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Eduardo Kohn, "On Sylvan Thinking"

STS/Anthropology Event
When May 26, 2015
from 12:10 PM to 01:30 PM
Where SS&H 1246
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Lunch provided. Please RSVP if you plan to attend.

Forests think. This is neither a metaphor nor is it a claim specific to any “ontology.” What kind of claim, then, is it? What right do we have in making it? And what might happen to our social theory –and the human– if we take it seriously? Thought emerges with life; it is not restricted to humans. The tropical forest of the Upper Amazon, one of the world’s most complex ecosystems, amplifies the way life thinks. In the process it makes over the thoughts of those who engage with its living logics –be these Amerindians, rubber bosses, or anthropologists. Ethnographic attention to how the Amazonian Runa interact with the many beings that ‘walk’ the forests –animals, but also the dead, and spirits– renders visible some of the strange properties of living thoughts that are occluded by the ways in which our distinctively human ways of thinking have colonized how we think about thought. Allowing ourselves to think with and through forests permits us to craft conceptual tools from the world itself in ways that provincialize more distinctively human forms of thought. In the process our fundamental assumptions about context, complexity, and difference come into question, and so do the humanist forms of thinking we unwittingly take with us even when we seek to venture beyond the human. Here I explore how thinking with forests reveals a counter-intuitive “absential” logic that is central to living thoughts. Grasping this changes how we think about materiality as well as kinds, selves, futures, and the many deaths that make life possible. Learning to think with forests is crucial if we are to hold open spaces where the sylvan thinking we share with all of life (a veritablepensée sauvage) can flourish –a form of thinking that is under dire threat in this, our Anthropocene.

Eduardo Kohn is the author of "How Forests Think. Toward a Anthropology beyond the Human," winner of the Bateson Prize in 2014.

Kohn's research is concerned with human-animal relations and the implications that the ethnographic study of these can have for rethinking anthropology. The empirical context for this work is his ongoing long-term research on how the Quichua (Quechua) speaking Runa of Ecuador’s Upper Amazon inhabit the tropical forest and engage with its beings. Analytical frameworks that fashion their tools from what is unique to humans (language, culture, society, and history) or, alternatively, what humans are commonly supposed to share with animals are inadequate to the task of understanding these sorts of engagements in a way that is both faithful to the multiple species involved and to the historical context of their interaction. By contrast, Kohn turns to an embodied and emergentist understanding of semiosis—one that treats sign processes as inherent to life and not just restricted to humans—as well as to an appreciation for the many sorts of pattern-generating processes that mediate our relations to the world and to the other beings that inhabit it. In the process, he hopes to move anthropology beyond “the human,” both as analytic and as bounded object of study.

Kohn's attempts to come to terms with these multi-species interactions have led him to develop what he calls an “anthropology of life,” that is a kind of anthropology that situates all-too-human worlds within a larger series of processes and relationships that exceed the human.

This event is sponsored by Science & Technology Studies (STS), the Center for Science and Innovation Studies (CSIS), and the Department of Anthropology.

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