Wendy Wheeler, Expecting the Earth: Life, Culture, Biosemiotics

Wendy Wheeler, Expecting the Earth: Life, Culture, Biosemiotics (London: Lawrence and Wishart 2016) 288 pp. £20 Hb. ISBN: 9781910448670

One of the core pursuits of literature and science scholarship is to confidently uncover the mutual entanglements of science and culture. Yet frequently, humanities scholars addressing the sciences assume a tone of self-conscious apology for dabbling in a foreign field. In contrast, when N Katherine Hayles recently gave the Journal of Literature and Science Tenth Anniversary Lecture at Cardiff University, she provided an impressive counterexample of assured interdisciplinarity and an unapologetic claim on cognitive and computational science. In her lecture, Hayles relied on biosemiotics, the semiotic understanding of living organisms, to explain her approach to redefine cognitive processes across simple biological organisms to complex computing machines. Wendy Wheeler’s Expecting the Earth presents another such example of a confident interdisciplinary voice. Wheeler proposes an inspiring and far-reaching panorama of semiotic relations in which nature and culture intimately connect and biology and literary-cultural analysis cross-pollinate one another.

Wheeler’s underlying objective in Expecting the Earth is to explore the cultural implications of biosemiotics. Doing so, Wheeler, who is Emeritus Professor of Literature and Cultural Inquiry at London Metropolitan University, continues a research focus on which she has already published widely; of note especially is her 2006 monograph The Whole Creature. Previously, biosemiotic thinking had scarcely been applied to phenomena outside its originary context at the intersection of biological and semiotic theory. Wheeler hence continues to break new ground. In Expecting the Earth, she takes her earlier work further with a rich synthesis of historical and emerging biosemiotic cultural analysis and her original conception of how we might read literary texts through the lens of biosemiotics.

One of the central propositions of her theorisation of biosemiotics is an ontology of relations not of substance between the living organisms on the planet. Her recurring example to illustrate this relational ontology is the reconception of genetic function from a model in which genes unilaterally determine the organisation of the organism to a more relational model that stresses the reciprocity between genetic and protein networks and reintroduces environmental factors into the mix. Wheeler’s relational paradigm not only allows for new approaches to literature but also for an ecocritical application of biosemiotics in ecologically embedding human culture within and in relation to natural processes, pulling the rug from under anyone who still believes culture to be independent of nature.

It is one of the recurring claims of her work, and one of its core strengths, that natural and cultural signs are seen not only to function similarly – for instance through metaphor – but to be in fact related. For Wheeler, 'culture is an emergent evolutionary feature of nature' (150). What is more, she argues that the human capacity for semiotic communication – and thus also for aesthetic appreciation – deeply relies on inherited biological structures. In this way, Wheeler powerfully promotes thinking culture through biology without reducing culture to a deterministic nature. Wheeler’s relational ontology is also manifest in the title of Expecting the Earth. Since living organisms have evolved in conversation with their semiotic environments, their physical and mental capacities are formed in such a way as to expect the world or, put differently, to 'be in relation to it' (12).

Wheeler’s emphasis on relationality is also reflected in the structure of the book. In providing an overview of biosemiotic thinking on culture, she is intent on teasing out a complex web of associations between the various thinkers she draws on, most prominently Jesper Hoffmeyer and Terrence Deacon. She begins her survey by tracing the beginnings of an ontology of relations in the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, foregrounding the relevance of C S Peirce’s semiotics for their as much as her own thinking. In the subsequent chapter, Wheeler provides an impressively dense and extensive history of biosemiotic thought, beginning with Hippocrates and ending with the decline of relational thinking for which she cites the rise of nominalist science as the primary reason. In following chapters, Wheeler explores the natural origins of such human aesthetic concepts as the metaphor, perceiving in turn nature as poetic; reclaims Roman Jakobson’s neglected engagement with biology for an ecological humanities reading of poetry by Thomas Hardy and others; and outlines a biosemiotic understanding of creativity through Peirce’s theory of chance. Wheeler then concludes with a discussion of Gilbert Simondon whose ideas on individuation and technology she uses to return to ecocritical concerns and to sketch the inclusion of inanimate objects into a biosemiotic framework.

This short summary of the book’s contents gives only a limited impression of the depth of associations and connections Wheeler suggests in her synthesis of a wealth of material. This impressive scope, together with Wheeler’s often circular mode of argumentation when she revisits earlier points in a new light, sometimes make for a demanding read. This is also true with regard to the book’s ever-increasingly dense methodology and its cyclical structure, ending with Simondon as a figure influential for Deleuze and Guattari, with whom the book began.

While Wheeler’s study is certainly of interest for anyone working on the intersection of nature and culture, particularly those with a posthumanist perspective, the driving force behind her ecological readings is the contextualisation of literary texts in an all-encompassing naturo-cultural semiotic exchange. For instance, she revisits the interpretation of the bird’s song in Hardy’s 'The Darkling Thrush' as a metaphor for spring and renewal and reframes the thrush as an aging sign in the process of acquiring new semiotic meaning through a metaphorical conflation of natural and cultural signs. While Wheeler provides numerous, if sometimes underdeveloped, inroads into biosemiotic literary analysis – inviting, for example, the reader to consider representations of shared semiosis between nature and culture or representations of biosemiotic interpretation – she does not address the value of biosemiotic readings of texts that are not openly invested in biosemiotic ecologies. Is Hardy’s poem 'Heredity', for instance, exempt from biosemiotic meaning because it represents a belief in biological essence rather than relation, stating 'I am the family face;/ Flesh perishes, I live on'? In some ways her exemplary readings leave many questions about the methods of biosemiotic literary analysis unanswered. At the same time, this criticism might be a little unfair in relation to a work that is so obviously breaking new ground. Expecting the Earth is itself filled to the brim with expanding semiotic meaning and looks expectantly to biosemiotic human creativity and what it can do for our planet and for the field of literary and cultural studies.

Paul Hamann, University of Hamburg