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Sunday, 6 June 2021

Abstract for Tartu Summer School of Semiotics 2021: "Semiotic futures: Transformative semiotics and its role in facilitating change in human self-comprehension"

I have just composed the abstract below, for my invited talk at Tartu Summer School in Semiotics 2021, which has the theme "Semiotic horizons: time, memory and future(s)".


Semiotic futures: Transformative semiotics and its role in facilitating change in human self-comprehension  

Morten Tønnessen 


The human being is far from the only being that relates to the passage of time. All organisms that are endowed with an Umwelt (subjective lifeworld) live through what Jakob von Uexküll called an Umwelt-tunnel. Moreover, we can safely state that organisms with an Umwelt also go through Umwelt transitions and partake in Umwelt trajectories. But the human species is, however, unique in some of the ways in which it relates to time. We collectively negotiate our memory of the past and our assumptions about the future, and are furthermore consciously aware that we are mortal, and constantly strive to make our lives meaningful in light of this fact.  

Quite a bit can be known about future Umwelten. In some contexts, Umwelt predictions can be made about future lifeworlds, in others, we can develop a number of plausible Umwelt scenarios. Such predictions and scenarios can help us make more informed choices whenever we discuss actions, lifestyles or policies that have an impact on future lifeworlds. While Umwelt futurology, the study of future Umwelten, can help us understand aspects of the future, transformative semiotics allows semioticians to engage in discussions about value issues. By ‘transformative semiotics’, I mean a normatively conscious form of semiotics that explicitly relates to value issues and aims to frame a perceived need for normative transformation (i.e., normative change) in semiotic terms.   

To be of any use for contemporary society, Umwelt futurology as well as transformative semiotics should be empirically informed. I will briefly summarize and review major changes in common understandings of the environmental crisis, starting with the emerging awareness of a global environmental crisis and ending with the growing acknowledgement of the Anthropocene notion in recent years. While the current predominant understanding of the global environmental crisis is an improvement over earlier understandings on some points, it lacks direction with regard to necessary courses of action. 

In 1984, Thomas Sebeok wrote a technical report for the Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation (USA), titled “Communication measures to bridge ten millennia”. This is an interesting example of applied semiotics in the context of long-term future environmental and societal change. I will review Sebeok´s message in the report, and discuss its relevance for contemporary discussions about Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) as a climate mitigation measure, which has a similar time perspective.  

The question about how humans´ relation to nature has to change over the next century or so, is intimately related to the question about how the self-comprehension of human beings must or should change in the same process. This was a central premise for Deep Ecologist Arne Næss. In light of philosophical anthropology, just as much as it is concerned with environmental or societal change, transformative semiotics is concerned with human self-comprehension. This brings us back to the issue of what role semiotics can play in addressing the urgent issues of the Anthropocene.   

As John Deely stressed, human beings´ knowledge and awareness about our semiotic capabilities, and about the real-world consequences of our actions, makes us ethically responsible in ways that animals are not. It also opens up fundamental philosophical questions for renewed reflection. Before we can start acting in sustainable ways, we need to develop a sustainable notion of what it means to be human. This requires a thoughtful revision of our human self-comprehension. Increased sensitivity to our own semiotic capabilities, and to the ways in which our actions have an impact on the semiotic lifeworlds of humans and non-humans alike, is key to managing the sustainability transition.

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