Eight-armed rebels: what octopus semiosis means for anthropologists
(University of California, Los Angeles)
Paper short abstract:
Semiotician Thomas Sebeok argued in 1980 that apes could not learn human language. But do they have languages of their own? This paper reads new biological research through the lens of Peircean sign theory to explore how intelligibility equals privilege when human and nonhuman codes collide.
Paper long abstract:
Anthropology is one of the few academic disciplines seriously concerned with researching the spirit world. Interests of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness include spirit possession, trance, and altered states of consciousness. We also study ghosts and other manifestations of the still-present deceased. When a student told Professor Jean-Guy Goulet that he could not publish an article without the permission of a deceased Cree elder, Goulet instructed him to ask the relative anyway. Not all anthropologists so easily afford agency to non-corporeal persons—but, if they did, what would analyses of such interactions look like? I propose that the same methods we use to understand the communication codes of nonhuman animals can be applied to parsing human symbolic systems on the margins of scientific verifiability, or perhaps simply referentiality. As far as human forms of nonverbal communication might seem from language, they are unlikely as strange as those of the octopus. The signaling capacities of this slimy, 300-million-year old creature evolved in a manner radically different from our own. Octopuses do not speak. They can, however, see with their skin, gesture, blush, issue blows, and squirt jets of water. Dousing disfavored research assistants was a favorite pastime of octopuses in a Middlebury College lab. This paper applies a revisionist Peircean framework to recent biological research on three kinds of nonhuman animal communication—cephalopod, corvid, and cetacean—to trace correspondences between human and nonhuman codes, explore possibilities for decipherment, and question the implications intelligibility holds for affording rights to human and other-than-human persons.
Throwing together ways of being/meaning: recursive anthropology at the cusp of a paradigm change [Roundtable]