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Monday, 23 April 2012

Abstract: "Introducing semiotic economy"

Introducing semiotic economy
Morten Tønnessen
Abstract submitted for the special theme session Consumption as Signification (chaired by Kristian Bankov), part of The 31st Annual Meeting of the Semiotic Society of Finland, June 9–10

Associate professor at Department of Health Studies, University of Stavanger
Researcher in the grant Dynamical Zoosemiotics and Animal Representations (Department of Semiotics, University of Tartu)

The ten steps to a semiotics of being detailed in Tønnessen 2010 (and said to be “pertinent to various sub-fields at the conjunction of semiotics of nature […] and semiotics of culture […]”) conclude with the following four points:

7) An imperative task in our contemporary world of faltering biological diversity is that of Umwelt mapping, i.e. a mapping of ontological niches.
8) The ecological crisis is an ontological crisis with historical roots in humankind’s domestication of animals and plants, which can be taken as archetypical for our attempted planet-scale taming of the wild.
9) The process of globalization is expressed by correlated trends ofdepletion of semiotic diversity and semiotic diversification.
10) Semiotic economy is a field which task it is to map the human ontological niche insofar as its semiotic relations are of an economic nature.

The ontological niche of point 7 was first introduced in Tønnessen 2003: 288 as “the set of contrapuntal relations that [a being] takes part in at a given point of natural history”. The notion is one of several profitable specifications of Uexküll’s Umwelt concept. In plain language, the ontological niche represents what a being does in fact do (relate to), rather than the interpretative challenges it encounters in its semiotic niche (Hoffmeyer). Semiotic economy, then, traces the actual behavior of the human species in Umwelt (i.e., ecological) terms, via a mapping of the impact that human behavior has directly and indirectly as manifested in the Umwelten of humans and notably of other living beings. This prospective field of study – involving a more qualitative approach to economics (and a more phenomenological approach, in a wide, Uexküllian sense) – is thus fitted for empirical studies. From this theoretical vantage point, (human) consumption can be conceived of in terms of signification not only from a human point of view but also from an animal point of view.

Tønnessen, Morten 2003. Umwelt ethics. Sign Systems Studies, 31.1: 281-299.
— 2010. Steps to a semiotics of being. Biosemiotics 3.3: 375-392.

Abstract: "Existential universals: A link between biosemiotics and existential semiotics"

Existential universals: A link between biosemiotics and existential semiotics
Morten Tønnessen
Abstract submitted for the symposium Nordic Semiotic Paradigms – NASS 25 Years: "Where do Cognitive, Bio- and Existential Semiotics Meet?"

Associate professor at Department of Health Studies, University of Stavanger
Researcher in the grant Dynamical Zoosemiotics and Animal Representations (Department of Semiotics, University of Tartu)

The ten steps to a semiotics of being detailed in Tønnessen 2010 (and said to be “pertinent to various sub-fields at the conjunction of semiotics of nature (biosemiotics, ecosemiotics, zoosemiotics) and semiotics of culture – semioethics and existential semiotics included”) start out with the following three points:

1) Semiotics of being entails inquiry at all levels of biological organization, albeit, wherever there are individuals, with emphasis on the living qua individuals (integrated biological individualism).
2) An Umwelt is the public aspect (cf. the Innenwelt, the private aspect) of a phenomenal/experienced world that is organism-specific (rather than species-specific) and ultimately refers to an existential realm.
3) Existential universals at work on Earth include seeking out the edible, dwelling in a medium, holding a phenomenal world (possibly an Umwelt) and being endowed with life, and followingly being mortal.

This paper will present the notion of existential universals, and sketch how these can be seen as a link between biosemiotics and existential semiotics. Though existential universals can be articulated and conceptualized in a variety of ways, and any chronological exposition may well be at least in part arbitrary, a list of such universal features of life will be presented. Not all semiosis is conceptualized as existential, i.e., by nature experientially related to the existence of a being. Consequently, not all ‘biosemiotic universals’ qualify as existential universals. All existential universals, however, are necessarily universals of biosemiosis.

What is it like to be a human being? (In other words: What is the human condition?). Before we can answer that question, we have to answer a more general question, the answer to which has foundational validity for the human question, namely: What is it like to be a living being? In this paper I will allude to sixteen answers to that question.

Tønnessen, Morten 2010. Steps to a semiotics of being. Biosemiotics 3.3: 375-392.

Two papers accepted for presentation at Imatra Summer School

Last week I was notified that my two abstracts for the International Semiotics Institute's Summer School (2012 - June 8-12, Imatra, Finland) have been accepted by the organisers. These are (session for which they were submitted in parenthesis):

* "Existential universals: A bridge between biosemiotics and existential semiotics" ("Nordic Semiotic Paradigns - NASS 25 years: Where do Cognitive, Bio- and Existential Semiotics Meet?", chaired by Luis Emilio Bruni)

* "Introducing semiotic economy" (special theme session Consumption as Signification, chaired by Kristian Bankov)

I will publish these two abstracts here in Utopian Realism as separate posts.

