Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Edusemiotics, Subjectivity, and New Materialism

  • Inna Semetsky
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_512



Edusemiotics is a novel direction in educational theory. New materialism is a novel direction in cultural theory. Both areas of research, while “located” in humanities, pay close attention to contemporary developments in natural sciences such as physics and biology. Both are strongly anti-dualist. However, while new materialism seems to revert to the philosophy of monism, edusemiotics emphasizes the irreducibly triadic structure of signs that ensures their dynamics and enables their action and evolution. New materialism tends to draw from the continental tradition in philosophy (notably Deleuze), while sources feeding into the latest developments in edusemiotics are plenty, including American pragmatism. Still, both directions have much in common and seem to exit in parallel – their appearance in their respective fields (cultural studies and education) is nearly simultaneous. Being anti-dualistic, they also deny the division between ontology and epistemology. As for the dimension of ethics, both demonstrate a relational, and partaking of feminist, bent. Both problematize all binary divisions and rigid classifications in favor of relations, maps, diagrams, and cartographies. This short entry does not aim to “compare or contrast” edusemiotics with new materialism but rather intends to present some selected conceptualizations in both areas of research, mapping them into each other’s trajectory and thus opening avenues for further cross-disciplinary research. The entry presents human subjectivity as always already posthuman, emergent, continuously learning, and equipped with semiotic competence.

Semiotics and New Materialism

Semiotics – and, by implication, edusemiotics – is not just about signs: it concerns itself primarily with the action of signs (a point often missed). It was St. Augustine who first stated that the action of signs proceeds in nature and in culture. In modern times, C. S. Peirce proclaimed that the whole universe is perfused with signs which possess the quality of irreducible triadicity. The action of signs is not direct or dyadic but indirect or mediated. The sign stands for something other than itself, by virtue of the existence of some “third” element between the two: that is, indirectly. Genuine semiotic action is always relative to this included third; therefore, the interaction between any two subjects is not purely subjective: according to contemporary semiotician John Deely, it is suprasubjective. Such action cannot be described by the action of any individual agent: a sign is a relation between self and other that presupposes their mutual participation in the same semiotic process and demands what Deleuze and Guattari (1987) called mutual solidarity. As such, a proper semiotic relation is based on intra-action (not inter-action) – a term that Karen Barad (2007) coined for the purpose of defining the metaphysics of new materialism which intends to emphasize the dimension of “between” and constructs, accordingly, onto-epistemology that serves as an unorthodox foundation for ethics. A feminine approach to ethics in education, such as the ethics of care and its follow-up, the ethics of integration (Semetsky 2010), presents relations as being ontologically basic.

The key neo-materialist scholars of today who target dual oppositions are Rosi Braidotti, Manuel DeLanda, Karen Barad, and Quentin Meillassoux (e.g., Dolphijn and van der Tuin 2012). Braidotti continues a feminist tradition in cultural theory that, just like edusemiotics, interrogates logocentrism and anthropocentrism in favor of posthumanism and culture-nature assemblages (signs), thereby positing human subjectivity as unavoidably embodied. Meillassoux’s materialism, while “speculative,” is however not foreign to scientific rationalism: he calls for establishing the absolute scope of mathematics as a formal (rather than vernacular) language to describe reality, albeit under the proviso of including the dimension of meaning in science.

Inquiring into the nature of the language of signs (verbal, mathematical, or otherwise) is one of the tasks pursued by edusemiotics (Semetsky 2013) that brings to mind Leibniz’s and Deleuze’s explorations of mathesis as the unified science. While Descartes remained skeptical of the project of the universal language as it became known, Leibniz had envisaged a formal scientia generalis of all possible relations between all concepts in all branches of knowledge taken together. This unified science of all sciences, called mathesis universalis, would employ a formal universal language of symbols, with symbols themselves immanent in life, in nature. Deleuze (2007) points out that the “the key notion of mathesis… is that individuality never separates itself from the universal… Mathesis is… knowledge of life” (pp. 146–147) and has liberating and creative power. Such knowledge of life is equivalent to the knowledge of signs “spoken” by life: it partakes of the intensive science posited by DeLanda (2002).

DeLanda focuses on the nonlinear dynamics of the (neo-)material world as consisting of matter-energy flows rather than stable physical structures. In turn, edusemiotics does not restrict the semiotic reality to matter and energy but affirms the “third” dimension of information: together they form the triadic signs that perfuse the world, thereby denying that matter is inert or dead (Semetsky 2013). Body is minded and mind is embodied. The premise of ancient Hermetic philosophy (which is one of the precursors of edusemiotics) that matter is alive and grounded in relations is confirmed by new science. Edusemiotics and new materialism alike are “breakthrough” areas of research, and it is the life of signs (human and nonhuman) that literally “breaks through” general categories and rigid classifications. It is the entanglement (the term used by Barad, who borrows it from quantum physics) of matter and meaning that eliminates the remnants of positivism and renders invalid the subject-object dualism. However much earlier, it was John Dewey – one of the theoretical forerunners of edusemiotics – who posited the relation between the observer and the observed via the very act of observation, therefore strongly rejecting the method of “objective” science.

