Wendy Wheeler’s The Whole Creature: Complexity, Biosemiotics and the Evolution of Culture is a finely written, broadly interdisciplinary exploration of human social relations as natural and naturally semiotic. It is part of a small but growing number of studies offering a refreshingly intelligent, inspiring, and uncommonly sane solution to the problem of thinking in dichotomies—the natural and the artificial, the body and the mind, the individual and society—arguably one of the greatest intellectual stumbling blocks. Given the vast importance of its message, The Whole Creature should have found itself among a great number of books recognizing and expounding the significance of advances made recently in the study of emergence as both a philosophical and scientific concept. Most significantly, these new findings allow us to re-conceive the hard problem of self-hood, avoiding the disadvantages of constructivism and reductionism. But books with like theses—books that present new evidence from contemporary sciences rather than simply rehearsing the very long (and by many accounts, failed) traditions of organicism, or holism—are markedly few, and one wonders, since cultural theorists stand poised for the next new wave: Why isn’t biosemiotics more widely recognized? The question becomes even more compelling when we realize that much of what Wheeler advocates promises to bridge the arts and sciences—an accomplishment, were it possible, that might be as welcomed (for readers of Configurations) as peace in the Middle East.
Reasons, relevant and otherwise, may abound for the relative slowness with which critics (of all kinds) have begun to consider this new perspective, but most probable is the case that, as a critique of poststructuralism, an emergentist’s thesis may be mistaken as a retreat to humanism or, worse, a desertion to reductionism, into the brawny arms of the likes of Joseph Carroll and Brian Boyd, whose “literary Darwinism”—sometimes also known as “biopoetics”—bears an unfortunate similarity in name only to Wheeler’s area of focus, biosemiotics. Wheeler proclaims herself to be neither enemy nor friend of poststructuralism or reductionism. She understands that the success of developing a new theory of self depends on assimilating contradictory views instead of exacerbating hostilities. One may say, without paradox, that hers is a strong argument for a constructivism grounded in nature. Through the triadic semiotics of C. S. Peirce, Wheeler describes the possibility of a multivocal self that is also integral and unified.
The difficulty of Peircean thought, his profligate generation of “ugly” and awkward terms, is often noted, but such difficulties should not intimidate a generation that cut its teeth on deconstruction. It is curious, then, that Peirce, esteemed by more than a few noted poststructuralists, should remain relatively misunderstood and underused. Although poststructuralists have praised the processual nature of Peirce’s semiosis as an improvement over Saussure’s focus on the static structure of the signified-signifier, what they either missed or declined to adopt is Peirce’s metaphysical realism. According to Peirce, reality is gradually [End Page 185] (and imperfectly) revealed in the semiotic process. His triadic semiotics include a “sign,” which is comparable to Saussure’s signifier, and an “interpretant,” which is comparable to the signified though it is usually itself a sign in the interpreter’s mind (or, in Peirce’s later writings, in a very generalized conception of mind—an important consideration for biosemiotics). The most innovative part of Peirce’s triadic semiotics is the inclusion of “object,” which is fully part of the semiotic process. Peirce extended signs beyond those that are conceptual, so as to include “indices,” which are contiguous with the object they represent. Indices are in reaction to or opposition with an object and indicate the feeling of otherness, which simultaneously indicates the self to which it is opposed. This enables partial access to “brute” reality through signs. While interpretation is fallible, it is constrained by the semiotic object. For Peirce, “objective reality” is whatever we sense as external to ourselves, whatever resists our will.
In Saussure’s semiotic, by contrast, the conception of meaning derives from structure and the systematic...