Minding Manners; Matters of Attunement

In the last two modules of Process and Difference in the Pluriverse we focused on Timothy Morton’s Humankind (2017) and Anne Fairchild Pomeroy’s Marx and Whitehead: Process, Dialectic, and the Critique of Capitalism (2004). During the time that lapsed between them I traveled north of San Francisco to Bell Valley Retreat Center in Mendocino Valley where the 5-day immersive course called “Nature and Eros” was held. The latter was/is co-taught by PCC professor and evolutionary cosmologist, Brian Swimme, along with Kerry Brady, founder of Ecology of Awakening. It was a wonderful context in which to deepen into the ideas we’ve been exploring this semester in Process and Difference, for “Nature and Eros” was posed by our guides as an invitation to let go of our conditioning in the techno-industrial sphere of expectation and ceaseless productivity.

Many people complain about the lack of immediate contact with fellow students and teachers in the online learning format. This is sound, but it is certainly possible to connect with others despite the disjuncture in space-time. We miss the subtext and subtly of presence, but in return we are gifted time to curate more rigorous reflections on the content we entangle with together. To curate, and to absorb the wonderful musing of others. The philosophical tenor of Process and Difference—at once emancipatory and implicating—was one that intrinsically honored each individual perspective in the class and encouraged us to feel like, together, we were all creating something as we entangled our thinking-feeling on the discussion board. Of course, I’m speaking for myself, and though I think my point about the philosophical tenor is true, it is equally true that this particular group made the class what it was.

I’m waxing on this because in the text below you will multiple times run across a certain Julie, a peer of my mine from the course whose insights had such an impact on my thinking. I encourage you to check out her website, Sacred Futures, and tangle yourself in the magical ideas she so inspired me with this semester.

Part I

Morton’s writing is electric with mischief and I always love thinking-with tricksters. But—having grown out of shock for shock’s sake—I appreciate mischief more (when the stakes are high) if it’s done with care. Like Julie, I critique Morton for his carelessness. His nonchalant use of the word “consumerism” (at least in the reading we’ve been assigned so far!) is like saying “BOO!” in a really scary way! I can imagine how some sensitive, well-meaning readers might drop Humankind and take off running from such a spooky prospect, such a ghoulish book. Therein, though (in the shimmering, in the flapping of the pages as the wind reads, rushing through it), whispers an alternative way to understand what he means.

Reading Pomeroy in between the two Morton selections led me to ask myself, “What kind of economic model would allow us to treat “objects” (e.g. goods, products, matter in general) concretely?” That is, with reverence—recognizing their spectral quality. Pomeroy is more concerned with misplaced concreteness as it relates to human creativity. She expresses her anthropocentrism clearly when she criticizes capitalism’s misplaced concreteness: “because all ontological being is both physical and conceptual, this [abstracting physical iteration from creative conceptuality in the dialectic sweep] is an abstraction even on the level of ‘things.’ Granted it is not as misplaced an abstraction as it is for the human being.” (Pomeroy, 157)

If we agree to release the correlationist copyright, to turn up the volume on the correlatee such that its appearance has some measure of command over us, and if we accept—in some fashion—Morton’s ontological flattening, then something of the sacred returns to what has hitherto been disparaged as “mere matter.” The problem with Pomeory’s ecological Marxism is that it exceptionalizes the metabolism of species-being human. Marxism can’t fully acknowledge ecology because doing so necessarily means trouble: all symbionts hover between help and harm. Morton wants to stay with the trouble and so he rightly affirms consumerism as the specter of ecology. Why? Because implicit in consumerism is the reality of humankind’s metabolism. This is why he describes rejection of consumerism as “acceptance-in-denial,” for if we are living, we are no doubt consuming, metabolizing Nature as we continue to become. (Morton, 69)

Our well-intentioned reader is, perhaps, hit with dissonance. Here is where my critique comes in: why not use another word?! Page 66 could have been an early (perhaps he overturns it later?) opportunity for Morton to re-name or re-frame consumerism (similar to Haraway with response-ability/responsibility) in a way that directly (rather than obliquely) connects it with our metabolic complicity and the ambiguity that enshrouds it! Those of us who have wandered down the rabbit-hole of “ethical consumption,” hoping we might eventually figure out the most just way to eat, might say “amen” to Morton when he declares that “we are caught in hypocrisy. We can’t get compassion exactly right. Being nice to bunny rabbits means not being nice to bunny rabbit predators.” (Morton, 69) Despite my balking, maybe Morton’s ambiguity about our ambiguous economic existence (organizing according to enjoyment) is part of his method of making sure we get it. I’m happy to hang on throughout the rest of his book for that, but somebody else might not have that kind of faith!

At the last Bioneers conference I sat through an astrological sermon with astro-poet Caroline Casey. As one might expect, she story-told our ecological moment in lieu of the planetary dance, but there was one thing she said that especially stuck with me. It rang in my ears (a tinny sound) as I took in Morton’s avowal of consumerism: “Animism is about manners.” Manners imply a code, a system of cosmic ethics. Revolving around what, though? I liked Haraway’s use of the Navajo word “hózó,” or “right relations,” an aim so general that it needs a process-relational context to give it shape. I’m heartened by what Julie mentions in her post about Morton’s tricky way of inspiring care on behalf of our common home. It’s something one can feel in Morton’s literary effort, I think, if it’s attended to with care. But that takes some effort! Perhaps a little more effort than it would have taken him to re-contextualize consumerism apart from the pathological form it takes in the Capitalist-Rat-Race?! Who knows! Maybe I’m way off!

Part II

Monday I returned home from the PCC retreat course (this time held at Bell Valley) led by Brian Swimme and Kerry Brady titled “Nature and Eros.” That “Nature” and “Eros” appear as two distinct ideas was protested by one of my peers as an arbitrary separation. Does Nature not imply Eros? To some it may, but that entirely depends upon who is thinking Nature and their associative context for the word. We can understand the separation as a practical way of communicating to those of us who, though we may endeavor to reach beyond a world view of severance, nonetheless remain constrained by it.

