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Savage Minds
Notes and Queries in Anthropology

An anti-nominalist book: Eduardo Kohn on


How Forests Think
June 2, 2014
Rex

Earlier this month I sat down with Eduardo Kohnto talk about his
amazing bookHow Forests Think. We started out discussing his
intellectual influences and ended up ranging widely over his book, the
status of Peirce as a thinker, what politics means, and a variety of other
topics. Thanks to the hard work of our intern Angela, Im proud to post a
copy of our interview here. I really enjoyed talking to Eduardo, so I hope
you enjoy reading it!
Wisconsin and the Amazon
RG: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk. I really enjoyed How Forests
Think. When I started it I was a little on the skeptical side, but I ended up
thinking it was a mind-blowing book. I thought we could begin by
discussing the background for the book and your training. I see the book
as mixing biology, science studies (especially Donna Haraway and Bruno
Latour), and then some sort of semiotics. It seems like there are a lot of
influences there. You got your PhD at Wisconsin, so how did that work
out? Can you tell me a little about your background?
EK: The way I got into anthropology was through research, by which I
mean fieldwork. And I was always trying to find ways to do more
fieldwork. I saw Wisconsin as an extension of this. When I was in college
I did some field research in the Ecuadorian Amazon, I had a Fulbright to
go back and do research after college, and only then did I go to grad
school. Although How Forests Think aims to make a conceptual
intervention in anthropology, I think of our field as a special vehicle for
engaging intensely with a place in ways that make us over and help us
think differently. The preparation I got at Wisconsin was geared toward
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that. It immersed me in area studies in the broadest and most positive


sense of the term. My advisor Frank Salomon is well versed in many
facets of Andean history, prehistory, and ethnography, as well as in the
Quechua languages including those spoken in Ecuador (where they are
known as Quichua). I worked with, among others, the tropical botanist
Hugh Iltis, the Latin Americanist geographers Bill Denevan, and Karl
Zimmerer, the Latin American historian Steve Stern, and I studied
Ecuadorian Quichua with Carmen Chuqun. There was a real sense that I
was preparing myself intensely for an engagement with the field in
terms of a multifaceted project which was going to include ecology,
anthropology, history, and a serious appreciation for local languages. Of
course I had graduate training in social theory and the history of
anthropological thought, but I wasnt trying to get training in a particular
body of theory, it was more that I was trying to engage with a place.
I was also inspired by the way my advisor approached scholarship
particularly his sensibility to language; his sensibility to writing; how one
can find ways to see the world afresh and capture that in writing. For
example, he is very conscious not to adopt rhetorical styles, theories, or
jargon from other people and he consciously tries to use writing as a
way to create his own sort of engagement. Hes a poet. I was very much
influenced by this.
RG: I had no idea that Wisconsin had such a specialty in your area. Could
you tell me more about your advisors work?
EK: Frank Salomon is a historical anthropologist with a broad specialty in
Native Andean worlds and their relation to the colonial encounter. I knew
him through his archival and ethnographic work in Ecuador (I had
actually met him in Ecuador when I was a child and he was a PhD
student!). Most of his work is now in Peru on khipus (knotted cords) and
other non-written forms of representation.
RG: I thought perhaps there was some influence on your work there, in
his work on unfamiliar forms of representation and your work on
semiotics?
EK: There is, but when I was at Wisconsin in the early 90s, one of the big
turns was historical anthropology and I was working with a historical
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anthropologist. Marshall Sahlins Islands of Histories had just come out.


