ECOSEMIOTICS: MAIN IDEAS AND CURRENT DEVELOPMENTS Kalevi Kull, Timo Maran Department of Semiotics, University of Tartu
Towards the ecosemiotic paradigm • Hybrid nature of research objects • Contact areas of ecology and semiotics (e.g. cybernetics and G. Bateson) • Story of the concept: ecosemiotics (W. Nöth 1996), semiotic ecology (A. Lang 1993), Ökosemiose (G. Tembrock 1997) • Conferences and thematic issues: Zeitschrift für Semiotik 15-1/2 (1993), 18-1 (1996), Sign Systems Studies 29.1 (2001)
Defining ecosemiotics • W. Nöth (1996): Ecosemiotics is semiotics of habitat, the aim of which “is the study of the semiotic interrelations between organisms and their environment”. • K. Kull (1998): Ecosemiotics is “a part of the semiotics of culture, which investigates human relationships to nature which have a semiosic (sign-mediated) basis”.
Defining ecosemiotics • W. Nöth (2001): Ecosemiotics includes cultural and biological ecosemiotics. • Cultural ecosemiotics proceeds from semiology and structuralism (C. Lévi-Strauss, J. Lotman, U. Eco, A.J. Greimas) and investigates to what extent nature is interpreted from a cultural perspective and to what extent various cultures interpret the same natural phenomena differently. • Biological ecosemiotics proceeds from the tradition of general semiotics (Ch.S. Peirce, Ch. Morris, Th. A. Sebeok) and treats semiosic processes in living nature as phenomena in their own right.
Aim of this presentation ... • To propose a wider synthesis of ecosemiotics that would cover different approaches but at the same time retain paradigmatic integrity of the field. • Reasons for developing such a synthesis: (1) existence of common theoretical framework would stimulate the development of the field; (2) the concept of ecosemiotics is used in various contexts and narrow theoretical description would be non-effective; (3) a practical need for a paradigm that could handle hybrid research objects.
Seven key principles of ecosemiotics (1) The structure of ecological communities is based on semiosic bonds. (2) Changing sign can change the existing order. All living organisms change their environment on the basis of their own images. (3) Semiosis regulates ecosystem. Meaning-making both stabilizes and destabilizes it. (4) Human symbolic semiosis (with its capacity of decontextualization) and environmental degradation are deeply related.
(5) Energetically and biogeochemically, culture is a part of an ecosystem. Semiotically, culture is both a part and a metalevel of the semiosic ecological network. (6) Narrative description is inadequate for the description of ecological semiosis. (7) The concept of culture would be incomplete without an ecological dimension. A theory of culture would be incomplete without the ecosemiotic aspect.
Applications of ecosemiotics: example 1 • Eco-field model (A. Farina 2004, 2006) is based on Uexküll’sUmwelt theory.Itdescribes landscape from the perspective of an animal subject. • Eco-field should be understood as “the physical (ecological) space and the associated abiotic and biotic characters that are perceived by a species when a functional trait is active. [...] The eco-field can be considered the interference space in which the mechanisms for collecting, concentrating, stocking, preserving and manipulating energy are active.”
Applications of ecosemiotics: example 1 • Such method allows modeling of landscape use by different species (both animals and human) and bringing out conflicts in this. Regarding Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus), Almo Farina writes: “an unprecedented spread of man-made barriers reduce connectivity between sub-populations preventing the explorative behaviour of such large organisms. The survivorship of the lynx is not a simple matter of prey biomass availability […], but is the result of the low score of different eco-fields that become rare in the Iberian region”. • Based on the general idea of this presentation, eco-field can be considered a unit of interaction between the animal subject and the environment.Eco-field has both specific meaning content and spatial localization.
Applications of ecosemiotics: example 2 • For ecocritical studies ecosemiotics can provide aholistic perspective that integrates in one framework descriptions of semiotic processes in animals and their representations in culture. • I made a study in 2006 on three books of nature writing where I focused on representations of communication between different species: F. Jüssi „Jäälõhkuja” (Icebreaker, 1986); R. Kuresoo „Loodus on lähedal” (Nature is Near, 2001); P. Ernits „Mõned mu naabrid” (Some of My Neighbours, 2003).
Applications of ecosemiotics: example 2 • From this analysis, the following conclusions could be drawn:1. Descriptions of the communicative encounters between humans and animals are common in all three books.2. Messages sent and received in the communication include also physical contact or activities meaningful to the receiver.3. Relations that lead to the communicative encounter are diverse (symbiotic, social, or sexual relationships, etc.).4. Communicative relations often originate in the use of the same physical environment.5. There are noticeable differences in the strategies authors use to transfer the meaning of animal vocalizations into human language. • Altogether, the analysis identified different possibilities to convey animal semiosic activities in literary texts.
Applications of ecosemiotics • These two studies demonstrate possible applications of the ecosemiotic paradigm. There is potential for different types of practical research in the methodological framework of ecosemiotics, although hybrid objects that connect culture and nature semiotically are probably most suitable.