(reading notes from How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Kohn, Eduardo)
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte . . . [Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was that savage forest, dense and difficult . . .] —Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto I [trans. Mandelbaum]
All life is semiotic and all semiosis is alive. In important ways, then, life and thought are one and the same: life thinks; thoughts are alive. This has implications for understanding who “we” are. Wherever there are “living thoughts” there is also a “self.” “Self,” at its most basic level, is a product of semiosis. It is the locus—however rudimentary and ephemeral—of a living dynamic by which signs come to represent the world around them to a “someone” who emerges as such as a result of this process. The world is thus “animate.” “We” are not the only kind of we.
How other kinds of beings see us matters. That other kinds of beings see us changes things. If jaguars also represent us—in ways that can matter vitally to us—then anthropology cannot limit itself just to exploring how people from different societies might happen to represent them as doing so. Such encounters with other kinds of beings force us to recognize the fact that seeing, representing, and perhaps knowing, even thinking, are not exclusively human affairs
That jaguars represent the world does not mean that they necessarily do so as we do. And this too changes our understanding of the human. In that realm beyond the human, processes, such as representation, that we once thought we understood so well, that once seemed so familiar, suddenly begin to appear strange.
“Be careful going up to Ávila,” I was cautioned. “Be especially wary of their drinking parties. When you go out to pee you might come back to find that your hosts have become jaguars.”
These contradictions—that Runa shamans receive messages from Christian gods and that the were-jaguars that wander the forests around Ávila are white—are part of what drew me to Ávila.
Eating also brings people in intimate relation to the many other kinds of nonhuman beings that make the forest their home. During the four years that I worked in Ávila villagers bought many things in Loreto. They bought things such as shotguns, ammunition, clothing, salt, many of the household items that would have been made by hand a couple of generations ago, and lots of the contraband cane liquor that they call cachihua. What they didn’t buy was food. Almost all the food they shared with each other and with me came from their gardens, the nearby rivers and streams, and the forest.
Gods talking through the bodies of cows, Indians in the bodies of jaguars, jaguars in the clothing of whites, the runa puma enfolds these.
Footing for the unsteady, a guide for the blind, a cane mediates between a fragile mortal self and the world that spans beyond. In doing so it represents something of that world, in some way or another, to that self
A cane also prompts us to ask with Gregory Bateson, “where” exactly, along its sturdy length, “do I start?” (Bateson 2000a: 465)
The goal here is neither to do away with the human nor to reinscribe it but to open it.
Creating an analytical framework that can include humans as well as nonhumans has been a central concern of science and technology studies (see esp. Latour 1993, 2005), the “multispecies” or animal turn (see esp. Haraway 2008; Mullin and Cassidy 2007; Choy et al. 2009; see also Kirksey and Helmreich 2010 for a review), and Deleuze-influenced (Deleuze and Guattari 1987) scholarship (e.g., Bennett 2010).
Charles Peirce (1931, 1992a, 1998a)
what the Chicago-trained linguistic anthropologist Alejandro Paz calls the “weird” Peirce
Terrence Deacon’s remarkably creative application of Peircean semiotics to biology and to questions of what he calls “emergence” (see Deacon 2006, 2012).
We conflate representation with language in the sense that we tend to think of how representation works in terms of our assumptions about how human language works. Because linguistic representation is based on signs that are conventional, systemically related to one another, and “arbitrarily” related to their objects of reference, we tend to assume that all representational processes have these properties
Peirce’s terminology these other modalities (in broad terms) are either “iconic” (involving signs that share likenesses with the things they represent) or “indexical” (involving signs that are in some way affected by or otherwise correlated with those things they represent). In addition to being symbolic creatures we humans share these other semiotic modalities with the rest of nonhuman biological life (Deacon 1997).
Given the challenges posed by learning to live with the proliferating array of other kinds of life-forms that increasingly surround us—be they pets, weeds, pests, commensals, new pathogens, “wild” animals, or technoscientific “mutants”—developing a precise way to analyze how the human is both distinct from and continuous with that which lies beyond it is both crucial and timely.
What kinds of insights about the nature of the world become apparent when we attend to certain engagements with parts of that world that reveal some of its different entities, dynamics, and properties?
That is, taking nonhumans seriously makes it impossible to confine our anthropological inquiries to an epistemological concern for how it is that humans, at some particular time or in some particular place, go about making sense of them. As an ontological endeavor this kind of anthropology places us in a special position to rethink the sorts of concepts we use and to develop new ones. In Marilyn Strathern’s words, it aims “to create the conditions for new thoughts” (1988: 20).
