Tag Archive: biosemiotics


I’d like to call a moratorium on the use of the word “constructivism” (or “constructionism”) to refer only to social constructivism.

(This post was prompted by Tim  Morton’s Object-Oriented Strategies for Ecological Art, but his point there is somewhat differently directed and mine addresses a more general issue that can still be found in a lot of writing in social and ecological theory, and which concerns what’s at stake when we speak of “constructivism.”)

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Since there isn’t much available in English about Philippe Descola’s writings on animism, I thought I would share a piece of the cosmopolitics argument I mentioned in my last post. It will appear, in modified form, in the concluding chapter of the SAR Press volume mentioned there. Most of the volume will consist of ethnographic case studies from around the world, but these will be informed by the theoretical conversations of the week we spent at the School of Advanced Research in Santa Fe.

Following this excerpt I have added some comments relating the ideas (discussed here) of Descola, Latour, and Stengers to some of the concepts I’ve been working with from Whitehead, Peirce, and the fields/discourses of biosemiotics and panpsychism. I haven’t seen these connections made (in this way, at least) in any of the literature by or on these authors, and I’m still working out these ideas myself, so that part is work-in-progress.

From animism to cosmopolitics

Animism, like the “primitive,” “pagan,” and “savage,” but also like “religion” itself, is a term has been used to classify cultural difference into a hierarchically valenced series: animists, for Edward Tylor and other evolutionists, were thought to have maintained a “lower” and more “primitive” conception of the universe, one peopled by spirits and with objects being ascribed human characteristics. In Tylor’s view, the animist “stage” of belief was followed by a polytheistic one, and in turn by a monotheistic one. This evolutionism has since been largely rejected, and more recently, a loose coterie of anthropologists and scholars of religion have reappropriated the term “animism” to mean something rather more interesting (Bird-David 1999; Descola 2005, 2006, 2009; Harvey 2006; Ingold 2000; Viveiros de Castro 1992, 2004). View full article »

biosemiotics news

New Scientist has a nice article (“Searching for meanings in a meadow“) on the state of the field of biosemiotics, which I’ve mentioned here on a number of occasions (e.g., here and, in passing, here).

The new Springer anthology Essential Readings in Biosemiotics looks like a very good overview of all things biosemiotic. The 77-page introduction by Donald Favareau can be read online here or downloaded as PDF file from this page. I highly recommend it.

I recently mentioned my belief, or hope, that the humanities and sciences are working their ways toward a post-constructivist synthesis, a paradigm in the making with the potential to become a powerful player in twenty-first century public discourse. “Post-constructivism” says little, and “post-representationalism”, “post-anthropocentric humanism,” and “post-Kantianism” — the other terms I used there — don’t help much. So I feel obliged to articulate in more detail what I mean by this assertion. If it is a trend, it is not one that can be demonstrated with quantitative evidence: no matter how many names or schools of thought one can list, there will have been no exhaustive survey done of how these names and schools stack up against all the others that continue to generate knowledge in our academies and in the other intellectual spaces of the world (including emergent ones like those found on-line).

This claim, or belief of mine, is just a reading — and not a disinterested one — of those fields that I cover in my own everyday reading, browsing, research and teaching practice. Its components include the following:

1) There has been a clear shift away from a strict “social constructionism,” or “constructivism,” in the humanities and social sciences to something more cognizant of the complex relations between the social and the non-social, a category that includes the material, the bodily, the affective and emotional, and the biological.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QnTH4VSIQZw?fs=1&hl=en_US

This beautifully photographed new BBC documentary, The Secret Life of Chaos, evocatively illustrates one way of thinking about immanence, i.e., the spontaneous emergence of beauty and complexity from natural process. Morphogenesis, self-organization, the collapse of Newtonian physics (into chaos/complexity theory, etc.), the “butterfly effect,” fractal geometry, delicious little biographical details about Alan Turing, Edward Lorenz, Benoit Mandelbrot, and others — it’s all there. Iraqi-born physicist-host Jim Al-Khalili gives us the enthusiasm and hipness of a newfangled (and perhaps more respectable) James Burke, and the music, from Arvo Part’s opening strains (“Spiegel im Spiegel”) to Satie, Steve Reich, Brian Eno, et al, adds a great deal to the pleasure of watching it. Nice work on BBC’s part.

The doc provides helpful tools for visualizing dynamic systems, which are part of what’s making it possible for science and culture, Latour’s two poles of the “modern constitution,” to work their way toward a rapprochement. What’s still missing is the integration of first-person subjectivity — mind as opposed to body — which biosemiotics (drawing on Peirce, von Uexkull, Bateson, Sebeok, et al), Whiteheadian process metaphysics, enactive cognitivism, and related schools of thought, help to get at. To actually bring these together into a successful and convincing synthesis — one that would put Newton, Descartes, and the rest fully into the past and put cognitive science on a much stronger footing (in my opinion) — will require a lot more work, of course. Philosophers in particular have their work cut out for them (as my recent exchange with Levi Bryant might suggest).

The Secret Life of Chaos is in six 10-minutes segments, but if you only have a few minutes to sample it now, watch the bit on feedback loops and the butterfly effect that begins this segement:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxAltBlGZAo?fs=1&hl=en_US

Incidentally, John Law’s post-Actor-Network-Theory After Method: Mess in Social Science Research, which I’ve mentioned positively a few times here recently, has now been made available at the fabulous ever expanding scholar-hipster’s online library aaaarg.org. A few of the missing social-science pieces I mentioned work their way into Law’s book…

Thanks to Integral Options Cafe for blogging about the BBC doc, which just premiered in the UK this past week.

One of the impressive recent efforts to bring the physical sciences and the social sciences and humanities back onto “consilient” speaking terms (to use E. O. Wilson’s terminology, though his own efforts at this have been unimpressive) is Wendy Wheeler’s The Whole Creature: Complexity, Biosemiotics and the Evolution of Culture. Wheeler is a humanist, an English lit specialist whose work emerges out of the Raymond Williams tradition of British cultural studies, and her foray into biosemiotics and complexity science is highly original and ambitious. She’s an editor at British Left-political cultural studies journal New Formations , having produced special issues on complexity and ecocriticism in recent years. Complexity research has been making some waves in sociological and cultural theory circles for a while now (e.g., in Theory Culture & Society), but biosemiotics is more of a newcomer on these intellectual (humanistic/culturological) shores. The book is blurbed by leading biosemiotician Jesper Hoffmeyer, author of, among other things, Signs of Meaning in the Universe (Indiana U. Press, 1996).

While I’ve only read parts of the book (and a few outtakes in other venues) and am not qualified to comment on its use of complexity theory or biosemiotics, it’s heartening to see Donald Favareau’s very favorable extended review, “Understanding Natural Constructivism” in Semiotica, which has been a leading venue for biosemiotic research and theory for several years. I strongly recommend it both as a summary of Wheeler’s book and as an introduction to biosemiotics.

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