Our thoughts are like the world because we are the world – reflecting on How Forests Think

In the 1980 anthology ‘About Looking’, John Berger writes that “animals are always the observed. The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance. They are the objects of our ever-extending knowledge.”

In Eduardo Kohn’s book How Forests ThinkToward an Anthropology beyond the Human, the significance of how other beings see us is perhaps best captured in the following warning to the author by Juanicu, a member of the Runa people of Ecuador’s Upper Amazon:

“Sleep faceup! If a Jaguar comes he’ll see you can look back at him and he won’t bother you. If you sleep facedown he’ll think you’re aicha [prey] and he’ll attack.”

It appears that if a Jaguar recognizes you as a “being capable of looking back – a self like himself, a you – he’ll leave you alone. But if he should come to see you as prey – an it – you may well become dead meat”.

Making sense of this encounter and the notion that animals are selves similar to human selves requires us to think new thoughts, or as Kohn writes, demands that we attempt to “liberate ourselves from our own mental enclosures”. He thus describes his book as being “about thought”, as being an attempt decolonize thought in the sense of “reconsidering who in this world represents, as well as what it is that counts as representation”.

In challenging us to see beyond the human language and symbolic thought as structuring our sense-making relationships with other beings, he points to other forms of association that we, having internalized our habits of looking, tend to be blind to.

This, he argues, matters for politics. The ways in which we pay attention relate to “how we can think possibility and its realization differently”. Kohn hopes to channel Ghassan Hage’s notion of ‘alter-politics’, a politics described as growing “not from opposition to or critique of our current system but one that grows from attention to another way of being”; alternative economies, alternative modes of inhabiting and relating to the earth, alternative modes of thinking and experiencing otherness.

I am reminded of Herbert Marcuse’s ‘One-Dimensional Man’, where ‘one dimension’ recalls a flattening of discourse, culture and politics but perhaps most importantly, a flattening of our imagination and perspective. Kohn’s book is an attempt to make possible the imagining of being that is radically different from our current system, to make it possible to think beyond our current frame of reference, to think alternatives. In a sense, he brings us back to what Marcuse refers to as ‘two-dimensional’ existence, where the gap between what can be thought and what exists is widened and allows critical thought and action to flourish.

Reading How Forests Think has been a welcome challenge. Prior to Kohn’s book, I had limited exposure to semiotics, the study of meaning-making and sign processes as forms of communication. Semiotics, the study of non-linguistic sign processes, can be contrasted with linguistics, the study of the structure and meaning of language. If, as Kohn argues, an anthropology beyond the human requires us to think beyond language and symbolic thought, then semiotics appears as a useful mode of approach. All this to say that journeying with this book was not easy and required me to re-read, read again, and to think new thoughts, to cultivate new habits of looking.

Perhaps particularly as a student, but more generally as someone interested in critically expanding my own horizon of understanding, to be more conscious of the impacts that my being alive has and could have, the way I engage with my education, the way I learn and the way I critique my own learning habits is crucial. Admittedly, it is also an art-form that I regularly let fall of the way-side, caught up with ‘just doing’, of falling into habit.

This is easy to do, or as Kohn writes, “our thoughts are like the world because we are the world. Thought is a highly convoluted habit that has emerged out of, and is continuous with, the tendency of the world toward habit taking”. This tendency creates predictability and stability in what otherwise would appear as a chaotic world.

It is perhaps for this reason that we don’t notice the habits we in-habit. Our habits tend to become our blind-spots and we don’t see what we don’t see. Kohn writes that it is only when “the world’s habits clash with our own expectations that the world in its otherness is revealed”. The challenge that follows this disruption, he continues, is to grow; “to create a new habit that will encompass this foreign habit and, in the process, to remake ourselves, however momentarily, anew, as one with the world around us.”

This is not a simple process. Experiencing the world in its otherness carries danger. What happens when we leave the predictable, when we leave that what we know? When we are no longer grounded. In a reflection on panic, Kohn writes that panic and anxiety is an experience partly brought about when we experience that we have no one with whom to share a “common image of the world” with, or a “set of assumptions about how it works”; we feel “set apart from everything; our social context, the environments in which we live, and ultimately our desires and dreams”. Ironically, “it is precisely the constructive quality of symbolic thought”, Kohn writes, “the fact that symbolic thought can create so many virtual worlds, that makes anxiety possible; panic itself is a symptom of symbolic construction run wild”.

