Biosemiotics: meaning beyond the human world is a research project funded by the Being Human Research Priority Area at the University of Gloucestershire.
One of the most significant attributes of ‘being human’ is language; linguistic systems are not only integral to human culture, but semiosis (the production of signs) has often been seen as singularly human. For some long time the facility of linguistic communication has been a defining feature of, and justification for, humankind’s predominance. Recently, extensive theoretical work has been done in the exploration of the semiotic processes that extend, not just to more-than-human species, but also to fundamental biological and geological systems.
Biosemiotics, which Jesper Hoffmeyer describes as the study of ‘the signs of life and the life of signs’ (Hoffmeyer Biosemiotics: An Examination into the signs of Life: 2008), combined biology and semiotics, inspired by the discovery in the 1960s of the genetic code. ‘Biosemiotic criticism’ is a recent literary critical development. It builds on the early work of ‘biosemiotics’ and ‘zoosemiotics’ developed in the 1960s and 1970s, incorporates the late writings on nature by the phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty, and extends recent ecocritical theories. One of the main proponents of Biosemiotic Criticsim, Timo Maran, explains its relevance and application:
the British educational philosopher and semiotician Andrew Staples has argued that for modern literary theory, the position of the author has become blurred, thus allowing the concept of ‘text’ to be expanded to include natural phenomenon, allowing us to see landscape as text and to recognise, on a par with humans, other living beings and even forces of nature as creators of meanings. In other words, all living being and forces of nature are seen to possess agency, which has an impact on the creation of texts and manifests in the text or description created. (Maran Green Letters 2014 298-99)
To fulfil our aims it is imperative to keep in mind an observation – and invocation – made by David Abram in 2011:
If we speak of things as inert or inanimate objects, we deny their ability to actively engage and interact with us – we foreclose their capacity to reciprocate our attentions, to draw us into […] dialogue, to inform and instruct us […] It subverts the long isolation of the thinking self from the perceptual world that it ponders, suggesting that we and the sensorial surroundings are woven of the same fabric, indeed that we are palpably entwined with all that we see and hear and touch – entirely part of a living biosphere. (Abram Becoming Animal : 71)
The particular contribution of this project is to extend a biosemiotic critical approach through a range of media and disciplines: literary criticism (Shelley Saguaro); ecolinguistics (Arran Stibbe); creative poetics and cognitive analysis (Nigel McLoughlin); photography and sound (Tony Clancy and Andy Moxon). From the dynamic and familiar to the invisible and the supposedly inert, this project aims for a new way of apprehending more-than-human meaning.