Thinking with the Forest. Podcast Episode 1. (Full Transcript).
Fight With a Stick's new podcast series — The Refrain: Getting in Sync with the Word — has just launched. Listen to the full first episode — Thinking with the Forest — here (Buzzsprout):
As of July 23 the podcast is also available on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, and on the Fight With a Stick website (under podcasts).
Below you'll find the entire transcript for the episode.
Thinking with the Forest
Text and Voice by Alex Lazaridis
Sound Composition by James Maxwell
Visual Artwork by Jay White
There’s a way that I understand everything around me as “out there.”
And then theres a way in which physical contact can make everything an intense or intimate sensation, a way everything can become felt.
I think we tend to act as if we are separate from the world.
How do we come to recognize that we are of the world?
We act as if culture and nature are two distinct things. How do we come to recognize there really is no separation between culture and nature? We are nature.
These two questions pre-occupy me.
They tend to govern the way I work as an artist and the way I think — or try to think and feel — about living every day. I have this feeling that overcoming the habit of thinking of myself as separate from the world, and overcoming the feeling that nature and culture are separate things, will help me find peace and allow me to lead a more meaningful life.
I want to “get in sync with the world.”
That idea — getting in sync with the world — is from the book How Forest’s Think by anthropologist Eduardo Kohn. Getting out of sync with the world, he writes, can lead to anxiety. We get so lost in our internal worlds, our obsessive focus on the “what ifs” — what if this or that goes wrong, what if this or that does or doesn’t happen — to the extent that we can create a fraught internal experience, so private that others can’t share in it. Private experiences are a valuable part of everyday life of course, but they can also become a tangle of our own making we get so lost in we are beyond the reach of any help.
Getting back in sync means finding shared experience — with other people, and with the other-than-human world of which we are a part.
This podcast series is about intense sensation.
Intense sensation that leads to a feeling of wonder
at what’s around us
and what’s within us.
It’s also about a type of thinking we share with other animals
and with plants.
It asks some fundamental questions:
Who or what am I?
And how does everything around me make me who or what I am?
I can feel myself, and I can feel everything around me.
I want to feel it more so that I can get better connected.
2. The book/anxiety
This episode is an investigation of the already mentioned book, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human, by Eduardo Kohn.
In the book Kohn describes a situation in which he becomes so filled with anxiety that he loses connection to everyone around him and seems to be living in a world of his own. In the story he’s a passenger traveling on a bus through the mountains in Ecuador. A landslide up ahead stops all forward traffic. Other lansdlides prevent retreat. The mountain seems to be coming down in pieces around the bus. A rock crashes onto the roof of the bus. Kohn gets very scared. Inside of the fear something isolating and lingering occurs. He writes,
“No one else […] seemed to think we were in danger. Perhaps out of sheer nerve, fatalism, or the need above anything else to complete the trip, neither the driver nor his assistant ever lost his cool. To a certain extent I could understand this. It was the toursts that baffled me. These middle-aged Spanish women had booked one of the tours that visit the rain forests and Indigenous villages along the Napo River. As I worried, these women were joking and laughing . . . The incongruity between the tourists’ nonchalance and my sense of danger provoked in me a strange feeling. As my constant what-ifs became increasingly distant from the carefree chattering tourists, what at first began as a diffuse sense of unease soon morphed into a sense of profound alienation. This discrepency between my perception of the world and that of those around me sundered me from the world and those living in it. All I was left with were my own thoughts of future dangers spinning out of control.”
Because Kohn’s thoughts seem at odds with those around him, he begins to doubt what he has always relied on: his bodily perceptions of the world. His fear, it seems, must be misplaced. He begins to question his bodily connection to the world. And if his body is a thing that has no relation to the world, does it even exist? Does he even exist? His thoughts, as he writes, run wild.
The next day, after the landslides are cleared, and after spending a night in a familiar hotel in Tena, he still can’t shake the feeling of impending doom and of disconnection from his body and those around him. Then, on walk, he sees a tanager, a very colourful bird, in the shrubs. “I had brought my binoculars,” he writes, “and managed, after some searching, to locate the bird. I rolled the focusing knob and the moment that bird’s thick black beak became sharp I experienced a sudden shift. My sense of separation simply dissolved. And, like the tanager coming into focus, I snapped back into the world of life.”
Unlike the thoughts scrambling around in his head — private thoughts that no one else shared — the tanager was out there in the world. It could be seen by others and verified. It was an externally shareable experience.
