Ecosemiotics, the book

“Ecosemiotics.com” being the address of this blog, and “Christian ecosemiotics” one of its themes, raise the question “what is ecosemiotics and why is it related to this blog?” The answer is that ecosemiotics is a secular field of academic study today about the relation of cultural signs and natural life, most actively represented in the work of semiotic studies at Tartu University in Estonia. Years ago this blog started with a focus on issues of culture, environment, and faith, which it still has, but with increasing emphasis on considering how traditional Orthodox Christianity informs and transfigures modern secular views of culture and nature. This is a conversation that has occurred across centuries and even millennia (counting the Old Testament prophets and also ancient non-Christian philosophers whose work was adapted into the Hellenic-Christian synthesis or which parallels aspects of that discussion, as explored in the book Christ the Eternal Tao by Abbot Damascene Christiansen). But the work in secular scholarship of my friend and colleague Prof. Timo Maran at Tartu, who is not an Orthodox Christian or responsible in any way for my views here, as a very astute and discerning scholar, helps to keep the field of ecosemiotics academically vibrant and open to those like myself who wish to explore connections with faith and Orthodox Christianity. I am indebted as an academic to his work, and also as someone who aspires unworthily to explore Christian apologetic theology in my work.

I have linked here before to his recent book Ecosemiotics in the Cambridge Elements series on environmental humanities, but wanted to highlight it front-and-center for those interested in the topic of study, as an excellent concise overview and introduction. I even unworthily received a short mention in the book, for which I am appreciative, with regard to my coining the term “ecosemiosphere” in my edited collection Re-Imagining Nature: Environmental Humanities and Ecosemiotics, which also featured one of Prof. Maran’s insightful essays.

Prof. Maran’s essay elsewhere on “nature-text” (encapsulated in the diagram from his article immediately below) is very helpful in terms of my studies of Christian literature. His new book adds the rightful qualifier that the relationship of the “fourfold” of meaningfulness he proposed in the article (overlapping contexts of author, reader, environment, and text) can be unpacked in multiple forms of influences and reception, specifically beyond beyond the necessarily shorthand categories of “author” and “reader.” I would add the same is true also of “text” (in the sense of intertextuality) and “environment” (cultural, social, natural, and, from a Christian standpoint, spiritual but also incarnationally cosmic Creation). In any case, the ecosemiotic approach offers an alternative in secular discourse to the reductionist materialism found in much academic thought today, by viewing communication exchange and information as basic to life. Here, the diagram suggests a model for thinking of the context of meaning in life in a fourfold.

For the Christian, “author” can ultimately mean God, and “text” His logoi. Landscape and the contexts of our life can be included in “environment,” and so forth. These are fluid and suggestive terms, but illustrate an overlap between God’s cosmic language of Creation and our experience of Creation as human beings, suggesting how our identity is relational with God and secondarily with one another, in what Russian Orthodox Christians call sobornost, the spiritual unity of communion.

What distinguishes this from conventional Western semiotics is the link between “sign” and “environment”–unlike much of what the English-speaking world knows about semiotics, the relation between the two is not merely internal and an arbitrary binary alone. There is a relationship. In fact, the American polymath Charles Peirce, whose devotion to Trinitarian Christianity paralleled his interest in developing a “triadic” semiotics that influenced today’s ecosemiotics: Sign, Object, Interpretant. Maran’s model changes the names of Sign to Text, and Object to Environment, and unpacks the “Interpretant” into Author and Reader, but Peirce’s work helps underlie his, as well.

One classic early article by another pioneer in the field, Winfried Nöth, simply titled “Ecosemiotics,” mentioned the “pansemiotism” of medieval literature, that is its sense of all-meaningful sign-filled Creation. This is the area of a “Venn diagram” in my view between patristic Christian literature and secular ecosemiotic studies today. Traditional Christian cosmology (exemplified in St. Maximus the Confessor’s discussion of the Logos and logoi) affords a dynamic transfigurative sense of Creation as dynamic inter-related and embodied meaning, incarnationally yet apophatically (mystically) iconographic, governed by God.

In the short mention of me in his new book, Prof. Maran quotes my view that an “ecosemiosphere literally means an ecological bubble of meaning (borrowing the term ‘semiosphere’ from semiotics. It involves not a ‘reenchantment’ of nature, but recognition as a meld of physical and cultural communication, which can be considered spiritual as well as material.”

Contextually, my view is that the development of ecosemiotics in the Baltic region is not coincidental, given its position in the rich Estonian cultural zone between ancient Orthodox and Western cultural zones there. The adaptability in my view of ecosemiotic thinking to Orthodox cosmology reflects the historical cultural contexts of what has been termed (back to Soviet times) the “Tartu-Moscow” school of semiotics–semiotics being, as with the work of the “crypto-Orthodox” renowned scholar Mikhail Bakhtin, an area of academic work that was considered relatively “safe” for those dissenting from Soviet materialism, yet “non-Western” in reflecting aspects of Eastern Christian cultural that emphasize a view of being as incarnationally communicative energy with the divine, rather than the Western Scholastic sense of being as more a conceptual analogy to the divine.

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