The Science of Signs

The developments in semiotics as the science of signs represent the process of recovery from classical physics as the unfortunate heritage of positivism and the paradigm for all other discourses, including research in social sciences. The dynamical structure of a quantum entity is triadic. The apparently opposite terms of A and not-A as its perceived “other” are in a triadic relation in accordance with the semiotic logic of the included middle designated as T (Fig. 1).
Edusemiotics, Subjectivity, and New Materialism, Fig. 1

A genuine triadic relation describing a quantum entity

The cutting-edge science of coordination dynamics (Kelso and Engstrøm 2006) does not separate the world of nature from the human mind but posits a single entity designated as body ~ mind. The symbol tilde (or squiggle ~) creates a new vocabulary to describe the philosophy of complementary pairs (signs) that spills over analytic reason and the mere expression of linguistic truths. This symbol designates the “between” relation as intrinsic to edusemiotics, new materialism, and quantum physics alike. The notation (~) between body and mind indicates a unifying connecting relation as the prerogative of genuine signs. The logic intrinsic to the action of signs demonstrates the radical rationality of semiosis that overcomes widespread dichotomies.

The principle of complementarity (versus opposition) was first posited by physicist Niels Bohr who questioned the “either-or” description of nature (either particles or waves). For Bohr, whose position incidentally inspired Barad’s research, the interplay of yin and yang tendencies forming one integrated whole in the Chinese philosophy of Taoism was relevant to, and informative for, his new theory. Physicist David Bohm, positing the process of holomovement, emphasized the absence of any direct (mechanistic) causality in lieu of the relations between events interwoven into the whole by the network of quanta. What we tend to perceive as binary opposites at the level of ordinary experience are in fact not contradictory but complementary at the most subtle, quantum, level. They are engaged in coordinated, relational dynamics that makes them a pair, a couple, a double-sided single entity: a sign. It is coupling that demonstrates the continuous balancing act – what Leibniz would call a dance of particles folding back on themselves – as a property of the relational network of signs that coordinate, or reconcile, nature and culture.

Semiosis is the relational network of signs which are perpetually in action, and quanta (Fig. 1) partake of signs full of implicit information that continuously changes its mode of expression, fluctuating between polar opposites. The logic of the included middle ensures the coordination dynamics that “champions the concept of functional information, and shows that it arises as a consequence of a coupled, self-organized dynamical system living in the metastable regime where only tendencies… coexist” (Kelso and Engstrøm 2006, p. 104). Meaning emerges when such coordination is temporarily stabilized. Signs – as well as quantum entities – are a priori virtual tendencies only, and Deleuze was right when he postulated his ontology of the virtual. Yet signs become actual – that is, acquire meaning – when interpreted in practice. It was Peirce who saw that the full development of semiotics as the science of signs required a dynamic view of signification: the process of the production of meanings as included thirds called interpretants. At the practical level, when we step into the lifeworld of experiences participating as such in the action of signs, then, due to the string of interpretants that include our own actions, we begin to understand the meanings of this and subsequent experiences: we learn by actively creating such meaning!

Edusemiotics, Nomadic Education, and Semiotic Competence

The concept of “nomad,” as posited by Deleuze and Guattari, is fruitful for edusemiotics. A nomadic place is always intense because nomads’ existence is inseparable from the region or space they occupy: together they create a rhizomatic network of interdependent relations. The smooth space occupied by nomads is an open-ended relational process ~ structure (with tilde) in contrast to a closed striated space ordered by rigid schemata, point-to-point linear connections, and displaying strict boundaries and borders. The classical episteme of metric systems, technical objectives, and precise measurements and classifications gives way to an experimental and experiential “field… wedded to… nonmetric, acentered, rhizomatic multiplicities” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, p. 381); these qualitative multiplicities (versus quantitative or metric units) are semiotic relations or signs. The action of signs as the primary subject matter of semiotic inquiry extends beyond verbal language, even though it is only through linguistic competence that this range can be brought to light for us as inquirers and learners.

Experiential learning is equated with the development of semiotic consciousness, which is the explicit awareness of the function of signs acting across nature and culture. A semiotic consciousness presupposes fully fledged semiotic competence, of which linguistic competence is only a subset. It is semiotic competence that edusemiotics is designed to elucidate in the field of educational theory and practice. This perspective is important to edusemiotics with its attention also to such expressive “languages” as images, diagrams, graphic symbols, hieroglyphs, as well as signs portending in the world. Such a broad understanding of semiotic systems makes it clear that the notion of “text” exceeds its literal meaning. Texts can be of any physical structure that embodies ideas as signs. The whole of culture, in such a radical sense, is a text and so is the “book of nature.” Both texts can be read, interpreted, understood, and acted upon.

