The Forest Curriculum is a platform for inter- and anti-disciplinary research and co-learning that attempts to re-orient forms of knowledge away from the planetarity of the Anthropocene towards an eco-sophical mode of thinking rooted in the cosmologies of the naturecultures of zomia, the forested belt that connect South and Southeast Asia.
Proposed by Willem van Schendel and built upon by James C. Scott, zomia is a zone that coincides with the forested regions that lie in the altitudes above 300 m, occurring at the edges of nation- states; a vast region that enfolds borderlands and contested regions including Northeastern India, the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, the borders between Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as the Isan heartland, and stretching into the Cordillieras of the Philippines and the tropical jungles of the Malay peninsula. As has been noted, the tropical state has always been seasonal, shrinking and growing with the movement of people and communities with the coming of the rains, or the faint passage of winter. And, borders have always been embodied, and contingent on shifting relationships to states. Well into the late 20th Century, and indeed today, zomia has been used by those resisting state control, making kin with the swamps, leaves, mosquitos, ghosts of the forest to ward off the state and its agents. Zomia has been the zone of operation of indigenous communities, such as the Hmong, the Tripura, the Aytas as well as communists, in Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, and Buddhist monks.
Zomia resists easy, reproducible navigability, and the logic of data. Infrastructures of state control crumble, and machines rust, and become haunted. Radio waves pick up the conversations of ghosts. Zomia occupies a queer relation to states, subverting their ideologies and providing routes of navigating their hegemonies, creating a space where agency becomes doubled, tripled, and multiplied, and identity becomes slippery, and changes with rates of exchange. One can enter zomia a Laotian fleeing persecution, and emerge from the jungle Thai, an American double agent, or a Chinese or Japanese triple agent, tattooed with the markings of the (were)tigers and ghosts that roam the region. Here pagan cultures entangle with colonial histories, the baroque with the animistic, and kitschy video games double up with the silent tip oes of guerilla warfare. In zomia, there is no post- colonial but rather entangled, histories of imperialism, that occur not as geological layers, but rather co-temporaneously, and all at once. The Zomia is a vibrant space, teeming with life and affection, technology and history, enfolding whatever passes through. It is a fold, architecturally dense,
complex and vexing, but also folding, engulfing the the outside unto/within itself. The Zomia vividly questions the rigorous boundaries of the outside and the inside, the public and the private, the historical and the sensual. Pleats and curves, billows of fabric, it is a labyrinthine twist with space and history: a meandering landscape of inflections and inclensions, forces and energies, continuities and contiguities. The Zomia thus, is possibly the end of a secure overview, a unilinear scale from which events could be mapped. In fact, the death of a secure scale is the very pronouncement of the Zomia/SE Asian forest – its enormity, its immeasurability, its incalculability forces one to confront a nettling curtain of foliage. The Zomia belies traditional concepts of both what an „object‟ is, and what „comprehension‟ could mean - the ramifications are endless, dispersing, and more often than not, hidden.
The Forest Curriculum proposes zomia as the terrain from which to queer the Anthropocene: a project, as the post-human critics of the project have pointed out assumes a universality of a western model of the „human‟ which, in practice has been used by imperialists and state actors to exploit and impoverish those outside, (or from a different framework, in a subaltern position to)of its definition. And yet, the curriculum, is not a project on dwelling and subsistence – locality and naitivity, territorial clichés and essences. It travels and settles, ebbs and flows, glides through scales and times at once. The curriculum asks what roles do objects and matter take on in different histories? What shape and function do they mutate into? Do matter and its Hadesian cousin waste, render alchemic properties – secretely secrete an unspeakable life-force, a mythic savior, one whose life-energy is incomparable, a potential formative force of history itself. The curriculum thus looks into a world where objects become subjects, acquire their own presences, enter into constellations, events and processes. It affirms that so-called inanimate things have a life, that deep within resides an inexplicable vitality or energy, its independence and resistance to human power. As we wedge/wager through the rubric of human exceptionalism we ask what forms of relation can we/do we have with the ecological itself? Are animals merely the sites/ the signs that speak for a fallen man – his primordial instincts, his base capacities for affect and motion? Or as the innumerable myths from the Zomia speak of, are they our kin and kith – our ancestors, our cousins, or our mortal enemies in a different corporeal garb? Like the “were-tigers”, “drifting” between the hunter and the hunted, we ask what is the space between nature and society? And what social relations can then bring us closer to the world we inhabit?
The Forest Curriculum is an itinerant system of pedagogy that proposes to work with academics, film-makers, artists, musicians, activists, students and local stakeholders to produce systems of sharing located knowledges, organized around the issues of a particular location and field of operation. In the moment of the crisis of the liberal university, under attack from fascist and neo- liberal forces, the Curriculum proposes a model of nomadic, para(sitic) institutionality that works through furthering entanglement and creating situations of mutual stakeholding of knowledge. It seeks to imagine what forms of politics and pedagogies must be invented to think alongside, and become intimate with the many beings of the many worlds we inhabit. Structured around a lexicon and a bestiary, whose denizens haunt, navigate and interfere in the choreographies of knowledges that the project composes, the Curriculum exists and grows through each iteration and deployment, by orchestrating situations of mutual co-learning. Each iteration oozes into the project, and entangles it into every successive deployment, creating transversal networks across zomian fields. Equally, the Curriculum opens itself to appropriation by the stakeholders who call an iteration into being, to produce itineraries unforeseen by its initiators.
Initiated by Pujita and Abhijan Toto, who act as its directors, the Forest Curriculum is indebted to the work of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Apichatpong Weerasethekul, Lav Diaz, among others, and to the were-tigers that we are.