Conference abstract, “Politics and the animal imagination: biosemiotics, Aristotle, and human-animal relations”

I will be presenting papers at three or four conferences in Europe this summer, one or two in Oxford, one in Stavanger (Norway) and one in Sicily. Here is the accepted abstract submission for the Norwegian conference, “Animals in the anthropocene: human-animal relations in a Changing semiosphere.”


“This paper presents an Aristotelian biosemiotic symbiopolitics beyond the human. From the Greek bios and semeion, biosemiosis looks at meaning-making and sign-relations among living systems. A biosemiotic epistemology best accounts for the nature of animal life in the world, and this implies an ethics of animal flourishing and a politics of trans-species symbiosis. In light of the “animal turn” and what could be called the “critical hyphenated humanisms,” the time for this project is ripe.

This framework views evolution and emergence as semiotic generals, patternings in the world that result from the interaction between physical forces and the self-organizing features of living organisms in given selection environments. The convergence of complexity theory and systems dynamics with neuroscience and biological anthropology provides an explanation for the end-directedness of living systems. In Peircean terms, icons, indices, and symbols are hierarchically organized and operate at an increasing level of abstraction between signifier and signified.

Language provides humans with access to levels of abstract reference which broaden our conceptual horizons and contribute to our narrative sense of self. In Uexküll’s terminology, it changes our umwelt, the perspectival bubble we call our world. But we still share with other animals our basic sense perceptions, embodied vulnerability, core emotions and moral instincts. (And whether we share some of these ‘higher’ faculties with cetaceans, corvids, and other primates remains an open area of inquiry.)

What kind of ethics and politics follows from this this biosemiotic epistemology and the ontology of being-together it entails? Because nonhuman animals are more semiotically constrained in the horizons of their umwelten, biosemiotic analysis reveal what it means for a given animal to flourish, and whether and how that flourishing interacts symbiotically with other kinds of organisms. This approach builds on—and modifies—Nussbaum’s (2007, 2013) understanding of human-animal politics.

Returning to Aristotle reveals a deep irony in the canonical treatment of other animals. It is a commonplace in the literature to mark the beginning of a long history of human exceptionalism and animal marginalization with Aristotle’s dictum, “(rational) man is by nature a political animal.” Many thinkers in this tradition, however, overlook Aristotle’s rich treatment of sense perception and animal imagination in De Anima, De Partibus Animalium, and elsewhere. This loses sight of the broader conceptual unity between his philosophies of life, nature, and politics. I look to biosemiotics, animal phenomenology, and “multispecies ethnography” to propose a revived Aristotelian politics of human-animal relations.”


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