In Memory of Per Aage Brandt (26 April 1944 – 11 November 2021)

Per Aage Brandt seemed to be fuelled by vital energy sources much different from those upon which other common mortals rely. Nothing could keep him from playing yet another set, writing or discussing yet another poem, translating yet another text, founding yet another publishing house or gallery or journal, writing yet another article or developing while talking, together with other people, yet another idea. There was a drive in Per Aage that came from elsewhere: both a steady beat, an ostinato he would say, and a constantly exploring melody line. It was therefore so much more distressing to learn that he had recently succumbed to two aggressive short diseases. Distressing to learn that such things could happen also to him – even to him.
Per Aage Brandt was a human scoubidou. A scoubidou is a piece of knot craft developed in France decades ago, but now, I believe, also known in the Anglo-Saxon world under this name. It consists of threads artfully intertwined and knotted into two-, three- or even ten-stranded objects, often used as key chains and the like. Per Aage was the multi-stranded being par excellence. In our community, the dominant thread in his scoubidou was of course the sign-theoretical one, with more than fifty years of uninterrupted contributions to semiotics, the theory of meaning, its nature and the multifarious expressions of human meaning-making. Yet, those of us who had the privilege to follow his courses in Denmark, frequent his own privately organized seminars in general semiotics in the 1970’s and 1980’s or work with him when he was the director of The Centre for Semiotics at Aarhus University in the 1990’s know that his scoubidou would also have a dominant poetic strand: Per Aage was an acknowledged and productive poet in Denmark; his first book of poems, simply entitled Poesi, came out in 1969, and he published no less than two collections of poems in 2020. He used to say about poetry in general, and perhaps his in particular, that it was science without footnotes. Or the continuation of science by other means.
Another, probably equally dominant thread in his craft was music, and especially jazz. I am sure he hasn’t settled anywhere without finding people to play with. In Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, where he lived with his wife Maryse, he had several bands. In Denmark, he co-introduced free jazz as early as 1963. I have recently read a post from his former drummer revealing that they decided to change the name of their trio in 1964 from “Per Aage Brandt Trio”, even though he was the leader of the band, to “Finn von Eyben [the bass player] Trio”: “ … because Finn was much more eloquent than Per Aage”. This is probably the first and last time that happened to Per Aage. There’s much to say about Per Aage and music – he released a record, Cry! with the sax player Karsten Vogel in 2016, fifty years after their first record (with trumpeter Hugh Steinmetz) Nu! – but two things may suffice to illustrate the man and the scientist. Two of the absolute central landmarks of his musical landscape were Albert Ayler and Bill Evans. For many of us, there is quite a way from Ayler to Evans and back; not so for Per Aage, who probably considered them as two affine ways of breathing music; and the extent of this sensitivity is most likely a direct reflection of the extent of both his artistic and intellectual curiosity and the protean nature of his mind and sensitivity. The other thing ist hat Per Aage’s approach to teaching or lecturing, , as Frederik Stjernfelt has already remarked, was, as a rule, improvisational – theme-based, indeed, but improvisational. He entered the classroom equipped with a scrap of paper on which he would have noted a couple of words or, more often, one or two models. Such a model would then be the melody, the theme, this session’s How Deep Is the Ocean, or Someday My Prince Will Come; and then he’d turn on his machine that thought while it spoke or spoke its thoughts as they came or constructed itself while it was running, improvising on the melodic baseline. And sometimes the ocean was very deep, and the prince seemed to be a bit hesitant to come; but other times, astonishingly often, at least in long sequences, new melody lines were found, oceans were crossed, and cascades of princes would pop in. Science was the continuation of jazz by other means. The sessions were scheduled to last three hours (no break). More often than not, they ended when the janitor switched off the light.
And yet another strand was his work as a translator – introducing the Danish public to gems of French, Spanish, Latin-American, American and German poetry and theatre as well as a wealth of important representatives of French philosophy from the second half of the 1960’s and on. He once told me he had discovered that he himself could be a poet while translating his first texts – perhaps the Oulipian Jacques Roubaud in 1967 or 1968. Which again shows how one praxis may smoothly lead to another praxis in his universe; and this leads us to the fourth thread in his scoubidou, a core element of his semiotic investigations (and there are two more to come).
Per Aage Brandt approached semiotics as a theory of meaning in language, perception, and action as well as a theory of the expressive objects in which meaning crystallizes (texts, say, or pictures) or the hyper-expressive objects in which meaning is compressed (literature, visual art, music, and so on). For him, such a theory naturally requires recruitment of theories, insights, reflections, and hypotheses from what we could call the philosophical domain writ large. This is, of course, not in itself new or unheard of within the structuralist tradition in linguistics from which continental or Greimassian semiotics developed: the affinities between Roman Jakobson and Husserl or Viggo Brøndal and Husserl are well-known. However, Per Aage’s semiotic endeavour was, from the outset, nourished by continuous exchanges, interactions or Auseinandersetzungen with philosophers in ways that by far exceeded the restricted, and in its ambition through and through formal-axiomatic, system Greimas and the Paris School attempted to develop. Per Aage co-introduced Greimas in Denmark in the late 60’s, basically hand-in-hand with Georges Bataille or Jacques Derrida, and later on Michel Serres, Jean-François Lyotard, Husserl, Kant and, perhaps, first and foremost, Descartes, who would be important references for his thinking: the economy of his semiotic system was never restricted, always extended, never simply oriented towards the formal constitution of a self-contained semiotic system, but always aiming at further motivating the nature of the deep structures of meaning. In his varying modelizations of the “parcours génératif”, there were always antennas sticking out toward something outside the system.
