Enhancing survival by not enhancing survival: Sebeok’s semiotics and the ultimate paradox of modelling: 9th Sebeok Fellow Address

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Cobley, Paul ; Semiotic Society of America (2014)

Tom Sebeok lives in recent memory partly because of his phenomenal networking, administration, editing and promotion of individuals in semiotics as well as the disciplinary field in general. Yet this must not be allowed to obscure a body of published writings that is as original as it is eloquent. The current paper will discuss one of Sebeok’s most penetrating insights arising from his consideration of a fundamental paradox in modern intellectual life, one that traverses the bridge between the ‘hard’ and ‘human’ sciences. This paper will argue that Sebeok’s 1979 review of investigations into animals’ aesthetic behaviour, originally cast as an early chapter of a much larger book, contains the key observation which drives contemporary, 21st century semiotics. Sebeok’s abduction of the riddle posits that “aesthetic sensibility plays the part of a delicate sieve” among animals. In so doing, this paper will argue, it not only clarifies the modelling process as a whole, across verbal and averbal modes, but also provides an agenda for re-thinking tertiary modelling, the humanities and global arts policy.
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