On the Eve of the 12th World Congress of IASS/AIS in Sofia – Eero Tarasti

Eero Tarasti: 

Presidential Address on the Eve of the 12th World Congress of IASS/AIS in Sofia

“Semiotics harms no one”, once wrote our British, or rather Scotch, colleague Raymond Monelle.  Someone also said that semiotics never dies.

But how can it survive in the contemporary world under many kinds of threats?  One threat in those countries with highly organized academic life is certainly already the increasing power of administration.  And administration is no longer serving people working in scientific fields, education and research, but it is there to rule over, to dominate and control what those very suspect professors do with their “academic freedom”.  Orders, ideas and ideologies – and money – come from other sources and are used for other purposes altogether.  Only top research is worth funding.  Yet in the Finnish language the word “top”  is “huippu”; but this word again is very close to another word, “huiputus” which means cheating.  This is student humour used in my country.

Everyone also knows what the word “innovation” means.  Research must be innovative in order to receive funding, but to be innovative means to serve the globalized market system and society.  Every year new “innovations” are made which force consumers to buy always new and newer things, machines, clothes, anything.  Well, some say and it is of course true, that the development of technology is inevitable – and also good.  How could we continue to live without facebooks and other new tools of communication?

What  has all this to do with semiotics?  Very much indeed.  Italian professor Franco Fabbri pointed out precisely this in his plenary speech at the 1st  ISI congress at Kaunas Technological University:  how we scholars are forced to adapt our purely scientific interests into that bureaucratic system and ideology which has already predetermined the categories of research which can be funded.  One only needs to look at those new areas of research funding declared by different countries, their academies and the European Union itself.  Fabbri’s criticism is right, but it might also be a mistake to fall to the trap of sermons.  The system is what it is, and we have to live under its conditions.  So the goal must be to find out proper means and ways of resistance, which does not mean acceptance of the system but neither does it do damage to ourselves.  Is that possible?

These questions leap to mind immediately when one thinks of the situation of semiotics now.  The picture it gives us is extremely diverse.  We do not need to repeat what has been said many times, namely the victorious march of semiotics into many old and new research  areas.  Semiotics is part of the Bildung – or “cultivation”, as Roger Scruton translates it – of our time.  In many universities during last ten to twenty years, semiotics was able to establish itself as a renowned academic discipline.  The Pan-European doctoral semiotics program started in Sofia, Turin, and Tartu simultaneously after three years of preparation and funded by the EU.  But it was also possible because these universities already had their normal doctoral programs of semiotics.  So nowadays in many universities of the world one can become a doctor or MA of semiotics.  Particularly successful areas have been China and Latin America.

Changes take place, like the aforementioned transformation of the ISI of Imatra into the ISI of Kaunas, directed there by Prof. Dario Martinelli.  Many places which already have been doing semiotics, but without much international attention, now emerge on the map of semiotics.  Such is the Teheran Semiotic Circle, which has existed already ten years and done annual symposia, thanks much to the initiative of Prof. Reza Hamid Shairi at Tarbiat Modares University.  The Eurasian Semiotic Society was started in Almaty, Kazakstan, by Anuar Galiev.  In Turkey there is lively new semiotics in many fields, thanks to scholars like Zeynep Onur and Dogan Gunay. The Dominican Republic just founded a semiotic society as only one sign of the extremely energetic semiotic work done in all of Latin America, as José Maria Paz Gago has reported us.  New journals have been launched: Lexia, Signata, etc.  While old ones continue, such as those of our faithful publisher, Mouton de Gruyter.  Old schools continue and flourish: the Peirceans, the Greimassians, the Lotmanians have their own symposia.  For young semioticians there are our own channels like the Early Fall School of Semiotics led by Kristian Bankov in Sozopol, Bulgaria, Semiotic Fest.  National societies continue, like the American Society, Italian, etc.  New research projects emerge with rich funding like the cognition project by Prof. Sonesson in Sweden. The fact that my list is certainly incomplete shows that no one can any longer master the whole gamut of semiotics.

To summarize:  why should one complain about anything?  Although  semiotics seems to be omnipresent, there are reasons for disappointment concerning how semioticians find their places in the working life.  With good reason young semioticians ask, Is there life after the PhD?  In many countries that is the critical point. Too much talent is lost when brilliant doctors of semiotics go back to teaching in schools or to other jobs which as such are reputable but where their full gifts are not employed.  Here we return to the point where we started, namely how can a semiotician survive in the present “technosemiotic” society?

One means of surviving is certainly to get involved in various research projects.  Yet, the only projects to get funding are those which serve the “establishment”, so to say.  Is there anything wrong with serving the establishment?  Do we not hear echoes of the old fashioned ideologies of 1968?  Younger generations hardly even know any longer what happened in 1968.  Semiotics or structuralism was very iconoclastic at that time.  However, every healthy society constantly needs critical feedback to develop as a human society.  How can humanist values have an impact on the contemporary world?  Perhaps by becoming “numanities”, as was the title of the Kaunas congress.  Nevertheless, we know that there is hardly any “progress” in the human sciences.  What certain scholars from Avicenna to Ibn Arabi wrote almost a thousand years ago is extremely relevant today.  So then, is semiotics perhaps an approach which is universal and at the same time critical in its relation to each society and culture in which it emerges.

British cultural theory declares to be on the side of the oppressed and subordinated.  But who are they after all?  Can semiotics find its raison d’être in major humanist issues like the ecological problems dealt with in eco-, bio-, zoo- and other semiotics?  As in conflict resolution as studied in the theories of crosscultural communication, translation?  As in leading strategies of management etc.?  If the decision makers would realize the utility of semiotics in such issues, it would be fine.  Yet, will it ever happen?  Or is it rather a utopia?  Or at least “principle of hope” (Bloch)?

It might irritate some people even to raise such questions.  Many live sorrowless in the present world and accept it as such.  But if that world is totally hopeless and inhuman, as it is in many places, there must be another way out.  Semiotics might be a reasonable way to search for such solutions.

Therefore, let us convene and join together, all semioticians of the world, to ponder and discuss what intrigues us … and the most appropriate moment for this certainly will be the forthcoming Sofia world congress from September 16 to 20, 2014.  One can enroll until August 15 by writing to the director of the congress, Prof. Kristian Bankov (info@semio2014.org).  And as you may know, this is also a convention in which a new Board of the ISI is elected.  This is done by the Executive Committee of the Association.

Therefore, I take the opportunity to thank here all those semioticians whom I have met and with whom I have cooperated during my ten years of Presidency.  You have convinced me strongly that nothing of the theoretical sharpness and currency of our science has vanished, but that, on the contrary, global semiotics is right now going through an extremely fascinating, expansive and creative phase.

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