Thus, Morton’s neologism, “The Symbiotic Real,” that undulating, excess of spectrality we vibrate-with. Though I may have re-thought the concept of Nature in a way that more or less resembles Morton’s concept, Promethean neologisms like his help to push bifurcated associations to the periphery. Who knows, maybe his term will even replace “Nature” one day! I find his style of eco-philosophy refreshing. Sensitive and sardonic at once, I think-feel him relating from a place of real insight, the only place wherefrom truly practical wisdom can flow.

Take his notion of Ecoclaustrophobia—the paranoid flipside of Sunny Interconnection—and its truism: “All tactics are hypocritical,” from which he derives the necessity for communism(s) as opposed to a universal communism that would reign over all beings. “Something is always missing from the ethical and political ecological jigsaw,” he tells us, “which means that there can be no top-level political form to rule them all” (Morton, 163). Another great example is Morton’s reframing of violence as “micro-violence(s)” and his re-locating of its causal character, formerly a quality of the indifferent whole (Mother Nature, or The Universe Machine), to the “fragile contingent.” Solidarity means nonhumans always impinge on us, and vice versa.. “Ecological awareness means that in any political grouping something is necessarily excluded,” something is unknown, eaten, stomped upon—“there is a fundamental fragility and inconsistency about any set of political beings.” Solidarity post-severance—“the structural position of wishing it could encompass more [beings]”— is tantamount to feeling compassion (Morton, 179).

But how do we get there?

What must we do?

Refreshingly sardonic and sensitive, Morton also makes things confusingly simple. I say confusing because our engrained ways of being make thinking solidarity so expensive! So much energy, so much mental toil spent in the effort to heal the trauma of severance! But subscendence thinking refuses allegiance to explosive Overlords, even down to our introjected General.

So what must we do? We must queer our action!

Morton’s treatment of authenticity reminded me of Module 8 when I expressed my thoughts about it. “Authenticity,” I mused, “must have more to do with at least witnessing (if not honoring) impulse, inclination—how desire speaks itself through “my” participation in rhizomatic entangling.” Authenticity, for Morton, is not an Easy Think Substance, it is, rather—and for all things—“futurality, a not-yet quality that resides in front” of things (Morton, 132). It is that spectral shimmering of which we all partake.

The reason I began this post with “Nature and Eros” relates to authenticity and queered action directly: “Do what you feel” we were instructed (in so many words). Indeed, we did have a loose schedule, but the disclaimer at the beginning of the course was that we needn’t comply with it. Our primary task was to queer the action/inaction binary by becoming aware of how, as Morton describes during his kundalini references, “this energy [i.e. what is bifurcated as the the binary of in (mind) against out (body/world)] appears to be moving, all by itself” (Morton, 184). This was SO hard for me! For so many of us there! Miles away from city-milling, the hustle still hollering in our minds, the General shouting “Should this, should that, SHOULD SHOULD SHOULD!”

Stop shoulding me, Mr. General.

Shut UP, mr. general!

But as Morton tells us, “one doesn’t act awareness, it happens to one. It seems to have its own kind of existence, form its own side. It is not something you manufacture.” Awareness is like the phantom feeling we’re left with after a day frolicking with ocean waves. Like that somatic echo of back and forth, “awareness oscillates or undulates or vibrates all by itself, neither doing or feeling exclusively, neither active or passive” (186). Timothy Morton the Mermaid. Multi-scalar consideration reveals that seemingly static objects like rocks—all things—exhibit “a ground state…of shimmering without mechanical input” (Morton, 187). Brian Swimme might designate this as an expression of the cosmological power he calls “Radiance.” All things radiate their existence as light, coming into resonance in certain ways, reverberating with each other in communion.

To enter into resonance is to realize compassion; to behold the being who impinges on us in all its numinosity; to be inspired toward “kindness.” How do we get there? Along with Morton, Matt tells us in his lecture that consciousness doesn’t have to do. We’re already in the space-time cave of aesthetic causality. Just let go. As Rilke says in his poem “Go to the Limits of Your Longing,”

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Let go! Allow! Notice what arises! As in Julie’s Poetic Dimension—play!

How confusing! But, ah, what a relief…like waking up from the Nightmare of Reality (as the General would have it), and instead, waking back into another Dream, the Dream so many of us remember nostalgically as the promise of childhood. If indeed “philosophy requires a new theory of action…to help us slip out from underneath physically massive beings such as global warming and neoliberalism,” simply blinking open our Child’s Eyes to the fragility of certain Subscendent wholes might restore that early understanding of magic (Morton, 188). Of the world-shaping power of fictions—now you see me, now you don’t!

But to really get anything “done,” the letting go comes first—so that we may feel, as we become attuned, solidarity in all its treacherous and blissful ambivalence. Let us open to our erotic undulating in the larger undulation that is the Symbiotic Real. Nature-and-Eros.

Björk is sharing Dreams of Humankind’s spectral potential for enjoying maximized pleasure among other specters in the Symbiotic Real. Notice how in the video the typical delineations of animal//plants/machine/land/human/etc. are strangely enmeshed. A utopic vision of mucus membrane blissing-together.


But like Morton, Björk knows that the Symbiotic Real means pleasure and suffering. The next song on her album (Utopia) reflects, as I interpret it, the sobering affirmation of both and all the woes of history that we face post-Severing. “Body Memory” is about getting real, even as we Dream up possible futures:

“First snow of winter
I’m walking hills and valleys
Adore this mystical fog
This fucking mist
These cliffs are just showing off
Then the body memory kicks in
I mime my home mountains
The moss that I’m made of
I redeem myself

I’ve been wrestling with my fate
Do I accept this ending?
Will I accept my death
Or struggle claustrophobic?
Fought like a wolverine
With my destiny
Refused to accept what was meant to be
Then the body memory kicks in
And trust the unknown
Unfathomable imagination
Surrender to future”

Bibliography:

Morton, T. (2016). All Objects Are Deviant Feminism and Ecological Intimacy. In K. Behar (Ed.), Object-Oriented Feminism (pp. 65-81). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Pomeroy, A. F. (2004). Marx and Whitehead Process, Dialectics, and the Critique of Capitalism. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Why Bother with Metaphysics?

