Skip to content
Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter Mouton September 14, 2016

Anthroposemiotics of literature: The cultural nature

Ibrahim Taha
From the journal Semiotica


Semiotics is not merely about knowledge but primarily about knowing. Representation is about knowledge while literature as a semiotic medium is about modeling. Modeling is not a technique used by writers to represent the world but a target meant to show the way the writer models the world so that the reader responds accordingly and offers her/his own model. Knowing as semiosis is produced from such a kind of comparison between the two models. Meaning itself, knowledge, does not interest semioticians, whose concern is rather with the way it is produced. Literature teaches us how to learn more about our nature. Literature trains our natural faculties of modeling. All possible fragments of knowledge we may get from a literary text and the cognitive and emotional responses they provoke are only parts of a whole. They are associated with the mega-meaning of literature. In literature, knowing stands for mega-meaning, whereby it becomes an anthroposemiotic concept. In this paper, I hope to contribute to the new wave of interest in the natural linkage between anthroposemiotics and literary study through three major possible epistemologies tightening the linkage between both fields: evolutionary epistemology, emotional and cognitive activities, and cultural, including social and historical, conventions. All of these three levels conduct some kind of communication and naturally work together in harmony.

Tell me how you think and I shall tell you what you think.

(Wittgenstein in Deledalle 2000: 147)

1 Knowledge and knowing

One major aspect of human organism functioning in the environment relates to the biological drive to survive. Since survival, in its widest sense as argued here, is not restricted to traditional senses of preservation and maintenance, it concerns further processes of reproduction, change, and improvement as long-term tools for survival. These will not be possible without a natural ability to model the environment. Survival in the human kingdom therefore involves not only biological activities but also cultural. One of the cultural conditions needed for humans to survival is knowing through semiosis. Literature trains our cognitive and emotional properties to learn how to get more and more knowledge, that is, how to know. “How to know” was never exclusively a matter of mechanics. It is inherited in our species. “There is no meaning without a life context and no context determined without meaning” (Brier 2013: 237). Life, context, and meaning are interdependently coexistent. Humans do everything for a purposive target, say meaning. Again, all processes of human knowing for survival purposes, preservation, maintenance, reproduction, change, and improvement, acquire a sophisticated semiotic talent of modeling and remodeling the environment, the physical world. Human beings “should be considered as a species with unusually pronounced semiotic talents” (Hoffmeyer 2008: 265). They are in fact semiotic animals, as Deely rightly argues in his book The Human Use of Signs (1994).

Human biology in action involves cognitive, corporeal, emotional, social, cultural, and historical faculties. Having active cognitions, a motivational system, mental and emotional behaviors, and achievement conduct, authors and readers are motivated to act by some sort of needing. They are by natural selection goal-directed creatures (see Kull 2010: 48). The organism orients “itself within the environment for the purposes of its life and well-being” (Deely 2001: 128, italics added). That is, the fact that humans are cognitively aware of their biological need to survive, and orient themselves to challenge the environment, means they are driven to acquire processes of knowing as much as possible. [1]

To live and obtain well-being, in Deely’s terminology, or to survive, in Kull’s, human beings need knowledge for learning and knowing. Surviving, as Damasio puts it, “is not a property of humans alone. In some fashion or other, from simple to complex, most living organisms exhibit it. What does vary is the degree to which organisms know about that urge. Few do” (Damasio 1999: 137). Perhaps unlike animals, humans need more than information per se. Unlike Mayr, I do believe that animals make decisions too, but they are not aware of the decisions they instinctively make. [2] As semiotic animals, as argued by Deely, humans differ from animals not in their ability to make decisions but in their semiotic ability to model and remodel the world for natural and evolutional needs. In particular, one of the main differences between human beings and other living organisms in general is the human “capacity to use modeling for survival” (Sebeok and Danesi 2000: 17, italics added). Modeling and remodeling is the primary property needed to be learned and knowing. Modeling for knowing would not be possible without language in both forms: art and speech. Producing a piece of art, including literature, as argued by Uspenskij, would not be possible without “reconstruction of language” (1977: 173).

Literature, as a unique lingual property specific to humans, is not about mere knowledge, but about knowing. Not only about knowing, but about how to know how to survive. It is about knowing of knowing. It sounds as if semiotics inspects itself. Yes, it does. Literature is a practical medium that teaches us how to model the world and consequently to learn from our modeling ability. As a vehicle meant to impart learning, literature is thus an indirect tool of communication. As a semiotic capacity, “human communication is the most complex and varied form of communication in the sphere of biosemiotics, given that the human is the animal that is capable of modeling multiple possible worlds” (Ponzio 2004a: 40, italics added), and as such, human communication is not a naïve capacity of transmitting messages from a sender to a targeted receiver. And if knowing of knowing is a property of natural selection specific to human beings, it is primarily a matter of biosemiotics. Building on Ponzio’s insights, literature is a tool of interchange, which dismisses the hierarchal dichotomy between sender and receiver, source and target. Since literature is an arguable medium, the reader is not concerned with mere knowledge from an authorial writer but with questioning, conversation, modeling and remodeling. This is precisely what makes literature about teaching to learn from asking. If literature is a paradigm of knowing – not knowledge, as argued here, art, as Danesi puts it, speaking of all types of art including literature, “is a guarantee that our weary search for meaning is itself meaningful” (Danesi 1999: 179, italics added). Perhaps the major strategy for survival in the animal “kingdom” is adapting, living in peace with the environment. Kull (2009: 83–85) and Cobley (2010: 2058) argue that biosemiotics is “a science of knowing rather than a science of laws.” Humans have to violate the laws and constantly change the norms. Humans live in an ongoing process of self-deconstruction as a primary condition to initiate processes of reconstruction. Animals need knowledge; humans need knowledge for knowing making, or, as Iser puts it, learning to move forward from “the known to the unknown in order to make the unknown hark back to what is familiar” (Iser 2007: 319).