This was the thing to do, and I was doing it. I ended up having to choose
between two field sites: one was in a cloud forest area that had a
tremendously interesting colonial history, a history that was visible in oral
traditions (and I was fascinated by the connections between those
stories and the past). The other was an ecological project in the village
where I ended up doing the work that became How Forests Think. It was
Frank Salomon who said Look, your heart is in this ecological stuff.
Frank is an historical anthropologist, youd think hed want to train his
students in his thing. But he recognized that my real passion was for the
forest and he allowed me to see that thats where I really wanted to go.
RG: Im not sure that every advisor would be so generous to a student.
EK: It was a real gift. He allowed me to do my thing, and ultimately this is
what I try to give to my students. Were motivated in the work we do by
passions we dont fully understand, and part of what we need to do as
advisors is to allow our students to tap into that without losing a sense of
what others around them are doing and thinking. Frank got what I was
into, and he saw that even in my historical work I was trying to answer
the same fundamental question: Ive always been dissatisfied with the
culture concept, broadly defined, and Im always trying to find ways to
get beyond it without losing a sense for the reality of culture. All my
projects have had that as their focus, and this concern has just been
growing more explicit, which has forced me to be much more precise
conceptually about what Im doing.
The problem with culture
RG: I have to say, How Forests Think is theoretical and abstract at times,
but theres a clear awareness of history and of colonialism in the book,
which is not necessarily what you would expect from high Francophone
theory. It was refreshing to see you foregrounding colonial processes,
especially towards the end of the book, where they became central to
your argument. Could you tell me a little bit more about that critique of
culture? How does that work? What makes you unhappy about culture?
EK: Some of my French colleagues think that theyre beyond culture
and have never had to deal with the problems that the American culture
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concept has created; they feel that they can sidestep it completely. But
what I mean by culture is a much broader thing and it applies to just
about every approach in the social sciences. The social sciences as we
know them are based on what I would call a linguistic turn (though it
isnt always explicitly phrased as such).
Think of Durkheim (who wasnt especially oriented towards language).
Society for him was a relational system: One institution can only be
understood in terms of another; social facts are to be understood only in
terms of other social facts; you cant, for example, explain social reality
psychologically. The Boasian approach of course is much more overtly
linguistic. But in both you get a system with the same kinds of properties.
Certain things can only be understood in terms of their contexts.
I was just rereading Boass famous article On Alternating Sounds, which
was published in American Anthropologist in 1889. Its a brilliant essay in
which he says, look, philologists think Native American languages are
primitive because their speakers use different sounds when
pronouncing the same words. And he was able to go back and say,
You can see that this is actually the effect of a lack of training in specific
Amerindian languages. The philologists are perceiving the sounds not
based on the native phonemic context, but in terms of the languages
they already know. Boas is making a profound argument about
context. We only hear those sounds that fit the phonemic contexts we
know.
The goal of linguistic anthropology for Boas was to learn to get these
contexts that are not necessarily our own. And of course you can
extend this argument to cultural and historical context as well. And
then, if you think about Saussure and the influence he had on
structuralism and post-structuralism, and combine that with Durkheim
and Boas, you get just about everybody whos doing social theory in
some way or other informed by concepts that have to do with how
language works. The special realities that were dealing with in
anthropology and related fields are relational ones, theyd say, and you
can only understand them in terms of the complex networks that make
them what they are. So any kind of relatum, whether we are talking
about a social fact or cultural meaning or even an actor in Actor
Network Theory is the product of the relationships that make it.
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RG: Right. In the case of sounds, phonemic contrast is the result of the
phonemic structure of the whole language, and it is internal to those
structures. In Saussure, each sign has its meaning in relation to other
signs, rather than anything outside the system.
EK: Yes. All of these approaches hold that the fundamental human
reality is symbolic thinking, it structures our world, and its different from
all the other things that one might study. It requires its own kind of
science, a human science. This is not biology, and its not chemistry.
This is all good. But the problem is that theres no way to understand
how these kinds of relational systems connect up to things that are not
like them. Thats the big question: how are these open to the world? My
engagement with culture is about addressing this problem. The STS
literature, the animal studies literature and multispecies ethnography are
all wonderful and profound, and are obviously finding ways to get
outside of culture. But they often fall back analytically on something that
I would still call culture in a formal sense. Thats clearest in Actor
Network Theory. The relata may happen to be material things, but the
formal system thats mapped out, the network and the ways in which
entities are made through the relationships that emerge there well, no
surprise, it exhibits the relational properties of human language.
My goal is to try to leave the human, to try to get beyond that kind of
thing. So when I say culture I refer not only to the traditional
anthropological concept but also to the sets of assumptions about
relationships that inform Foucault, so much of Science Studies, as well
as other posthumanist approaches. They all explore the properties of
what I would call culture in this formal sense even when they arent
dealing explicitly with humans or the culture concept.
RG: Its interesting you should mention Boas. I would just note that for
some Boasians, culture is a unique object, which requires a unique
science. Thats Kroebers argument. But thats not the argument of Sapir,
and its not the argument of Boas. I think itd be interesting if we focused
a little bit more on the Sapirian alternative, which is to understand
science as defined by its level of particularity, rather than its object of
study. Boas also takes this line in The Study of Geography: He doesnt
think that theres something called culture, and we have a unique
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science, which must study it. Hes doing something much weirder. I feel
like we should take a look at this again.
EK: Youre absolutely right. I didnt get into the technical semiotic stuff
until my post doc. Before that one of the major sources for me to get
outside language (along with the work of the anthropological linguist
Janis Nuckolls) was Sapir. Hes got these beautiful essays on sound
iconism. He would interview children about invented words and ask
which of these refers to the big table and which refers to the little
table? And words that have very elongated vowels would invariably be
linked to the larger object. And of course Sapir was interested in
poetics. Boas, on the other hand, took evolution very seriously. I
remember in grad school I wrote an essay about Boas as an
evolutionary anthropologist, and one of my teachers criticized me: How
can you say that! He was fighting against scientific racism! But Boas
clearly was in profound ways dealing with humans as biological
organisms, and I appreciate that tradition.
But the Boasian legacy as its been taken up has ended up moving from
a focus on a context that includes the environment to studying contexts
that are much more restricted to humans, like meaning systems. And
then you get Margaret Meads concept of culture, which we still adopt,
even when we reject her approach, or when we bring in historical
process.
RG: I think thats really true, and it speaks to the kind of fieldwork that
gets done. Maureen Molloy points out that Mead was one of the first
problem-based fieldworkers. Her ethnographies were not appreciated
by Kroeber because they werent particularistic. She would go into a
place, do the ethnography, move somewhere else. You kind of wonder,
maybe if shed hung around a little bit longer she would have started
asking what are these bugs?
Anyway, you were just now talking about how you got interested in
biology. Was that as a post-doc?
EK: Ive been apprenticing myself to tropical biologists since I was in
college. I did a tropical ecology graduate course in Costa Rica as part of
my graduate training. I took plant systematics classes and forestry
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statistics. I was always interested in finding ways to get into forest


