Design, Semiotics an Philosophy
How to adress the Anthropocene

Life :
Guidelines and strategies for permanence


39th Albi-Nîmes Médiations Sémiotiques Conference
CAMS/O (University of Toulouse) / PROJEKT Lab (University of Nîmes), 5th-7th July, Carré d’Art, Nîmes, France


The Covid-19 pandemic prevented the 39th Albi-Nîmes Médiations Sémiotiques Conference from taking place on the scheduled dates in July 2020. The subject of the event, “Life : Guidelines and strategies for permanence,” had nevertheless clearly understood the urgency to reflect on survival strategies. The updating of this call for proposal integrates a reflection on the event, which caused the postponement, through the integration of the transversal axis, “Design of Emergencies in the Time of Epidemics”. In case of a new lockdown, or if speakers will unable to reach the conference, registration fees will not change, but an option for Virtual Participation is guaranteed.



After a first edition in 2018 dedicated to “Semiotics and Science (I) : Biology, Ethology and Semiotics”, the 39th Albi-Nîmes Conference, “Semiotics and Science (II) : Design, Semiotics and Philosophy” aims at further exploring the “field of life stability” theory (Vernadsky, 1926), to identify potential strategies to guarantee its permanence.

In the field of human science, research in design, semiotics and philosophy focus on the theme of life : research in bio-design (Pyper, 2006) and biomimicry (Hargroves & Smith, 2006), the interest in life forms (Fontanille, 2015) and the semiotics of life (see Zinna, 2019), the transition from a philosophy of being to a philosophy of living (Jullien, 2015) and the philosophy of animals (Jeangène Vilmer, 2011) and plants (Kohn, 2017 ; Pelluchon, 2016), making life a subject of common study, with an individual approach (“how should one live today”), the collective values to adopt (sustainability as a shared meta-value), as well as strategies to cope with the changes brought by the Anthropocene (what should humans do in relation to non-humans to ensure this permanence).


Focus on the issue

Crop design refers to the adjustment by human communities of their local geographical environment : from the physical configuration of the territory to the mastery of techniques aimed at building anthropogenic spaces and producing tools and weapons, as well as establishing the discursive behaviours and practices regulating the interactions of social life (laws, norms, usages). In the same environment cultures also model living beings. These adaptation processes carried out both on the a-biotic environment, through spatial planning, and on the biotic environment, through the selection of plant and animal species, have been taking place since sedentism and the emergence of agriculture and breeding. Recently, they have been further developed through the intensive agricultural exploitation and breeding through the genetic modification of seeds, cloning and reproduction of organisms in the laboratory (Rifkin 1998). According to the Anthropocene hypothesis, it is this prolonged intervention on inert and living environments that caused climate instability and biodiversity loss by altering the balance between the geosphere and the biosphere.

The conference has the task of questioning the place of non-humans to rethink the design of cultures and social design in order to preserve the “field of vital stability”.

À cette rencontre entre designers, philosophes et sémioticiens revient alors la tâche d’interroger la place du non-humain et la manière de repenser le design des cultures et le design social pour préserver le champ de stabilité la vie.


1. From human-centred design to living-centred design

Confronted with the depletion of planetary resources, designers are expanding their fields of research to address the issues related to globalization. Along with product design, they are now facing social, ecological, political and humanitarian issues.

Several disciplines of design now focus on life, the environment and society : bio-design from the 1960s onwards (Colani, 1986-87) ; ecological design in the 1960s and 1970s, (Maldonado, [1970]), followed by sustainable design (Papanek, 1974 ; Manzini, 1989) and, more recently, social design (Findeli, 2015). Are these approaches capable of addressing the emergence of the Anthropocene or does the Anthropocene force us to reconsider the definition of “design,” i.e. improving the world’s habitability for one single species : Homo Sapiens ? These considerations regarding the relationship of humans with other living beings lead us to reflect on an inclusive model to respond to the challenges of climate change.

Created in the 1960s, eco-design aims at reducing the impact on the environment in all phases of a product’s cycle : from the use of raw materials, which must be reusable, biodegradable, recyclable and non-toxic, to their transformation through the production and distribution process, while insuring their compliance in terms of energy efficiency and reduction of their impact on the environment. These eco-design principles are implemented by sustainable design through the ideal of zero-emission production and the fact of reusing parts of a product and reintegrating them into the natural cycle of the elements. Such design discipline involves the concepts of biodegradability and recycling, product assembly and disassembly, the use of clean and renewable energies, the reduction of harmful emissions and, finally, where possible, the dematerialization of the product or service (Rifkin, 2014). (Axis 1)

