Steps to a Semiotics of Being

BY Morten Tønnessen PRESENTED at the workshop ANIMAL MINDS (Tartu, Feb. 9-10, 2009)

with deadly forces of unknown magnitude, and it dies, as if scalded by the sun. Surely, an individual that is in one environment an outcast, a peculiar bastard, can under other circumstances, in a different environmental situation, be the founder of a new species, the archetype of normality. The insect in our example is ridiculous not because it doesn’t master what biosemiotician Jesper Hoffmeyer (1996) calls its semiotic niche conditions, but because it finds itself in an environment which is predominantly human. Only in its own, natural environment does the semiotic competence of a being come to its right. Lost from its proper habitat, the behavior of any living being will appear to be misplaced. Here’s a simple ethical imperative: Help all beings to

Ontological niche
• “The character of the animal’s Umwelt”, in the words of Jesper Hoffmeyer (1996: 140), “is what defines the spectrum of positions that an animal can occupy in the bio-logical sphere, its semiotic niche.” His concept of a ‘semiotic niche’ is intended to describe “that subset of the local semiosphere which the species must be capable of controlling” in order to thrive (Hoffmeyer 2001: 391). • Inspired by that conception, I introduced the concept of an ‘ontological niche’ in my article ‘Umwelt ethics’ (Tønnessen 2003). In a natural world of faltering biological diversity, countless beings do not, any longer, master the semiotic niche conditions which according

Nature and meaning
• The perspective of biosemiotics and Uexküllian thinking seems to resonate well with Ted Toadvine’s observations in ‘Singing the World in a New Key: Merleau-Ponty and the Ontology of Sense’ (Toadvine 2003). In this article, he investigates to what extent meaning can be attributed to nature, and argues (p. 273) that ‘the ontological continuity of organic life with the perceived world of nature requires situating sense at a level that is more fundamental than has traditionally been recognized.’ Claiming that sense is more primordial than subjectivity, or a sense-bestowed subject, Toadvine concludes (p. 276):

The sixth mass extinction
• Besides being triggered by one single species, the sixth mass extinction, in which roughly speaking half of all species globally are believed to be in danger of extinction the next century, seems to be characterized by the fact that large numbers of plant species are being wiped out along with other species (Leakey and Lewin 1996: 253). • As a crisis triggered by bioinvasion – the global emergence of a new life form – it parallels the first of the recorded mass extinctions, occurring around 439 Mya, when plants and animals began to colonize land systematically.

• The history of life is often pedagogically represented as if it took place during 24 hours. On such a scale, the first human species appeared a couple of minutes ago and ours, Homo sapiens, a few seconds ago. A second ago we left Africa, heading for new lands. • More important, in our current account, is the fact that the first of the recorded mass extinctions would only have appeared three hours ago, around 9 pm. Prior to a little after 8 pm., life was mainly or entirely to be found in the sea, and there were no such things as multicellular organisms. • ‘[T]hat early simplicity’, as Leakey and Lewin write (1996: 226), ‘continued in mind-numbing sameness for billions of years, with nothing more complex than single-celled organisms for six sevenths of Earth history.’ Largely unknown as

The natural history of the phenomenal world

The wild and the tame
• During the transition from hunting and gathering to an agricultural lifestyle, the conditions for life were to change fundamentally, not only for the animals and plants domesticated by man, but also for countless beings about to be overpowered by this potent alliance. With the development of agriculture, man’s interference with its environment amplified. • Our history of domestication is an example of what appears to be man’s intuitive strategy of problem solving (a strategy