ecology without necessarily going through humans.
RG: Your book doesnt speak the language of evolutionary biology, but it
seems informed by a deep awareness of the forest that comes both
from doing fieldwork with Runa people and having that science
background. Its necessary for your project.
EK: And different projects require different kinds of skills, but yes, thats
what I needed for this project.
Terrence Deacon and Charles Sanders Peirce
RG: The work of Terrence Deacon is a major influence on your book.
How did you come across him? Was that during your post-doc?
EK: Basically, Id done this research in the Amazon. I wrote a dissertation,
got thinking about articles, and was formulating an article that was to
stake out what I would be doing in the book. This was How Dogs
Dream, which came out in American Ethnologist in 2007. I was working
on that at Berkeley, and the year that I came there Terry arrived from the
Boston area and we had offices right next to each other. We started
talking. I would go into his office at four in the afternoon and come out at
nine at night
Terrys life project has been to understand the origins of mind. His first
book was about the evolution of symbolic capacities in humans and his
most recent book Incomplete Nature is about the emergence of mind
from matter. So when I was at Berkeley I got very much involved with
that, and it was the most intellectually exhilarating thing Ive ever done.
Academically, that is. Of course doing fieldwork in the tropical world
was exhilarating in its own right. But in terms of the academic world, Id
never been exposed to such an interesting set of ideas that was so new
to me but that fit so completely with what I was already doing. I dont get
to California that much, but he has an ongoing seminar and whenever I
can, I try to participate in it and its still very exciting to me.
RG: Peirce is a major part of your book. I think of Peirce as someone who
informs semiotic anthropology, for instance the circle that includes
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Michael Silverstein and others. But you dont let Silverstein own Peirce,
youre drawing on Deacon talking about Peirce? Is that where you got
him? Or do you read Peirce alongside Deacon?
EK: Deacon has been thinking about Peirce for a long time. When
anthropologists use Peirce they tend to collapse certain things and not
deal with certain elements of Peirce, like his interest in evolution, and
they tend to frame a lot of his work in terms of something you can think
of as culture.
RG: For people who arent super familiar with Peirces biography, he was
a favored son of Boston Brahmins and then ended up going off on his
own way, and I think at one point had to earn a living by drawing mazes
for people to do in the back of newspapers. He had a very strange life.
His work is really a whole philosophy of the universe, its not just about
language, its very philosophical and I guess bizarre in some sense.
EK: Its an architecture of the universe. Its a huge opus. Hes got 80,000
manuscript pages out there. But there are some really consistent
questions that come up over and over again. He has a continuist
framework, so he thinks that everything in the universe is related to
everything else and philosophical frameworks that posit radical breaks
are problematic. Dualisms of all kinds are problematic. So any attempt to
understand humans without relating humans to other entities that arent
human is a problem for Peirce. Hes worked out all sorts of ways to
move across those kinds of boundaries.
The other thing thats really important is that his philosophy is directional.
By which I mean that he sees certain processes as nested within other
more basic processes. And this is very problematic for us as
anthropologists because we want to see complexity and freedom and
indeterminacy. Peirce also makes space for spontaneity, but hes very
much interested in the formal qualities of things. One of the places to
see the nested nature of his approach is in his semiotics. You can have
indexical reference without symbolic reference (as is manifest in the
biological world) but you cant have a symbolic system without indices.
Symbols are nested within indices, and a Peircean framework can allow
you to see that. These are the kinds of things that are unpopular. In fact,
they get collapsed in a lot of the ways in which Peirce is used in
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anthropology. Anthropologists tend to think about icons and indices


