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Saturday, 28 May 2011

The base variants of semiotic causation

I am doing some writing, and in the process developing my notion of 'semiotic causation', which is coming to inhabit a central place in my semiotic worldview. Ten days ago I conceived of 'intentional causation' - the range of which in the realm of the living must correspond to each semiotician's notion of 'intention', which is likely to be somewhat intertwined with his or her notion of 'interpretation'.

Today I am introducing a distinction between 'horizontal semiotic causation' and 'vertical semiotic causation' tied to Peirce's levels of symbols (thirdness), indices (secondness) and icons (firstness), and a further distinction between 'mutual' and 'unilateral' semiotic causation (within either horizontal or vertical semiotic causation). Such subdivision is useful, but it should not be taken in any dogmatic vein. Part of my motivation is demonstrating the radical difference between semiotic interplay that is closed off from e.g. ecological developments (typically: horizontal semiotic causation, especially horizontal symbolic causation), and semiotic interplay which is in contact with such reality (typically: vertical semiotic causation).

Uppsala MA webpage launched, dates confirmed

The organizers of the Uppsala Minding Animals pre-conference event, "Zooethnographies", has launched their website and confirmed that the event will take place on the dates October 17-18th (after considering to move the event).

My talk 'Two global species and their age-old foe: The semiotic etn(n)ology of wolves, sheep and people' is one of six keynote speeches. Registration for the event opens in early June.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

My comment to Ross Wolfe's Marxist critique of the environmental movement

I have on request commented Ross Wolfe's article-long blog post "Man and Nature, Part IV: A Marxist Critique of the 'Green' Environmental Movement". His blog is called The charnel-house: Historico-philosophical notes. My comment is repeated in full below (with a handful of typos still in place, as in the original).

In accordance with the title and slogan of my academic blog, "Utopian Realism", I pride myself of acknowledging the importance of being empirically informed about past and current ecological and social developments globally, and to the extent possible to have an informed view of possible future societies. I am generally aligned with deep ecology in Arne Næss' sense, and further somewhat aligned with anarchism - and Gandhism. Plus I am a vegetarian with a preference for organic produce of milk and egg. So should I feel attacked? Yes and no. My response will predominantly have the form of reference to empirical reality. Ideology carried out in isolation from empirical reality is always irrelevant, if not outright dangerous.

You write that small-scale organic farming is "an elitist phenomenon not only in the smug sense of ethical virtue that comes with buying organic or local, but also in a very real, economic sense". There is something to your points as to pricing of products from organic farming. Yes, organic farming is labour-intensive rather than capital-intensive (relatively speaking). However, I do not regard that a weakness of organic farming. Industrialized agriculture is characterized in economic terms by being capital-intensive. Now, the price of labour varies significantly (extremely) globally, and this is particularly visible and manifest within global agriculture. The price of machinery and such, on the other hand, is in comparison approximately equal globally (though local varietions in labour costs and taxes etc. spill over to some extent on local costs of machinery as well). Does this make organic farming potentially more of a rich-country phenomenon? Not necessarily (that depends on your exact definition of organic farming). Fair trade initiatives at their best could in principle allow for more labour-intensive agriculture than what is the norm locally in poorer countries as well (note that the very poorest countries have much less machinery in use in their agriculture today, which in part explains their low productivity (yields) in mainstream terms). Use of more machinery is always presented as cost-effective and as increasing productivity. The ways in which labour is priced - valued, though, can change the whole picture.

You diss the greens' preference for family farming. This is not only an ‘organic’ longing, however, but quite widespread in many declining rural societies. As a matter of fact, of course, a major transition is going on globally from small-scale family farming to industrialized agriculture with little labour and high productivity bought by way of capital investment. Whereas many of these family farms were initially subsistence farms (in a society where most poeple were farmwers), we are now about to leave a transitional phase where there have been a lot of family farms operating on market terms in a society where they have been a declining minority. This declining trend reflects increases in productivity and capital-intensity. In Norway - to use an example I am well informed about - there are very few family farms left (only approximately one out of ten farms are run by husband and wife who have no other occupation), and the number is rapidly declining. Even more telling is the fact that a majority of Norwegian farmers have more income from other jobs or activities than they do from their farming activity. It is thus not only the traditional family farm that is threatened, but equally important the farming profession as a full-time occupation. Now we can always discuss whether or not this is a social problem. I'd argue that it is.