In other words, having the shareable experience of seeing the tanager got Kohn back in sync with the world. “Seeing that tanager,” he writes, “made me sane by allowing me to situate the feeling of radical separation within something broader. It re-situated me in a larger world ‘beyond’ the human. My mind could return to being part of a larger world. My thoughts about the world could once again become part of the thoughts of the world.”
3. The series/art making
Getting in sync with the world is what this series is about. Each episode will explore one or more of ways of doing this. We’ll engage with anthropology, philosophy, biology, spiritual traditions, autobiography, political theory, neuroscience and more. And because we are artists, we’ll wonder how art and performance contribute. So it’s a conversation with other thinkers initiated by artists who use their art to explore the same issues. And because these conversations are taking place on a digital platform created by Fight With a Stick Performance, we’ll reflect on the ways this performance company colloborates with the other-than-human in its creation process and in its public performances.
In the series we’ll do this through sound: the sound of voices, instruments, and any other sounds we find or make. By the time you hear this we’ll have done research, written a script, created some visuals, and composed music. It all ends up as sound in your ears.
For years now my practice as an artist and performance-maker has been one of learning how to better collaborate with other-than-human “materialities.” Materialities is a term that stands in for a lot of things — and beings — that we, in Western societies, don’t immediately consider as having a self. For me, rethinking what a self is, has meant not assuming mastery over the materials I work with, including set pieces, props, lights, sound, software, architecture, atmospheres, and of course other humans. I try to approach these as partners in creation. They are partners, whether or not I acknowledge them as such. I find acknowledging them leads to a richer experience.
But, are set pieces, props, sounds, and lights really selves? In How Forests Think, Eduardo Kohn makes a clear distinction between what he considers to be living and growing things such as animals and plants, and non-living things such as rocks and snowflakes. I disagree with his categorization, but that’s for a future episode. In this episode we’ll mostly stick to what he calls the living and the growing. My feeling that crystals, rocks, minerals and constructed materials have selves will inevitably impose upon the episode from time to time, but I’ll try not to make it the focus.
For Kohn any entity that lives and grows, and evolves over time, has a self, an “I.” It has an experience of the past and expectations of the future.
And if you are a self, you can think, and you can perceive other selves.
Kohn makes the case that human selves and other selves — such as jaguars — think in very similar ways … mostly.
Before getting into that, let me pause for a moment, and expand on the challenge as I see it, a challenge that requires a way of thinking that is both new and old. It’s new in the sense that in recent centuries in the West, we’ve turned everything around us, including most animals, into soulless material we can exploit without feeling much responsiblity. It’s old in the sense that earlier in Western society we saw things differently, and that most of what we call Indigenous societies have usually, depending on the society, understood themselves as integrated with the lifeworlds around them.
I came up through the world of Western theatre. For many years my main contribution was as an actor; then I added writer, director, dramaturge, and artistic director. As the years went by I felt increasingly dissatisfied with theatre’s obsessive focus on the individualistic human story — usually a male hero, but not always, who would confront some terrible challenge and either overcome it or be defeated by it. The philosophy, the ethics, the teachings of it were that everything — the lights, the sound, the props, the architecture — were there to support the hero and their story. This is how we do it in theatre, and its how we do it in politics. We still look to a prime minister, a president, a king, or a queen to lead us into salvation. In theatre and politics we, as spectators, are supposed to identify with a heroic figure, and to suffer and overcome along with them. Meanwhile the planet is overheating. Species are dying at an alarming rate. Languages are disappearing at an alarming rate. Human societies don’t seem to be good at addressing these problems. Individual saviours seem particularly inneffective. But if our story were a different one, one in which we understood ourselves as inextricably linked with, dependent on, and responsible to the other-than-human worlds around us — if we could get more in sync with these worlds — maybe we would conduct ourselves differently.
Kohn writes: “Social science’s greatest contribution — the recognition and delimitation of a separate domain of socially constructed reality — is also its greatest curse … finding ways to move beyond this problem, is one of the most important challenges facing critical thought today” (28).
I could replace the term “social science” with “theatre” to make the same point.
4. What I do
What I do is make performances with other artists. We collaborate to create something we hope people will find meaningful.
Actually, let me risk being a little more honest about what I really hope will happen. I hope people who come to the shows will experience a sense of wonder at being alive.
It’s what I hope to get out of a performance, and what I have gotten out of so much art I’ve seen in the past. I usually go to a show feeling maybe 30% awake, not fully attending to what is around me. During or at the end of certain shows I become 100% awake. I feel my connection to everything and everyone around me more intensely. Colours are sharper, sounds are more distinct, atmospheres are more palpable. I feel that everyone I can see is vibrant and worth caring about.