This anthropology beyond the human, then, grows out of an intense
sustained engagement with a place and those who make their lives there
But “conversation” also occasionally involved other kinds of beings: the squirrel cuckoo who flew over the house whose call so radically changed the course of discussion down below; the household dogs with whom people sometimes need to make themselves understood; the woolly monkeys and the powerful spirits that inhabit the forest; and even the politicians who trudge up to the village during election season.
Dreams too are part of the empirical, and they are a kind of real. They grow out of and work on the world, and learning to be attuned to their special logics and their fragile forms of efficacy helps reveal something about the world beyond the human.
examples, anecdotes, riddles, questions, conundrums, uncanny juxtapositions, and even photographs.
This book will not immediately plunge you into the messy entangled, “natural-cultural” worlds (Latour 1993) whose witnessing has come to be the hallmark of anthropological approaches to nonhumans. Rather, it seeks a gentler immersion in a kind of thinking that grows. It begins with very simple matters so that complexity, context, and entanglement can themselves become the objects of ethnographic analysis rather than the unquestioned conditions for it.
Those concerned with nonhumans have often tried to overcome the familiar Cartesian divide between the symbolic realm of human meanings and the meaningless realm of objects either by mixing the two—terms such as natures-cultures or material-semiotic are indicative of this—or by reducing one of these poles to the other. By
contrast, “The Open Whole” aims to show that the recognition of representational processes as something unique to, and in a sense even synonymous with, life 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
The world is also “enchanted.” Thanks to this living semiotic dynamic, mean-ing (i.e., means-ends relations, significance, “aboutness,” telos)
is a constitutive feature of the world and not just something we humans impose on it.
Objectification, then, is the flipside of animism, and it is not a straightforward process.
one’s ability to destroy other selves rests on and also highlights the fact that one is an ephemeral self—a self that can all too quickly cease being a self. Under the rubric “soul blindness,” this chapter charts moments where this ability to recognize other selves is lost and how this results in a sort of monadic alienation as one is, as a consequence, avulsed from the relational ecology of selves that constitutes the cosmos.
There are many ways in which we cease being selves to ourselves and to each other. There are many ways of being pulled out of relation and many occasions where we turn a blind eye to and even kill relation. There are, in short, many modalities of disenchantment. At times the horror of this everyday fact of our existence bursts into our lives, and thus becomes a difficulty of reality. At others it is simply ignored.
I resist the temptation to treat this relational knot as an irreducible complexity.
The property that most interests me here is hierarchy. The life of signs is characterized by a host of unidirectional and nested logical properties—properties that are consummately hierarchical. And yet, in the hopeful politics we seek to cultivate, we privilege heterarchy over hierarchy, the rhizomatic over the arborescent, and we celebrate the fact that such horizontal processes—lateral gene transfer, symbiosis, commensalism, and the like—can be found in the nonhuman living world. I believe this is the wrong way to ground politics. Morality, like the symbolic, emerges within—not beyond—the human. Projecting our morality, which rightfully privileges equality, on a relational landscape composed in part of nested and unidirectional associations of a logical and ontological, but not a moral, nature is a form of anthropocentric narcissism that renders us blind to some of the
properties of that world beyond the human. As a consequence it makes us incapable of harnessing them politically. Part of the interest of this chapter, then, lies in charting how such nested relations get caught up and deployed in moral worlds without themselves being the products of those moral worlds
It is about the strange properties of pattern propagation that exceed life despite the fact that such patterns are harnessed, nurtured, and amplified by life. In a tropical forest teeming with so many forms of life
these patterns proliferate to an unprecedented degree. To engage with the forest on its terms, to enter its relational logic, to think with its thoughts, one must become attuned to these.
By “form” here, I’m not, then, referring to the conceptual structures—innate or learned—through which we humans apprehend the world, nor am I referring to an ideal Platonic realm. Rather, I am referring to a strange but nonetheless worldly process of pattern production and propagation, a process Deacon (2006, 2012) characterizes as “morphodynamic”—one whose peculiar generative logic necessarily comes to permeate living beings (human and nonhuman) as they harness it.
Even though form is not mind it is not thinglike either.
Rethinking cause through form forces us to rethink agency as well. What is this strange way of getting something done without doing anything at all? What kinds of politics can come into being through this particular way of creating associations? Grasping how form emerges and propagates in the forest and in the lives of those who relate to it—be they river dolphins, hunters, or rubber bosses—and understanding something about form’s effortless efficacy is central to developing an anthropology that can attend to those many processes central to life, human and nonhuman, which are not built from quanta of
So, how should we think with forests?