And not only is it a social problem from a human point of view. It is further a social problem from the point of view of many farm animals. The declining number of farmers is not only mirrored in increased productivity and capital-intensity. These trends are both reflected in a steadily increasing ration of livestock per farmer. Engendering animal equivalents of mass societies, this is surely a social problem in its own right, and a characteristic feature of industrial agriculture. My claim is that we can legitimately talk about "ecological alienation" in many of these cases (think about chicken - some of which perversely advertised as 'free-range' - that share a floor with thousands of others and never see daylight).

Yet another parallel to declinging farmer numbers, increasing productivity and increasing ratios livestock/farmer is the increasing ratio of land per farmer which we see occuring in Western farming (in other parts of the world, the situation is quite another - namely, societies under demographic pressure (with rapidly increasing populations) and in lack of arable land often have to deal with the problem of having smaller and smaller pieces of land for the poor rurals. Here, what used to be a somewhat sustainable model of ‘subsistence-farming’ is in danger of being transformed to a specifically modern kind of poverty and misery).

You write: "To generalize the practice of local farming and small shops would mean a regression to a quasi-feudal state of existence, with massive urban depopulation and the death of probably 95% of the Earth’s people." Not necessarily so. "Local farming" and "small shops" can come in so many variations, so we cannot generalize this way. A local society I happen to know which is full of small shops is that of Suruí in the municipality of Magé in the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro. I much enjoyed getting to know where everything was to be found - an exercise which took months, since it implied getting to know the whole neigbourhood, where many had small shops and bars and workshops etc., some of which with regular opening hours, others open whenever a customer knocked. I cannot see how the West's supermarket-model is necessarily representative of a higher level of civilization, nor how it should be taken to be superior in social terms. There is no de-urbanization involved, and much less any mass-death.

You write: “The Malthusian theory of a limit-point to the growth of population was materially disproven by the industrial revolution taking place before his very eyes.” While there is something to that as to his concrete theory, the industrial revolution proved nothing at all with regard to how many people the Earth can sustain. In particular, it did not at all prove that there are no limits whatsoever to how many the Earth can sustain. This remains a question of in part empirical nature. It is both conceivable

1) that the Earth can sustain a bigger human population that it does today, and

2) that the Earth can in the long turn only sustain a somewhat smaller human population than today BUT AT THE COST OF ITS MEDIUM-TERM CARRYING CAPACITY.

In other words, it is also conceivable that even maintaining today’s human population level will over time weaken the Earth’s carrying potential with regard to us. Besides, there are ethical issues concerning how big share of this planet’s land and resources we are to reserve for ourselves, and how much we let be available for other creatures (not counting our ‘affiliated species’ in agriculture, which are basically tools for our own ends).

While your claim that making local farming the only norm would mean the death of 95% is wildly exaggerated and as such erronous, it is true that organic and non-intensive farming is as a rule more land- and labour-intensive alike. This must pose a paradox to any well-informed green. One implication is that if all of today's agricultural produce was made organic, we would likely need to cultivate even more land (and one third of the Earth's total land mass is already in use for human food production, pastures etc. included). In that sense there is even a potential conflict between organic farming and food security for a growing human population (which will grow at least for another 30-40 years).

We must recall, however, that very much of today's land use in agriculture is tied to meat consumption. So here vegetarianism and organic farming are allies: The more vegetarians there are (or, to modify, the lower the meat consumption), the more organic farming do we have room for. On a utopian planet where everyone were vegetarians, we would have room for global, fully organic farming, PLUS we would be able to leave more land for wildlife. This ultimate combination is indeed possible. A global organic diet with a high share of meat is much less realistic, and would be much less environmentally friendly.

