Whose ‘Umwelt’ is it?



The world that I perceive is not the same as the one you perceive. That is the simplest explanation of ‘Umwelt’. A theory put forth by a pair of European semiotic specialists, Umwelt contends that since their senses are so individualised, different animals inhabiting the same environment perceive radically different universes. A bat that hangs upside down in a cave and experiences its surroundings entirely through sonar will have a radically different image of that cave than the snake that slithers across the ground reading only information gleaned through heat signatures. And neither creature will see the cave the same way that you or I will, particularly if we are carrying a high-powered torch (and, one assumes, protection from snake bites and bat feces). Even you and I would not perceive the cave identically if, for example, my spectacles are smashed when I first notice the snake and run screaming into a wall. For you, that cave will be a clearly defined environment, at least as far as the torchlight can reach. For me, it will become a smooshed blur of light and dark shades of brown. If you aren’t scared of snakes, it will be a cave full of fascinating wildlife that you want to study more closely. For me, it will be the stuff of nightmares and later I will probably need cuddling. Umwelt. These are the kinds of things I find when wasting time on Wikipedia. Five minutes later I read the entire entry on Miley Cyrus, so don’t give me too much credit.

Umwelt may be a complex semiotic theory, but in its simplest form it does help us understand the condition of our country. We all live in Pakistan, but the Pakistan that we all perceive is radically different for each person. For a political party worker in Karachi, his world is one of kill or be killed; every day is considered in the number of corpses he contributed to while trying to avoid ending up as a corpse himself. In the same city, not too far from where the party worker lives, is the socialite for whom Karachi is the city in which Mathira accidentally-on-purpose exposes her…torso’s upper ventral region (to put it clinically). For the socialite it is a city in which fabulous designer launch parties are attended between subscriptions to Hello! Magazine and negotiations for fashion week invites. Neither reality is invalid if taking the perceiver into account. Sure, one may be more worthy of mockery than the other, but that is because those committing the mockery live in a third reality, in which neither of the previous two subjects is experienced.

Similarly, President Asif Ali Zardari’s Umwelt shows him a country in which nothing is going wrong. The evidence his senses need to believe this is provided by the fact that he is, somehow, still president. Were there a problem, he would no longer be president, just like all the elected leaders before him who lost authority when things went badly. Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s Umwelt shows him a Pakistan in which women consider being beaten as an integral part of remaining true to tradition. If they didn’t like being hit so much, they would have been born as Western women. Whereas, for Pakistani women, their shared Umwelten is that Maulana Fazlur Rehman is a sadistic monster who believes in the oppression and subjugation of women. To expand upon the same line of thought, we can consider the leaderships of the Pakistani and Indian armies. Their Umwelten gives them belief in a world in which a forbidding glacier is vital territory to be protected from enemy incursions. And for the 136 victims of the avalanche, their final Umwelt was one of tragic sacrifice. In the grief over their loss, however, we all share a singular perception devoid of relativistic individuality. To make sure it never happens again though, our Umwelt needs to change. Our worlds need to be the same.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 12th, 2012.