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Eduardo Kohn’s book, How Forests Think (2013) is an inquiry on how to think beyond human as subject of anthropological study. Thus, it provides us with academic understanding of our strongly relational ties with non-human beings, which are constitutive in and for our presence in the world. In this study, ethnography is not an object, but a medium to comprehend multiple ontologies; hence, it is much different from traditional anthropological works, which mostly focus on cultural representations. Without giving up being “human,” the writer discloses how our “selves” are interwoven with other “beings.” In this sense, he offers us to approach the human and non-human as active agents in our thinking of anthropological study.
Kohn conducts his ethnographic fieldwork from 1996 to 2000 in Avila, an Upper Amazonian village in Ecuador. He uses ethnographic methods, such as participant observation and interviews, in addition to his linguistic analysis and epistemological explorations. Thus, I was expecting an ethnographic examination on culture, gender, or kinship structures in Avila. Also, I was wondering if he would theorize social, economic and political dynamics of the region in relation to the larger historical context. However, Kohn does not do what many of the previous ethnographies have aimed to do. Rather, Kohn criticizes human-centric approach of the Western anthropology by focusing on other-than-human beings, and he proves us the importance of studying human within a relationship with its surroundings. I will explain how.
Although his fundamental theoretical approach is based on semiotics and semiosis, Kohn does not see signs just as human affairs. In his account, signs are constitutive in life both for human and nonhuman beings (43). In drawing our attention to those signs, Kohn delicately interrogates how different “beings” relate to and communicate with each other. He calls this relationality “ecology of selves,” which he finds and formulates within the rainforest of an Amazonian village, where trans-species semiosis pervades and connects all living selves. A very good example of his idea of relationality is the example he gives about ants and blowing tobacco smoke in Chapter 2. Because rain starts when ants appear, people become able to impede rain by using tobacco, whose smoke prevents ants from coming out. Similarly, when Juanicu whistles like a siren, the flying ants understand as the call of their “mothers” and they answer by coming to the source of the sign (81). As a result of such communication, a relational world, where both human and animal coinhabit, is created.
However, Kohn’s book is not only about humans and animals. In Chapter 5, he talks about “perceptions” of cross-species. For instance, Runa puma, shape-shifting human jaguar, also has a perception of seeing things around himself. Whether Runa sees you as a human being or a piece of meat totally depends on Runa’s perception of you, as well as the way you present yourself before him. Therefore, you may or may not be eaten by the jaguar depending on your visual representation. In a similar vein, the Runa in their everyday life see the game animals that they hunt in the forest as wild animals, but they know that this is not their true manifestation. Hence, they do not eat, for instance, the spirit master’s chicken (178). In other words, people, Runa, and all other organisms in the forest use signs primarily to survive in this relational world.
Therefore, he draws our attention to the revolutionary potentials and scholarly possibilities of studying another type of anthropology, in which we open up ourselves to various "selves." His study converts Redfieldian notion of “worldviews” into different “worlds” of non-human beings. Kohn introduces us another world—a world where human and non-human melt into each other through semiosis of all life. Focusing on the potentials of thinking beyond human in anthropology, he provides alternative ways of thinking within scholarly language and unconventional ways of using ethnography. Kohn uses ethnography as a tool to explore the spectrum of forest, which seems larger than "little communities." However, my critic starts right there, as I would like to know more about ethnographic aspects of his work related to the Avila community. What kinds of people are able to relate themselves to the non-human selves of the forest was one of my curiosities while reading this book. How is their society organized in relation to their semiotic relationship with the world? What are their spiritual motivations and cosmologies? How does food function in this society where hunting is a fundamental phenomenon? Is there any relationship between their colonial history and their hesitation to use power upon other beings in their surrounding? I believe, in order to understand humans’ relationality with their surroundings, we also need to know such constitutive aspects of their lives. I would like to learn more about Avila community as human is already at the center of this book. Who else is going to talk about this, if not Kohn?
Moreover, I left confused about the distinction made in the book between living and nonliving forms. The writer says that patterned distribution of rivers or the recurrent circular shapes of the whirlpools are among the nonliving emergent forms in Amazonia, as they are constrained, and thus, they cannot flow freely as much as the water itself (159). However, within a new relationality, which is supposed to be developed in the new environment, they will be living in different ways and within different forms, even though they are constrained. Furthermore, he continues discussing whirlpools as simpler forms than the freer flow of water (166). However, I left wondering what makes the water free. Shall we still consider this flowing water as free, even there is a whirlpool on its way? Or, is the water also constrained affected by the whirlpool? What is the relationship between whirlpool and water? What is the relationship between water, whirlpool, and rubber trees? In order to understand “how forest thinks” as a whole, we need to understand this relationality in a larger context with more ontological explanations.
