Monthly Archives: March 2018

Eduardo Kohn: How Forests Think. Book Review by Anthony Fisher

Kohn, E. (2013). How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

When people think of trees they most certainly would not associate them with having the ability to create thought processes. This is, of course, because trees have no brains. However, in his book How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (2013) Kohn indicates that trees (and other beings) have the ability to think and discusses how they accomplish this. He pushes the reader to step out of an anthropocentric view and re-evaluate how humans can interpret the world. Indeed, the author stresses that the field of anthropology has been too short sighted and has not yet fully explored how other beings constitute what it is to be human. Therefore, by studying the world outside of the human this gives insight towards what it truly means to be human. Kohn explores this idea by conducting an ethnographic study of the Runa people in Avila, Ecuador.

Kohn builds his case that trees and other nonhuman entities think by delving deep into semiotics. He explains that all beings can represent, produce, and interpret signs. Thus, the entire world is made up of semiotics. All beings, in their own way, respond to these signs and subsequently grow and adapt to these sensory inputs. Kohn repeatedly emphasizes that signs go further than just simply the realms of human symbolic interpretation. The author recognizes that even evolutionary success is dependent on responding or not responding to particular environmental signs. An “ecology of selves” is then used to explain how relationships between individuals, through the process of sign interpretation, is how individuals are defined. Individuals then can be said to “represent and are represented by other beings” (p.78). Therefore, “if selves are thoughts and the logic through which they interact is semiotic, then relation is representation” (p. 83). This is made clear by examining tree characteristics and spatial orientation. Trees that have specialized characteristics “form relatively more nuanced and exhaustive overall representation[s] of the surrounding environment” (p.81). Pest resistance is an example of these specialized characteristics and this shapes where a tree species can be naturally found. This is how trees think. Relationships amongst trees (and other beings) form repeated arrangements that can be predictably exploited. Modern and historical forestry markets are one example of humans’ understanding environmental relationships or misunderstanding in the case of over-logging. These misinterpretations or simply ignoring environmental associations is called soul blindness where “treat[ing] other selves as objects” (p. 119) and being “[unable] to see beyond oneself or one’s kind” (p.117) is the cause of not understanding the interconnectedness of nature.

The author explores complicated topics, such as the ecology of selves, by using examples in everyday Runa life. Metaphors as well as pictures are used to emphasize key points. Consistently referencing and referring back to environmental examples firmly grounds this theoretical work. Kohn does a fantastic job in explaining how understanding relationships amongst various beings can sometimes be quite complex and that the virtual can be sometimes used to understand the perspective of other beings. The Runa often use dreams or the hallucinogenic properties of substances to make sense of the living, material world. Continue reading Eduardo Kohn: How Forests Think. Book Review by Anthony Fisher

What is Strategy? The Topological Exercise of Power

Topology of Power

What does it mean to say that power operates ‘topologically’ in politics, economics and everyday life?  Topology concerns non-Euclidean geometries – the kinds one might observe if one stretched a drawing of a triangle. Another example of a topological transformation is if one added dimensions to the drawing, extending the triangle into a 3 dimensional pyramid or developing and imagining it even further in more dimensions.

The topological character of power is that it exceeds ‘action on bodies’ or ‘action on others’ actions’ (cf. Foucault). Using techniques and administrative apparatuses, power can be projected as ‘action at a distance’. ‘Reach’ is a keyword that describes this extension of power to actualize it and put it into action despite intervening distances and mediations . For example, we talk of ‘the long arm of the law’.

The powers of a topological sensibility

Powers are multiple, subtle and include influence. ‘Reach’ describes the influence an actor may have on other actors.

Powers exists in and as ‘power relations’, whether the parties are aware that power is a factor. That is, power doesn’t have to be exercised as much as it simply has to have an effect. As such it is not a concrete thing but a virtual or intangible thing. It is real but not actual, ideal but not abstract. It has a multiple quality. There is no single ‘power.’

Sovereignty’ designates the aggregate powers exercised by the state. History is the time of this power-exercise. Territory is the space of the exercise of sovereignty.

However, States can no longer pretend to guarantee their citizens’ safety from other threats that are themselves powerful. These might include the threats of drone strikes and collateral damage and death (Pakistan, Somalia), of chemical poisoning by nerve agents (UK Skripal nerve agent poisoning), from drifting radiation particles (Scandinavia after the Chernobyl disaster), or from pandemics (SARS in Toronto Canada).

The polis, now often associated with cities, is the space of the demos, the people and democratic opinion.  It is a distinct space-time of assembly and belonging and as such a distinct topological entity.  It is not just a different scale.

