Earlier this month I sat down with Eduardo Kohn to talk about his amazing book How Forests Think. We started out discussing his intellectual influences and ended up ranging widely over his book, the status of Peirce as a thinker, what ‘politics’ means, and a variety of other topics. Thanks to the hard work of our intern Angela, I’m proud to post a copy of our interview here. I really enjoyed talking to Eduardo, so I hope you enjoy reading it!
Wisconsin and the Amazon
RG: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk. I really enjoyed How Forests Think. When I started it I was a little on the skeptical side, but I ended up thinking it was a mind-blowing book. I thought we could begin by discussing the background for the book and your training. I see the book as mixing biology, science studies (especially Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour), and then some sort of semiotics. It seems like there are a lot of influences there. You got your PhD at Wisconsin, so how did that work out? Can you tell me a little about your background?
EK: The way I got into anthropology was through research, by which I mean fieldwork. And I was always trying to find ways to do more fieldwork. I saw Wisconsin as an extension of this. When I was in college I did some field research in the Ecuadorian Amazon, I had a Fulbright to go back and do research after college, and only then did I go to grad school. Although How Forests Think aims to make a conceptual intervention in anthropology, I think of our field as a special vehicle for engaging intensely with a place in ways that make us over and help us think differently. The preparation I got at Wisconsin was geared toward that. It immersed me in area studies in the broadest and most positive sense of the term. My advisor Frank Salomon is well versed in many facets of Andean history, prehistory, and ethnography, as well as in the Quechua languages including those spoken in Ecuador (where they are known as Quichua). I worked with, among others, the tropical botanist Hugh Iltis, the Latin Americanist geographers Bill Denevan, and Karl Zimmerer, the Latin American historian Steve Stern, and I studied Ecuadorian Quichua with Carmen Chuquín. There was a real sense that I was preparing myself intensely for an engagement with the field in terms of a multifaceted project which was going to include ecology, anthropology, history, and a serious appreciation for local languages. Of course I had graduate training in social theory and the history of anthropological thought, but I wasn’t trying to get training in a particular body of theory, it was more that I was trying to engage with a place.
I was also inspired by the way my advisor approached scholarship –particularly his sensibility to language; his sensibility to writing; how one can find ways to see the world afresh and capture that in writing. For example, he is very conscious not to adopt rhetorical styles, theories, or jargon from other people and he consciously tries to use writing as a way to create his own sort of engagement. He’s a poet. I was very much influenced by this.
RG: I had no idea that Wisconsin had such a specialty in your area. Could you tell me more about your advisor’s work?
EK: Frank Salomon is a historical anthropologist with a broad specialty in Native Andean worlds and their relation to the colonial encounter. I knew him through his archival and ethnographic work in Ecuador (I had actually met him in Ecuador when I was a child and he was a PhD student!). Most of his work is now in Peru on khipus (knotted cords) and other non-written forms of representation.
RG: I thought perhaps there was some influence on your work there, in his work on unfamiliar forms of representation and your work on semiotics?
EK: There is, but when I was at Wisconsin in the early 90s, one of the big turns was historical anthropology and I was working with a historical anthropologist. Marshall Sahlins’ Islands of Histories had just come out. This was the thing to do, and I was doing it. I ended up having to choose between two field sites: one was in a cloud forest area that had a tremendously interesting colonial history, a history that was visible in oral traditions (and I was fascinated by the connections between those stories and the past). The other was an ecological project in the village where I ended up doing the work that became How Forests Think. It was Frank Salomon who said “Look, your heart is in this ecological stuff.” Frank is an historical anthropologist, you’d think he’d want to train his students in his thing. But he recognized that my real passion was for the forest and he allowed me to see that that’s where I really wanted to go.
RG: I’m not sure that every advisor would be so generous to a student.
EK: It was a real gift. He allowed me to do my thing, and ultimately this is what I try to give to my students. We’re motivated in the work we do by passions we don’t fully understand, and part of what we need to do as advisors is to allow our students to tap into that without losing a sense of what others around them are doing and thinking. Frank got what I was into, and he saw that even in my historical work I was trying to answer the same fundamental question: I’ve always been dissatisfied with the culture concept, broadly defined, and I’m always trying to find ways to get beyond it without losing a sense for the reality of culture. All my projects have had that as their focus, and this concern has just been growing more explicit, which has forced me to be much more precise conceptually about what I’m doing.
