Why ask anthropology to look beyond the human? And why look to animals to do so? Looking at animals, who look back at us, and who look with us, and who are also, ultimately, part of us, even though their lives extend well beyond us, can tell us something. It can tell us about how that which lies “beyond” the human also sustains us and makes us the beings we are and those we might become. – Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human
One of the most frustrating things about Western civilization is its relentless anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism. Most of us modern, Western, scientific humans think that we are the only truly conscious beings, the only beings that can think, feel, and communicate. Itʻs a form of blindness or self-mutilation, in my opinion, as if we deliberately bound our feet or shut down one of our senses in order to belong to Team Civilization. Certainly such blindness makes ruthless exploitation of the natural world a lot easier on the conscience – if you consider all of it to be mindless matter then why not bring on the bulldozers?
It isnʻt hard to find people who still think that animal actions and communication are “hard-wired” and therefore somehow qualitatively different from and less significant than our own. Itʻs very difficult to talk about taking the thoughts and communications of animals seriously, when to do so is considered either heretical and disloyal to our human vanity, or silly and sentimental, something we gave up in childhood.
The work of Eduardo Kohn and, before him, of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro with the people of the Ecuadorian and Brazilian Amazon, respectively, is an immense relief in that they nurture ways of taking animals seriously under the guise of anthropology. For the Runa people of Ecuador whom Kohn writes about, “all sentient beings. whether, spirit, animal, or human, see themselves as persons.” As just one kind of person in the Amazonian forest, human beings are nodes in a web of other sentient beings and therefore nodes, or participants, in the thinking of the entire forest. The forest has living thoughts that interlace peccaries, humans, and puma, rivers, trees, and mountains in shifting patterns of predation and prey, of hunter and being hunted. Human thought is just one ingredient in the thinking of the forest. Humans, animals, mountains, plants think together.
Kohn is part of an intellectual movement called the “ontological turn” that has grown out of the work of the critical study of science by Isabelle Stengers and Donna Haraway, the sociology of Bruno Latour, and the anthropology of Viveiros de Castro, Marilyn Strathern, and many others. As Arturo Escobar in his book Designs for the Pluriverse says of the ontological turn: “What defines this turn is the attention to a host of factors that deeply shape what we come to know as reality but that social theory has rarely tackled — factors like objects and things, nonhumans, matter and materiality (soil, energy, infrastructures, weather, bytes), emotions, spirituality, and so forth.” To put it even more simply, the ontological turn tackles human exceptionalism and modern soul blindness head on.
All of this may seem terribly abstract, except it isnʻt. Itʻs about choosing how we live and what is important to us, rather than just accepting the status quo. Itʻs how the part of me that I like the best lives – thinking with animals and landscapes, learning with the specific place where I live and with the people that live here, who value place over prosperity, community over consumerism.
As Viveiros de Castro has pointed out, taking non-humans seriously puts a slow-acting bomb under the foundation of modernity and the dominant tradition in Western civilization. As Arturo Escobar says, for most of us: “[It] is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of modernity.” How would we live without all of our gadgets? What would we do if weʻre not rushing around trying to keep up? Any little chink in the wall is a threat. Simply allowing ourselves to see non-human intelligence in the world disrupts and calls into question Western humanism and modernism, whether the preferred version is of the Left or the Right.
If we are not the special creations of a transcendent God but participants in an ongoing process of thinking with, in, and of the forests or grasslands, oceans or rivers, then why would we allow their destruction? If we cannot truly think without other beings then why are we driving them to extinction in our obsession with economic “prosperity”? If we cannot be truly rich in a sterile environment then why do we keep creating such poor and deprived places and spaces? If trading dead products amongst ourselves ever more frenetically will eventually show itself (when we achieve the total financialization of reality) as an empty and foolish exercise, then perhaps we ought to find more meaningful pursuits? And what could be more meaningful than the final frontier – the discovery of non-human intelligence on Earth and how to communicate with it as it still exists and speaks all around us and with us.
If we could learn to speak a sing-song, talk-story, humble and practical pidgin with the World, wouldnʻt that be a beginning?