UmweIt Transition: UexküIIian PhenomenoIogy
An Ecosemiotic AnaIysis of Norwegian WoIf Management
[D]er Bauplan der Tiere [ändert sich] dauernd
unter dem Einflusse der Umgebung, so da8
man mit Übertreibung sagen kann, niemals
trifft ein Reiz zum zweiten Male das gleiche
Uexküll 1921: 20
THEORETICAL AND FACTUAL CONTEXT: The semiotics of the ecoIogicaI
Semiotics and phenomenoIogy Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944), which main works include Uexküll,
Jakob von 1909/1921, 1920/1928, 1956 [1934; 1940]; cf. 1982 and 1992, has been of crucial
importance for the advent of biosemiotics ÷ initially mediated by Thomas Sebeok (see e.g. Sebeok
1979) and Thure von Uexküll (see e.g. Uexküll, Thure von 1982)
. The outlining of the subdisciplines
of biosemiotics, which can vaguely be defined as a semiotic approach to topics of biology, is still at an
early stage, and conflicting definitions occur. While Winfried Nöth (1998; cf. 1996) defines
ecosemiotics as the study of the semiotic interrelations between organisms and their environment,
according to Kalevi Kull (1998: 350) it is ¨the semiotics of relationships between nature and culture¨. Ìn
the context of this project ecosemiotics can be understood as the semiotic study of ecological relations
and complexity in general and human-nature relations in particular; thus enveloping, in the broader
context, topics of cultural semiotics as well as general biosemiotics.
Partly due to Uexküll`s references to Ìmmanuel Kant (cf. particularly Kant 1997), and his
concept of a subjective biology as such, biosemiotics has a definite affinity with phenomenology, first
developed by Edmund Husserl (1980 ). Particularly relevant are Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1962,
1987, 2003) and the Ecophenomenology of David Abram (1996). The significance of an Uexküllian
phenomenology as a distinctive theory remains, with its application of phenomenological concepts
down to the level of the cell. Ìn Uexküll`s sense phenomena appear to all semiotic agents, i.e. to all
interpreting entities. The phenomenological world, in his account, is not (though it envelops these)
simply the domain of rationality, or human experience, as claimed by Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger
and most contemporary phenomenologists.
OntoIogicaI crisis The ecological crisis has rightfully been characterized as a crisis of epistemology
(Bateson 2000) and a crisis of communication (see e.g. Keskpaik et al. 2004). Ìn "Umwelt ethics¨
(Tønnessen 2003) Ì defined it as an ontological crisis, i.e., a crisis of the known phenomenal world
characterized by a sudden, significant loss of phenomenal diversity. As Leakey et al. (1996: 7) states
¨[i]t is now possible to look at the pattern of mass extinctions in the fossil record and see these events
as a major creative force in shaping life´s flow¨. This calls for an investigation into the historicity of
phenomena in the realm of biology.
Favored vs. unfavored species Though the total number of species is still close to its historical peak,
habitat loss etc. has already significantly reduced biodiversity at levels lower than that of the species.
Much of this loss of biodiversity and ecosystem complexity might be ascribed to man`s habit of
discriminating between favored and unfavored species, thus superimposing a human (or
anthropomorph) hierarchy upon nature. Some keywords concerning favored species seem to be
domesticated animals, monocultures, pets and GMOs. Ìn our contemporary world protected species
"The [design] of animals [changes] constantly under influence of the environment, so that one ÷ overstating the
point ÷ can say that a [stimuli] never comes about to the same animal two times.¨
Ìnformative dissertations on Uexküll include Chien 2005 and Schmidt 1980. For qualified commentaries, see
also Pobojewska 1993a and 1993b.
as well as species that flourish under various forms of nature management might also qualify for the
term. For a review of a classical human hierarchy of nature cf. Lovejoy 1936.
UexküII and the harmony of nature Though it might be unreasonable to expect Uexküll to have
foreseen the massive and rapid environmental changes taking place in the contemporary world, it
should be evident that his concepts on some points are untimely. For instance, how accurate (or
relevant) is his statement that the Umwelt of an animal only consists of those questions that the animal
in question has an answer to (Uexküll, Jakob von 1909[?]: 89) when applied to endangered species?
Ìn hindsight it appears that the Umwelt theory suffers from its reliance on Uexküll`s false premiss that
the environment (including its mixture of species) is generally stable.
