“Mommy Mnemosyne”

“Mommy Mnemosyne. “Mommy Mnemosyne.” “Mommy Mnemosyne.” “Mommy Mnemosyne—Who is Mommy Mnemosyne?” Mnemosyne, Greek Goddess of Memory, mother of the nine Muses—those spirits who inspire our creative expression. I mantra “Mommy Mnemosyne” as a humble gesture in response to the burning questions I came into the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program with. Questions like “Who am I?” “What does it mean to be human?” And “how am I to live?” Questions that burn with considerable intensity in our moment of planetary madness. Confronting the ecological crisis we face today means facing up to the crisis of human consciousness, too—for both stem from a crisis of story. The basic insight of ecology is that all things exist in relationship; the crises we face today spring largely from a form of human consciousness that experiences itself as separatefrom the nonhuman world. To restore our connection to each other and the nonhuman world, we must tell different stories, stories that are vested on a recognition of relationship in respect of difference—what I call creative remembrance. The muses may inspire the songs of our lives, but it is Mnemosyne from whom they respire and to whom we all must pay tribute.  In what follows I attempt my own creativeremembrance as an ethical practice of poetry for re-storying in myself and others a felt participation in the whole of cosmic ecology.

“My fists in my pockets / sleepless I’m walking / towards all that I don’t know.”[1]I am sixteen when I hear the preceding lyrics for the first time, lyrics which begin a song titled “Reunited” by the synthpop band Fan Death. As the song goes on, its subject—though uncanny—sweeps over my body like a memory: “This is a coin for the well,” the vocalists sing, “I wish my wrongs were righted, just want be reunited. I had to face (pace) the world and go from blind to sighted for us to be reunited.” Something deep inside me nods with understanding at the message of the song. I can’t explain what it means or how I know it, but that I do feels indisputable, like a memory. A reunion? I’ve got goosebumps! How could this be? The lyrics of “Reunited” resonate—for me—with a universal tenor that renders the song into a form of “poetry” with all the majesty that the Romantic poet-philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley affords the word in his Promethean essay, “A Defense of Poetry.” “Poetry, in a general sense,” writes Shelley, “may be defined to be ‘the expression of the imagination’:and poetry is connate with the origin of man.”[2]And what, Sir Shelley, is it the nature of the imagination to express? Well, as the “principle of synthesis,” Shelley replies, the imagination

has for its objects those forms which are common to universal nature and existence itself…[whereas] reason is the enumeration of things already known; imagination is the perception of the value of those qualities, both separately and as a whole. Reason respects the differences, imagination the similitudes of things. Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.[3]

Imagination for Shelley is therefore the underlying dynamismthat constitutes the perceiver and the perceived. In the same vein, reason—as Shelley has it—is that through which consciousness is able to differentiate itself from its percepts. As the prime expression of imagination, poetry is thus the means of imaginatively apprehending and evoking the underlying relationship that constitutes the “similitudes of things.” From this perspective, the uncanny familiarity that characterized my initial (and present) experience of the song “Reunited” speaks to its status as a poem for its power to evoke the relational rhythm which undulates through the cosmos from the Mother of all things—a creativeremembrance. Mnemosyne (the Greek Goddess of memory) was the mother of the nine muses after all.

Unfortunately, Shelley’s Promethean championship of poetry leads him to elevate what he calls “poetry in a more restricted sense,” or what most conventionally understand poetry to be (i.e. arrangements of human language in meter), above his generalized conception of it. Rather than perpetuate anthropocentric notions of poetry, I depart from Shelley here by leveling metered poetry with poetry in general as poesis, what in Greek originally meant the creationof novelty. Poetry in general naturalizes meaning, bridging the gap between nature and culture. That this is indeed the case is evident in Shelley’s description of human nature, a description that is essentially relational (ecological!):

Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Æolian lyre, which move it by their motion to an ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them. It is as if the lyre could accommodate its chords to the motions of that which strikes them . . . [4]

To be fully human is to adjust oneself as instrument so as to harmonize with “that which strikes” the notes of inspiration. Remarkably, this potential to attune is one that Shelley postulates for all sentient beings, a potential that is vested on the “principle” of imagination as the foundation of relationship. “To be a poet,” writes Shelley “is to apprehend the true and the beautiful, in a word, the good which exists in the relation, subsisting, first between existence and perception, and secondly between perception and expression.”[5]To be a poet, therefore, is to comport oneself to the larger rhythms of ecological being and rhyme along with them. Human beings, then, are not the only poets, and in light of the ecological crisis we would do well to heed the singing action of earth’s nonhuman denizens. Just as sunflowers follow the light, dancing through life in echoes of their origin, so too might human poeisis strike a chord of remembrance in songs of storied anamnesis. As the vocalists of Fan Death sing, “I had to face the world to go from blind to sighted for us to be reunited.” Mommy Mnemosyne is calling!

Creative remembrance begins with Mnemosyne as memory and ends with the Muses in fresh expressions of poetry. Examples of it may resemble what is conventionally understand as poetry, but put simply, creative remembrance refers to a way of life—the path of beauty. The path is tread by attuning to the beautiful, what Shelley identifies as the “highest pleasure” derived from the partial apprehension of a rhythmic order underlying experience. “Taste” is the faculty through which one might discern and through expression approximate to beauty’s apprehension. “Those in whom it exists in excess,” writes Shelley, “are poets… and the pleasure resulting from the manner in which they express the influence of society or nature upon their own minds, communicates itself to others, and gathers a sort of reduplication from that community.”[6]The former describes the process whereby a sensitive individual conveys to others in her social group a felt sense of beauty in the aesthetically ordered cosmos which is then mimicked and circulated, leading to an attunement of the entire group with the cosmic wavelength. Yet, because the rhythm continues to undulate, the remembrance must continually renew its expression—lest it stultify into the dead letter. “Their language,” writes Shelley, speaking of poetry here in the restricted sense, “is vitally metaphorical;”

that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension, until the words which represent them, become, through time, signs for portions or classes of thoughts instead of pictures of integral thoughts; and then if no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized, language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse.[7]

