Semiotic disaster {and extinction}

Jorge Mattar Villela1

This speech was induced by an episode that took place during the first few weeks of classes in a compulsory subject for Social Sciences students at a public university in the south-east of Brazil this year. By understanding it as an episode of what I have come to call the Semiotic Disaster, I will try to suggest that this episode is just a local expression of our ecology, the political result of which is the appearance of a new governing subject, the user, us, whose perceptual-cognitive characteristics are, to say the least, peculiar.

Before the story, I’d like to explain how I’m going to treat it.

In 2016, during the imminence of the coup d’état that took place in Brazil that year, in a canteen at the university where I teach, a stranger introduced himself to me as a professor from the Physics Department and emotionally tried to warn me that the great threat to our future would be the “inability to distinguish between the real and the virtual”. I should have told him that urbanist Paul Virilio had been saying the same thing since the mid-1990s, but the man’s frightened look made me thank him and walk away, which provoked his fury at not being adequately heard on such an important issue. I am sorry if this paper has this man’s expression imprinted in it.

In 2018, a friend showed me  an article in which Henry Farrell suggests that the great forerunner of the techno-political future was not Huxley or Orwell, but Phillip K. Dick for having shown the impossibility of separating poorly analysed mixtures (the real and the unreal) in various situations. An accurate futurism that describes the world we live in.

Until then, in the political environment in 2016-2018 in Brazil, my greatest fear was that we would live in a world where practising lucidity would become a life-threatening occupation. And there were already examples of this being realised on a regular basis. But it was only then when I connected the two dots, plus the theme of instantaneity promoted by Paul Virilio since the 1970s. I assumed then, in an article from 2020, that satellite instantaneity promoted a state of general confusion, of intellectual, neuronal and hormonal convulsion capable of creating amputated images; a theme that is central to Spinoza’s thinking. I then brought Virilio and Spinoza together on images on instantaneity and electoral politics, as happened in Brazil in 2018 and in the USA in 2016.

About a year ago I discovered an article by Thure von UexKüll, Jacob’s son, on the concept of the Umwelt and there I learnt about the existence of a branch of botany called Phytosemiotics, which is the result of a previous impulse called Biosemiotics. Plants send, process and receive signs. They recognise alliances and kinship, they create strategies for mutual protection, not just through fungi, not just through their roots, but through the phloem. Signs are a central theme in the work of one of the greatest spinozists, Gilles Deleuze. Creating, sending and receiving signs is a vital activity. Living is intertwined with it. The living is a special centre of attention, of sending, processing and re-sending signs.

What happens in a world where this vital activity is compromised, if not sabotaged, by an unprecedented accumulation and proliferation of signs? What happens when capitalist companies capable of generating, storing and accelerating signs, reduce them to figures travelling at the speed of light, and transliterate them into capital? I would like to answer this question through the recent experience mentioned at the beginning of this speech. Those events had planetary proportions and directly affect the lives of each and every one of us. For example, they made it possible for 52 million voters in Brazil and tens of millions more in the US to consider giving Bolsonaro and Trump second terms as presidents in their countries.

As an anthropologist, I believe I can only talk about global phenomena from one (or several) of their localized expressions, and that’s why I chose a most localized example, one in which I was a semi-involuntary participant. Methodologically, I present internal, lived knowledge, not relative knowledge. As said before, it all took place as part of a compulsory undergraduate course for students enrolled in a Social Sciences programme at a public university in the south-east of Brazil. As I do every year, as soon as I had access to the emails of those enrolled (a week before the course started), I wrote and sent the students a text explaining topics such as the content of the programme and its objectives. I attached a PDF with the programme in which, as well as the bibliography and timetable, I included 3 pages of text explaining what I wanted to achieve with the two modules and how one linked to the other. In the body of the email, I asked for an acknowledgement of receipt, as this was the only way for me to know that the message had been received and that I had communicated that attendance at the opening lecture was mandatory (in Brazil there is a long student tradition of treating the first lecture of a course as a mere protocol, as an empty, dispensable slot). I said that difficulties with attendance needed to be communicated to me by e-mail or in person. Finally, I added that all communication channels were open.

