I spent some quality times over the past month with Eduardo Kohn’s brilliant How Forests Think. I’ll admit that little in my training as a historian or Mediterranean archaeologist prepared my to deal with the ideas that he introduced. My buddy Dimitri Nakassis pointed the book out to me and I think he discovered it either through a long interview with Kohn over at the Savage Minds blog, or through his interest in agency.
It’s difficult for me to describe the book in a way that doesn’t make its ideas seem overly simple, so I’ll leave careful, critical readings of the work to anthropologists who are more comfortable with some of his basic discursive formations. In short, Kohn’s book comes from his field work in the rainforest of Andean Ecuador. In one of the most biologically diverse regions of the world, he explores about the limits of human culture and understanding the role that other living things plays in our understanding of the world. He recognizes other living things as capable of producing their own symbolic sense by drawing on Charles Peirce’s semiotic theories. By recognizing all life as producing symbols he explores the place of these symbols in human relational systems. For Kohn, these non-human symbolic systems do not necessarily function according to the rules of human language, but are functioning systems nonetheless. This is where it got heavy. He recognized the role that these other systems played in how we understand the world. As such, culture, that most human of way of understanding the world, emerges, at least in part, from our relationship between various dissimilar symbolic systems within the world.
Obviously, this 200 word effort to summarize a complex and nuanced book does not do justice (or even represent in a completely accurate way) to Kohn’s work. At the same time, one can understand how Kohn’s work challenges some prevailing efforts to understand non-human agency. For example, Kohn draws on Peirce’s semiotics to argue for the existence of systems not grounded in the rules of human language. Efforts to understand material agency, however, tends to rely on human language to articulate agency in the material world. The world of living things, however, functions according to its own logic and rules, that are both consistent and outside of the structures that we’ve built to articulate culture.
The potential of Kohn’s ideas to influencing archaeological work – at least how it is currently construed in the Mediterranean – has less to do, in my mind, with the role of non-human living things in the construction of the ancient world, but as a reminder of our tendency to limit who we recognize as agents within the production of culture. I immediately thought of my own – largely unconvincing – efforts to identify resistance in the archaeology of the Late Roman Corinthia. I tried to argue that the existing monuments of culture preserved evidence for another discourse that runs counter to the prevailing message of elite power. The key to recognizing these counter arguments goes beyond simply inverting the message of an object in an effort to discern its opposite, but to expect and understand messages that are fundamentally incompatible with the language and discourse of elite authority. Like the language of the forest, articulating resistance needn’t adhere to the rules established by our monolithic views of elite culture, but perhaps derives its power by functioning completely outside this system.
(As an irreverent aside, I found Kohn’s book almost completely unhelpful in figuring out what our new dog wants. I do, however, think more carefully about what, when, and why he dreams!)