Phytosemiotics – Photosemiotics?

This was a “journal” assignment I completed for ENGL306F:  Semiotics (uWaterloo Fall 2012).

Response to:  Krampen, Martin.  “Phytosemiotics” from  Frontiers in Semiotics.  Eds. John Deely, Brooke Williams, and Felicia Jurse.  Bloomington:  Indiana UP, 1986.  83-95.

Some of Krampen’s ideas about phytosemiotics got me wondering whether you could argue for a semiotics of light.  In particular, I was interested by his argument that consciousness or self-awareness, as many people within Western culture seem to think of it at present (if we can categorize to the extent of claiming a homogeneous “Western” culture, even in a globalized world), is not requisite for semiosis.  Krampen argues that because a plant responds to its environment, it is engaging in semiosis.  He says that the signs of plant-code are indexical:  plants grow in the direction of light, for example.  “Living beings react [to impingements of objects or other living beings] in a way that is meaningful in terms of their own needs, i.e., they process information according to their specific receptors, nervous systems, and effectors, and according to their own code” (Krampen 84).

Light particles are not alive or conscious in the sense of being composed of cells, which is the typical scientific definition of “life” and the one Krampen appears to be working with (“Living beings, from the cell to the most complex organism…” Krampen 84).  Another way to think of life – or possibly consciousness – is that living organisms are constantly growing (like many plants) or regenerating themselves (like full grown animals) with energy obtained through consumption of matter, which essentially is composed of energy, according to physicists (i.e. vegetation or flesh) or energy (i.e. photosynthesis).  A light particle might brush at the edges of this (admittedly loose) definition:  a light wave generates an electromagnetic wave, which generates another light wave, and so forth; the light waves and electromagnetic waves regenerate and propagate each other.

Light particles also respond in characteristic ways to impingements that are meaningful in terms of the “needs” of a light particle – for example, light waves bend when entering or leaving a substance of a different density from the substance the light wave was previously/is afterwards in.  White light will separate into the visible spectrum when put through a prism.  Light will not bend around obstacles, and so will be blocked by opaque obstacles, which results in shadows.  However, light is (theoretically) bent by the gravity of black holes.

Perhaps this undermines Krampen’s argument for phytosemiotics rather than making a case for photosemiotics – perhaps if we can bend his definition of semiosis to include something as different from the “Western” concept of life as a light particle, his definition of semiosis deteriorates.  Personally, physics completely blows my mind and after a grade 12 physics class I was quite open to the possibility that the “universe” is alive!  It should be noted that the take on this I’ve framed up depends on the definition I’ve given for life/consciousness, just as Krampen’s line of argument depends on his definition of semiotics as something that does not, contrary to the popular view, require consciousness.


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