinity of we hidden in plain sight. “Performance,” says João Florêncio, “is the way in which all bodies, human and nonhuman, play themselves to one another whilst always holding something back, like some bearer of divine secrets.”“All the world’s a stage,” says Shakespeare. We are on stage performing, translating across the undulating space-time ether of perceivers. Florêncio moves through the correlation, and with the logic of objected-oriented ontology, affirms the always-withdrawn aspect of a being-thing. Like Nin, Florêncio connects art with the renewal of perception and extends the possibility beyond its province to the everyday. To call attention to performance is to hyperbolize it, and in doing so, foreground that“the being of a performing body is always more than—and therefore, never exhausted by—any of the phenomenal bodies or roles it might perform at any given instance.”A being’s mystery shines out to us, disrupting our preconceptions and plunging us into its depth of possibility, its participation in the whispering of Beauty. Both Florêncio and Segall consider this way of aesthetically responding to have import for a politics that represents more than just the sanctity of human beings. “Beauty,” Segall says,
points the soul to the profound erotic current hidden in the life of all things. They [Schelling and Whitehead] saw that imagination, the generative matrix and communis sensusof the animate universe, helps to remind the individual soul of the immanent divine Eros holding all things together in Goodness. The ancients knew this Eros as a function of the anima mundi, the world-soul. The practical imagination that grasps Beauty as an expression of the Good allows the self to place itself in the position—body and soul—of others, and indeed of all others, that is, of the All.A redeemed imagination can empathically identify with any ensouled part of the universe and also with the soul of the whole universe. It does so through the power of Love.
To hyperbolize performance is to perform performativity. It is the declaration of divine imagination reclaimed; a re-enchanted, active storytelling of otherwise. I am before the camera, speaking to younow, breaking the fourth wall, beholding you in all your strange Beauty.
Though the term “Anthropocene” speaks loudly of the human, it is paradoxically a time when I, as human being, am privy to scientific evidence which shows just how much my organism is comprised and constituted by nonhumans. Tracing the 20thcentury’s progressive externalization of psychopathology from intra and interpersonal origin, to larger social forces of culture, and, finally, to the ecological or cosmic, James Hillman senses a re-visioning of subjectivity. “The world,” he tells us, “because of its breakdown, is entering a new mode of consciousness: by drawing attention to itself by means of its symptoms, it is becoming aware of itself as a psychic reality.”Like the cry of a wound seeking tenderness, ecological collapse is understood by Hillman to be a cry of the world soul, the anima mundi. His way of pointing to the world soul also reveals the practicable way to meet it. “Let us imagine,” begins Hillman,
the anima mundi as that particular soul-spark, that seminal image, which offers itself through each thing in its visible form. The anima mundi indicates the animated possibilities presented by each event as it is, its sensuous presentation as a face bespeaking its interior image—in short, its availability to imagination, presence as a psychic reality.
Like Segall, Hillman prescribes the recuperation of imagination as the communis sensus, or common sense:
Lodged in and around the heart,” the communis sensus unites sensation and imagination in the act of aisthesis—the Greek term for perception. Perception for the Greeks was tantamount to “breathing in or the taking in of the world, the gasp, “aha,” the “uh” of the breath in wonder, shock, amazement, an aesthetic response to the image (eidolon) presented.
Aisthesis, the initial, sensual astonishment that precedes the process of creating knowledge. Performing re-enchantment requires one to either be or become aesthetisized—sensitized through the movement of Love: in order to “grasp the Greek account of perception,” writes Hillman, “psychology must already, as did Psyche in Apuleius’s tale, stand in the temple of Aphrodite, recognizing that each thing smiles, has allure, calls forth aisthesis.”The proliferation of consumer options and the cheapening of production has led to a devaluation of cultural things that equals the devaluation of the larger ecological community. Sensual valuation as a common good is exploited for the sake of addictive spending. Otherwise, it is mostly atrophied. But, if consciousness advances “by means of pathologized revelations through the Underworld of anxiety,” as Hillman suggests, we have a lead. For, as he continues, “our ecological fears announce that things are where the soul now claims psychological attention.”
So far, the spells of my praxis for “Performing Re-enchantment” include reclaiming the organ-muscle (the heart) of etheric imagination and exercising it through aisthesisto meet the soul of the world in every incarnate thing—conceptual and physical. It involves the invocation of Aphrodite for the capacity to aesthetically respond—to see Beauty and sense soul. “Beauty,” Hillman explains, “is simply the manifestation, the display of phenomena, the appearance of the anima mundi…Beauty is an epistemological necessity; aisthesis is how we know the world. And Aphrodite is the lure, the nudity of things as they show themselves to the sensuous imagination.”The training regimen for shifting my “phenomenological display” hinges on crafting well in the sensual world: “the cognitive task will shift from the understanding of meaning to a sensitization to particulars, the appreciation of the inherent intelligibility given in the qualitative patterns of events.”My spell book is therefore written with a precision that honors particularity. For the soul of the world, I usher in a personal revolution of adverbs and adjectives to succeed the “ascetic puritanism” of my inheritance as an American academic. We are simply balancing primary qualities with the lushness of the “secondary.” Rhetoric returns—rising over the hill—a flower-bearing hero.
