By Matthew Cuffaro
Semiotics (the study of signification) has a deep tradition for universalism. A deeper tradition in thought is the concession that humans hold a special place among lifeforms as “conscious,” and semiotics is no different. In Sign Crossroads in Global Perspective, the authors Petrilli and Ponzio argue that if humans are conscious of the significance of things, then they are responsible for their signification, curtailing polluting or destructive cultures and practices in favor of “planetary semiosis [process of signification]” (the analogue of the “Spaceship Earth” idea you might have heard about). Petrilli and Ponzio define semioethics for us:
“…1) invent a plurality of possible worlds; 2) to reflect upon signs; 3) to be responsible for one’s actions; 4) to gain conscious awareness of our inevitable involvement, of each and every one of us, in the sign network of life over the entire planet; and 5) to be responsibly involved in the destiny of planetary semiosis.” (3-4, Petrilli and Ponzio).
How does semioethics look in our day? For example, if I say “forest”, I denote the complex of trees that scaffold a rich ecosystem, but I can also expect to connote something in the listener that is met with a response. There might be stress: the listener that is familiar with the films Silent Running, Medicine Man, and Avatar is familiar with the disappearing forest—something invaluable, yet mercilessly exploited, yet something distant. There might be interest: the listener may be a logger who equates the forest with their income, or an ecologist who sees the forest as a complex of interdependent lifeforms. There may be religious or existential feelings to the listener that knows the forest to possess supernal power or sagacity, healing benefits, or the basis of their livelihood. Further still, the Puritan coming to the New World sees the endless forests as ripe with resource to be drawn from systematically through their labors. Through cultural and scientific influence, our example paints the forest as something once a symbol of innumerable economic plenty to something of indispensable ecological value. If we follow these trends, we imagine the forest as a “life support system;” something of personal and functional value, Thus, the forest is represented in a way that alters its significance to the people.
Now I believe Petrilli & Ponzio’s project is bioethical because they are both critical and imperative towards environmental practice, but their focus on the human is uncharacteristic of the contemporary trends in semiotics to extend its essentially pre-linguistic domain to lifeforms. If biosemiotics wishes to construct a basis for extending signification to (all) lifeforms, then can we depart from Petrilli and Ponzio to say that animals are in some way semioethical? Prima facie, this is absurd, because the hare does not have the logging companies, the socioreligious campaigns, NIMBY sieges on civic projects, etc.; what the hare has is grassy flatlands, abundant cellulose, and other “critters” that are supposedly significant to it.
The example I like is the “fable” of the Fox and the Hare. In the introduction to Jesper Hoffmeyer’s Biosemiotics (of which I paraphrase): A hare in a field becomes aware of a fox stalking close by. The hare stands up on its hind legs and the fox, seeing this, aborts its foxing and trots away. An ethologist reporting on this claims that the hare stood as a gesture to the fox that chasing it would be a waste of everyone’s time and energy. The meat behind this claim is that it does not argue that the behavior is instinctual. After all, brains are calorically very expensive so the ethologist believes that the hare’s act is an example of signification, or that standing up is a gesture invented by the hare to communicate.
What is possibly semioethical in this account of the fox and the hare is that the creative status of the hare’s gesture leads us to ask the status of consciousness of the hare, which leaves us with open questions. If the hare is communicating something to the fox, then does it recognize the fox as something that can respond or react to the gesture? Do animals of supposed creativity understand their intercommunicants as “animated threats” (how the heck does the fox appear to the hare)? If so, then can we attribute a variant of the semioethical capacity we attribute ourselves to an animal that is cognizant of the capacities of other animals?
Why is this semioethical account useful to us?
If we adopt a biosemiotic strategy of extending semiotics “globally,” then the ideal common system for describing things semiotically allow us to ‘approximate’ ourselves beyond scientific prejudice of an unchecked human exceptionalism—the notion that all “human” qualities are exclusively “human.” If we form through our inquiries the grounds for suspecting the rudiments of consciousness in other lifeforms, then we not only invite scientific interest to explore and validate these suspicions but confirm the deep intuitions of those who advocate for ecocentric (more like un-anthropocentric) thought.
Notwithstanding, it is problematic already for us in the political arena to attribute animal rights in the very least, but if we can extend an ethical basis to animals first, then we have the philosophical freight to carry these arguments further. We may look at the vegetarian pamphlets thobbing the horrors of factory farms through the animal anecdotes and praising soy diets, perhaps with Ryan Gosling’s testament in there for good measure (I’m looking at you, Vegan Outreach.). In these pamphlets chickens named Kevin, pigs named Emily, and fishes named Calvin are celebrated for their ability to solve puzzles, count, communicate and especially escape, yet the semioethical project underlying this is that these animals are worth something by their apparent human attributes. We should treat these arguments by not evaluating the animals by their humanness, but by the attributes that allows us to understand the intentions of the animal (or plant), at the threat that we continue to think “humanness” is superior to “animalness” and is a standard beyond the niche of our circumstances. In a more fundamental way, the semioethical problem I try to convey would, if realized, mark a step in the scholarly imagination: those who could peer into the eyes of the rabbit peering into the fox, or to surject themselves onto the mind of the plant.
Matthew Cuffaro is a philosophy student at the University of South Florida with a concentration in the philosophies of mathematics and religious studies.