Semiology of Autopoiesis (I)

What is the difference between conceptual analysis and semiology?

An idea like autopoiesis can be analysed as a concept. We can study its description of self-making and autonomous organisations and life-forms for consistency, contradictions, meaning, references, through its cases and examples, its history, its implications and assumptions, and its values. Is there any advantage to studying the same idea as a sign?

For more simple signs the difference seems to be clear. When we see the sign ‘Exit’ over a door, we realise it has a precise role to play and limited meaning. It is indicating a way out. No need to ponder its contradictions, as we rush towards it. At its most basic level, semiology – the examination of signs – considers this kind of indication.

By Wing1990hk – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

The sign ‘Exit’ and its direct indication contrast with the rich meaning of the concept ‘exit’ encountered, for instance, in the English translation of Sartre’s play Huis clos (No Exit). There, among many other things, exit means release, escape, redemption, freedom from other people, a clean slate, release from past identities, and the opposite of guilt-ridden hell.

Yet the difference becomes blurred when we deal with ideas because, as complex signs, they carry many more meanings and references than simple signs. This latter simplicity is the result of an artificial restriction around use and context. An exit sign is a complicated concept when it is contemplated by engineers and architects, but a more straightforward one when in direct use. This directness depends on habit, situation and construction.

Simple signs rely on habitual acquaintance, situations designed to focus on that familiarity, and experience narrowed down to easy perception. We develop routines. Designers look for them. Signs fit into them. If you remove any of these, then a sign becomes much more puzzling, like a door familiar to your host but baffling to you.

Restriction to a more simple sign is possible for even the most complex ideas. The fraught concepts of Sartre’s phrase ‘Hell is other people’ from No Exit have, over the years, become a simple sign. The many meanings of the inferno, other people as observers and observed, and their convoluted relations in sin, desire, lust, hate, death, ennui, judgement, guilt and nonchalant cruelty have been narrowed down to the much less profound meaning that other people make life miserable.

Since signs can be expanded into concepts and concepts restricted into signs, their common borders are blurred and movable. The idea ‘afar’ can be a sign for great distance (they travelled from afar) but it overlaps with the concept ‘afar’ with its added sense of mystery and strangeness (do not fear those from afar).

If we are looking for the fullest meaning and deepest understanding of an idea, it seems to be a mistake to limit ourselves to the sign. ‘Afar’ as simply distant misses out implications of remoteness, attractive remove and fearsome isolation. Does this mean that semiology is inferior to conceptual analysis, when dealing with complex ideas and simple signs made complex through use and context?

Counter to this sceptical conclusion about ideas and signs, I argue that the study of an idea as sign is worthwhile. This is because semiology draws attention to ideas as processes connecting the construction of a sign to transformations of meaning and structures of all kinds. These changes have wide-ranging effects on knowledge, understanding, values, politics and social organisation. To focus on the sign is to study the effects of construction and communication.

Four features of signs as processes lead to more precise understanding of the difference between conceptual analysis and semiology:

  1. A sign is the result of a selection of elements {a, b, c, …}
  2. This selection has effects on a limitless background that the elements were taken from
  3. The selection and its effects have the potential to set off a conflict of narratives about the value and meaning of the sign
  4. The sign can be consistent or inconsistent with dominant orders (from science/religion/politics/morality/traditional practices)

To leave a sign for others as they follow you through the landscape, you have to select things from the environment {sticks, leaves, mud, abandoned cans, stones, pine cones} and from an ideal reserve of shapes and meanings {pyramid, cross, arrow}. The selection alters wide contexts. It changes the landscape. It changes habitats, disturbing the ecosystem. It changes the pursuers, since they have a new sign to decipher. It changes you, as you have made something and expect to be followed. Your mark alters language. A new sign is added to all others, like a poem recasting words, or like a poorly placed cairn disturbing a reliable path.

When followers reach the sign, they have a puzzle to solve. More than likely, they will disagree not only about the meaning of the sign, but also about whether to follow it, who they think you are, what is right for them. The sign gives rise to a conflict of interpretations. Furthermore, the sign might reinforce established orders – religious beliefs or good ecology, say – or it might be a scandal, a shock to order – a taboo figure or proscribed act (they painted roundels on the cairn). Reta_Inuit, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

On the album cover for the 1964 recording of Huis clos, the designer made a series of selections to create a sign referring to the play and alluding to its content. There’s a first selection of two shadows close together and one set apart. It picks up on the play’s torturous love triangles, where love is thwarted between two characters under the jealous gaze of a third: {a-b, c}.

The effects of this selection are on the wider background of the play: love, heaven, hell, guilt, redemption, bad faith and desire. With the {a-b, c} configuration, reflecting Sartre’s avoidance of the more prevalent but flawed {a-b-c}, the play is first taken as about tensions in love triangles and their frustrated desires. This pulls the play away from other possible themes, such as punishment, or the human condition as despair caused by mismatched desires.

Opposed narratives come into conflict about these effects and hence about the aptness of the sign. The play is about love and desire. Or the play is about hell and punishment. The human condition is always hellish; or it is hellish if we succumb to impossible desires and cling to false identities. Every selected sign has the potential to give rise to these conflicts of interpretation. Even a simple exit sign is never as straightforward as it seems. The choice of language can be controversial (the above sign uses two, resisting the dominance of the Latin alphabet) as can the choice of colour code (green) and the choice of medium (privileging sight).

To study autopoiesis as a sign, we must analyse the selections that gave rise to it, tracking their effects, picking out the different interpretations that come into conflict over the new sign, and asking whether the sign is consistent with or counter to dominant orders. Instead of starting with definitions of the concept of autopoiesis or analysing its main examples and claims, this approach observes the processes set in motion when the idea is constructed.

Over the next posts, I will begin with the early making of autopoiesis, through a close reading of Maturana and Varela’s Autopoiesis and Cognition: the Realization of the Living (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1980/Santiago: Editorial Universitaria, 1972)