Perhaps it is for this reason that we often try to avoid engaging with material and experiences that bring in the new and destabilize our stance firmly grounded in habit. We dare not test the ‘common image’ or the ‘set of assumptions’ that make ‘sense’ to us, in that meaning, predictability and a feeling of safety and coherence flows from them.

The habits that we in-habit are part of what Kohn names a “living semiotic chain”, an “on-going relational process”. All life “is semiotic and all semiosis is alive… life and thought are one and the same: life thinks; thoughts are alive”.

Understanding this requires understanding something about signs and semiotics. A sign is “something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity”. Kohn draws on Peirce’s terminology in identifying three types of signs: icon, index and symbol.

Charles Peirce, in ‘What is a Sign’, writes: “There are three kinds of signs. Firstly, there are likenesses, or icons; which serve to convey ideas of the things they represent simply by imitating them. Secondly, there are indications, or indices; which show something about things, on account of their being physically connected with them. Such is a guidepost, which points down the road to be taken, or a relative pronoun, which is placed just after the name of the thing intended to be denoted, or a vocative exclamation, as “Hi! there,” which acts upon the nerves of the person addressed and forces his attention. Thirdly, there are symbols, or general signs, which have become associated with their meanings by usage. Such are most words, and phrases, and speeches, and books, and libraries”.

Kohn states that we are united by the “fact that we all live with and through signs. We all use signs as ‘canes’ that represent parts of the world to us in some way or another”. Therefore, Kohn engages in what he refers to as a “sort of ethnography of sings beyond the human”, an exploration of how “humans and nonhumans use signs that are not necessarily symbolic”, thereby to “defamiliarize the conventional sign [the symbol] by revealing how it is just one of several semiotic modalities”.

The symbol is unique to humans, and in what is described as “anthropological narcissism”, we tend to project symbolic thought onto other beings, thereby foreclosing a different understanding of how beings beyond the human relate to and are associated with us. Kohn writes that “non-human life-forms all represent the world” and that our social theory which “conflates representation with language” makes it hard to grasp this more expansive understanding.

A living semiotic chain as an ongoing relational process depends on an understanding of sings as being alive “insofar as [they] can grow, insofar as [they] will come to be interpreted by a subsequent sign in a semiotic chain that extends into the possible future”. Kohn gives the example of a monkey who is startled in the forest by the noise that a falling tree makes: “A startled monkey’s jump to a higher branch when a tree falls is what Peirce calls an ‘interpretant’, a new sign that interprets the way in which a prior sign relates to its object”. The monkey, as an “interpreting self” is part of this “living sign process”, through “which one thought gives rise to another, which gives rise to another, and so on, into the potential future”.

Signs are alive and grow in that “all sign processes eventually do something in the world”. In this world of signs, selves are not “black boxes but rather are outcomes of semiosis as well as the starting points for new sign interpretation, whose outcome will be a future self. They are waypoints in a semiotic process”. The “somebody, human or non-human, who takes the crashing palm to be significant is a ‘self’ that is just coming into life in the flow of time by virtue of the ways in which she comes to be a locus for the interpretation of the sign and many others like it”.

In terms of Peirce’s terminology, the sound that the tree makes, described in Kohn’s book as captured by “Pu oh”, is an icon in the “sense that it, in itself, is in some respect like its object” [the tree]. “It functions as an image when we fail to notice the difference between it and the event that it represents. It means due to a certain absence of attention to difference”. When we hear or say the world “Pu oh”, we think ‘falling tree’, and not, for example, rushing water. This is the iconic quality of the sound.

The falling tree is also an index, in that for the monkey it points to something else, it focuses her attention, impelling her to “make connections between some event and another potential one that has not yet occurred”. This something else may be dangerous; “something is about to happen, and she had better do something about it”. In interpreting the sign, the monkey sees certain possibilities and not others; there is an interplay between “presence and different kinds of absences” that this particular sign generates. This interplay, “gives signs their life”.

If we understand this semiotic chain, then it becomes easier to understand when Kohn writes that “wherever there are living thoughts, there is also a self; self is a product of semiosis – it is the locus 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”. Thinking about the self as a locus – a particular position, point or place – generates the idea of connectivity and flow; the self is connected to other selves within a process whereby sings flow through, are interpreted, acted upon and passed on to other beings.

For some reason this image triggers a sentiment that Mahatma Ghandi expressed thusly: “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any”. One may replace house with consciousness, ‘ways of looking’ or identity, and culture with sign and then ask, what does it mean for the “I”, the self not to be flown off their feet?

