Latour on how forests think

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Check out an essay by Latour on How Forests Think — free, and oddly interesting.

The essay, which is featured in the Journal of Ethnographic Theory (an awesome, peer-reviewed, open-access on-line journal), is about far more than just reviewing Eduardo Kohn’s fascinating and fascinatingly odd book How Forests Think. Latour, using a conversational tone that at times annoying but still quite engaging because of its seriousness, positions Kohn’s book as a tiny little part of a broader movement to equip social scientists in the new shift toward ontology with methods for studying things like nature (i.e., these human-nonhuman carpets of existence).

Latour is an interesting choice to review the book because Kohn — armed with Pierce and semiosis — dishes on good old actor-network theory. Now, it was my thinking that Latour had sort of left behind that old theory-not-a-theory, but in this essay (posted only days ago) Latour defends ANT. Kohn dishes on ANT a bit, but Latour sees the two directions — his and Kohn’s — as more like allies than enemies. In the end, Latour specifies that Greimas’s semiotics allows for some analytical moves that Pierce’s semiotics (adopted by Kohn) does not and vice versa — sharp analysis here:

And that’s the problem I have with the powerful counterpoison Kohn had to rely on to avoid exoticism, namely the use of Peirce’s semiotics. Since ANT has made large use of another semiotics to escape the narrow “realism” that passes as a description of “societies,” I understand the move. But it’s not the same semiotic at all. Whereas Greimas’ semiotics allows multiple registers since every actant can be played out by many actors, Peirce’s semiotics (at least in Kohn’s treatment of it) claims to be an alternative description of what the world is. Each semiotics risks losing what the other gains. If it’s true that Greimas could have difficulties making ontological claims, he can entertain a vast diversity of registers well beyond relations among selves; while Peirce allows strong ontological claims but has to stabilize much too fast all connections into auto-morphisms. And yet, no matter how good Kohn’s book is, the Runa qua Peircian ontology have not become for everybody else the definition of their common world. Hence the danger of stabilizing too quickly what the furniture of the world is, and the necessity of having a semiotic toolkit able to restart the negotiation whenever it has stalled. Such is for me the advantage of Greimas over (Kohn’s) Peirce.

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