This Thursday (5/3/18) I participated in a panel with my peers Emily Wright and William Dowling. The panel arose out of the course we’re currently in, titled Religious Metaphysics After Modernity, instructed by Professor Jake Sherman, and was part of the PCC roundtable series that Aaron Weiss and Adam Robbert have been organizing—a series I plan to absorb into the PCC Forum once its up and going next fall!

We covered a wide gamut—discussing topics ranging from recent work in neuroscience (e.g. microphenomenology) to storytelling and performative cosmology. I hope those of you reading find our musing and discussion stimulating. I’ve included a transcript of my talk below the video in case anyone is interested in reading it. It’s been challenging, but a joy to participate in speaking events like the last two without much preparation. I plan to continue that, to ease my way into a more spontaneous form of poetic-philosophizing.


“Why Bother with Metaphysics?”


Disclaimer: The “we” I speak with is an invitational one. If you feel as though my remarks don’t apply to you, then they don’t—my intention is not to swallow you up.

 

So, Why bother with metaphysics?

 

Before I answer, let me first situate myself: I write to you now from the Robert Heyns Reading Room at University of California, Berkeley. If look up from where I type, I see gilded ceiling—a long expanse of bronze ornament stretches out, deepening my thoughts. Roving-my-head-round, I see a series of nametags emblazoned at the meeting place between wall and roof. The first I compute,

 

Descartes,

then there’s Kant across the way,

Voltaire,

and Goethe… among other Giants of the Western Story.

 

Why bother with metaphysics?

Things just are the way they are. All the work has been done, just look up! The nametags—as large as I am—say it all! Let’s be gracious to our forebears—their Discoveries—some more than others, have built the foundation of the house through which we window-gaze upon the World.

I for one am not an undutiful Son!

Thank you, dear Forebears.

 

So why metaphysics? Well, what if things could be otherwise?

True, I do feel a bit drafty. I don’t know that I can ignore the cracks in the floorboard much longer. And yes, the word Discoveries I used earlier was sort of triggering. Decisions sounds a bit more apt. What if things could be otherwise…?

It compels me to admit something…

I’ve lied to you all. I’m not actually writing this from Robert Heyns Reading Room. I’m really in the historic North Reading Room, across the hall. On my way to the bathroom I passed Robert’s Room and was spellbound by its ceiling, more elaborate than in the North. Then I noticed Descartes’ nametag and a lightbulb went off:

A way to begin this talk!
But I didn’t want to sit in Robert’s room, the light wasn’t bright enough.

No need, I thought to myself, they’ll never know the difference!

And then, another lightbulb went off:

Why bother with metaphysics? Well, what if things could be otherwise?

So far I’ve got two stories running. I’m either writing to you from Robert Heyns Reading Room, or I’m writing to you from North Reading Room. Which one is more real? Does it matter? I think it does, and I promise you the latter is the Real one—though you won’t ever know for sure. So just go with it for now!

Two stories so far—stirring two different sets of associations, shaping and reshaping each individual future of you who listen, even—perhaps—for those of you tuning me out—the vibrations of my voice still acting upon your eardrums. Maybe the futural differences are negligible, but who really knows?

UCB_33_rf

The historic North Reading Room, taken from lib.berkley.edu.

 

What does this have to do with metaphysics, though?

In a very simple way, the differences matter, because the difference could mean a different future, a different story. So far, my storytelling has been concerned with choice and behavior at the level of conscious awareness. Though, no doubt, stories always reach deeper. The deeper we go, the thicker the entrenchment of story. What we know before we know we know—those overarching narratives stubbornly looping on and on.

 

It is at this level—the deep unconscious, keeper of Cosmologies—that Story derives its force,

The Rootbed of the “Why bother:”

 

I am possessed by certain assumptions about myself and the World:

I am a subject set against the World as Object. I am a Princess locked forever in a Tower. I am lonely, and my loneliness leads me to question this Story.  I rebel against my forebears, yet eventually I realize that only because of them have I been led to ask such questions:
Thank you, dear forebears.
Perhaps there’s no bridging Kant’s transcendental divide—that gap between my experience and things-in-themselves—perhaps we are bound to Quentin Meillassoux’s correlationism, the life-sentence of only being able to speculate from our unique perspectives. But maybe, following Timothy Morton, we ought to consider how unique to human beings that gap truly is. Have we rushed to copyright something that is and always was part of the commons? Or are we porous, pervious, perforated bags of water like Morton has it? It has been three hundred and eighty-one years since Descartes published his “Discourse on Method.” Though it pre-existed US copyright laws, I imagine the gap has long since entered the Public Domain. So can we ease up on our skepticism about experience and the experience of other beings?