The problem with culture
RG: I have to say, How Forests Think is theoretical and abstract at times, but there’s a clear awareness of history and of colonialism in the book, which is not necessarily what you would expect from high Francophone theory. It was refreshing to see you foregrounding colonial processes, especially towards the end of the book, where they became central to your argument. Could you tell me a little bit more about that critique of culture? How does that work? What makes you unhappy about culture?
EK: Some of my French colleagues think that they’re beyond culture and have never had to deal with the problems that the American culture concept has created; they feel that they can sidestep it completely. But what I mean by “culture” is a much broader thing and it applies to just about every approach in the social sciences. The social sciences as we know them are based on what I would call a “linguistic turn” (though it isn’t always explicitly phrased as such).
Think of Durkheim (who wasn’t especially oriented towards language). Society for him was a relational system: One institution can only be understood in terms of another; social facts are to be understood only in terms of other social facts; you can’t, for example, explain social reality psychologically. The Boasian approach of course is much more overtly linguistic. But in both you get a system with the same kinds of properties. Certain things can only be understood in terms of their contexts.
I was just rereading Boas’s famous article “On Alternating Sounds,” which was published in American Anthropologist in 1889. It’s a brilliant essay in which he says, “look, philologists think Native American languages are primitive because their speakers use different sounds when pronouncing the same words.” And he was able to go back and say, “You can see that this is actually the effect of a lack of training in specific Amerindian languages. The philologists are perceiving the sounds not based on the native phonemic context, but in terms of the languages they already know.” Boas is making a profound argument about context. We only “hear” those sounds that fit the phonemic contexts we know.
The goal of linguistic anthropology for Boas was to learn to get these contexts that are not necessarily our own. And of course you can extend this argument to cultural and historical context as well. And then, if you think about Saussure and the influence he had on structuralism and post-structuralism, and combine that with Durkheim and Boas, you get just about everybody who’s doing social theory in some way or other informed by concepts that have to do with how language works. The special realities that we’re dealing with in anthropology and related fields are relational ones, they’d say, and you can only understand them in terms of the complex networks that make them what they are. So any kind of relatum, whether we are talking about a social fact or cultural meaning –or even an actor in Actor Network Theory– is the product of the relationships that make it.
RG: Right. In the case of sounds, phonemic contrast is the result of the phonemic structure of the whole language, and it is internal to those structures. In Saussure, each sign has its meaning in relation to other signs, rather than anything outside the system.
EK: Yes. All of these approaches hold that the fundamental human reality is symbolic thinking, it structures our world, and it’s different from all the other things that one might study. It requires its own kind of science, a human science. This is not biology, and it’s not chemistry.
This is all good. But the problem is that there’s no way to understand how these kinds of relational systems connect up to things that are not like them. That’s the big question: how are these open to the world? My engagement with culture is about addressing this problem. The STS literature, the animal studies literature and multispecies ethnography are all wonderful and profound, and are obviously finding ways to get outside of culture. But they often fall back analytically on something that I would still call “culture” in a formal sense. That’s clearest in Actor Network Theory. The relata may happen to be material things, but the formal system that’s mapped out, the network and the ways in which entities are made through the relationships that emerge there – well, no surprise, it exhibits the relational properties of human language.
My goal is to try to leave the human, to try to get beyond that kind of thing. So when I say “culture” I refer not only to the traditional anthropological concept but also to the sets of assumptions about relationships that inform Foucault, so much of Science Studies, as well as other posthumanist approaches. They all explore the properties of what I would call culture in this formal sense even when they aren’t dealing explicitly with humans or the culture concept.
RG: It’s interesting you should mention Boas. I would just note that for some Boasians, culture is a unique object, which requires a unique science. That’s Kroeber’s argument. But that’s not the argument of Sapir, and it’s not the argument of Boas. I think it’d be interesting if we focused a little bit more on the Sapirian alternative, which is to understand science as defined by its level of particularity, rather than its object of study. Boas also takes this line in The Study of Geography: He doesn’t think that there’s something called “culture,” and we have a unique science, which must study it. He’s doing something much weirder. I feel like we should take a look at this again.
