The Living Forest as An Exercise in Judgment


Burç Kostem

PhD Student
Department of Art History & Communication Studies, McGill University

Forest Law, a 38-minute video essay by Ursula Biemann and Paulo Tavares,[1] chronicles the cosmology of the living forest as told by the Sarayaku people inhabiting the oil and mining frontier of the Ecuadorian Amazon. The living forest is what Biemann and Tavares call a “political assembly” where humans and nonhumans gather.[2] This assembly has recently been marshaled to resist overwhelmingly destructive forces. Most immediately, these destructive forces have come in the shape of 1400 kilos of explosives that lay dormant inside the forest, placed there by oil and mining companies in the hopes of future extraction projects. In the video, Jose Gualingua, leader of the Kichwa Sarayaku details the arguments they put forward in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) to successfully hold the Ecuadorian state accountable for failing to protect the forest from the extractive endeavors of corporations. Gualingua reveals that the cosmology and activism of the Sarayaku, the dense plant life of the Amazons, the narrow pathways that prevented the deployment of a large-scale military force, and the spirits of the forest all collaborated to bring mining and drilling activity to a halt. He calls the living force a space “where we enter into communion with other beings…so we can continue to live.”

Striking about the video, before the Sarayaku themselves enter the frame, are the thick textures of life reinforced by Biemann and Tavares’s imposition of different camera angles on top of one another. Even listening to the video with one’s eyes closed, it is difficult to miss the layers of sound, at once vital and semiotic, that index the rich biodiversity of the forest. One wonders how the sounds we hear in the video are intricately bound up with the communicative processes, socializing, hunting etc. that sustain life in the forest.

It is important therefore, to remember that the living forest is not a metaphor, or merely an expression of Kichwa culture and language. Rather it is a real growing, “proliferating ecology of (thinking) selves,”[3] which act sometimes on and sometimes through one another. Biemann explains that these selves include all living beings, as all living beings “interpret the world around them.” Semiotics is intrinsic to all biological and evolutionary processes. As Eduardo Kohn has shown in his book, How Forests Think, the distinct and fragile ecology of the Amazonian forest itself particularly amplifies this connection between semiotics and life.[4] Yet if this is true, the arguments the Sarayaku put forward in the video are not merely human interpretations of an indifferent nature, but are entangled and enabled through the thoughts of the forest itself.[5]

The case brought by the Sarayaku to the IACHR therefore presents a curious encounter between forest thinking, as Kohn calls it, and the language of the law. What makes this case curious, is that most juridical systems would find it impossible to recognize forests as juridical subjects with legal standing. Yet Ecuador’s constitution itself has now recognized nature as a subject with rights.

I would like to propose here that judgment, as a concept, is a useful way to engage Biemann and Tavares’s video. Why return to judgment, a reified “faculty of the mind,” especially at a time when we need to replace anthropocentric concepts such as judging? My hope in characterizing forest thinking as an exercise in judgment is to highlight certain elements of the video.

What is judgment? Simply put, judgment is the application of a general value to a specific case. There are instances however, where judgment works “reflectively,” that is to say operates not as an application of a general principle, but rather as the evaluation of a concrete case for which there are no precedents, which demands and generates its own laws and principles.

Judgment in this case is “supposed to subsume (objects) under a law which is not yet given,” it is a “principle of reflection on objects for which we are objectively entirely lacking a law.”[6] Therefore exercising reflective judgment has a curious logic: It is neither deductive (the application of general rules), nor inductive (the generalization of several particulars) but rather has been likened to what Charles Sanders Peirce calls “abductive,” whereby it operates as a unique mode of inference.[7]

It is important to recognize that this is not merely a manner of speaking or function of language. While the earth has witnessed many transformations and extinction events, anthropogenic climate change brought about by industrialization has intensified the encounter between human and natural history in an unprecedented way. The Sarayaku, defending the rights of the forest in front of the IACHR is a clear indication of the need to seek out new principles.

A second feature of judgment, as Arendt indicates, is that its validity depends “on the presence of others.”[8] In this sense judgment is a public endeavor: it invokes neither the “preferences” of an isolated subject, nor the application of abstract principles, but the imperatives that emerge from concrete cases, where we are placed in the presence of a community of others (sensus communis).

Arendt’s own humanist prejudices about “nature” notwithstanding, the community of others in Biemann and Tavares’ video perhaps presents an opening from which to enter the ecology of selves that populates the Amazonian forest. Once again this is not merely a manner of speech. The “community of others” represented in the video, is not a theoretical one, but rather is a community whose presence is enacted and felt in a number of different ways. Consider the 1400 kilos of explosive that Jose Gualingua refers to. Gualingua explains that for the Sarayaku, the explosives lying on their territory is no different than explosive attached to “a human body, to the body of the Sarayaku people.” The community of others, at least in the way Gualingua describes it, therefore includes the body of the forest, which is partially being threatened by the explosives.

To further engage Arendt through the cosmology represented in the video-essay, the exercise of judgment is also not merely a neutral agreement. Engaging concrete community of others implies not only that you know everyone in your community but that you become intimate with all the human and nonhuman relations that sustain life, in ways that may transform what it means to be a self. This transformative aspect of judgment is worth thinking over carefully. We hear a lot about a lack of political will when it comes to climate change. Yet it makes no sense, from this perspective, to say that we “know” the science and impact of anthropogenic climate change but merely lack the “will” to act. Judgment breaks away from such language since it is conceived not as a type of knowledge that can be imparted, but rather a kind disposition and habit to be practiced. In concrete terms this implies that we cannot think the forests thoughts without already partaking an exercise of judgment alongside the forests many life forms—without, in other words, taking on an abductive orientation to judgment. Navigating the disparate geographies of the Anthropocene, the cultivation of such dispositions has now become imperative.


[1] Ursula Biemann has been extremely generous in providing us access to the video.
[2] Ursula Bieman and Paulo Tavares, Forest Law, Selva Juridica (Michigan: Broad Art Museum, 2014), 9.
[3] Ursula Bieman and Paulo Tavares, Forest Law, 69.
[4] Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
[5] Ibid.
[6] Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, P. Guyer & A. Wood, eds. (Cambridge, UK.: Cambridge University Press, 2010), §69.
[7] Umberto Eco, Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition, trans. Alistair McEwan, (New York: Harvest Books, 2000). It is worthwhile thinking about how “abduction” features in Peirce’s thought since some part of Kohn’s argument rests on a Peircean framework.
[8] Hannah Arendt, “Crisis in Culture,” trans. Jerome Kohn, Between Past and Future, Revised edition (New York: Penguin Classics, 2006), 217.