Tag Archives: Peirce

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).

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Gershon & Manning—Language and Media

Language and Media

by Ilana Gershon and Paul Manning

[Gershon, Ilana, and Paul Manning. 2014. “Language and Media.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Anthropology, edited by N.J. Enfeild, Paul Kockelman, and Jack Sidnell, 559–76. Cambridge University Press.]


examines media in terms of the materiality of the medium and how that affects mediated communication

in three parts:

  1. Materiality of the Medium
    • Bauman’s entextualization basically makes an utterance material:
      • “because it is “the process by which a text is bound and made available for circulation in other contexts … serving to “objectify it as a discrete textual unit that can be referred to, described, named, displayed, cited and otherwise treated as an object” (Bauman 2004: 4, emphasis added)” (561).
      • So—in turning to materiality “one can begin to focus on some aspects of entextualization as a process in which the ways in which a text is a material form is integral to how a text can be separated from its context and integrated into other contexts” (561).
      • thus, in the process of decontextualization and recontextualization, the slight variations of the text that cause intertextual gaps are often the direct result of a material change in medium—like a printout of a document with hyperlinks, for instance
    • Goffman’s participant framework views the materiality of media as such:
      • instead of simply a ‘speaker’ and a ‘hearer,’ Goffman breaks the message down into the
        • Principal—“someone whose position is established by the words that are spoken”
        • author—“someone who has selected the sentiments that are being expressed and the words in which they are encoded”
        • animator—“the talking machine, the body engaged in acoustic activity” (1981:144).
        • figure—not always present (a role which we argue usually complements the animator, namely the character animated by the animator
      • in this framework, “the medium will influence who can be the author of a statement, how many people can be the author, as well as who is likely to be considered the author” (564).
      • This is based partially on the affordances given by the medium
        • Through the use (trial) of the medium new uses emerge
    • “the material structure of a technology often becomes a resource for people on the ground to analyze communication itself, which in turn influences, but does not predict, how people communicate. A communication technology is not only a medium, but is also a technology that people find good to think with” (567).
      • “Every medium provides a rich supply of metaphors for analyzing unmediated communication, and in doing so, every technology also offers new ways of thinking about what it means to be human” (567).
  2. Mediation as Absence of Presence: Presence and Telepresence
    • “spoken language is aligned with the immediacy of co-present interlocutors engaging in the prototypical, indeed primordial, form of spoken language, face-to-face conversation”
    • whereas—“mediation” comes to denote what is lost when situated conversation is removed from the multi-channel indexical moorings of the face-to-face context” (568).
      • In other words—”immediacy here is once again about materiality: about the range of material channels (and associated richness of indexicality and evidential possibilities for mutual monitoring) available in face-to-face conversation. Conversations that are “mediated,” then, would be those that show a reduction of this plenitude of materiality glossed by “presence” or“situation” (568).
      • many researchers find the binarization of social and mediated/technological/etc. helpful, as they can use the social face-to-face as a baseline for communication
        • personally, I don’t understand why f-t-f  gets privileged here.
    • this opposed situation can recursively hybridized into Ito and Okabe’s “augmented ‘flesh meet'”:
      • “a face-to-face social situation that is bracketed on both sides, and sometimes permeated throughout, by telephone-mediated technosocial situations …”
      • instead of being mutually disruptive (as when one receives a cellphone call in the middle of some other social situation), or “disjunctive,” instead become “contiguous,” parts of a larger technosocial gathering” (569).
    • SO—instead of a loss of presence,‘ mediation can form new styles of telepresence, as well as affordances of “new genres of presence in public which mediate relations to urban space and infrastructures, making them analytically useful in the way their use makes the often invisible domain of urban infrastructure powerfully present and visible for mobile technology users” (570).
  3. Media, Intermediaries, and Mediators
    • speech is not only realyed over space through technological mediation (telepresence) but can also be relayed through humans themselves in ‘mediational performances
      • This involves speech passed from one person to another along a spectrum, “so that the whole routine cannot be analyzed as separate dialogs but as one synthetic dialog including both a “source dialog” and a “target dialog” (571).
      • like Occupy’s human megaphone
    • according to Latour (2005:39), there is a difference (in this sitch) between:
      • intermediary—”what transports meaning or force without transformation: defining its inputs is enough to define its outputs. For all practical purposes, an intermediary can be taken as a black box, but also a black box counting for one, even if it is internally made up of many parts …”
      • mediator—cannot be counted as just one; they might count for one, for nothing, for several, or for infinity. Their input is never a good predictor of their output … Mediators transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry” (571).
    • this system of intermediaries draws attention to the way we can “establish a symmetry between human and non-human mediation: delegation”
      • Delegation involves, essentially, the question of whether a task or competence will be assigned to a human or non-human actant.”
      • Figuration is the related ontological question of whether the actant to which the task is delegated is viewed as a human (anthropomorphism) or a non-human (technomorphism) (Latour 1988, Akrich 1992)” (572 bullets added).