The strange thing is that most of the shows that have done this for me haven’t done it by emphasizing human performers or characters in a story or plot. It’s usually been achieved by some seemingly mysterious configuration of the other-than-human elements: the sound, the lights, familiar objects made unfamiliar, and surprising transformations in which one thing seems to become another thing, or in which the whole atmosphere becomes a different atmosphere.
When I came to understand this is what moved me, I realized it was what I myself had always been trying to do. So I gave myself permission to do it more fully. But “how?” How did these other artists I admired do it?
I knew there were technical things I needed to know more about, from light design to sound composition to set building. There were creation processes I could learn from. But most of all I realized I needed to get free of my human-centeredness. I needed to start respecting all of those other-than-human things around me — from animals, to plants, to minerals, to atmospheres. I needed to change from a utility based relationship — ‘How can I master this thing and what can it do for me?’ — to a collaborative approach: ‘What can this thing reveal about its tendencies; what does it want to do; how can I assist; can we become partners for a while?’
In a way it was a move from a disenchanted, resource-extraction mentality, to understanding the world as an endlessly alive process we are part of at all times, even when we don’t notice it. The resource-extraction mindset tends to ignore the fact that the world wasn’t made for us. The Earth doesn’t need humans. Humans need it.
When we treat our other-than-human co-habitants as just stuff we can do whatever we want with, we end up with the situation we’re currently in: a rapidly heating planet with degraded ecosystems, populations forced to migrate, languages and cultures going extinct, animals and plants going extinct, and a widespread, pervasive sense of alienation, anxiety, and meaninglessness.
I made this podcast with composer James Maxwell. Actually, that isn’t a very truthful claim, because when I say James and I made this podcast I’m acknowledging only two contributors. If we really want to respect our interconnectedness with the other-than-human, if we are to treat it as more than a stimulating intellectual concept or creative prompt, then we have to acknowledge the myriad of other contributors, without whom this podcast would be very different from what it is. To explain this, I’m going to take my lead from the book Vibrant Matter by Jane Bennett. Bennett has been a major inspiration for me and for some other artists I know. The following is inspired by her description of her writing process:
I’m trying to compose a draft of the first episode of this podcast. But who or what is the “I” doing the composing? A conventional way of describing this would be to say that this text is produced by my human will, by my subjective desire independent of other factors. Something called a mind is shaping these sentences and that mind belongs to me and no one else. It belongs to my body, which includes my brain, and my organs, and is contained within my skin. In one stream of Western thought there has been a tradition of thinking of mind as independent of the body — mind that somehow transcends physical matter. But even that transcendent mind belongs to me and no one else. Is this really how it works? Jane Bennett would disagree, and after giving it a lot of thought over several years, I would too.
Here’s how Bennett describes writing her book Vibrant Matter:
“The sentences of this book […] emerged from the confederate agency of many striving macro- and microactants: from ‘my’ memories, intentions, contentions, intestinal bacteria, eyeglasses, and blood sugar, as well as from the plastic computer keyboard, the bird song from the open window, or the air or particulates in the room, to name only a few of the participants. What is at work here on the page is an animal-vegetable-mineral-sonority cluster with a particular degree and duration of power” (22).
I enjoy the way Bennett puts the collaboration in terms of sonority — the blending of sounds. Each part contributes to a harmony or a dissonance. She’s referencing assemblage theory here, something we’ll get into in the episode on The Refrain by Deleuze and Guattari, from whom I borrowed the title of this podcast series. More importantly, she’s trying to show that what we call human agency doesn’t belong exclusively to what we call a human. Because a human isn’t exclusively . . . human. A human is a collaboration of forces that work together for a time — a lifetime — to be human. And then they decompose and recompose as other things. The more I think about this the more I find it hard to argue with. In another passage, in which she quotes a New York Times article, Bennett offers another compelling description of the other-than-human forces that make up the human:
“Vital materiality,” she writes, “captures an ‘alien’ quality of our own flesh, and in so doing reminds humans of the very radical character of the (fractious) kinship between the human and the nonhuman. My ‘own’ body is material, and yet this vital materiality is not fully or exclusively human. My flesh is populated and constituted by different swarms of foreigners. The crook of my elbow, for example, is ‘a special ecosystem, bountiful home to no fewer than six tribes of bacteria . . . . They are helping to moisterize the skin by processing the raw fats it produces. . . . The bacteria in the human microbiome collectively possess at least 100 times as many genes as the mere 20,000 or so in the human genome.’ The its outnumber the mes. In a world of vibrant matter, it is thus not enough to say that we are ‘embodied.’ We are, rather, an array of bodies, many different kinds of them in a nested set of microbiomes” (112).