CASE STUDY: WoIf vs. sheep in Norway 1845-2010
Management of the gray wolf (Canis lupus) has given rise to a political strife of symbolic significance in
the realm of modern Norwegian environmental and rural policies. ¨Carnivores have a place in nature,
and is part of the biological diversity,¨ a brochure of the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture
(Landbruksdepartementet 1999) laconically states ÷ "[p]roblems arise when carnivores kill livestock¨
Official statistics dating back to 1845, when "Law on Extinction of Carnivores and Protection of other
was enforced, shows that 3.744 rewards were granted 1845-1863 for shooting wolves
(Statistics Norway). Around 1845, when the law aiming at extinction was introduced, the holdings of
livestock was increasing rapidly ÷ from 1835 to 1855 the number of sheep (Ovis aries), for instance,
grew from 1,03 million to 1,6 million (Norges officielle statistik 1880). Land used for pasture was
expanding at a similar pace. According to Søbye et al. 2000 this increase in livestock represented a
central aspect of the transition of Norwegian agriculture from household self-reliance towards a market
economy. By the beginning of the 1860s wolves were extinct in Southern Norway ÷ partly, apparantly,
due to an epidemy ÷ and a century or so later in all of Norway.
After reappearing in Norwegian nature wolves have been a protected species since 1972.
According to Statistics Norway 31 irregular deaths of wolves (shot with permission, in self-defence,
illegally, or killed in traffic) were registered during the first 30 years following the policy change.
Allegations that wolves were reintroduced to South-Scandinavian forests with human assistance (see,
e.g., Toverud 2001) have not been confirmed by independent research. Current policies (cf. the
parliamentary report St. meld. nr. 15 (2003-2004)) is based on diversified management in different
regions, with the twofold goal of securing a sustainable population of wolves and limiting damage to
farming as much as possible.
Wolves are thoroughly monitored, some using GPS technology (on monitoring in general, see
Linnell et al. 1998). While sheep is by far the most common livestock prey of wolves in Norway, moose
(a hunted animal) and domesticated reindeer represent other lethal encounters. Recent studies on
wolf-moose relations include Eriksen 2006, Solstad 2006, Sand et al. 2006 and Gundersen 2003.
Sheep also fall prey of brown bears (cf. Knarrum et al. 2006, Zimmermann et al. 2003 and Dahle et al.
1998), lynx (cf. Odden et al. 2002) and wolverines (cf. Gustavsen 2006). Warren 1996 offers a general
mortality study of sheep ranging in relatively high altitudes (as is often the case in Norway).
A number of official reports were conducted leading up to the latest parliamentary report on
carnivore management, including Linnell (ed.) 2003, on different management scenarios.
Contemporary literature on human-wolf relations in the Norwegian context include Mulholland et al.
2003 (on humans` attitudes towards wolves), Linnell et al. 2002 (on fear), Wam 2003 (on wolves`
attidudes towards humans) and Furseth 2005 (on manslaugh). For a general outline of Norwegian
"mythologies of nature¨, cf. Witoszek 1998.
THEORETICAL APPROACH TO THE CASE STUDY: Mapping of UmweIten
My analysis of the Norwegian strife surrounding the conflict between wolves and sheep will consist of
a mapping of the Umwelten of the three species, with particular emphasis on wolf-sheep, wolf-human
and sheep-human relations. The main aim of the analysis will be to outline what decisive Umwelt
factors have changed over time, and how these have affected wolf-sheep, wolf-human and sheep-
human interaction at various stages. Changes in Umwelt factors will ultimately be ascribed to changes
in the Bauplan (e.g. breeding of sheep, and genetic change among wolves related to interbreeding),
changed environmental conditions (e.g. pollution) and altered behaviour of the other species involved,
¨Rovdyrene har en plass i naturen og er en del av det biologiske mangfoldet. Problemer oppstår når rovdyr
"Lov om Udryddelse af Rovdyr og Fredning af andet Vildt".
From a cultural perspective also intrahuman relations ÷ such as between conflicting activists
groups ÷ will be evaluated, and their conceptions outlined. The larger context of the cultural part of the
analysis will be the rich imagery of wolves and sheep in popular culture. The main focus of this part,
however, will be on sheep farmers, which Berufsumwelt (Umwelt of professions ÷ cf. Uexküll 1910:
126) will be depicted throughout the period 1845-2010. Texts by anthropologists and others who have
applied Uexküllian concepts in cultural studies ÷ such as Tim Ìngold (1989, 1992, 1995) ÷ will be taken
Key concepts applied in the mapping of Umwelten will include:
Umwelt (Berufsumwelt, Umwelttunnel)
Functional cycle [Funktionskreis]
Contrapuntal relations [Kontrapunktische verhalten]
THEORETICAL INVESTIGATION: UmweIt transitions
Definition of Umwelt transition Before a concise Umwelt mapping can take place some fundamental
issues have to be considered, most of which are related to the subject of an Umwelt transition ÷ which
can tentatively be defined as a lasting, systematic change, within the life cycle of a being, considered
from an ontogenetic (individual), phylogenetic (population-, species-) or cultural perspective, from one
typical appearance of its Umwelt to another.