 

Meanwhile, Our World is heating up, unraveling and revealing the taken for granted connections of our stable Holocene—that quaint period of periodicity, reified into cyclical cosmology and calendar, coming to an end. Incomes the Anthropocene, a concept which signals the time whereof the thumbprint of human activity stamps itself boldly across and deeply into the planet. We have become a geologic force. Yet, paradoxically, “the Anthropocene,” Timothy Morton tells us, is at the same time

one of the first truly anti-anthropocentric concepts because via thinking the Anthropocene, we get to see the concept of “species” as it really is—species as a subscendent hyperobject, brittle and inconsistent…The Anthropocene is the moment at which species become thinkable in a non-metaphysical way, such that humankind cannot rigidly exclude nonhumans. The human becomes smaller than the sum of its (human, bacterial microbiome, prosthetic) parts. Humankind is, as I said before, intrinsically disabled without hope of a “healthy” (explosive) wholeness.[1]

Subscendence is Morton’s favorite form of holism, what he calls implosive holism. In contrast to explosive holism, the perspective which hoists the transcendent Whole over the less than parts, implosive holism has it the other way around—the parts are many and they make up the fragile whole. Both are equally real, but the latter is wholly dependent upon its parts, or partial connections, for existence. Morton is in league with other thinkers like Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour who claim that taking the ecological crisis means challenging metaphysical assumptions, assumptions like explosive holism which undercut the significant role connections play in constituting the whole. James Lovelock’s Gaia theory is often misattributed this kind of scheme, wherein Gaia is thought to be a soul-like self-organizing system maintaining planetary disequilibrium, our benevolent Earth-Mother keeping house. As Latour explains, a closer reading of Lovelock reveals that what Gaia refers to “is only the name proposed for all the intermingled and unpredictable consequences of the agents, each of which is pursuing its own interest by manipulating its own environment.”[2] Morton won’t even touch the term Gaia, and instead refers to the relying-on of the biosphere as the “symbiotic real” “in which entities are related in a non-total ragged way.”[3]  “Nothing is connected to everything; everything is connected to something,” Donna Haraway tells us.[4]  She’ll call this, among other names, Ongoingness, that tangling mess of sympoeisis, or becoming-with, that makes up Earth systems.

Each of these tricksters defies the ontic separation between mind and world because the ecological crisis makes it a political matter. Together they wait on the other side of the gap, taunting us to make the leap. And with their own neologisms, each trickster urges us to consciously practice re-linking with our creaturely fellows—each of us, partial connections, participating in the constitution of the biosphere. For Haraway it is about cultivating response-ability; Morton calls it attunement, and Latour wants us reflexively looping and re-looping forever, treating the Whole we seek as Sisyphus does his boulder. We are to aesthetisize ourselves; to realize a Cosmopoetics of ecological belonging. The story of a transcendent Whole, taken for granted, is stale and outworn. Metaphysical systems tell stories, and vice versa. Because of this, Haraway admonishes us to realize that “it matters which stories tell stories as a practice of caring and thinking.”[5] Given that human life and the capacity to spin stories derives in the first place from ecological being, it’s not a far stretch to say that—though we can tell many—some stories are better told than others. Some hit closer to home.

The problem of transcendence is one of the reasons metaphysics has been rejected. Like my disclaimer at the beginning suggested, employing Wholes like the term “we” has historically swallowed important differences, sacrificed to the totalizing project of what William Desmond calls determinative curiosity.

Determinative curiosity though, is an orphan,

lost and very insecure.

 

It has forgotten its home and throws tantrums for absolute certainty,

It believes that to be is to be intelligible.

 

But curiosity is not born in a vacuum—rather, in a totally opposite manner—curiosity first derives from what Desmond calls original astonishment.

 

Its home is in wonder and to wonder it will always return.
Astonishment – when we are overcome, possessed by Excess. Patience with wonder.

Perplexity – “troubled mindfulness…” What could this indefiniteness mean?[6]

Curiosity – the movement to overcome the trouble through intelligibility and definition.

 

“Why is it important to distinguish these three?” Desmond asks “Because in the main we have tended to think of the process of mindfulness, whether philosophical or scientific, in terms of the third possibility,” reducing the astonishment and perplexity as merely hurdles in the process of determinative curiosity.[7]

 

Brought home to itself, curiosity, what we might also call Reason, realizes that not everything may be intelligible. This is important for our metaphysical struggle to think the Whole. Implosive holism may be a helpful critique for providential laziness. We keep living business as usual as if Gaia or Mother Nature will clean up our mess.

 

But I think there is something about the call of our trickster to re-sensitize ourselves to what we might still call Nature (or Gaia, or the Symbiotic Real, or Ongoingness) that still whispers of a more majestic Whole, a holy kind of Whole.
Morton is not down with transcendence, but his neologism “hyperobject” – an entity massively distributed in time and space like the Symbiotic Real or Global warming – is something we might call transcendent if we rethink how its conventionally understood.

 

What if we thought transcendence, as Jake puts it, “as the superlative mode of immanence?”

Transcendence understood this way is something we actually experience, what generates our experience of astonishment. Desmond links it with the hyperbolic or overdeterminate nature of Being itself – the sheer excess that catches us up in wonder.

 

Awe then becomes a way back to a Whole, a route for us to tread as we re-sensitize ourselves to our ecological becoming-with other creatures. Rooted back, curiosity realizes that not everything can be circumscribed by concepts. “The Whole,” Raimon Pannikar tells us, “is not the sum total of substantial selves, is not an object, and thus is impervious to any episteme that aims at objective knowledge. Furthermore, it is not the proper field of any exclusive ontology, that is, of any approach to Being exclusively by means of logos. Our attempt requires also the pneuma, the spirit, love, not as a second fiddle playing to the echoes of reason, but as a loving knowledge…”[8] (17)

 

The call to aesthetisize ourselves to our involvement with the partial connections that make up our biosphere is a call to re-member the Whole in a more playful way. It is a call back to metaphysics, revived and fleshy.
The language we use to tell the story matters – and some words won’t do. Totalizing concepts of the Whole must give way to more playful, symbolic expressions – images that approach the whole, yet are humbly understood as our best sketches of the inexpressible.

 

Cosmopoetics can then be understood as the effort to take philosophical language playfully serious, an effort to create aesthetic rituals of thought resonant enough to make doing metaphysics tantamount to passing through a conceptual birth canal.

 

Why bother with metaphysics?
Because some stories are better told than others. The Princess agrees,
Let me out of this Tower!

 

[1] Timothy Moton, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People (London, Verso, 2017), 113.

[2] Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climactic Regime (Medford, Polity, 2017), 142.

