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Jeffrey T. Nealon “The Archaeology of Biopower”

December 14, 2015 Leave a comment

Nealon, Jeffrey T. 2016. The Archaeology of Biopower: From Plant to Animal Life in The Order of Things. – Cisney, Vernon W.; Morar, Nicolae (eds). Biopower: Foucault and Beyond. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 138-155.

If discipline forged an enabling link between subjective aptitude and docility, biopower forges an analogous link between the individual’s life and the life of the socius: the only thing that we as biopolitical subjects have in common, one might say, is that we are all individuals, charged with the task of creating and maintaining our lives. (139)

At the dawn of the nineteenth century […] Foucault traces a mutation of the dominant epistemic procedures – from a representational discourse that maps external similitude and resemblance, to the emergence of a speculative discourse that takes as its object hidden internal processes. In short, we see emerge a discourse that „opposed historical knowledge of the visible to philosophical knowledge of the invisible“ (OT 138): knowledge’s privileged practices abandon the surface of objects to plumb their hidden depths instead. And first and foremost among those transcendental „invisibles“ was a little thing we like to call „life“: „The naturalist is the man concerned with the structure of the visible world and its denomination according to characters. Not with life“ (OT 161), Foucault insists, because life is not representable. Life is in fact a kind of unplumbable depth, animating the organism from a hidden origin somewhere within. This birth of biology – which is to say, the emergence of „life“ itself as a bearing area for discursive power and a depth to be explored – constitutes the first birth of biopower, this one in Foucault’s work of the mid-1960s. (143-144)

In short, Foucault argues that with the emergence of the human sciences at the birth of biopower, the animal is not excluded or forgotten, but quite the opposite: animality comprises the dominant apparatus for investigation both what life is and what life does. The living is no longer primarily vegetable (sessile and awaiting mere categorization), but understood as evolving, appetite-drive, secret, discontinuous, mendacious, inscrutable, always on the prowl, looking for an opening to break free. As Foucault puts it, „Transferring its most secret essence from the vegetable to the animal kingdom, life has left the tabulated spac of order and became wild once more“ (OT 277). (145)

Foucault, of course, parts ethical company from Derrida […] around the binary pathos of „totalization or non-totalization“, which constitutes nearly the whole field of ethics in a deconstructive context: if totalization or the violent desire for completion can be disrupted, if an originary différance of undecidability can be mobilized and demonstrated, then some positive deconstructive work has been accomplished. However, such a supposedly ethical gesture toward the unfathomable or untotalizable other, as Foucault will insist throughout his work, poses no essential question (ethical or otherwise) to the human sciences because those contemporary sciences do not require or even desire totalization. As Foucault demonstrates in his work on the emergence of life in Europe, the Western human sciences need constantly to refashion an unfathomable depth, and inexhaustible other, so they can continue to do their work. The insistence on the primacy of some nontotalizable „other“ does not cripple the human sciences, but rather constitutes an essential component of their work: as Foucault concisely puts it, „an unveiling of the non-conscious is constitutive of all the sciences of man“ (OT 364). (149-150)

(Economics, for example, does not know what value is any more than theology knows what God is or biology knows what life is – that is why you have a robust discourse to study it.) So the trading-places game of ethical alterity – the nonhuman other is best figured as the unconscious, the animal, the plant, the earth, the robot, and so forth – tends primarily to extend and deepen the constitutive work of the human sciences (the production of undecidability, which in turn produces more commentary), rather than to disrupt that work in some essential way. (150)

This, then, is Agamben’s „correction“ of Foucault: Agamben rejects the idea that power has become more subtle and effective, suffused through our everyday lives (even in our sexuality and our everyday consumer existence); he argues instead that power remains sovereign, brutal, literally animalizing its others so they can be eradicated. We in the first-world West live not in a panopticon or in an endless marketplace, but in a concentration camp. (151)