EK: You’re absolutely right. I didn’t get into the technical semiotic stuff until my post doc. Before that one of the major sources for me to get outside language (along with the work of the anthropological linguist Janis Nuckolls) was Sapir. He’s got these beautiful essays on sound iconism. He would interview children about invented words and ask “which of these refers to the big table and which refers to the little table?” And words that have very elongated vowels would invariably be linked to the larger object. And of course Sapir was interested in poetics. Boas, on the other hand, took evolution very seriously. I remember in grad school I wrote an essay about Boas as an evolutionary anthropologist, and one of my teachers criticized me: “How can you say that! He was fighting against scientific racism!” But Boas clearly was in profound ways dealing with humans as biological organisms, and I appreciate that tradition.
But the Boasian legacy as it’s been taken up has ended up moving from a focus on a context that includes the environment to studying contexts that are much more restricted to humans, like meaning systems. And then you get Margaret Mead’s concept of culture, which we still adopt, even when we reject her approach, or when we bring in historical process.
RG: I think that’s really true, and it speaks to the kind of fieldwork that gets done. Maureen Molloy points out that Mead was one of the first problem-based fieldworkers. Her ethnographies were not appreciated by Kroeber because they weren’t particularistic. She would go into a place, do the ethnography, move somewhere else. You kind of wonder, maybe if she’d hung around a little bit longer she would have started asking “what are these bugs?”
Anyway, you were just now talking about how you got interested in biology. Was that as a post-doc?
EK: I’ve been apprenticing myself to tropical biologists since I was in college. I did a tropical ecology graduate course in Costa Rica as part of my graduate training. I took plant systematics classes and forestry statistics. I was always interested in finding ways to get into forest ecology without necessarily going through humans.
RG: Your book doesn’t speak the language of evolutionary biology, but it seems informed by a deep awareness of the forest that comes both from doing fieldwork with Runa people and having that science background. It’s necessary for your project.
EK: And different projects require different kinds of skills, but yes, that’s what I needed for this project.
Terrence Deacon and Charles Sanders Peirce
RG: The work of Terrence Deacon is a major influence on your book. How did you come across him? Was that during your post-doc?
EK: Basically, I’d done this research in the Amazon. I wrote a dissertation, got thinking about articles, and was formulating an article that was to stake out what I would be doing in the book. This was “How Dogs Dream,” which came out in American Ethnologist in 2007. I was working on that at Berkeley, and the year that I came there Terry arrived from the Boston area and we had offices right next to each other. We started talking. I would go into his office at four in the afternoon and come out at nine at night…
Terry’s life project has been to understand the origins of mind. His first book was about the evolution of symbolic capacities in humans and his most recent book Incomplete Nature is about the emergence of mind from matter. So when I was at Berkeley I got very much involved with that, and it was the most intellectually exhilarating thing I’ve ever done. Academically, that is. Of course doing fieldwork in the tropical world was exhilarating in its own right. But in terms of the academic world, I’d never been exposed to such an interesting set of ideas that was so new to me but that fit so completely with what I was already doing. I don’t get to California that much, but he has an ongoing seminar and whenever I can, I try to participate in it and it’s still very exciting to me.
RG: Peirce is a major part of your book. I think of Peirce as someone who informs semiotic anthropology, for instance the circle that includes Michael Silverstein and others. But you don’t let Silverstein own Peirce, you’re drawing on… Deacon talking about Peirce? Is that where you got him? Or do you read Peirce alongside Deacon?
EK: Deacon has been thinking about Peirce for a long time. When anthropologists use Peirce they tend to collapse certain things and not deal with certain elements of Peirce, like his interest in evolution, and they tend to frame a lot of his work in terms of something you can think of as culture.
RG: For people who aren’t super familiar with Peirce’s biography, he was a favored son of Boston Brahmins and then ended up going off on his own way, and I think at one point had to earn a living by drawing mazes for people to do in the back of newspapers. He had a very strange life. His work is really a whole philosophy of the universe, it’s not just about language, it’s very philosophical and I guess bizarre in some sense.
