Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Global Citizenship"

Michael Karlberg

Robert Paehlke’s article on global citizenship offers an excellent analysis, and prescription, regarding many of the structural and political dimensions of the Great Transition.

There is, however, another inseparable dimension that needs to be examined in the context of a global citizenship movement. Structural and political changes of the magnitude Paehlke envisions occur only with the emergence of larger systems of meaning—semiotic systems—that render them sensible, desirimages/Roundtable-Image.pngable, and possible. In the absence of such semiotic changes, structural and political changes of the kinds we desire are extremely unlikely.

At the core of such semiotic changes are assumptions about human nature, assumptions about the nature of society, and assumptions about the purpose and meaning of human life.

For instance, if humans are presumed to be nothing more than highly intelligent animals pursuing their material interests or seeking to satiate their material appetites in an environment of scarce resources, and society is presumed to be an arena for the competitive pursuit of these ends, and the meaning and purpose of our lives is defined by success or failure in this arena—then why would a movement for global citizenship and global governance make any sense?

Likewise, if humans are presumed to be living out transitory lives en route to eternal salvation or eternal damnation, and if this earthly existence is nothing more than a way of separating the saved from the damned, and if an anthropomorphic deity is about to put an end to the entire episode—then why would a movement for global citizenship and global governance make any sense?

Or if humans are presumed to be limitless in their capacity for technological innovation, and if societies are the means by which technological advances are organized, and if technological innovations can ultimately solve any problems humans will ever face—then why would a movement for global citizenship and global governance be necessary?

There are, of course, many other systems of meaning at play in the world today, including many that are far more thoughtful than those sketched above. But my point is that the Great Transition this forum seeks will not occur in a semiotic vacuum. Its structural dimensions, like those Paehlke examines, will advance only to the degree that its semiotic dimension advances. In this context, the Great Transition will have to be, in part, a great semiotic transition at the level of widely held assumptions about human nature, assumptions about the nature of society, and assumptions about the purpose and meaning of human life.

Historically, semiotic transitions of this sort have been associated with the birth or reformation of major religious systems. Indeed, the Latin root for the word religion denotes binding people together in unity—or in community—based on a shared system of meaning. The Great Transition in front of us today will depend on binding people together in a global community. What is needed is the emergence of a global system of meaning within which global citizenship and global governance—and all the corresponding structural prescriptions—are rendered sensible, desirable, and possible.

So the question we would do well to ask ourselves is, how can this semiotic process be advanced, or how can such a system of meaning emerge, in tandem with the other dimensions of the great transition being discussed in this forum?

One thing we can probably say with confidence is that it will not emerge merely through the operation of the free market, because the system of meaning produced by the free market is a system of advertising and marketing designed merely to stimulate material consumption.

I would also venture to say that it will not emerge in the sphere of political discourse, with its inherent tendencies to divide rather than unite.

And personally, I think we are naive if we assume it will somehow emerge spontaneously through social networking or other computer-mediated and democratized modes of discourse which ultimately tend to isolate people in the construction of mediated pseudo-communities.

Rather, semiotic transformations, or revolutions, require the same kinds of educating, organizing, and mobilizing that are invariably at the center of real processes of social change. Historically, this has also been a major function of religion.

But religion has, itself, all too frequently become corrupted and abused by political and economic forces that pervert its accomplishments and distort its ends. So the concept of religion, itself, is in need of a great transition.

All of this should raise some profoundly challenging questions for everyone who is interested in creating a more just and sustainable social reality on this planet.

Michael Karlberg
Michael Karlberg is Professor of Communication Studies at Western Washington University and the author of Beyond the Culture of Contest and Constructing Social Reality.

Cite as Michael Karlberg, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Global Citizenship," Great Transition Initiative (June 2014),

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