The literary text is not only a medium of representation; it models the world for knowing purposes, which is something entirely different from knowledge. Put otherwise, the knowledge per se a reader may extract from a literary piece does not concern her/him but the lessons s/he may learn from such knowledge. Knowledge refers here to all types of information: real or imagined, historical, social, documents, values and individual opinions and positions. These are not the lessons a reader has to know per se, but the vehicle for making use of them to improve her/his capacity to know, to learn how people model the world, so that s/he can remodel it better in a different way. Readers take advantage of literature to sustain their self-knowing capacity. In this very sense, literature maintains the natural human property of dialogism, as rightly argued by Ponzio. Representation is about knowledge while literature as a lingual medium is about modeling. Modeling is not a technique used by writers to represent the world but a target meant to show the way the writer models the world so that the reader responds accordingly and offers her/his own model. Knowing is produced from such a kind of comparison between the two models. Knowing as semiosis is associated with learning and acting. [3] So semiotics is not merely about knowledge but primarily about knowing. Meaning itself, knowledge, does not interest semioticians, whose concern is rather with the way it is produced. Or in Danesi’s words, “Instead of studying meaning by contemplating it directly, as traditional philosophy does, semiotics studies how it is built into signs and texts of all kinds … In short, semiotics studies ‘produced meaning’ in order to understand semiosis” (2007: 12, italics added). From a semiotic viewpoint, semiotics does not specifically seek pure objective truth and it is unable to do so. Truth might be subjective, individual, partial, and provisional. [4]

Not only has no one needed literature to learn about the society, or culture or history, literature can by no means do this. Literature is not a pedagogical tool. Literature rather can provide tools for practicing our natural skills of listening, observing, watching, discussing, imagining, and modeling, which I call knowing, not knowledge. Two natural features of literature make it unable to provide truth, reliable knowledge: (1) its incompleteness, resulting from the very fact that language is just a part of a whole, and the part cannot mirror the whole or stand for it; (2) its subjectivity, resulting from the very fact that literature is the outcome of mediating activity. It teaches me how to learn more about my nature. Literature trains my natural faculties of modeling. All possible fragments of knowledge we may get from a literary text and the cognitive and emotional responses they provoke are only parts of a whole. They are associated with the mega-meaning of literature. In literature knowing stands for mega-meaning, whereby it becomes a biosemiotic concept. And knowing as meaning is a natural necessity for survival purposes. Knowing demands capabilities of making new ways meet the growing challenges in the world. This is the very reason why postmodern literature is a question-oriented paradigm. Most probably it provides less information, and certainly fewer meanings. The rapid move from consumption to production is a key factor for survival on the level of nations and states in postmodern era. If one has a look at oil Arab countries in the gulf would probably feel the upcoming crisis they are to face in the near future as expected. The natural resources they have do not make them productive but on the contrary massively consumptive societies. They lack knowing one of the major tools required to face serious challenges in the postmodern era. In literature, information cannot be reached by decreasing states of uncertainty or by reducing possibilities. On the contrary, any process of knowing, making meanings from literary texts, should be built on increasing uncertainty and enriching the variety of possibilities. Readers of literature need minimum information to be productive. Turning knowledge/information into processes of knowing for survival purposes inevitably involves a unique process of dialogic communication with the Umwelt.

2 Communicating, umwelt, and anthroposemiotics

Like cybersemiotics, biosemiotics is a transdisciplinary theory communicating among cultural, subjective, cognitive, biological, and natural environments, in Brier’s sense. [5] Authors and readers alike conduct a complicated act of dialogue in the natural sense proposed by Bakhtin and well clarified by Ponzio. [6] The Bakhtinian dialogism shares some basic features with the emergent of any blending activity. In this sense, all three major participants in any literary activity conduct together such an act of dialogism that does not displace their original identities. Referring to dialogism as a pivotal concept in the study of semiosis, Ponzio in fact makes difference and otherness a natural part of the individual’s and society’s memory without which the self cannot exist. Referring to the dialogue among all three literary participants by the modeling terminology means that all participants preserve their duality while jeopardizing their individuality. Interconnectedness in global communication emphasizes the natural need for human beings to be interrelated with others. [7] Using her concept semioethics, Petrilli sees no contradiction between subjectivity and otherness. [8] “The self is always in dialogue with the other, that is to say, with the world and with others, whether it knows it or not; the self is always in dialogue with the word [world] of the other. Identity is dialogic. Dialogism is at the very heart of the self” (2004a: 52). Human beings are naturally dialogic, as Ponzio puts it. Since humans are naturally entangled in their environment, they are “shaped and conditioned by what they have spun out of themselves, challenged by the habitat they have built for survival and self-preservation, which inevitably increases interest in culture in proportion to the decline of a uniformitarian view of human nature” (Iser 2007: 319). Humankind uses the arts, including literature, as a survival strategy for the human species. I use survival here in its broadest neo-Darwinian sense, particularly in its expanded Sebeokian sense. [9]

