J.L.Lemke On-line Office

Identities, Trajectories, and Scales

The theoretical framework within which I would like to address questions of language and identity development is a hybrid of social semiotics and ecosystem dynamics, which I have called ecosocial dynamics (e.g. Lemke 1993, 1995; see also Halliday 1978, Hodge & Kress 1988, and Gee 1992). In this view, which only claims to be one useful perspective on issues of social dynamics, we recognize first that human social systems are more specified instances of natural ecosystems, distinguished primarily by the role of semiotic practices in co-determining the flows of matter, energy, and information which constitute the system. Semiotic practices are themselves conceptualized as material processes in which variety and variation on lower scale levels is transduced as useful information for higher scale levels by the dynamical emergence of self-organizing phenomena at intermediate levels (Lemke 2000a). Ecosocial systems are, to a first approximation, hierarchies of organizational levels in which each emergent level of organization is constrained in its dynamics by the level above it in scale, while itself being an organization of units and interactions at the level one scale below. Scale is parametrized by differences of one to two orders of magnitude in typical energies per unit interaction, masses of functional units, spatial extension of organizational patterns, and characteristic times for typical processes to cycle or complete.

 Within this general picture, human organisms constitute just one intermediate level of organization between those of physiology and cellular or molecular biochemistry below and social-ecological communities on various scales above. Each level is regarded as only a meta-stable, dynamically emergent pattern of organization, which exists by virtue of interactions between the system and its environment, and in which order is accumulated and disorder exported to higher scale levels (i.e. dissipated, if we’re lucky). The units of analysis at every level are most basically processes, because this aims to be a dynamical model. Structures are epiphenomena of material interaction processes at the level below and may function as virtual participants in processes at the level above. A dynamical level of the system is defined as including everything (material and artifactual, whether biological or not) which significantly participates in system dynamics at the appropriate time-scale (rate-scale) just to the degree that it does. Thus membership in the system has inherent dynamical degree (cf. membership in a fuzzy set, Zadeh 1965).

 At the level of the communities in which humans most directly participate, ecosocial systems include not only people, but artifacts, architectures, landscapes, soils, bacteria, food crops, etc. An ecosocial system consists most fundamentally of social processes and semiotic practices, not of organisms. (Semiotic models such as Latour’s actant networks are similar in that actants, human and nonhuman, are defined as functional units in activities, not as ontologically prior realia; Latour 1993, 1999). Semiotic practices are conceptualized as ecosocial processes, which are (a fortiori) material processes, by which organisms in communities interact with one another and with other actants in ways that are adaptive at higher scale levels than that at which the material interaction itself takes place. The organism, for example, responds to interaction between a sensor membrane and an inhaled molecule, not just at the level of molecular and membrane chemistry, but also at a higher-scale organismic level, “interpreting” the interaction as a telltale or sign of a food source, nearby predator, or potential mate. In ecosocial systems, the interpretation of actants as signs, as well as direct material interactions with them, lead to different patterns of activity, and different distributions and flows of matter, energy, and information; they co-constitute the attractors of the system dynamics and participate in shaping epigenetic trajectories of development at all (integrated) scale levels.

 What does this mean for human development? First, that human organisms only develop normally in the presence of environmental distributions of available matter, energy, and information which afford recapitulation of phylogenetically evolved trajectories. Second, that molecular scale information in the genome assists in the self-organization of higher scale structures, but only if the phylogenetically ‘expected’ environmental complements are present, and only with the result that the emergent structures will themselves be ‘tuned’ to be selectively sensitive to particular kinds of further environmental input. Third, that all levels of organization in an ecosocial systems are in continuous process of development, enabling (from below) and constraining (from above) development at each intermediate level, but with each level developing at a significantly different characteristic timescale (or rate; faster at lower levels, more slowly on the higher levels).

 Along its developmental trajectory, an organism-in-community is both approximately recapitulating its phylogenetic lineage (in an equifinal, ‘many roads to Rome’ manner), characteristic of its type (species, culture, caste habitus) and also individuating (within a type-specific envelope of tolerances) and to some degree diverging (outside the envelope, and if viably, potentially contributing to future ‘evolution’ of the type or emergence of a new type). The unit of evolution is the whole developmental trajectory (cf. Salthe 1993), from conception to decomposition; it is the type-specific trajectory as a whole which is adaptive to environments on all relevant scales (ecological niche to climate tolerance, social interaction to cultural change). Because developmental processes are integrated across scale levels, there is no linear progression to development, and no meaning to claims that later developmental phases are better adapted than earlier ones.

 The shift from an organism-centered to to a multi-scale system view of development has profound implications for our views of education, language learning, and indeed the social order of relations among humans of different ages. Serious moral and political questions are raised by this change in perspective; views often taken as commonsensical or scientific become suspect as ideologically motivated by the power interests of dominant age groups, just as formerly gender domination and ethnic-racial dominations have had to be questioned as the intellectual paradigms supporting them have been superseded. I will return to these paramount issues later in this discussion.


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