Let me also mention "The vegetarian's (or vegan's) paradox", which I have described in "vegetarians, and especially radical ones, such as vegans, might face some paradoxes. For example: In a world of vegans — with no animal products consumed nor produced — what would be the fate of domesticated animals? ... In a vegan world, we would be left with two alternatives: Either we could keep them in zoos or as a sort of pets, or we would have to let them go extinct. What the vegan should ask herself is: Is an animal that depends on human beings for its pure existence really better off not existing?" A vegetarian's response to this paradix is telling of his or her values. It is fully possible to reply that domesticated animals are better off not existing, but if that is a vegetarian's position, it reveals that his/her dietary preference is NOT put into effect for the sake of the animals the vegetarian does not eat. Perhaps for the sake of wildlife, or for a kind of ethical purity?

I will not say much about Arne Næss and his view on population, but let me mention that I think his view on population control was not very fruitful (and I am saying this as a former student of demography). Nevertheless I share his vision of a human population that is in the long term substantially smaller than today's population. By long term we are talking about a transitional phase with pretty even decline in world population lasting for 300-1000 years (anything quicker would be inhumane, if we are talking about a deline on the scale of minus 90%). Næss himself underlined the importance of thinking about this only in a long-term perspective. He claimed to be reformistic on the short term, but revolutionary in the long term, and in the case of his view on population I think that is quite accurate (he used to talk about 100 kids being born this year, 99 the next, 98 the third...). One could argue in favor of such a development even without bringing in the intrinsic value of nature and other creatures. A somewhat lower world population in the long term would arguably increase the chance that future societies will be able to offer their citizens lives in abundance rather than misery.

As my idea about a transitional phase of 300-1000 years with regard to demography illustrates, I believe in developing and preparing something worthy of the name "a new civilization". My ideology of utopian realism presupposes that we can talk about three historical phases in this context:

1) Our age (the modern age, if you like)

2) A transitional phase - era of adjustment

3) A truly sustainable society

Following the deep ecology of Arne Næss, I believe that this desired development would entail profound changes in philosophy, science, economy, and ideology. Though much change would occur in our generation, my perspective implies that the change that can occur in our lifetimes would only mark the beginning of this new path in the development of humanity. We could initiate revolutionary change, and prepare revolutionary change, but not complete it.

You write: "What we are faced with is thus clear: either we must accept the renaturalization of humanity, or, inversely, the humanization (or socialization) of nature." A dangerous and simplified choice, I think - though, if we take it seriously, you seem to be winning as we speak. This maxime further reminds me of Heidegger's talk in "The fundamental concepts of metaphysics" about the human need for making itself at home in the world - by, I would argue, making the whole planet Earth its home, qua humanized. This is a valid perspective on human alienation. But it is a poor real-life solution of our existential problem (especially since we never will feel fully at home no matter how much we make the Earth "our own").

You write that your vision would entail "both the transformation of man and nature." “The Marxist vision of an emancipated society is one of abundance and plenitude, not of scarcity and shortage." Abundance of what? On a even further "humanized" planet, there would surely not be much abundance in wildlife. Is not that a kind of abundance that can enrich our lives as well? And as I have argued above, future economic abundance in future societies is more likely if we know to limit ourselves and to leave room for other creatures as well.

"It is a vision of unlimited human freedom," you write, "not within the constraints of an ascetic lifestyle.” Unlimited in what sense? On what planet? You seem in your concluding marxist vision to be neglecting empirical reality and our embeddedness in nature and on this concrete planet.

Keynes wrote in the wake of the Great Depression about humankind's age-old fight to overcome poverty - the problem of Man. His article was called ”Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren”. We can rightfully ask whether the "utopian" future society he sketched therein, a society where Man's problem would have been solved, has to a large extent been achieved. There are still poor people on this planet (and addressing that remains a core political task), but today a vast majority globally do not live in material misery. The global growth of the last 80 years has surpassed Keynes expectations. At what point will we realize that past utopias of a "society of abundance" has largely been achieved?