Humanity has never been the same since, for example, Michelangelo sculpted his David, since Shakespeare wrote his King Lear, since Beethoven composed his Ninth Symphony. Indeed, the spiritual meanings in great art works can be discovered and rediscovered across time, across cultures. Art texts become a permanent part of the evolution of the human species, permanently etched in the spiritual blueprint of humankind.

(Danesi and Perron 1999: 208)

But not only that. Needleless to say, semiosis is everywhere in life: “life is semiosis,” as conclusively phrased by Barbieri (2007: 102). Instead, I am deeply interested in the ways humans, as the semiotic animal in Deely’s terminology (2004: 246–247), naturally semiotize literature – the way humans produce meanings from literature for natural human, social, and cultural purposes. That is, how the act of modeling the literary text, traditionally labeled writing, and the act of remodeling, traditionally termed reading and interpretation, embody our human species. Differentiating between two different models of communication, internal and external, Lotman refers to art (including literature) as “engendered in the sphere of internal speech” (1977a: 100). When remodeling the modeled reality, writers project their consciousness onto the remodeled text and consequently create some type of metatext. [10] When the human mind is actively involved in the process of writing, the literary text changes from a “cultural unit” (Kim 1996: 114) into a piece of living nature and as such it needs to be accounted for by living terminology.

Knowing would not be possible without a process of reconstruction, which implies first and foremost a state of deconstruction. “Art is not a system without reconstruction of its norm, just as speech is not a system without a reconstruction of language” (Uspenskij 1977: 173). Reconstructing the norms is another way of saying remodeling. In this sense, all kinds of literature have a self-deconstruction mechanism, as I have argued elsewhere regarding the interrelations between text and genre (see Taha 2000: 101–119). Literature is a new way of texting the existing texts. Literature is not about contents detached from their forms. The contents are within the forms. Thus forming, i.e., modeling, is the content. There is no content without form and vice versa. Producing meanings from art and narratives, as Lotman argues, is always a function of representation (Lotman 1977b: 193–197). Semiotic analysis “is the science of representation” (Danesi 1999: 24, italics in the original). That is why knowing as a modeling system is more remarkable than knowledge. Literature (and art in general) is not about messages or knowledge. It is about the way the writer thinks of the world, it is about her/his knowing of the world. The reader responds with her/his own model of knowing; this is the only way authors and readers communicate through literature. Knowing would not be possible without changing the norms even of the knowing itself. The messages readers receive from writers are not global, are not facts; rather, they are individual and tentative by nature. When literature becomes about global norms, rules or facts it ceases to be literature. In a sense, laws are created to be violated. Producing literature is a natural need of the human species. Neither producers nor consumers of literature search specifically for mere knowledge but for knowing, not for the referent but for the model, so they may be able to change things, communicate, and finally control the meaning-making models, control the culture for the sake of nature. Literature, in sum, is a strategy of the human species to control the living and then life. [11] In this sense, literature should be particularly reasoned through an anthroposemiotic glossary. Anthroposemiosis broadly speaking “reveals itself as the fulfillment of the human ‘nature’ in the creation of ‘culture’” (Deely 1994: 118, italics added). As a semiotic animal, as Deely (1994) rightly argued, the human being needs culture, including arts and literature, not only to expose her/his superiority, but also to use it for natural needs. Nature does not create culture: culture helps nature to be recreated. John Deely is the most prominent semiotician and philosopher to refer to human conduct in the physical world through an anthroposemiotic vocabulary, balancing nature and culture in a plausible mode of interdependency. In my recent book (Taha 2015), I propose an anthroposemiotic model of narrative criticism through the narrative characters.

To have semiosis in semiotics (as clarified by Peirce) and in biosemiotics (as expressed by Uexküll), all three basic and primitive elements (object, interpreter, sign) must be there (see Barbieri 2007: 109) to build machine-like models of what we observe in our environment. [12] Referring to literature as a symbolic paradigm, the thirdness form of representation, is based on Peirce’s definition of symbols. [13] Literature as an advanced and sophisticated cultural mode, the legisign, namely the third type of representamina, includes the other two types, the first/qualisign and the second/sinsign. And as such, it can be dealt with semiotically by cultural conventions. Reasoning literary activity (writing, texting, reading) by cultural semiotic terminology seems very persuasive therefore promising. In a series of studies I hope to contribute to the new wave of interest in the natural linkage between anthroposemiotics and literary study. Writers and biologists alike “are attentive observers of life, recording the movements of humans and animals in minute detail and fitting their observations into a phenomenological frame of thought” (Herwig 2001: 560). Specifically, in this article I will shed more light on all three spheres of literature – writer, text, reader – through three major possible epistemologies tightening the linkage between both fields:

  1. Evolutionary epistemology: According to some Darwinian and neo-Darwinian premises, all human needs and drives, typical of humankind generally, are relevant to our argument; an example is the natural searching for means and meanings of life in a specific environment with all its short- and long-term implications. Literature is by definition cathartic, having a great impact on mind/soul and body. “In the narrow sense, evolution designates the process and the study of continuity and change in living systems organized in holons of species” (Sebeok 1986: 28, italics added).