Yes, the language is tough, and it necessitates from the reader to have some background information on semiotics, ontology, and epistemology to the extent of postmodernism and posthuman critics. I do not think that the book is for the general reader, but inevitably an innovative contribution to anthropology with its writing performance. Just as a snowflake having a provisional form between present and absent, Kohn presents us a language whose form can change in any moment. His poetic language is robust yet also fragile—as if the words may rebel at any time and break apart in front of your eyes. He perfectly uses possibilities that are provided by the language, as another sign system. Among the non-textual ways of communication with the reader, the writer’s use of photography perfectly fits with the philosophical profundity of the text. I could not prevent myself from looking at the series of very well selected photographs over and over again.
Although his book is not considered as a traditional ethnography for the reasons that I mentioned above, since he opens up the scholarly work into dialogic epistemologies and provides multiplicity of experiences from an unconventional inter-species analysis of subject-object relationships, it must be considered one of the finest examples of critical ethnography.
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If you are looking for a book about the indigenous communities in Ecuador and the ethnographic work done among Quichua speaking people then The How Forest Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human by Eduardo Kohn is the book you must read to inform you about the worldview of the Runa in Ecuador. This book takes the reader on a journey to explore mind-blowing thoughts about living organisms that intertwine with the study of indigenous communities from a post-human approach or a going "beyond human" thinking. Using ethnographic techniques from the Runa to illustrate their relationship with the forest, Kohn writes an almost literary work to express the importance of relationships and communication between human and the other-than-human beings. His claims go "beyond the human" to develop a universal claim of how the Runa listen to the voice of the other being in order to maintain and sustain balance in their life.
The reader can begin to appreciate the book following chapters two and three, where the author bypasses the overly used principles of philosophical and linguistic analysis. Kohn suggests that inter-species communication is based on a close and intimate relationship between species in the same habitat. The use of symbols and signs between humans and other-than-human beings allow them to communicate in a system that is specific to a given environment. The author proves his claims through the use of ethnographic techniques such as participant observation, personal accounts, photos and interviews. I was particularly drawn to the use of participatory observations and personal accounts as methods of ethnographic work. The photographic display of each chapter stimulates the mind of the reader to create mental images of the ethnographic work of Kohn. Chapter five, my favorite, for instance, has Kohn beginning the chapter with a picture of a saint and a blurry picture of a Runa man in the background accompanied by the narration of a personal dream that sets the stage for future commentaries about dream interpretation. With the use of his dreams and positioning himself in the conversation about dreams, Kohn enters the conversation of dreams as a subject where his own dreams serve as an example to illustrate the realm that surpasses the human and non-human realms into metaphysical levels.
Despite the outstanding use of ethnographic techniques (e.g. participatory observation, interviews, photographs etc.) and the use of theory to re-enforce the claims made by the author, I was left wondering about an important aspect about the living selves. In Chapter Two, the section titled Memory and Absence, Kohn juxtaposes the giant anteater to a snowflake to demonstrate how remembering and forgetting are unique aspects of life (two different beings from different environments?). The giant anteater remembers his/her form from every generation and subsequent lineages, as opposed to the snowflake that falls from the sky in a single unique form every time. Kohn states that "living beings differ from snowflakes because life is intrinsically semiotic, and semiosis is always for a self" (76). When Kohn claims that life is essentially "semiotic and semiosis" he excludes, or in my opinion disregards water as being because water does not communicate in signs and, of course, does not remember form. In the sections Memory and Absence, Kohn describes "selves" as the living beings. However, snowflakes are made of ice water that is made of water molecules. Water molecules sustain life; therefore, water is life and as consequence snowflakes are life as well. In other world-views water is an other-than-human being because the simply fact that the water holds a close relationship with human beings by providing the essence for life.
Furthermore, in the world-view of several other indigenous communities water, fire, rocks, crystals, thunder, etc. are considered other-than-human beings. For instance, in the study of the Ojibwa group, Hallowell demonstrates that the Ojibwa's world-view is that human and non-human beings are in a close relationship and that this relation is linguistically marked. In other words, the relationship between the word Thunder and humans go beyond the mental representation of lightening. Thunder acts upon the living space of humans and communicates by acting as a living agent in the life of Ojibwa. I wish that Kohn went beyond the "semiotic and semiosis" aspect of defining the living selves and enter the world of ontology or to the act of dealing with the nature of beings in more detail to demonstrate how water is also a self. Konh’s characterization of living selves by defining life in a symbolic meaning is lacking the ontological relationship between human and other-than-human beings. Studies about ontology have been going on for a long time now in Native Studies. Kohn's study would have greatly benefitted from conveying how water communicates and relates to human beings in more detail as opposed to making water the vehicle or the container of the system of selfs (similar to what is achieved in Chapter 5). I find Kohn’s categorization of selves unclear and I am not convinced if the view of snowflakes and rivers as "nonliving emergent forms" is universal or part of Runa world-view only (159).