While the notion of “agency” is essential, it is never an individual agent that “acts” within semiosis. As signs are relational entities, so are human agents who are themselves signs and should always be taken in the context of their relations with others, in nature and culture alike. Edusemiotics considers human subjectivity as always already posthuman and situated in nomadic spaces. Barad, in the context of new materialism, advocates the concept of agential realism based on the ontological inseparability of “agencies.” It is the relation that is ontologically fundamental, and such relations (as genuine signs) constitute an unorthodox agency as a community of inquiry. Peirce attributed particular significance to community in its knowledge-producing practice: “The real, then, is that which, sooner or later, information and reasoning would finally result in, and which is therefore independent of the vagaries of me and you. Thus the very origin of the conception of reality shows that this conception essentially involves the notion of a community, without definite limits, and capable of a definite increase of knowledge” (Peirce CP 5.311). Such a community of practical inquiry is theoretically unbounded by space or time and is future-oriented, notwithstanding that as discrete physical individuals we of course remain finite human beings:

Finally, as what anything really is, is what it may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community; so thought is what it is, only by virtue of its addressing a future thought which is in its value as thought identical with it, though more developed. In this way, the existence of thought now depends on what is to be hereafter; so that it has only a potential existence, dependent on the future thought of the community. (Peirce CP 5.316)

Edusemiotics alerts, however, that what is finally known is bound to lurk in the future precisely because a semiotic system remains open to new information, new experiences, new meanings, and new modes of action. A sign’s closure on its meaning is simultaneously an opening to another, more developed, one. The state of complete information, pointed to by Peirce, remains a limit case that, paradoxically, would forever “close” a system by putting a stop to its very dynamics. Achieving a semiotic competence is a never-ending learning process.

Posthuman Subjectivity

Nomadic education proceeds along the lines of signs-becoming-other (read: self-becoming-other) – and human subjectivity, which is itself a sign, emerges amidst the experiential “encounter of the sensible object and the object of thought” (Deleuze 2007, p. 151). Still, the emphasis on individual agency remains a deeply ingrained habit of contemporary philosophical thought and, by implication, education: either implicitly or explicitly, both tend to carry on the Cartesian tradition with its strict boundary between the dual categories of mind and body, subject and object, self and other, human and nonhuman. The value of relations and the nature of the self ~ other complementary pair as a minimal theoretical unit posited by edusemiotics remain either ignored or underestimated. It is a relation that extends human mind into a larger world that includes both sociocultural and natural aspects. Human subjectivity as community is thus necessarily posthuman and presupposes an ecological awareness. It was John Dewey who persistently argued against separating human experience and the whole of culture from nature. He spoke about the cooperative (or civic) intelligence necessary for associated living which, for him, was what democracy was all about.

For Dewey, experience is never exclusively personal: it is “nature’s, localized in a body as that body happened to exist by nature” (Dewey 1925/1958, p. 231). A semiotic process is cooperative because of the transactional dynamics that involves responses on both sides of the relation and as such “constitutes the intelligibility of acts and things. Possession of the capacity to engage in such activity is intelligence” (Dewey 1925/1958, pp. 179–180). Semiotic competence demands developing posthuman intelligence as a significant part of education that considers “Natural events… messages to be enjoyed and administered” (Dewey 1925/1958, p. 174). When the human mind extends to accommodate the nonhuman nature, we begin to understand the meaning of such an expansive experience. Dewey’s philosophy is an invaluable resource for edusemiotics.

Edusemiotics demands a shift of perception from static objects and stable structures to dynamic processes crossing over the mind-body dualism and leading to the dynamical “formation of patterns in open systems” (Kelso and Engstrøm 2006, p. 112). It is fully semiotic, anti-dual, reason that is always open to the creation of meanings, and as such it should become instrumental for forming, informing, and transforming education. New, emergent, meanings are the natural consequences of triadic logic on the basis of which new signs, including ourselves, are created. We are not Cartesian Cogitos but signs possessing eco-centric (not ego-centric) consciousness. Edusemiotic intelligence exceeds even interpersonal reasoning (which remains invaluable for our relations with and understanding “others”) and includes a transpersonal aspect, thus bringing into existence the deepest meanings latent in the posthuman dimension of experience, in nature. Edusemiotics would be incomplete without a developed posthuman intelligence, which in turn is a function of growth, learning and developing semiotic competence as part and parcel of edusemiotics.

The ultimate task of edusemiotics is to produce subjectivities that are open to the larger environment (comprising other people, cultures, nations, languages, natural habitats), thus forming with it one organic whole. Taking responsibility for developing a new type of holistic intelligence capable of putting into practice relational ethics, hence sustaining both human and posthuman communities, is one of the many challenges faced by edusemioticians. Educational policy needs to be informed by the semiotic logic of the included middle. Accordingly, policy-makers – rather than merely articulating theoretical goals, missions, norms, rules, and measures – should become aware of the action of signs.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Edusemiotic StudiesMelbourneAustralia