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  • Selfhood beyond the Species Boundary
  • David Herman (bio)
A review of Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human. Berkeley: U of California P, 2013.

Growing out of fieldwork conducted in the forests around Ávila, a Quichua-speaking Runa village in Ecuador’s Upper Amazon region, Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think participates in what might be called the “ontological turn” in recent anthropological research. This turn calls for the comparative study of the various ontologies projected by different cultures, past and present. At issue are more or less widely shared understandings of the kinds of beings that populate the world, the qualities and abilities those beings are taken to embody (including the capacity to have perspectives on events, among other attributes linked to selfhood), and how the beings included in various categories and subcategories relate to those categorized as human.1 Coming to terms with differences among such categorization systems has far-reaching implications not only for anthropology but also for other areas of inquiry concerned with how systems of this sort shape various institutions and practices; pertinent fields of research include the history of agriculture, animal ethics, and the sociology of companion animals in families. Cultural ontologies also bear saliently on the study of literary and other narratives that feature the perspectives and experiences of nonhuman animals, or that more or less explicitly situate human characters in wider, trans-species constellations of agents.2

In his introduction, Kohn suggests that “an ethnographic focus not just on humans or only on animals but also on how humans and animals relate breaks open the circular closure that otherwise confines us when we seek to understand the distinctively human by means of that which is distinctive to humans”—for example, via sociocultural anthropology with its emphasis on language, culture, society, and history (6).3 Although he connects his approach to other research on human-nonhuman relationships, including Bruno Latour’s use of actor-network analysis to explore the hybrid formations that link humans with various artifacts and instruments and also Jane Bennett’s Deleuze-inspired account of the agency of matter, Kohn objects to the way some of this work flattens out “important distinctions between humans and other kinds of beings, as well as those between selves and objects” (7). Accordingly, he gravitates toward “Donna Haraway’s conviction that there is something about our everyday engagements with other kinds of creatures that can open new kinds of possibilities for relating and understanding” (Kohn 7). In the discussion of runa puma, or “were-jaguars,” that opens the book, Kohn comments,

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.


Kohn’s other key conceptual resources include monistic models that resist dichotomizing culture and nature, and that thereby offset dualistic anthropological paradigms “in which humans are portrayed as separate from the worlds they represent” (9), along with Charles Saunders Peirce’s semiotic system and Terrence W. Deacon’s more recent use of Peirce’s ideas to explore emergent phenomena in the domain of biology.

In the book’s first chapter, “The Open Whole,” Kohn combines his emphases on monism and on semiotics to map out what he terms the “ecology of selves,” human as well as nonhuman, within which the human inhabitants of Ávila situate themselves. Kohn proposes the concept of “amplification” to distinguish forest settings from other places where the multifarious ecology of selves might be less evident, arguing that immersion in the especially “dense ecology [of the Amazonian forest] amplifies and makes visible a larger semiotic field beyond that which is exceptionally human” (49). He then goes on to explore how anthropology might be reoriented around the assumption that life itself is constitutively semiotic. In Kohn’s account, which builds on Peirce’s triadic model of the sign as...

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