Shrinking Umwelten
• Returning to animal subjects, we can – in Uexküllian terms – say that domesticated animals are characterized by typically having a smaller Umwelt qua species than what is usual for wild species, due to less diversification. • The archetypical process of taming (involving an Umwelt transition at the individual level) entails transforming a wild animal from ‘enemy’ to ‘partner’ (or, as Sebeok would have phrased it, it entails ‘reducing the flight distance’). It further involves adaptation, usually to a captive environment. In the words of Edward O. Price (1984), certain ‘behaviors may have been altered because of man’s role as a buffer between the animal and its environment.’ A crucial example is that a common experiential feature of domesticated animals is a reduced responsiveness to changes in the animal’s environment. Other behavioral traits that are found in the wild are typically lost. • In other words, not only do domesticated animals have a smaller Umwelt qua species – they also typically have a smaller Umwelt qua individuals. • In sum, domesticated plants and animals – in their capacity as favored beings, in an anthropocentrically structured

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Biological classification
* Domain or Empire * Superkingdom o Kingdom + Subkingdom # Branch • * Infrakingdom * Superphylum (or Superdivision in botany) o Phylum (or Division in botany) + Subphylum (or Subdivision in botany) # Infraphylum (or Infradivision in botany) * Microphylum * Supercohort (botany)[8] o Cohort (botany)[8] + Subcohort (botany)[8] # Infracohort (botany)[8] * Superclass o Class + Subclass # Infraclass * Parvclass * Superdivision (zoology)[9] o Division (zoology)[9] + Subdivision (zoology)[9] # Infradivision (zoology)[9] * Superlegion (zoology) o Legion (zoology) + Sublegion (zoology) # Infralegion (zoology) * Supercohort (zoology)[8] o Cohort (zoology)[8] + Subcohort (zoology)[8] # Infracohort (zoology)[8] * Gigaorder (zoology)[10] o Magnorder or Megaorder (zoology)[10] + Grandorder or Capaxorder (zoology)[10] # Mirorder or Hyperorder (zoology)[10] * Superorder o Series (for fishes) + Order # Parvorder (position in some zoological classifications) * Nanorder (zoology) o Hypoorder (zoology) + Minorder (zoology) # Suborder * Infraorder o Parvorder (usual position) or Microorder (zoology)[10] * Section (zoology) o Subsection (zoology) * Gigafamily (zoology) o Megafamily (zoology) + Grandfamily (zoology) # Hyperfamily (zoology) * Superfamily o Epifamily (zoology) + Series (for Lepidoptera) # Group (for Lepidoptera) * Family o Subfamily + Infrafamily * Supertribe o Tribe + Subtribe # Infratribe * Genus o Subgenus + Section (botany) # Subsection (botany) * Series (botany) o Subseries (botany) * Superspecies or Species-group o Species + Subspecies (or Forma Specialis for fungi, or Variety for bacteria[11]) # Variety (botany) or Form/Morph (zoology) * Subvariety (botany) o Form (botany) + Subform (botany)

What biological categories of life forms does it make sense to attribute phenomenal worlds to? Umwelten of Eukaryota Umwelten of Animalia Umwelten of Chordata Umwelten of Vertebrata Umwelten of Mammalia Umwelten of Primates Umwelten of Homo sapiens sapiens A special case: The Umwelt of [the living] (the most general

Four kinds of human Umwelten (with examples)
Speechle ss Umwelten Umwelten without words The Umwelt of a fetus The Umwelt of someone Spoken The who is Umwelten Umwelt lost of an Alphabeti The analphab c Umwelt et Umwelten of a scholar

Existential universals
Type of functional Food cycle Partner Enemy Medium Existential universal?


