Deep Sea Semiotics

Paul Bouissac

“If indeed the fish will be the last to discover water, perhaps we can help ourselves by looking at some other species.” Jerome S. Bruner (in The Growth of Competence, K.Connolly & J.S.Bruner Eds. Academic Press, 1974, p.13)

One of the current frontiers of science is the geology and biology of the deep sea. Glimpses of the ocean floor show dramatic landscapes of mountain chains, profound valleys, tumultuous volcanic vents that are teeming with puzzling forms of life which have evolved in these extreme, photonless environments. Probes supported by advanced technologies have uncovered so far only an infinitesimal portion of the larger but unknown, invisible part of the planet earth. Figuratively, the deep sea may be an apt metaphor for the psychological unconscious. But, more concretely, its visual and physical impenetrability remains an absolute limit of our phenomenological knowledge: it is not only a thick, dark, and haunting dimension of our ignorance but also a cognitively alien universe which defeats the pretension of our solar intelligence. Even the scuba diver who merely explores the most superficial layers of the abyss soon encounters the opacity and ghostly solitude of the marine environment and needs to frequently resurface lest he or she loses consciousness and dies. The extraordinary films which have been made at the heavy cost of transporting light and equipment to depths that the sun cannot reach are artifices which translate and betray at the same time the logic of aquatic life and its daunting biosemiotic processes. Artifices of visualization have revealed exquisitely exuberant living patterns which must have been selected by other evolutionary constraints than vision.

Something humans will probably never be able to understand intuitively is the world our remote ancestors escaped when tetrapods ventured to the shores and shallows which marine predators could not reach. This is a world from which humans have been biologically and cognitively exiled. How powerless are humans in dealing with the depth of the sea was recently demonstrated by the BP catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.

Indeed, inquisitive humans have evolved their sensorial and cognitive capacities as adaptations to the atmospheric, visible world. With lip service paid to multimodality, semiotics has theorized primarily the sounds and sights of our luminous environment, the range of waves which carves out our umwelt and that our brains pick out and process. We know, however, that life evolved from this liquid depth where signaling was bound to be primarily chemical and tactile until the photosensitivity of some organisms in the upper regions of the oceans triggered, some five hundred million years ago, the visual evolutionary arms race known as the Cambrian explosion. The evolution of vision in its many forms marked the progressive advent of the innumerable optical patterns which are endowed with meanings in the eyes of the beholders, each according to the scale of its sensorial adaptations. We can relate and interact with the inhabitants of the upper regions of the sea: mammals which returned to the aquatic milieu, colorful fishes and crustaceans, corals and glowing slugs, and a few other bioluminescent organisms. But deeper in the abyss, a self contained world, which all the energy of the earth would not suffice to illuminate, challenges our irrepressible drive to know, that is, to see, even if we are aware that this knowledge is biased by our sensory organs and largely the result of optical illusions. Atmospheric intuitions blind us to the fact that air and water are not as different from each other as our perceptual and semantic categories lead us to believe. Their continuum is counter-intuitive but real and the differences are a matter of degree involving the same elements in various combinations and proportions.

Observing and understanding life in the sea stretch to their limits our physical and semiotic competencies. The latter is what should concern us here because it is through pushing the categorical boundaries to the point where they burst or dissolve that we reach some revealing, counter-intuitive evidence. The semiotics of the logos implicitly equates air with immateriality but it is exactly what a cognitively evolved fish would think of the aquatic milieu to which it is adapted. Semiotically confronting the sea is bound to expose the “unthinkable” atmospheric constraints that have molded our theories of signs and communication. The deep sea radically challenges our epistemology. But it also challenges the pragmatics of adapting our semiotic competencies to a boundless, lightless liquid environment: how to communicate acoustically with each other? How to signal visually through gestures and facial expressions when we need underwater life-saving equipment as awkward as it is heavy? How to switch from the lesser resistance of air combined with the rules of gravity to the quasi weightlessness of the sea caused by our natural or artificial buoyancy? How to communicate with the multifarious forms of marine life and understand their semiotic web?

Although there does not exist, as far as I know, any department of semiotic engineering, this virtual discipline is a crucial aspect, under any other name, of many contemporary scientific and technological developments which require the encoding of meaning, the communication and encryption of information, the bridging of linguistic and cultural differences, and reaching out to the outer space as well as to the inner space of the oceans, to name only a few. Repairing or preventing ecological disasters, both on land and in the sea, also demands a precise knowledge of the ways in which semiotic webs sustain the flow of information without which life is not possible. There are, of course, practical dimensions for which some form of implicit semiotic engineering is ever present: diplomacy, advertising and marketing, the cosmetic industry, design and architecture, therapies of all kinds, user-friendly IT tools, and, last but not least, Internet social networking.

This is why SemiotiX will endeavour in 2011 to develop satellite websites whose purpose will be to bring these considerations to the fore in the hope that productive interfaces will emerge from the explicit confrontation of abstract semiotic models with the demands of practical goals in actual contexts. The abstract models of semiotics need to be put to the test and transformed as much as rules of thumb solutions must be elevated to true engineering by the inputs of comprehensive theories.

The first satellite website will be O.C.E.A.N.S [Observation, Conservation, Exploration, Appreciation, and News of the Sea]. It will include section such as Deep Sea Communication, Ocean Biosemiotics, Marine Archaeology, Conservation, Scuba Diving Exploration and Training, and abundant visual documentation. The next satellite website will concern the bridging of cultural differences and the semiotics of community construction. Another may address the elaboration of video games based on semiotic theories and aimed at higher education, and another on Style and Fashion. Suggestions for other satellite websites are welcomed.

During the past decade, 27,000 scientists from 80 nations have been busy compiling data concerning life in the world’s oceans in order to create the first Census of Marine Life. Through mining the literature and existing databases as well as engaging in fieldwork, they have discovered over 6,000 new species. As a result the number of known marine species stands now at 240,000, that is, approximately 25% of the total which is thought to exist on the planet earth. In an interview to Science (Vol. 330, 1 October 2010, p. 25), Ian Poiner, the chief executive of the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Townsville and chair of the scientific steering committee since 2008, stated that although the census is a definite milestone many questions about ocean life remain unanswered. “The census found life everywhere we looked, and it is much more complex and interconnected than we expected” declared Poiner. A rich website provides a galore of information on this project and its results to date. . Another informative place is the website of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute . Among many sections of interest, the page devoted to the work of Sylvia A. Earle offers an exhilarating vista on a remarkable explorer of the sea and conservationist who has revealed many secrets of the Sea of Sargossum and its unique ecology. Earle has also published many books on her diving experience ]. Another website of interest is (in Polish with many videos and photo albums).


Photo by Zbigniew Roguszka

Manatees are the closest relatives to the elephants. Like all mammals which went back to sea, they spend their lives under the surface. They roam the sea near the coastlines, and in the rivers nearby, taking their breath from time to time.  They gracefully move around, munching on seaweeds, and watching marine life. They keep plenty of liquid space between each other. The diver comes across peaceful mums and their pups, chatting in infra sounds that human ears can’t catch. In the distance, fatter daddies strut along their buoyant stuff to fend off their rivals and impress their younger admirers. Humans can contemplate themselves in the manatees’ pensive and compassionate eyes.

Zbigniew Roguszka lives and works in Poland. He graduated in Geography at Adam Mickiewicz University. He is a scuba diver and free-lance photographer who travels all over the world in search of new scuba diving adventures. He documents in his photographs and videos natural landscapes and marine wild life. His articles on scuba diving have appeared in the main scuba diving magazine in Poland.

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