[…] when Foucault insists that there is an „animalization of man“ involved in biopower’s birth and functioning, he mean quite literally: we have incorporated the beast into the contemporary biopolitical definition of „man“ as endless, unthematizable animal desire, with the practices of sexuality and neoliberal capitalism its two most intense markings in the present. […] For Agamben, on the other hand, bestialization constitutes less a contemporary set of practices or a historical phenomenon and remains primarily a transhistorical metaphor or simile for the human condition, as are (despite Agamben’s protests to the contrary) his emphasis on the concentration camp or sovereign power. For Agamben, twenty-first-century Western society is like a concentration camp or like an absolute monarchy; we are treated like animals when we have to surrender our DNA or fingerprints. (152)

[…] sovereign power, while notoriously difficult (if not impossible) to resist, tends to be relatively easy to spot, diagnose, and denounce: in short, someone else is always wielding „sovereign power“. On the other hand, the biopolitics of „making live and letting die“ is a regime in which all of us are implicated: who gets health care and who doesn’t? (153)

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Gilbert Hottois “De l’anthropologie à l’anthropotechnique?”

December 4, 2014 Leave a comment

Hottois, Gilbert 2005. De l’anthropologie à l’anthropotechnique ? Tumultes 25(2) : 49-64.

Que comporte ou comportait la valorisation traditionnelle, directe ou indirecte, du langage ?
– Le langage n’est pas un outil comme les autres, utile seulement à la communication entre les humains et à leur organisation ;
– il est l’instrument de l’hominisation, du devenir humain : il institue l’humanité en général et chaque sujet individuel en particulier ;
– cette institution langagière de l’humain est constitutive de la raison et de la liberté, caractéristiques traditionnelles de l’homme ; c’est parce qu’il a la capacité de se représenter symboliquement des possibles avec leurs contextes, justifications et conséquences (représentation rationnelle) que l’homme peut délibérer et choisir entre ces possibles (liberté) ;
– intimement solidaire de ce qui fait l’être humain, le langage apparaît aussi comme le seul instrument légitime du progrès authentiquement humain tant au plan individuel que collectif. Vouloir substituer au langage un autre moyen d’évolution ne pourrait donc être qu’aliénant. (50)

Les techniques matérielles ne font pas partie de la culture au sens noble du terme qui identifie culture et ordre symbolique. Empiriques et mécaniques, les techniques n’aident pas à l’institution de l’homme en tant qu’être rationnel et libre. Elles s’appliquent au monde matériel, au milieu extérieur à l’homme. (51)

Ce qui s’oppose donc à l’idée d’anthropotechnique est la très ancienne idée « anthropo-logique » elle-même : c’est par le logos exclusivement (aujourd’hui : le langage) qu’anthropos se constitue et progresse. (51)

Signalons toutefois que des courants utilitaristes anglo-saxons soulignent l’importance de la sensibilité des êtres vivants, commune aux humains et aux nonhumains, plus que du langage, et voient dans l’accentuation de la différence anthropologique sous la forme du logos une expression du spécisme anthropocentrique, c’est-à-dire d’une sorte de chauvinisme étroit de l’humanité, qu’ils dénoncent pour des raisons éthiques et de philosophie générale. (51)

Un postulat anthropologique est que les techniques matérielles s’appliquent au milieu : c’est par rapport au monde que l’homme est légitimement homo faber. Par rapport à lui-même, il est légitimement seulement homo loquax. (52)

Parce qu’elle est médecine toujours tributaire de la philosophie traditionnelle, la médecine contemporaine ne peut pas en principe intervenir dans un sens autre que thérapeutique. Mais ses capacités opératoires et les demandes, individuelles et collectives, auxquelles elle ne cesse d’être confrontée, la tirent de plus en plus du côté de ce qu’on devrait appeler « biotechnologie appliquée à l’homme », c’est-à-dire « anthropotechnique ». (52-53)

Nous retrouvons ici le nœud déjà signalé : il est permis à l’homme d’être créateur symboliquement, libre inventeur d’images, de représentations (quoique cette liberté soit déjà pernicieuse, car elle peut être sacrilège). Il ne pourrait pas, en revanche, être libre créateur techno-physiquement, bouleverser l’ordre de la nature et, surtout, modifier sa propre nature, sans précipiter l’apocalypse. (53)