For Bennett and for most of the other writers we’ll look at in this series, there is an ethical reason for becoming attuned to all this, an idea connected to but also beyond that of getting in sync with the world. She sums it up in the final sentence of the passage I just read: “If we were more attentive to the indispensable foreignenness that we are, would we continue to produce and consume in the same violently reckless ways?”
Perhaps she’s suggesting that our animal-vegetable-mineral sonority can become more harmonious with a little ethical attentiveness?
I said I wasn’t going to put too much focus on what Kohn considers the non-living world, but I’ve digressed into it here. So I’ll get back to Kohn’s argument and leave Jane Bennett’s work as the subject of a future episode.
In How Forests Think, Kohn approaches the issue of what a self is and who has one from an anthropological perspective, but his is a challenge to the anthropocentrism of anthropology. His study includes the term “anthropos,” which means “human being,” and is the first part of the word “anthropology.” But with a growing number of anthropologists, he reaches beyond the human social world to those beings that are other-than-human — fauna and flora. His type of anthropology probably needs a new word, something like multi-being-ology or multi-self-ology.
So what is a self and why does he think an animal or plant can have one?
5. THE JAGUAR IS A SELF
Let’s start with the conventional thinking that Kohn challenges. It goes like this: I’m a subject and everything else is an object. That descibes a long-standing type of dualistic thinking about human and other-than-human relations. If you love other people you might extend subjecthood to them. I mean you probably don’t think of your friends and family as objects to simply be manipulated by you. In your worst moments you might treat other people that way. This is what soldiers are trained to do. They’re able to kill other human beings by thinking about them as less-than-human. It’s why we’re able to dump our waste in other people’s habitats. Intellectually we understand that these people are human, but we cut off empathetic connection to them so that we can justify exploiting them and degrading their living environment. Conceptually they are humans, but emotionally they are insects.
If you love animals you might extend selfhood to your dog or to a bear or an eagle. If you love trees and flowers you might think of them as having inner lives. Maybe you’re fascinated with insects and think of them as having selves. Most people don’t go quite as far as plants and insects, and very few would confer selfhood on rocks or metal, or household furniture. So let’s stick with animals for bit.
Kohn begins by introducing us to the possiblity of a jaguar being a self, and not only being a self, but being one that can think — and think about other selves, including human selves. Here’s a passage from the opening of his book:
“Setting 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 [which means “prey” or meat] and he’ll attack.’ If, Juanicu was saying, a jaguar sees you as 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.”
Kohn calls this type of recognition representation. To the jaguar I represent a self to negotiate with or an object to be eaten. It’s not that in the moment of recognition the jaguar creates a representation — like a picture of me in its head that is somehow separate from me — I am the me it is confronting. It’s just that the nature of the relationship changes depending on whether, in the moment, it considers me a self or food. In the situation described above, a potential encounter with a jaguar will probably mean danger and threat. If Kohn were to encounter the jaguar in a zoo the relationship would be different. It would likely be one of curious spectator of fascinating exotic species. So selves are what they are, but what a self might mean to me, and what I might mean to it, changes depending on how the context reconfigures our relationship in the moment.
Kohn uses the semiotic theory of the 19th century philospher Charles Sanders Pierce to explain how representation works, and this is central to the way he frames the discussion in his book. I’m going to try to summarize part of his discussion.
Semiotics is about how we use signs to represent things. There are different types of signs. One type includes signs that are so similar to the thing they represent we sometimes ignore the difference; for example when I say “splash” it is a representation of the sound something makes when if falls into water, but it’s also self-explanatory. When I say splash in an excited manner you understand what it represents. It’s different from an actual splash but it has enough of the sound of a splash in it to make it feel a bit like one. Let me take an example from theatre, one that is crucial to the way so much theatre works. When an actor on stage plays a character in a play, you know she isn’t the character she represents, but in order for the play to really work, the human actor in front of you and the character you imagine must blend into one, at least for a while. The actor becomes so like the character that it’s hard to separate them. The splash and the actor are both the type of sign Chalres Sanders Peirce calls an “icon.” Icons are crucial to the way we think. They work because we pay attention to what is similar and ignore what is different. The verbal explosion “splash” is similar to an actual splash by virtue of sound. It’s different in so many other ways — nothing is actually falling into water when I say “splash.” The actor is similar to the imagined character by virtue of the fact that they are both human or human-like, have histories (real or fictional), undertake actions, speak, etc.