Just as Mnemosyne gives birth to the Muses, remembrance of the divine in beauty as its ordered footprint requires an ongoing act of creative retranslation as it transforms through time. Maintaining that relationship for the sake of fresh apprehension is crucial for human social organization and cooperation with the larger nonhuman community of cosmic ecology. As Carl Gustav Jung famously recorded in his mythopoetic work, Liber Novus, “to give birth to the ancient in a new time is creation…The task is to give birth to the old in a new time.”[8]

It has become clear that the apprehension of beauty requires an ongoing practice of sensitivity and translation, but the how of all this remains unclear. How does one practice a life of poetry? “Poetry,” writes Shelley, “is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will.”[9]Rather, as the prime expression of imagination, poetry’s inspiration is more a gift than anything else, for it depends upon the.  underlying relationship between the perceiver and perceived. “It [poetry] subdues to union under its light yoke all irreconcilable things… strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty which is the spirit of its forms.”[10]“My fists in my pockets / sleepless I’m walking / towards all that I don’t know.”[11]“Poetry,” Shelley declares, “defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions.”[12]“I had to face (pace) the world,” sing the vocalists, “and go from blind to sighted / For us to be reunited now / I’m seeking a flame that / Will parch out the heavy / Uncharted waters on my heart / And I’m collecting memories / As reward for my melancholy.”[13]“It reproduces,” insists Shelley, “the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.”[14]I alternate the lyrics of Fan Death’s “Reunited” with Shelley’s philosophy of poetry to amplify my insistence that the song and its impact on me amounts to an experience of grace afforded by its poetic power to “subdue to union… all irreconcilable things,” what I am here calling creative remembrance. Though I may—as a sentient being—have the capacity to cultivate myself enough to receive this gift, its givenness transcends my agency. “My” being is therefore fundamentally ecstatic. To realize this is to remember who I am, a memory of communion I must constantly renew in the ongoing transformations of time. Mnemosyne keeps her daughters close.

Because creative remembrance as a practice of self-and-world reunion is an art of time, its primary form is story—for how else can a life be recounted and understood? Shelley’s elevation of poetry in a restricted sense leads him to rank it above story, but in my reading his general use of the former renders the hierarchy untenable. Herein lies the reason for my use of the phrase “creative remembrance,” a phrase which I hope conveys the rhythmic integration of whole with part that characterizes poetry as an expression of the imagination. When Shelley insists that “poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted,” he speaks to the aforementioned integration, a formal quality that he says is not present in story as “a catalogue of detached facts.”[15]Perhaps the reader will side with me in dismissing Shelley’s devaluation on the premise of experience: good stories do fulfill this function, for what make them goodis typically their universal resonance expressed in a particularity that connects us with the subject despite our differences. Indeed, it is in the province of narrative as drama that Shelley locates the highest expression of imagination in its power to cultivate the moral virtue that lies dormant in all human beings. The stage presents a synthesis of poetic arts and performs life aspoetry:

The tragedies of the Athenian poets are mirrors in which the spectator beholds himself, under a thin disguise of circumstance, stripped of all but that ideal perfection and energy which everyone feels to be the internal type of all that he loves, admires, and would become.[16]

Spectators are then thrust back into a mundane revivified by poetry’s power of formal integration as creative remembrance, making possible the imaginative reunion of life as “a detached catalogue of facts” with the meaningful life of the whole. The former amounts to life lived as poetry, dancing through time along the path of beauty. Shelley’s emphasis on the dramatic transmission of poetry for moral formation underscores the performativity of a life storied in beauty.

Such a vision of life contrasts sharply with human existence as it is predominantly storied today. Reason, as a derivative of the underlying, relational activity of imagination, has won out in appearance as the more primary faculty for its success in mechanistic science and technological innovation. Reason thinks it’s the realest! To generalize, a Cartesian-Newtonian story of dead matter bifurcated from the exceptional human psyche has reigned supreme over the last few centuries. The consequences are manifold, but told simply, the narrative paints a bleak picture of human subjectivity alienated from a world in which it naïvely makes pretense to a meaningful life:

The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave. To what but a cultivation of the mechanical arts in a degree disproportioned to the presence of the creative faculty, which is the basis of all knowledge, is to be attributed the abuse of all invention for abridging and combining labor, to the exasperation of the inequality of mankind?[17]

Without imagination, there can be no real self-knowledge of what it means to be human; the underlying relationship between mind and nature has been forgotten. The loss of that relationship ripples out in division after division until we become a species at war with itself; a psyche at war with itself. Yet, in our moment there is hope for remembrance as human civilization comes to gripswith the ecological crisis. In a reversal of human reason’s ascent, decades of scientific evidence pointing to an anthropogenic acceleration of climate change provide a clear corrective to the mainstream story of nature versus culture. Instead, neologisms like Donna Haraway’s “naturecultures” characterize what seems to be an awakening paradigm of creativity and relationship.[18]