L’homme reste créature avant d’être créateur : sa transcendance doit demeurer symbolique ; elle ne peut se faire opératoire. N’étant pas Dieu, mais seulement à Son image, l’homme ne peut être créateur qu’au plan des images. (54)

Pourquoi ne pas considérer que le corps humain (y compris le génome et le cerveau) constitue, en réalité, le milieu physique le plus proche de l’homme ? Pourquoi faudrait-il respecter les limites, les servitudes, les contraintes, toutes contingentes, qu’il impose ? Pourquoi ontologiser la finitude physique et n’accorder à l’homme qu’une transcendance symbolique ? (55)

Répétons-le : le débat ne porte pas sur le caractère indispensable de limites, c’est-à-dire aussi de règles — structures, stabilités, repères. La viabilité de la nature et de la société repose sur leur existence. Leur absence est synonyme de chaos, c’est-à-dire d’anarchie au plan social et de folie au plan individuel. La question est : avons-nous besoin de la fiction de limites absolues, de structures ontologiques ? Ce type de fiction — la fiction de la Vérité — est-il compatible avec notre type de civilisation ? Le problème vient donc de la demande de limites immuables et universelles qui sont des impératifs — principalement des interdits — catégoriques, c’est-à-dire non conditionnels, non contextuels, non évolutifs, non révisibles. De telles limites ont pour fonction non seulement d’interdire certaines applications technoscientifiques, mais les recherches elles-mêmes qui permettraient de concrétiser certains possibles déclarés absolument mauvais. (57)

L’exemple spectaculaire le plus récent de ce type de limites est l’interdiction du clonage humain reproductif (CHR). L’éventualité du CHR est une parfaite illustration d’un bouleversement anthropologique radical à partir d’une possibilité d’anthropotechnique dans le domaine de la biotechnologie appliquée à l’homme. (57)

Sauf à adopter une position métaphysique spiritualiste traditionnelle ou d’adhérer à une sorte de principe anthropique qui place l’homme tel qu’il existe depuis quelques millénaires au sommet final de l’évolution cosmique ou encore à considérer que l’espèce humaine n’a pas d’avenir lointain et qu’elle est condamnée à être emportée dans quelque catastrophe cosmique ou technologico-historique majeure, il nous semble pertinent de concevoir l’invention du futur de l’humanité comme anthropotechnique autant qu’anthropologique, ou en un mot comme anthropotechnologique. Cette articulation n’est pas du tout inconcevable ni impraticable : le langage n’est pas étranger à la matérialité et à l’opérativité, et la matière étend, elle-même, son énigme de la physique quantique jusqu’au cerveau conscient. (64)

Peter Harrison “The Cultural Authority of Natural History in Early Modern Europe”

November 21, 2013 Leave a comment

Harrison, Peter 2010. The Cultural Authority of Natural History in Early Modern Europe. – Denis R. Alexander; Ronald L. Numbers (eds). Biology and Ideology from Descartes to Dawkins. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 11-35.

[…] Thomas Moffett (1553-1604), who had played a role in editing Gesner’s work on insects, declared ants to be „exemplary for their great piety, prudence, justice, valour, temperance, modesty, charity, friendship, frugality, perseverance, industry, and art.” (20)

Close observation of insect behavior not only might reinforce conventional virtues but also had the potential to assist in the adjudication of such questions as whether monarchy or democracy was the more natural form of government. In The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1660), the poet John Milton pointed to the organization of the ant colony as providing a clear sanction for parliamentary democracy. The polity of the „pismire” (ant), he declared: „evidently shews us, that they who think the nation undon wihtout a king, though they look grave and haughtie, have not so much true spirit and undestanding in them as a pismire: neither are these diligent creatures hence concluded to live in lawless anarchie, or that commended, but are set the examples to imprudent and ungoverned men, of a frugal and self-governing democratie or Commonwealth; safer and more thriving in the joint providence and counsel of many industrious equals, then under the single domination of one imperious Lord.” (21)

The fact is that the Cartesian hypothesis [of animals as non-sentient machines] was not widely accepted and, in any case, vivisectionists needed no dispensation from Descartes to sanction their activities. Many of those who subjected animals to unsavory procedures in vacuum chambers or on dissecting tables explicitly rejected the Cartesian view of animal insensitivity. (23)