within the context of cultural systems. Now, of course you do get iconic
and indexical processes that are framed within historically contingent
systems, but whats interesting to me are the things that can move in
and out of symbolic systems, and how outsides connect to insides.
So when I was at Berkeley I was reading a lot of Peirce, and I was talking
about it with Terry but also with Bill Hanks, Lawrence Cohen, and others.
The standard way to domesticate Peirce is: Peirce, hes your
theoretician, you apply him to your field site. Or you say, Oh yeah,
Peirce, he had his own social context just like everybody else. Both of
these statements are true, but Peirce is also in some ways more like a
mathematician. He is extracting things from properties in the world and
hes predicting formal properties that the world will exhibit. If hes correct
you will see these properties in the world. And in fact what happened is
that I realized that the ethnographic problems I had isolated were
already semiotic problems and they were also about the connections
we humans have with processes that are not fully circumscribed by
humans. The Runa were dealing with other kinds of communicative
worlds, the worlds of spirits and animals. This is a problem for them as it
was for Peirce. The material I was dealing with was semiotic. The reason
why Peirce and the Runa meet is because theyre being made over by
the same world.
RG: So youre doing explanatory work in two directions: first, youre using
Peirce to explain the Runa. But you also use Runa ethnography to help
explain Peirce as a thinker. One of the things youre doing in the
ethnography is saying: All of that stuff in Peirce that we had to ignore in
order to make him a linguistic theorist, it makes sense and can be used.
The book helps us see Peirce as a complete figure and makes sense of
him intellectually rather than just having a massive part of him that we
ignore or that we dont find interesting or think its too weird to deal with.
You give us a more complete picture of him.
EK: Thats right. In fact, one of our colleagues at the University of
Toronto, Alejandro Paz, calls this other part, the weird Peirce.
The other thing thats interesting is how concepts can acquire lives of
their own. For example, go back to Darwin. Darwin had profound
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insights about how you get designs without a designer. It doesnt matter
whether or not he believed in God. It doesnt matter if he didnt
understand genetics or got some things wrong. It doesnt matter
because he discovered a property of evolutionary dynamics that has a
life of its own.
You can say the same thing about Peirce. Somebody can say, you see,
Peirce thought that crystals think or whatever. And he may have said
that. But I can show you in Peircean terms and on Peircean grounds how
that doesnt necessarily make sense. Hes no longer the owner of these
concepts. I dont want to out-Peirce Peirce. Theres a lot of stuff about
him that I dont understand, and there are many experts on him, and Im
not necessarily one of them. But theres a way in which theres a
fundamental logic about certain things I can get because the world is
doing it, and Peirce was able to tap into that and Im also able to tap into
that. What were tapping into exceeds both of us.
RG: Right, and the animals tap into that as well, and plants tap into it too. I
was so surprised at the end of the book to find that you were critical of
the culture concept. I thought: This is it! This book provides a scaffold to
understand how culture articulates with biology and biological science,
and it provides an argument about the reality of cultural phenomena
even though theyre immaterial. So much of our idea of reality is tied up
in materiality, right? There are things that are real and emergent (for
instance form, or what Sahlins would call structure) even though they
dont have physical bodies. That is a powerful way to talk about culture
as a force without reifiying it as a substance.
EK: I am not anti-culture. I think culture is a real thing. But there are two
problems with how we deal with culture. First, its very difficult to see
how culture relates to the non-cultural. Second, we tend to make culture
the only domain where generality and abstraction occur. What Im trying
to show is that there are other areas where generalities are produced.
This is an anti-nominalist book. Humans are not the only producers of
generals in the world. It doesnt mean that culture isnt a unique
phenomenon that creates unique realities and unique kinds of structures
and categories. But I dont think that, for example, these spirits of the
forest who I discuss in chapter six are necessarily only cultural
phenomena. In some ways theyre a product of culture, but theyre an
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emergent product of other things, including the semiosis of the forest,