When I say that icons are a type of thinking, they don’t actually require the type of thinking we associate with written words. You don’t need to be able to spell “splash” to appreciate what it conveys. You don’t need to be able to read a script or have a picture of the character the actor is playing to understand the actor is embodying the character. You can do these things automatically.
Now the really complicated part is that icons are not fixed things. They change as context changes. Peirce calls icons and other signs “living things.” He means this quite literally. You are both an icon and the thing the icon represents. To me the jaguar is both a jaguar and a predator. Or in a different situation it’s a jaguar and a zoo animal. Icons are what they are because they exist in a chain of events that is always in process. You are what you are because you exist in a chain of events that includes a past and potential futures. Not just your own past and your own future. What you are at the moment is also the result of other events, actions by others, and so on. And you will affect not only your own future but the future of other selves. In this sense what you are — your selfhood — is distributed among the whole forest and all of the selves that partake in the chain of living signs, past, present and future.
One of the things that makes a self a self is that it has agency: it can respond to events and affect events. An example Kohn uses is that of a hunter spotting a woolly monkey in the branches of a very tall tree. The hunter sees the monkey and wants to shoot it. One way of getting the monkey to show herself more clearly is to tug on a vine that extends from the ground all the way up into the canopy, where a mat of moss and detritus has created a perch where the monkey is hiding. The vibration created by the tugging of the vine becomes a sign that means something to the monkey, possibly danger. She must react. Maybe she’s startled, senses that danger, and jumps to another branch. In any case she has responded to the sign and has taken action. She herself is a sign that other ‘minds’ of the forest can respond to. Something that began in the mind of the hunter, imagining killing the monkey by undertaking certain physical actions such as tugging the vine, came to be understood as danger, which led to the monkey jumping to another branch, which led to a myriad of other interpretations of the monkey’s action by other minds with other agendas. What the monkey is to other selves in the forest depends on the mind that is noticing and responding, and what its interest is. From the hunter’s point of view the monkey is prey. From the monkey’s point of view, the vibrating vine is a sign of danger. From a neighbouring tree’s point of view, the monkey may be a sign of just added weight to one of its branches. To a leaf on that tree it may be a predator that want’s to eat it. These signs are alive. The monkey is alive as a sign because what it means depends on how it is understood by other minds in an ever evolving chain of events.
At this point you may be in aggreement with Kohn that nonhuman animals are selves, that they can take part in representational thinking through icons and other types of signs, and that both selves and icons are growing, changing things. But, you may ask, is it really true that trees and other flora also take part in representational thinking? Do they also have selves?
6. THE TREE IS A SELF
I’m going to turn to the book The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben to make the case for floral selves. Part of the science in Wohlleben’s book is based on the innovative research of Suzanne Simard, who recently made her work accessible to the general public through her own book Finding the Mother Tree. I hope to go into the social life of forests in a future episode. For now let me summarize one of Wohlleben’s examples, one that seems to fit well with Kohn’s discussion of other-than-human selfhood in plants. In the following example, Wohlleben describes how umbrella thorn acacias defend themselves against giraffes, and how they warn other acacias of the danger. He begins this discussion by explaining how scent is used by flowers to attract bees to their nectar as a way of dusting the bees with pollen. This type of pollination, of course, allows flowers to reproduce. Flowers communicate with bees through scent and colour. The scent and colour of flowers represent a food source for bees. Is this just non-thinking, biological chemistry? Wohlleben thinks there’s much more to it. Here’s a passage about the acacias and giraffes:
“In the 1970s, scientists noticed something on the African savannah. The giraffes there were feeding on umbrella thorn acacias, and the trees didn’t like this one bit. It took the acacias mere minutes to start pumping toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the large herbivores. The giraffes got the message and moved on to other trees in the vicinity. But did they move on to trees close by? No, for the time being, they walked right by a few trees and resumed their meal only when they had moved about 100 yards away.
“The reason for this behaviour is astonishing. The acacia trees that were being eaten gave off a warning gas that signaled to neighboring trees of the same species that a crisis was at hand. Right away, all the forewarned trees also pumped toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves. The giraffes were wise to this game and therefore moved farther away to a part of the savannah where they could find trees that were oblivious to what was going on. Or else they moved upwind. For the scent messages were carried to nearby trees on the breeze, and if the animals walked upwind, they could find acacias close by that had no idea the giraffes were there” (17).