PS: For an evaluation of different scenarios about global economic growth up to the year of 2300, see my journal article "The future of growth",

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Collaboration on wolf article uncertain

During my stay here, and in the days preceding it, I have not succeeded in making contact with my collaborator Silver Rattasepp, who is mediating in my scheduled collaboration with Estonian wolf ethologist Ilmar Rootsi, on the theme of man-eating wolves in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Estonia the last 200 years or so. Last November we did not succeed in making contact with Rootsi, who was out of town at the time. As it stands, then, this whole collaboration is for the time being on uncertain ground (since I might only be back in Tartu in November, and we were supposed to have had a second meeting a long time ago, after agreeing to proceed with the project last September).


I am sitting in the guest apartment of Estonian Naturalists' society (Eesti Looduseuurijate Selts), with a view to the entrance of Bibliotheca Universitatis Tartuensis. I have been staying here in ELUS for four nights, and have one more to go, before returning to Norway. I might only be back in Estonia for the defense of my doctoral degree, perhaps in November.

It is my fourth time here in ELUS (the first time was in 2001, during my very first stay in Estonia - then I returned in 2005, and again in November 2010).

Tartu: Alf Holmborg lecture, and more (semiotic economy)

Today I attended Alf Hornborg's lecture at the Department of semiotics in Tartu "Submitting to Objects: Fetishism, Dissociation, and the Cultural Foundations of Capitalism". Previously I have heard him present at an environmental history conference (the First World Congress of Environmental History, Copenhagen, 2009), but this time around I have also gotten to meet him in person (yesterday a group of us were out for dinner). I consider him, like Almo Farina, a fellow practioner of 'semiotic economy', and have suggested he checks out Farina's work.

I have a lot to learn from Alf Hornborg's work, and I am eager to read more by him from the crossroads ecosemiotics / ecological economics / world-systems theory. As became clear during today's lecture, however, I have some reservations with regard to how accurate his depiction of the global economy is (and how far we can get in understanding the current and future economy by basing our theorizing on models derived from 19th century examples).

PhD time schedule confirmed, formalities settled

As mentioned I have changed my time schedule for completing my PhD. Today I met with my supervisor Kalevi Kull, who allied with department secretary and superhero Ulvi Urm informed me about the possible formal ways of spending the summer writing and submitting my dissertation at the very beginning of the autumn semester, early September. We concluded that the best solution is that I apply for academic leave mid-August (after receiving the two final months of the Estonian state grant), effective from September 1st. This implies that I will have to report for this year's attestation review, where I will be expected to document that I am practically done by providing a collection of academic articles comparable to a dissertation (though my dissertation will be a monograph). In formal terms I will, following this procedure and applying for a doctoral degree in the very beginning of the autumn semester, have completed my PhD studies on time, after 4 years exactly.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Explorers event to be private

The aforementioned event which might or not take place in the localities of New York's Explorers' Club this June will regardless of where it will take place be a private event, not open to the public. Participating names are not confirmed yet.

Lecture at University of Oslo in October

I have been invited by professor in criminology Guri Larsen to give a lecture this autumn as part of her seminar in "økologisk-global kriminologi" (eco-global criminology). We have scheduled that I will talk October 19th. I will probably choose the global species as my topic.

Elected as secretary of NASS

NASS, the Nordic Association for Semiotic Studies, held its general assembly during its seventh conference, which took place in Lund, Sweden, May 6-8. The general assembly took place Saturday May 7th. Göran Sonesson stepped back as president and is now treasurer, whereas Luis Emilio Bruni of Denmark is our new president. I was elected as secretary of NASS, plus ordinary national representative of Norway (Torill Strand was elected as suppletant in this role).

These roles will likely remain for two years, until the next conference of NASS is arranged (in either Denmark or Estonia).

