Parvez Alam

Can we legally represent the voice and thought of a forest?

Is it possible for humanity to legally and politically represent the voice and voice-consciousness (thought) of non-human entities? Contemporary philosophers and anthropologists argue that it is epistemologically possible to represent the non-human. However, the problem of the legal representation of the non-human is not simply a linguistic one, and this article is an attempt to sketch out both the linguistic and political dimensions of this problem. 


Bonbibi, Dakshin Rai, and Gazi Pir - An AI art of Dakshin Rai, Bonbibi, and Gazi Pir (from left to right) by Imtiaz Ahmed Arannay. They are all spirit beings and deities of a cosmology shared by the people of the Sundarbans region and many other parts of Bangladesh. This image was submitted for an AI art competition in Bangladesh in January 2023. It was collected by Parvez Alam, who was one of the organizers of the competition and has the right to distribute it.   

With: Parvez Alam

Voice of forest

Does a forest have a voice? Even though it is primarily a linguistic and philosophical question, its stakes are also legal and political. We can also rephrase this question as: is it possible to represent the voice of a non-human entity in the contemporary juridico-political order? However, in order to answer this question, one must first delve into the realm of language and philosophy. And given the current growing interest in indigenous cosmology among the theorists, artists, and activists who attempt to represent non-human (and even the so-called ‘non-life’) entities within the human juridico-political order, it is evident that even disciplines such as theology and spirituality may be helpful in reckoning with this question. In recent years, it has at least become theoretically possible to answer this question in an affirmative manner. However, such theoretical advancement is yet to be properly tested in the practical realm of law and politics.

For example, philosopher Jane Bennett and anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli opined that the concept of ‘voice’ (instead of speech/logos) has the potential to be the ground for new political theories that would make it possible for us to represent the non-human within human law and politics (Bennett 104, Povinelli 124). Anthropologist Eduardo Kohn went further and claimed that it is possible for the human to represent the thought (voice-consciousness) of non-human entities such as a forest. One can say that works such as Bruno Latour’s “From realpolitik to dingpolitik” and Graham Harman’s Object Oriented Ontology have caused a paradigm shift and we have entered into an era of epistemological positivism. And one may feel that this paradigm shift also voices the end of post-structuralist doubts and impasse. One notable example of such doubts can be found in Gayatri Spivak’s famous question: “Can the subaltern speak”? Being influenced by Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of the western phenomenological conception of voice-consciousness, Spivak argues on behalf of the difficulty of representing the voice and voice-consciousness of other humans or human groups. She aptly showed that neither the colonial master nor the anti-colonial nationalists managed to represent the voice-consciousness of the subaltern peasants of the Indian Subcontinent, most importantly because women’s voice (and voice-consciousness/thought) was effaced in those representations (80-82).

Can the forest speak?

I am inclined to believe that Spivak’s question has not lost its relevancy, rather should acquire new force in the era of post-human traditions such as new materialism and object oriented ontology. If we imagine the subaltern of the age of the Anthropocene as not only being constituted by human beings, but as a category that includes in it also the non-human entities who suffer exploitation at the hands of an extractivist economic and juridico-political system, then this is a very relevant question. For Spivak, it is much more important to listen to the “call” or “voice” of the other that constitutes our own thought or voice-consciousness. Borrowing from Derrida, she thought that it is more important for us to make “delirious that interior voice that is the voice of the other in us”, than to attempt to represent the speech of the other (89). In other words, before we can even attempt to represent the voice of the other, the most crucial task is to look into the reality that our own self and voice-consciousness are always constituted by the selves and voice of many others. Thus, it is the separation we feel (and the discursive mechanisms of separation) from everything else that is the first obstacle that we must cross in order to represent the voice of the other.

But how can the voice of the non-human other(s) constitute our own voice-consciousness/thought? Perhaps, a clear answer can be found in Eduardo Kohn’s theory regarding non-human language. According to Kohn, who builds his theory of biosemiotics following the semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce, the non-human languages are iconic instead of symbolic (40). This is why he calls for a decolonization of the Western conception of language and thought, which gives more importance to the meaningful and discursive dimensions of language and thought (38). For Kohn, it is the iconic signs (e.g., sounds, heat, touch, images) that constitute the non-human language, whether it is the language of an animal or the language of an assemblage of living and non-living beings such as a forest. An example of iconic sounds will be the effective sounds produced by animals or natural phenomena, sounds that can be mimed and imitated by other animals (including human beings). The heat that animals and non-living matter emit can also act as the icons that constitute the linguistic world of animals. Iconic signs always indicate something that they represent, or what is indicated acquires the character of an iconic sign. For example, the picture of a bird or the image of it in our vision when we look directly into it is an iconic sign. The sound of a falling tree, or the simple vowel sounds produced by an animal can also be iconic signs that constitute the linguistic world of the non-human. On the other hand, human language is mainly constituted by symbolic words, which generally have meanings, and can even refer to imaginary concepts and categories.