[…] Descartes argued for a radical rupture in the hierarhy of being, positing a great gulf between human beings and all other earthly creatures – now imagined to be devoid of souls and sensations. He also rejected the idea that the behaviors of animals were analogous to our own and, indeed, attacked „reasoning by analogy” in the sciences more generally. (23)

[…] this element of Descartes’ thought is sometimes forgotten – body and soul in human beings were intimately conjoined. For this reason Descartes believed that investigation of the material and mechanical basis of animals’ inner drives – anger, aggression, fear, hunger, thirst, and so on – would lead to the discovery of therapeutic strategies that would assist human beings in the moral task of exerting control over the impulses and drives of their own mechanical bodies. (23)

„Pretext” is too strong a word, but perhaps the specter of infidelity and atheism provided a convenient way of justifying new ways of studying nature in the context of a social and intellectual climate that was not always hospitable toward novel scientific practices. […] Nieuwntijt’s emphasis on the use of exclusively modern sciences is intended to highlight the religious utility of those sciences in an era in which novelty and modernity were still not self-evidently positive qualities. (26)

The Cartesian philosopher Nicolas Malebranche observed that „one insect is more in touch with Divine wisdom than the whole of Greek and Roman history.” (26)

If the prevailing attitude toward learning in the early seventeenth century looked to promote self-knowledge and moral formation, proponents of the new sciences proposed the inclusion of additional goals, extending self-mastery to the mastery of nature, and insisting on the importance of practical applications of knowledge. Perhaps no seventeenth-century figure better exemplifies these tendencies that Francis Bacon (1561-1626) […]. Bacon insisted that „the improvement of man’s mind and the improvement of his lot are one and the same thing,” linking the accepted goal of learning – self improvement – with the broader goals that he had in mind for a reformed science of nature. (29)

Bacon believed that a systematic knowledge of the natural world would bring about „a restitution and reinvesting (in great part) of man to the sovereignty and power … which he had in his first state of creation.” Nature, he concluded, will be „at length and in some measure to the supplying of man with bread; that is, to the uses of human life.” (29)

Bacon’s insight that causal speculations and general conclusions must be grounded in large collections offacts was now widely acknowledged. If the natural sciences were to be grounded in systematic and objective observations of the world, natural history provided the first, and arguably most important, stage of the science of nature. Gradually this principle came to be enshrined in formal accounts  of the relationships among the natural sciences. The third edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1788-97) thus stated that „classification and arrangement is called NATURAL HISTORY, and must be considered as the only foundation of any extensive knowledge of nature.” (34)

Michel Foucault “Labour, Life, Language”

September 22, 2013 Leave a comment

Foucault, Michel 2008. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Human Sciences. London; New York: Routledge.

8. Labour, Life, Language

[…] the thought that is contemporaneous with us, and with which, willy-nilly, we think, is still largerly dominated by the impossibility, brought to ligh towards the end of the eighteenth century, of basing syntheses in the space of representation, and by the correlative obligation – simultaneous but immediately divided against itself – to open up the transcendental field of subjectivity, and to constitute inversely, beyond the object, what are for us the ‚quasi-transcendentals’ of Life, Labour, and Language. (272)

Production, life, language […] are fundamental modes of knowledge which sustain in their flawless unity the secondary and derived correlation of new sciences and techniques with unprecedented objects. (275)

From Cuvier onward, function, defined according to its non-perceptible form as an effect to be attained, is to serve as a constant middle term and to make it possible to relate together totalities of elements without the slightest visible identity. What to Classical eyes were merely differences juxtaposed with identities must now be ordered and conceived on the basis of a functional homogeneity which is their hidden foundation. When the Same and the Other both belong to a single space, there is natural history; something like biologybecomes possible when this unity of level begins to break up, and when differences stand out against the background of an identity that is deeper and, as it were, more serious than that unity. (288-289)

