Tag Archives: Derrida

Kohn—How Forests Think

How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human

by Eduardo Kohn

[Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.]


“How other kinds of beings see us matters. Th at other kinds of beings see us changes things. If jaguars also represent us—in ways that can matter vitally to us—then anthropology cannot limit itself just to exploring how people from different societies might happen to represent them as doing so” (1).

“This book is an attempt to ponder the Sphinx’s riddle by attending ethnographically to a series of Amazonian other-than-human encounters. Attending to our relations with those beings that exist in some way beyond the human forces us to question our tidy answers about the human. Th e goal here is neither to do away with the human nor to reinscribe it but to open it. In rethinking the human we must also rethink the kind of anthropology that would be adequate to this task. Sociocultural anthropology in its various forms as it is practiced today takes those attributes that are distinctive to humans—language, culture, society, and history—and uses them to fashion the tools to understand humans. In this process the analytical object becomes isomorphic with the analytics. As a result we are not able to see the myriad ways in which people are connected to a broader world of life, or how this fundamental connection changes what it might mean to be human. And this is why expanding ethnography to reach beyond the human is so important. An ethnographic focus not just on humans or only on animals but also on how humans and animals relate breaks open the circular closure that otherwise confines us when we seek to understand the distinctively human by means of that which is distinctive to humans” (6).

“I seek to contribute to these posthuman critiques of the ways in which we have treated humans as exceptional—and thus as fundamentally separate from the rest of the world—by developing a more robust analytic for understanding human relations to nonhuman beings. I do so by refl ecting on what it might mean to say that forests think. I do so, that is, by working out the connection between representational processes (which form the basis for all thought) and living ones as this is revealed through ethno-graphic attention to that which lies beyond the human. I use the insights thus gained to rethink our assumptions about the nature of representation, and I then explore how this rethinking changes our anthropological concepts. I call this approach an “anthropology beyond the human” (7).

“But symbols, those kinds of signs that are based on convention (like the English word dog), which are distinctively human representational forms, and whose properties make human language possible, actually emerge from and relate to other modalities of representation. In Peirce’s terminology these other modalities (in broad terms) are either “iconic” (involving signs that share likenesses with the things they represent) or “indexical” (involving signs that are in some way affected by or otherwise correlated with those things they represent). In addition to being symbolic creatures we humans share these other semiotic modalities with the rest of nonhuman biological life (Deacon 1997) … though signs may be extralinguistic (with the consequence that language can be treated as something more than symbolic) the contexts that make them meaningful are human sociocultural ones” (8).

“Life is constitutively semiotic” (9).

“This way of understanding semiosis can help us move beyond a dualistic approach to anthropology, in which humans are portrayed as separate from the worlds they represent, toward a monistic one, in which how humans represent jaguars and how jaguars represent humans can be understood as integral, though not interchangeable, parts of a single, open-ended story” (9).

“In sum, an anthropology beyond the human is perforce an ontological one. That is, taking nonhumans seriously makes it impossible to confine our anthropological inquiries to an epistemological concern for how it is that humans, at some particular time or in some particular place, go about making sense of them. As an ontological endeavor this kind of anthropology places us in a special position to rethink the sorts of concepts we use and to develop new ones. In Marilyn Strathern’s words, it aims “to create the conditions for new thoughts” (1988: 20)” (10).

“My argument is that we are colonized by certain ways of thinking about relationality. We can only imagine the ways in which selves and thoughts might form associations through our assumptions about the forms of associations that structure human language. And then, in ways that often go unnoticed, we project these assumptions onto nonhumans. Without realizing it we attribute to nonhumans properties that are our own, and then, to compound this, we narcissistically ask them to provide us with corrective reflections of ourselves … Forests are good to think because they themselves think. Forests think. I want to take this seriously, and I want to ask, What are the implications of this claim for our understandings of what it means to be human in a world that extends beyond us?” (21-22).