  2. Emotional and cognitive activities: Examining literary activities (writing, texting, reading) may involve emotional capacities, so one may speak of an emotive or annotative approach during representation and interpretation (see Danesi and Perron 1999: 82–83). True, literary meanings do not always depend on the human mind’s reasoning and activity, as might be claimed by cognitive sciences. However, some cognitive activity is needed to work with other human properties.

  3. Cultural, including social and historical, conventions.

All these three levels conduct some kind of communication and naturally work together in harmony. [14] Anthroposemiotics in this account is meant to blend two different disciplines: biology/anthropology and semiotics; the first is primarily associated with nature, the second with culture. Humans are the only verbal organism able to produce and consume literature. As such they are not only biological entities but also cultural creatures that behave semiotically and share some commonalities. Anthroposemiotics does include the traditional phase of semiotic culture; the reverse is not true. Is it natural reasoning of a cultural paradigm or cultural reasoning of natural selection, or perhaps both? “Three life cycles intersect here in a purposeful manner, composed together like the parts of a trio. Hence we can here speak of a natural trio. These exquisitely purposeful parts of a whole only reveal themselves to a scientist who has learned to watch out for harmony in nature” (Uexküll 2001b: 119).

Biosemiotics seems more in line with the Peircean legacy and less with Saussurean concepts of arbitrariness. Involving the function of interpretant in his triadic model, Peirce in fact attributes a key role to cognitive activities in any process of semiosis. Like biosemiotics, the cognitive sciences are interested in processes of connections among all human faculties for purposes of recognition, categorization, communication, representation, and meaning making. This is the very reason why biosemiotics, according to Kull, aspires to understand life rather than to describe it (see Kull 2011: 226). However, one of the main differences between biosemiotics in general and anthroposemiotics in particular is the human genetic “capacity to use modeling for survival” (Sebeok and Danesi 2000: 17, italics added) by verbal coding.

3 Literature: The cultural nature

As a species-specific human device, language is not just a mere communication tool but a modeling system as well (see Sebeok and Danesi 2000: 107–109; Martinelli 2007: 475–476). However, I believe that the two functions of human language are closely bound up, particularly in the form of written language. Writers and readers communicate by modeling language. The ability to model and remodel the world in literary texts is crucial to literary communication. To explain how literature refers to knowing as a natural faculty essential for survival purposes, I propose three key hypotheses:

  1. W, T, R, and K  = (stand for) vehicles of signification.

  2. W  =  (stands for) the writer, T  =  (stands for) the text, R = (stands for) the reader, and K  =  (stands for) knowing.

  3. W transfers T to R so that R can in one way or another infer K (meaning/s) from T.

All three literary systems, namely, writer, text, reader, are primarily representation-oriented interrelated systems conducting triadic models of interrelations. As binary systems, literary texts always appear in pairs: physical and mental, perceptual and emotional, cultural and natural, individual and social, local and global, explicit and implicit, direct and figurative, readable and writable, complete and incomplete, and the like. In any literary work all these factors have dual identities with two facets: (1) physical spatial existence, (2) mental and emotional properties. “The self is a joint product of both natural and cultural processes” as argued by Sebeok (1986: xi, italics added). All of them implicate physical and cognitive/emotional qualities. On the one hand writers conduct bodily spatial relations with time, space, environment, and society (culture). On the other hand they behave as individuals possessing particular mental properties and emotional faculties. Both facets–collective and individual, cultural and natural, inorganic and organic, external and internal, body and soul, explicit and implicit, are engaged in any process of writing literature. That is why literary texts as human products maintain both facets equally. One may accordingly speak of an implied text in addition to the physical one. Readers too, as text receivers, approach literature with both their cultural and natural qualities, and the two are tightly interlinked, as stated. “The organic and the inorganic are inseparably intertwined” (Jämsä 2007: 73).