The threshoId of phenomenoIogy The concept "threshold of semiotics¨ was first introduced in
Eco 1976, and is at the centre of ongoing debate. Though the assertion that life and semiosis are
coextensive has been formative for biosemiotics (cf. Anderson et al. 1984), this is still a matter of
dispute among participating scholars. A more urgent concept in the context of this project ÷ though it
should be related to the threshold of semiotics debate ÷ is the "threshold of phenomenology¨ (cf.
Theoretical and factual context). This subject will be considered in the context of the
phenomenological tradition both prior to Husserl and after.
UexküIIian terms Some key terms from Uexküll`s work has to be reviewed. As for contrapuntal
relations [Kontrapunktische verhalten], it seems fruitful to interpret this term in the context of Arne
Næss` concepts of identification (cf. e.g. Næss 1985) and intrinsic relations. ,An intrinsic relation
between two things A and B¨, according to Næss (1973: 95), "is such that the relation belongs to the
definitions or basic constitutions of A and B, so that without the relation, A and B are no longer the
As Kalevi Kull (2004) writes, Uexküll`s view on evolution was only partly developed and is
often misunderstood, partly due to the negligible role he gives to an evolutionary explanation.
According to Uexküll (1928: 198) ¨[e]ach new appearing functional cycle verifies [the appearance of] a
new animal species."
Uexküll`s preferred term, Einpassung (matching ÷ active adaptation), as
contrasted with Anpassung (fitting ÷ passive adaptation), seems to reflect the difficulties related to the
primacy of the normal state within the Umwelt theory, where intact ecosystems are generally taken for
granted. As part of the threefold character of Einpassung (1927: 696) we find "2. the matching of body
and Umwelt; [and] 3. the matching of Umwelten in relation to eachother.¨
¨Wherever we look¨, Uexküll
(1931: 391) claims, "we see [.] the complementary matching of pairwise mutually coordinated
The functional cycle`s species-defining role further points to a fundamental ambiguity in that
concept, as the aggregate Umwelt of an entire species is also said (1928: 181), in general terms, to be
"larger and richer than the Umwelt of each [member of that species].¨
The resulting functional
diversity is according to Uexküll "the raison d'être of the species¨ (¨der Hauptdaseinsgrund der Art¨).
Contrapuntal relations can serve as the basis for a first, tentative definition of a favored species, which in
Uexküllian terms can be understood as a species which vital contrapuntal relations are upheld by human help. An
unfavored species can in a similar vein be interpreted as a species which vital contrapuntal relations are at risk
due to human intervention.
"Jeder neuauftretende Funktionskreis begründet eine neue Art von Tieren.¨
¨[... ] 2. besteht eine Einpassung zwischen Körper und Umwelt; 3. besteht eine Einpassung der Umwelten
¨Wohin wir schauen, erblicken wir [.] komplementäre Einpassungen paarweise aufeinander abgestimmter
¨[...] grö8er und reicher [sein] als die Umwelt der einzelnen.¨
The aim of this project is twofold: First, to explore the ground for concepts of Umwelt transition within
the theoretical framework of Uexküll`s scientific works, and second, to provide a thorough semiotic
analysis of the wolf/sheep strife in Norway. As for the latter, a factual question is to what extent the
extinction of wolves first in Southern Norway, and later in all of Norway, can be attributed to the
(supposedly) favored status of sheep. Further, Ì will evaluate to what extent the wolf is a favored
species in current Norwegian wolf management (1972-).
The analysis of the case study will first of all consist in a mapping of the Umwelttunnelen of
wolves, sheep and involved groups of humans throughout the period 1845-2010. From a cultural
perspective particular emphasis will be on the Berufsumwelt of Norwegian sheep farmers. Also: Ìn
what ways have popular conceptions of wolves and sheep changed during the period? Central
questions are how wolf-sheep, wolf-human and sheep-human relations have appeared at different
stages, and why they have changed.
The theoretical investigation prior to the analysis of the case study will focus on the
characteristics of Uexküllian terms such as Einpassung, Funktionskreis, Bauplan and Planmässigkeit,
as well as variations of the Umwelt concept such as Umwelttunnel and Berufsumwelt. Particularly,
what is the nature of contrapuntal relations [Kontrapunktische Verhalten]? Can a living being be
satisfactory defined as the whole comprised of the contrapuntal relations it takes part in, e.g. as an
ecologically (and socially) defined self?