“Signs don’t come from the mind. Rather, it is the other way around. What we call mind, or self, is a product of semiosis. Th at “somebody,” human or non-human, who takes the crashing palm to be significant is a “self that is just com-ing into life in the fl ow of time” (CP 5.421) by virtue of the ways in which she comes to be a locus—however ephemeral—for the “interpretance” of this sign and many others like it. In fact, Peirce coined the cumbersome term interpretant to avoid the “homunculus fallacy” (see Deacon 2012: 48) of seeing a self as a sort of black box (a little person inside us, a homunculus) who would be the interpreter of those signs but not herself the product of those signs. Selves, human or nonhuman, simple or complex, are outcomes of semiosis as well as the starting points for new sign interpretation whose outcome will be a future self. They are waypoints in a semiotic process” (34).

“We need to provincialize language because we conflate representation with language and this conflation finds its way into our theory. We universalize this distinctive human propensity by first assuming that all representation is some-thing human and then by supposing that all representation has language like properties” (39).

“To summarize: signs are not exclusively human affairs. All living beings sign. We humans are therefore at home with the multitude of semiotic life. Our exceptional status is not the walled compound we thought we once inhabited. An anthropology that focuses on the relations we humans have with nonhuman beings forces us to step beyond the human. In the process it makes what we’ve taken to be the human condition—namely, the paradoxical, and “provincialized,” fact that our nature is to live immersed in the “unnatural” worlds we construct—appear a little strange. Learning how to appreciate this is an important goal of an anthropology beyond the human” (42).

“Thinking with images, as I do here with the Sphinx’s riddle, and as I do throughout this book, with all kinds of images—be they oneiric, aural, anecdotal, mythic, or even photographic (there are other stories being “told” here without words)—and learning to attend to the ways in which these images amplify, and thus render apparent, something about the human via that which lies beyond the human, is, as I’ve been arguing, also a way of opening ourselves to the distinctive iconic logics of how the forest’s thoughts might think their ways through us. How Forests Think aims to think like forests: in images” (222).

Continue reading Kohn—How Forests Think

Johnston—On Having a Furry Soul

On having a furry soul: transpecies identity and ontological indeterminacy in Otherkin subcultures

by Jay Johnston

[Johnston, Jay. 2013. “On Having a Furry Soul: Transpecies Identity and Ontological Indeterminacy in Otherkin Subcultures.” In Animal Death, edited by Fiona Probyn-Rapsey and Jay Johnston, 293–306. Sydney University Press.]


  • The paper “examines the use the concept of the ‘animal’ is put to in the con­struction of Otherkin (Therian) identity and the ramifications of this figuration for conceptualising animal and human ontology. Does an Otherkin presence paradoxically require the erasure of the ‘animal’?” (294).

Otherkin: Fluid Definitions

  • “one of the delights of Otherkin subjectivity is the destabilisation of the real-fiction binary their concept of self proposes. Sharp distinc­tion cannot be drawn between the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary’. When considering Otherkin engagement with the ‘animal: this is not purely a case of an imaginary relation” (294).
  • Johnston calls this Otherkin subjectivity transpecies identity
    • “This term is employed to represent a fluid subject position that questions normative categories including concepts of species and dimorphic concepts of gender. Further, transpecies identity undermines the categorical distinction of ‘human’ and ‘animal” (295).
  • “The role of the imagina­tion (not in the sense of derisory fantasy but as a significant epistemolo­gical tool for recognising and relating to one’s own species alterity) and creativity are privileged as modes for communicating with the other as­pects of self and for working with the Otherkin subjectivity in everyday life” (297).

