In the gaze of the other: Describing cultural affordances by conducting comparative Umwelt mapping in animal studies
Morten Tønnessen, Associate professor at University of Stavanger
The Umwelt theory of Jakob von Uexküll is well known in biosemiotic circles. However, not many have taken to develop Umwelt methodology as foundational for comparative studies. Umwelt theory can e.g. be applied to describe the manifold affordances of human constructions, artefacts etc. from a non-human point of view. Whenever Umwelten are discussed, the focus tends to be on each particular, “species-specific” Umwelt. The human Umwelt is thereby characterised by being fundamentally different from any animal’s Umwelt. But in the age of the Anthropocene – the global era of anthropogenic development – countless animals and other creatures regularly encounter human constructions, artefacts and waste (indeed, numerous lifeforms have adapted to such occurrences). How do the products of human civilization manifest themselves in the Umwelten of other creatures?
This topic – which could also in some measure be conducted by way of a comparative study of humans as Umwelt objects in non-human Umwelten – can be organised in terms of four major categories, enveloping human products as perceived by non-humans
1) in urban and household settings
2) in agriculture
3) in wildlife settings
4) in “the shadows of human civilization” (think of rats thriving in our sewage systems, etc.)
Some of these categories may overlap somewhat. In combination they represent the way our culture qua human products appears in the Umwelten of non-humans – in the gaze of the other.