[3] Morton, Humankind, 1.

[4] Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene, (Durham, Duke University, 2017), 31.

[5]  Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 37.

[6] William Desmond, “Being, Determination, and Dialectic: On the Sources of Metaphysical Thinking.” The Review of Metaphysics, 48, no. 4 (1995): 731-69. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20129761.

[7] Desmond, “Being, Determination, and Dialectic: On the Sources of Metaphysical Thinking,”  738.

[8] Raimon Panikkar, The Rhythm of Being: The Unbroken Trinity, (Maryknoll, Orbis Books, 2013), 17.

(Header image titled “Song of Songs V” by Marc Chagall)

Making Waves in Our Undulating Sea

Hi friends,

This post comes from the most recent module of the course Process and Difference in the Pluriverse. Our readings consisted of Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble (Chapters 3-8), “Introduction: Rhizomes” from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, along with some helpful (1, 2) treatments of the latter’s rhizomatic riffing. Lastly, just below this you will find a video of a dialogue with Aaron Weiss and Matthew T. Segall two weeks ago during our graduate program retreat. I hope you find it as stimulating as I did!


I loved the bat-shittery of Deleuze and Guattari! Earlier today, before I read their “Introduction: Rhizome,” I was pondering the question of authenticity. What does it mean to be “authentic” in light of all that we’ve been exploring together this semester? That basic question—“Who am I?”—is one I’ve been asking for a while. My immediate recourse is to think in terms of substance—what is the real me? How deep must I dive to retrieve the hidden essence? How will I recognize it? The question prompted my interest in depth psychology, a descent into my arborescent psyche. But each time I thought I grasped the answer, something new would arise—my satisfaction could not be sated. I’ve increasingly become annoyed with root-answers, impatient with the promise of finalities: it’s been a while, and still I don’t seem to get much further than my parents, my past. Today I decided—held up to the light of the process-relational insight—that authenticity must have more to do with at least witnessing (if not honoring) impulse, inclination—how desire speaks itself through “my” participation in rhizomatic entangling. To be authentic means to not to be blind to or at the mercy of subjectification (the outcome of externality’s molding of us, what we tend to embrace with open arms). It means to realize that the inner, centralized power, that voice—“The General”—who constantly barks,

“Act your part!”

Is not “me!” Psychoanalysis helps us attune to the tree we’ve been cultivating in our heads, but only insofar as we realize that we aren’t doomed to a foliage (expression) reducible to the way our root system formed. Rather, that tree is in dialogue with an entire ecology of critters that can elicit undreamed of performances from us!

For those who weren’t able to attend the retreat, Matt and PCC’s program coordinator Aaron Weiss had an open dialogue together called “The Nature of Consciousness and What to do About It” that I think touched on this subject. Consciousness was here understood as what is “in between” us / space / a fecund void / a nature that is abysmally limitless and sparkling with potential. If this is the nature of what we are, then, by contrast, the limited roles we enact as a result of subjectification are masks that we need not chain ourselves to, should not chain others to. What to do about it? Well, are we stifling any living-giving inclinations? Is there a voice barking so loudly we can’t hear out any other possibilities? Aaron ventures a method of navigating the world with enough awareness of our experience that we might work around those impasses with what he calls “autoplasticity,” a means of (potentially) re-shaping our performance in the social matrix. Haraway’s conceptual spellwork, her re-naming of the metaphors and stories we spin the world out of, is an example (I think) of autoplasticity and its potential ramifications, not just for my self-concept, but for the other becoming-withs I touch through tentacular thoughts. Autoplasticity begets reciprocal capture—it is a world-shaping practice.

I share in Deleuze-and-Guattari’s “mutual distrust of identity;” I like anti-identitarianism and its methodology  of “schizoanalysis.” Psychosis as alienation, to be treated with sociality, seems infinitely more practical, affordable, and more open to novelty than does psychoanalysis on its own (but, like I said, I think the latter is still important for becoming aware of our impasses, of that barking voice! Perhaps, though, this could be done in a group?). Earlier today, before reading this section, I thought authenticity as relational, realizing (especially from my recent experiences in community and in-love) that somehow others seem to see in me an authenticity I can’t quite hear (over the shouts of that barking General!). The kind of social therapy I’m experiencing has helped me in the effort to reconstitute the inner matrix of subjectification I’ve submitted to. I’m determined to think new thoughts! I want to, as the multiplicity says, “Pink Panther,” worlding Pink, the river running, always running. I want my love like the Orchid and the Wasp! I’m thinking authenticity as hovering, never landing—on a plateau! The waves keep on rolling in: authenticity, “another way of traveling and moving: proceeding from the middle, through the middle, coming and going rather than starting and finishing” (25). We are books that are always being written, re-written, scribbled in, pages torn, opening and closing…fluttering. I use to be self-conscious about artistic collaborations, but now I’m inspired and unafraid to become-with like Deleuze-and-Guattari did. What do I have to lose?

 

Much love-with,

Ashton-

Feeling Together: a Talk

The following is a recording of a talk I gave during PCC’s retreat to Bishop Ranch last week. Below that you’ll find the transcript!

The ideas I’m sharing today are not my own, but at the same time it’s true that I am here filtering them through the convergent point that is my unique perspective. In particular, I want to acknowledge a discussion that took place last Thursday at CIIS between Sam Mickey, Sean Kelly, Julie Morley, and Matt Segall during PAR’s first panel discussion, for it is especially informing what I share with you now.

One of the things I love most about PCC—and which seems to be true of ESR as well—is the variety of people who are attracted to it. Many ages; miles; languages; talents; and aspirations gather here. And for me, at least, there is a taste of homecoming about our community—something common that brings us together. I think that commonality is a shared intention, a notion I think I recognize in the words “re-imagine the human species as a mutually-enhancing member of the Earth community,” words that appear on PCC’s webpage. Put another way, we here are dedicated to multi-species flourishing on planet Earth, a deeper kinship with the other creatures we enmesh with. What would it take for that dream to become reality? Latent in our dream, I think I see the image of a cosmopolitics—a politics I’ll define in this context as one purged of human exceptionalism and in which nonhumans are extended representation.