Recent discoveries in microbiology and quantum physics reveal a more unpredictable and responsive universe than mainstream science has hitherto been willing to admit. In her article titled “From Ecological Postmodernism to Material Ecocriticism: Creative Materiality and Narrative Agency,” Serpil Oppermann relates these discoveries—discoveries which imply the coconstitution of matter and meaning—to the burgeoning field of material ecocriticism. The latter concerns itself with the material-semiotic, or the expressive creativity undulating through matter reconceived as lively.
“Everything in the physical environment,” writes Oppermann, “enacts a complex dynamic between social subjects and material processes not reducible to a subject-object binary. Although the human agency is radically different from material agency, they significantly entail each other in an intersubjective way”[19]Oppermann’s construal of material ecocriticism resonates with Shelley’s poetic philosophy of imagination as the underlying dynamism uniting all things. Indeed, in the shift from bifurcation to a dynamic vision of ecology, relationship becomes fundamental; and “on this fusion of horizons, we find creative materiality encoded in a collective poetryof life.”[20]To declare human life poetry itself amounts to a truism in this paradigm of “vibrant matter,” and so too its expression in story:

With its creative energy, matter emerges in meaningfully articulate forms of becoming that can be interpreted as storied matter…a nonanthropocentric conceptualization of materiality that acknowledges a creative disclosing of processes where materiality projects a lively impetus… For material ecocriticism, the creative becoming is the storied world…filled with narrative agencies that restore the world’s immanent capacity of enchantment and creativity.[21]

Photons perform according to how we measure them; smoke stories the sky with omens of forest fire; bacteria speak to each other in chemical symbols. “This creativity can be interpreted as a form of narrative transmitted through the interchanges of organic and inorganic matter, the continuity of human and nonhuman forces, and the interplay of bodily natures, all forming active composites.”[22]Nature turns out to be a book that we can read and be read in ourselves.

Oppermann identifies the meaningfulness of matter as its claim to “narrative agency,” a concept that troubles bygone dualisms of absurdist human freedom defiant of its otherwise determined universe. “Narrative agency, writes Oppermann, “is the world’s reenchanting property,”

characteristic not only of biological organisms…but also of the most elementary physical units. Different from personification, which attributes human traits to objects or ideas, narrative agency does not purport to enhance human qualities in fictive or material domains; rather, it denotes the vitality, autonomy, agency, and other signs that designate an expressive dimension in nonhuman entities…Therefore, narrative agency can be defined as a nonlinguistic performance of matter manifesting itself often in expressive collectives.[23]

Shakespeare’s famous line, “All the world’s a stage,” no longer makes sense in the paradigm espoused by material ecocriticism.[24]The world is not a static platform upon which human dramas unfold but is instead an active player shaping the story itself. Though there may be some aspects of Shelley’s philosophy to discard (e.g. the anthropocentric elevation of linguistic poetry), his overall scheme already presents a creative world of rhythm that resonates with the concept of narrative agency and instructs human participation in it. “In the youth of the world,” writes Shelley, “men dance and sing and imitate natural objects, observing in these actions, as in all others, a certain rhythm or order.”[25]The song of the world speaks inside me like the phantom sensation of ocean waves I feel after a day at the beach. From the very beginning it is nonhuman nature that inspires and guides the human expression of poetry toward the blossoming of virtue. “Even in the infancy of society,” Shelley continues, human beings “observe a certain order in their words and actions, distinct from that of the objects and the impressions represented by them, all expression being subject to the laws of that from which it proceeds.”[26]Thus, the formation of human culture arises in conversation with agencies of the local ecology which are ultimately continuous with the life of the whole cosmos. It is only once the human reasoning capacity begins to forget its dependence on imagination that the bifurcation of mind and nature can happen.  How might we help to undo the separation? “This world of coconstituted beings,” writes Oppermann, “necessitates a different ethical stance, one that implies obligations for the world.”[27]Poetry as I have construed it in this essay is a relational art aimed at evoking and invoking in others an attunement with matter’s aesthetic order (rhythm), what we might also call its underlying narrative power. Therefore, “telling stories and reading the storied world are means of understanding the creative experience that characterizes both humans and nonhuman natures.”[28]The former is a practice of creative remembrance as poetic anamnesis, a recollection of the part we play in the story of cosmic ecology. Because stories of separation have been circulating through human civilization for a while, practicing creative remembrance foremost “means remaking our cultural codes and changing our basic conceptual structures so that we become more sensitive to the radical liveliness of the world.”[29]

I decided to apply to the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program after a harrowing experience in the Amazon jungle three years ago that left me with a felt sense of the ethical stance Opperman invokes. Headfirst, I dive into a two-week Ayahuasca retreat under the spell of messianic inflation. I am on a quest to heal all my wounds andconduct preliminary research for a Fulbright project on ayahuasca tourism that will change the world—neither of which happen. Instead, my hubris is brought down to humus in a humiliating bout of breath that obliterates my buffered self. I’ve never appreciated ego more than during these moments in which I can’t discern voluntary respiration from involuntary, inside from outside, me from we, and so seek to control my experience for fear of death. Hyperventilation, tachycardia, and imminent doom punctuate my life regularly afterwards. I can’t notice my breath without freaking out. Mortality is not something I can forget now. The best medicine for bouts like these is prostration outdoors, my head in the dirt and fingers clutching at the grass. I submit to What is Greater than I and am overwhelmed with gratitude for one more day. The mundane world of even-breath sparkles anew for me. Suffering transfigures my perception of other beings and digs a deeper well for my compassion. The ethical stance Oppermann calls us to—an ethic of interdependence—is one that isn’t always obvious, but is something I have had vivid (and terrifying) apphrension of.

