Petronella Tenhaaf on Wed, 14 Jan 1998 01:50:22 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Semiosis, Evolution, Energy: Interview with three Scientists 2/2

Then you've proposed that there's  a potential artistic
strategy using intervention in the evolution proces.

AE:  Well, no, I was saying two different things.  I was
saying that artificial evolution has been used with several
purposes in mind.  I think that's very important, in fact
it's a very pluralistic field.  So with respect to sighted
evolution, I was saying that some artists have used models
of evolution in which the selection is actually done by the
modeler, very directly.  And those are interesting models.
The final product, in what I was referring to as art, is
different.  But I think that it's very important to take
into account that Artificial Life models can have very
different purposes, maybe not only being a contribution to
theoretical biology but also for example to get art into the
picture.  And not only art, but also models for
understanding education, some people have worked on that.  I
think that very broadly we could say Artificial Life
productions are either models that try to grasp the nature
of certain phenomena in the world, or something that I would
call instantiations.  That has to do with art, that is what
I would call poetic science in a very appreciative way,
because a lot of people say poetic science in a very
disparaging way.  And I think that it also has to do with
the first goal of Artificial Life, of exploring life-as-it-
could-be.  Because in fact we are not trying to model
anything, but we are trying to understand how certain
phenomena happen, through artificial models, and that kind
of undertanding is either scientific by creating new theory
or new models, or even artistic.

NT:  But do you think it's interesting artistically because
art can always be interested in new ways of creating models
of life?  Or do you feel it's because these biological
issues, or scientific issues in a larger sense, are the
current issues of our time, in the way they shape the
material world through biotechnologies, or reproductive
technologies.  Can we dig a little bit further at why you
feel it's so intereting for art?

AE:  Well, it's maybe neither of the things you said.  From
the very beginning, there has been a very big discussion in
Artificial Life as to whether the models that people were
doing were actually life or were not life.  That's the big
discussion between what they call "strong artificial life"
and "weak artificial life."  Well I think that discussion is
sort of stupid, or nonsense.  I think that all of them are
productions.  But, it's very interesting to analyze the
purposes we have when we are building the models.  And those
purposes are of course, understanding phenomena which are
complex and for which we don't have good analytical
scientific models.  My thing is that, in my opinion, it's
very difficult to get good reproductions of life in
simulations.  I don't believe that computational models can
reproduce life, that you can produce something yet it's
living.  But you can get some fantasia, as Marcel Danesi
[Professor of Italian and Semiotics at U. of T.] was saying
yesterday.  You can have an understanding through them, and
I think that that pluralistic way of understanding models,
according to the purposes of the modeler and the kinds of
things they want to achieve through the models, can produce
an increasing ontology in the world.  Actually artificial
systems have given us more ontology, more things that we
have to analyze so as to understand what they are.  So now
there are certain artifacts we don't know.  Art can enter
into that picture because these are things we interpret once
and need to interpret again, which is a source of
creativity.  Maybe that creativity is also linked with
understanding.  I really think that there are very different
ways to access these new phenomena, this new ontology that
is being created.  And it's important to be very pluralistic
and leave aside the discussions about whether what we're
doing is really life or not.  Because that's not going to
take us anywhere.

NT:  That's a really interesting way of putting it.  Within
the art practice that I'm familiar with, a recent phenomenon
was incredible fascination with media production.
Deconstruction is so tied up with that idea, with seeing how
all of the real is already mediated.  Artists take that up,
consider it and communicate it.  If we're now involved, as
you say, in a growth of the ontological or a growth of
artificats within the technoscientifically-mediated real, of
course artists would also be engaged with this next level of
mediation of the natural.


     Roberta Kevelson is Distinguished Professor in the
Philosophy Department of Penn State University, and former
President of the American Semiotics Society (?).  She is a
scholar of the work of Charles Sanders Peirce, American
philosopher and mathematician of the late nineteenth
century, and founder of the field of semiotics,

NT: What I'm really interested in hearing are your ideas
about analogies between semiotics and biology, especially
complexity.  You speak about all ideas - is it all ideas, or
all signs? -- being relational at their core.