Strategy

Strategy’ is a political technology that aims to persuade by establishing the spatiotemporal and other background conditions of a debate. A common strategy is public ‘consultation’ which aims to establish a ‘pubic will’ extracted from a population that legitimates a political course of action and/or the exercise of power. Power is not always exercised strategically, but even whimsical applications of power, if consistent, can be described as part of a strategy.

Tactic’ is the deflection of strategies, in the absence of control over the spatiotemporal and other dimensions of the context of a situation or of the exercise of power (cf. DeCerteau).

Influence,’ the multiplicity of powers, means that strategy is not closed off from the public or subaltern groups, or even individuals that act through social media as ‘influencers’.

Social media technologies and platforms have created new manifolds or spaces of power that exceed the reach of sovereign territories. These technologies are political and their strategic use for disinformation, persuasion has reconfigured the terrain of politics and the reach of these social media actors in general. For example, influencing the US election, extended Russia’s reach into the processes of the US sovereign state as well as into American territory.

Why? The reach of a topological sensibility

All this is more quickly grasped if one has a topological sensibility, looking to dimensions and influences rather than fixed actors such as “the State”.  This approach allows us to move from understanding positions of strength in a debate, project or struggle toward how to actualize that position as effects, to understand its reach; or to put it simply, to understand the power of the position explicitly.

Bearing the topological qualities of power in mind allows us to compare in one plane, so to speak, between power-geometries that are fixed, and to see the operation of power-topologies that stretch or bring new dimensions to the exercise of power. It allows a point-to-point comparison that pinpoints the effectiveness of the transformation that has occured despite the differences in appearances or the complexity of any resulting folded, stretched, involuted or flattened topologies.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Addendum

Comparison with Michel DeCerteau’s notion of tactics and strategy from The Practice of Everyday Life (translated from French 1984)

Strategy: “the calculus of force-relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an ‘environment.’  A strategy assumes a place that can be circumscribed as proper (propre) and thus serve as the basis for generating relations with an exterior distinct from it (competitors, adversaries, ‘clienteles,’ ‘targets,’ or ‘objects’ of research). Political, economic, and scientific rationality has been constructed on this strategic model”(Certeau xix);
Tactic: “a calculus which cannot count on a ‘proper’ (spatial or institutional localization ),nor thus on a borderline distinguishing the other as a visible totality. The place of a tacticbelongs to the other.  A tactic insinuates itself into the other’s place, fragmentarily, without  taking  it over in its entirety, without being able to keep it at a distance…”(Certeau xix).
Operations: goes along with tactics as actions that form a “network of an antidiscipline”(Certeau xiv-xv).
Trajectory: “suggests a movement, but it also involves a plane  projection; a flattening out… a graph… a line that can be reversed” (Certeau xviii).

Works cited:

de Certeau, M. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

de Certeau, M. (1985). Practices of Space. In M.Blonsky (Ed.), On Signs (p. 134ff.). Oxford U.K.: Basil Blackwell.

Media, Religion and Gender: Key Issues and New Challenges – Book Review by Nadine Suliman Abdelrahman

 Egyptian army soldiers arrest a female protester during clashes at Tahrir Square in Cairo on Dec. 17. Stringer/Reuters/Landov
Image of “the girl in the blue bra”; a prominent picture from the Egyptian revolution in 2011, referenced in page 1 of the book. Tahrir Square, Cairo. Dec. 17 2011 (Stringer/Reuters/Landov) Click to link to video.

Mia Lövheim Media, Religion and Gender: Key Issues and New Challenges (London Routledge 2013)

Dominant religious institutions have, historically, had strict normative boundaries, especially when it relates to gender. Technology and globalization, through the media, may have instilled what would be referred to as “unorthodox” religious views and perspectives on gender and its preexisting constructs. Focusing my argument on Islam, present day media outlets have certainly impacted the voices of different genders and potentially their roles, creating a “modern Islam” that is better adapted with the world and views from around the world. It is worth noting, however, that the media has consecutively created wider space and reach for religious authority and political religious authority, as will be elaborated further in this book review. Capturing such opposing roles the media plays relative to gender and religion remains a challenge.

One of few books that relate media, gender and religion while taking into account social constructs on sex/ gender similar to Butler’s1 concepts of regulatory materialization of gender and gender performativity, Mia Lovheim’s “Media, Religion and Gender” can be considered a breakthrough across several distinct but overlapping fields. Drawing on historical concepts and theories, the book is an attempt to bring third wave feminism and gender into front centre of its research that is rooted in academia yet based on participatory and reflexive research. This book had an overarching goal of challenging research gaps on the interrelations between gender and its cultural/ societal constructs, religion and the media. Contributors to the book covered a wide range of topics including theoretical perspectives as well as more detailed case studies of different religious views in the media; drawing on examples from various parts of the world.

Continue reading Media, Religion and Gender: Key Issues and New Challenges – Book Review by Nadine Suliman Abdelrahman