One of the major differences between semiotics and biosemiotics concerns the complicated relation between referent (object) and meaning. According to Wittgenstein, meanings of signs are not necessarily their referents or objects, and vice versa, but the meanings in use, the outcome of the words in practice (see 1964: 69). Use and practice involve natural organisms living in a specific Umwelt. In the case of literature both W and R, sender and receiver, are natural organisms living in specific Umwelten. Consequently, W transfers T to R so that R can in one way or another infer K from T by all possible strategies of inference: induction, deduction, abduction. Meanings are not fixed or definite there within their referents. They are a function of interpretive activities, which depends on both the sending and the receiving subjects (see Barbieri 2007: 202). Subjects as human beings are defined by changeability and complexity. Since we attribute changeability to our products, they themselves have the potential for changeability (see Taha 1997: 134). Humans’ changeability is cumulative. Changing is an act of addition not subtraction. Complexity is the absolute upshot of changeability. Having physical being, literary texts are externalized forms in which words are vehicles. The referents of literary texts’ words are internalized; they are the intra-textual realities. The meanings of these referents should be a combination of intra- and extra-textual realities, where writers and readers have some sort of existence in both realities. To clarify the major difference between semiotics and biosemiotics regarding meanings, let us take the example of a diagrammatic model of a table, designed for me by some designer. The externalized model is used to manufacture a real-world table, a physical object, which is the referent of the diagrammatic model. The meanings attributed to the real table are the outcome of my own uses of the table. And I may use it differently at different times and places: sometimes I use it as a desk for my work, sometimes for having a dinner, or for storing, and the like. My uses might theoretically be detached from the intended meanings of the designer. However, the table remains a table – that is, whatever different uses I make of my table at different times and spaces are limited. Moving forward from physical products (tables) to verbal texts (literature), the same process of semiosis seems to take place. The designer is equivalent to the writer, the diagrammed model of a table to the literary text, and I as a user of the table to me as a reader. In this sense, every semiosis involves fundamentally three partners, each with a dual identity: real and implied. So in fact they are six, not three. [15] As such, it is commonly believed that a literary text is broadly speaking a composite model. [16] Meanings in narratives are the outcome of combination of objects and action/behavior. “If we are to understand our social and cultural world, we must think not of independent objects but of symbolic structures, systems of relations which, by enabling objects and actions to have meaning, create a human universe” (Culler 2001 [1981]: 25). [17]

4 Blending and modeling

Observing and metaphoring seem to be the most functional tools writers commonly use to produce possible worlds from the concepts and the images of the world they have in mind. Mind activity contributes much to Umwelt production. [18] Umwelt worlds “are the product of mind acts and physical activity” (Merrell 2001: 237). Connecting minds and Umwelten, writers take advantage of metaphors to represent the images they have in mind blended with real models of individuals. [19] To produce possible worlds in literary texts, writers apply many mental activities in their processes of representation, which might be concluded as remodeling, such as natural intending, selecting, comparing, reorganizing, and the like. As argued by Fauconnier and Turner, the textual world is not simply the emergent of mere combinations of two separate models.

Referring to the literary text as a whole of parts, one may speak of modeling systems. “When the parts and properties of an object are clearly perceived as parts of a function, does the mixture of parts become a meaningful whole?” (Uexküll 2001b: 112). Readers have to treat all parts of any literary text as functional, that is, as purposive, so that they can infer any possible meanings from the whole text. A literary text is a system of interrelated signs. [20] According to Jörgen Dines Johansen, the “literary work of art is, at the same time, both a representation of the object by means of the system’s elements and relations and its analogies” (2002: 165, italics added). Literature is thus a unique type of modeling which is not a mere technical modeling system, as Johansen puts it. In keeping with Sebeok’s postulate that the self has emotional and cognitive properties, and social environmental, historical and cultural implications (see Sebeok 1979), writers naturally have two interconnected possibilities to produce literary texts: immunological and biochemical equally. Blending and modeling theories provide a feasible explanation for the twofold entity of writers, texts and readers. In the writing process itself, a natural blending activity occurs in the writer’s mind. S/he naturally refers to real reality or imagined models of realities, and projects her/his mind, cognitive and emotional faculties onto them, so that s/he produces new world called possible. The possible world, the textual world, is thus a dual product: natural and artificial. The reader in fact goes the same way the writer. S/he accordingly remodels the possible world created by the writer. For the sake of their remodeling processes both writers and readers utilize all relevant tools such as comparison, analogy, similarity, contrast, completion and elaboration, and typical devices of iconicity such as imaging, diagramming, and metaphoring. Modeling thereby benefits exceedingly from blending and iconicity, which guarantee some connectivity between possible and real worlds.

All five fundamental elements of Blending Theory are involved in the writing process: input spaces (two or more), generic space, cross-space mapping, compression, and emergent. Producing new worlds by blending tools, writers mechanically prove the natural duality of the human species. It embodies the two closely connected facets: the natural and the cultural. Input spaces could be sets of information, mental spaces, pictures, scenes, values, names, figures, roles, and the like. Generic space stands for the two input spaces (sets of information in the mind/mental spaces) sharing some elements or commonalities that are able to integrate. Sharing such commonalities guarantees some activities of compression (see Fauconnier and Turner 2002: 113). Cross-space mapping represents the content of the generic space as a set of textual elements, and specifies the proper cross-space mapping needed in a given blending process. This metaphoric analogy is most remarkable, providing a blending/integrating method. Compression refers to the process of blending in mental/psychological terms the input spaces that are temporally, spatially and logically detached. Emergent stands for the outcome of this blending activity. [21] The new product that has emerged after such mental/psychological activity has to be somehow different from the original features of each single input space. Just as Gestalt theoreticians believe that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, so precisely literary texts, being emergent states, are more than their minor input spaces. Hence the reader has no possible way to separate the two facets of every literary text: the natural and the artificial.