RK:  All signs are relational, and all ideas are signs.  A
thought is a sign.  There is no monad, there is no single
autonomous sign.  There is nothing that is a singular in it,
according to Peirce.  But from the very beginning all ideas
of any kind are semiotic.  All thought is of the nature of
signs, and they are all relational.  And so we do away with
the whole notion of ever getting down to a simple, to an
isolated simple.

NT:  Because I'm not a semiotician, my mind leaps to large
analogies.  What you just said to me seems like the
formulation of complexity theory, in comparison with
atomistic science.  Would you agree with that?

RK:  Well, I would say that semiotics is opposed to anything
which is even remotely connected with atomistic science.  It
negates it.  Because there is no atomistic science.  The
search for an atom is the search for that indecomposable
simple, that which cannot be broken down into any further
part.  That's impossible.  If one speaks of an
indecomposable something, an elemental something, then you
have to say it has no surface, you have to say it has no
core, you have to say it has no side, you have to say it has
no inside.  You have to say that it is composed of nothing
whatsoever, and therefore it doesn't exist.

NT:  Has the field of semiotics struggled in any way with
the notion of whether it's a science or not?

RK:  Oh, indeed it has.  But I would like to go back a
minute and pick you up on this notion of semiotics being
analogous with biology.  It is not analogous with biology,
not at all.  Each discipline, it seems to me,  is concerned
with what is the best way of understanding the world and
man, mankind.  And it depends on what the questions are,
that distinguishes one mode of inquiry from another.  So
biology, in a traditional sense, is concerned with certain
ways of undertanding people in the universe.  Semiotics is
also concerned with a way of undertanding how human beings
live in the universe.  So whether we start looking at amoeba
first, or whether we start looking at the macro-organisms of
humankind, the ultimate reason for doing so has to do with
human beings in the world,  for whatever reason, no matter
what the focus is.  So semiotics is not analogous with
biology, but it is a way of being an alternative to
biological investigation of the same subject matter that
biology invetigates.  By the same token, semiotics is an
alternative way of looking at any subject matter whatsoever,
that any discipline whatsoever looks at, but asking
different questions of it, bringing a different method of
inquiry to it, and for different purposes.

NT:  Do you have a sense from this kind of conference, which
very deliberately brings different fields of inquiry
together but under the rubric of semiosis,  do you have a
sense that semiotics can offer some kind of unifying theory
-- although that sounds too much like an Einsteinian project
and rather grandiose.

RK:  One of the problems for disciplines like biology, or
botany, or geology, or literature, or whatever else we're
talking about that exists in the modern university is that
through the age of specialization, or through the process of
specialization, these have become rather discrete modes of
inquiry.  And because they have become discrete modes of
inquiry they're rather framed, there are boundaries around
them, which means if you go outside these canons of what it
considers to be its proper territory, it is not pertinent to
that discipline.  The modern university is so structured
that you cannot easily cross these boundaries without
running into trouble.  They can set up a centre for
anomolous study, and they do that because in recent years,
say in the past 25 or 30 years, there's enormous pressure on
universities to do that.  Because there is such interest, as
in semiotics, to expore relations that bridge disciplines.
The notion of discrete disciplines is really quite
artificial.  Semiotics comes along just at this time when
there is a push to make relationships between methods of
inquiry, and it accomodates in certain fashion.  But it will
not establish a really honest, legitimate place within the
university framework to allow cross-disciplinary
investigation because that in a sense is self-destruction.
If it does that, it undermines itself.  So therefore the
notion of semiotics as a separate discipline has never been
permitted to emerge.  So it remains an anomoly, sort of an
outsider, it remains an underground kind of activity; it's a
wonderful devious kind of thing to do, I mean it has all the
flavor of being a revolutionary and a rebel.  But semiotics
really is not as concerned with undermining the university,
as it is with being able to find a legitimate place in the
world from which and within which to do this kind of cross-
communication, this dialogic, cross-discursive

NT:   Can you pick up on the science issue here, on the ways
in which it has struggled with that issue of whether it is a

