HS2016. Charles Goodwin – en réponse à Louis Quéré

« La structure feuilletée de l’action humaine », in Goodwin 2016, p. 31



Louis Quéré, « L’écologie sémiotique de Charles Goodwin »

Comments by Charles Goodwin





Louis Quéré provides an extraordinarily perceptive, sensitive and accurate view of the ideas that animate my work.

I absolutely agree that I am attempting to describe action as a semiotic ecology constituted through the mutual elaboration of diverse resources with different kinds of properties. And also that I draw upon many intellectual resources, despite the prohibitions of orthodox Conversation Analysis (CA), and disciplinary boundaries more generally. Very briefly these include, among many others the following: Goffman, and especially his description of mutual monitoring (Goffman 1963:15-16), which not only goes beyond the accepted formulation of conversation as “talk-in-interaction”, but which (as well as my encounters with Gail Jefferson) animates my deep interest in the unfolding organization of action, not as an action type to be categorized, a speech act, or turn-at-talk, but a rich, unfolding process constituted through, and shaped in its course, through the mutual work of multiple participants. Indeed, I consider this Goffman’s most original contribution, something that goes beyond his phenomenological ancestors and contemporaries, including Husserl, Sartre and Garfinkel. Here he provides a point of departure for exploring in detail what Schutz described as intersecting consciousnesses growing older together through unfolding time.

Encountering Ed Hutchins, like my earlier encounters with Sacks and Jefferson, transformed my thinking by showing how to look seriously at the mutual articulation of actors and their inhabited worlds, a process that was further developed by having the opportunity to work with Lucy Suchman. As I will note briefly below I was also strongly influenced by one of my students, Don Favareau, who introduced me to Biosemiotics (and helped create the modern incarnation of the field), and semiotics, and especially Peirce.

Finally, despite explicit prohibitions from Schegloff and others, I consider my work a form of ethnography, done not through interviews, but instead by examining in my recordings how participants demonstrate to each other the relevant intelligibility of their actions, and the world they are inhabiting and acting within together. In my recent work I am thus especially interested in the constitution of both objects of knowledge, and the formation of actors capable of recognizing and working with those objects within specific communities (archaeology, geology, etc.). I always had a difficult relationship with Garfinkel (as did almost everyone), and wouldn’t presume to speak for him, but I think this is relevant to his call for studies of work and his notion of unique adequacy (though I feel that access, even if incomplete, can be gained into the worlds of other communities, in part by examining closely how they articulate these worlds for each other). Finally, I see myself not as a linguist or sociologist, but as an anthropologist with an interest in the linguistic, biological, social, and historically sedimented “material” resources participants in specific communities intertwine to build action, shared phenomenal worlds (culture), and mundane events in concert with each other (and thus not specifically as a linguistic anthropologist giving a privileged focus to language).

In follows I want to focus specifically on the issue Quéré raises of construing the environment semiotically. On pp-51-52, after a very perceptive analysis of my arguments in Action and Embodiment (2000) Quéré writes :

Goodwin accentue ici son tournant à la fois sémiotique et écologique: il traite la structuration de l’environnement matériel lui-même comme un champ sémiotique, c’est-à-dire comme offrant plusieurs ressources sémiotiques publiquement accessibles. … Pourquoi cette sémiotisation de l’analyse de l’action et de la conversation?

After a very rich analysis of my reasons for doing this on p. 56 he writes :

Dans cet article de 2013, Goodwin reprend et développe sa conception sémiotique de l’environnement: celui-ci est un substrat constitué de multiples couches de signes publiquement accessibles, sur lesquelles les acteurs effectuent des opérations diverses et variées d’ appropriation et de transformation. Il reprend à son compte certains apports de l’anthropologie écologique d’Ingold. Mais on peut penser qu’Ingold serait très réservé face à une telle sémiotisation de l’environnement, notamment parce qu’elle conduit à concevoir les objets comme inertes et à sous-estimer la contribution active de l’environnement à l’action et l’interaction.

I take these comments very seriously. Several of my colleagues whose opinions I most respect have also raised questions about my use of signs to analyze unfolding action within human interaction. These are issues I genuinely grapple with. I want to briefly comment on some of the issues involved, while emphasizing that I do not oppose what Quéré says, and deeply appreciate the subtlety and insight of his reading of my own position.

On p. 57 Quéré notes the production and reading of signs is only possible because of their association to an environment that is not semiotic. I strongly agree. Indeed, by being able to incorporate as its object material phenomena in the environment, the Peircian sign bridges the Cartesian gap between the thinking subject and the world. Thus as Deely (Deely 2001:125) notes:

The sign performs its task at the crossroads of nature and culture. And though it marks paths variously deep into both realms, the sign itself in its proper being is native to neither, always ‘mixed’ in its ontogeny — at least as it comes to be a reflexive instrument within anthroposemiosis, where alone we first and initially grasp it as such.