I leave Peru and arrive in California a bit jaded, disillusioned with the hubbub of psychedelic panaceas. It ain’t all crystals and rainbows and healing anacondas of love and barfing bliss. No, I know better. Despite my cynicism, the breathing trouble eventually calms down into an even rhythm. My studies in PCC help me to contextualize my experience as a spiritual emergence(y?); integration happens gradually as I share my experience with my peers and professors. I begin to reframe my experience as a profound gift, a confrontation with the existential truth of ecological being. To act with myself at the center, conforming the world to my will, no longer feels tenable—for now I am sure that who I am is more than just me. To keep this kind of awareness present is an act of creative remembrance, an ethical disposition that echoes Catherine Keller’s assertions about action in a world post-separation:

What makes action ethical will not then be the imposition of a law or application of a code, however uprightly progressive. It will be the self-implication of the agent in the act itself. The ethical action requires an actualization of ethos as attention to the sociality, human and not human, that constitutes you. Doing unto others what you would want them, under comparable circumstances, to do to you, lacks deontological or legal purity. For in its cultivation it does not deny or master the self’s desire. It widens it.[30]

Creative remembrance is like the Golden Rule, the first lesson Mommy Mnemosyne imparts upon her nine inspired daughters. Remembering the whole in any given moment means remembering that what I do unto you (or anything for that matter), I do unto myself. Karma inheres in the unfolding storybook of matter at every creative juncture of action.

Throughout this essay I refer to creative remembrance as a “performance,” a term which carries over from Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity into Catherine Keller’s gesture toward an ethics of interdependence. “She [Butler] has us question a style of subjectivity,” explains Keller, “repeated as though it is the essential core of a particular subject and thus concealing repetition itself.”[31]Butler’s queer theory originally begins with a challenge to gender essentialism, but eventually zooms out to question the ontological presuppositions of a certain style (story?!) of subjectivity—namely, of self-and-world separation. To remember the whole in our self-conception is an act, an intentional cultivation of a certain style of subjectivity, and simultaneously an ethic of interdependence:

We compose ourselves, nurtured or degraded by our relations, indeed by whole systems, families, groups, and institutions of relations, as best we can. And however well or ill sustained I am by my world, no “I”—albeit perishing—is a mere function of its environment. And, in ways never fully predictable, that social world will be affected—if only in a minor fold, a hidden nuance—by each momentary act of self-composition. Still, from the perspective of any relational thinking, the relationality does not become ethical unless in some way acknowledged. With whatever stylized repetitions we perform ourselves, our sex/genders, our ethnicities and economies and species, we may veil or reveal our interdependence.[32]

Creative remembrance is therefore an ongoing performance of revelation through which we intentionally story our lives in tribute (acknowledgement) to the underlying relationships that constitutes self and other. My battle with breath taught me how destabilizing realizing one’s interdependence with others can be. What we think is private turns out to be public in what may rightly be called an invasion of the self—the self’s undoing. The meshwork of ecological being is stupefying; where do “I” begin and end? “Relation,” writes Keller,

is appearing as a tie or fiber in a network whose edges fade not into a void but into unknowability. To come undone is to come into question—come unknown, “blinded,” even to ourselves. But the nonknowing that at that moment displaces a cozy core of “self” marks not only identity loss but the enlivening glimpse of an alternative. The ties of relation form the potentiality that offers itself as a gift amidst the very losses relations themselves repeatedly inflict.[33]

Exchanging my “cozy core of self” for “nonknowing” is the wound of realization, one which dulls over time into a humility that remembers its roots in the unspeakable. Bearing the burden of mystery is part of the brunt of being fully human in the performance of creative remembrance. But as Keller points out, something is gained in loss, and that is the gift of novelty: “Far from being further dissipated by a widened sociality and paralyzed by its implicate undefinablities,” writes Keller, “the subject mindful of its unknowing minds the world afresh.”[34]Keller’s insistence on the gift of fresh vision resonates with my gratitude for the givenness of life upon. It’s no surprise that so many of the world’s spiritual traditions encourage contemplative practices of breath—for what could be a closer reminder of our interdependence with the life of the whole than our reliance upon oxygen?

To speak of our reliance upon oxygen is to invoke our ancient cyanobacterial ancestors who catalyzed what is called the Great Oxygenation Event over one to three billion years ago. Because of them we are. The existence of homo sapiens today owes itself to more than just cyanobacteria though. Where would humanity be without our historical collaborations with (and exploitations of) horses, corn, penicillin, or conifer trees? These are just a few of the obvious members of the earth community that we’ve evolved alongside with over the centuries, but given that our planet is an entire system of relationships, our livelihoods have in truth always been bound up with species as far away as the opposite end of the globe. Yet, because climate change and the globe itself are hyperobjects—entities so vast we can only conceive of them abstractly—it’s hard to feel any genuine connection to species that seem remote from us. Despite how difficult it may be, an ethics of interdependence demands that we muster enough imagination to try. What is the appropriate response to the growing number of species who are vanishing from the earth forever? Meditating on her grief for marginalized peoples whose rights to personhood have been denied reality by their oppressive culture, Butler describes how collective grief typically “furnishes a sense of political community of a complex order, and it does this first of all by bringing to the fore the relational ties that have implications for theorizing fundamental dependency and ethical responsibility.”[35]To mourn the lives of human beings whose personhood was stripped in life for defying conventions of gender and sexual expression is to perform an ethics of interdependence in responsibility to the human other. The same goes for nonhuman beings, species we are losing f o r e v e r as a result of a style of subjectivity that only considers their instrumental value. “Why,” asks Keller,

would not the restoration of interdependence widen and enrich both the process of grieving and the sources of survival, comfort, and renewal? Moreover, the singularities of loss are not just human. An ethics of interdependence opens into the lives of untold human populations without then drawing the line at nonhumans. We may grieve them singly or as whole environments; and they also grieve.[36]

There is perhaps no better way of acknowledging our coconstiution with the nonhuman world than to grieve the members who vanish from our planet life daily. There are only two female white rhinos left in the world. What would it mean for us if both were to pass away before having children? Who would we be without birdsong and cricket chirps and fireflies? To grieve is nonhumans is to acknowledge them as our kin, and in so doing, widen the body politic to the body of the Earth.