You’d think that more people might be concerned by the sirens set off by climate scientists, but as the alt right movement has shown us, so-called neutral facts and figures aren’t always enough to move the human heart. How else might we make our appeal? As Sean Kelly and my cohort have taught me so well this year, we must do many things—anything less at this point would be a missed opportunity. I came to CIIS driven by the conviction that an appeal to feeling was the most potent and pragmatic appeal to make in a culture so anesthetized to the reality of our ecological interdependence. To me, art-making was the primary route to feeling, the key for change to be realized. Shortly after beginning my journey through PCC I was quickly purged of that dogmatism. It was just my means to meet the injunction to have a solution, a capital T truth to rest in. Deep down, I don’t think I ever believed it. But I do still think that feeling is primary (and not apart from thinking).

That specter called Utopia lures me forth—I so badly want a cosmopolitics. My imagination, thick with visions of creaturely diplomats; fungal-human-housing collaborations; a silk road of food forests weaving through boundaryless country.

Close your eyes a moment.

I can almost feel it.

We might try, but not everyone has the time or privilege to humor such things. This semester I’ve been entangled with thinkers, ideas, fellow students and teachers, wandering—feeling blindly through the dark—grasping for metaphors that stick, words we can hold on to in this time of radical change. The work of realizing a cosmopolitics is the reworking of what it means to be human after descending from the pedestal of Modernism. We must ask—what does it feel like? And for that we need an aesthetic—a cosmopoetics.

One of the repercussions of bifurcation—the separation of mind from matter, culture from nature, etc.—is that we (and this “we” is an invitational one) have largely become anaesthetized to the effects our lifestyles have on the fragile Earth system. Of course, not all of the human species fits into this category of alienation. Peoples who live closer and pay better attention to the land have been speaking out for centuries. Bruno Latour thinks that part of the problem is our tendency to think in terms of Wholes (capital W) and parts (lowercase p), where parts are subsumed by a Whole that is thought to be greater than those parts. Thinking with these terms results in a premature unification “of what first needs to be composed.” The Earth as Globe—as Sphere—we assume, has always been this way. Mama Gaia will take care of us if we just shape up. But it was not until the development of technologies sensitive enough to detect things like carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, the salinity of our seas, and the poverty of our soils that we began to piece together the delicate connections that keep our Earth system thriving in a dynamic state of disequilibrium. Though I do not deny the possibility of intuiting the Whole as concrete—say, the embodied soul of Earth as Gaia—I do think that it is the fragile connections delineated by climate science that allow us the most accessible semblance of that whole. Pragmatically speaking, it is about time that the parts take precedence over that mysterious Whole, so that we—privileged enough to recognize what is at stake—can begin to better attune ourselves and others to its fragility rather than taking it for granted. Only when we feel what’s at stake will we be driven to the kind of transformations that are necessary for our urgent times.

But how? How do we feel more into deeply what’s at stake?

To draw a sphere, one must first draw a circle, a loop—like the feedback loops we are sensing through climate science technologies. To quote Latour (and this is a long one), “we have to slip into, envelop ourselves within, a large number of loops, so that, gradually, step by step, knowledge of the place in which we live and the requirements of our atmospheric condition can gain greater pertinence…But we all have to learn this for ourselves, anew each time. And it has nothing to do with being a human-in-Nature or a human-on-the-Globe. It is rather a slow fusion of cognitive, emotional, and aesthetic virtues thanks to which the loops are made more and more visible. After each passage through a loop, we become more sensitive and more reactive to the fragile envelopes we inhabit.”[1]

Latour calls for us to “aesthetisize” ourselves “in the old sense [of the word as a]…capacity to “perceive” and to be “concerned” – in other words, a capacity to make oneself sensitive that precedes all distinctions among the instruments of science, politics, art and religion.”[2]
Donna Haraway calls this becoming “response-able.”

I’m inspired by the perspective of the late performance artist, teacher, political activist, and general shapeshifter, Joseph Beuys who conceived of social sculpture, an art that defies regular boundaries and encompasses everyday life. We might call this aesthetic activism. Each of us, an artist, a partial-maker, in the weaving of our social nexus that is ultimately the whole of cosmic history. The term co-creator might ring a bell. But what the ecological crisis has signaled—if we are so bold to face it—is the extent to which a swollen human hubris has absorbed so much agency that it has deanimated the rest of the world. Anthropogenic climate change pulls the plug as what was once an inert background—the “environment”—springs to life and acts back. As Isabelle Stengers says, “Gaia is touchy!”

The monoliths of our Understanding give out, closing the chasm between Subject and Object. What was once Other is in me and now I can only ask—

“Who am I?” According to Lynn Margulis, mostly bacteria.

It’s important to accept that by understanding, we mean translation, and by concept, we mean metaphor. How we interpret reality is a fiction among fictions. Our time is one where changing the story becomes a matter of life or death. Some stories are better told than others.

The figure of a feedback loop implies repetition; habit; ritual. A process-relational perspective shifts the emphasis from what is, to what is happening. Things are understood according to what they do, how they perform. Human identity becomes on ongoing creative act—what defines us can change. It reminds me of Aristotle’s virtue theory. In that schema (and here I am simplifying it) to become virtuous, one must act virtuous until the loop becomes habit, second-nature.
Like our guiding ideal of cosmopolitics, Latour tells us that once upon a time, “it took many decades to agree that the definition of democracy as the will of a sovereign people corresponds, even vaguely, to a reality, and it was necessary to start with a fiction.”[3] Nation-states were once on par with the prospect of nonhuman political representation we dream of today.  In general, the ritual of political representation is never more than a poetic gesture, but some poets hit closer to home than others. That there is a world we make together, I have no doubt, but consensus in a process-relational cosmos is a constant work in progress.