Wohlleben goes on to describe how other trees and leaves produce very specific airborne chemicals that are toxic to targeted predators. He also explains how trees communicate warnings through their root structures, which are linked to underground fungal networks:
“Trees,” he writes, “don’t rely exclusively on aerial defense systems, for if they did, some neighbours would not get wind of the danger. Dr. Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver has discovered that they also warn each other using chemical signals sent through the fungal networks around their root tips, which operate no matter what the weather. Surprisingly, news bulletins are sent via the roots by means of not only chemical compounds but also electrical impulses that travel from a form of nerve cell at the tips of the roots at the speed of a third of an inch per second . . . Once the latest news has been broadcast, all the trees in the area promptly pump defensive compounds through their veins” (20).
Following the representational logic of Eduardo Kohn, a tree must be able to represent the giraffe in some way, in order to interpret it as a threat and produce the appropriate toxins. Suzanne Simard and Peter Wohlleben try to show that a forest is more than a grouping of individual, self-interested trees. It’s a very networked community. Each member is a self in relation to the other members, and to the other selves of the forest, including giraffes. What an acacia means to a giraffe in a certain context and what the giraffe means to the acacia in this situation is one of predator to potential prey. The giraffe sees an object — the acacia as prey — and wishes to feed on it. It soon discovers the acacia is another self with its own agenda — to defend itself from the giraffe. I imagine in another instance the umbrella thorn acacia, with its wide canopy, might mean shade-from-the-sun. So the acacia becomes a locus of meaning in a chain of signs, a meaning that can change depending on how the relationship is redefined by the various selves involved. Trees, in this example, can be understood as selves that think through the use of signs.
To repeat: Its not just that selves and icons are similar, and sometimes very difficult to separate. What makes them selves is that they can respond to events and affect events — they have agency. Charles Sanders Peirce puts this very beautifully. If we accept that trees and giraffes can be selves, can be somebodies, then, for example, the giraffe-somebody that takes the acacia to be food in one moment, and shade in another is “a self that is just coming into life in the flow of time” (67).
“A self that is just coming into life in the flow of time.”
In Peirce and Kohn’s view a rock is not a self. It is not “coming into life in the flow of time” because it is not a growing thing with past experience and expectations of the future. The more we become like rocks, the more fixed we become, the less alive, the less likely to come “into life in the flow of time.”
As I said earlier I disagree with this view of rocks. I think it’s a misperception based on measuring change on a human time scale. If we shift to a geological time scale, things look different. I’ll get to that in another episode.
7. NESTING - THE MIND EMERGENT
I believe most of us tend to think of our thoughts as being produced by our minds, and that these minds, like our physical brains, our housed within a structure that is the sole property of each one of us. So when Charles Sanders Peirce and Eduardo Kohn say we think through representation, we probably imagine perceiving something, creating an independent thought about it, and then interpreting it. Actually, Peirce and Kohn suggest something different. It may already be apparent to you based on what’s been presented so far in this podcast, but they believe that what we call mind emerges from the world — and remains part of the world. Your mind is yours, but not exclusively yours. You share it with the world and it shares it with you. Mind is distributed. It’s produced by the myriad of relations you are enmeshed with. What you call “I” is sort of sprinkled among these. You are part of a community of macro- and micro-actants — to use Jane Bennett’s phrase — you are that community.
As a thought experiment, imagine popping into existence in a void, where no other humans, animals, or plants exist. Would self or mind even be possible? It seems to me that self requires other selves to even be a self. And that mind requires something to think about. Without other selves and things, there is nothing to create mind — no context, no relationships.
Mind, argues Kohn, emerges from the world.
As I said before, the world doesn’t need humans, but humans need the world. And this becomes key to Kohn’s conception of the way minds emerge from the world. Biological, living, growing things depend on the structures of non-living things. They are nested within structures that are nested within other structures. Or maybe a better term is “pattern.”
For example, hunting, which is core to the people of Avila in Ecuador, isn’t a simple matter of locating a single animal group of a type of animal. Areas of the forest produce certain kinds of food that attract many kinds of animals. These animals are prey to other animals. In order to protect themselves from predators, foraging animals of many different species forage together — therefore acquiring defensive strength in numbers. As Kohn writes, “Each member ‘contributes’ its species-specific attributes to detect predators—resulting in a greater overall group awarenes of potential danger” (258). This of course also attracts those predators to the same area. The hunters have learned how to recognize such patterns of plant growth, animal foraging, and predation. When they seek prey they look for these patterns, not just for the solitary animal or single species they are hunting. It’s how they know where to look. “Avila hunters,” writes Kohn, “don’t hunt animals directly. Rather, they seek to discover and harness the ephemeral form created by the particular spatial distribution or configuration of those tree species that are fruiting at any given point in time because this is what attracts animals” (259). It’s by understanding ecological patterns that the people of the Amazon know where to find specific fauna and flora.
