social sciences

Biosemiotics Provides New Approaches to Analyzing Society


Biosemiotics and the analysis of biopower have not yet been explicitly brought together. Recently two researchers from the University of Tartu, Ott Puumeister and Andreas Ventsel, released an article that attempts to locate the points at which they intersect from the perspective of biosemiotics.

The article uses the biosemiotic understanding of the different types of semiosis in order to approach the practices of biopower and biopolitics. The central concept of the paper is that of the ‘semiotic threshold’. Andreas Ventsel and Ott Puumeister are interested in how the science of anti-aging functions as an ideology that makes it possible to understand the very process of aging as pathological.

“We are dealing with the process of, essentially, re-imagining what it means to be a human being. One thing that has always been certain is that we will die one day. Anti-aging research attempts to demonstrate that it is not, in fact, necessary – that aging is only a fault in our biological constitution that should be fixed,” Puumeister explained and added that in short, aging is a pathological process that can be “cured”.

“In the end, anti-aging ideology asks us to re-imagine ourselves as potentially able to postpone death indefinitely. This shift has potential to transform what it means to experience ourselves as living beings,” Puumeister said, noting that biosemiotics is a discipline that, first and foremost, strives to understand what life understands and how living beings know and experience their environments and themselves.

So, in the article, the two researchers deal with a conflict between, on the one hand, the attempts to control the processes of life so that it may change the way human beings live, and on the other, the experience of living beings. “We are not dealing directly with biotechnology, but with how what has until now been understood as natural (aging) is being reinterpreted as pathological,” Puumeister explained.

Question of institutionalization

In analyzing the sociocultural mechanisms of meaning making, Puumeister claimed that the biological and the political are extremely closely connected and that the principles according to which social relations are understood are very much biopolitical – individuals’ lives (health, reproduction, sexuality, longevity, bodily capacities) are consistently found at the center of political deliberation and decision-making.

This also signifies a blurring of the borders between private and public realms, Puumeister noted. “Regarding sexual politics, for example, we can speak of how the bedroom has become a public space, it has become visible as a space where not only love, but also politics are being made. I do not mean this in a sense that now government is trying to regulate what can be done in the bedroom, but instead what I mean is that it has become visible that government, through laws and official ideologies, has always regulated private sexual activity,” he explained, adding that, consequently, it is strange to hear arguments against the Partnership Act such as: “Government should not interfere with what goes on in the bedroom!”

“This type of argument forgets that, in regulating the institution of marriage as a bond between a man and a woman, it has always done exactly that. Now, when other sexual behaviors seek institutionalization, the fiction of the naturalness of this type of marriage is simply brought to the fore. If it were ‘nature’, it would not have to be institutionalized by laws,” Puumeister explained.

Population increase and aging society

Puumeister added that it is interesting to observe how, in Estonia, the problem of cultural autonomy is being conceptualized in terms of population increase, for example. He emphasized that it is important to think of this connection, because these two frameworks are not naturally congruent and can even be seen as contradictory.

“In the Estonian connection, whenever one speaks of population increase, there are implications of ethnicity and language that follow. Of which population are we talking about? If we speak simply of the increase in the amount of bodies, there is no need, in fact, that these bodies be of Estonian ethnicity and that they speak Estonian. But it is clear that it is not meant in this way,” Puumeister said, going on to explain that whenever the problem of population increase arises, it is perfectly evident that one means, in fact: “It is needed that women of Estonian ethnicity give birth to Estonian children”.

“It is this connection with nationality/ethnicity and population that makes it dangerous, in my view, since in this way it is defined quite clearly what the proper biological characteristics are that a representative of Estonian culture should have,” he noted.

The other example Puumeister wanted to highlight is that of an aging Estonian society which has to deal with the problems of how the elderly could be more actively integrated into social relations and networks. “Although the ideology of anti-aging speaks in terms of the fundamental biological process of aging, there is built into it the view, or rather the presupposition that one should not, in fact, age at all. Anti-aging ideology valorizes youth above all,“ Puumeister mentioned and added that the dangerous side of anti-aging is ageism, the view that the value and worth of individuals are somehow correlated to their age, i.e. the older they are the more they diminish in value to society. Although, anti-aging views are not espoused in the mainstream of science, these ideas nevertheless do find a lot of social and cultural resonance, he said.

Foucault as a catalyst

This particular article is a part of Ott Puumeister’s doctoral thesis, which is supervised by Andreas Ventsel and will be defended soon. Puumeister said that his work springs from Michel Foucault’s proposition made in the 1970s, according to which, modern politics can be described as biopolitics. That is, modern politics is not based on some sort of rational communication or collective will but instead on the government of humans as living beings – as individual bodies and collective populations having specific biological characteristics that can be politically employed.

“The main aim of my doctoral thesis is to analyze the semiotic mechanisms according to which the lives of human beings are rendered governable, are transformed into objects of calculation and planning, and are put in the center of political strategies,” Puumeister explained. “In other words, I am dealing with the analysis of biopolitics from the semiotic perspective, that is, from the perspective of social and cultural meaning-making.

Thus, his primary concern is not with analyzing biotechnologies that intervene directly in the processes of life, but with sociocultural sign systems and meaning-making processes that make it possible to understand life as something that has to be guided, governed and transformed in order to increase the happiness of humans, make them more profitable, make them live longer, etc. “For example, the way in which population increase has become one of the primary concerns underlying the question of the sustainability of Estonian cultural and national autonomy. The question of cultural autonomy is posed in terms of living bodies and their ability to generate value for the nation,” he noted.

Written by Marii Kangur

This article was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.

Read more

Get our monthly newsletterBe up-to-date with all the latest news and upcoming events