Nordic Semiotics, Lund: Paper given

As scheduled I gave my paper "Perception and the levels of biosemiosis" Friday 6th of May in Lund, Sweden, at the Seventh conference of the Nordic Association for Semiotic Studies. The response from the audience was positive, with one notable exception. There were 20-30 people present in this parallel session.

Intensive course: All classes held

The last three days I have taught the second half of my intensive course "Semiotics and phenomenology" (6 hours of teaching). Attendance has been lower than in the first round, but the level of the attending students has been very high, so discussions have been spot on.

The topics in this round have been:
1) Heidegger and his reading of Uexküll
2) Merleau-Ponty and his reading of Uexküll
3) Naturalized phenomenology (Zahavi); and semiotic causation (based in part on David Wood's paper "What is ecophenomenology?")

The concluding research paper is due May 31st.

Intensive course: Papers examined

A couple of weeks ago I examined four compulsory papers delivered as part of my intensive course "Semiotics and phenomenology". I have given thorough feedback on two of them (and offered it on all).

Rodopi update: Feedback on eight papers

The last few weeks I have been doing editorial work as one of the two editors of the planned Rodopi volume The Semiotics of Animal Representations. Being two, we have divided the submissions between us, and I have given feedback on conference papers (for the most part) to eigth authors. Full-length papers are due May 31st.

Meeting in Arne i 100

May 3rd I attended my first meeting in the committee Arne i 100, in Oslo, preparing for the 100th anniversary of deep ecologist Arne Næss. I presented some organizational ideas concerning the "Arne Næss year" 2012, but it is far from certain that they will be carried out (that might require additional manpower). At any rate I will take part in preparing the anniversary event in the university aula, which is scheduled for January 27th, 2012.

Since the meeting I have, for one thing, gotten Lars Verket to accept an invitation to play a role during the anniversary event.

Change in time schedule for PhD

I originally planned to deliver my dissertation and apply for doctoral degree Monday May 24th. Early in May, however, I decided to take a few more months writing. I now intend to deliver my dissertation and application at the very beginning of the autumn semester, in the beginning of September. It might be possible to defend my thesis already in November. Despite the change of plans I appear to be the only PhD student in my cohort who will finish in this calender year, on time. As it happens, spending the summer as well writing will allow me to take the final outcome of the ongoing Norwegian policy review in carnivore management into account (though it will not allow me to take a long-awaited summer holiday).

Meanwhile, Jesper Hoffmeyer has tentatively agreed to do pre-review along with Paul Cobley.

CFP: Non-human in anthropology II (Prague)

The second conference under the label "Non-human in anthropology" (this time with the theme "Limits and boundaries of social science") is scheduled for November 19-20 this autumn. Abstracts are due September 10th.

Contact info:

Saturday, 14 May 2011

New exam in Philosophy in antiquity

Yesterday there was a second, "delayed" exam in the course Philosophy in antiquity, for which I was the autumn last autumn at University of Agder. Three students, as far as I know. I am not involved as an examiner in this round.

Chronicle reprinted

My chronicle "Landet som grodde igjen", originally published in the Norwegian national daily Dagbladet, was reprinted in "Bonde og Småbruker" no. 2, 2011 (98th årgang), on the back page (p. 24). Official date of publication: February 25th, 2011.

MAO update

The preparation for the Oslo Minding Animals pre-conference event, scheduled for October 14-15, is progressing. We have invited Marc Bekoff on condition of funding and he has tentatively said yes. The next immediate task is to apply for funding from two different sources, in May and June.

Change in plan for Tartu visit

I am about to head off to Tartu, for yet another visit (first of all to teach the second half of my intensive course Semiotics and phenomenology). Originally I planned to stay May 15-24, but I will only stay 15-20.

Minding Animals 2 CFP

The second Minding Animals conference, to be arranged in Utrecht, the Netherlands, will be arranged July 4-6, 2012 (there's also a Leusden Pre-conference Event at the International School of Philosophy July 1-3). Their Call For Papers is now open. Deadline for abstract submissions is October 2nd, 2011. Same deadline for suggestions for the Protecting the Animals Seminar Series.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Environment, embodiment and gender: Content list, links

The newly published book Environment, Embodiment and Gender, edited by Ane Faugstad Aarø and Johannes Servan, is sold by its publisher Hermes Text. The book is featured on the webpages of University of Bergen's Department of Philosophy.

