How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human

How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human

How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human

How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human

Synopsis

Can forests think? Do dogs dream? In this astonishing book, Eduardo Kohn challenges the very foundations of anthropology, calling into question our central assumptions about what it means to be human--and thus distinct from all other life forms. Based on four years of fieldwork among the Runa of Ecuador's Upper Amazon, Eduardo Kohn draws on his rich ethnography to explore how Amazonians interact with the many creatures that inhabit one of the world's most complex ecosystems. Whether or not we recognize it, our anthropological tools hinge on those capacities that make us distinctly human. However, when we turn our ethnographic attention to how we relate to other kinds of beings, these tools (which have the effect of divorcing us from the rest of the world) break down. How Forests Think seizes on this breakdown as an opportunity. Avoiding reductionistic solutions, and without losing sight of how our lives and those of others are caught up in the moral webs we humans spin, this book skillfully fashions new kinds of conceptual tools from the strange and unexpected properties of the living world itself. In this groundbreaking work, Kohn takes anthropology in a new and exciting direction-one that offers a more capacious way to think about the world we share with other kinds of beings.

Excerpt

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]

Settling down to sleep under our hunting camp’s thatch lean-to in the foothills of Sumaco Volcano, Juanicu warned me, “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; lit., “meat” in Quichua] and he’ll attack.” If, Juanicu was saying, a jaguar sees 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.

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.

How would coming to terms with this realization change our understandings of society, culture, and indeed the sort of world that we inhabit? How does it change the methods, scope, practice, and stakes of anthropology? And, more important, how does it change our understanding of anthropology’s object—the “human”—given that in that world beyond the human we sometimes find things we feel more comfortable attributing only to ourselves?

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