RK:  Oh absolutely.  I think it is a science in the old
sense.  By "in the old sense" I mean mid-nineteenth century
sense, when it meant merely a principled method of inquiry.
The physical sciences, somewhere along the line, have
developed a kind of prestigious authority.  They wear a
certain kind of garment, they talk in a certain kind of
style, the style of scientific discourse has become a model
for other kinds of discourse, even when they're not doing
anything that has anything to do with the physical sciences.
Non-scientific discourses are threatened for lots of
reasons, not the least of which is the limited amount of
financial resources available.  I'm not over-stresssing
that, I mean, lots of people are not dedicated to their
field in the sense that they would die for it.  They just
know they're good at it, and they want to be able to live,
that's pretty human.  But they are very much threatened  by
it.  So if it's possible to consolidate, if it's possible to
collaborate, if it's possible to find any ways through the
back door, to get one's hands into that deep pocket, one
will do it.

And also in the past one sees that the field of electricity,
the field of magnetic activity, became electromagnetics.
Fields of biology and fields of neurology, became fused
also.  You find that all sorts of fusions have happened in
the past, between different methods of inquiry where they
find they have a lot in common, they share paradigms.  It is
more profitable to operate with cooperation than as separate
entities.  And so I think that I would regard semiotics as a
science, both in the nineteenth century sense, and in the
sense that it is clearly interested in evolving its
paradigms, so it can indeed say these are the set of
problems at this time that we have to go out and find some
kind of way of talking about in a sensible way and
resolving, and moving on to the next level.  That we can
document our findings, so that other people don't have to go
and invent the wheel again next year.  And that's really
what a science does.  What else does it do, besides being

NT:  I personally have shifted from what I would call a
critique position of science, because of the crossover
models that are coming forward now, to a much more positive
sense of where I can actually be implicated, where I can
actually be involved in some way.  I think that there are
times when a really critical theoretical approach is useful,
and that works in a kind of wave or pattern.  At some point
it's no longer is pertinent.  Then you're just hammering at
the walls inefficiently, and it's time to move into a more
positive mode.  The theoretical reframing I'm hearing at
this conference is much more positive and forward-looking.

RK:  Oh it is, it is.  The sense of powerlessness is
overwhelming, it seems to me.
And it's so much in the essence of Kafka.  Do you remember
the story of the castle, where he wants to enter the castle
but he doesn't know he simply has to walk through.  And I
think that happens so often to people, where they're so
overwhelmed by bureaucracy, they're so overwhelmed by this
kind of nonsense of doing things that don't matter, that
they don't realize that all you have to do is take a shift
in perspective.  And that's what these people are doing,
it's a shift in perspective.  It's exciting, it's wonderful.
Stuart Kauffman is at a place that is wonderfully exciting.
I gave a workshop there [at the Santa Fe Institute] on
Peirce some years ago, because they're badly in need of
shome philosophical underpinnings and I thought I'd give
them Peirce.  They don't want Peirce, at that time they
didn't anyway.  But this is a place which has reached out,
to create a cross-disciplinary institute for investigation
of certain kinds of phenomena across the disciplines of the
sciences.  It's very trans-disciplinary, and very
revolutionary in it's way, very hard to gain acceptance for.
You have medical science there, you have geologists there,
you have economics there, you have what Stuart Kauffman is
doing there.  These are people who really don't speak the
same vocabulary, they all speak a different language.  Even
though they're all scientists, they all speak a very
different language.   And so what you have to do then is to
find equivalent meanings, which is what Peirce is all about.
That's what Peirce says, you have to find equivalency.

NT:  How did that come about?  Did someone there know about
you, or did you make an initiative?

RK:  No, I contacted them.  I was told to contact them by a
man who had given a talk on Peirce and complexity at a
conference.  He suggested I go to Santa Fe and look up these
people.  And so I called them up, which is the most direct
thing to do, and said I'd be happy to give a workshop if you
want me to, and they said yes.  You know that's the way it
works.  And so it was very interesting, very exciting for
me, and for them.

NT:  An event like this conference comes across as a
phenomenon, the whole that develops from the particular
steps is more than the sum of its parts.

RK:  That's right, and it's transforming.  And it's a
release of energy.  It is magic -- not knowing exactly what
magic is, that's what I should think it is.

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