Over on Savage Minds, Rex has posted an interview with Eduardo Kohn, the author of How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Kohn has spent a lot of time working with the Runa, a people who live in Amazonian Ecuador. These people are constantly concerned about the intentions of the other non-human selves that make up a large part of their world.
An older anthropology might simply have checked a box labeled “animism.” Kohn develops a powerful argument by using terms borrowed from C.S. Pierce’s semiology to analyse how Runa perceive the world. He does not deny that there is a part of the world where processes uninformed by intention suffice to explain what is going on. Neither does he deny that humans are unique in their extraordinary ability to use symbolic forms of communication: language, in particular. But Pierce’s description of semiosis, the process by which intention, purpose and meaning are generated,is not confined to symbols, which refer arbitrarily to their referents, as the Japanese inu and Chinese gou both refer to the animals that English speakers call dogs.
Semiosis begins with icons, resemblances, e.g., the presence of warm blood that attracts ticks regardless of the species of mammal in question. It continues with indices, signs that signal the presence of differences, e.g., between the sounds made by a deer and a jaguar, for example. Symbols properly speaking emerge from a context in which both icons and indices are already present. Where do we find icons and indices, asks Kohn. Wherever there are living things whose behaviour is oriented toward future, not yet present, events (what Terence Deacon calls “abstentia”). The jaguar lurking in wait for prey and the deer alert to avoid its attack both exhibit this kind of behaviour, as do human hunters. And so, says Kohn, do plants that seek the conditions they need to grow, putting out roots toward sources of water, or leaning in the direction from which sunlight comes. On Kohn’s account, the whole living world is shaped by semiotic processes of which human use of symbols is only a special case.
What is powerful about Kohn's argument for me is the way that it resonates with childhood experience hunting, fishing and gardening with my father. “If we wait here and stay still, we will see a squirrel pop out of that nest,” “The rockfish prefer the shallows near the marsh,” “These tomatoes want more sun.” Yes, we can look for mechanisms that explain away the intentions that these sorts of remarks assume; but as Terence Deacon also observes, they are rarely if ever sufficient to explain what we see.
Do I believe all this? Maybe. Do I find it fascinating? I do.
And I should have asked, "Do you?"
Semiosis begins with icons, resemblances, e.g., the presence of warm blood that attracts ticks regardless of the species of mammal in question. It continues with indices, signs that signal the presence of differences, e.g., between the sounds made by a deer and a jaguar, for example.
I like to think in terms of an architecture of information. In particular, icons might be understood as a particular kind of constraint such that relations between features of some source object indicate relations between features of some target object. Maybe the most obvious example of such a thing would be how the geometric relationships between features on a map indicate relations between features of the landscape, under an interpretation that maps features on the map to features of the landscape. So, regularities in one domain can be interpreted as (possible) regularities in the other. But, intelligent agency at all, is not necessary for such a constraint to hold. Perhaps intention makes the icon, though.
On the other hand, the notion of indexicality seems closely related to the notion of environmental information. Smoke means fire, is an index for fire, because the two correlate, and because there is a natural regularity (in fact a causal regularity) between them. Situations in which there is smoke indicates a nearby related situation in which there is fire. Again, intelligent agency doesn't seem to matter. Such regularities hold anyway. Smoke would indicate fire, even were there no cognitive agent interpreting the situation. But then, again, maybe the sort of index you mean involves some sort of intention to make it something more than environmental information.
But what seems clear to me is that these naturally abundant information flows (of the two kinds I've just mentioned) have always been a rich resource to be exploited by agents of all kinds; it is why evolutionary processes have favored agents that can actively learn from and adapt to their environments.
Symbols properly speaking emerge from a context in which both icons and indices are already present. Where do we find icons and indices, asks Kohn. Wherever there are living things whose behaviour is oriented toward future, not yet present, events (what Terence Deacon calls “abstentia”). The jaguar lurking in wait for prey and the deer alert to avoid its attack both exhibit this kind of behaviour, as do human hunters. And so, says Kohn, do plants that seek the conditions they need to grow, putting out roots toward sources of water, or leaning in the direction from which sunlight comes. On Kohn’s account, the whole living world is shaped by semiotic processes of which human use of symbols is only a special case.
This reminds me, indeed very closely, to what Brian Cantwell Smith calls registration. I'll quote from a a blog post of mine:
From this Smith derives a stringent methodological moral:
Criterion of Ultimate Concreteness
No naturalistically palatable theory of intentionality—of mind, computation, semantics, ontology, objectivity—can presume the identity or existence of any individual object whatsoever. (p.184)
In this way, Smith seeks to
make room … to recognize that objects are inexorably cultural, biological, political, psychological, social, evolutionary, historical, economic, and so on and so forth—i.e., are everything that social constructionism and critical studies have shown them to be—without, in the first(aboriginal) instance, having to pay the price of these ineliminable but nevertheless very expensive notions.(p. 188).
The question then is how to build up individuals out of an individual-less world. His answer, more-or-less, is: participatory processes of registration within a loosely-coupled world permitting both linkage and separation of effect between regions.
Registration is defined as something like the act of taking something to be something. It is to “parse, make sense of as, find there to be, structure, take as being a certain way—even carve the world into…” (p. 191). It is what happens when one region of metaphysical flux, tentatively designated as the s-region, retains orientation toward another region of flux, tentatively called the o-region, even when those two regions are no longer effectively connected. It is distinguished from perception by the fact that perception ceases as soon as the s-region is no longer effectively coupled from the o-region. If my daughter goes into the other room, I can no longer perceive her, but I still register her presence despite the separation.
Registration is intentional, it is directed, and the responsibility for maintaining orientation is asymmetrical. The s-region must stabilize the o-region (and itself) as objects. The world is not so tightly coupled that change in one thing will require a change in all other things. Rather, effect is dissipative, just as a gravitational field weakens with distance from a mass. This loose coupling of the world is what Smith calls flex and slop (p. 191-212). This flex and slop is what permits the decoupling of registrar from registered, and which according to Smith, is the basis for individuation and, ultimately, intentionality. In order to retain orientation toward something from which one has been effectively decoupled requires that the target of that orientation be stabilized into something separate and re-identifiable, an abstraction of shifting particularities across time and space. The usefulness of this is pretty clear, as when a prey animal tracks a predator behind some bushes, or predator its prey momentarily hidden in the tall grass, or when a truck driver keeps the motorist that moved into his blind spot in mind.
Now, I am interested in reading both Terrence Deacon, whom Asher Kay over at deadvoles has been promoting for some time, and Eduardo Kohn, whose work I have been hearing about here and there recently.
Smith's registration does, indeed, sound very much to the point here. What I particularly like about it is the way in which it shifts the argument from an a priori to an empirical plane. When we start from the notion that all individuals/objects are constructed, the question then becomes how are they constructed, a question only answerable through careful empirical research.
A flashback: My last year at Michigan State (1961-62), I took a course in animal behaviour. I think of the classic experiments with stickleback fish, in which a block of wood with a dab of red paint on it was enough to elicit full-bore, fighting stance, turf defines from male sticklebacks. That memory reminds me that fishing lures and other decoys provide an abundance of similar evidence. Thinking of decoys reminds me of the Allied force's efforts to make the Germans believe that massive armies were being assembled across from Calais, as part of preparations for D-Day. In each case, a critical question is how much can be abstracted from reality while remaining persuasive as an index/set of indices of reality.