which is not fully subsumed by a cultural or symbolic framework.
RG: And you have a way to understand culture as real without having to
fall back on some weird 19th-century spiritualist position. You connect it
with the framework of modern biology.
EK: I lay this out in the first chapter. Its called the open whole, in
contrast to the traditional Tylorian definition of culture as a complex
whole. I want to say, yes, its a complex whole, but its also an open one.
That opening is whats so interesting to me. Culture has the real effect
and property of closure, but its also open, and how this works is one of
the things Im trying to write about in the book.
RG: You mentioned the masters of the forest in chapter six. I would gloss
them as a structure of the longue dure that exists at the conjuncture of
a bunch of different causal forces that include things like the natural
environment the stuff colonialism just kind of gets sucked into. Since,
you know, colonialism is only 400 years old.
Theory, fieldwork, andethnography
One of the things that strikes me about you in the course of this
interview is that youve really learned and grown and developed
throughout your intellectual career. Youve taken on new influences at
times when some other people would say, I have my framework and
Im done. Do you have any tips for students about how to stay active
intellectually and remain able to embrace new ideas when the ideas that
you already have might seem good enough for you?
EK: I think one of the things that helped, and this was a real luxury and
its difficult for me now because I cant do the kind of fieldwork I used to
do, is to have ethnographic problems that are interesting to you, that you
cant fully resolve, that force you to ask questions.
Thats the beauty of our field that somehow its the ethnographic work
that is making us over, and we then develop theories that might help us.
We have problems that trouble us, and we dont know how to talk about
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animal relationships in the forest and all of a sudden I was then involved
in this multi-species turn and having conversations with people like
Donna Haraway. But I wasnt a savvy graduate student, I didnt even
know who Donna Haraway was when I was in the field! I didnt know
what the trends were. It was the world that eventually led me to Donna
Haraway, not the other way around.
Its the same with the ontological turn. Its my work that leads me to
pose questions ontologically (at a moment when people happen to be
doing this) rather than a current trend driving my work. This is the
advantage that we have as anthropologists. We are thinking with the
world. Thats whats going to keep our thinking fresh. Whats difficult for
me now is that I need to go back and think with the world myself.
RG: I think there is something strange about the structure of our
anthropological careers: theres a period of intense immersive research,
and then teaching and family, and then never going back to the field
again. Sometimes, it feels like no matter how hard you try, thats the sort
of political economy of the professoriate. I think it has a tremendous
effect on how anthropological theory works. When you cant get back to
the field, suddenly youre interested in elaborating coherent theoretical
frameworks from the top down, since you dont have fresh data to lead
you from the bottom up, like you were saying.
Is How Forests Think an ethnography? Is that the genre?
EK: Thats a great question. Its not the standard ethnographic
monograph its not bounded by the Runa. Its not about getting their
context. So, its not an ethnography in that sense. Although after reading
it I hope you do get some sense of having had an ethnographic
immersion. But it doesnt have that kind of boundedness in the sense
that my concerns are not necessarily their concerns. My analytical
framework is not restricted to their analytical framework. Its not that
mine is bigger, but just that my project only partially intersects with
theirs. In that sense its not an ethnography. Although it is a form of
thinking that grows from ethnography. And so it is empirical, or
experiential. So in this sense it is extremely ethnographic.
RG: Im just trying to understand whether youre using the ethnography
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to elaborate the theory, or using the theory to elaborate the