  • “When linguistic anthropologists have focused on the intersection of language and media, they often found it useful to assume a fundamental distinction at play—be it a distinction between mediated and unmediated or situated and unsituated. “
  • “choosing to think about the contrast in terms of mediation and absence led to productive explorations of how a“community of time and space” (Goffman 1983: 2) often presupposes certain interactive aspects (such as immediacy) that participants must compensate for when not present. Analyses of media fromthis perspective explore what aspects of co-present communication a particular medium occludes or amplifies, affecting how people will communicate. Choosing, by contrast, to analyze conversations in terms of situatedness led to other, equally productive, investigations of how the social and the technical are co-constructed.”
  • “In both cases, analysts could figure out what was significant precisely because they were using co-presence as an analytical baseline. As we have shown, these two epistemological choices set the terms for much of the subsequent intellectual explorations of how language and media intertwine, and how materiality plays a part.”

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Herzfeld—Cultural Intimacy

Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State

by Michael Herzfeld

[Herzfeld, Michael. 2005. Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State. 2 edition. New York: Routledge.]


  • big question = “what advantages [do] social actors find in using, reformulating, and recasting official idioms in the pursuit of often highly unofficial personal goals, and how [do] these actions—so often in direct contra­vention of state authority—actually constitute the state as well as a huge range of national and other identities” (2).
  • “the nation-state’s claims to affixed, eternal identity grounded in universal truth are themselves, like the moves of all social actors, strategic adjustments to the demands of the historical moment” (5).
  • KEY POINT (acc. to Herzfeld) = the idea of the polity­—nation-state, local community, or international body—succeeds to the extent that its formal ideology encapsulates (or incorpo­rates) all the inward flaws and imperfections to which it is offi­cially and ostensibly opposed” (220).


  • Anthropologists should adopt the combination of a “top down” and “bottom up” approach, located at what Herzfeld calls a “militant middle ground.” This ground is not only a space where cultural intimacy and its use/characteristics are taken into consideration as coming equally from the state and the individuals, but also a space wherein the anthropologists takes a stance of cultural relativism, while maintaining their own personal ethical and moral beliefs (taking action if deemed necessary).
  • To shrug off binarism as a structuralist conceit is a mistake. Binarism and other essentialism play important parts of social life, and thus should be embraced by ethnography. It is important to note, however, that these binarisms act as convenient ways of describing the world, and should not be used as or confused with an abstract theoretical position.

cultural intimacy—”the recog­nition of those aspects of a cultural identity that are considered a source of external embarrassment but that nevertheless provide insiders with their assurance of common sociality, the familiarity with the bases of power that may at one moment assure the disenfranchised a degree of creative irreverence and at the next moment reinforce the effectiveness of intimidation” (3)

disemia—”the formal or coded tension between official self-presentation and what goes on in the privacy of collective introspection” (14).

structural nostalgia—”the longing for an age before the state, for the primordial and self­ regulating birthright that the state continually invoke” (22). Continue reading Herzfeld—Cultural Intimacy