Prof. Wendy Wheeler
Emeritus Professor of English Literature and Cultural Inquiry, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities; London Metropolitan University
Title: This mighty sum of things for ever speaking”: Biosemiotic Meaning-making in Nature, Science and Culture
We talk these days about the ‘Information Revolution’; but what is information? Over the past 25 years, many biologists have begun to see that in biological systems ‘information’ is more accurately described as biosemiosis. From the Greek bio, for life, and semeion for sign, biosemiotics investigates and describes sign relations in the natural and cultural worlds and in the ceaseless interaction between them. At the same time, semioticians have widened their own endeavours as they have come to understand that animals, plants, fungi, bacteria – indeed all living organisms and their component system parts – far from being some kind of living machines, are, in fact, semiotic, interpretative systems. It turns out not to be so strange that humans have made art and song, because the nonhuman living systems from which humans have evolved are organised via structuring principles that are much more like art, music and poetry. Proceeding, as the French biologist François Jacob put it, via tinkering creative hunch and the strange logic of abductive inference, nature and culture are made of an endless flow of natural metaphors, natural stories and natural ‘conversations’. In this new relational ontology, the distinction between natural and cultural sign relations is nearly redundant. Biologists and semioticians eventually came together to pool their knowledges. The result was the beginning of a new inter-discipline: biosemiotics.
In this talk I will introduce this new world of biological, cultural, human and more-than-human living meanings – Wordsworth’s “mighty sum of things for ever speaking” – that biosemiotics uncovers and explores. I will ask what biosemiotic insights might mean for our thinking about aesthetics and ethical relations, both with each other and with the more-than-human world.
About Prof. Wheeler
Wendy Wheeler has researched and written on biosemiotics and culture since 2005 when she was introduced to the work of Jesper Hoffmeyer, Kalevi Kull, Søren Brier, Frederick Stjernfelt, John Deely and others. She has been particularly influenced by the work of Gregory Bateson in thinking about living communicative systems, and about how formal and organisational patterns and semiosis in nature are repeated in cultural and aesthetic forms and meanings. She is especially interested in the ways in which biosemiotic process systems theories can provide useful tools for research in the medical and the ecological humanities.
Wendy Wheeler received her PhD from the University of Sussex in 1994 for a thesis on postmodernism as cultural mourning and melancholia in the contemporary English novel. In 2009, she was awarded a DLitt from London Metropolitan University. Her first monograph, A New Modernity: Change in Science, Literature and Politics (1999), looked at changes taking place across a number of disciplines which seemed to indicate contemporary endeavours to begin to think through a post-Cartesian, more holistic approach to human selves and the world. The book’s final chapter dealt with the emergence of complex evolutionary systems approaches. Her second monograph, The Whole Creature: Complexity, Biosemiotics and the Evolution of Culture (2006), used biosemiotic systems understandings in order to address the question of the role of biology in a non-reductionist (i.e. non-sociobiological) understanding of culture. The 2001 open-access e-book Biosemiotics is a biosemiotics Reader which introduced Peircean semiotics and process philosophy to an Anglophone audience more familiar with the semiology of F. de Saussure.
Wheeler’s latest monograph, Expecting the Earth: Life/Culture/Biosemiotics, was published by Lawrence & Wishart in July 2016. Wheeler has been a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh and a Visiting Professor on the Environmental Studies programme at the University of Oregon, at the Department of Sociology at Goldsmith, University of London, and in the School of Art, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia. She has also been an honoured guest lecturer and teacher at both European and North American universities.
Dr Alyson Hallett
Title: The Stones Beneath My Feet And The Stones Above My Head. On Stones, Love and Disturbing Strangeness
This talk explores the relationship between the human body and stones: how we interact and how we communicate with one another. At many times in my life, a stone has acted as a compass and pointed me in a direction I might not have taken if I hadn’t listened to it. What did this listening entail? What did I hear when I listened? Was it a stone language? Or was something in my own imagination drawn out by the stone? Using my work with the migration habits of stones as a springboard, I will look at what happens when stones occupy a central place in our lives and we work with them in a way that includes ritual, community and a willingness to learn. Instead of seeking to identify answers, this talk will meander along probable and improbable pathways in search of a door that we can slip through and, if we’re lucky, find something we didn’t know we were looking for.
Dr Alyson Hallett is a prize-winning poet and curator of an international poetry-as-public-art project, The Migration Habits of Stones. Alyson has published many books of poetry including On Ridgegrove Hill (Atlantic Press), Suddenly Everything (Poetry Salzburg), The Stone Library (Peterloo Poets). She has also published short stories, The Heart’s Elliptical Orbit (Solidus Press) and written drama and an audio-diary for BBC Radio 4, Dear Gerald and Nature: Migrating Stones, and drama for Sky Television.
Alyson has been awarded several Arts Council Grants and has undertaken many prestigious residencies including being the first poet in the UK to receive a Leverhulme Award to be resident in a university geography department and the Charles Causley Residency. Her public art work is sited in the England, Scotland, USA. and Australia and can be seen in both urban and rural areas. Collaborations with sculptors, glass makers, musicians and visual artists are a vital part of Alyson’s working practice.
In 2010, she completed a practice-based PhD which led to her latest book, Geographical Intimacy (available from Amazon, 2016). Alyson is a Hawthornden Fellow, has run Arvon Foundation poetry courses with James Harpur, and currently works part-time as an Advisory Fellow for the Royal Literary Fund and as an associate lecturer at UWE and Falmouth University.
Alyson is also co-leading the short course In Other Tongues: intimate geographies, ecologies of conversation
Dougie Strang: Keynote performance
Badger Dissonance is a thirty minute solo performance with live musical accompaniment. The piece was inspired by ‘Apologia’, an essay by the writer Barry Lopez, in which he insists on the worth of stopping to honour road-killed animals. “You never know,” he suggests, “the ones you give some semblance of a burial, to whom you offer an apology, may have been like seers in a parallel culture. It’s an act of respect, a technique of awareness.”
Through spoken word and physical theatre, Badger Dissonance provides a dramatic account – at times harrowing, at times playful – of what happens when you decide to stop and bury the dead. It’s an exploration of alterity and of the cognitive dissonance generated by modern Western culture.
As well as performance, the piece involves the creation of an installation/shrine and would be best suited as an outdoor, after-dark event, either on its own or as part of an evening of performances – see my next proposal!
Badger Dissonance has previously been performed at the CCA in Glasgow, as part of last year’s Art Cop Scotland, and at Edinburgh’s Hidden Door Art’s Festival.