Tracing the demise of both presence and absence: Derrida’s différance

  • Derrida for complete dummies like myself (this is not part of the article; it is for me and/or the hypothetical-etherial readership this comps blog does not have)
    1. Saussure says signs and signifiers have no inherent meaning—meaning only comes from their relation to one another (which is completely arbitrary)
    2. therefore, difference comes before meaning
    3. to stretch this beyond language—différance comes before Being; in other words, there exists an alterity to you before you do
    4. BUT this isn’t possible, because it is alter to what? A thing that is not yet a thing can’t be negated.
    5. Says Derrida—there is no identity that “is itself” by virtue of its being.
    6. What we mistake for “presence” is the “trace” of différance in articulation between existence-nonexistence, past-future, sign-signifier, self-alterity, etc…
  • This is all well and good to think with, but it leads to gems like this:
    • “This différance is a constantly erased trace, ineradicable but forever bey­ond the grasp of known presence (or absence). Paradoxically, this trace presences – without presencing – the other: radical alterity. It is a mo­bile, impartial interface that undermines the logic that proposes the dichotomy absence-presence” (298).
      • gross

Meeting the animal-other

  • “How can we conceptualise the Otherkin’s ontological rela­tionship to their Other? Does such a conceptualisation enact a death of both the ‘animal’ and the ‘human’?” (300).
  • A lot of animal rights discourse is modelled on women’s rights discourse, but this does not necessarily result in the re-inscription of a predictable dualism (male-culture/female-nature) onto species rela­tions. Indeed, the question of the ‘animal’ offers serious challenges to such normative logics” (301).
  • Derrida’s animot—half animal, half machine that is “Neither animal nor non-animal, neither organic nor inorganic, neither living nor dead … This quasi-animal would no longer have to relate itself to being as such” (Derrida quoted on 302).
    • “Is this also the ontology of Otherkin? A subjectivity, which in its multiplicity, pushes on the boundaries of prescribed human ontologies (neither process nor substance; but something betwixt and between)” (302).

Transpecies selves and the life—death of the particular

  • “In conclusion, a series of disparate relations remain. Paradoxically, while challenging the boundaries of the human, Otherkin identities simultaneously desire to maintain the definitions and borders given to animal and human in dominant discourse: otherwise the construc­tion of their own difference (from the ‘norm’) disperses. Can such a proposition of human-animal identity be proposed in a way in which radical difference is not elided?” (303-304).
    • “That is a proposal of Transpecies identity where ‘Other’ ceases to be the operative word: for it is always ‘other to what?” (303).
  • “Although it has been noted herein that Therianthrope subjectivity can be read as em­ploying a universal concept of the animal that does not ethically take into account radical difference (an alterity not premised upon the hu­man or dimorphic concepts of gender), it is equally evident that the questioning of the human and of normative identity categories that the subculture embraces is valuable. It is a more complex, creative and re­spectful approach to subject identity than that which is currently found in normative anthropocentric discourses of the human” (305).
    • “To consider oneself inherently and ontologically betwixt and between species is per­haps not so much pathological as political” (305).

Continue reading Johnston—On Having a Furry Soul

Probyn-Rapsey—Furries and the Limits of Species Identity Disorder

Furries and the Limits of Species Identity Disorder: A Response to Gerbasi et al

by Fiona Probyn-Rapsey

[Probyn-Rapsey, Fiona. 2011. “Furries and the Limits of Species Identity Disorder: A Response to Gerbasi et al.” Society & Animals 19: 294–301.]

Critiques Gerbasi et al on a few points:

  • while they work to define “furry,” the study does not try to define “human”
  • elides the controversy surrounding “gender identity disorder” diagnosis, thus legitimizing and furthering the pathologization of non-normative sexualities
  • does not address animal studies and “humanimal subjectivities”
  • gives subjects the choice of heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual to choose from (more normative sexuality), and does not include respondents who choose other types (pan, omni, a, demi, etc)


This is a response to an article published in Society & Animals in 2008 that argued for the existence of a “species identity disorder” in some furries. Species identity disorder is modeled on gender identity disorder, itself a highly controversial diagnosis that has been criticized for pathologizing homosexuality and transgendered people. !is response examines the claims of the article (and the design of the study itself ) and suggests that the typology it constructs is based on unexamined assumptions about what constitutes “human” identity and regulatory fictions of gender identity.

Keywords furry fandom, gender, gender identity disorder, sexuality, species identity disorder Continue reading Probyn-Rapsey—Furries and the Limits of Species Identity Disorder