Although Kohn makes the references to communication of other-than-human beings via symbols, icons, and indexicality, I believe that a linguistic analysis of the Runa language in more details is a vital to observe how water, fire, crystals, stones and snowflakes communicate to the Runa (if they do communicate based on their own world-view). The book How Forest Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human by Eduardo Kohn is a book that does not answer the question of how forests' think, but rather provides an ethnographic account of how the Runa maintain a relationship with every organism in the forest through the use of symbols. Despite the provocative writings about animism and Kohn's take on how human and other-than-human beings relate and communicate, I am left wondering why the Runa do not hold a close relationship with water or other essential elements of life. I believe if the book would have went down this road and inspected the communication of how water, fire and other-than-human being communicate to the Runa then we would have entered the terrain of how forests think and went further beyond the Anthropology beyond the Human.
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In 'How Forests Think,' the author, Eduardo Kohn, has undertaken an ambitious project, challenging anthropology to be inclusive of non-human life. To carry out this project, Mr. Kohn has employed 4 perspectives; ecology, colonial history, semiotics, and the Runa, an indigenous group in the Amazon rain forest of Ecuador. He seeks to weave each perspective together symbiotically in order to gain a deeper understanding of the context the Runa participate in, and through the eyes of the Runa, a different viewpoint on how we can relate to the non-human world.
For a reader, the challenge is to pull apart the strands of thought which he has weaved together, in order to contemplate his main ideas. There is much to contemplate which I doubt I can give justice to in this short review. Therefore, I will highlight a few key thoughts.
The biodiversity of the rainforest is set up as the stage for this ethnography. Through the rainforest, Mr. Kohn contemplates the continuity and dynamics of form. Two examples he provides are the characteristics of amazon whirlpools, and the evolution of the walking stick insect. Insinuating that a certain geometry is inherent to both life and non-life, he feels it is this geometry that propels life forward into its manifold aspects. To me, it sounds like he is proposing something similar to the idea of the 'elan vital' introduced by Henri Bergson.
The work of Charles S Peirce, a semiotician, provides Mr. Kohn with his next main theme. Semiotics is the study of meaning making, and is the study of signs. Mr. Kohn believes that not only is life inherently geometric, but it also is communicating and thinking to itself in it's diverse aspects through signs.
This perspective also informs the Runa, a group of hunter gatherers that practice animism, or a belief that the natural world is animated by spirit. Interestingly enough, the Runa have been in contact with the outside world for centuries and have been acculturated to the extent that their beliefs bear the trappings of a cargo cult. Yet, despite the outward form of their belief system and practices there has been continuity of their animistic beliefs since they were first 'discovered.' Through the eyes of the Runa, a reader can get a picture of life and its forms as not only symbolic, but enchanted.
Here, I think Mr. Kohn is attempting to say that we don't have to perceive life in the same way as the Runa or ascribe to their meaning-making system. Their symbol system merely provides a case study of what an anthropology beyond the human could look like. Yet, we do need to subscribe to a view that sees life as inherently symbolic, sentient, and made up of a multitude of selves that an anthropology beyond the human needs to recognize.
He also seems to be saying that we need to recognize that life has some type of animating presence propelling it forward, whether we recognize this animating presence as spirit informing matter or some kind of intrinsic geometric sign system is up to us, but an anthropology beyond the human cannot move forward without adopting a viewpoint similar to this, because an anthropology beyond the human would have to honor life in all of its diverse aspects.
As a reader it is challenging to mine the gems that are in this book and it may take more than one reading and some reflection to understand everything that Mr. Kohn says, since there is so much set on the feast table. Even my interpretation may not capture all of what Mr. Kohn is trying to say. If there is a critique, it is here. Possibly, a reader may feel that Mr. Kohn is developing too many themes and is inadequately synthesizing them together.
Yet, if one is to adopt a systemic perspective, as Mr. Kohn attempts to do, I am not sure how else one could write a book like this because Mr. Kohn seeks nothing less than a revolution in our way of thinking. He strives to achieve this by exposing us through the eyes of the Runa shamans, and the shape shifting jaguars that participate in the life of the Amazon. It is due to the challenge that Mr. Kohn raises and his method of delivery that makes this a compelling read..