Animal species differ at their peripheries, and resemble each other at their centres; they are connected by the inaccessible, and separated by the apparent. Their generality lies in that which is essential to their life; their singularity in that which is most accessory to it. The more extensive the groups one wishes to find, the deeper must one penetrate into the organism’s inner darkness, towards the less and less visible, into that dimension that eludes perception; the more one wishes to isolate the individuality of the organism, the further must one go towards its surface, and allow the perceptible forms to shine in all their visibility; for multiplicity is apparent and unity is hidden. In short, living species ‘escape’ from the teeming profusion of individuals and species; they can be classified only because they are alive and on the basis of what they conceal. (291)

From Cuvier onward, it is life in its non-perceptible, purely functional aspect that provides the basis for the exterior possibility of a classification. The classification of living beings is no longer to be found in the great expanse of order; the possibility of classification now arises from the depths of life, from those elements most hidden from view. Before, the living being was a locality of natural classification; now, the fact of being classifiable is a property of the living being. (292)

In any case, this series of oppositions, dissociating the space of natural history, has had important consequences. In practice, this means the appearance of two correlated techniques which are connected and support each other. The first of these techniques is constituted by comparative anatomy: this discipline gives rise to an interior space, bounded on the one hand by the superficial stratum of teguments and shells, and on the other by the quasi-invisibility of that which is infinitely small. (293)

The second technique is based on anatomy (since it is a result of it), but is in opposition to it (because it makes it possible to dispense with it); this technique consists in establishing indicative relations between superficial, and therefore visible, elements and others that are concealed in the depths of the body. Through the law of the interdependence of the parts of an organism, we know that such and such a peripheral and accessory organ implies such and such a structure in a more essential organ; thus, it is possible ‘to establish the correspondence between exterior and interior forms which are all integral parts of the animal’s essence’. (294)

Whereas for eighteenth-century thought the fossil was a prefiguration of existing forms, and thus an indication of the great continuity of time, it was henceforth to be the indication of the form to which it once really belonged. Anatomy has not only shattered the tabular and homogeneous space of identities; it has broken the supposed continuity of time. (294)

[…] living beings, because they are alive, can no longer form a tissue of progressive and

graduated differences; they must group themselves around nuclei of coherence which are totally distinct from one another, and which are like so many different plans for the maintenance of life. Classical being was without flaw; life, on the other hand, is without edges or shading. Being was spread out over an immense table; life isolates forms that are bound in upon themselves. Being was posited in the perpetually analysable space of representation; life withdraws into the enigma of a force inaccessible in its essence, apprehendable only in the efforts it makes here and there to manifest and maintain itself. In short, throughout the Classical age, life was the province of an ontology which dealt in the same way with all material beings, all of which were subject to extension, weight, and movement; and it was in this sense that all the sciences of nature, and especially that of living beings, had a profound mechanistic vocation; from Cuvier onward, living beings escape, in the first instance at least, the general laws of extensive being; biological being becomes regional and autonomous; life, on the confines of being, is what is exterior to it and also, at the same time, what manifests itself within it. (297)

The living being must therefore no longer be understood merely as a certain combination of particles bearing definite characters; it provides the outline of an organic structure, which maintains uninterrupted relations with exterior elements that it utilizes (by breathing and eating) in order to maintain or develop its own structure. (298)

The living being, by the action and sovereignty of the same forces that keeps it in discontinuity with itself, finds itself subjected to a continuous relation with all that surrounds it. (298)

From Cuvier onward, the living being wraps itself in its own existence, breaks offits taxonomic links of adjacency, tears itself free from the vast, tyrannical plan of continuities, and constitutes itself as a new space: a double space, in fact – since it is both the interior one of anatomical coherences and physiological compatibilities, and the exterior one of the elements in which it resides and of which it forms its own body. But both these spaces are subject to a common control: it is no longer that of the possibilities of being, it is that of the conditions of life. (299)

Historicity, then, has now been introduced into nature – or rather the realm of living beings; but it exists there as much more than a probable form of succession; it constitutes a sort of fundamental mode of being. (300)

Paradoxically, Ricardo’s pessimism and Cuvier’s fixism can arise only against a historical background: they define the stability of beings, which henceforth have the right, at the level of their profound modality, to possess a history; whereas the Classical idea, that wealth could grow in a continuous process, or that species could, with time, transform themselves into one another, defined the mobility of beings, which, even before any kind of history, already obeyed a system of variables, identities, or equivalences. (301)