ethnography. Whats the relationship between the theoretical
intervention and the descriptive material?
EK: In the actual writing theres a lot of back and forth. If one were to
look at my dissertation, which has none of the theory, no engagement
with semiotics, no engagement with multispecies ethnography or any of
that stuff, one would find many of the same examples that Im dealing
with in the book as conundrums that allow me to explore the larger
question of how to situate the human in some sort of larger non-human
domain.
It really is driven by ethnography in that sense. Ethnographic problems
suggest a certain kind of conceptual thinking. But there were also
moments in writing the book when I had an idea that grew out of a nonethnographic settings, and I was like, let me find an ethnographic
example to illustrate that. So there is a certain amount of artifice in
crafting something like this, where you tack back and forth. But the
general movement of this book is that the ethnography is demanding a
certain kind of conceptual framework, and the ethnography and
conceptual frameworks are coming together because theyre drawing
on a shared world.
Is theory political?
RG: A lot of anthropologists in the States would insist that there has to be
a political intervention in ethnography. You close the book making the
argument that Michael Scott and other thinkers, like Latour, would make:
that its politically important to think outside of our established
frameworks. I just imagine there are anthropologists out there who
would say, thats the lousiest definition of politics that Ive ever heard!
How would you respond to that kind of position?
EK: Theres a passage in Marilyn Stratherns The Gender of the Gift
where she says that radical politics is always linked to intellectual
conservatism because to act radically you have to have agreement on
what youre taking a stand on, and radical intellectual thought creates a
certain kind of political conservatism because once youre taking all
sorts of things apart, its very hard to act based on shared established
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categories.
Its a real problem. On the one hand I feel I can isolate ways of thinking
about political agency that are different. I can contribute to
conversations about things like resistance, and I can think about
problems of environmental politics in different ways, but ultimately, Im
not necessarily doing a kind of political work like.
RG: Terry Turner?
EK: Yes. Or some form of witnessing a kind of injustice to which I have
to find some way to attend. Im not doing that. Yet, the question for me
politically is, how are we going to create an ethical practice in the
Anthropocene, this time of ours in which futures, of human and
nonhuman kinds, are increasingly entangled, and interdependent in their
mutual uncertainty? This is where Im headed. And in the book I begin to
think about this political problem. But how does that articulate with
whats happening on the ground in terms of environmental politics? Who
might be doing something like this? I dont know. Its very abstract right
now, but thats where the political part of this would go.
RG: Its funny, I cant remember who said this; I think it was June Jordan?
She said that the way that it works is that you do the activism first, and
then the theory comes afterward that the theoretical work comes out
of the concrete political work of activism and social change. That
position sounds Peircean to me, Eduardo Kohnian to me, because it
emphasizes the process of being in the world, and is committed to the
idea that praxis leads to theoretical innovation. That claim, I think, may
run counter to the idea that theres something intellectually conservative
about radical politics.
EK: I like your formulation. There is some way in which I share affinities
with activism, in the sense that Im being made over first by the world
and then finding ways to account for that, but it doesnt necessarily fall
into the category of politics in terms of addressing oneself to social
injustices, per se, as the central focus.
RG: What are your future projects?

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EK: Well, thinking about an ethical practice in the Anthropocene through


the logic of thinking forests is one. I plan to work with Amazonians but
also with environmentalists, lawyers and biologists in Ecuador, and I
dont know where that will go. We all share this problem of how to live in
the Anthropocene, how to reorient our lives with respect to this. But I
dont know what that means on the ground.
The other project Ive been working on and this is with Lisa Stevenson
is also related to thinking forests. Well, for me at least. Lisa is coming to
it from a different place and shes been working on it for much longer
than I have. But in terms of my work on thinking forests Im interested in
forms of representation that are non-language-like and non-symbolic.
One of the areas where this crops up is in forms of ethnographic
representation that are non-language like. Ive always been interested in
photography (you can see a bit of this through the images in the book)
and Ive become increasingly interested in ethnographic film. Weve
been working together on a few films that are trying to bring out some
of this non-discursive representational logic and this is one of the
directions I find the most inspiring at the moment.
RG: Right, Eduardo. Thanks very much for this interview!
EK: Thank you!
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2 thoughts on An anti-nominalist book: Eduardo Kohn on