Following the case study analysis Ì will attempt to generalize some observations relating to
characteristics (in Uexküllian terms) of endangered species, domesticated animals and cultural
change. The concluding questions will be to what extent there is a ground for concepts of Umwelt
transition in Uexküll`s scientific works, and in what way Umwelt transition in its various forms more
precisely should be defined.
METHODOLOGY: DeIimiting reIevant contexts
The theoretical framework of this project will first be outlined and investigated on its own terms, prior to
the presentation and analysis of the case study, and then reviewed in light of the outcomes of that
Choices Ì have chosen to investigate the scientific work of Jakob von Uexküll (enveloping his Umwelt
theory) from a phenomenological perspective for two reasons: First, because Ì consider this aspect the
most significant side of his work (in the context of semiotics as well as in the context of philosophy).
And second, because it seems the most promising approach when applying Uexküllian concepts in the
contemporary ecological situation (cf. Theoretical and factual context). Further, Ì have chosen to
evaluate its relevance today by applying it in the analysis of a case study, namely the conflict involving
wolves and sheep (and various human interest groups) in Norway 1845-2010. Ì have chosen this
particular case study because it is suitable to shed light on several key examples of an Umwelt
transition (involving a domesticated animal, an endangered species, and sheep farmers and others
going through cultural change), the main focus of my phenomenological reading of Uexküll. Ì have
chosen to focus on the period 1845-2010 because this is the period in which written sources are rich
and in which official policies have existed, and within which Ì can study the case from a historical as
well as a contemporary point of view.
Contexts The crucial point of my critical reading of overall theory as well as case study literature will
be the delimiting of the various relevant contexts. Though this delimiting is bound to be an ongoing
process, the following can be suggested at this stage concerning the overall theory: Uexküll`s works
will be read in a historical context (e.g. of literature at the library at Jakob von Uexküll-Archiv für
Umweltforschung und Biosemiotik (Univärsitet Hamburg)); as well as in a philosophical context (i.e.,
as part of a phenomenological tradition); as well as in a semiotic context (i.e. as part of a biosemiotic
tradition, enveloping modern and contemporary readings of Uexküll), as well as in a general scientific
context relating to certain relevant topics, such as the status and natural history of ecosystem
complexity and biodiversity. Finally, and most decisively, Uexküll`s work ÷ as already implied ÷ will be
read in the context of the strife around wolves/sheep in Norway in the period 1845-2010. Ìf the
outcomes of the first theoretical investigations are to count as hypotheses, then this will be their test.
CHAPTER OUTLINE OF DOCTORAL THESIS
The genre of the thesis will be that of the monograph.
Chapter 1 Making Sense of Nature
Uexküll, biology and semiotics. About the Umwelt theory/Uexküll`s theory of meaning
in the context of biology/ecology/environmental science, with a special emphasis on
the status and natural history of ecosystem complexity and biodiversity (historical
perspective); and in the context of semiotics generally and biosemiotics and
Chapter 2 UexküIIian PhenomenoIogy
About the Umwelt theory/Uexküll`s theory of meaning in the context of philosophy,
with a special emphasis on ontology and (particularly) phenomenology.
Chapter 3 The Semiotics of the EcoIogicaI Crisis
Uexküll and the ecological crisis. About the Umwelt theory/Uexküll`s theory of
meaning in the context of biology/ecology/environmental science, with a special
emphasis on the status and natural history of ecosystem complexity and biodiversity
(contemporary perspective); and in the context of ecophilosophy.
Chapter 4 UmweIt Mapping
Introducing a framework aiming at analysing the case study enveloping the strife
around wolves/sheep in Norway in the period 1845-2010.
Chapter 5 Case study: Norwegian WoIf Management
An ecosemiotic analysis of the strife surrounding wolves/sheep in Norway in the
Chapter 6 UmweIt Transition
Theoretical findings, evaluating the theoretical assumptions made in chapters 1-3 with
reference to the case study developed and presented in chapters 4-5.
(for each period of residence)
Collection of data, academic contact*
Draft of chapters 1-3
SOL, historical material*
SOL, NGO material*
SOL, popular imagery*
SOL, recent research*
Draft of chapter 4
SOL, ecosystem complexity
April Hamburg Study of archive literature
May Tartu Draft of chapter 5
June Norway Collection of data, academic contact*
Draft of chapter 6
Revision of chapters 1-5
SOL, policy documents*
June Hamburg Study of archive literature
Revision of chapter 6
SOL, recent research*
December Magé-RJ, Brazil Finishing chapter 1
January Norway Collection of data, academic contact*
Finishing chapters 2-6
* Directly related to the case study
- SOL = Study of literature
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