In order to address the issues relating to the design of industrial objects, in the 1960s, bio-design drew inspiration from the solutions offered by nature. This biomimetic approach, using natural forms, was replaced by biomimicry, which aims at incorporating living organisms into the materials used to model objects or environments. Research in bio-design has thus moved from imitating forms to creating hybrid architectures, composed of living matter, and bio-dynamic solutions aiming, wherever possible, at replacing machines with animals or micro-organisms. During this transition, designers have been replaced by bio-designers as the virtuous cycles to mimic are no longer those of external forms, but models inspired by the mechanics of living beings and the way they integrate into their habitat : using the movements of animals in robotics, observing their ways of storing and converting energy, producing oxygen, neutralizing poison and eliminating waste, while searching for an answer in the solutions adopted by other living species and, more generally, by the models offered by nature. (Axis 2)

On the other hand, the need to change habits in order to address the Anthropocene requires an intervention that is not only normative or directive, as it aims at modifying consumption and sorting behaviours or the relationship with non-human beings[1]. In this sense, social design is an alternative to other solutions – notably the nudge theory[2] – as the method used, i.e. collaborative design, has the advantage of making local communities aware of these issues and involving them, helping them recognize the effects of climate change, identify its causes and appropriate their own solutions in order to change their day-to-day behaviour. On the other hand, we can also question the influence of didactics by learning how to relate to the environment. In collaboration with local communities, a design of risks and emergencies, for prevention and managements of disasters, is emerging locally (Deni and Gisclard, 2017). (Axis 3)

The threat of geological and biological disasters is also an opportunity to rethink the very definition of design based on the impact on the environment of the anthropogenic model used over millennia by different cultures, with varying degrees of responsibility. Although in the Anthropocene narrative, the destabilisation of the field of life is the consequence of this adaptation, the concepts of bio-, eco- or social design do not question the principle of the human habitability of the world and the resulting definition of human-centred design as aiming at improving the living conditions of a single species. The research resulting from the awareness of the rapidity of climate change and the constant decrease in bio-diversity leads us to reconsider the order of priorities based on the safeguarding of species networks, as it is by protecting the living sequence and the diversity of life forms that one can preserve the human species. Rather than the design of cultures, based on the opposition to nature, an alternative is to base the design of habitats and species by taking into account the Umwelten of all the living beings within the same area.

The definition of design would then have to integrate the point of view of non-humans, i.e. animals, plants, micro-organisms, gases and minerals when it comes to introducing new technologies, changing the way of producing or modifying environments, in order to find a balance that preserves the stability of life. In order to highlight the sense of urgency of such a form of design, we will call this conception aiming first of all at preserving life forms, the design of the living. (Axis 4)


2. From anthropic semiotics to living semiotics

A new approach aiming at the continuity of the living and advocating certain levels of participation – rather than exclusion – between humans and non-humans, is also emerging in semiotics and aims at making the boundaries between anthropo-semiotics, zoo-semiotics and bio-semiotics more permeable[1], or even at removing them. Along with anthropic semiotics that focus on animals (see Marrone and Bertrand, 2019), one is now considering the creation of a semiotics focusing on animals and plants and using their point of view to describe their form of life[2]. Such a broadened approach could complement the existing research and allow for the creation of a semiotics of sensitive existing species based on the interactions and communicative and language behaviours of biotic species in a given area. (Axis 5)

To explain the adaptation of living beings to their habitat, semiotics use the notion of experience as a memory of the interactions between the existing sentient beings and their environment (Dewey, 1925 ; Tuan, 2006). The adaptation of a species to its habitat shows that, in some cases, adaptive behaviour records this experiental memory at different levels, for example by transmitting this variation onto its genetic heritage to guarantee its transmission to future generations[3]. Nature’s first objective is the survival of the species, as shown in the recent case of elephants which, threatened by ivory traffickers, have gradually stopped growing tusks. Can the semiotics of chemical, auditory, tactile and olfactory signs and signals provide a model for these phenomena of exchange, communication, memory, adaptation and survival in the relationship between living beings and their habitat ? And what are the consequences of the extension of anthropic semiotics to the semiotics of the living ? (Axis 6)

The human perspective on the environment is, on the other hand, expressed through the study of ecological discourses, political and legal guidelines on sustainability (i.e. the guidelines proposed by the UN), the dissemination of narratives on natural disasters (melting of glaciers, formation of plastic islands, sea level and temperature rise, etc.) or the emergence of controversial and charismatic figures (such as Greta Thunberg) blaming institutions for the delay in making decisions. (Axis 7) Along with the new narratives on climate conditions, one must, however, take into account the spread of negationist theories that deny climate change or question its causes (Latour, 2015 and 2018). All of this content forms a vast repertoire of resources and narrative modalities that are often conflicting, first with regard to the current state of our planet and the identification of its causes but also to the attitude that one must adopt when faced with these changes. (Axis 8)