However, Kohn claims that even though human language is heavily symbolic, it also has iconic elements which makes it possible for us to access the language and thought of non-humans. Not only that, the iconic signs of nature also work as the ground on which our own thought or consciousness is grounded. Iconic signs of nature can make us anxious, can sometimes unground our thoughts and our sense of self, and also can help us to renew our footing in the world around us (47-48). I can give many examples of iconic signs from the Bangla (Bengali) language, which include in it many iconic sounds of nature. A privileged example can be the following sentence from a famous Bengali novel: “Starving people on tree branches, trembling in the cold, the monsoon wind is blowing hu hu, a sea of flood under, in the chest of Kopai (a river) there is go go calling” (Tarashankar, Hashuli Baker). Here, hu hu is the iconic sound of the storm-wind, and go go is the sound of a restless river during a flood. But it should also be mentioned that hu hu can also be used as the sound of a restless soul. For example, in the following verse by Sunil Gangopadhyay, we not only encounter such use of the sound, but also the effacement of the division between inside and outside, and collapse of the separation between the human and its natural environment: “this hu hu storm outside, but even more inside my chest” (“Chokh”).

While Kohn’s theory of non-human language can help us to pinpoint the non-human elements of human language, it still does not guarantee that the voice of a forest can be represented under contemporary juridco-political orders. Here we go back to the original problem that we mentioned in the first paragraph. We may let the sound of the non-human make our internal thoughts restless and stormy, but how can we overcome the practical obstacle of nation-state law and politics that heavily depends on the separation and division between us and them, the inside and the outside? National state laws hold many human groups living under its jurisdiction as non-citizens, and thus not full bearer of human rights. In such a situation, how can we make sure that nation states recognize the rights of those that are not even human? Current international laws also seem to be inadequate for this task, as they heavily depend on the nation-states for the implementation of their legal decision.

On Sundarban's voice

An example would be the mangrove forest Sundarbans, which is not only legally protected by the Bangladeshi and the Indian governments, but is also a declared global heritage by UNESCO. Yet, when the Bangladesh and the Indian governments constructed a coal power plant in its vicinity, UNESCO could not do anything more than complaining. Here it becomes clear to us that the problem of representing the non-human within the human political system is not simply a linguistic or philosophical one, but more importantly, it is a juridico-political problem. Getting the recognition of a legal entity under the contemporary juridico-political system is not impossible for a forest. However, the legal and political system may not protect it from the extractivist economic order. In fact, contemporary juridico-political orders can abandon the very entity it is supposed to protect.

It is not impossible to represent the voice-consciousness of Sundarbans. The legend of Bonbibi (Lady of the Forest), which is popular among the people living around Sundarbans, also represents the thought of the forest in the sense Kohn defines a forest’s thought. The forms (songs, rhymes, and prayers with sonic effects) and content of the legend make visible the iconic dimensions of language, which are the vehicle of communication between the human and the non-human of the forest, and are also the common elements of both human and the non-human realms of the forest world. The legend describes a story in which the characters are not only human and non-human entities, but also represent the different parts of a human soul. In other words, it collapses the boundary between the inside and the outside. It, however, gives importance to the physical boundary created between the realm of man and animals by Bonbibi, which protects peace between them both. According to this story, it is human greed and transgression that in turn produces nature's wrath (natural calamities). And the demonic tiger spirit Dakkhin Ray does not entice the greedy merchant Dhona through speech, but by planting vocal thoughts in his mind (see the brief English version of the Bonbibi legend named Jungle Nama, A Story of The Sunderban by Amitav Ghosh). And it is the task of Bonbibi to protect the innocents of both realms from the greedy and the monstrous, and to be just to everyone. A close and detailed analysis of the legend is not my goal here, but it must be noted that in the past the legend had religious and legal force for the forest community. The legal force of the legend has lost its effectivity under the jurisdiction of modern nation states. Yet, the nation-states could not fill the vacant position of Bonbibi.

According to legend, Bonbibi by birth was a human. But through spiritual practice, she later became a female Sufi master and finally a spiritual being. As a spiritual being, she rules over humans, animals, and even spiritual beings such as the demonic tiger spirit Dakshin Rai (who represents the sovereignty of the non-human realm of the forest). I do not claim that we must become spiritual beings to make sure that we can be just to both the human and the non-human. What I wish to claim is that the Bonbibi legend nonetheless helps us understand the obstacles of contemporary jruidico-political order and its cosmology (which is constituted by countless operations of separation and division between us and them, between humans and non-humans). It helps us to understand that we need to acquire a new subjectivity that overcomes the limitations set by these conceptual separations (human and non-human). While Bonobibi’s legend also recognizes some boundaries, it also shows the connections that go beyond the separations created by those boundaries. And perhaps a legal cosmology that can sublate such separations and unity – may be the kind of legal cosmology we need in this era of the Anthropocene.


Texts Cited

Bandopadhyay, Tarashankar. Hashuli Baker Upokotha, 1951. Indic Publication. Google Books.

Gangopadhyay, Sunil. “Chokh Niye Chole Geche” (“Went Away With My Eyes”). Dekha Holo Bhalobasha Bedonai, 1979.

Ghosh, Amitav. Jungle Nama, A Story of The Sunderban. Fourth Estate, 2021.

Kohn, Eduardo. How Forests Think; Toward and Anthropology Beyond Human. University of California Press, 2013.

Povinelli, Elizabeth. Geontologies: A Réquiem to Late Liberalism. Durham: Duke, 2016.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty."Can the Subaltern Speak?”. Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory, A Reader. Columbia University Press, 1994.