In the first lesson, I went back over these themes at length and also quickly went through all the texts that made up the bibliography. The number of pages per week was very small, as I’m well aware that, since 2017, students’ reading skills have plummeted and, since the great lockdowns of 2020 to 2022, they have tended towards zero. As I usually do, I asked if there were any suggestions for modifying the agenda. I added that the lightness of reading in the first module would be compensated for by my discussions in the classes and that any topic mentioned during the lessons could be extended at the suggestion of the students, or even presented by them, if they preferred so. I insisted that I was trying to de-hierarchise the course environment as much as possible throughout the semester. I provided the famous example of Jacques Rancière’s “ignorant master”. Finally, I asked that everyone arrive on time for class, and I made a small comment on the issue of punctuality as a reflection of relations of domination. I told anyone who wasn’t in a position to read texts, to arrive on time to class and to consider those present as an audience with whom they could discuss their reading problem or, if they preferred so, they could contact me individually, by email or in person. Everyone agreed, and two hours after the start of the session, the class finished.

There were 73 students enrolled, divided into two classes. Due to public holidays, there was a one-week break. The following week, to my astonishment, I realised that out of a total of 73 people, 34 had been absent: 24 in the morning class. I wrote an e-mail in the hope of finding out what had happened. I didn’t get much of a response, but a few days later I received an email from the Academic Coordination Office alerting me to the fact that I had been the object of a complaint from some students of the course, which had been forwarded by the students’ representative.

The complaint accused me, in short, of following my statutory obligations as a lecturer: giving classes, asking people to attend them, to read the texts, and to be punctual. As I had asked anyone who was unable to attend classes to read the texts or to be punctual and come to me, I was accused of wanting to “meddle in people’s lives”. Needless to say, I was perplexed, even more so by the fact that the Academic Coordinator accepted the complaint. What’s more, there were two lies: that I had shouted at a student who was late and that I wasn’t punctual myself.

It may all seem like a misunderstanding. But the conversations I had with the two groups after the lesson following the arrival of the complaint made it clear that this was a local expression of the Semiotic Disaster. Nobody really knew what had happened. Some people felt represented by the complaint, but they couldn’t express their reasons, especially after I described the complaint and went over every point of their grievances. They agreed, but they didn’t know with what, and were unable to specify the point of disagreement. Faced with the obvious lies mentioned above, one student said that they had heard an audio claiming that I would lock the door after the start of class to prevent latecomers from entering. A hoax.

The sensation of these two conversations was the same as listening to far-right voters in Brazil and the US. They didn’t know much about what they were saying, but they stood by their “opinions”. Nor did they care about the slanders in the document. And there was this relevant aspect: At this university, professors are criticised for not caring about the tragedies experienced by those quota students -black, indigenous, poor- who depend on aid to stay at university which was cut by the governments after the 2016 coup. It is ironic then, that in the complaint, my concern regarding the possibile difficulties of some of the students was turned into a desire “to meddle in the lives of students”.

Although the complaint was written in the first person of the singular, around 10 people had supported it and, more seriously, it had been forwarded to the Academic Coordinator by the Students’ Representative without the issue having first been discussed as part of any meeting agenda. What’s more, according to conversations with the two classes, most of the students didn’t even know about their colleagues’ initiative.

Finally, when I spoke to the Coordinator and the Head of the Department, it was hard to make them understand that this wasn’t a case of an old professor complaining about young students. As such, the expression Semiotic Disaster was coined to clarify this point with my colleagues, because yet another semiotic disaster was brewing.

This is the local expression of the Semiotic Disaster.

The term Semiotic Disaster, as I understand it, has little to do with the one created by Korean linguist Han Lian-Chang in relation to the Tsunami in SE Asia and developed in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic. Under the concept of Global Semiotics, developed by Thomas Sebeok, Lian-Chang looks at the semiotic consequences of the disaster. As I use it, it is not due to (but draws on) the movement created since the 1980s around Sebeok and which led to the multidisciplinary branches of biosemiotics (zoosemiotics, phytosemiotics, cybersemiotics, physiosemiotics), although I subscribe to some of its same matrices, especially the vitalist semiotics of Jacob von Uexküll and the transcendental vitalism of Gilles Deleuze. In my case, the pragmatic vitalism of Henry Bergson is currently the greatest force of influence.