• As for the occurrence of phenomenal worlds, a modern Uexküllian phenomenology will hold that particular (private) phenomenal worlds occur throughout the sphere of life. • Different as the worlds of plants and fungi might be, they nevertheless, having feedback cycles that connect sensors and regulators, vaguely resemble the worlds of other beings, be they unicellular or multicellular. • Acknowledging that plants and fungi, as well, perform categorical perception,

An existential universal: The appearance of a phenomenal world

Umwelt = Experienced world along with • Much debate has tagged

the fundamental, yet not unproblematic biosemiotic notion that (here in the words of Sebeok 2001: 68) “because there can be no semiosis without interpretability – surely life's cardinal propensity – semiosis presupposes the axiomatic identity of the semiosphere with the biosphere.” • Partly related to this, there is a spectre of understandings of what an ‘Umwelt’ – interpreted in various fashions as a ‘specific universe’, a ‘cognitive map’, a ‘model world’, an ‘existential realm’ and so on (cf. Salthe 2001: 365) – really represents. • In the following I will attempt to demonstrate

A semiotics of being
• Today, we should be in a position to consider the assumption of underlying experienced worlds as an integrated part of the Umwelt concept. • In a biosemiotic, or modern Uexküllian sense, I dare to claim, concepts of ‘perception’ as well as of ‘action’ are rendered meaningless without the assertion that what our third-perspective Umwelten attempt to model is experienced worlds which are themselves subjective, private models of the semantic landscape (so to speak) that surrounds

Integrated biological individualism
• ‘Being’ is at the lowest level identified with ‘individual’, though, evidently, the concept of ‘individual’ is not applicable to all life forms. • This term [individual] should be comprehended as something akin to a ‘carrier of a first person perspective’ (be it singular, as in the case of most vertebrates, and unicellular beings; or plural, as in the case of plants, fungi and invertebrate animals). • The individual level occupies the centre – the middle ground – of this methodology; at the crossroad, one might say, where the somatic realm encounters the ecological one. • Such an approach, which stresses subjectivity while at the same time allowing for the complex

The (somatic, social and ecological) self which is embodied in the behaviour of a being. The implicit self can be taken to be an ontological entity where the being in question is considered as an instance of relational being. Each and every living being has (or: is) a more or less complex implicit self.

The self which manifests itself in the identity (subjectivity) of a being. The explicit self can be taken to be a phenomenological entity in the sense that it entails a (self-reflective) representation of this being`s subjectivity.

“[W]e can situate the deeply internalized, seemingly ubiquitous concept of “self” as a product of the uppermost symbol level of our “biological inner semiosphere”. This is a level which, by definition, includes and yet exceeds (in abstraction and in semiotic freedom) the supporting iconic and indexical levels of the never-ending sign-exchange activity mediating cell, brain, body and world.”
Favareau, Donald: “Beyond self and other: On the neurosemiotic emergence of intersubjectivity”. Sign Systems Studies 30.1, 2002 pgs. 57100.

The implicit self

The implicit self (non-social)

The virtuality of contemporary life
Frederik Stjernfelt, in his investigation into to what extent Uexküll’s thought is actual for the semiotics of our time, finds it strange (2001: 100) that he allegedly ‘makes the specificity of the human Umwelt a tragic problem for our species.’ What we could within a biosemiotic framework call a certain symbolicity, or virtuality, of human existence, however, is clearly at least latent with an analogous alienation from nature, and from ourselves as beings of nature. Stjernfelt’s quote of

The virtuality of contemporary life
The quote is worth repeating (Uexküll 1982: 66-67). [W]ith all our utensils we have built bridges between ourselves and nature. In so doing, we have come no closer to nature; in fact we have removed ourselves from her. […] In the city we are exclusively surrounded by artefacts […] The muchlauded technology has lost all feeling for nature: indeed, it presumes to solve the

Blindness with regard to meaning
The contemporary ‘blindness with regard to meaning’ which motivated Uexküll in his biological thought might, perhaps, be claimed to be emblematic not only for biological sciences, but for modern society as such. In the words of Abram (1997: 27), ‘modern, ‘civilized’ humanity’ has ‘a strange inability to clearly perceive other animals – a real inability to clearly see, or focus upon, anything outside the realm of human technology, or to hear as

Pure symbolicity
We, the humankind, ‘suck our sustenance from the rest of nature in a way never before seen in the world, reducing its bounty as ours grows’ (Leakey & Lewin 1996: 233). Faced with such allegations, we are lead to ask whether there is something with the symbolic character of human culture itself that has uprooted us as beings of nature. Is the environmental crisis ultimately due to an excessively symbolic relation to nature? What we might be witnessing, during the last few hundred years (and in the time to come), might be a cultural trend toward pure symbolicity, an

Semiotic diversity
An ethical imperative: Preserve semiotic diversity! Fight the cultural drift toward pure symbolicity!

