Home > Uncategorized > Sara Cannizzaro & Paul Cobley “Biosemiotics, Politics and Th. A. Sebeok’s Move from Linguistics to Semiotics”

Sara Cannizzaro & Paul Cobley “Biosemiotics, Politics and Th. A. Sebeok’s Move from Linguistics to Semiotics”

Cannizzaro, Sara; Cobley, Paul 2015. Biosemiotics, Politics and Th. A. Sebeok’s Move from Linguistics to Semiotics. – Velmezova, Ekaterina; Kull, Kalevi; Cowley, Stephen J. (eds). Biosemiotic Perspectives on Language and Linguistics. Berlin: Springer, 207-222.

The perspectives of the erstwhile “Soviet semiotics ”, which put verbal language at the basis of all communications and of the organisation of culture, was at risk of both glottocentrism and anthropomorphism. In light of the recognition that there is communication prior to verbal language, Sebeok recast Tartu-Moscow notion of modelling systems and observed that (verbal language) “is the modelling system the Soviet scholars call primary but which, in truth, is phylogenetically as well as ontogenetically secondary to the nonverbal”. (209-210)

[…] the primordial and overarching form of communication is nonverbal. Nonverbal communication characterizes all life, including a large part of human life. Although humans also utilize verbal communication, nonverbal communication is implicitly overlooked in many realms of human endeavour. In fact, as we signalled above, Sebeok holds that natural language “evolved as an adaptation; whereas speech developed out of language as a derivative exaptation”. (210)

Exaptation, here and also as Stephen J. Gould and Elisabeth S. Vrba discussed it, demonstrates that one should not assume that the current utility of a biological phenomenon is a result of natural selection. An exaptation may be desirable and potentially an enhancement of the capacity for survival; but that does not necessarily entail that it is indispensable for survival, nor that the phenomenon in question is the product of natural selection. (211)

[…] what exaptation demonstrates most strikingly in respect of human evolution is that the phenomenon often central to definitions of humanity – language – is, in the verbal forms that have provided the foundation for communication and culture, only beneficial in evolutionary terms at one remove or more, or even, perhaps, in various cases, not beneficial at all. The communicational forms that are often taken for granted in the human Umwelt and, sometimes, have been assumed to be the only portal through which humans can grasp life, are, in this account, merely the veneer of anthroposemiosis. (211)

Discovering that semiosis is politically charged in the polis is one thing; but conveniently forgetting that semiosis occurs and is built on the development of signs in realms far beyond the polis is considerably more “apolitical” and reactionary than attempting to assume a supposedly “neutral” transdisciplinary vantage point. (213)

“Representation” assumes that human semiosis is mind-dependent (ens rationis), constantly preventing humans from gaining anything other than a tantalising glimpse of the mind-independent ( ens reale) universe. Yet, as Deely is at pains to stress in the wake of Poinsot, the sign fluctuates between both forms of dependency according to context. One might add that implicit in the contextuality of the sign is the sharing of some parts of signhood across the world of humans, other animals and plants, the variegation of semiosis being so extensive that “representation” does not really come close to capturing it. (216)

Ideology, like “information” cannot be “resisted” because it is not something that is transferred or forced upon humans; it is instead the relation of meaning that emerges when humans interact with real objects in a cultural, physiological and environmental context. These three contextual levels, and not just the cultural-linguistic one, all play a part in framing the way in which ideology is constituted. (219)

Biosemiotics has sought to proceed, in a transdisciplinary mode, from a concept of semiosis as “global” and with its own contextual effectivities sustaining Umwelten, rather than assuming that signification can be graded according to measures of truth and falsity derived from cultural taxonomies. In short, biosemiotics’ reconfiguration of the polis consists of having bigger fish to fry than traditional political approaches that signal the tyrannies of language and pursue the representational paradigm. This is not a matter of biosemiotics simply drawing back and stating that local political struggles are somehow less significant than the bigger picture, as some advocates of environmental politics have done. Rather, it is a global view recognizing that every
semiosis, local and quotidian, is subject to relation and is therefore the object of politics. Central to the representational view and, for Deely, the key impediment of modern thought, is the inability to arrive at a coherent distinction between mind-dependent and mind-independent being. Relations create a public sphere in which there is room for freedom, but there is also the possibility of reaching an understanding of nature, likewise through relations. (220)

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