Sonic Liminality: Soundscapes, Semiotics, and Ecologies of Meaning


The spaces between the modernist categories of human and nonhuman, or nature and culture, are collapsing in the Anthropocene. As human technological influence continues become evidenced as a global geologic force, ‘liminal spaces’ expand. Liminal spaces are spaces at the intersections and aggregations of human- and nonhuman-animal umwelten mediated by technology. Soundscapes, the collection of human and nonhuman created sounds of a particular place and time, give us unique access to the semiotic exchanges that constitute those spaces. Soundscape ecology, the study of ecosystemic relations through sound, is a method by which to engage and understand those liminal spaces. Understanding liminal spaces in this context of soundscape ecology offers insights into new ways in which organisms relate to and within their environments through sign exchange; or, new ways animals engage complex worlds of experience. In this paper I articulate this argument and define ‘sonic liminality’ as a biosemiotic process of the creation and engagement in hybrid natures. I examine umwelt engagement through a specific case study: analysis of soundscapes at a local zoological park in the southeastern United States. I argue that the digital technology-driven empirical work of soundscape ecology gives semioticians access to informational ecosystems, and therefore to the ways in which information transforms the boundaries between individual organisms and their built and natural environments.

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  1. 1.

    For what I see as the richest philosophical description of Peirce’s semiotic project(s), see T.L. Short’s 1997 book (Short 1997).

  2. 2.

    My thanks here to my 2017 undergraduate researcher, Evan Waldmann, for his help in reviewing the existing literature on liminality.

  3. 3.

    There is additional tension at the edges of conservation and animal welfare as well: zoos are committed to a species-level conservation mission through education, but also to an individual animal welfare model. This is a second level of liminality within that institutional structure.

  4. 4.

    The Central Florida Zoo has been an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums ( since 2011.

  5. 5.

    A few months after data analysis concluded, the eldest bull, 22 year-old Emba, was euthanized after a relapse of an age-related degenerative spinal condition (Orlando Weekly 2018). He was attended ceremoniously by zoo staff and volunteers and the other giraffes for what several volunteers described as an emotional but tranquil last few moments.

  6. 6.

    Those results are contingent on big data algorithmic techniques which, at the time of this publication, are still being processed and analyzed. Future publications will examine these quantitative data in finer detail.


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Correspondence to Jonathan Beever.

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Beever, J. Sonic Liminality: Soundscapes, Semiotics, and Ecologies of Meaning. Biosemiotics 13, 77–88 (2020).

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  • Soundscape
  • Ecology
  • Umwelten
  • Liminal space
  • Philosophy
  • Semiotics
  • Zoo