Once we acknowledge our grief for the world and let the feelings flow, the imperative to act in accordance to an ethic of interdependence becomes obvious. Yet, today we are so mired in systems of non/human oppression and exploitation that conceiving of a way to act for the benefit of all seems impossible—and it is. The guilt may be crippling, leading us to dissociate out of feelings of powerlessness. How do we dismantle a hyperobject like the ecological crisis? In this world of narrative agency from which our meager power to act derives, there are no quick fixes; no clear answers; no hands clean of the another’s suffering. Even so, there is hope—but we must throw out the scripts that would story our lives in separation. In her essay on the same subject, ecocritic Tessa Shewry helps me understand what that means: “To hope,” writes Shewry “is to engage in a complex communal life with multiple, contradictory implications at once.”[37]Shewry’s understanding of hope reveals and instructs the awareness of a sensibility awake to ecological its enmeshment. I find Shewry’s take a helpful corrective for my personal understanding of hope conditioned by a belief in certainties. Instead of hoping as a clinging to visions of “should-be,” “to hope is to sparkle with potential…to veer away from optimism if the latter implies confidence in achieve a certain goal, assumes the rectitude of that goal, and insists on a future that we could control.”[38]Instead, to hope is to remain painfully present “in an intimate, embodied experience of moving into an unknown future.”[39]Storied this way, hope becomes tantamount to what I have here been calling creative remembrance, the recollection of our ecological embeddedness in the life of the whole—a transfiguration of our lives into poetry. How to create a life in wake of the Anthropocene? “Remember,” whispers the Muse into my ear. Remember: “Mommy Mnemosyne. “MommyMnemosyne.” “Mommy Mnemosyne.” “Mommy Mnemosyne—Who is Mommy Mnemosyne?”


Jung, C. G., and Sonu Shamdasani. The Red Book = Liber Novus: A Readers Edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012.

Keller, Catherine. Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement. New York: Colombia University Press, 2015.

Opaine, Dandilion Wind (Fan Death), “Reunited” from “Womb of Dreams,” Toronto: Last Gang Records, 2010.

Oppermann, Serpil. “From Ecological Postmodernism to Material Ecocriticism: Creative Materiality and Narrative Agency.” In Material Ecocriticism, edited by Serpil Oppermann and Serenella Iovino, 21-36. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014.

Shakespeare, William, from “As You Like It,” Website. May 6, 2019. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56966/speech-all-the-worlds-a-stage.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe, “A Defense of Poetry.” PDF file. May 6, 2019. https://resources.saylor.org/wwwresources/archived/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/A-Defense-of-Poetry.pdf.

Shewry, Teresa. “Hope.” In Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking, edited by Jeremy Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert, 455-468. Minneapolis, MI: University of Minneapolis Press, 2017.

[1]Dandilion Wind Opaine (Fan Death) lyrics, “Reunited” from “Womb of Dreams,” (Toronto: Last Gang Records, 2010).

[2]Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry.” PDF file. May 6, 2019. https://resources.saylor.org/wwwresources/archived/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/A-Defense-of-Poetry.pdf, 1.


[4]Ibid., emphasis mine.

[5]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 2.


[7]Ibid., my emphasis.

[8]C.G. Jung and Sonu Shamdasani, The Red Book = Liber Novus: A Readers Edition. (W. W. Norton, 2012), 311.

[9]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 17.

[10]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 18.

[11]Dandilion Wind Opaine (Fan Death) lyrics, “Reunited,” “Womb of Dreams.”

[12]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 18.

[13]Dandilion Wind Opaine (Fan Death) lyrics, “Reunited,” “Womb of Dreams.”

[14]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 18.

[15]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 4-5.

[16]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 8.

[17]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 16.

[18]Serpil Oppermann, “From Ecological Postmodernism to Material Ecocriticism: Creative Materiality and Narrative Agency,” in Material Ecocriticism, ed. by Serpil Oppermann and Serenella Iovino (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), 27.

[19]Oppermann, From Ecological Postmodernism to Material Ecocriticism: Creative Materiality and Narrative Agency,” 34.

[20]Ibid., my emphasis.

[21]Oppermann, 29.

[22]Oppermann, 21.

[23]Oppermann, 29-30.

[24]William Shakespeare, from “As You Like It,” Website. May 6, 2019. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56966/speech-all-the-worlds-a-stage.

[25]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 2.

[26]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 2.

[27]Oppermann, 35.

[28]Oppermann, 30.

[29]Opperman, 35.

[30]Catherine Keller, Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement. (New York: Colombia University Press, 2015), 218.

[31]Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 288.

[32]Keller, 226.

[33]Keller, 228.

[34]Keller, 231.

[35]Keller, 224.

[36]Keller, 235.

[37]Teresa Shewry, “Hope,” in Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking,ed. by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2017), 455.

[38]Shewry, “Hope,” 464.


a Reverie (a Review)

Though I maintain a healthy amount of suspicion, I tend toward an hermeneutics of faith and quickly fall in love with the ideas that saturate my life. How Forests Think is described as an anthropological work, but Eduardo Kohn’s radical thinking evades categorization. Because Kohn bypasses epistemological barriers—enjoining others in the ontological turn—one might consider this a work of speculative (yet grounded) philosophy. I would go further, though, and as you will discover if you have the time to read (or listen) to my words, and call it a work of art. Reading it, for me, was an experience. I intend for this website to be a home for ideas—those “qualities entertained as objects in conceptual activity [that] are of the nature of catalytic agents—”that build toward a re-enchanted worldview. Kohn’s ideas reintroduce our thinking to the world from which it came—a world of images—and invite us to recognize how the world may indeed be thinking through us.

Photo by Kohn (one of the many that makeup his book).

Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human is an estrangement and a homecoming. As the subtitle reads, Kohn seeks to take anthropology—and his readers—beyond the human. But why should the study of what makes humans human concern anything more than us? Kohn’s answer, as with the entire book, is practical: “how other beings see us matters.” Immediately we recoil. An epistemic law has been broken. How can we presume to know anything about how another (nonhuman) being sees us? Kohn might simply say, “for our own survival.” To those of us living in cities or suburbs—even rural America—this answer might seem exotic. But to human beings who live on the edge of the Amazon Rainforest—like the Runa of Ávila, the subjects of Kohn’s ethnographic meditation—our speculative question is vital. It is a matter of life and death: those who sleep face-up are recognized by the jaguar as fellow selves, while those who sleep face-down risk being seen as her object of prey. This dilemma is how Kohn introduces his “analytic beyond the human.” Our ecological crisis is forcing us to make ontological assumptions that burst our sociocultural and historically-contingent bubble. Until now “our social theory…[, which]…conflates representation with language,”[i] has bound our thoughts within a complex whole. This so-called complex whole is the axiom of human culture, understood by many proponents of the linguistic turn to be resolutely closed—all our knowledge encaged by a matrix of exclusively human-wrought meaning. But upon considering the jaguar’s perspective, we release our thoughts into a wild flock.

The heart of Chapter One, “The Open Whole,” is Kohn’s restoration of meaning to the world. The human capacity for symbolic thought may be unique, but it is not ex nihilo. The semiotic philosophy of the “weird” Charles Peirce figures largely in Kohn’s work. Kohn says, though, that his approach is not one of merely applying Peirce to the forest, but one more of “allowing the forest to think through [him (Kohn), while]…also using Peirce’s framework.”[ii] Kohn borrows his working “agnostic definition” of the word sign from Peirce’s: “something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity.”[iii] Human language includes indices, icons, and symbols, the last of which as Kohn has it, are slightly more removed from the natural world. Shooting up from the root system of icon and the stem support of index, symbols “refer to their object indirectly by virtue of the ways in which they relate systemically to other such symbols. Symbols involve convention.”[1] As far as we know, humans are the exclusive users of symbols, but flowers don’t bloom from nowhere. To the extent that symbols rely on other forms of communication, signs can be seen to extend beyond symbolic language. Therefore, what we as humans can know and the range of beings we might commune with opens up.

The significance of asking how the jaguar sees us implies that we might grant the jaguar selfhood. And indeed, this is in line with Kohn’s definition of life as being “constitutively semiotic. That is, life is, through and through, the product of sign processes.”[iv] To Kohn, all life-forms represent the world in some way(s); life’s tendency to represent has a reciprocal effect of producing a perspective, that which observes the representation. The marriage of life and representation “allows us to situate distinctively human ways of being in the world as both emergent from and in continuity with a broader living semiotic realm.”[v] This is Kohn’s move to provincialize language as one unique way of making meaning among many along the landscape of the cosmos.

The predominant view in the social sciences is that we can only understand something by relating it to other things that make up a complex—but self-referentially closed—whole of meaning­. This approach is the very reason for Kohn’s provincializing of language, for it shows how our thinking as human beings has been “colonized” by symbolic thought. Words can only mean something in relation to other words. And likewise, “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.”[vi] But now, after the linguistic turn, we swerve again, this time “away from the internal analysis of social conventions and institutions towards the interactions of humans with (and between) animals, plants, physical processes, artifacts, images, and other forms of being.”[vii] Thus the Runian “word,” or sound image, “tsupu.” Similar to how we understand onomatopoeia, “words” that are really only translations of sounds into language (e.g. meeeeeow!), “tsupu” is an icon that refers “to an entity as it makes contact with and then penetrates a body of water.”[viii] Upon hearing this definition, Kohn says that people often “experience a sudden feel for its meaning.”[ix] This recognition across languages (the Runa speak Quichuan) punctures the closed whole of our colonized way of thinking and lets slip a sound of the world. Just like “meow,” the meaning of “tsupu” is not reliant on its relationship to other words for meaning.

By paying attention to certain instances, customs, or ways of knowing among the Runa, Kohn distills amplified generals of our shared world throughout the book. “Tsupu” is an example and so is the animistic orientation of the Runa (animistic, i.e., “the attribution of enchantment,” the capacity to make and interpret meaning, to “other-than-human loci”[x]). In Chapter Two, “The Living Thought,” Kohn explains the centrality of the animistic perspective to the Runa and its relevance for us:

People in Ávila, if they are to successfully penetrate the relational logics that create, connect, and sustain the beings of the forest, must in some way recognize this basic animacy. Runa animism, then, is a way of attending to living thoughts in the world that amplifies and reveals important properties of lives and thoughts…Paying attention to these engagements with the living thoughts of the world can help us think anthropology differently. It can help us imagine a set of conceptual tools we can use to attend to the ways in which our lives are shaped by how we live in a world that extends beyond the human.[xi]

Animism is not a romantic or even chosen approach to living for the Runa. It is necessary for survival. The importance of anticipating how a jaguar might respond to our behavior reveals the inherent futurity of semiosis—selves represent to continue living. “Aboutness,” writes Kohn, “—representation, intention, and purpose in their most basic forms—is an intrinsic structuring feature of living dynamics in the biological world.”[xii] The evolutionary process itself is driven by semiosis wherein selfhood extends to entire biological lineages and representation encompasses the process of adaptation. Biology thinks its way into the future. Relationality takes on a new meaning in this purview in that the “logic that structures relations among selves is the same as that which structures relations among signs.”[xiii] This is one way of understanding what Kohn means when he asserts that forests think. Living selves are the thoughts in the mind of a forest.