Throughout the better part of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, he sought to define this constitutive basis of meaning in psychoanalytical, first and foremost Lacanian, terms. Yet, from 1982 or 1983 and on, his theoretical approach to what the Germans’ would call the Grundlagenfragen of semiotics took a rather radical turn, without doubt under the influence of his friend and close colleague Jean Petitot’s attempt to reconstitute the foundation of and thus profoundly reorient the architecture of Greimassian semiotics in catastrophe theoretic terms (cf. Petitot’s doctoral thesis Pour un schématisme de la structure [1982]). Brandt’s adoption of a catastrophe-theoretical epistemological framework resulted in his doctoral thesis, La charpente modale du sens, defended at La Sorbonne in 1987 with Greimas as his supervisor, a work in which he (among other things!) in turn profoundly refines and schematizes Greimas’ modal syntax both in morphodynamic terms and relative to Len Talmy’s groundbreaking force-dynamic accounts for the semantics of modal verbs.
The recruitment of Sweetser and Talmy in his construction of “the modal framework of meaning” initiated a new wave in Brandt’s semiotics, which began embracing central tenets of what is known as Cognitive Linguistics. “Frames”, “Force dynamics”, “conceptual structure”, “closed-class semantics”, “conceptual metaphor”, “image schema”, “prototype theory”, and perhaps first and foremost “mental spaces” and “conceptual integration” or “blending” are key concepts developed within this tradition by scholars such as Charles Fillmore, Len Talmy, Eve Sweetser, George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, Ron Langacker, Eleanor Rosch, Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, almost all of whom were long-term visiting professors at Brandt’s Centre for Semiotics in Aarhus during the 1990’s. They all became landmarks in Brandt’s theoretical universe and the main reason why the framework for his research and the work at Centre at the end of the 1990’s changed from being entitled “Dynamic Semiotics” to being called “Cognitive Semiotics”. The most salient result of this reorientation, which also implied the use of entirely new tools of modelization, was the development of what he considered a necessary refinement of Fauconnier & Turner’s so-called “four-space model for conceptual integration”. The complexification of the original model, with the addition of a “base space” and a “relevance space”, leading to supplementary blends, again follows a logic or a constraint which constitutes one of the baselines or bass lines, throughout most of Per Aage Brandt’s semiotics: the attempt to develop the full ecology of human meaning-making. So, whereas Fauconnier & Turner’s model captures a fundamental cognitive procedure for meaning construction, Brandt’s expanded an autonomous version of it – dubbed the “Aarhus Model and to an important extent developed in close collaboration with his daughter Line – which intends to capture and reflect the situated, essentially intersubjective or social dimension of human meaning-making at large (which is exactly the rationale behind the introduction of the abovementioned “base space” and “relevance space”). Even though this model – as any other of the diagrammatic devices Brandt developed throughout his life – was under constant revision, it remained a stable reference in Brandt’s explorations of the arcana of meaning, sign use and meaning construction in language, perception, action, music, poetry, visual art, myth, religion and politics.
We have now reached the fifth and penultimate strand of Per Aage Brandt’s scoubidou. On top of all the other activities, he was also an unrelenting intellectual entrepreneur. In Denmark, apart from creating the more than ‘still-going strong’ publishing house Basilisk in 1983, he had co-founded the journal Poetik in 1967, which was the organ through which Greimassian semiotics, but also modern French philosophy, were introduced in Denmark. The journal would become Almen Semiotik in 1990 (with articles in Danish and English), and this journal was later, when Brandt became professor at Case Western Reserve University, to become the journal Cognitive Semiotics, which is today published by De Gruyter. Parallel to this, Brandt has continuously created both small and rather important institutional fora for teaching and intellectual exchange, starting with his own extra-curricular seminars at Aarhus University, continuing with its antenna in Copenhagen – The Semiotic Circle – and ending, of course, with the world’s first research centre in Cognitive Semiotics (1993) as well as the world’s first MA program in Cognitive Semiotics (2001). Many of the scholars who have profiled, first the Centre for Semiotics, and later the program in Cognitive Semiotics as well as the Department of Linguistics, Semiotics, and Cognitive Science, have in different ways been shaped by, or received their academic training within, Per Aage Brandt’s institutional creations; to name just a few: the late Svend Østergaard, Frederik Stjernfelt, Mikkel Wallentin, Kristian Tylén, and Riccardo Fusaroli.
This leads us to the final thread in Per Aage Brandt’s scoubidou: his intellectual generosity, the boundless amounts of energy he devoted to others within the institutions he himself had created, not for himself, but for the free circulation of ideas, hypotheses, conjectures, and ever new ways of capturing human sense-making. Brandt was a powerhouse for others, and perhaps particularly the younger generation – the junior researchers – whom he listened to, integrated in his musings or daring theoretical constructions as if differences in experience, knowledge, competence and notoriety did not exist, or rather: because such differences did not exist for Per Aage. Countless are thus the scholars, intellectuals and writers in Denmark – not to mention the students and colleagues around the world – who at some point, at some decisive point for quite a few, have benefitted from Per Aage’s curiosity, enjoyed the width and flexibility of his mind, and learned both the humility and audacity that come with the adage, which in its adapted form characterized him so well: “I am a semiotician; nothing human is alien to me.”

