Autonomy, participation, and sense-making as sites of crisis: studying the technopolitical situatedness of linguistic bodies
Linguistic bodies have a dynamic and participatory ontology; our collective becoming is perpetually shaping and being shaped by tangled layers of situatedness and possibility (Di Paolo et al., 2018). Anyone reading this is a linguistic body; it is not an abstract concept, but seeks to ground language science in the material reality of working, hungry, vulnerable, and morally complicated existence. Linguistic bodies, as opposed to other embodied agents, exist in a way such that their bodily domains (organic, sensorimotor, intersubjective) are entangled not only with each other but also with and through languaging (McGann, 2024). Linguistic bodies are adaptive, habit-constituted, laboring bodies that incorporate and incarnate language and other technologies (Di Paolo et al, 2018).
Today, technology and capitalism jointly structure the milieu in which so much human interacting and languaging occurs. The potential for myriad crises lies here, via pressures of labor that exhausts, alienates, and underpays, and foregone submission to greed-driven technological advancement. What would constitute a crisis for people qualinguistic bodies? Here are three possibilities: (1) Significant reductions in the number of ways in which we engage, access, use, and maintain dimensions of our embodiment, for example shrinking ourselves, our attention, our movements, our thoughts, and our expectations down to the scale and affordances of smart phones, videoconferencing platforms, infinitely scrollable and schizophrenic social media channels, and ever-promotional soundbites. (2) Significant reductions to avenues for meaningful participation in our world, for example lack of autonomy and control over the kinds of tech that we buy and use (tech that by design limits participation to consumption and reaction) or the laws that regulate it. (3) Finding oneself/one’s community in an environment of pernicious utterances which the community then incorporates or incarnates; this could also be seen in terms of significant reduction in exposure to critical discourses to challenge or liberate us from the pernicious utterances. For example, YouTube and other forms of algorithmic radicalization and rabbit holes (Ribeiro et al., 2021; Burton, 2023), as well as various state or corporate controlled systems of propaganda, may supplant the diversity of viewpoints in one’s local, IRL community.
What are the effects of techno-political situatedness on the ranges of semiotic possibility, on sense-making? How can we study them? Cognitive semiotics as an interdisciplinary field offers a set of methods, tools, and products that can illuminate shifts in meaning-making practices at different scales. In addition to seeking “underlying semiotic properties of the human mind and psyche as such, which are inseparable from the properties of basic human cognition,” Per Brandt included the goal of finding “the basic principles that allow us to us make sense (and even nonsense) of the world we live in” among “the challenging tasks that motivate what we call cognitive semiotics.” (Brandt, 2011).
In this spirit, I’ll offer two moves that may help us to approach languaging in its technopolitical material context. The first reorients us to language ontologically as something dissociable from political configurations and struggles, something that “interpellates and constructs subjective attitudes rather than simply being a vehicle for communicative intentions” (Di Paolo et al., 2018). The second reorients us to language methodologically, by employing phenomenologically-inspired, participatory research techniques to study interaction wholes, or systems of participatory sense-making.
Brandt, P. A. (2011). What is cognitive semiotics? A new paradigm in the study of meaning. Signata. Annales des sémiotiques/Annals of Semiotics, (2), 49-60.
Burton, J. (2023). Algorithmic extremism? The securitization of artificial intelligence (AI) and its impact on radicalism, polarization and political violence. Technology in Society, 75, 102262. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.techsoc.2023.102262.
Di Paolo, E. A., Cuffari, E. C., & De Jaegher, H. (2018). Linguistic bodies: The continuity between life and language. MIT press.
McGann, M. (2024). Facing life: the messy bodies of enactive cognitive science. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 1-18.
Ribeiro, M. H., Ottoni, R., West, R., Almeida, V. A., & Meira Jr, W. (2020, January). Auditing radicalization pathways on YouTube. In Proceedings of the 2020 conference on fairness, accountability, and transparency (pp. 131-141).
The Crisis of Authenticity: Meaning under Conditions of "Profilicity"
The “age of authenticity” (as proclaimed by the philosopher Charles Taylor) is coming to an end. A major indicator of its ending is the increasingly obvious paradoxicality, incongruity, and absurdity of claims to authenticity in media, politics, or academia. The meaning of “authenticity” and “originality” has been radically altered, this paper suggests, because such semantics now often serve the curation of post-authentic profiles. The switch from authenticity to “profilicity” (see Hans-Georg Moeller and Paul D’Ambrosio, You and Your Profile: Identity after Authenticity, Columbia University Press 2021), however, should not simply be lamented as a fall back into inauthenticity. Instead, this switch may present an opportunity to find and develop meaning under conditions of profilicity.
Multimodality and aesthetic experience: How feeling guides the ways we make sense
Making sense of ourselves and of our world is an intercorporeal process in the first place. Whether we engage in face-to-face interaction with friends and colleagues or with audiovisual images, all ‘exchange’ of information is grounded in the aesthetic (e.g., felt) experiences of a perceiving body. When we chat with a friend or engage in a political discussion, we hear what she says, see how she sits or stands, whether and how she gestures or not, in short, when taking the position of a perceiving subject, speaking is embedded body movement. Speaking is not abstracted from the body, it is the entire body in motion. Perceiving speaking then is perceiving a body in motion. We cannot, but feel the quality of its movement, whether it is calm and relaxed or tense and agitated. Whatever somebody will say, it is soaked with experiencing the qualities of movement.