Lecture on global species to be repeated autumn 2012

Last autumn I lectured about "Det menneskeskapte økologiske hierarki" [The human-made ecological hierarchy] in Guri Larsen's seminar Eco-global criminology at the University of Oslo, and today I was asked to give it again this autumn. 

The lecture, which will take place at UiO's Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law, is now scheduled for October 31st (12-14).

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Minding Animals Norway's first hearing statement, on bear management

Minding Animals Norway (MAN) has submitted its very first hearing statement ("høringsuttalelse" in Norwegian), on the management of the brown bear (and in part large predators in general). The 4 page text is available in full on MAN's webpage. I drafted the text.

Nordic HAS portal

Minding Animals Norway has launched a Nordic Human-Animal Studies Portal. For now its coverage of Norway is a lot better than that of the other Nordic countries, but hopefully that will improve as we receive suggestions from others. The portal has initially been launched in Norwegian.

The portal includes the following categories:
* Research networks and email lists
* HAS education and courses
* Journals and magazines on animals
* Environmental and animal advocacy NGOs
* NGOs and agencies working for animals
* Businesses and networks with HAS competence
* Literature, journals and blogs related to HAS
* Persons with competence within HAS

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Electoral program of Morten Tønnessen, running for the board of UiS

As mentioned in a post a couple of weeks ago I am running for a position in the board of University of Stavanger (UiS). The presentation of Zafer Øzgen, the other candidate, and myself was posted on the university's election webpage March 28th, and can be found here (in Norwegian). I submitted my presentation (which includes an 'electoral program') in English as well, and since this version was not posted by UiS I now post it here in my academic blog.


Morten Tønnessen (born 1976) is Associate professor at Department of Health Studies. He defended his doctoral degree in semiotics/philosophy – with a case study on Norwegian wolf management – December 2011 at the University of Tartu (Estonia). Tønnessen has experience from several organisations (he is currently secretary of the Nordic Association for Semiotic Studies ( chair of Minding Animals Norway (, and typically applies interdisciplinary approaches. In capacity of being a philosopher/semiotician who has for some ten years studied biological/ecological phenomena, he has connections to the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, and thus maintains a wide and diverse academic network.
Morten Tønnessen will seek to pursue the following goals:
  • Increased internationalisation (enhanced research mobility included)
  • Higher aspirations for research (both in terms of scientific publications and participation at international conferences)
  • Good conditions for interdisciplinary research and educational activities
  • A green university

New rules for my work week

Last weekend I decided to change my rules of engagements workwise. In recent months my rules have been that I work six days a week, with Saturday or Sunday off, and aim at working until 6 pm on work days. My average work week so far in 2012 stands at about 63 hours. The new rules imply that I will have BOTH Saturday and Sunday off regularly (unless I am on a work trip), and that I will on weekdays aim at working either 8-18 or 9-19 or 10-20.

My motivation for these changes? A feeling of being overworked for the last three weeks in a row; a coming child, the worries of friends and family (My name is Morten Tønnessen, and I am a workaholic).

Academic travels - June, July

Yesterday I arranged tickets and accommodation in relation to two academic travels this summer - to Imatra, Finland, June 8-13, where I will take part in the International Semiotics institute's Summer School (which includes the 25th year anniversary symposium of the Nordic Association for Semiotic Studies), and to Utrecht, the Netherlands, July 3-7th, where I will take part in the second Minding Animals Conference. The only thing that remains to arrange is my trip back home from Utrecht.

In between these two academic trips I will be on holyday with my wife and child-to-be in Brazil.

Abstract accepted for Minding Animals conference: "The contemporary symbolic construction of Norway's Big Bad Wolf"

Today i received a formal notification that my abstract "The contemporary symbolic construction of Norway's Big Bad Wolf" has been accepted for oral presentation at the second Minding Animals conference, which is to take place in Utrecht, the Netherlands, July 3-6.

See also my note on a similar notification concerning another abstract, "Biosemiotics and animal ethics".


Morten Tønnessen

Current carnivore management would not have met such hostile resistance from an outspoken minority on the Norwegian countryside, had it not been for some current developments which are all too seldom related to the wolf conservation discourse. Notably, since 1999 one third of all farms in Norway have closed down. In reality the wolves are not blamed for the relatively few sheep they kill — they have come to symbolize the threats, dangers and decline facing Norwegian agriculture. The wolf, in short, has become a scapegoat for certain societal developments.

The symbolic value of wolves and sheep has historically often been juxtaposed, especially in the context of the Bible. 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, since the symbolism of the two animals has frequently developed in explicit opposition to each other. In the Scandinavian context in general and the Norwegian in particular the wolf’s vivid symbolicity in contemporary times is enforced by the occurrence of conspiracy theories. Many of the fiercest opponents of wolf conservation believe that researchers and the authorities intentionally misrepresent the population number of wolves, and distrust official reassurances that the wolf does not pose much danger to people. In result, the human perception of wolves has in large measure decoupled from ecological reality.

