Sevi's Reviews > How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human

How Forests Think by Eduardo Kohn
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** spoiler alert ** 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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June 8, 2014 – Shelved
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