Point, Line and Counterpoint: From Environment to Fluid Space

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This paper aims to understand what is meant by the environment of an animal and, more particularly, that of a human being. To avoid the contradictions entailed in assuming that human environmental relations are mediated by systems of symbolic meaning, with the absurd corollary that non-human animals inhabit meaningless worlds, I consider the sources of environmental meaning for non-humans and their possible availability to humans as well. In psychology, Gibson's theory of affordances offers one possible approach, though it is ultimately found to privilege the environment as a site of meaning vis-à-vis its inhabitants, whether human or non-human. In ethology, von Uexküll's theory of the Umwelt suggests, quite to the contrary, that meaning is bestowed by the organism on its environment. In philosophy, and following von Uexküll's lead, Heidegger drew a sharp distinction between the animal's “captivation” in its Umwelt and the way the world is disclosed, or opened up, to human beings. But the animal's captivation also implies a sense of openness, in the manner in which its life flows along lines comparable — in von Uexküll's terms — to those of polyphonic music. This sense has been taken up in the philosophy of Deleuze. The living organism, for Deleuze, is a bundle of lines, a haecceity. Critically, these lines do not connect points but pass forever amidst and between. Considering the way in which this idea has been taken up in actor-network theory, particularly associated with the work of Latour, I stress the importance of distinguishing the network as a set of interconnected points from the meshwork as an interweaving of lines. Every such line describes a flow of material substance in a space that is topologically fluid. I conclude that the organism (animal or human) should be understood not as a bounded entity surrounded by an environment but as an unbounded entanglement of lines in fluid space.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNeurobiology of the "Umwelt"
Subtitle of host publicationHow Living Beings Perceive the World
EditorsA. Berthoz, Y. Christen
Place of PublicationHeidelberg, Germany
Number of pages14
ISBN (Print)3540858962, 978-3540858966
Publication statusPublished - 3 Dec 2008

Publication series

NameResearch and Perspectives in Neurosciences


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