How Forests Think
June 5, 2014 at 8:04 pm

John
McCreery

Eduardo, thank you for writing this book. Rex, thank you for
recommending it. The Kindle edition is now on my iPad,
and the first few pages have already convinced me that I
am in for a treat. The opening scene, in which Eduardo is
instructed to sleep on his back so that the jaguar will see
his face and know that he is not prey is brilliant. It evoked
growing up in a family of occasional hunters in the
American south, and reading that how the animal sees you
is important was what I call, using the Japanese expression
a narudhodo (of course) moment. Not quite as dramatic
as facing a jaguar; but anyone who has ever sat on a log in
the woods trying to sit still so that the squirrels wont see
you will know what you mean in a visceral way. Of course,
it matters how the animals see us, just as it matters how
they see each other; the natural world is full of camouflage
and deception. But then along came Pierce and your
pointing out the difference between symbols on the one
hand and icons and indices on the other. The philosophical
concepts and the verifying experience came together with
a bang, like the Zen masters whack on the head.

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But getting back to more academic anthropology: How


would you see the relation between your work and that of
Mary Douglas in Natural Symbols? She is, of course, still
dealing primarily with symbols, but also with the body as
an iconic image of society. It might be interesting to see
what combining your thoughts would produce. Another
Zen-like whack on the head perhaps.

June 22, 2014 at 8:55 am

John
McCreery

FYI, I posted the following on OAC. There, too, there has


been zero response. Intriguing that, since Kohns book is a
brilliant challenge to conventional wisdom.or could that
be the problem?
Over on Savage Minds, Rex has posted an interview with
Eduardo Kohn, the author of How Forests Think: Toward an
Anthropology Beyond the Human. Kohn has spent a lot of
time working with the Runa, a people who live in
Amazonian Ecuador. These people are constantly
concerned about the intentions of the other non-human
selves that make up a large part of their world.
An older anthropology might simply have checked a box
labeled animism. Kohn develops a powerful argument by
using terms borrowed from C.S. Pierces semiology to
analyse how Runa perceive the world. He does not deny
that there is a part of the world where processes
uninformed by intention suffice to explain what is going on.
Neither does he deny that humans are unique in their
extraordinary ability to use symbolic forms of
communication: language, in particular. But Pierces
description of semiosis, the process by which intention,
purpose and meaning are generated,is not confined to
symbols, which refer arbitrarily to their referents, as the
Japanese inu and Chinese gou both refer to the animals
that English speakers call dogs.

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Semiosis begins with icons, resemblances, e.g., the


presence of warm blood that attracts ticks regardless of
the species of mammal in question. It continues with
indices, signs that signal the presence of differences, e.g.,
between the sounds made by a deer and a jaguar, for
example. Symbols properly speaking emerge from a
context in which both icons and indices are already
present. Where do we find icons and indices, asks Kohn.
Wherever there are living things whose behaviour is
oriented toward future, not yet present, events (what
Terence Deacon calls abstentia). The jaguar lurking in wait
for prey and the deer alert to avoid its attack both exhibit
this kind of behaviour, as do human hunters. And so, says
Kohn, do plants that seek the conditions they need to
grow, putting out roots toward sources of water, or leaning
in the direction from which sunlight comes. On Kohns
account, the whole living world is shaped by semiotic
processes of which human use of symbols is only a special
case.
What is powerful about Kohns argument for me is the way
that it resonates with childhood experience hunting, fishing
and gardening with my father. If we wait here and stay still,
we will see a squirrel pop out of that nest, The rockfish
prefer the shallows near the marsh, These tomatoes want
more sun. Yes, we can look for mechanisms that explain
away the intentions that these sorts of remarks assume;
but as Terence Deacon also observes, they are rarely if
ever sufficient to explain what we see.
Do I believe all this? Maybe. Do I find it fascinating? I do.

Comments are closed.

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