The number of semioticians, literary scholars and philosophers calling for a biosemiotic approach to literature as a lingual medium engaging cultural and natural apparatuses has rapidly risen in the last two decades. [22] Literature, as cultural product by Iser’s definition, has obvious natural aspects. [23] Speaking of human beings’ need and capacity, Iser in fact speaks of natural need and mechanical capacity. Verbal coding itself, as a fundamentally communicative tool, is natural. However, its use is primarily cultural therefore it involves mechanical devices. Of the five major codes specified by Sebeok (2001), literature is the most sophisticated due to its nature to engage in natural and cultural activities – unintentional and intentional, biological and mechanical conduct. Naturally, literature as the most sophisticated type of verbal coding is meant to have a survival goal. However, it still needs convenient and proper use so that it reaches such a goal. The use I refer to involves adopted cultural codes and norms. Every literary text is thus a double-faced invention: natural content and mechanical form. As a double-faced identity, literature is concerned with two types of knowing: how to use verbal coding for survival purposes, that is, to meet natural expectations, and how to use it to acquire more knowing. Perhaps literature seems metaphorically closer to phytosemiotics; not to all plants, but to specific flowers that need some insects to be fertilized.

5 Pollination of flowers: Remodeling possible worlds

Instead of talking about truth in terms of necessity, Kripke in his proposed model of logic suggests talking about it in terms of possibility (Kripke 1980: 1–21). Based on this model, possibility views fictional worlds of literature as non-real states, and writers represent possible states involving some relevant cognitive activity. Possibility cannot be mere mechanical terminology replacing natural reasoning. And the possibility of worlds in literature cannot be possible without taking into consideration natural knowledge relevant to driving meaningful states of knowing into and by the text as a human system of signs. Literary texts always involve some of their writers’ human, cognitive and emotional faculties. [24] As human products, produced for a purposeful function, literary texts can by no means be detached from their creators’ perception. Possible worlds will not be possible without real worlds. And these actively involve readers in the making of knowing.

Possible worlds as Doležel argues make possible the function of reconstructing while reading. Doležel makes the productive cooperation between writers and readers through possible worlds possible. [25] Possible worlds exemplify two major things: the lack of absolute truth and incompleteness. Both are needed to make knowing a natural tool for survival. Roman Ingarden and Wolfgang Iser refer to the literary text as naturally incomplete, therefore requiring a further act of supplementation (Ingarden 1973: 251). Depending on its gaps system, the incompleteness of the literary text (see Iser 1978), according to Iser, is one of the key concepts in possible-worlds theory in literature. [26] The incompleteness of fictional worlds is in my argument a key concept regarding the reader’s involvement in making meanings, i.e., knowing. The reader when reading has to go the same way – with one additional factor: the possible world produced by the writer. The writer has to produce possible worlds in literary texts by blending two worlds: the one s/he has in mind and the real one. The reader has three: the imagined one in the writer’s mind, the real, and the textual – the possible. From these three worlds the reader engenders a new fourth one. The textual world produced by the writer encounters the reader’s models of worlds from models of real human beings, whether real or imagined. Readers thereby propose their own models of possible worlds, which might be considered alternative worlds to the writers’ models of textual worlds. Writers and readers share two things: the physical context they both belong to, and the same psychological activities whereby they remodel the world.

To produce her/his own possible world, the reader has to conduct some further mental activities of comparison, re-modification, remapping, recompressing, and reintegrating knowledge. The text is the space where both participants, writers and readers, meet to communicate through a remodeling process of the world. An anthroposemiotic analysis of literature should involve all participants. Literature, as a specific practice of the human language, enables some sort of communication via a modeled and remodeled text. Communication on the basis of modeling is a natural human need. It seems to me that the reader’s mission is extremely complicated. S/he should be qualified enough to recognize these authorial signals and codes embodied in the text, and to recognize their ability to behave as semiotic units. The reader’s involvement thus necessitates two interrelated and simultaneous missions to accomplish so that s/he can remodel the textual world: (a) an emotional response; (b) a cognitive semiotic response. Emotional activity might be naïve identification, sympathy, empathy; cognitive activity might be perception, interpretation, assessment.

By remodeling, enabled by the state of possible worlds, readers reproduce new models of knowledge whereby they approach the endless conversation with writers in post-ending activity. Building on these hypotheses, signs in literary texts can function independently without direct linkage to authorial intentionality in terms of true and false. The reader has to assume some form of authorial intentions somewhere. Authorial intentions, whatever they are – real or imagined, are seemingly necessary for the reader to conduct some form of communication through verbal mediums including literature. The possible worlds introduced in the literary texts, by the author’s intention, can from the reader’s viewpoint in fact replace the intended world of the author. In such a case the reader consciously or unconsciously treats such a world as really intended. The reader has her/his own imagination to play a vital role in this act of replacing the world intended by the author. In this sense, the reader actually fulfills a role of remodeling which is vital for making meanings from knowing. My account in this article suggests revising the traditional dichotomy of encoding and decoding, in a way that dismisses the exclusive association of encoding with authors and decoding with readers.