EK: It’s an architecture of the universe. It’s a huge opus. He’s got 80,000 manuscript pages out there. But there are some really consistent questions that come up over and over again. He has a “continuist” framework, so he thinks that everything in the universe is related to everything else and philosophical frameworks that posit radical breaks are problematic. Dualisms of all kinds are problematic. So any attempt to understand humans without relating humans to other entities that aren’t human is a problem for Peirce. He’s worked out all sorts of ways to move across those kinds of boundaries.
The other thing that’s really important is that his philosophy is directional. By which I mean that he sees certain processes as nested within other more basic processes. And this is very problematic for us as anthropologists because we want to see complexity and freedom and indeterminacy. Peirce also makes space for spontaneity, but he’s very much interested in the formal qualities of things. One of the places to see the nested nature of his approach is in his semiotics. You can have indexical reference without symbolic reference (as is manifest in the biological world) but you can’t have a symbolic system without indices. Symbols are nested within indices, and a Peircean framework can allow you to see that. These are the kinds of things that are unpopular. In fact, they get collapsed in a lot of the ways in which Peirce is used in anthropology. Anthropologists tend to think about icons and indices within the context of cultural systems. Now, of course you do get iconic and indexical processes that are framed within historically contingent systems, but what’s interesting to me are the things that can move in and out of symbolic systems, and how outsides connect to insides.
So when I was at Berkeley I was reading a lot of Peirce, and I was talking about it with Terry but also with Bill Hanks, Lawrence Cohen, and others. The standard way to domesticate Peirce is: “Peirce, he’s your theoretician, you apply him to your field site.” Or you say, “Oh yeah, Peirce, he had his own social context just like everybody else.” Both of these statements are true, but Peirce is also in some ways more like a mathematician. He is extracting things from properties in the world and he’s predicting formal properties that the world will exhibit. If he’s correct you will see these properties in the world. And in fact what happened is that I realized that the ethnographic problems I had isolated were already semiotic problems and they were also about the connections we humans have with processes that are not fully circumscribed by humans. The Runa were dealing with other kinds of communicative worlds, the worlds of spirits and animals. This is a problem for them as it was for Peirce. The material I was dealing with was semiotic. The reason why Peirce and the Runa meet is because they’re being made over by the same world.
RG: So you’re doing explanatory work in two directions: first, you’re using Peirce to explain the Runa. But you also use Runa ethnography to help explain Peirce as a thinker. One of the things you’re doing in the ethnography is saying: “All of that stuff in Peirce that we had to ignore in order to make him a linguistic theorist, it makes sense and can be used.” The book helps us see Peirce as a complete figure and makes sense of him intellectually rather than just having a massive part of him that we ignore or that we don’t find interesting or think it’s too weird to deal with. You give us a more complete picture of him.
EK: That’s right. In fact, one of our colleagues at the University of Toronto, Alejandro Paz, calls this other part, “the weird Peirce.”
The other thing that’s interesting is how concepts can acquire lives of their own. For example, go back to Darwin. Darwin had profound insights about how you get designs without a designer. It doesn’t matter whether or not he believed in God. It doesn’t matter if he didn’t understand genetics or got some things wrong. It doesn’t matter because he discovered a property of evolutionary dynamics that has a life of its own.
You can say the same thing about Peirce. Somebody can say, “you see, Peirce thought that crystals think’” or whatever. And he may have said that. But I can show you in Peircean terms and on Peircean grounds how that doesn’t necessarily make sense. He’s no longer the owner of these concepts. I don’t want to out-Peirce Peirce. There’s a lot of stuff about him that I don’t understand, and there are many experts on him, and I’m not necessarily one of them. But there’s a way in which there’s a fundamental logic about certain things I can get because the world is doing it, and Peirce was able to tap into that and I’m also able to tap into that. What we’re tapping into exceeds both of us.
RG: Right, and the animals tap into that as well, and plants tap into it too. I was so surprised at the end of the book to find that you were critical of the culture concept. I thought: “This is it! This book provides a scaffold to understand how culture articulates with biology and biological science, and it provides an argument about the reality of cultural phenomena even though they’re immaterial.” So much of our idea of reality is tied up in materiality, right? There are things that are real and emergent (for instance form, or what Sahlins would call structure) even though they don’t have physical bodies. That is a powerful way to talk about culture as a force without reifiying it as a substance.