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A real-life reductionism
It should be no wonder that the establishment of such a merely human realm is bound to be tightly linked with what we could call an ‘anthropocentric semantic reductionism’, at work as chunks and pieces of non-human material is built in into the human sign system by doing away with any (from an anthropocentric viewpoint) redundant facets of their semantic scope that might block its incorporation into ‘culture’. While we are supposedly detached from

Semiotic economy
• A semiotics of economy, or semiotic economy, as we might label it (in analogy with ‘political economy’), would provide tools for mapping economic-ecological relations, or economical relations in their ecological aspect. Acknowledging that the main engine for cultural change as well as environmental change in today’s world is the global economy, it would depict a world in which economic and ecological relations can be expressed using a common denominator. • Economic relations, thus understood, would be fundamentally ambiguous, referring to their human, cultural function as well as to their ecological functioning. In semiotic economy,

Semiotic economy
• Competition, in the outlook of semiotic economy, prevails not only among enterprises, workers and states, but also between humans and nonhumans, in relation to common goods such as resources, land and other habitats. A ‘resource’ is here to be understood, in general terms, as an Umwelt object (or an object in a phenomenal world) with a utility-style functional tone, under which we, among other things, find the category of food, or nutrients. • The modeling of economic relations should furthermore allow for negative as well as negligible ecological effects, as well as for differences in wealth and efficiency. Being neither alarmist nor conformist, semiotic economy should

Some programmatic points
1. Semiotic Economy is built around the beings and life forms – human as well as non-human – that are involved in or affected by economic activity. 2. Merely to objectify nature – i.e., relating to non-human nature as an economic (instrumental) resource only – is not acceptable. Living stake holders are more-than-economic bodies. • Economic activity must be justified – philosophically, and politically – as a meaningful activity, i.e. an activity that has a positive function in the lives of people. This justification must refer to

Infinite resources vs. finite beings and ecosystems • In economic terms, what can be used as a resource is not given a priori rather, it’s a matter of technology. In economic history, there is a clear tendency that more and more ‘parts’ of the natural environment are made use of and thus transformed into resources. In one sense, therefore, resources are theoretically infinite. • All living beings and ecosystems, however, are finite (mortal!). Even if

Human adaptability in an economic context
MEANING AND ADDICTION In the growth economy, the meaning of economic activity, at a personal level, is related to getting accustomed (adapted) to new technologies and increased wealth, and
– to develop an addiction to whatever technology and wealth one has gotten accustomed to.

Since the human being is such an adaptable being, current happiness studies suggest that the “gain in wellbeing” resulting from improved wealth has an effect of only one to a few years.

A sense of being rich
Who, in our society, feels rich? • Due to our addiction to growth, and current economic exploitation of our human adaptability, to feel rich does not appear to be a widespread sensation, even in the wealthiest nations (e.g. the US and Norway). While in objective terms wealth is at an historical high in literally all countries – or recently was – there is no correlation between objective wealth and experienced wealth. • The reason seems to be
– a perception of an “eternal growth economy” (which is strictly speaking an illusion), giving rise to constant expectations of increased wealth (due to habituation to growth, after generations of experience) – quantitative, relative comparisons (“Do I still make more money than my neighbour?”), rather than justification of

Human freedom of expression
The existence of thousands of cultural traditions says just as much about the richness in ways in which we can relate to nature as it says about the richness of culture itself. The ontological niche of mankind is unique not only in its width (span), but also in its depth (rootedness).

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