Sunday, May 4, 2014

How Forests Think

Review of the new book How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human by Eduardo Kohn:

Semiosis is at the centre of Kohn’s framework for explaining how the forest “thinks”. Kohn relies heavily on Charles Peirce’s notion that signs should be defined broadly to include those with and those without linguistic properties. Peirce’s tripartite division of signs is well known. Icons are signs of likeness, reflecting the properties of that to which they refer, in the way that a photograph is – or as the sound tsupu does, representing a peccary who slips into a pool of water in the forest. (Kohn writes: “Once I tell people what tsupu means, they often experience a sudden feel for its meaning: ‘Oh, of course, tsupu!’”) Indices, by contrast, point to something else, as when a palm tree crashes down in the forest and a monkey understands that something dangerous may be happening and that it needs to move. All life, for Kohn, participates in icons and indices, whereas the third type of sign – symbols – involve convention and are unique to humans. When we link signs with all of life, we break out beyond “the conflation of representation with language” that characterizes most of anthropology and even “posthuman approaches that seek to dissolve the boundaries that have been erected to construe humans as separate from the rest of the world”.

The semiotic framework grounds Kohn’s conclusion that thinking goes on not only where there is language, which, following the anthropologist Terence Deacon, is “an emergent dynamic” but one that deserves no special privilege. The forest around Ávila “thinks”, and not because of human agency: “The world beyond the human is not a meaningless one made meaningful by humans”, Kohn argues. “Rather mean-ings – means-end relations, strivings, purposes, telos, intentions, functions and significance – emerge in a world of living thoughts . . . . These forests house other emergent loci of mean-ings, ones that do not necessarily revolve around, or originate with, humans. This is what I’m getting at when I say that forests think.”

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