In any case, the constitution of a living historicity has had vast consequences for European thought. Quite as vast, without any doubt, as those brought about by the formation of an economic historicity. At the superficial level of the great imaginative values, life, henceforth

pledged to history, is expressed in the form of animality. The animal, whose great threat or radical strangeness had been left suspended and as it were disarmed at the end of the Middle Ages, or at least at the end of the Renaissance, discovers fantastic new powers in the nineteenth century. (301)

If living beings are a classification, the plant is best able to express its limpid essence; but if they are a manifestation of life, the animal is better equipped to make its enigma perceptible. Rather than the calm image of characters, it shows us the incessant transition from the inorganic to the organic by means of respiration or digestion, and the inverse transformation, brought about by death, of the great functional structures into lifeless dust. (302)

The plant held sway on the frontiers of movement and immobility, of the sentient and the non-sentient; whereas the animal maintains its existence on the frontiers of life and death. Death besieges it on all sides; furthermore, it threatens it also from within, for only the organism can die, and it is from the depth of their lives that death overtakes living beings. Hence, no doubt, the ambiguous values assumed by animality towards the end of the eighteenth century: the animal appears as the bearer of that death to which it is, at the same time, subjected; it contains a perpetual devouring of life by life. It belongs to nature only at the price of containing within itself a nucleus of antinature. Transferring its most secret essence from the vegetable to the animal kingdom, life has left the tabulated space of order and become wild once more. The same movement that dooms it to death reveals it as murderous. It kills because it lives. Nature can no longer be good. (302)

In relation to life, beings are no more than transitory figures, and the being that they maintain, during the brief period of their existence, is no more than their presumption, their will to survive. And so, for knowledge, the being of things is an illusion, a veil that must be torn aside in order to reveal the mute and invisible violence that is devouring them in the darkness. (303)

Thus a system of thought is being formed that is opposed in almost all its terms to the system that was linked to the formation of an economic historicity. The latter, as we have seen, took as its foundation a triple theory of irreducible needs, the objectivity of labour, and the end of history. Here, on the contrary, a system of thought is being developed in which individuality, with its forms, limits, and needs, is no more than a precarious moment, doomed to destruction, forming first and last a simple obstacle that must be removed from the path of that annihilation; a system of thought in which the objectivity of things is mere appearance, a chimera of the perceptions, an illusion that must be dissipated and returned to the pure will, without phenomenon, that brought those things into being and maintained them there for an instant; lastly, a system of thought for which the recommencement of life, its incessant resumptions, and its stubbornness, preclude the possibility of imposing a limit of duration upon it, especially since time itself, with its chronological divisions and its quasispatial calendar, is doubtless nothing but an illusion of knowledge. (304)

Joseph Vining “Human Identity: The Question Presented by Human-Animal Hybridization”

December 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Vining, Joseph 2008. Human Identity: The Question Presented by Human-Animal Hybridization. Stanford Journal of Animal Law & Policy: 50-68.

It is ultimately in law, and not anywhere else, that we meet to decide what we can do to each other or indeed to other creatures. (51)

[…] “animals” as such have been patentable in the United States ever since the Supreme Court ruled that an oil-eating bacterium was patentable. (52)

[…] “genetic analysis to help work out the biochemical pathways underlying memory and clear thinking . . . [O]nly by reducing the differences in human beings will we ever have a society in which we can effectively view all individuals as truly equal.” (55 – James D. Watson)

The idea of a being as somehow less than human speaks directly to the way we treat and have treated animals, our doing to them what we say we would not do to a fellow human being, in the infliction of pain, suffering, death, even clear torture. But the phrase “less than fully human” also speaks to treatment of those who would otherwise  be considered simply fellow “human beings”: historically, and even today, lines based on age or gender as well as race or ethnicity have been drawn between the fully human and the not fully human. (56)

In our present usage, including scientific usage, what makes a species a “species,” what gives an individual being a generic name beyond Joe or Whiskers, is not only an individual’s ability to reproduce something like itself, but an inability to reproduce something that does not look like itself, whatever the variations of detail upon which natural selection might work. The species boundary is determined, whenever there is sexual  reproduction, by an inability to breed. (63)