3. From the philosophy of being to the philosophy of living and of the living beings

The philosophy of life, the philosophy of anthropic cultures (Jullien, 2015) and other existing cultures (Singer, 1975 ; Lestel, 2009 ; Kohn, 2018) has also started playing an increasingly prominent role in philosophical studies in recent years. Reflection on our duties towards animals (Regan [1983] ; Pelluchon, 2011) or on animal ethics (Jeangène Vilmer 2011) led to the emergence of a broader notion of “common good,” which, rather than being limited to humans, would extend to animals and plants. Although absent in classical philosophy, the study of plants reveals little known communication, reproduction and regeneration processes and invites us to rethink life, death, the individual, the species, and even the exclusivity of “intelligence” that some researchers increasingly openly attribute to plants (see Hiernaux and Timmermans eds 2018). Thus, after that of animals, the philosophy of plants is becoming an opportunity to reflect on current technical, scientific, environmental and ethical issues and behaviour in our relationship with nature. (Axis 9)

For Augustin Berque (2000), Western philosophy focuses on beings, underestimating their relationships with their milieu. He gives this geographical relationship between humans and their habitat the name of “ecumene.” In the work of Latour (2015) and the research that followed (see Federau, 2017), the philosophy of the Anthropocene led us to consider the disappearance of the human ecumene, or rather, the possibility or impossibility of enlarging this ecumene by living elsewhere than on Earth (Axis 10). In the hope of better understanding how to relocate life, exobiology is developing an archaeology of terrestrial living beings and of those located outside our planet or even our solar system. It introduces the question of the habitability of extraterrestrial environments and the constraints that these environments impose on the bodies of living beings and their need for food and, consequently, on the known forms of life, those to be invented or those of other unknown species that inhabit them. (Axis 11)

The third solution, i.e. preserving our planet’s habitability, requires, on the other hand, designing and managing cities capable of preserving a balanced relationship with the environment by changing or limiting the modes of production and consumption of goods ; through 3D printing, which reduces product storage, packaging and transportation requirements, while encouraging recycling by melting the materials previously used ; by experimenting participative housing or energy-producing housing solutions or even by building zero waste cities. In other words, developing a philosophy of daily living that is in line with one of nature’s strategies : the permanence of life. (Axis 12)


Designing Emergencies in the Time of Epidemics 

The media account of the spread of epidemics provides two divergent genealogies to explain their origin : one is natural and suggests that viruses come from wild animals and are transmitted to humans (the civet for SARS-CoV in 2003, the pangolin or the bat for SARS CoV-2 in 2019/20) ; the second genealogy is artificial and suggests that viruses may be the result of laboratory manipulation, causing genetic modifications, and that they may spread through spillover events or, in other contexts – such as bacteriological warfare – be intentionally released in regions occupied by a potential enemy. The city and territory of Wuhan where, according to the official narrative, the virus appeared for the first time, are areas that are both highly populated with bats and are also the headquarters of a P4-classified high security laboratory handling dangerous micro-organisms. This laboratory is specialized in the study and transmission of pathogens from bats. Wuhan also hosted the World Military Games in October 2019, where, for the first time, according to certain hypotheses in the press, many countries reported that their athletes returned home with symptoms of Covid-19.

In the first hypothesis, the spreading of viruses through contact with animals then passing onto humans is usually a direct consequence of ecosystem destruction. Deforestation or the melting of glaciers determine the migration of wild animals and their movement closer to anthropogenic areas, which are often richer in food and have suddenly become accessible due to climate change. Lack of sanitation and food hygiene or the concentration of animals in industrial animal husbandry may also contribute to the emergence of these viruses. (Axis 13)

On the other hand, the research carried out to study and isolate viruses in order to develop vaccines involves contact between humans and these sources of contagion, which is needed for the study of pathogens carried by wild animals, or for the reactivation of long disappeared viruses, for example when taking samples through thick layers of ice caps. In both cases, these are changes in the stability of the viral environment, since the health of an organism depends on the balance between already absorbed viruses and new viruses that have just been introduced. The latter then become dangerous as the target organism has not yet acquired immunity through the antibodies needed to protect it. Any change in the spatial and temporal location of a virus thus causes imbalances in the biotic environment. The virus passing between different species – or through a laboratory spillover or by any other means – results in potential epidemics or pandemics, whose seriousness depends on the infectivity of the virus, its speed of movement and the greater or lesser number of contacts between infected and not yet infected organisms. As a consequence, stopping the spread of epidemics means stopping or reversing the globalization process by preventing the free movement of people and goods and by relocating industries and businesses locally. (Axis 14)

Whether it has a natural or an artificial origin, Covid-19 is the result of an unexpected event and is therefore an emergency. However, the most recent reports show that this event was largely foreseeable and was the subject of numerous models studied until 2019 in many countries. Yet, despite the reports issued, the alerts sent and the modeling carried out, the justification for the unpreparedness of governments was first denial, followed by underestimation and then unexpectedness. This led to the overloading of health services, the lack of testing and prevention equipment, the absence of effective treatment or, worse, the implementation of protocols that caused the death of patients. Surprisingly, despite the numerous modeling scenarios and reports, almost no country has increased its intensive care capacities, purchased respirators or increased its stock of masks or testing equipment. (Axis 15)