Part I: Introduction to ecophenomenology
Charles Brown: The unity of eco-phenomenology: A reply to Thomson
David Abram: The invisibles
Ted Toadvine: Ecophenomenology and the resistance of nature
Part II: Embodiment and gender
Monika Langer: Sartre in the company of Merleau-Ponty, Foucault, and Düden
Kirsti Kuosa: The embodied self and identity of three women living with multiple sclerosis
Claus Halberg: The tangible invisible: Irigaray's phenomenological critique of Merleau-Ponty's notion of the flesh
Joanna Handerek: On pain and fear. The concept of the body in Gernot Böhme's philosophy
Part III: Contemporary environmental philosophy
Gunnar Skirbekk: Ethical gradualism, beyond anthropocentrism and biocentrism?
Jørgen Pedersen: Habermas and environmental ethics
Svenn Anders Noer Lie & Fern Wickson: The relational ontology of deep ecology: A dispositional alternative to intrinsic value?
Jon Helén Pedersen: Løgstrup's philosophy as environmental philosophy
Stig Ingebrigtsen & Ove Jakobsen: Circulation economics - an ecological image of Man based upon an organic worldview
Linda McGuffe: Questions concerning technology and food
Jan van Boeckel: A point of no return. Artistic transgression in the more-than-human world
Morten Tønnessen: I, wolf. The ecology of existence

Discussion about possible future university fusion

Today and tomorrow there are info/consultation meetings in Kristiansand and Grimstad in connection with the assessment process as to whether or not the University of Agder should merge, or cooperate more closely, with Telemark University College. While the University of Agder (UiA) is one of the lowest-ranked Norwegian universities in terms of scientific "production", Telemark university college is in terms of students the fourt biggest university college in Norway, and thus not much smaller than UiA. There is substantial resistance to a fusion anytime soon, however, in both camps - and a merged university would cover no less than three counties.

The assessment report was presented in early April.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Editorial presentation of "I, wolf"

The editorial presentation of my article "I, wolf: The ecology of existence" is to be found on page 14 in the introduction of Ane Faugstad Aarø and Johannes Servan, in Environment, Embodiment and Gender, and reads:
Morten Tønnessen describes in his essay "I, Wolf: The Ecology of Existence" the 'Umwelt' of wolves in Scandinavia, the life conditions that have led to the threat of extinction among wolves, as well as the policies and cultural values that oppose the existence of a very small population of wolves in Scandinavia. The myths of the threats that wolves represent in a community that has been based historically on sheep farming are balanced by Tønnessen's account of the semiotic Umwelt of wolves and their ecological alienation in this area today.
My bionote is on page 338.

Turku: Participant in discussion panel on predators

Speaking about the 6th conference of the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH), I have been invited to be a participant in the regional discussion panel “Never cry wolf – A panel discussion on human-predator interaction”, which will be chaired by Timo Vuorisalo and is scheduled for Thursday June 30th at 17.30-19.00.

Turku: Session organizer

I have volunteered to take over the responsibility as session organizer of "Animal agency and environmental history: Three different approaches to Nordic wolves" at the upcoming European conference in environmental history (ESEH 6). The session, which now counts three papers, has been scheduled for Wednesday June 19th at 09.00-10.30. The other presenters are Heta Lähdesmäki and Karin Dirke. My presentation is entitled "Wolf history: Agents in hiding". The session was initiated by Håkon Stokland.

NY talk scheduled for June 25th

The organizer of the 11th annual international gathering in biosemiotics, which is to take place in New York June 21-26, has released a program and an abstract book. The abstract of my talk "Integrated Biological Individualism and the Primacy of the Individual Level of Biological Organization", which has been scheduled for Saturday June 25th at 10.00-10.30, is to be found on page 48.