But as we know there are vast differences today between the way we treat flesh we identify as human and all other flesh, differences that have as their poles love at one end and confinement and torture at the other—the horrors of the factory farm, the testing laboratory, and, it  must be said, what can happen in the university research laboratory. These we justify in utilitarian terms. Human identity is not only an intellectual, aesthetic, or religious matter. Companionship and delight for us may be there beyond human identity, but horror and extermination lie beyond it in much greater measure. (63-64)

Thomas Sebeok “Global Semiotics”

December 7, 2012 Leave a comment

Sebeok, Thomas A. 2001. Global Semiotics. Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

 

What Do We Know about Signifying Behavior in the Domestic Cat (Felis Catus)? (74-96)

[…] the triadic relationship is preserved in one’s absence: the cat’s eyes will, depending on the situation, change their expression even if you do not peceive or otherwise register the behavioral sequence. (76)

[…] the non-cat outside observer does not know the cat’s code; and even another cat shares it only to the limited extent warranted by its own semantic boundaries. (78)

„The behavior of every organism – ’behavior’ being defined as the sign trafficking among different Umwelten – has as its basic function the production of nonverbal signs for communication, and first of all for communication of that organism within itself“ (Sebeok 1992: 103). (79)

It appears from this approach that behavior is, in semiotic jargon, an indexical sign, pointing toward its interpretant, viz., another sign, which in its turn is empowered to encode effects of the environment onto its receptors into still further signs, or, in short, to attribute meaning. (80)

The salien point to bear in mind here is that both kinds of sounds, regardless of their sourcee and whether wanted (signals) or unwanted (noise), „signify“ whenever they impinge on the appropriate auditory circuit of any animal, self or other, thereupon arrogating the office of an interpretant (in Peircean phraseology), or, more accurately, a cataract of such novel signs. (85)

[…] from its ontogenetic outset, any animal must minimally classify within its inherited cognitive map classes of things to approach […], another class of things to withdraw from […], and an indefinitely vaster category of all remaining objects (0) which appear not to matter either biologically or socially – a brew of plus, minus, and zero signs adequate for survival. (89)

 

„Tell Me, Where Is Fancy Bred?“: The Biosemiotic Self (120-127)

[…] bodily sensations and the like, most saliently those connected with illness, are not amenable to verbal expression because they lack external referents; insistent intrusions though they may be into the routines of one’s day or night, they can at best be denominated, for they resist unfolding into narratives, which are, by definition, always verbal. (123)

Where, then, is the „semiotic self“ located? Clearly, in the organism’s milieu extérieur, on the level of an idiosyncratic phenomenal world, tantamount to Jakob von Uexküll’s Umwelt – a technical appellation I prefer to render as the „model“ of a species-specific segment of individual reality – made up of exosemiotic processes of sign transmission. […] This semiotic self, which of course enfolds and thus „contains“ in its milieu intérieur some body’s immunocompetetence, occupies, as it were, a sphere of space/time bounding the organism’s integumentm although the proagrams for fabrication of subjective constructs of this sort are surely stored within the subjacent realms of its endosemiotic organs […] This semiotic self, furthermore, is composed of a repertoire of signs of a necessarily sequestered character; as Jakob von Uexküll – claiming that even a signle cell has its Ich-Ton („ego-quality“) – remarked, „bleibt unser Ich notwendig subjektiv“ (our ego remains necessarily subjective). (124)

The semiotic self, as was already noticed by Thure von Uexküll, is the recondite interpreter of our world in the semiosic chain of transmission, and therefore continually engaged in meta-interpretation, viz., interpreting interpretations. Any self can and must interpret the observed behavior of another organism solely as a response to its interpretations of its universe, „behavior“ meaning the propensity that enables it to link up its Umwelt with those of other living systems within its niche. An act of interpretation is an act of assignment, that is, the elevation of an interpreted phenomenon to „signhood“; indeed, this is what the word encoding betokens. (126)

Thomas Sebeok “Perspectives in Zoosemiotics”

December 3, 2012 Leave a comment

Sebeok, Thomas A. 1972. Perspectives in Zoosemiotics. The Hague: Mouton.

