In this book, Wendy Wheeler formulates a history and theory of biosemiotic and proto-biosemiotic thinking in order to open up new possibilities of contemporary social, philosophical, aesthetic and technological engagement.
The age of gene-centrism and mechanism is slowly passing. In its place, the biological sciences increasingly recognise that life isn’t simply a genetically determined programme but is centrally a matter of information and communication systems nested in larger communicative systems. The latter include both internal and external, and natural and cultural, environments. But ‘information’ is an under-unanalysed term in relation to living systems.
Accordingly, a new interdiscipline, biosemiotics, has grown up to study the ontology of sign relations in biological, aesthetic and technological ecologies. From the Greek bios for life and semeion for sign, biosemiotics is the study of these intertwined natural and cultural sign systems of the living.
Expecting the Earth draws on the semiotic philosophy of the American scientist and logician Charles Sanders Peirce, the semiotic ethology of Jakob von Uexküll’s Umwelt Theory, Gregory Bateson’s cybernetic ecology of mind, Jesper Hoffmeyer’s development of biosemiotics, and briefly upon philosophical precursors such as Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari and Gilbert Simondon, as well as the growth of ecological developmental biology more widely.
In this book, Wendy Wheeler formulates a history and theory of biosemiotic and proto-biosemiotic thinking in order to open up new possibilities of contemporary social, philosophical, aesthetic and technological engagement. This is essential reading for those interested in these groundbreaking new developments, and is relevant to the environmental humanities, social ecology and the life sciences more generally.
Introduction: The Turning
1. Biosemiotics: Towards an Ecological Ontology of Sign Relations
2. The Wrecked Vessel and Earth Repudiation: Gnosticism, Nominalism and the Semiotic Scaffolding of Modern Scientific Consciousness
3. The Lightest Burden: The Aesthetic Abductions of Biosemiotics
4. A Feeling for Life: Natural and Cultural Ecologies and the Orders of Discourse
5. A Connoisseur of Magical Coincidences: Chance, Creativity and Poiesis from a Biosemiotic Perspective
6. Expecting the Earth: A New Animism, the Technological Object and Gilbert Simondon
‘This is an amazingly good book. Wendy Wheeler explains why biosemiotics has become crucial for understanding culture. She shows how both nature and culture are made of meanings that evolve in semiotic relations between life and the Earthly environment life expects’
Kalevi Kull, Professor of Biosemiotics, University of Tartu, Estonia
‘This is a commanding work of revisionist intellectual history, disclosing the proto-biosemiotic dimension of the thought of Deleuze and Guattari, the gnostic influence constraining modern science, and the actuality of medieval theology and German Idealism. In her explorations of the poetic character of relational natural becoming, the organismic aspect of human works of art, and the unpredictable liveliness of our technological inventions, Wheeler shows how our humanly constructed worlds might be rendered more hospitable to the expectations of our own creaturely being, along with those of many other creatures. She demonstrates how biosemiotics provides the crucial intellectual wherewithal to help arrest industrial modernity’s continuing slide towards ecocide’
Professor Kate Rigby, Director of the Research Centre for Environmental Humanities, Bath Spa University, and Adjunct Professor, Monash University. Author of Dancing with Disaster: Environmental Histories, Narratives and Ethics for Perilous Times (2015).
‘This is a profound study of the relationship between life and literature, natural and cultural ecology, on the basis of a biosemiotic theory of human and nonhuman communication. Systematizing her pioneering work in this field, Wheeler positions her approach in the context of relevant precursors of relational ontology from Deleuze and Guattari to Charles Sanders Peirce and Gilbert Simondon, linking processes of life to processes of art through the biosemiotic concept of abduction that is fundamental to both natural and cultural creativity. Wheeler’s book is a landmark study and indispensable contribution to contemporary ecocultural theory that not only helps to illuminate central questions of the environmental humanities but will inspire new practices of reading and appreciating texts.’
Hubert Zapf is Professor and Chair of American Literature at the University of Augsburg, Germany
‘Highly readable, remarkably wide-ranging and thoroughly profound, Wendy Wheeler’s Expecting the Earth argues that the way out of humanity’s current alienation from, and disastrous impact upon, nature is a turning away from the life-denying impoverishment of a materialist ontology of discrete substance and towards the life-enabling fecundity of a process ontology of interdependent relations – the most important of which is that of the sign. In its masterful and original synthesis of science, literature and philosophy, it blazes the trail not only for a truly biosemiotic turn in the humanities, but for revolutionary turn in the mindset of the reader, as well.’
Don Favareau, author of Essential Readings in Biosemiotics
“Wendy Wheeler is a humane voice, who finds a muse and a call to what William Blake called mental fight, in the ideas of biosemiotics, Bateson and others. Her book is witness to an adventure of the mind that has traversed many of the landscapes of thought that I too, over the years, have found beautiful and illuminating.”
– Phillip Guddemi, Cybernetics & Human Knowing Vol 23 No 4, 2016
“It is not an exaggeration to say that Wendy Wheeler’s work in synthesising biosemiotics and humanities has been one of the most interesting developments in recent environmental humanities.”
– Timo Maran, Green Letters
“Wheeler’s book offers a cogent argument for the uses of biosemiotics. Expecting the Earth demonstrates what biosemiotics can do, moving beyond theory to applications in cultural study. The semiotic history of organisms captures successful survival strategies, opening “real-world possibility spaces that are inseparably ‘entangled’ with that sign, and just awaiting exploration” (quoted in p. 166). The humanities have a stake in understanding biosemiosis; it offers an important opportunity to connect human agency to that of other species.”
Iris Smith Fischer, Critical Inquiry
“Expecting the Earth is itself filled to the brim with expanding semiotic meaning and looks expectantly to biosemiotic human creativity and what it can do for our planet and for the field of literary and cultural studies.”
Paul Hamann, The British Society for Literature and Science