To further explain how structures or patterns are nested within other structures or patterns, Kohn uses the fascinating example of the rubber trade in Ecuador during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rubber became a valuable commodity at the time. Rubber trees grow in the tropical rainforest in very particular patterns. To avoid transferring disease they don’t grow in clusters. They tend to be spaced apart from each other. The best way to find rubber trees is to follow the river system. Water distribution follows its own topographical pattern, from the highlands where creeks form and then become fewer streams which, as the land falls toward the coast, form fewer rivers, that then converge at a delta that empties into the ocean. Rubber trees follow a similar pattern. Kohn calls these patterns “regularities,” that “happen to explore the landscape in the same way” (255).
Rich rubber barons want the rubber. How do they get it? Who knows where to find it? — the people living in the rainforest. They understand the distribution of rubber trees and the pattern of the river system. They also have an intimate relationship with the selves of the forest.
So how do the rubber barons get those people to locate and extract it? Pay, coerce, or enslave them. This capture of the labour force follows the same patterns as the river and the rubber trees. At the port, where the river empties into the ocean, sits the regional boss. He offers credit to the next level boss upstream. At the next node in the river is the next lower-level boss, who borrows from the previous boss and lends credit to the upstream boss at the next river node. This pattern of financing follows, is nested within, the same structure of rubber distribution which is nested within the structure of the water distribution. The series of bosses control groups of labourers, who either help in capturing other labour, or are the labour that locates and extracts the rubber. In fact the global rubber trade is dependent on and nested within the structure of the local financing system which is nested within the rubber distribution structure, which is nested within the water distribution structure. How the selves relate to one another and think within these nested structures is dependent on the structures themselves.
The patterns of the river system and the distribution of rubber trees, among other such regularities, make thinking about these nested structures possible. The organisation of the rubber economy couldn’t have existed without these structures. It was embedded in them and in the local, national, and global economic and social structures that also dependend on them. Thought emerges from these overlapping systems, nested within one another.
Changing any part changes the relationship structures. But thought, the way humans and nohumans think, emerges first from what Kohn calls nonliving structures — the river system — and then living structures, rubber trees, fruit trees, and so on. In fact selfhood emerges from these structures. Again, if you think back to the thought experiment of being born into a void with nothing to relate to, no structures to be nested within, there would probably be no self to do any thinking, or being.
When Kohn saw the bird that brought him out of his inner world of symbols and into the tangible world of that which was outside of him, he moved from an isolated, individualistic experience, to a worldly experience that can be verified and shared by anyone. That shared event that more than one person can attest to, that something that is “out there” and not just α closed off personal anxiety, is one of the things that theatrical performance has based itself on for millenia — the idea that we can have a communal experience at a performance, and that this can be a community affirming experience because it is shared and because it is there for all of us to see.
Now I’m sure you’ve been to performances that don’t feel very communal. Sure there have been those astonishing examples when what is happening on stage is so virtuousically composed that you are transformed, at least temporarily. But those might be the exceptions that prove the rule. Most Western theatre and dance performances, despite the gestures toward ideas of community are, like so much of everything we experience, commodified products. You show up at a certain time, take your seat, consume the product, and then leave. Did you get your money’s worth? Can you chat about it to the person you came with or to your friends and co-workers the next day? What’s up next on the theatre company’s program this season?
Compare this to a famous example from ancient times. In ancient Hellas — better known to those outside of Hellas as Greece — the seasonal theatre events in Athens would take place at the foot of the Acropolis. A citizen would travel from the market place along a designated, winding path, during which they would pass statues of significant people or gods, before taking their seat in the amphitheatre. It would be early in the day. The proceedings wouldn’t end until late afternoon. During the performance, behind the skene, the back wall of the stage, an animal sacrifice would be roasting, giving off smoke. The tragic heroes would always exit through the center doors at the back of the stage to meet their death — in the direction of the sacrifice. The parallel between animal sacrifice and human sacrifice wasn’t lost on the spectators. Behind the audience, up on a hill, the temple that housed a huge statue of a god, had doors that opened on to this scene so that the god could look directly at the stage and beyond it to the sacrifice. At the center of the stage was a stone called the thymele. It was the axis point between the underworld and the heavens above where gods dwelt. The choruses would dance clockwise and counterclockwise around this stone when performing. The whole event, very social, spiritual, and spatially significant, would be paid for by a leading citizen, as was their honoured duty to the city.