Animal Communication (63-83)

The communicating organism’s selection of a message out of its species-consistent code – as well as the receiving organism’s apprehension of it – proceeds either in accordance with a genetic program dictating an almost wholly prefabricated set of responses, or with reference to each animal’s unique memory store which then determines the way in which the genetic program is read out. (72)

The practice of territoriality is a concrete example of a convention, and a convention is a kind of code. (74)

A code is that set of transformation rules whereby messages are converted from one representation to another, a message being a string generated by an application of a set of such rules, or an ordered selection from an agreed, that is, conventional, set of signs. The physical embodiment of a message, a signal, is a sign-event or a sequence of sign-events where, in the domain at issue, a small amount of energy or matter in the source, an animal, brings about a large redistribution of energy or matter in the destination, the same or another animal. (75)

 

Semiotics and Ethology (122-161)

Zoopragmatics is concerned with the manner in which an animal encodes a message, how this is transmitted in a channel, and the manner in which the user decodes it. Since any form of physical energy propagation can be exploited for purposes of communication, a primary task is to specify the sensor, employed among other members of a given species or between members of different species, and emerging subdivisions of the field are commonly organized in terms of the properties of the channels used. (124)

The basic assumption of zoosemiotics is that, in the last analysis, all animals are social beings, each species with a characteristic set of communication problems to solve. All organic alliances presuppose a measure of communication […] (130)

At present, zoosemantics consists largely of a heterogeneous collection of ad hoc proposals, and this partly for practical reasons, deriving from the enormous complexity of the structure, psychology, and social organization of animals, as well as the relative inaccessibility of the habitats where many of them dwell […] but, even more fundamentally, because semantics suffers from lack of a theory adequate to cope with the data of animal communication. (131)

Pure zoosemiotics is concerned with the elaboration of theoretical models or, in the broadest sense, with the development of a language designed to deal scientifically with animal signaling behavior. Descriptive zoosemiotics comprehends the study of animal communication as a natural and as a behavioral science in its pragmatic, semantic, and syntactic aspects, as briefly sketched in this essay. Finally, applied zoosemiotics aims to deal with the exploitation of animal communication systems for the benefit of man. (132)

In animals, as well as in man, a zoosemiotic event has six dimension, conveniently discussed under three headings: zoopragmatics, which deals with the origin, propagation, and effects of signs; zoosemiotics, which deals with their signification; and zoosyntactics, which deals with codes and messages. (133)

 

Zoosemiotic Structures and Social Organization (162-177)

Four principal kinds of behavior patters, relevant to communication, may be said to inform the organization of animal societies. The first of these is territoriality […] Territoriality refers to a variety of behavior patterns associated with the active defence of a certain site by an animal. […] The term is somewhat misleading, for one reason, because territorial behavior can take temporal as well as spatial forms, and, moreover, because it conveys a suggestion that the defended area is immovable. Actually, as Hediger pointed out, the defended area, bubble-like, may float with the individual. (172)

The second form of behavior relevant to social organization is based on dominance relations. Dominance refers to a variable condition according to which animals are ranked; the positions in the hierarchy may, under certain conditions, be interchanged. The establishment of a convention of precedents lends organized society a certain stability, counteracting the spacing effect caused by aggression, and facilitates patterns of communication by defining, with more or less precision, their social context. (173)

A third phenomenon is leadership, which may or may not be linked to dominance status. It is found in schools of fish, flocks of birds, and especially among mammals whose social structure persists over relatively long periods. The leader is the individual that emits the signals initiating movement of a group, determining its direction and rate; or that sets it mood, triggering, with the appropriate signs, alarm or feeding behavior. The definition of leadership is thus essentially a semiotic one. (173)

Finally, parental care and other forms of shared stimulation (as well as its converse, the shutting out or inhibition of social stimuli which may provoke aggression) are responses that tend to be associated with complex and long-lasting social bonds. Here belong the mutual grooming behavior of monkeys, as well as the reciprocal visual and auditory displays observed in many fish and birds. (173)