To cope with this lack of preparation, several DIY solutions emerged : respirators built with shop-bought snorkeling masks, adapting existing equipment to isolate healthcare workers, studying or researching effective medicines and treatments. (Axis 16) In order to slow the spread of the virus, the proxemics regulating the distance between bodies has, for the first time, become a matter for legislation. (Axis 17) The obligation to stay at home, the threat of food shortages and the fear of contamination by goods or people from the outside have resulted in the reorganization of the domestic space. (Axis 18) Thus, the fact of closing shops, wearing masks and preventing large gatherings has changed the face of cities, causing the scarcity of human presence. This worldwide cessation of activities has had negative effects on sociality but positive effects on the environment and biodiversity. The brutal and unprecedented cessation of human activities on such a large scale is also an opportunity to transform social and societal organizations, as proposed by the Great Reset initiative. (Axis 19)

From a legal point of view, the political management of the pandemic raised the issue of the conflict between state of exception and constitutional rights in democratic countries. These two factors – environmental protection and pandemic control – seem to lead to a suspension of democracy and the emergence of the need for global governance while the major supranational governance bodies have shown their total inadequacy in managing the crisis. Faced with the solutions provided by globalization and globalism, the alternative is the implementation of medical, economic and social governance by territorial authorities. We can synthesize this divergent position regarding globalization by embracing the hypothetical construction of a terrestrial pole of attraction (Latour 2018, Manzini 2020). (Axis 20)



The number of calls for papers focusing on an interdisciplinary approach to the issues raised by climate change has been increasing in recent years.

The aim of this conference, which follows the 2018 edition (Biology, Ethology and Semiotics), is to promote a transversal reflection on our environment and climate change by adopting the point of view of species in the mutation of life forms. The originality of the project is to combine natural and social sciences in order to address the relationship between living beings and the environment. The objective is to adopt a non-anthropic point of view in the context of the climate change caused by human activities. This conference will be an opportunity to continue the dialogue in order to achieve convergence between the different descriptive models.



[1] The asymmetrical and hierarchical relationship between institutions and individuals then becomes more balanced through the intervention of social designers, as mediating figures transforming “paternalistic” governance into a policy that increases the participation of local communities in the decision-making process.

[2] The term “nudge” is a technique aiming at encouraging individuals or a targeted population to change their behaviour or make choices without being coerced by sanctions. This method of influence is referred to as “libertarian paternalism,” based on the principle of choice without coercion. This method has been explained by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (2008) in their book Nudge : Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness.

[3] From this point of view, the very definition of human and non-human introduced by Descola and Latour’s anthropology, raises several issues : since it is a privative opposition, it remains deeply anthropocentric as the identity of other beings is defined negatively in relation to the central role given to humans. The word “living” seems the most suitable to express the continuity in the lives of existing sentient beings.

[4] Following Uexküll’s suggestion, Fontanille (2019) uses the term “subjectal” to refer to the fact of using the Umwelt of a species to describe its way of life. Moving away from the theory of sign and signal, subjectal semiotics are deemed to be better at capturing the environment according to the capacities of the different species (Zinna, 2019).

[5] Epigenetics help explain how these traits can be acquired and possibly transmitted between generations or, on the contrary, how they can be lost. Today, one suggests the existence of epigenetic codes as meta-codes for the programming of life. Such a code would be found in the stamina cells when programming cell differentiation.



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French version 🇫🇷



Design Axis

Axis 1. Ecological and sustainable design.

Axis 2. Bio-design ; bio-dynamic design.

Axis 3. Design of risk and emergencies.

Axis 4. Design of living beings.


Semiotic Axis

Axis 5. Models for semiotics of the living.

Axis 6. Semiotics of animals and plants.

Axis 7. Semiotics of the ecological discourse.

Axis 8. Analysis of the Anthropocene discourse.


Philosophy Axis

Axis 9. Philosophy of life : humans, animals and plants.

Axis 10. Philosophy of the Anthropocene.

Axis 11. Habitability of the city.

Axis 12. Exobiology and habitability of other spaces.


Designing emergencies in epidemic times

Axis 13. The Anthropocene and virus epidemics.

Axis 14. Accounts of the origins of Covid-19 : natural vs. artificial.

Axis 15. Emergencies and unforeseen events or forecasting and planning ?

Axis 16. Emergency design and DIY.

Axis 17. Distancing : proxemics as a legal issue.

Axis 18. Changing practices in cities.

Axis 19. Lockdown and changes in the domestic space.

Axis 20. Conflict between state of exception and democracy.