This decoupling of perception and empirical circumstances does not only apply to conspiracy theorists. Whenever national Norwegian media cover predation on sheep, for instance, the wolf is typically pictured for illustrative purposes — despite the fact that wolverines, lynx, and brown bears over time all account for a much greater percentage of predation on sheep. The wolf has thus become a poster boy for large predators in general. What wolves are taken to signify, in short, depends not so much on actual wolf ecology as it does on certain cultural/societal developments. These are, justly or unfairly, associated with the presence of wolves, and with governmental conservation policies. What the wolf is taken to represent as a sign — what it is taken to be a sign of — has become the decisive driver in the Norwegian wolf management discourse.

The sheep’s symbolicity is in the Norwegian context grounded in open landscapes, which are typically taken to be intrinsically Norwegian. The idea of the Norwegian nation is built on the memory of an initial clearing and cultivation of the original (pre-Norwegian) landscape. We see this plainly in the two first verses of Ivar Aasen’s “The Norwegian”, which is in effect treated as a national anthem.

The symbolicity of sheep in Norway is effectively associated with the symbolicity of outer pastures, which have been crucial in Norwegian sheep husbandry but are now under pressure, partly due to a general move from extensive to intensive farming practices. The common perception in rural areas is that outer pastures are being devalued, and that traditional Norwegian farming practices are under threat. In visual imagery, this is best expressed by a phenomenon called ‘gjengroing’, imperfectly translated to English as overgrowth. Overgrowth in this sense implies that an originally open, cleared landscape is taken over by forest, weeds and other vegetation without direct agricultural value. Such a landscape, with growing irrelevance (so to speak), reduced utility and (notably, in perceptual terms) an obstructed view, has become a symbol of the hardships of rural areas and Norwegian agriculture. Our thesis is that it is this perception which is at the base of the contemporary symbolic construction of the Big Bad Wolf in Norway.

Abstract accepted for Minding Animals conference: "Biosemiotics and animal ethics"

Today i received a formal notification that my abstract "Biosemiotics and animal ethics" has been accepted for oral presentation at the second Minding Animals conference, which is to take place in Utrecht, the Netherlands, July 3-6.


Morten Tønnessen

In «Meaning Matters: The Biosemiotic Basis of Bioethics» (Biosemiotics, published online October 15 2011), Jonathan Beever suggests that “Biosemiotics has the empirical potential to avoid transcendent explanations of morally relevant properties. Furthermore, it offers an account of the source and scope of value that is foundational to popular accounts such as those based on sentience.” This is because biosemiotics as a scientific discipline or approach interprets living systems as sign systems, and is focused on investigating the origin, emergence and development of meaning and of meaning-making at various levels of biological organization. A fundamental concept in biosemiotics is that of the Umwelt, introduced by the Baltic-German biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944) in 1909 and further developed through a series of works of his which are all of foundational significance for Biosemiotics, noteworthy Theoretical Biology (1920, 1928), A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men (1934) and Theory of Meaning (1940). According to conflicting contemporary interpretations, the Umwelt is either the experiential world (subjective world, phenomenal world) of animals at large, of animals with a nervous system (including or excluding humans), or of any living creature whatsoever. The Umwelt is often portrayed as species-specific, but I have argued that the term and model of the Umwelt can be applied from any level reaching from the individual organism via populations and species to possibly even higher taxa. I am further aiming to develop the Umwelt notion as applicable within the human realm by specifying it in various aspects, including by developing a tripartite model of the (human) Umwelt.

In this paper I will review Beever’s approach to biosemiotics as foundational for bioethics with a particular emphasis on animal ethics, and present developments of my own approach to the same topic. My approach was first presented in the 2003 article «Umwelt ethics» (Sign Systems Studies 31 (1): 281-299), which is in large measure an Uexküllian interpretation of the deep ecology platform – and one out of three early dealings with biosemiotics’ relevance for ethics treated by Beever in his recent article. In that article I stated that “[t]he reason why it makes sense to regard all semiotic agents […] as moral subjects, is that in respect to these entities, our actions make a difference. Only for semiotic agents can our actions ultimately appear as signs that influence their well-being. In capacity of meaning-utilizers, all semiotic agents, be it the simplest creature, are able to distinguish between what they need and what is irrelevant or harmful to them.” I further theorized: “But why regard higher-level bio-ontological entities as moral subjects? Because a living being is not an isolated incident. In a profound sense, a subject is what it relates to. The contrapuntal relations that it takes part in do, largely, define what being this subject is all about. The individual self branch[es] off into the society of phenomenal subjects and into the phenomenal world, it is already social, already worldly, already more-than-individual. You cannot really value a subject without at the same time valuing the web of contrapuntal relations that it takes part in.”

There is no consensus on the ontological and epistemological status of the Umwelt in the biosemiotic community, and even less so on ethical matters (which are essential to some and anathema to others). Nevertheless, the prospective of biosemiotics as foundational for animal ethics is well worth inquiring into. Though I might disagree with Beever on his apparent gradualism with regard to moral standing, I definitively see a common project in his quest for a biosemiotic ethic.