Chapter Three, “Soul Blindness,” discusses the relativity of identity among the ecology of selves that makes up a forest. As modeled by our relationship with the jaguar, the line between self and other is blurry at best. Self and object are co-constitutive. Kohn writes, “before living thoughts emerged on this earth nothing ever came to stand in relationship to a self as an object or as another. Objects, like selves, are also effects of semiosis.”[xiv] For Kohn, the soul is an intersubjective effect that emerges from communication between selves. To remain a self, one “must recognize the soul-stuff of the other souled selves that inhabit the cosmos.”[xv] In contrast, soul blindness refers to the loss of such a capacity. For the hunter, being able to distinguish prey from the larger environment is contingent on seeing the creature as a self. Simply put, “our lives depend on our abilities to believe in and act on the provisional guesses we make about the motivations of other selves.”[xvi] It is a tragic and dissonant fact that selves must consume other selves in order to live, and this dissonance is captured in the conversion of a self into an object. “To eat them as food,” Kohn writes, they must become “dead meat.”[xvii] Although most of us reared in industrial society are far removed from the production of our food, English names for animal products (i.e. pork, beef, veal) reflect the same necessity of abstracting from the selfhood of the once living creature now unrecognizable on our plates. Whether one is subject or object, essential to this chapter is Kohn’s point that “what kind of being one comes to be is the product of how one sees as well as how one is seen by other kinds of beings.”[xviii] What the Runa amplify for Kohn is the potential for an anthropology beyond the human to utilize a “self-reflexive defamiliarization” of natures rather than cultures; by “stepping out of our bodies and into those of other beings…we see a different world from the subjective, I, point of view of another kind of embodiment. We are able, for a moment to live in a different nature.”[xix] In wake of the Anthropocene, imagining into the selfhood of the world’s dwindling biosphere is of obvious importance.

To mitigate the loss of species occurring in our time we must sensitize ourselves to the needs of those nonhuman others we are so inextricably tied to. Chapter Four, “Trans-Species Pidgins,” explores the Runa-forest relationship for glimmers of that possibility. To develop an ethic of care “that does not simply project human qualities everywhere,” Kohn writes, “we must situate morality ontologically.”[xx] We may simplify our problem by understanding the human capacity for morals in relation to symbolic reference: “It [symbolic reference] requires the ability to momentarily distance ourselves from the world and our actions in it to reflect on our possible modes of future conduct.”[xxi] Morality, then, is emergent, and its roots are in value. All livings beings participate in value by discerning good from bad. Sensitizing ourselves to the needs of nonhumans “forces us to think beyond our moral worlds in ways that can help us imagine and realize better worlds.”[xxii] That the Quichuan word runa is equivalent to the English word person is a clue as to how. “Runa,” Kohn explains, “is used as a sort of pronominal marker of the subject position—for all selves see themselves as persons.”[xxiii] Here again is the distinction of natures versus cultures. Rather than attempt in vain to enter another closed whole (culture), the Runa model a way of slipping in and out of other bodies, becoming-with other natures. This is the opposite extreme of soul blindness. Both come with a cost; the former, a loss of our humanity, the latter, the solipsism of “monadic isolation.” Consider the Runian phrase runa-puma. If runa means person, then runa-puma refers to a person-jaguar, or person-predator. Our experience of meeting the eyes of a jaguar makes us into “beings who can see themselves being seen by jaguars as fellow predators, and who also sometimes see other humans the way jaguars do, as prey.”[xxiv] Implicit in this example is the importance either way of walking a middle path—if we identify completely as runa-puma, we may end up cannibals, but if we shirk the gaze of a jaguar, we may end up her meal.

In our struggle to communicate with other beings, we must grapple with the constraints of their unique semiotic modalities.[xxv] Chapter Five, “Form’s Effortless Efficacy,” builds on our wish to make contact by exploring “how certain configurations of constraint on possibility emerge and…the particular manner in which such configurations propagate in the world in ways that result in a sort of pattern.”[xxvi] This is what Kohn calls form. The decolonization of our thoughts extends to the status of form and challenges us to rethink what we might otherwise assume as something we humans make up. Kohn’s perspective is an anti-nominalist one, after all. Riverine networks of the Amazon are a prime example of this kind of immanent patterning in their “self-similarity across scale,” with their creeks and streams as fractal echoes of a basic form. Thus, navigating a river system is one way of being inside of and harnessing the “effortless efficacy” of form. Another is hunting. Kohn explains:

Because of the high species diversity and the local rarity of species and the lack of any one fruiting season, the fruits that animals eat are highly dispersed…This means that at any given time there will exist a different geometrical constellation of fruiting resources that attracts animals…that predators are, in turn, attracted to this concentration of animals further amplifies the pattern of distribution of life across the forest landscape. This results in a particular pattern of potential game meat…[xxvii]

Rather than expend energy and time hunting animals directly, Ávila hunters allow the formal patterning of the forest to think through them and follow it to those constellations of fruiting trees and game meat. Kohn’s understanding of form as something one is “inside,” “quite different from the push-and-pull logic we usually associate with the physical effort needed to do something,” is wonderfully evocative of concepts like wu wei (non-action) from the Daoist tradition.[xxviii] Kohn’s ethnographic artistry abounds in examples (e.g. dreaming, rubber-trapping, shamanic empowerment) of form that I enthusiastically encourage readers to discover for themselves.

