Remembering Wendy Wheeler

Katharine Harris pays tribute to L&W author Wendy Wheeler, who died last month. 

I was saddened to hear of the recent death of Wendy Wheeler. Wendy was a thinker, writer, and academic for whom I held a huge amount of respect. Her thoughtful publications across multiple intellectual fields made valuable contributions to a range of debates, not least in the fields of ecocriticism and biosemiotics.

Having studied as an undergraduate at the Polytechnic of North London, Wendy completed her MA and DPhil at the University of Sussex, and then returned to the Polytechnic—which had, by then, become London Metropolitan University—to teach and research. Also invited to research and teach at various institutions, both nationally and internationally, Wendy was, among other posts, a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, a Visiting Professor at the University of Oregon and a Visiting Professor at RMIT University in Melbourne.

Wendy’s work ranged widely, covering literary theory, history, semiotic biology, and more, whilst also having a deeply political, ecocritical dimension. Her work for Lawrence and Wishart over the years, both on the New Formations editorial board and in the articles she contributed to the journal, provided a vital and wide-ranging perspective, for which we will always be grateful. L&W published Wendy’s collection of essays, The Political Subject, in 2001, which considered definitions and constructions of the ‘self’, and drew on art, science, and psychology to propose new ways of ‘doing’ politics. Her monograph, The Whole Creature, was published in 2006, and broke new ground in defining biosemiotics, arguing that thinking biosemiotically requires a synthesis of evolutionary and cultural theory. Here, Wendy argued that culture is, in fact, the manifestation of nature within human activity, reliant on sociality and rejecting individualism — this defined her biosemiotic stance.

In 2015-16, I edited Wendy’s monograph, Expecting the Earth, which was a truly educational and enjoyable experience. Wendy was a warm, considerate author to work with, and her openness to discussing the development of her manuscript into a final publication made the work a real pleasure. Expecting the Earth was a thoughtful follow up to The Whole Creature. Wendy’s earlier work was a detailed, groundbreaking investigation into the history of biosemiotics, and its contemporary effects. But Expecting the Earth took this further: it was also a manifesto for a way of thinking and for the necessity of engaging with the intersecting structures of natural and cultural sign systems for understanding human and non-human communication. It argued for biosemiotically-influenced ways of engaging with the world around us, and recognising that the ‘information’ that we receive is inevitably part of a set of integrated natural and cultural ontologies. Wendy wrote creatively and poetically, and, throughout Expecting the Earth, she demonstrated that biosemiotics is essential to the fight against ecocide. The beautiful cover for Expecting the Earth (one of my favourites from my time as Editor) was designed by Wendy’s daughter Tilly, and used a stunning artwork by Steve Baker entitled Halted Flight III. Wendy felt, quite rightly, that the image synthesised and juxtaposed the natural and the human – what Professor Kate Rigby described as ‘the organismic aspect of human works of art’ – in ways that were entirely apt for Wendy’s biosemiotic manifesto.

Wendy Wheeler was a hugely influential thinker across a range of intellectual and political projects, as well as a warm, generous person. Her work continues, and will continue, to resonate in many fields; we still have so much to learn from her. Wendy’s contributions and thoughtful interpretations will be much missed.

Katharine Harris is a member of the Soundings editorial collective and the Lawrence and Wishart editorial board.

Find out more about Wendy Wheeler's writing and publications on her
L&W author page.