6 Last word: Between literature and flowers

Literary texts are produced by natural laws of modeling things in pairs. Texts’ systems are a duet: natural and cultural. And often “the duet is enlarged to a trio, when a third party is needed to bring about the male-female union. We know the role of insects in aiding the pollination of flowers” (Uexküll 2001 [b]: 118). Literary texts are flowers growing with a wide varieties of colors, smells, and generative bodies, but they need highly skilled, informed readers to produce meanings from these flowers. Not everybody can succeed. Only readers who aspire to acquire knowing can. Knowing starts from inside, from ourselves. Observing can engender knowing, and knowing is the art of observing. Readers have to know how to watch texts, and watching literary texts requires a primary acknowledgment that the origins of literary texts, like flowers, are a duet. Readers are bees helping the texts to be complete, fertilizable, hence harmonized. Like flowers like literature both are trio which are semiotically dependent on a “third party.” The binary system featuring “all living things” that Uexküll talks about recalls key concepts of de Saussure; however his metaphor of flowers as a sample of “exception” recalls the Peircean heritage to determine the borders between culture and biology, literature and animals.


Barbieri, Marcello. 2007. Is the cell a semiotic system? In Marcello Barbieri (ed.), Introduction to biosemiotics: The new biological synthesis, 179–207. Dortrecht: Springer.10.1007/1-4020-4814-9_8Search in Google Scholar

Brier, Søren. 2013. Cybersemiotics: A new foundation for transdisciplinary theory of information, cognition, meaningful communication, and the interaction between nature and culture. Integral Review 9(2). 220–263.Search in Google Scholar

Cobley, Paul. 2010. Cybersemiotics and human modelling. Entropy 12. 2045–2066.10.3390/e12092045Search in Google Scholar

Culler, Jonathan. 2001 [1981]. The pursuit of signs: Semiotics, literature, deconstruction. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Damasio, Antonio R. 1999. The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness. New York: Harcourt Brace.Search in Google Scholar

Danesi, Marcel. 1993. Vico, metaphor, and the origin of language. Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indian University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Danesi, Marcel. 1999. Of cigarettes, high heels, and other interesting things. New York: St. Martin’s Press.Search in Google Scholar

Danesi, Marcel. 2007. The quest for meaning: A guide to semiotic theory and practice. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.Search in Google Scholar

Danesi, Marcel & Paul Perron. 1999. Analyzing cultures: An introduction and handbook. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Deely, John. 1994. The human use of signs, or: Elements of anthroposemiotics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.Search in Google Scholar

Deely, John. 2001. Umwelt. Semiotica 134(1/4). 125–135.10.1515/semi.2001.019Search in Google Scholar

Deely, John. 2004. The intersemiosis of perception and understanding. American Journal of Semiotics 20(1). 211–253.10.5840/ajs2004201/46Search in Google Scholar

Deledalle, Gerard. 2000. Charles S. Peirce’s philosophy of signs: Essays in comparative semiotics. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Doležel, Lubomir. 1998. Heterocosmic: Fiction and possible worlds. Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Fauconnier, Gilles & Mark Turner. 2002. The way we think: Conceptual blending and the mind’s hidden complexities. New York: Basic.Search in Google Scholar

Herwig, Malte. 2001. The unwitting muse: Jakob von Uexküll’s theory of Umwelt and twentieth-century literature. Semiotica 134(1/4). 553–592.10.1515/semi.2001.043Search in Google Scholar

Hoffmeyer, Jesper. 2008. Biosemiotics: An examination into the signs of life and the life of signs, Jesper Hoffmeyer & Donald Favareau (trans.). Scranton & London: University of Scranton Press.Search in Google Scholar

Ingarden, Roman. 1973. The literary work of art: An investigation on the borderlines of ontology, logic, and theory of literature. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Iser, Wolfgamg. 1978. The act of reading: A theory of aesthetic responses. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Iser, Wolfgang. 2000. The range of interpretation. New York: Columbia University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Iser, Wolfgang. 2007. Culture: A recursive process. In John Gibson, Wolfgang Hyemer & Kuca Pocci (eds.), A sense of the world: Essays on fiction, narrative, and knowledge, 318–331. New York & London: Routledge.Search in Google Scholar

Jämsä, Tuomo. 2007. Semiosis in evolution. In Marcello Barbieri (ed.), Introduction to biosemiotics: The new biological synthesis, 69–100. Dortrecht: Springer.10.1007/1-4020-4814-9_2Search in Google Scholar

Johansen, Jörgen Dines 2002. Literary discourse: A semiotic-pragmatic approach to literature. Toronto: Toronto University Press.10.3138/9781442676725Search in Google Scholar

Kemp, Rick. 2012. Embodied acting: What neuroscience tells us about performance. London & New York: Routledge.10.4324/9780203126110Search in Google Scholar

Kim, Kyong, L. 1996. Caged in our own signs: A book about semiotics. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.Search in Google Scholar

Kripke, Saul. 1980. Naming and necessity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Kull, Kalevi. 2002. A sign is not alive – a text is. Sign Systems Studies 30(1). 327–336.10.12697/SSS.2002.30.1.21Search in Google Scholar