In May of 2015, Bruno Latour collaborated with students and faculty from the school of political arts at Sciences Po in Paris to create a simulation of the approaching Paris Climate Agreements, but in this scenario the United Nations were accompanied by representatives of nonhuman interests. Together, they called their performance the “Theater of Negotiations.” Unlike the historical fuss made over agreeing to fall under One Nation, Latour observed that the performers had no issue imagining into the role of Forest or Ocean representative, “I very much enjoyed observing that the negotiations were never impeded by that sort of objection.” Latour tells us, “rather,” The tireless president Jennifer Ching addressed “Lands” or “Amazonia” just as politely and straightforwardly as she addressed “Canada” or “Europe.”[4] The “Theater of Negotiations might seem like a silly, fruitless exercise in imagination, but only to those who forsake the imaginative basis for the politic farce we take for granted today. On the contrary, a seminal stunt like this—if looped through enough—could establish itself as a ritual with as much mythic force as the United Nations has.

For an example of response-ablitiy in the sciences—biological fieldwork specifically—Donna Haraway attunes us to the epistemological position of ethologist Thelma Rowell—what the latter calls her “virtue of politeness.” Rather than assume “that beings have pre-established natures and abilities that are simply put into play in an encounter,” “politeness,” Haraway tells us, “does the energetic work of holding open the possibility that surprises are in store, that something interesting is about to happen, but only if one cultivates the virtue of letting those ones who visit intra-actively shape what occurs. They are not who/what we expected to visit, and we are not who/what were anticipated either. Visiting is a subject- and object-making dance, and the choreographer is a trickster.”[5] Haraway goes on to describe an enchanting situation between an ornithologist and a group of Arabian babblers “who defied orthodox accounts of what birds should be doing, even as the scientists also acted off-script scientifically.”[6]

Sym fiction / science fiction / speculative fiction — these, in different ways, refer to a practice of storytelling as a model of conscious art-making, what we might call with Beuys, social sculpture. In our time of collapse, invoking Haraway again, “we need to write stories and live lives for flourishing and abundance.” This kind of fiction would be “committed to strengthening ways to propose near futures, possible futures, and implausible real nows” so that we can begin “cultivating the capacity to re-imagine wealth, learn practical healing rather than wholeness, and stitch together improbable collaborations without worrying overmuch about conventional ontological kinds.”[7] This is what Haraway means by her slogan “Staying with the Trouble.” We have to rebuild from the ruins we find ourselves in.  Future-telling, the telling of futures we dream of, brings those futures closer into view. I’m aware that professor Elizabeth Allison has written something like this. I am also in the midst of a project, writing the journey of a protagonist whose consciousness is as industrial as mine is, but who lives in a future where human norms have become made over by the radical reorientation we are just beginning to face. My intention in writing this is to re-work in the process—as much as I can—my own assumptions, in hopes that—once finished—it might serve the same end for others when they read it.

Though the examples I gave might conveniently be categorized—political, scientific, artistic—each of them honors the originating force of imagination, has a common ground in the crowning of metaphor. Each is an attempt to modify the collective aesthetic, to shape our social sculpture. Closing the gap between Nature and Culture means letting go of capital T, engaging us in an ongoing practice of translation as we feel our ways through worlds. It has always been hard for me to define what makes something a work of art beyond the basic “rightness” I feel in its gesture. But that there is sometimes that feeling of “rightness,” and even more, that sometimes I might find resonance with another about that “rightness” goes to show, as Haraway echoes, “it matters what knowledges know knowledges. It matters what relations relate relations. It matters what worlds world worlds. It matters what stories tell stories.”[8] Because some stories are better told than others.

[1] Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia, (Cambridge, Polity Press, 2017), 139-140.

[2] Latour, Facing Gaia, 145.

[3] Latour, Facing Gaia, 263.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Donna Jeanne Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, (Durham, Duke University Press, 2016), 127.

[6] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 128.

[7] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 136.

[8] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 35.

Bibliography

Haraway, Donna Jeanne. Staying with the Trouble. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

Latour, Bruno.Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017.

Cosmopoetics: What Does It Feel Like?

Hi friends,

Here is my latest post from module 5 of Matthew Segall’s course, Process and Difference in the Pluriverse:

Whether we designate its emergence as before or simultaneous, a Cosmopoetics is essential to the development of a true Cosmopolitics. A politics without a poetics—I imagine—would be a schizoid performance; truly split. Regardless of the rhetoric, I (and I extend this to an invitational “we”) typically know a genuine performance when I feel it. Truth (however contingent) is much more than the neutral enumeration of facts. This is Bruno Latour’s call to arms! We are at war! The bounty? A conceptual framework:

Instead of a difference in principle between the world of facts and the world of values…we see that we have to become accustomed to a continuous linkage of actions that begin with facts that are extended into a warning and that pointtoward decisions…This claim of descriptive neutrality made it possible to forget that one never plunges into description expect in order to act, and that, before looking into what must be done, we must be impelled to action by a particular type of utterance that touches our hearts in order to set us in motion — yes, to move us (49).

I wouldn’t be surprised if some of Latour’s critics disparaged his writing as hyperbolic; to such statements I would say: you missed the point. And what is the point? The needle that pricked Sleeping Beauty’s finger, the needle that sent she and the rest of the Kingdom to sleep! The point is the historical severance of Nature from Human Culture, Fact from Value. But “from now on,” Latour resounds throughout Facing Gaia(in an electrifying mission of italics and exclamation points), “if you speak of any part of the Earth to humans…we all find ourselves in the same boat — or rather on the same bus” (48).  What does this mean? This means the claim to neutrality is null: there is no view from nowhere. And so, to combat the climate skeptics, the climate scientist must be—simultaneously—poet (or join ranks with one) and honestly fuse the pathos of her/his knowledge with its description. As Latour echoes Haraway, scientists must become response-able. They must aesthetize themselves.

