What is a Semiotic Walk?

I once met a Safety Manager who had worked at a factory for 10 years and had never walked the floor! His office was high above the factory and he could see everything either directly or via CCTV. He could easily write up any misdemeanour by surveillance (which was recorded), complete a checklist and update paperwork, all from the comfort of his desk. He attended more meetings each day that I could imagine and was diligent on emails. This was the situation of the classic Foucauldian-Benthamite panopticon and bureaucratic vigilance. This was how he did safety. But such a process in observation is NOT real observation.

Without intuitive feeling, participation and immersion such observation is usually calculated, mythically objective and lacks understanding.

The beauty of participating IN and through immersion elevates the criticality of intuitive feeling which situates the conscious and elevates the importance of the unconscious. It’s like watching a video of AC/DC and saying it was the same as going to the concert. Each whilst valid, engage in a different form of consciousness, experience and knowing. The feeling one gets IN a concert and through participation in the atmosphere/context cannot be compared to watching a video recording or listening to the song.

In SPoR, the meaning of the unconscious and collective unconscious has far greater significance than what is consciously observable or what is anchored to the myths of behaviourism. I find the myths of behaviourism and its attraction to the Safety industry simply amusing. It is often under the guise of behaviourist philosophy that Safety makes the most extraordinary claims about why people do as they do (Deci). The reality is: behaviours are the physical representation/manifestation of the human and collective unconscious. Most of what I read from safety behaviourism is guessing, fiction and fairy tales or, projections onto humans to fit some preconceived idea why people behave as they do. Most of this stuff projected by behaviourist assumptions is binary, simplistic and wrong.

So much of what I see in supposed incident investigations is the same. Many safety behaviourist beliefs and myths are unquestioned and, the investigation outcome affirms the undeclared assumptions and philosophy of the investigator.

So, let’s turn our attention to a semiotic walk.

A semiotic walk is first of all about the importance of walking, not just as exercise but as an act of being ‘in’ and ‘with’. These are critical metaphors for understanding and, give power to the importance of subjectivity in interpretation of what is going on. In the semiotic walk we move away from the silly safety myth of objectivity – by distancing and standing away from the scene. The myth of scientific knowing by standing ‘away’ or ‘above’ is pure myth.

In semiotic thinking we give value to the subjectivity of participating IN and WITH, we value intuitive/tacit knowing so that felt knowing is a foundation to knowing. Whenever I read in any safety discourse in safety about ‘being objective’ I know that typical safety myths abound and that power-centric, brain-centric and behaviourist-centric Discourse is to follow.

As part of a semiotic walk the significance of signs, icons, symbols, graphics, visuals, gesture and rituals are elevated. In such a walk we become much more sensitized NOT behaviours but rather artefacts, semiotics and semiosis (the meaning embedded in the sign and what it says unconsciously/socially). Yes, we are sensitised to behaviours, text and process/systems, but these are put into perspective and not privileged over other forms of knowing. In a semiotic walk we also elevate the importance of the emotions, what is felt. In traditional safety, the emotions are understood as an impediment to observation, objectivity and knowing. In SPoR, it is the opposite. In SPoR, we understand typical safety rationalism, positivism and behaviourism as an impediment to knowing.

In SPoR, semiotics presents a different language, way of knowing and engaging with the world (https://www.humandymensions.com/product/spor-and-semiotics/). But to do so requires practice, hard work and much unlearning.

A semiotic walk also draws attention to the significance of listening and elevating the unconscious influences of sound, colour, movement, musicality, rhythms, gesture and rituals not as behaviours but rather as signifiers of what is being represented. In other words, we see in all these signs what is more than themselves that is, they tell us about something else. We see that the conscious tells us much about the unconscious. In a semiotic walk we see that signs, symbols, graphics and visuals make the unconscious conscious to us. This requires a different way of seeing the world.

How one envisions the world rests of the worldview assumption of the viewer (https://www.humandymensions.com/product/envisioning-risk-seeing-vision-and-meaning-in-risk/).

If one envisions the world mechanically, behaviourally or materially one sees and confirms one’s assumptions in how one interprets that world. However, some worldviews that are binary, behaviourist and rationalist are quite closed and don’t enable for creative, innovative or open critical thinking. Similarly, they don’t enable Transdisciplinary value so that other views are enabled and validated.

Closed binary worldviews tend to close out diverse and innovative thinking and simply confirm what is known so that everything is certain and safe. Such a world is neither certain or safe, it’s just projected and imagined so. It is a delusion and myth confirmed by the way evidence is interpreted.

In semiotic thinking one steps outside of the logic or binary rationalist worldviews. Semiotics speaks its own language beyond the accepted language, metaphors and Discourse of ‘scientific objectivity’. Semiotic walks help practice a different way of envisioning the world, of being sensitised the knowing that exists outside of binary rationalist frameworks.

Semiotic walks are about helping a new way of seeing and envisioning and they are not learned without support, coaching and skilled mentoring. Such a way of walking doesn’t come ‘naturally’, just as unlearning indoctrination and propaganda is most uncomfortable. Often traditional binary behaviourist notions of knowing have to be unlearned and this requires support and help to do so. Sometimes these have to be exemplified and learned through mimesis/engagement. However, it doesn’t take long once the old notions of objective observation are suspended that one discovers quickly a new way of knowing in this new language.

I often read those who claim to be ‘different’ in safety with the same worldview and same methods as traditional safety. You can’t do old systems ‘differently’, in the end those old systems ‘do you’. (Afterall, that is the purpose of systems, to prevent deviance). Some rhetoric has changed but the worldview is the same. This is why such discourse is attractive to traditional safety. There is no threat, discomfort, cognitive dissonance or disruption in anything that would shake traditional safety systems or the patri-archy it embodies. Nothing is there to move the ethic of risk it never speaks, nor the philosophical assumptions it holds in silence. There is no analysis of its semiotics or the language it speaks and how it confirms a traditional safety worldview.

In a semiotic walk, movement in learning is very different to the typical binary behaviourist idea of ‘observation’. But it can’t be learned in theory, it can only be learned by doing and participating by doing. And this resonates with how Indigenous societies understand knowing, learning and thinking (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtQ7oJKDjRg). Read also Kimmerer, R., (2013) Braiding the Sweetgrass, Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.

The knowledge that emerges by semiotic walking is intuitive, positive, powerful and insightful because it engages in a different language and knowledge source. In some ways, trying to explain what a semiotic walk is, defeats the purpose of a semiotic walk. It’s like culture, because it cannot be learned propositionally or theoretically.

This is why in SPoR workshops we encourage high levels of participation and sharing and get away from the paradigm of injection by experts, absorption and lecturing. We always build in a day of semiotic walking and always include various methods of learning/sharing. In SPoR, we know that the traditional model of schooling/training, doesn’t work. Indeed, neither have much to do with education and learning.

In a semiotic walk we validate non-classroom schooling and diagnostic analysis. In a semiotic walk we validate conversational knowing, sharing and visual exchange. This kind of knowing is not brain-centric but about embodied knowing. This kind of knowing doesn’t stand back in the myth of objective knowing but participates and validates knowing subjectively in Socialitie.

If you want to learn semiotically walking and knowing semiotically, you are welcome to come to the SPoR Conference being held in Canberra in 13-17 May 2024 (https://spor.com.au/canberra-convention/). Here we have a mix of some academics but balanced with an equal number of non-academics and, we have a semiotic walk day on the middle day. Everyone who attends gets an opportunity to either present, share or guide a session and semiotic knowing is validated equally with other ways of knowing.


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