EK: I am not anti-culture. I think culture is a real thing. But there are two problems with how we deal with culture. First, it’s very difficult to see how culture relates to the non-cultural. Second, we tend to make culture the only domain where generality and abstraction occur. What I’m trying to show is that there are other areas where generalities are produced. This is an anti-nominalist book. Humans are not the only producers of generals in the world. It doesn’t mean that culture isn’t a unique phenomenon that creates unique realities and unique kinds of structures and categories. But I don’t think that, for example, these spirits of the forest who I discuss in chapter six are necessarily only cultural phenomena. In some ways they’re a product of culture, but they’re an emergent product of other things, including the semiosis of the forest, which is not fully subsumed by a cultural or symbolic framework.
RG: And you have a way to understand culture as real without having to fall back on some weird 19th-century spiritualist position. You connect it with the framework of modern biology.
EK: I lay this out in the first chapter. It’s called “the open whole,” in contrast to the traditional Tylorian definition of culture as a “complex whole.” I want to say, yes, it’s a complex whole, but it’s also an open one. That opening is what’s so interesting to me. Culture has the real effect and property of closure, but it’s also open, and how this works is one of the things I’m trying to write about in the book.
RG: You mentioned the masters of the forest in chapter six. I would gloss them as a structure of the longue durée that exists at the conjuncture of a bunch of different causal forces that include things like the natural environment –the stuff colonialism just kind of gets sucked into. Since, you know, colonialism is only 400 years old.
Theory, fieldwork, and ethnography
One of the things that strikes me about you in the course of this interview is that you’ve really learned and grown and developed throughout your intellectual career. You’ve taken on new influences at times when some other people would say, “I have my framework and I’m done.” Do you have any tips for students about how to stay active intellectually and remain able to embrace new ideas when the ideas that you already have might seem good enough for you?
EK: I think one of the things that helped, and this was a real luxury and it’s difficult for me now because I can’t do the kind of fieldwork I used to do, is to have ethnographic problems that are interesting to you, that you can’t fully resolve, that force you to ask questions.
That’s the beauty of our field that somehow it’s the ethnographic work that is making us over, and we then develop theories that might help us. We have problems that trouble us, and we don’t know how to talk about them, but we know that they’re important. I was interested in the human-animal relationships in the forest and all of a sudden I was then involved in this multi-species turn and having conversations with people like Donna Haraway. But I wasn’t a savvy graduate student, I didn’t even know who Donna Haraway was when I was in the field! I didn’t know what the trends were. It was the world that eventually led me to Donna Haraway, not the other way around.
It’s the same with the “ontological turn.” It’s my work that leads me to pose questions ontologically (at a moment when people happen to be doing this) rather than a current trend driving my work. This is the advantage that we have as anthropologists. We are thinking with the world. That’s what’s going to keep our thinking fresh. What’s difficult for me now is that I need to go back and think with the world myself.
RG: I think there is something strange about the structure of our anthropological careers: there’s a period of intense immersive research, and then teaching and family, and then never going back to the field again. Sometimes, it feels like no matter how hard you try, that’s the sort of political economy of the professoriate. I think it has a tremendous effect on how anthropological theory works. When you can’t get back to the field, suddenly you’re interested in elaborating coherent theoretical frameworks from the top down, since you don’t have fresh data to lead you from the bottom up, like you were saying.
Is How Forests Think an ethnography? Is that the genre?
EK: That’s a great question. It’s not the standard ethnographic monograph –it’s not bounded by the Runa. It’s not about getting their context. So, it’s not an ethnography in that sense. Although after reading it I hope you do get some sense of having had an ethnographic immersion. But it doesn’t have that kind of boundedness in the sense that my concerns are not necessarily their concerns. My analytical framework is not restricted to their analytical framework. It’s not that mine is bigger, but just that my project only partially intersects with theirs. In that sense it’s not an ethnography. Although it is a form of thinking that grows from ethnography. And so it is empirical, or experiential. So in this sense it is extremely ethnographic.