Practices of expansion and contraction complement my sensual apprehension of soul in thing and world. I thank my ancestors as models for these spells, and, following Hadot’s assertion that “each generation must take up, from scratch, the task of learning to read and to re-read these “old truths,” feel emboldened to recast them anew.Like Goethe and the ancients before him, I magic in myself a delimitation to the present and become “aware of the inner richness of the present, and of the totality contained within the instant…[I] swell to fill the dimensions of the world.”I experience what Raimon Panikkar calls “tempiternity,” like Schelling’s restricted infinity within which all the moments of particularity Beautifully whisper their participation in the eternal. This moment, an Epicurean gift! Oh, Aphrodite, pray I meet it well! Value is restored to all matter and I am not so lonely without other humans around. Rather, this is intimacy recast, a spell to break the curse of anesthesia for more than my personal salvation, because “my” salvation is now the world’s. Delimiting the present—contracting and expanding—means to be ever-always “held in an enduring intimate conversation with matter.”
My last spell is especially for you—my song. I sing it in the polis, intending for the vibrations to translate an enchantment for a cosmopolis. It is a poetry of physics for awakening to “the very fact that we are perceiving the world, and that the world is that which we perceive.”As a performer of re-enchantment, I sing the whole cosmos as my body, streaming through the nexus point of “me” as feelings that create an image—what I call “my” experience. Taking care of “me” means taking care of we—you. Re-enchantment is my de-cision, but my performance is foremost one of psychagogy—a provocation to life lived otherwise. “What I experience or portray shall go from my composition without a shred of my composition. You shall stand by my side and look in the mirror with me.”The fourth wall has broken.
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Matthew Segall, “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead” PhD diss., (San Francisco: CIIS, 2016), retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/26027974, 77.
Friedrich W. J. Schelling, “On the World Soul (Extract),” Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI, (Urbanomic, England, 2010), 85.
Friedrich W. J. Schelling, trans. Keith R. Peterson, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature (Albany, State University of New York Press, 2004), xiv-xv.
Schelling, “On the World Soul (Extract)”, 79. My emphasis.
Segall, “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead,” 26.
Schelling & Peterson, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, xv.
Anaïs Nin, The Novel of the Future(Durham, Duke University Press, 1968), 36.
Isabelle Stengers, “Reclaiming Animism,” e-flux #36 (July 2012), retrieved from https://www.e-flux.com/journal/36/61245/reclaiming-animism/.
Stengers, “Reclaiming Animism.”
Duane Davis, “The Art of Perception,” in Merleau-Ponty and the Art of Perception, ed. Duane Davis (New York: State University of New York Press, 2016), 7.
Davis, “The Art of Perception,” 10.
Nin, The Novel of the Future, 197.
Nin,The Novel of the Future, 192.
Nin, The Novel of the Future,37.
Pierre Hadot, trans. By Arnold Ira. Davison, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault (Oxford, Blackwell, 1995), 258.
Nin, The Novel of the Future,30.
Robbert, “The Side View: Hadot and Sloterjidk on the Practice of Philosophy,” 9.
Adam Robbert, “The Side View: Hadot and Sloterjidk on the Practice of Philosophy,” in Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Volume 13, no. 1 (2017), 5.
Ed Cohen, “Live Thinking, or the Psychagogy of Michel Foucault,” in Differences, vol. 25, no. 2 (2014), 18.
Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault,242.
Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault,267.
Jacob Sherman, “Postscript: A New Ritual Turn?,” inInternational Journal of Philosophy and Theology, vol. 79, no. 3 (2018), 5.
Matthew Segall, “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead,” 230.
Matthew Segall, “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead,” 18.
Sherman, “Postscript: A New Ritual Turn?,” 5.
João Florêncio, “Encountering Worlds: Performing In/As Philosophy in the Ecological Age,” in Performance Philosophy, vol. 1 (2015), retrieved from http://www.performancephilosophy.org/journal/article/view/14.
Florêncio, “Encountering Worlds: Performing In/As Philosophy in the Ecological Age.”
Matthew Segall, “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead,” 55.
James Hillman, The Thought of the Heart; And, the Soul of the World(Woodstock, Spring Publications, 2014), 97.
Hillman, The Thought of the Heart; And the Soul of the World,107.
Hillman, The Thought of the Heart; And the Soul of the World, 109.
Hillman, The Thought of the Heart; And the Soul of the World, 111.
The Thought of the Heart; And the Soul of the World, 113.
The Thought of the Heart;And the Soul of the World, 112.
Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, 108.
Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, 232.
Hillman, The Thought of the Heart; and the Soul of the World, 122.
Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, 253.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (New York, Penguin Books, 2005), 14.
Though I maintain a healthy amount of suspicion, I tend toward an hermeneutics 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