The metaphor invokes stability and flow, coherence and change, habit and new ways of being, a stable self and one that is adapting and changing. Kohn writes that “a self is the outcome of a process of maintaining and perpetuating an individual form, a form that, as it is iterated over the generations, grows to fit the world around it at the same time that it comes to exhibit a certain circular closure that allows it to maintain its selfsame identity, which is forged with respect to that which it is not”. He gives the example of a giant anteater, which “as a self is a form that selectively remembers its own form”.

The anteater is understood in terms of “specific self-organizing configurations, which are differentially retained in the maintenance of what can now be understood as a self – a form that is reconstituted and propagated over the generations in ways that exhibit increasingly better fits to the world around it”.

The identity of the anteater appears to necessarily be bounded by his “form”, her particular identity and pattern of being that is forged with “respect to what which it is not”, ie. the various other possible manifestations of being that have been lost over evolutionary time. Kohn refers to this as living futures being “indebted” to the dead that surround them. He writes, “all kinds of signs represent in some way or other what is not present. Every successful representation has another absence at its foundation; it is the product of the history of all the other sign processes that less accurately represented what would be. What one is as a semiotic self, is constitutively related to what one is not. One’s future emerges from and in relation to a specific geometry of absent histories”.

The concept of form is an important part to how Kohn develops and enriches an anthropology beyond the human. In that the Runa depend on the surrounding forest for sustenance, in that they “enter the forest in order to hunt, fish and trap”, they must assume the point of view of the other beings to whom the Runa are connected in a “network of relations”. Within this network, beings associate as “thinking selves”. This poses challenges and requires “entering the logic of how the forests thinks”.

The Runa treat ants, whom they catch for sustenance, as “intentional communicating selves” and are thereby able to “predict when the ants will fly… the precise timing of the ant flight [being] the outcome of a semiotically structured ecology. The ants emerge at twilight – that blurry zone between night and day – when nocturnal and diurnal predators are least likely to notice them.”

This hints at the significance of form, described as “how specific configurations of limits on possibility emerge, the peculiar manner in which these redundancies propagate, and the ways in which they come to matter to lives”. When referring to form, Kohn is not “referring to conceptual structures – innate or learned – through which we apprehend the world”, nor is he making a “reference to a Platonic ideal realm”. He is “referring to a process of pattern production and propagation that exceed life despite the fact that such patterns are harnessed, nurtured and amplified by life”.

In the tropical forest, innumerable patterns proliferate – “the wealth of the forest, be it game or extractive commodities, accumulates in a patterned way” – and the Runa face the challenge of “getting inside form and doing something with it”. The inability to do so is described by Kohn as a “painful sense of alienation”, and one iteration of what he refers to as “soul blindness”.

“Soul blindness” an inability to enter the forms, an inability to enter the logic of the forests and interestingly, also then the inability to “recognize other selves” as “intentionally communicating” beings. As someone who is ‘soul blind’, one stands as removed from the “relational ecology of selves that constitutes the cosmos”.

This recalls the term “enchantment”; the living semiotic dynamic enchants the world. Kohn writes that “the world beyond the human is not a meaningless one made meaningful by humans; rather, mean-ings – mean-ends relations, striving, purposes, telos, intentions, functions and significance – emerge in a world of living thoughts beyond the human in ways that are not fully exhausted by our all-too-human attempts to define and control these”. Disenchantment arises when this breaks down; “the world becomes disenchanted in the sense that ends are no longer to be found in the world. The world becomes literally meaningless”.

Someone suffering from soul blindness, in a sense, is unable to enter into and experience this enchanted world; no longer able to comprehend the mean-ends relations, the striving and purposes, functions and significance, all of which become patterned as forms within a world that is habit taking, the individual may experience panic and anxiety; Kohn refers to it as “monadic alienation” and suggests that there are many “modalities of disenchantment”.

Soul blindness is not only about a radical “death in life”, but according to Kohn, “especially about what Stanley Cavell calls ‘the little deaths’ of ‘everyday life’”. What this means is that “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”.

What this also means however, is that there are many ways in which we can become selves to ourselves and to each other; there are many ways of entering into relation and many occasions where we do and are called to look and pay attention. In “finding ways to open our thinking to living thoughts, to selves and souls,” Kohn concludes, we may be able to “gift, however modest, to the living future” the realization of a “greater Us – an Us that can flourish not just in our lives, but in the lives of those who will live beyond us”.


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