But if there is no longer a neutral point of view from which to derive the laws of Nature, what happens to objectivity? That we find ourselves in a moment of collective dissonance—wherein facts are held against “alternative facts” and the word “natural” blurs into head scratching as we shop for groceries—indicates the need for a redefining of objectivity: “objectivity,” Latour tells us (in footnote 14 on page 47), “is neither a state of the world nor a state of mind; it is the result of a well-maintained public life.” Implicit in his understanding of objectivity is a process-relational metaphysics. Facts are facts because the measurements from which they derive stand firmer than other statements against objections arising from their community of origin. Knowledge, as Matt described per an aesthetic ontology, consists of appearances all the way down. There is no final, gleaming jewel of Truth at the core of the Universe that we are to extract and possess! Rather, in a Pluriverse, “Truth” is always contingent; partial; situated. Moreover, it is multi-faceted, necessitating (until, perhaps, a more synthetic means of communicating arises) constant translation across the different streams of knowing (e.g. poetic, religious, etc.).

In the quest to realize a Cosmopoetics, the central question one must ask—I think—is: what does it feel like? The profuseness of my post this module expresses the freedom I have progressively grown into over the course of this semester as we make our process-relational descent. What does it feel like to live into a process-relational metaphysics? For me, this means no longer being so stressed out when I read philosophy, or when I go about learning anything for that matter. Released from the illusion of objective Truth as Neutral, I can trust that my partial perspective is enough, that Knowledge is not something I am to conclusively uncover and possess (and maintain, in competition against other perspectives). Rather than fear exposing my thinking to others, I can look forward to and genuinely engage with others, knowing that my partial perspective is always informed by the metamorphic field and enriched by entangling with the perspectives of others. I have nothing to hide, nothing to lose, for everything I am is forged in relationship anyhow! Each of us possesses a unique vantage point, a unique jewel never to be repeated. We are all little bubbles of seafoam, sparking forth to shine out a never-to-be-repeated perspective. What a gift to be in philosophical dialogue! To be in community in general!

What does it feel like? It feels like much more than I wish to take any more of your precious time describing. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, Latour’s suspenseful (and hilarious) prose had the aestheticizing effect he calls us ourselves to create. Suffice it to say that I feel mobilized, broken of the spell of Providence. If Gaia is sensitive, fragile, “touchy,” we must take care. I have begun to see the World (I still like the word Nature, especially if we extend Culture to all other forms of actual occasions) with new eyes. Enjoined back with “the family of things,” I feel like Aurora awakened, wiping away slumber crust, like when, in “Sleeping Beauty, all the servants in the palace, until then passive and inert, awoke from their sleep, yawning and began to move frenetically about — the dwarves and the clock, the trees in the garden and also the knobs on the doors. The humblest accessories henceforth play a role, as if there were no more distinctions between the main characters and the extras” (93).

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Latour’s comparison of re-enchantment, of realizing the animation of the World (and, consequently, a partial de-animation of the ratiocentric human identity) with Sleeping Beauty was especially profound for me; it was the fairytale I connected most intimately with during a period of self-discovery and artistic transmutation. In 2016 I underwent a rite of passage in the process of making my capstone film, Areté Already, a project I consider to be the most mature example of my creative life and thought thus far. Through it I sought to ritualistically enact a movement from disenchantment to re-enchantment. My life has never been the same since. Eventually I will write more about it.

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I spent the last weekend alone, saturated with Latour’s ideas, and went to Point Reyes where I had experiences that contributed more to the question, “what does it feel like?”  Below you will find a video wherein I express those feelings as I recorded them in my journal during my time there.


Much love,
Ashton

References

Latour, B. (2017). Facing Gaia. Medford: Polity Press.

Techno-artistry and Entanglement

In module IV of Process and Difference in the Pluriverse, a course at CIIS being instructed this spring by Matthew Segall, we explored works by Anne Fairchild Pomeroy (Marx and Whitehead: Process, Dialectics, and the Critque of Capitalism) and William E. Connolly (Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming). In this video I muse about “techno-artistic” applications of the scientific and philosophical insights which point to our ontological entangledness. How might we better feel into the reality of our radical hanging together?

 

Joanna Macy’s “Milling” exercise from “The Work that Reconnects” workshop (the entire workshop is an example itself) along with Marina Ambravoić’s performance “The Artist is Present” are wonderful examples of “Subjectication.”

I ended up taking longer than I expected (of course) and didn’t have time to suggest some more examples of tangible techno-artistic experiments. Here are some ideas below:

Entangled hikes (hiking with a storyteller/naturalist), collabrative futuretelling (Haraway and her The Camille Stories), dramatized enactments (like Ghandi’s salt stunt, but specifically tailored to entanglement, poetry, personifying micro-modes within us (archetypal astrology).

I’m especially interested in creating some kind of collaborative-poetic-performance experiences that could be repeated (though always unique to the context) and which might be wonderful vehicles of transformation at demonstrations and other large events. Storytelling a bumpy, fragile cosmology of perspectives somehow… Anyone want to riff on this with me?

Much love,

Ashton

a Reverie (a Review)

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.

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Photo by Kohn (one of the many that makeup his book).

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.”[1] 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.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Kohn, How Forests Think, 72.

[xi] Ibid.

[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.

[xxi] Ibid.

[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.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[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.

 

Bibliography

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

a Birth

The first post on this website is—to me—its real initiation. Its subject characterizes what I think is the most appropriate way to begin anything: with Mother.

Back in May I joined a group of wonderful people on stage to share stories of Motherhood in a production called “Listen to Your Mother.” I saw this as a chance to thank and acknowledge my own Mother for all she’s given me in life—for life itself. Of course, there’s no way to capture that kind of gratitude… But at large, the impossible has never stopped the human from grasping at infinity!