Per Aage Brandt earned the equivalent of a PhD with his mag. art. dissertation L’analyse phrastique Introduction à la grammatique (University of Copenhagen 1971). In 1987, he became Docteur d’État, at La Sorbonne, Paris, France, with the dissertation La charpente modale du sens (John Benjamins, 1992). He was Associate Professor in Romance Philology, Spanish Department, Aarhus University 1975-88; Director of The Center for Semiotics, Aarhus University, 1988-2005; Professor of Semiotics, Aarhus University 1998-2005. In 2005, he moved to Case Western Reserve University, Ohio, where he was professor and chair of the department of Modern Language and Literatures, Emile B. de Sauzé Professor, professor of cognitive science, and co-director of the Center for Cognition and Culture. In 2002, he was decorated with “Le grand prix de philosophie” by L’Académie française, becoming “Officier de l’Ordre des arts et des lettres”. In 2004, the queen of Denmark decorated him as “Officer of the order of Dannebrog”. For his poetic work, he received the Aarestrup medal in 1993, and the Otto Gelsted -prisen in 2009.

Per Aage Brandt was buried in Villeneuve-sur-Yonne on the 18th of November 2021, and left behind him his wife Maryse Laffitte, his daughter Line Brandt, son-in-law Nicolai Huse Jacobsen and their daughter, his granddaughter, Luka.

Peer Bundgaard

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