My own thinking about such phenomena, and about the relevance of signs in my analysis, has been deeply informed by Biosemiosis (Favareau 2008, 2010; Hoffmeyer 1996; Hoffmeyer and Favareau 2008) which argues that biological life and semiosis are essentially co-extensive with each other. Thus every organism, from viruses, through cells, eukaryotes, primates and humans, is faced with the task of interpreting its environment in precisely the ways that make it possible for the organism to sustain itself (what counts as food for example). Such semiosis is intrinsically both embedded within action, and a constitutive feature of the organization of action: the focus of my research.

A powerful, vivid formulation of the relationship between semiosis and the diverse construals of the environment required by different animals can be found in Uexküll’s (1934; Uexküll 2010) notion of the Umwelt, a concept that was influential in both subsequent biology and phenomenology (for example it was explicitly used by both Husserl and Heidegger). In a vivid exemplar Uexküll describes how a range of different animals — a worm, a butterfly, field mouse, a farmer — perceive the same flower in a meadow in radically different ways: as a place where eggs can laid for an insect, food for a cow, for a farm boy a gift of his girlfriend, etc. Through this he draws attention to the crucial importance of “the phenomenal world or the self-world of the animal” (Uexküll 2010:90). Favareau (2010:83) generalizes the import of the Umwelt in a way that is most relevant to my own research, and how I view the mutual constitution of actors and their environments:

the notion of a biologically instantiated and causally efficacious set of agent-object relations reducible neither the organization of the subject nor to the organization of the environment but always as the product of the interaction between the two.

It is for this reason that I prefer, where possible, the term inhabitant to the more common actor, or member of a culture or society. An inhabitant is a skilled actor who has mastered the ability to recognize and work with the rich, historically sedimented cultural and natural resources of the endogenous environment(s) where the work of his or her community is accomplished, and who is shaped by these very resources.

Focusing specially on the place of semiotics in engagement with the environment Uexküll, in an example that has perhaps become too famous, describes a blind tick that sits on leaf until it encounters prey it can drop upon and gouge blood from. It locates prey through a very small set signals given off by an appropriate animal, including the ordor of butyric acid, and the temperature of its prey. These signals are signs that make it possible for the tick to sustain itself by construing its environment in action-relevant terms. Through them a very real environment that is not in itself semiotic, is construed from a limited perspective that is relevant to the activities of a positioned actor through signs. Both the independent reality of the environment (the actual blood need by the tick), and the way relevant apprehension of it is shaped through consequential, biologically instantiated semiosis are crucial. Thus the signals used by the tick make no distinction between deer and human beings. The way in which the tick bites each indiscriminately has created (at least in the United States) an epidemic of lyme disease.

I have briefly tried to show how I recognize the independent reality of the material environment, but also how that environment is construed and made consequential in action-relevant ways through situated processes of semiosis that mutually shape both the actor and environment, and indeed constitute them as an indivisible, though differentiated, unity.

This does not fully engage with the “lui-même” in Quéré’s (p. 51) “la structuration de l’environnement matériel lui-même comme un champ sémiotique.” I recognize that in my analysis I may have frequently treated the environment as static, and not examined its diverse organization in the way I do talk and interacting bodies. I am deeply grateful to him for drawing my attention to Ingold (2012) and Quéré (2016). Reading these (as well as Ingold 2013) has inspired me to look at some materials I work with in new ways, and shaped new analysis.

I would however note that analysis of the temporally unfolding correspondence between emerging properties of materials and the sensory experience of actors has received some attention in my work. Thus in Goodwin (1997) — an analysis of the situated practices chemists use to recognize in action-relevant terms when fibers undergoing a chemical reaction have become “jet black” — there is both the serendipitous construction of new color categories (such as the contrast between “gorilla fur” and “orangoutang hair” that capture not only very fine color distinctions, but also the sensory aspects of the fibers they are working with), and emergent recognition that the state marked by “jet black” can also be felt as the texture of the fiber changes. This different form of embodied access to the changing materials being worked with emerge from the embodied process of repetitively lifting the fibers out of their vat of chemicals.

From another perspective I think that a focus on an actor encountering a material world frequently fails to take into account something crucial (at least for humans). A most central aspect of the environment for human beings are other human beings, both in the present, and through objects, such as organized settings, tools, Munsell charts, hopscotch grids, etc., inherited from predecessors. Quéré very insightfully notes the importance of this in my analysis.