The notion of Semiotic Disaster that I’m trying to use is a transformation of Paul Virilio’s 2005 expression, “the integral accident”. The accident that, in spite of being avoidable, already contains the essence of what caused it: in the case of Chernobyl, the invention of the atomic energy; in the case of a shipwreck, the ship; in the case of the digital bomb, the invention of cybernetics, etc. The concept of the “bombe informatique”, from 1998, inspires what I intend to say about the Semiotic Disaster as a planetary phenomenon.

In Brazil, the word “Accident” has been co-opted by multinationals who seek to divest themselves of responsibility for the crimes they commit by attributing it all to chance. The victims of those crimes, on the other hand, use the word Disaster to emphasise the responsibility of the criminals.

It is with this scope that I view the modest phenomenon that I have come across as a lecturer.

Let’s agree, just for a moment, that lived existence depends on establishing uninterrupted relationships with other heterogeneous existences that are extrinsic to one another, and that each existence is composed of many relationships between existences that are extrinsic to each other. This idea is almost 400 years old, but it has been revived in Bergson’s thinking and in Maturana and Varela’s research into biosemiotics. Let’s agree that in order to live together, it is necessary to constantly send signs from one to another. Thus, an ecology can be imagined as a constant flow of signs from being to being, some hugely disturbing, others barely perceptible. In other words, to live is to participate in regimes of signs and to be shaped by them.

If we agree on this point, we can see that these positions have been famous in ethology, semiotics, neuroscience and philosophy for decades. Now, let’s suppose that at a certain moment -not an instant, a moment- a mode of production dreamt up a utopia: transforming all signs into ciphers travelling through space at the speed of light. But not just any cipher, ciphers that could be transliteralised into energy convertible into commercial relations. Let’s further suppose that this dream was realised through the introduction of a generation of signs sent to stations that transformed them into calculations and returned them as gradually emerging relationships ready to receive more signs back, archive them indefinitely, and return them once again in forging increasingly inflexible (though in constant revolution) relations. In such a way, the criteria produced inside this unknowable traffic start to shape the calculations of both the calculating machines and the new governed subject who is constituted by this very circuit: the user.

This operation has depended on the unprecedented thickening of the Earth’s crust that can be exploited economically, that is, energetically: from a few hundred metres 70 years ago to more than 35,000 km today. A circuit that implies more mining excavation so that there is more circulation of signs. South America -Brazil in particular-  is feeling the impact of this astonishing landscaping, which strives to transform all matter into an object of mining-mineralisation-devitalisation.

This immense crust of exploitation is capable of convulsing perceptive and cognitive systems to the point where a lecturer is denounced for carrying out his duties and even the Academic coordinator accepts that complaint. What assails us is the Semiotic Disaster. In other words, the impossibility of signs circulating in such a way as to create existential territory. That is to say, the impossibility of signs circulating in such a way as to make existential territory, or even to endure in a metastable condition so as to be understood. Denunciation, the object of the activity of politico-legal subjects, was triggered by users, a type of subject characterised by semiotic deficiency.

Perhaps (and now I’m getting into an argument that I don’t have space to develop) all extinction scenarios correspond to a Semiotic Disaster. These would be moments when the circulation of signs is amputated, diverted, accumulates or gets destroyed. Or when it happens at a speed that obstructs its duration. If we pay attention to many ethnographies of the peoples of the forests, deserts and ice, we realise that this is what it’s all about. The end of duration, of time, of memory. Or, in a word, life.

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Jorge Mattar Villela (2024, 7 marzo). Semiotic disaster {and extinction}. Ankulegi antropologia espazio digitala - espacio digital de antropología. Recuperado 23 de junio de 2024, de

  1. UFSCar – Métis/Thematic Project “Arts and Semantics of Creation and Memory – Proc. 07886-8 []

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