The distinction between “semiosis” and “semiotics” is easily drawn. Semiotics is an exclusively human style of inquiry, consisting of the contemplation—whether informally or in formalized fashion—of semiosis. This search will, it is safe to predict, continue at least as long as our genus survives, much as it has existed, for about three million years, in the successive expressions of Homo, variously labeled—reflecting, among other attributes, a growth in brain capacity with concomitant cognitive abilities—habilis, erectus, sapiens, neanderthalensis, and now s. sapiens. Semiotics, in other words, simply points to the universal propensity of the human mind for reverie focused specularly inward upon its own long-term cognitive strategy and daily maneuverings. Locke designated this quest as a search for “humane understanding”; Peirce, as “the play of musement.”
Both the past and the future of semiotics, being co-terminous with human existence, are therefore inalienably linked to human biological fate. The several contemporary cultural manifestations of semiotics must, in this perspective, be regarded as but vanishingly short chapters of history. The future of semiosis, on the other hand, suggests both more speculative and withal intriguing questions. First, however, a glimpse at its past.
Just as semiotics is a heavily glosso-tinged activity that characterizes all normal hominid life, so semiosis, the ceaseless romp of any and all signs (with which the universe, as Peirce assured us, is perfused), hitherto defines any and all life (being, as far as anyone yet knows, tantamount to terrestrial life).
Life emerged on Earth more than four billion years ago. The beginnings of semiosis can be traced to the appearance of the first cell, composed, as it always appears to have been, of life’s four or five elementary building blocks, the distinctive features chemists call amino acids. Cells, these littlest self-reproducing, membrane-bounded entities, are the minimal arenas for signs in action: they process inputs, interpret them, and then transform them into appropriate outputs of novel strings.
In their primitive but abundant surviving forms, all cells were and are prokaryotic. Their semiosis is breathtaking in its elegance and structural complexity. These qualities dramatically increased when—say, about 800 million years ago—some sets of prokaryotes, by dint of a process scientists call symbiosis (and which itself constitutes a special form of biosemiosis), became eukaryotes. Eventually, the latter split into four Superkingdoms, three of them multicelled. They now coexist and ceaselessly interact with the microcosmos as well as with one another. All make up together the biosphere, which, in a more parochial perspective, is the engulfing and sustaining matrix of everything that Jurij M. Lotman has lately been calling “semiosphere.”
The three multicellular Superkingdoms are, in common parlance, plants, animals, and fungi. Plants are the producers: organisms which extract information out of our sun, converting, as provisionally delineated by Martin Krampen (1981), inorganic signals (photons) into phytosemiosic processes. Animals ingest plants proximally or indirectly, thereby transmuting the solar information pre-processed by chlorophyll into far subtler and more sophisticated zoosemiosic processes. Animals convert plant signs into a wide array of nonverbal outputs, which are studied by ethologists interested in aspects of such interpretative comportment. Fungi dissolve and absorb both of the former by mycosemiosic techniques, and dissipate the resultant strings into a temporary entropic state eventually reconstituted so as to fuel yet another cycle.
The (1a) concocting plants, (2a) transmogrifying animals, and (3a) putrefying fungi are homologous with the three widely postulated categories of Western semiotics: (1b) object-signs, (2b) signs which regressively refer (renvoi, in Roman Jakobson’s usage) to such object-signs, and, progressively proliferating, (3b) usually novel but sometimes lethal interpretant-signs. In bold, this (here crudely sketched) state of affairs that has characterized terrestrial semiosis since life evolved from a single cell to its multiform present diversity already contains within it the seeds of already palpable further permutations.
At the nether end of time, semiosis began when life began, but it would be erroneous to assume that, as life, including human life, changes in the future and eventually terminates, semiosis will also come to a stop. Sign processes, fabricating unlimited interpretants, are likely to continue, independently of us, in machines. The following argument is in conformity with, as well as strongly reinforced by, an essay on how man-made objects may remake man, written by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, titled “Strange Fruit on the Tree of Life” (Margulis and Sagan 1986b). Their scenario anticipates that life and nonlife will blend and interbreed. Biotechnology and computer technology already provide humanity with an opportunity to redesign itself, but the new step will take place in the domain of robotics.
Cybersymbiosis, defined by Margulis and Sagan (ibid. 143) as “the commingling of human and manufactured parts in new life-forms,” could also be dubbed cybersemiosis, to underline the exchange of signs between life forms, such as bacteria, for example, to activate biochips based not on silicon but on complex organic molecules. Indeed, Homo sapiens sapiens, these authors insinuate, “might survive only as a rudimentary organ, a delicately dissected nervous system attached to electronically driven plastic arms” (ibid.). The mechanisms of sign-transfer, by means of what is coming to be called “the brain code,” or the set of fundamental rules concerning how signs are stored and transmitted from site to site within the brain—itself being a complex assemblage of interacting microscopic spirochetes—and which supplement the far better understood regulations of the “neuron code,” have behavioral implications that extend beyond the whole organism, penetrating into its inorganic envelope.
Machines will thus become not merely the agents of evolutionary change—in some measure they already have—but also the loci for what Peirce has called “the essential nature and fundamental varieties of possible semiosis,” which, as he also foresaw, “need not be of a mental mode of being.”
This sketch was written at the invitation of Norma Backes Tasca, of the Associagao Portuguesa de Semiotica, for the Portuguese magazine Culture e Arte, where it appeared (in that language) in no. 52 (April 23, 1989): 208. The original English version was later published in the International Semiotic Spectrum, no. 10 (October, 1989): 2. Then the piece was variously translated and published in German, Hungarian, Italian, and Norwegian.