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Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Zoosemiotics abstract: Umwelt trajectories

I have just finished my abstract for the forthcoming zoosemiotics conference.

Morten Tønnessen

The Umwelt trajectories of wolves, sheep and people


This paper contributes to developing Umwelt terminology, and simultaneously offers an analysis of past and current interrelations of wolves, sheep and people, thus providing an application of the notation suggested.

The starting point for the author’s terminology is the concept of an Umwelt transition, which is in effect an Uexküllian notion of environmental change. An Umwelt transition can be defined as a lasting, systematic change within the life cycle of a being, considered from an ontogenetic (individual), phylogenetic (population-, species-) or cultural perspective, from one typical appearance of its Umwelt (i.e., organism-specific phenomenal world) to another. An Umwelt trajectory, the author proposes, can be characterized as the course through evolutionary (and cultural) time taken by the Umwelt of a creature, as defined by its changing relations with the Umwelten of other creatures. Thus defined it represents an evolutionary and mass equivalent of Jakob von Uexküll’s notion of the Umwelt-tunnel of a single individual creature.

As we can see, the Umwelt trajectory of a creature is the historical path of its perceptual and behavioral dispositions considered from an ecological and phenomenological point of view. As such, it is intimately tied to this creature’s ontological niche, i.e. the set of contrapuntal relations that a being takes part in at a given point of natural history. Like the Umwelt tunnel and the ontological niche, the Umwelt trajectory of a creature can be regarded as a specification of the Umwelt concept which situates it in terms of temporal perspective.

Taken as a whole the Umwelten of wolves, sheep and people represent an Umwelt triad of sorts, given that they have been and remain intertwined and codependent. This triple Umwelt is telling of both ecological and cultural developments. In cultural terms, hardly any animals are as loaded with symbolic value as the wolf and the sheep. And the shared importance is no coincidence, as the symbolism of the two animals has developed in explicit opposition to each other. Altogether the wolf-sheep duet, the human-sheep duet and the human-wolf duet – to speak with Uexküll – constitute a highly coordinated triple duet in the great symphony of nature.

The most enlivening aspect of this narrative concerns the semiotic and phenomenological interplay that takes place amid wolves, sheep and people. While the most relevant long-term process of change varies from creature to creature – evolution for wolves, breeding for sheep and cultural development for people (all of which represent broad categories of Umwelt transitions) – there are several common factors at play as well. In this paper, the author will touch upon a) the geographical range and overlap, (b) the sensory range and overlap, and c) the functional range and overlap of wolves, sheep and people. The most crucial arena for semiotic interplay (and thus semiotic causation) is that of functional interrelations, particularly with regard to companionship and enmity. In our current ecological situation, where the human species has emerged as a global species in charge of an ecological empire wherein the sheep, among other species, has been given a privileged position, even the wolf has entered into a dependency relation with our kind. For better or worse, our Umwelt trajectories have (once again) aligned.

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