As we learn to attend ethnographically to that which lies beyond the human, certain strange phenomena suddenly come to the fore, and these strange phenomena amplify, and in the process come to exemplify, some of the general properties of the world in which we live. If through this form of analysis we can find ways to further amplify these phenomena, we can then cultivate them as concepts and mobilize them as tools. By methodologically privileging amplification over, say, comparison
or reduction we can create a somewhat different anthropology, one that can help us understand how we might better live in a world we share with other kinds of lives.
This emphasis on defamiliarization—coming to see the strange as familiar so that the familiar appears strange—calls to mind a long anthropological tradition that focuses on how an appreciation for context (historical, social, cultural) destabilizes what we take to be natural and immutable modes of being.
This reach beyond the human changes our understanding of foundational analytical concepts such as context but also others, such as representation, relation, self, ends, difference, similarity, life, the real, mind, person, thought, form, finitude, future, history, cause, agency, relation, hierarchy, and generality. It changes what we mean by these terms and where we locate the phenomena to which they refer, as well as our understanding of the effects such phenomena have in the living world in which we live.
life—human and nonhuman—is not just the product of the weight of the past on the present but how it is also the product of the curious and convoluted ways in which the future comes to bear upon a present.
Selves, then, are characterized by what Peirce calls a “being in futuro” (CP 2.86), or a “living future” (CP 8.194).
all semiotic processes are organized around the fact that signs represent a future possible state of affairs. The future matters to living thoughts. It is a constitutive feature of any kind of self.
The fractured and yet necessary relationship between the mundane present and the vague future plays out in specific and painful ways in what Lisa Stevenson (2012; see also Butler 1997) might call the psychic life of the Runa self, immersed and informed as it is by the ecology of selves in which it lives. The Runa are both of and alienated from the spirit world, and survival requires cultivating ways to allow something of one’s future self—living tenuously in the spirit realm of the forest masters—to look back on and call out to that more mundane part of oneself that might then hopefully respond.
It is the product of the imponderable weight of the many dead that make a living future possible.
We need to provincialize language because we conflate representation with language and this conflation finds its way into our theory.
Although not exactly a word, tsupu certainly is a sign
Janis Nuckolls (1996) has written an entire book—titled, appropriately, Sounds Like Life
The crashing palm itself comes to signify something for the monkey in another capacity. The crash, as sign, is not a likeness of the object it represents. Instead, it points to something else. Peirce calls this sort of sign an “index.” Indices constitute his second broad class of signs.
The palm that Hilario sent crashing down that afternoon startled the monkey. As an index it forced her to notice that something just happened, even though what just happened remained unclear.10 Whereas icons involve not noticing, indices focus the attention.
But signs are more than things. They don’t squarely reside in sounds, events, or words. Nor are they exactly in bodies or even minds. They can’t be precisely located in this way because they are ongoing relational processes. Their sensuous qualities are only one part of the dynamic through which they come to be, to grow, and to have effects in the world.
The startled monkey’s jump to a higher perch is a part of this living semiotic chain. It is what Peirce called an “interpretant,” a new sign that interprets the way in which a prior sign relates to its object.11 Interpretants can be further specified through an ongoing process of sign production and interpretation that increasingly captures something about the world and increasingly orients an interpreting self toward this aboutness.
A glass flask is as much about what it is as it is about what it is not; it is as much about the vessel blown into form by the glassmaker—and all the material qualities and technological, political, and socioeconomic histories that made that act of creation possible—as it is about the specific geometry of absence that it comes to delimit.
All signs, and not just those we might call magical, traffic in the future
constitutive absence is central to evolutionary processes. That, for example, a lineage of organisms comes to increasingly fit a particular environment is the result of the “absence” of all the
other lineages that were selected out
crashing palms, jumping monkeys, and “words” like tsupu
My call to provincialize language alludes to Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe (2000), his critical account of how South Asian and South Asianist scholars rely on Western social theory to analyze South Asian social realities. To provincialize Europe is to recognize that such theory (with its assumptions about progress, time, etc.) is situated in the particular European context of its production. Social theorists of South Asia, Chakrabarty argues, turn a blind eye to this situated context and apply such theory as if it were universal.
Context is an effect of the symbolic. That is, without the symbolic we would not have linguistic, social, cultural, or historical contexts as we understand them. And yet this kind of context does not fully create or circumscribe our realities because we also live in a world that exceeds the symbolic, and this is something our social theory must also find ways to address.
Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s multinaturalism
The hyphen in Latour’s (1993: 106) “natures-cultures” is the new pineal gland in the little Cartesian heads that this analytic unwittingly engenders at all scales.
We need, in Viveiros de Castro’s words, to “decolonize thought,” in order to see that thinking is not necessarily circumscribed by
language, the symbolic, or the human
That night, however, the dogs didn’t bark at all, and therefore, much to the consternation of their masters, they failed to foretell their own deaths.
small but vexing ethnological conundrum: Why do people in Ávila interpret dog dreams literally (e.g., when a dog barks in its sleep this is an omen that it will bark in identical fashion the following day in the forest), whereas for the most part they interpret their own dreams metaphorically (e.g., if a man dreams of killing a chicken he will kill a game bird in the forest the following day)?
Trans-species communication is dangerous business. It must be undertaken in ways that avoid, on the one hand, the complete transmutation of the human self—no one wants to permanently become a dog—and, on the other, the monadic isolation represented by what in the previous chapter
I called soul blindness, which is the solipsistic flipside of this transmutation
The moral is also distinctively human, because to think morally and to act ethically requires symbolic reference. It requires the ability to momentarily distance ourselves from the world and our actions in it to reflect on our possible modes of future conduct—conduct that we can deem potentially good for others that are not us. This distancing is achieved through symbolic reference.
Value, by contrast, is intrinsic to the broader nonhuman living world because it is intrinsic to life. There are things that are good or bad for a living self and its potential for growth (see Deacon 2012: 25, 322)
The multispecies encounter is, as Haraway has intimated, a particularly important domain for cultivating an ethical practice. In it, we are most clearly confronted with what she calls “significant otherness” (Haraway
2003). In these encounters we are confronted by an otherness that is radically (significantly) other—without, I would add, that otherness being incommensurable or “incognizable”
understanding certain aspects of human communication (such as different forms of pointing to indicate the location of food).
Through a process that Brian Hare and others (2002) call “phylogenetic enculturation” dogs have penetrated human social worlds to such an extent that they exceed even chimpanzees in
Becoming human in the right ways is central to surviving as a dog in Ávila.
Dogs, however, are not just animals-becoming-people. They can also acquire qualities of jaguars, the quintessential predators.
This meal, which consists of cooked palm hearts, is eaten early in the morning after the ghost of the deceased is sent back to where he or she was born, to reunite with the afterbirth. The long tubular hearts, which are left intact for this meal, resemble human bones (by contrast, when palm hearts are prepared for everyday meals they are finely chopped).9 Resembling bones, the palm hearts presented at this meal
serve as a substitute for the corpse of the deceased in a sort of “mortuary endo-cannibalistic” feast, not unlike other feasts in other parts of Amazonia (and perhaps historically in the Ávila region as well; see Oberem 1980: 288) in which the bones of the dead are consumed by their living relatives (see Fausto 2007).
for many Amazonians, the social principles found in human society are the same as those that structure animal and spirit societies of the forest. And this goes in both directions: nonhuman sociality informs understandings of human sociality just as much as human sociality informs that of nonhumans (see Descola 1994).
inhabiting an ecology of selves
There is a constant tension, then, between the blurring of interspecies boundaries and maintaining difference, and the challenge is to find the semiotic means to productively sustain this tension without being pulled to either extreme.
During sleep, the soul separates from the body, its “owner,”18 and interacts with the souls of other beings. Dreams are not commentaries on the world; they take place in it (see also Tedlock 1992).
Because dreaming is a privileged mode of communication through which, via souls, contact among radically different kinds of beings becomes possible, it is an important site for this negotiation.
Metaphor, by contrast, is used to align the situated points of view of beings that inhabit different worlds. The distinction between figure and ground, then, can change according to context. What stays constant is that metaphor establishes a difference in perspective between kinds of beings inhabiting different domains.
It is due to their privileged position relative to animals in the trans-species interpretive hierarchy that constitutes the forest ecology of selves that the Runa feel they can readily understand the meanings of canine vocalizations.19 Dogs, however, cannot, under normal circumstances, understand the full range of human speech. As I indicated earlier, if people want dogs to understand them they must give the dogs hallucinogenic drugs. That is, they must make their dogs into shamans so that they can traverse the boundaries that separate them from humans.
When advising their dogs people in Ávila address them directly but in the third person. This appears to be similar to the Spanish usted system whereby third-person grammatical constructions are used in second-person pragmatic contexts to communicate status. Quichua, however, lacks such a deferential system. Notwithstanding, the Runa tweak Quichua to improvise one.