RG: I’m just trying to understand whether you’re using the ethnography to elaborate the theory, or using the theory to elaborate the ethnography. What’s the relationship between the theoretical intervention and the descriptive material?
EK: In the actual writing there’s a lot of back and forth. If one were to look at my dissertation, which has none of the theory, no engagement with semiotics, no engagement with multispecies ethnography or any of that stuff, one would find many of the same examples that I’m dealing with in the book as conundrums that allow me to explore the larger question of how to situate the human in some sort of larger non-human domain.
It really is driven by ethnography in that sense. Ethnographic problems suggest a certain kind of conceptual thinking. But there were also moments in writing the book when I had an idea that grew out of a non-ethnographic settings, and I was like, “let me find an ethnographic example to illustrate that.” So there is a certain amount of artifice in crafting something like this, where you tack back and forth. But the general movement of this book is that the ethnography is demanding a certain kind of conceptual framework, and the ethnography and conceptual frameworks are coming together because they’re drawing on a shared world.
Is theory political?
RG: A lot of anthropologists in the States would insist that there has to be a political intervention in ethnography. You close the book making the argument that Michael Scott and other thinkers, like Latour, would make: that it’s politically important to think outside of our established frameworks. I just imagine there are anthropologists out there who would say, “that’s the lousiest definition of politics that I’ve ever heard!” How would you respond to that kind of position?
EK: There’s a passage in Marilyn Strathern’s The Gender of the Gift where she says that radical politics is always linked to intellectual conservatism because to act radically you have to have agreement on what you’re taking a stand on, and radical intellectual thought creates a certain kind of political conservatism because once you’re taking all sorts of things apart, it’s very hard to act based on shared established categories.
It’s a real problem. On the one hand I feel I can isolate ways of thinking about political agency that are different. I can contribute to conversations about things like resistance, and I can think about problems of environmental politics in different ways, but ultimately, I’m not necessarily doing a kind of political work like….
RG: …Terry Turner?
EK: Yes. Or some form of witnessing a kind of injustice to which I have to find some way to attend. I’m not doing that. Yet, the question for me politically is, how are we going to create an ethical practice in the Anthropocene, this time of ours in which futures, of human and nonhuman kinds, are increasingly entangled, and interdependent in their mutual uncertainty? This is where I’m headed. And in the book I begin to think about this political problem. But how does that articulate with what’s happening on the ground in terms of environmental politics? Who might be doing something like this? I don’t know. It’s very abstract right now, but that’s where the political part of this would go.
RG: It’s funny, I can’t remember who said this; I think it was June Jordan? She said that the way that it works is that you do the activism first, and then the theory comes afterward –that the theoretical work comes out of the concrete political work of activism and social change. That position sounds Peircean to me, Eduardo Kohnian to me, because it emphasizes the process of being in the world, and is committed to the idea that praxis leads to theoretical innovation. That claim, I think, may run counter to the idea that there’s something intellectually conservative about radical politics.
EK: I like your formulation. There is some way in which I share affinities with activism, in the sense that I’m being made over first by the world and then finding ways to account for that, but it doesn’t necessarily fall into the category of politics in terms of addressing oneself to social injustices, per se, as the central focus.
RG: What are your future projects?
EK: Well, thinking about an ethical practice in the Anthropocene through the logic of thinking forests is one. I plan to work with Amazonians but also with environmentalists, lawyers and biologists in Ecuador, and I don’t know where that will go. We all share this problem of how to live in the Anthropocene, how to reorient our lives with respect to this. But I don’t know what that means on the ground.
The other project I’ve been working on –and this is with Lisa Stevenson– is also related to thinking forests. Well, for me at least. Lisa is coming to it from a different place and she’s been working on it for much longer than I have. But in terms of my work on thinking forests I’m interested in forms of representation that are non-language-like and non-symbolic. One of the areas where this crops up is in forms of ethnographic representation that are non-language like. I’ve always been interested in photography (you can see a bit of this through the images in the book) and I’ve become increasingly interested in ethnographic film. We’ve been working together on a few films that are trying to bring out some of this non-discursive representational logic and this is one of the directions I find the most inspiring at the moment.
RG: Right, Eduardo. Thanks very much for this interview!
EK: Thank you!