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Steps to a Semiotics of


BY Morten Tønnessen
(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:
• 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.
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 natural history of the
phenomenal world
• 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
• ‘[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 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
• 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
• 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

Biological classification
* Domain or Empire
* Superkingdom
• o Kingdom
• + Subkingdom

What biological
• # Branch
• * Infrakingdom •
• * Superphylum (or Superdivision in botany)

categories of life forms

• o Phylum (or Division in botany)
• + Subphylum (or Subdivision in botany)
• # Infraphylum (or Infradivision in botany)

does it make sense to

• * Microphylum
• * Supercohort (botany)[8]
• o Cohort (botany)[8]

attribute phenomenal
+ Subcohort (botany)[8]
• # Infracohort (botany)[8]
• * Superclass
• o Class

+ Subclass
# Infraclass
* Parvclass
* Superdivision (zoology)[9]
worlds to?
• o Division (zoology)[9]
• + Subdivision (zoology)[9]
• # Infradivision (zoology)[9]
• * Superlegion (zoology)

o Legion (zoology)
+ Sublegion (zoology)
# Infralegion (zoology)
* Supercohort (zoology)[8]
Umwelten of Eukaryota

o Cohort (zoology)[8]
+ Subcohort (zoology)[8]
# Infracohort (zoology)[8]
* Gigaorder (zoology)[10]
Umwelten of Animalia

o Magnorder or Megaorder (zoology)[10]
+ Grandorder or Capaxorder (zoology)[10]
# Mirorder or Hyperorder (zoology)[10]
* Superorder
Umwelten of Chordata

o Series (for fishes)
+ Order
# Parvorder (position in some zoological Umwelten of
• * Nanorder (zoology)
• o Hypoorder (zoology)
• + Minorder (zoology)

Umwelten of Mammalia
• # Suborder
• * Infraorder
• o Parvorder (usual position) or
Microorder (zoology)[10]

Umwelten of Primates
• * Section (zoology)
• o Subsection (zoology)
• * Gigafamily (zoology)
• o Megafamily (zoology)

Umwelten of Homo
• + Grandfamily (zoology)
• # Hyperfamily (zoology)
• * Superfamily
• o Epifamily (zoology)

+ Series (for Lepidoptera)
# Group (for Lepidoptera)
* Family
o Subfamily
sapiens sapiens
• + Infrafamily
• * Supertribe
• o Tribe
• + Subtribe

* Genus
# Infratribe

o Subgenus
+ Section (botany)
A special case:

# Subsection (botany)
* Series (botany)
o Subseries (botany)
The Umwelt of [the
• * Superspecies or Species-group
• o Species
• + Subspecies (or Forma Specialis for fungi, or Variety for bacteria[11])
• # Variety (botany) or Form/Morph (zoology)

(the most general

• * Subvariety (botany)
• o Form (botany)
• + Subform (botany)
Four kinds of human Umwelten (with
Speechle The
ss Umwelt
Umwelten of a fetus
Umwelten The
without Umwelt
words of
Spoken someone
Umwelten Umweltis
of an
Alphabeti The
c Umwelt
Umwelten of a
Existential universals
Type of Existential
functional universal?
cycle √
Partner NO

Enemy NO

Medium √
An existential universal:
The appearance of a
phenomenal world
• 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
• Acknowledging that plants and fungi, as
well, perform categorical perception,
Umwelt = Experienced
• Much debate has tagged along with 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
• ‘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
• 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 The self which manifests
embodied in the behaviour itself in the identity
of a being. The implicit self (subjectivity) of a being. The
can be taken to be an explicit self can be taken to
ontological entity where the be a phenomenological
being in question is
entity in the sense that it
considered as an instance of
relational being. Each and entails a (self-reflective)
every living being has (or: representation of this
is) a more or less complex being`s subjectivity.
implicit self.
“[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. 57-
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 much-
lauded technology has lost all feeling for
nature: indeed, it presumes to solve the
Blindness with regard to
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 ☺
semiotic ↑
Fight the cultural

drift toward pure
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
• 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 non-
humans, 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
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
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

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).