This example describes a performance event in which the human is enmeshed with factors that are social but also of spatial and spiritual in significance. I think it can be considered communal in a way that a modern theatrical performance usually isn’t.
And because the people of Athens had invested considerable time and effort in such a gathering, we might say that the event was one of connection through shared experience. In conventional modern theatre, nonhuman factors such as light, sound, prop, set, and costume, tend to be thought of mainly as supports for human action. In my work, and that of artists who work like me in theatre, in contemporary dance, and especially in installation art — these nonhuman factors can be the most important. Actually, in most of the work of Fight With a Stick over the past half decade or so, the human figure has been backgrounded so that these other factors can be foregrounded. The overall effect has been, I think, to create a performance situation in which all collaborators, human and other-than-human, become more present. A spectator can get as much from the overall atmosphere of the performance, or from a sound or light transformation, or from a still or moving set piece, or from the texture of the walls, as they can from focusing on a human performer. The overall configuration, in collaboration with whatever the spectator brings to the performance, produces the thinking — and feeling — that is possible in the event. Each self becomes a temprorary locus of meaning during the performance.
Eduardo Kohn urges us to try to think better with forests. In the world of Fight With a Stick we try to think better with the performance situation.
Am I trying to squeeze every drop of spiritual connection I can from what is largely a secular Wetern tradition based on providing entertainment and distraction? Probably. And this is where Kohn’s reporting on his years of living with the people of Avila takes things much deeper. Based on reading Kohn, and on reading Philippe Descola’s writings on living with the Achua in his book Beyond Nature and Culture, and also based on my own understanding of certain Western customs rooted in pre-industrial traditions, such as my own lineages in Hellenic societies, I’ve come to appreciate the values in art and performance that are more than entertaining distractions. What does it mean to make and partake in art when it’s not strictly a commodity, when it really does have a life affirming role, when it really can have a communal aspect in the most expansive sense.
I want to be careful about this, and to note the downside of community and the associated term “communal,” and how community can have a crushing conformist effect on individuals. If you’ve ever lived in a small community, and if you’re different, you know how hard it can be if you don’t conform to expected social standards. We hold up the world community as an automatic good, without doing due diligence and examining its negative possiblities. But even a cursory reading of history, written or oral, including Western and Indigenous societies, can reveal the dark side of community and tradition.
And I want to acknowledge the way our Western performance traditions can also be life affirming communal experiences. We don’t want to replace old conformist orthodoxies with new conformist ideologies.
In How Forests Think, Kohn outlines the three types of signs — according to Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotics. In this podcast I named only the icon — the splash. I made reference to, without explaining, the index, which is when a sign is a pointer — something points to something else: smoke let’s you know there is fire. Peirce’s third type of sign is the symbol, which is what human language is — a set of conventions, words and grammatical structures, we use to convey meaning. It’s where the interpreting happens, the summing up. Following psychologist Kaja Silverman, Kohn writes of holding “potential, stablized meaning in abeyance” as a way of getting in sync (280) — lingering with the icon; before the interpreting happens. The shows I tend to love and the shows I make try to do this. We try to create conditions that allow the audience member to remain suspended in a state of wonder as long as possible. We try to put off the interpreting and the summing up in favour of an extended open state of wonder in which we can become keyed to the interrelatedness of everything, the energy and agency of all the things that are cooperating to create the performance event. We can make contact with all this, knowing that others may also be making contact with the things outside ourselves that are shareable. We can become “sane” for a while, and free of the anxiety producing inner thoughts that can “run wild.” Hopefully, we can get in sync with the world for a time.
There is so much in Kohn’s writing that I did not get to. For example the concept of “soul blindness,” which can render you an object to other selves. Or the fact that for the people of Avila, the spirit world is the primary reality and the material world is secondary in importance. Or how the people of Avila have integrated colonial structures into their own spirit world. Or the fascinating hierarchical structures that determine so many of their relationships. I recommend Kohn’s book if you want to go deeper into this version of human and other-than-human interconnectedness.
A final note: In How Forest’s Think Kohn made a sharp distinction between what he considers to be the living and non-living world. Since then, he seems to have gone deeper into shamanistic practices, including the use of ayahuasca. In a fascinating lecture, he discusses this. And he seems to have shifted a little in his view of things like… rocks. I’ll put a link to the lecture in the show notes.
Thanks for going on this journey with me and James.