Eduardo O. Kohn

Weatherhead Resident Scholar

2001–2002

The Aesthetic of the Immediate: Poetic Engagements and Ecological Knowledge among the Runa of Amazonian Ecuador

In the Runa village vila in Amazonian Ecuador, a man who has had his "hunting soul" stolen by a sorcerer can no longer perceive forest animals as sentient, soul-possessing beings. Stripped of this ability, he is unable to communicate with prey and his success as a hunter is seriously threatened. Eduardo Kohn observes that while this belief reveals much about the specific world view of the Runa, "It's connected to a fundamental ecological problem faced by all hunters, which is: How do you get inside the head of an animal?"

Kohn's dissertation aims to capture how the Quichua-speaking Runa make sense of the complex Amazonian environment they inhabit and to show how a careful examination of this process can broaden our understanding of human-nature relationships in general. Using a variety of techniques such as plant collecting and poetic analysis as well as participant observation and examination of historical sources, Kohn explores how Runa ecological models grow out of culturally-specific aesthetic orientations that stem from everyday interactions with nature. "I am particularly interested in the relationships between culture and cognition," said Kohn. "Tracing these can reveal just how intertwined humanistic and scientific concerns are in dealing with fundamental questions of an existential nature."

Paying close attention to subtleties of the local Quichua dialect, Kohn noticed the "remarkable poetic dexterity" of the Runa as they talked spontaneously among themselves about experiences in the forest. "The Runa use language not merely as a tool to talk about nature," observed Kohn, "but as a way to access it." By employing iconic language in their performance of hunting stories, the Runa cultivate a sensation of intimate engagement with nature that Kohn calls an "aesthetic of the immediate."

Subsequent chapters of the dissertation will examine how a fascination with perspective serves as an additional aesthetic orientation that influences understandings of nature, how the Runa use metaphor to chart ecological relationships, and how they form ideas of nature within historical and political contexts that extend beyond the confines of the forests they visit.

Affiliation at time of award:
Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology, University of Wisconsin, Madison


Follow us: