The Universe of Signs
The term semiosphere [from Greek sēmeion ‘sign’ (sēma ‘mark’) + -sphere] was originally introduced in 1984 by Yuri Lotman to denote space within which constantly function and emerge processes of signification.
In his words this is “a specific sphere, possessing signs, which are assigned to the enclosed space. Only within such a space is it possible for communicative processes and the creation of new information to be realised.”
In his seminal work, On the Semiosphere, Yuri Lotman writes:
In the reality of the semiosphere, the hierarchy of languages and texts, as a rule, is disturbed: and these elements collide as though they coexisted on the same level. Texts appear to be immersed in languages which do not correspond to them, and codes for deciphering them may be completely absent. Imagine a room in a museum, where exhibits from different eras are laid out in different windows, with texts in known and unknown languages, and instructions for deciphering them, together with explanatory texts for the exhibitions created by guides who map the necessary routes and rules of behaviour for visitors. If we place into that room still more visitors, with their own semiotic worlds, then we will begin to obtain something resembling a picture of the semiosphere.
Source: On the semiosphere, Juri Lotman Translated by Wilma Clark
Later in his studies, Lotman continues to explore the concept of the semiosphere, arguing that all semiotic systems function in a semiotic space and a sign would not make sense unless in a context of other signs.
Coined by Lotman the concept Semiosphere gradually started inhabiting and serving many other fields, biosemiotics included.
Ecosystems buzzing with communication
In 1996, in his book Signs of Meaning in the Universe the biosemiotician Jesper Hoffmeyer describes “a sphere like the biosphere, but one constituted by messages – movements, colors, electrical fields, chemical signals – the signs of life.” This space he called Semiosphere and according to Kalevi Kull, he came to it independently (ref. On semiosis, Umwelt, and semiosphere, Kalevi Kull)
Encompassing all the life processes of signification Hoffmeyer’s semiosphere is itself an “emergent process nourished by the interpretative interaction of countless organisms and cells” (cit. Semiotic Scaffolding of living systems, Jesper Hoffmeyer)
In Signs of Meaning in the Universe we read:
The semiosphere is a sphere just like the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, an the biosphere. It penetrates to every corner of these other spheres, incorporating all forms of communication: sounds, smells, movements, colors, shapes, electrical fields, thermal radiation, waves of all kinds, chemical signals, touching, and so on. In short, signs of life.
Every organism on Earth is tossed at birth into this hemisphere, to which it must adapt correctly if it is to survive. In the recent decades we have become increasingly aware that everything in this world is connected.
cit. Signs of Meaning in the Universe
In a way, we live in a continuum of significations, meaning and sense making. We constantly create and read patterns, code and decode signals. Signs and symbols surround us from the very beginning of our life. Some of them we consciously process and use, many we don’t understand and therefore are unaware of.
But what exactly is a sign?
The study that keeps trying to answer what signs and symbols are and at the same time deal with their interpretation and perception is called semiotics. The process of signification is called semiosis.
Both these words stem from the Ancient Greek σῆμα [sema], meaning sign, mark, token (read the entire entry of sema in: Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon)
Throughout times, the question about the sign and its role in culture has been approached by a number of schools of thought (ref. Semiotics for Beginners Daniel Chandler). Various discourses try to hold within the definitions, differentiations and descriptions of what the sign is. One can easily get lost, trying to name (i.e. to formalize) live processes and freeze them into a word.
To be or to signify?
Does the sign transcend what it denotes, does it acquire new connotations, apart from the denotation functions it has. More generally, what is a sign and what is not a sign? (cf. What is Semiotics, by Eugene Gorny).
I find the image below, showing a sign, “augmented” with additional meaning, a good, although weird, reference point for two perspectives that in practice answer the above questions:
- Signs denote, we connote
- The essence of of a sign is manifested through the action it is translated into
A note: I took this picture several years ago in Zagreb. Apologies, if this is in anyway inappropriate. After thinking a lot about whether I should hide one of the words, I decided to take the risk and just leave the sign the way it was originally “read anew”, because I find that really important.
“So, where’s my meaning?”, the sign asked, disappointed
A way out of the vicious circle where the understanding is trying to understand itself is to look at signs as signals which lead to action. When entering the vast lands of semiotics it help to always remember that nothing is absolute and we are at all times part of several processes going on simultaneously.
The seeds of these ideas were planted in a talk prof. Bogdan Bogdanov gave during the discussion of his latest book Text, talking and understanding (the link is to a brief English description of the edition).
With his words, I want to finish this short thing-finder’s exploration of the concept Semiosphere:
To be human,
prof. Bogdanov said,
means to do and say one and the same thing in various ways which then would complement its variations in the acts of a human or a group of humans but as well as in the acts of other humans and groups of humans.