Chapter Six, “The Living Future (and the Imponderable Weight of the Dead),” considers how an anthropology beyond the human might understand the paradox of life—its inherent futurity and mandate of death. The semiotic nature of life has representation concerned with survival; in Kohn’s words, “we all always have one foot (or paw) in the future,” but as he goes on to say, “this living future…cannot be understood without further reflecting on the special links that life has to all the dead that make life possible. It is in this sense that the living forest is also one that is haunted.”[xxix] What the Runa amplify for Kohn about the continuity of life is tied up with their relationship to the forest’s emergent spirit realm, the afterlife. The earlier translation of runa as person was a hint that it does not refer specifically to an ethnic group (ours and Kohn’s use of it as a proper noun is for the sake of communication). In fact, the Runa of Ávila don’t even identify themselves that way or any other. For them, runa has a much more general meaning:

“Runa” more accurately marks a relational subject position in a cosmic ecology of selves in which all beings see themselves as persons. “Runa” here is the self, in continuity of form. All beings are, from their points of view, in a sense “Runa,” because this is how they would experience themselves when saying “I.”[xxx]

“Death for the self,” then, as Kohn puts it, “is ineffable, for the self is simply a continuation of life. The self is a general…it is the experience of the death of others by the living that is so hard to bear, because it is what is palpable.”[xxxi] Kohn’s assertion that the self continues may seem strange to us, but as that reciprocal effect of life’s tendency to represent the world, self as defined by Kohn transcends any reductionist ontology that would terminate it at bodily death. When we stop to ponder our own deaths and arrive only at mystery we might nod our heads—how else could we be but in being? With the problem of death aside, I now turn to that ethereal future realm and how one’s relationship to it in the present determines one’s survival.

Like navigating a river, our relationship to the living future is participatory. In Kohn’s view, the spirit realm the Runa interact with is a co-creative emergence of Amazonia’s various denizens. Yet, while it is collaborative, it is also heavily saturated with the “all too human.” It’s formal logic, then, comes to reflect all of the forest’s historical (i.e. colonial) influence “and thus permits and constrains, who and how an I can be, at the same time that it provides the vessel for continuity—the survival—of that I.”[xxxii] For the Runa, “who have long lived in a world where whites…have stood in manifest dominance over them,” this often means becoming white.[xxxiii] Oswaldo, one of Kohn’s ethnographic subjects, gives an example as he recounts a dream for us in which appeared a “’menacing[, white] policeman’” whose “’shirt was covered with clippings from a haircut.’”[xxxiv] For Oswaldo, this dream—an intimation of the future—was initially interpreted as a bad sign, for he had understood the white policeman to be his own predator. But as things would have it, Oswaldo ended up occupying the position of the predator when he successfully killed a peccary in the forest later on. Kohn elaborates further,

That Oswaldo at a certain moment in the forest can—perhaps must—be a white policeman, involves the particular and sometimes disjointed and even painful ways in which some aspect of his future self reaches back to affect him from the realm of the masters…The spirit realm that emerges, as a product of a whole host of relations that cross species lines and temporal epochs, is then a zone of continuity and possibility: Oswaldo’s survival depends on his ability to access it.” [xxxv]

Aside from challenging our understanding of both positionality and causality, what the Runa amplify for us once again is the extent to which our selfhood—our survival—is bound up with the way others see us. There is much more to this chapter and to the spirit realm of the forest than can be dwelt on here, and so again, I encourage the reader to dive into Kohn’s artistry.

How Forests Think, a seminal work ten years in the making, naturally ends with an epilogue titled, “Beyond.” Kohn’s central aim was to think like a forest, that is, in images, and in doing so, make us over—take us beyond our “doubt-ridden human housing.”[xxxvi] Indeed, even in this review, we taste the bidden fruit of Eden and in some way re-member what it’s like to see nonhuman selves seeing us. Yet, paradoxically, we bite the apple and gain a more refined understanding of what it means to be human. It is all necessary, as Kohn heroically explains, for “if ‘we’ are to survive the Anthropocene—this indeterminate epoch of ours in which the world beyond the human is being increasingly made-over by the all-too-human—we will have to actively cultivate these ways of thinking with and like forests.”[xxxvii] Sadly, what is lost in the review of this artful book is the phantasmagoria of images—“be they oneiric, aural, anecdotal, mythic, or even photographic”[xxxviii]—that make it. And once more—rather than goad—I lovingly wish that you, the reader, find a copy in your hands one day, so that you might join in on its gift to posterity—our, hopefully, living future.


[i] Kohn, How Forests Think, 8.

[ii] Kohn being interviewed by Marshall Poe in New Books in Latin American Studies.

[iii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 29.

[iv]  Kohn, How Forests Think, 9.

[v] Kohn, How Forests Think, 16.

[vi] Kohn, How Forests Think, 20.

[vii] Phillipe Descola, “All Too Human (still),” 268.

[viii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 27.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Kohn, How Forests Think, 72.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 73-74.

[xiii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 83.

[xiv] Kohn, How Forests Think, 104.

[xv] Kohn, How Forests Think, 111.

[xvi] Kohn, How Forests Think, 118.

[xvii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 119.

[xviii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 120.

[xix] Kohn, How Forests Think, 126.

[xx] Kohn, How Forests Think, 133.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 134.

[xxiii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 139.

[xxiv] Kohn, How Forests Think, 2.

[xxv] Kohn, How Forests Think, 148.

[xxvi] Kohn, How Forests Think, 156.

[xxvii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 163.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Kohn, How Forests Think, 194.

[xxx] Kohn, How Forests Think, 200.

[xxxi] Kohn, How Forests Think, 211.

[xxxii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 213.

[xxxiii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 192.

[xxxiv] Kohn, How Forests Think, 191.

[xxxv] Kohn, How Forests Think, 200.

[xxxvi] Kohn, How Forests Think, 228.

[xxxvii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 227.

[xxxviii] Kohn, How Forests Think, 222.



Descola, Phillipe. “All too human (still) A comment on Eduardo Kohn’s How forests think.” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4, no. 2 (2014): 267–273, http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.2.015


Kohn, Eduardo. How Forests Think: An Antrhopology Beyond the Human. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013.


Eduardo Kohn, interview with Marshall Poe, New Books in Latin American Studies, podcast audio, February 9th, 2014, https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/new-books-in-latin-american-studies/id425192236?mt=2