Taking recourse to Merleau-Ponty’s account of pain, there is no pain hidden behind a body movement, or a scream of pain, the movement is the pain. It is felt and bodily perceived on the side of an interlocutor. This calls for rethinking speaking as inherently multimodal, as fundamentally intercorporeal and hence (from a phenomenological point of view) interaffective (Fuchs 2017) process. What moves us are the qualities of movement, whether in face-to-face encounters or in our engagements with audiovisual media. Much of the power of audiovisual representations of talking people in whatever circumstances they are shown, derives from the specific framing, staging and orchestration of the audiovisual images as movement images. Do we as spectators see somebody close by or in a wide angle shot with miniature gestures? Do we encounter long takes with no or slow camera movements, or a fast succession of shots in a rhythmic montage pattern? Do we see the spoken language in its original tempo or in increased speed and with bumpy cuts that result from cutting off pauses. Such orchestrations of audiovisual images not only impact the way the spectators perceive people and their speaking on the screen, they modulate the perceptive experience of the viewers by affecting them bodily, by creating a specific movement experience.
Following phenomenological film theorist Vivian Sobchack (1992), films are “an expression of experience by experience”. This means that the perception of audiovisual images is a movement experience in the first place. It is felt sensation. When we make sense of people talking, be it face-to-face or mediated by audiovisuals it is the feeling that guides our ways in the first place. Given that societies are permeated by such mediatised events, ranging from social media to television broadcast, from TikTok to YouTube, from X to Instagram, a call is up to systematically include ‘feeling’ into our linguistic, semiotic, cognitive attempts in understanding how crises of meaning, how collective processes of subjectified meaning-making come about. It calls for studying multimodal language from the point of view of aesthetic experience.
The birth of wild meaning: Facing crises of alienation and disenchantment
Many have argued that the infamous subject/object split of Modernity and its litany of pernicious consequences (commodification, instrumentalism, fundamentalism, decontextualization, disembodiment, and the like) are responsible for driving Euro/western worldviews and their globalizing influence ever deeper into the meaningless miasma of alienation and disenchantment since the 17th century (Marx 1844, Heidegger 1927, Adorno 1973, Derrida 1976, Sheets-Johnstone 2011). Phenomenologists following Husserl have insisted that the reunification of this split, or recognition of its intertwining in lived bodily experience, is necessary for restoring “a power to signify, a birth of meaning, or a wild meaning” (Merleau-Ponty 1964: 155). Cognitive semiotics shares this mandate; but I argue that focusing on the subject-object split or its resolution accomplishes little – especially in terms of identifying practical, therapeutic effects capable of inducing the birth of wild meaning. Instead, we would do well to pursue later interpretive developments of phenomenology that focus on more organic, process-oriented modes of self-other intertwining and more robust distinctions between different ways of knowing (following, e.g., Maslow 1962, Berman 1981, Bateson 1972, McGilchrist 2019). To demonstrate this perspectival shift in action, I present a range of experiential mappings involving “inverse alteroception” – a newly defined mode of intersubjective phenomenology (Pelkey 2024, forthcoming) that informs the gamut of human understanding from the interpersonal and socially symbolic to the visuo-spatial and logically symbolic. Drawing on insights from both structuralist and pragmatist semiotics, I illustrate ways in which the play of imagination and ideology alike are grounded in embodied dynamics that owe their origins to the evolution of habitual upright posture. The inherently personalizing nature of inverse alteroception is consonant with cross-linguistic evidence that poetry, music, and works of art are best approached as persons or living beings (McGilchrist 2019: 94–97). Approaching works of art as embodied persons (and people as works of art) can reorient us to the mystery and wonder of what we study in any domain. In this light, C. S. Peirce’s proposal that the universe is itself a poem or work of art (1903: 194) deserves further consideration. Far from defaulting to any particular belief system or mode of spirituality, I suggest that a simple open question suffices to guide this approach: “Who are you?” To illustrate, I close with a cascade of examples from a preliminary corpus of cross-cultural and multi-genre cases in which this question serves as a midwife for the birth of wild meaning.
Adorno, Theodore W. 1973. Negative Dialectics. London: Routledge.
Bateson, Gregory. 1972. Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. San Francisco: Chandler.
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Derrida, Jacques. 1976. On Grammatology. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
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McGilchrist, Iain. 2019. The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The Master and His Emissary. 2nd edn. New Haven: Yale University Press. (17 February, 2021).
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1964. Le Visible et l’invisible: The Visible and the Invisible. Lefort, Claude (ed.), Alphonso Lingis (trans.), Editions Gallimard, Paris. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
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Pelkey, Jamin. 2024, forthcoming. The semiotic phenomenology of inverse alteroception. Cognitive Semiotics.
Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine. 2011. The Primacy of Movement (Advances in Consciousness Research 82). 2nd edn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins
Break-downs and times of crisis
Human beings are creatures of meaning. The world appears to us as having a meaningful structure. Each of us tells a story about herself that makes sense of her life and who she is. We project ourselves into a future that helps structure the meaning of the present. In a myriad ways, the meaningful connections between things gives us an implicit, but pervasive sense of reality: an implicit trust in the real. In a crisis of meaning, the fabric of the world starts to break down. As the study of the lived world, phenomenology provides the resources to understand such crises of meaning.
One thinker who has studied breakdowns in depth is Frantz Fanon. A psychiatrist, Fanon devoted his life to combatting colonialism, which for him is not just a physical system of oppression, but also an ideology – a set of ideas that help uphold oppression. One of the insights from his work is that colonialism brings about various breakdowns in the fabric of the lived world. Phenomenology is one of the disciplines he draws on to understand how this happens.
Fanon argues that colonial ideas are not just grasped intellectually, but become embedded in our bodies, imagination, and the structure of the perceived world. A central way this happens is through the body schema. We can understand this as the body’s ‘grasp’ or ‘sense’ of itself. An important strand of thinking in phenomenology sees the body schema as underlying our fundamental embodied relations with other people. Colonial ideology deforms the body schema, and so brings about a breakdown in our fundamental relationships with each other. Colonialism also ruptures the world in more violent ways. Fanon’s studies of Algerian society during the Revolution illuminate the role that our practices play in maintaining the structure of the world. A practice is a community’s way of doing things. They can be thought of as social habits. Practices underlie the structure of society in various ways. They relate people who participate in it to an environment. They also help structure society through the role they play in organising social time, binding together the members of a community as a loosely cohesive whole by the rhythms of a shared social life. Practices also relate people to one another in various ways. In the Algerian Revolution, colonialism brought about a breakdown in the lived world through the violent disruption of Algerian social practices. These had profound impacts, not just on the physical aspects of Algerian society, but on the psyche of those living under the colonial system, so that they can be correctly described as experiencing the sort of rupture in the fabric of the lived world that constitutes a crisis of meaning.
Fanon’s work also offers a solution in the form of a blueprint for restoration of meaning. Fanon was first and foremost a psychiatrist. He was part of, and helped develop the radical movement in French psychiatry, ‘institutional psychotherapy’, and continued to work as a psychiatrist until he resigned his hospital position in Algeria on the grounds that he could not heal his patients in a society that was itself sick. Psychiatry (Iike other forms of healthcare) has a philosophical foundation, since it is necessarily premised on an understanding of what a human being is, which informs the psychiatrist’s answers to questions such as what is normal functioning, what counts as ill health, what the goal of therapeutic treatment is, and which psychiatric practices are appropriate and justified. Fanon’s psychiatric conception of human flourishing also informs his account of decolonisation and the restoration of meaning to the lived world after the breakdowns induced by colonialism. On his view, to be healthy is to live in authentic relations with others.
The crisis of mechanistic science seen through the lens of the nature crisis
Edmund Husserl (1954) famously thematized science´s forgetting of the lifeworld. In a somewhat similar way, Jakob von Uexküll (1956 ) decried the ´meaning-blind´ biology of his time. Drawing on the fact that the experience of animals is constrained by the sensory and behavioral repertoire of each organism and takes place within the context of species-specific configurations of time and space, the Umwelt theory he developed was programmatically framed as subjective biology. While he applied the Umwelt perspective to humans as well, particularly in von Uexküll 1956 , unfortunately, human Umwelten remained undertheorized in his work. Hannah Arendt (1958), however, discussed the human condition and observed a crisis within the natural sciences play out as an inability to be relatable to normal speech and thought. Although she saw the significance of our evolving global perspective and power, which is today often conceptualized in terms of the Anthropocene, Arendt failed to acknowledge the decisive difference our anthropocentric bias makes in matters of ontology and epistemology alike. From the perspective of Umwelt phenomenology, today´s environmental crisis can be conceived of as an ontological crisis involving the extinction and marginalization of myriads of lifeworlds. As is well established, the environmental crisis is characterized by extensive anthropogenic environmental change. This can be conceptualized in terms of Umwelt transitions. The ongoing nature crisis is most blatantly observable in rapidly escalating climate change, and the well-documented marginalization of wild terrestrial mammals, which now account for only 4% of terrestrial mammalian biomass. Arguably, the last decades´ scientific neglect, theoretically and methodologically, of the agency, subjectivity, and worth of living beings has contributed to this intensifying and deepening nature crisis. With its objectivistic, mechanistic perspective on the natural world, the scientific enterprise has in practice facilitated and helped justify a real-life objectification, de-souling, exploitation, and commodification of living beings as mere means and resources. It is high time to replace this outdated and harmful outlook with a philosophically based scientific framework more fit for the 21st century. One way forward entails acknowledging the semiotic agency of all that lives (Sharov & Tønnessen 2021), and start planning for the socio-ecological and economic transformations that will be required to solve the environmental crisis in the next few decades (Tønnessen 2021). This will have to involve a serious rethinking of the human condition.