Kull, Kalevi. 2005. Semiosphere and a dual ecology: Paradoxes of communication. Sign Systems Studies 33(1). 175–189.10.12697/SSS.2005.33.1.07Search in Google Scholar

Kull, Kalevi. 2009. Biosemiotics: To know, what life knows. Cybernetics and Human Knowing 16(1–2). 81–88.Search in Google Scholar

Kull, Kalevi. 2010. Umwelt and modeling. In Paul Cobley (ed.), The Routledge companion to semiotics, 43–56. London & New York: Routledge.Search in Google Scholar

Kull, Kalevi. 2011. The architect of biosemiotics: Thomas A. Sebeok and biology. In Paul Cobley, John Deely, Kalevi Kull & Susan Petrilli (eds.), Semiotics continues to astonish: Thomas A. Sebeok and the doctrine of signs, 221–250. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.10.1515/9783110254389Search in Google Scholar

Kull, Kalevi. 2014. Zoosemiotics is the study of animal forms of knowing. Semiotica 198(1/4). 47–60.10.1515/sem-2013-0101Search in Google Scholar

Lotman, Juri. 1977a. Two models of communication. In Daniel P. Lucid (ed.), Soviet semiotics, 99–101. Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Lotman, Juri. 1977b. The structure of the narrative text. In Daniel P. Lucid (ed.), Soviet semiotics, 193–197. Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Maran, Timo. 2014. Biosemiotic criticism: Modelling the environment in literature. Green Letters 18(3). 297–311.10.1080/14688417.2014.901898Search in Google Scholar

Martinelli, Dario. 2007. Language and interspecific communication experiements: A case study to re-open. In Marcello Barbieri (ed.), Introduction to biosemiotics: The new biological synthesis, 473–518. Dortrecht: Springer.10.1007/1-4020-4814-9_18Search in Google Scholar

Mayr, Ernst. 1988. Toward a new philosophy of biology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Merrell, Floyd. 2001. Distinctly human Umwelt? Semiotica 134(1/4). 229–262.10.1515/semi.2001.026Search in Google Scholar

Petrilli, Susan. 2004a. Crossing out boundaries with global communication: The problem of the subject. American Journal of Semiotics 20(1). 193–210.10.5840/ajs2004201/45Search in Google Scholar

Petrilli, Susan. 2004b. Semioethics, subjectivity, and communication: For the humanism of otherness. Semiotica 148(1/4). 69–91.10.1515/semi.2004.020Search in Google Scholar

Ponzio, Augusto. 2004a. Dialogism and biosemiotics. Semiotica 150(1/4). 39–60.10.1515/semi.2004.053Search in Google Scholar

Ponzio, Augusto. 2004b. Modeling, communication, and dialogism. American Journal of Semiotics 20(1). 157–178.10.5840/ajs2004201/42Search in Google Scholar

Ronen, Ruth. 1994. Possible worlds in literary theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.10.1017/CBO9780511597480Search in Google Scholar

Sebeok, Thomas. 1979. The sign & its master. Austin & London: University of Texas Press.Search in Google Scholar

Sebeok, Thomas. 1986. I think I am a verb: More contributions to the doctrine of signs. New York & London: Plenum Press.10.1007/978-1-4899-3490-1Search in Google Scholar

Sebeok, Thomas. 2001. Global semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Sebeok, Thomas & Marcel Danesi. 2000. The forms of meaning: Modelling systems theory and semiotic analysis. Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter.10.1515/9783110816143Search in Google Scholar

Taha, Ibrahim. 1997. The literary communication pact: A semiotic approach. Semiotica 114(1/2). 131–150.10.1515/semi.1997.114.1-2.131Search in Google Scholar

Taha, Ibrahim. 2000. Text-genre interrelations: A topographical chart of generic activity. Semiotica 132(1/2). 101–119.10.1515/semi.2000.132.1-2.101Search in Google Scholar

Taha, Ibrahim. 2005. Jonathan Culler, The pursuit of signs: Semiotics, literature, deconstruction. Augmented edition with a new preface (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001). Semiotics 21. 1–4.Search in Google Scholar

Taha, Ibrahim. 2015. Heroizability: An anthroposemiotic theory of literary characters. Berlin & New York: De Gruyter.10.1515/9781501502651Search in Google Scholar

Uexküll, Jakob von. 2001a. An introduction to Umwelt. Semiotica 134(1/4). 107–110.10.1515/semi.2001.017Search in Google Scholar

Uexküll, Jakob von. 2001b. The new concept of Umwelt: A link between science and the humanities. Semiotica 134(1/4). 111–123.10.1515/semi.2001.018Search in Google Scholar

Uspenskij, Boris. 1977. Semiotics of art. In Daniel P. Lucid (ed.), Soviet semiotics, 171–173. Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Veivo, Harri & Christina Ljungberg (eds.). 2009. Redefining literary semiotics. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.Search in Google Scholar

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1964. The blue and the brown. Oxford: Blackwell.Search in Google Scholar

Published Online: 2016-9-14
Published in Print: 2016-11-1

©2016 by De Gruyter Mouton

Scroll Up Arrow