Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Abstract to Sydney ethology workshop

Bad dog: An Uexküllian analysis of Norwegian Wolf Management

Morten Tønnessen

The title of my PhD project is “Umwelt transition: Uexküllian phenomenology – An ecosemiotic analysis of Norwegian wolf management”. The starting point for my research is the Umwelt theory of Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944), which I interpret as a genuine theory of phenomenology. Core notions of phenomenology – ‘subjectivity’, ‘autonomy’ and ‘intentionality’ included – therefore have to be understood in a more-than-human sense.

What is “subjective biology” today? In my work, the concept of Umwelt transition represents an Uexküllian notion of environmental change. This might be revisionist, since Uexküll himself envisioned a harmonious nature in balance. While I find it necessary to revise Uexküll on this point, on other points, I hold, it suffices to apply his theory. One example is his notion of Berufsumwelten (the Umwelten of professions), a subcategory of human Umwelten – in my work I depict e.g. the Berufsumwelt of Norwegian sheep farmers. On yet other points, Uexküll’s theory needs clarification. Two important precisations (conceptual clarifications): an Umwelt is organism-specific, rather than species-specific; and must be taken to refer to an existential realm/”inner states”. Umwelt theory also needs to be developed. Focusing on universally applicable Umwelt terminology, I introduce various notions of aggregate Umwelten (Umwelt trajectories, total Umwelten and common-Umwelten), the concept of existential universals, and a distinction between communal being and distinctive being.

The time frame of my case study is 1845-2010. It thus spans both historical extermination campaigns and the current management regime aiming at conservation. I conceptualize the formal and the informal human interaction with/intervention in wolf ecology, and the wolves’ response. To what extent is the wolf a favored species, in practice? By contextualizing such a question, I pinpoint characteristics of the semiotics of the ecological crisis. One assumption is that humankind’s domestication of animals and plants can be taken as archetypical for our attempted planet-scale taming of the wild. My analysis is conducted by way of an Umwelt mapping of the lifeworlds of wolves, sheep and people, with emphasis on historical Umwelt transitions. In the process I present maps of the ontological niches of these three creatures.

In Scandinavia, in part invasive monitoring justifies questions such as this one: Is a wolf wild as long as it does not know that it is being thoroughly handled? My field trips to Polar Zoo and Langedrag Nature Park and Mountain Farm suggest that socialized wolves come in many forms. What is it like to be a wolf? And what is it like to be a dog?

Preliminary conclusions:

1. The Scandinavian wolf/sheep strife is largely a symbolic construction (cultural analysis is key).

2. Ecological and cultural developments have basically decoupled (there is, in other words, a cultural drift towards pure symbolicity).

3. The long-term goal of wildlife management should be to restore its independent viability. One success criterion: to minimize anthropogenic mortality.

4. My case study demonstrates that Umwelt theory is applicable in a modern ecological setting, but in need of updating and further development.

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