Recently I’ve had the pleasure of picking up A Foray Into the World of Animals and Humans by Jakob von Uexküll. At the moment I’m rather exhausted from grading until late last night, so I don’t have a whole lot to say about the details of Uexküll’s animal ethology beyond saying that I can’t recommend this book enough. Many will be familiar with the animal ethology of Uexküll through Heidegger’s Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics and Deleuze and Guattari’s “Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible” in A Thousand Plateaus. For those not familiar with Uexküll’s thought, he was a great cartographer of the inner world of animals. Uexküll approached animals such as ticks, flies, bees, birds, sea urchins, etc. as subjects rather than mechanisms. Through a careful analysis of their physiology, observations of their behavior, and behavioral experiments, Uexküll would make deductions about what the experience of the animal is like or how that particular animal experiences the world or what he calls its “umwelt“. Thus, for example, in the picture to the right above, we see a comparison between the umwelt of humans (top) and the umwelt of bees. Uexküll is able to infer the bee world from, among other things, the structure of their eyes and their behaviors. As will be noted, the world of the human and the world of the bee are entirely different. If Uexküll’s analyses are so arresting, then this is because they break of the unity of a world, introducing us to a plurality of incommensurable yet strangely overlapping worlds.

From an object-oriented perspective, Uexküll’s animal ethology is a striking example of withdrawal. In many respects, the objects of object-oriented ontology can be said to be Janus-faced. On the one hand, there are local manifestations of objects, the surface features of objects, that arise or appear as a result of the object’s interactions with the world about it; while on the other hand there is the withdrawn interior of objects. When I speak of the “interior” of objects care must be taken not to confuse this interior with the spatial inside of objects. If you cut open an orange, for example, you don’t get at the interior of the orange, but only the inside of the orange. The interior of the orange is forever withdrawn from all other objects and could be described as the way in which an object “lives” itself and its world. Here Harman’s distinction between sensual and real objects is helpful. For Harman, real objects are independent and exist in their own right. By contrast, sensual objects are objects that exist only in the interior of another real object. As Graham writes, “[i]nstead of saying that the sensual tree has ‘intentional inexistance’ in human consciousness, we should say that both the sensual tree and the real me ‘inexist’ on the interior of the object composed of the real me and the real tree” (Prince of Networks, 211).

read on!

Here we must be careful not to confuse local manifestation with sensuous objects. Local manifestations are appearings in the world that take place regardless of whether or not there are any other entities about to grasp them. Sensual objects, by contrast, are events that take place in the interior of an object as it lives itself and its world. The point, I think, of Graham’s sensual objects is that these objects have no existence independent of the real object in which they occur, but only live or exist in the interior of the object that experiences them. In Prince of Networks Graham gives an example that is perhaps more illuminating. He tells his readers that as he is writing he is currently imagining the most fearsome monster ever conceived by a human being: Monster X. He doesn’t tell us anything about this monster, beyond noting that it is incredibly frightening. Monster X would be an example of a sensual object. It has no existence outside of Graham, but exists only on the interior of him. Likewise, if the tree for Graham is a sensual object rather than a real object, then this is because the way in which Graham grasps the tree exists only in him and is not the tree itself. Here it is crucial to note that this in no way undermines the existence of the real tree. All it entails is that the tree is grasped in a particular way by other real objects.

Uexküll can be understood as a great cartographer or explorer of the interior world of real objects and their sensual objects. Insofar as his investigations revolve around nonhuman animals, his work is a forerunner of what Ian Bogost has called “alien phenomenology”. Where phenomenology has an anthropocentric reference, exploring the intentional or sensual world of human beings, Uexküll’s alien phenomenology explores the intentional or sensual world of all sorts of nonhuman beings through a method of inference and allusion. Thus, in the bee umwelt depicted above, we encounter the interior world of bees or the world as they navigate it. Note, this alien phenomenology does not exclude the human, but merely opens us on to other worlds beyond the human. We’ll also notice that in the world of bees there are things that don’t appear in the human world and in the world of humans there are things that don’t appear in the bee world.

Uexküll gives a marvelous example of this with respect to sea urchins that I am, unfortunately, unable to reproduce here (FWAH, 77-78). As in the case of the drawing above contrasting the sensual worlds of bees and humans, he presents a drawing contrasting the world of sea urchins and humans. In the world of humans you see a fish, a sailboat, and a cloud. In the world of the sea urchin, the fish, sailboat, and cloud turn into black blobs that are qualitatively distinct from one another. At the level of what Uexküll calls “perception-signs”, the sailboat, fish, and cloud are all “coded” in exactly the same way (as potential predators) and are therefore sensually encountered as indistinct from one another, even though it is only the fish that is truly a predator. Evidence of this is found in the manner in which the urchin points a group of its quills in any direction where one of these black blobs appears. In the picture to the right it will be noted that some of the quills point towards us. Perhaps here we can infer that the urchin is directing its quills towards the photographer.

This reference to perception-signs allows me to address some recent debates surrounding semiotics. In a recent post, Ivakhiv writes,

Another difference that I think we will continue working on, each in our respective ways, has to do with the role of semiosis. But this, too, seems more a matter of emphasis than genuine disagreement. Following Peirce, I take semiosis to be integral to experience “all the way down,” and I rely on the growing body of work in biosemiosis, zoosemiosis, and related fields to make this case.

I don’t think I would formulate our difference in this way. If I reject the thesis that it is “semiosis all the way down”, then this is not because I deny that semiosis takes place all over the place, but because I believe that such statements fail to properly attend to the difference between real and sensual objects. Within my framework, semiosis is something that strictly takes place in the interior of an object, and therefore belongs to the domain of sensual objects and their qualities. Graham likes to remind us that Husserl’s intentional objects (what he calls “sensuous objects”) exist only in the mind. The same holds true of Peirce’s signs. In his account of signs, Peirce distinguishes between the representamen (of which Uexküll’s “perception-signs” would be an example), the interpretant (of which Uexküll’s reactions would be an example), and the object (of which Uexküll’s stimuli would be an example). For Peirce, a sign as a unity of these three elements. However, the point not to be missed is that the semiotic object is not the same as the real object. The semiotic object is a sensual object that only exists on the interior of another real object. For example, on the interior of a sea urchin. A boat might function as a stimuli (or in my Luhmannian language, “information”) evoking the semiotic object of “predator”, but predator is not the same as predator. The boat is withdrawn from this semiotic object.

Isn’t this really the point and value of semiotics? The problem with a semiotic ontology, with an ontology that argues that it is semiosis all the way down, is that it blunts the radical edge of semiotics. The value of semiotics lies precisely in its ability to draw attention to the difference between the world of sensual objects and real objects for different entities. When we argue that it is semiosis all the way down we lose precisely this difference and withdrawal, thereby denying ourselves the critical edge that semiotics offers. Here I hasten to add that I suspect Adrian is trying to get at something like this in his talk of semiotics, I merely disagree with his formulation. What needs to be avoided is the reduction of real objects to their sensual avatars.

I can scarcely do justice to Uexküll’s rich book. It is, by turns, charming and challenging, requiring all sorts of imaginative leaps. There are discussions of how entities generate space and time, the genesis of perception-signs and action-signs, different fields of telos and much more. Insofar as we begin from the premise that all communication is miscommunication, Uexküll’s book is a Lacanian’s delight. The only thing that could make it better would be a leap into the umwelts of inanimate entities such as rocks and stars, as well as quasi-animate entities like machines. Yet one can’t do everything.