More generally, and simply glossing rather than presenting phenomena more adequately developed in my forthcoming book, path-dependent chains of accumulative action — re-use with transformation of materials inherited from others, including Peircian symbols — leads to unfolding diversity in languages, cultures, settings, tools, etc. Each community is thus faced with the ongoing task of creating new inhabitants — cognitively skilled actors able to recognize the discursive and material “objects” that populate its environment in just the ways required to accomplish the distinctive activities of its particular community. I investigate this in archaeological and geological field schools. There, the ability to work appropriately with tools — such as trowels and sledge hammers — and to recognize the phenomenal and material objects that populate the environment that is the focus of the community’s work, is shaped across generations through social practice (see also Ingold 2000:37). While linguists can imagine a world where sentences are created within the mental life of isolated actors, the prototypical home of language, tool use, and engagement with objects is an historically sedimented environment populated by other inhabitants as well.

Modern human beings emerged during the Middle Stone Age (MSA) in Africa. Research by a generation of archaeologists integrating findings from different sites (Wadley 2015) demonstrates accumulative diversification of both what in the environment was the focus of the activities of specific communities, and the rich skills and knowledge of the specific cohorts of actors that inhabited each of them. In terms of what was argued above, one finds diverse, culturally (rather than biologically) organized umwelts mutually shaping actors and their environments together. Hafting, the ability to combine separate parts to create something new, was a crucial innovation that led to a proliferation of new and diverse tools. Experimentally re-creating the practices required to create glue used for hafting by artisans at least 70,000 years ago Wadley, Hodgskiss and Grant (2009:9592) report that

[T]hese artisans were exceedingly skilled; they understood the properties of their adhesive ingredients, and were able to manipulate them accordingly. … Temperature control depends on understanding wood types, their moisture contents, and their propensity to form long-lasting coals. Vigilance is essential because our adhesives burned, or boiled to form air bubbles, when they were too close to the fire. … Ongoing evaluation and control of texture, viscosity, plasticity, and temperature is required. No set recipe or routine can guarantee a satisfactory adhesive product.

Though Wadley et. al. analyze the knowledge required in terms of traditional mental and cognitive process, what they describe does not seem very different from what the chemists in the lab I observed were doing. A community’s co-operative monitoring of its environment, and relevant changes in the materials being used within it, can shape and sustain across generations both the distinctive resources used by the community, and simultaneously its skilled, knowing actors. This public engagement with an environment, shaped through co-operative action with a community of others, rather than mental phenomena situated within the minds or brains of individuals, might be the central site for the continuing, incremental changes that shape human knowledge, cognition (of the type described by Hutchins 1995), language, tools, objects and actors.

I am deeply indebted to Louis Quéré for his insightful understanding of my work, for presenting it with such clarity, and for stimulating my thinking now.



Deely, John, 2001 Umwelt. Semiotica 134 (/4): 125-135.

Favareau, Don, 2008 The Biosemiotic Turn. Part 1: A Brief History of the Sign Concept in Pre-Modern Science. Biosemiotics 1: 5-23.

Favareau, Donald, 2010 Essential Readings in Biosemiotics: Anthology and Commentary. Dordrecht, Heidelberg, London, New York: Springer.

Goffman, Erving, 1963 Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings. New York: Free Press.

Goodwin, Charles, 1997 The Blackness of Black: Color Categories as Situated Practice. In Discourse, Tools and Reasoning: Essays on Situated Cognition. Lauren B. Resnick, Roger Säljö, Clotilde Pontecorvo, and Barbara Burge, eds. Pp. 111-140. Berlin, Heidelberg, New York: Springer.

Hoffmeyer, Jesper, 1996 Signs of Meaning in the Universe. Translated by Barbara J. Haveland. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press.

Hoffmeyer, Jesper, and Donald Favareau, 2008 Biosemiotics: An Examination Into the Signs of Life and the Life of Signs. Scranton: University of Scranton Press.

Hutchins, Edwin, 1995 Cognition in the Wild. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Ingold, Tim, 2000 The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London: Routledge.

Ingold, Tim, 2013 Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. New York: Routledge.

Ingold, Tim, 2012 Toward an Ecology of Materials. Annual Review in Anthropology 41: 427-442.

Quéré, Louis, 2016 Retour Sur L’agentivité Des Objects. Occasional Papers du CEMS 25:

Uexküll, Jakob von, 1934 [1957] A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds. Translated by Claire H. Schiller. New York: International Universities Press, Inc.

Uexküll, Jakob von, 2010 The Theory of Meaning (With Introduction and Commentary). In Essential Readings in Biosemiotics: Anthology and Commentary. Donald Favareau, ed. Pp. 81-114, Translated by B. Stone and H. Weine. Dordrecht, Heidelberg, London, New York: Springer.

Wadley, Lyn, 2015 Those Marvelous Millennia: The Middle Stone Age of Southern Nafrica. Azenia: Archaeological Research in Africa 50(2): 155-226.

Wadley, Lyn, Tamaryn Hodgskiss, and Michael Grant, 2009, June 16 Implications for Complex Cognition From the Hafting of Tools With Compound Adhesives in the Middle Stone Age, South Africa. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106 (24) (and online): 9590-9594.



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