On the Eve of the World Congress in Nanjing: Presidential Address

Eero Tarasti

On the Eve of the World Congress in Nanjing: Presidential Address

Dear Semioticians:

Our next world congress approaches, to be held at Nanjing Normal University in Nanjing. Our Chinese colleagues have been working very hard to assure its success. I think this is indeed an historical event, as seen from here in northern Europe: the first, major, world-wide convention of semioticians in the Far East.

Before we meet in Nanjing, let me say a few words about how the situation of semiotics looks to me. The time since our last congress in La Coruna, superbly organized by our Spanish colleagues with our secretary general José Maria Paz Gago, turned out to be a busy one for semioticians all over the world. Our discipline has again reached many new territories, and new semiotic societies have been established in many countries. The publishing continues actively; SEMIOTICA flourishes under Marcel Danesi and his staff with our faithful publishing house Mouton in Berlin. New journals have appeared like SIGNATA in Belgium with Jean-Marie Klinkenberg; a quite new one is opening by prof. Richard Parmentier as a cooperation between Hankuk University (Korea) and Brandeis University (Massachusetts), entitled “Signs and Society”; in China new issues in semiotics appear all the time, a.o. at Sichuan University Press in the series of Prof. Yizheng (Henry) Zhao.

Here in Europe one major issue has been completion of the work at SEMKNOW, the pan-European doctoral program in semiotics, funded by European Union. The long, three-year preparations have taken place among the universities in Tartu, Turin, Sofia, and Lapland, the last of these serving as administrative center. Now the product is ready, and the last board meeting of the team will be held in connection with the Italian Semiotic Society symposium in Turin at the end of this month. Then the program will open in all four of these universities in 2013. It contains many new facets and is not bound or limited to any particular school of semiotics. It also has a strong job-market orientation, thus answering to the challenge of professionalization of the semiotician’s work, an issue long discussed both during and apart from our IASS conventions. Any new university sharing its principles can join SEMKNOW, and is encouraged to look at our web-page.

What about the development of our science in terms of its content? I would like to point up one phenomenon, which I have noticed recently in many contexts, and which concerns the position of semiotics in the academic world. Let us start locally. We just had a meeting of all professors and scholars at our Faculty of Humanities at the University of Helsinki. So many people were present that each scholar was allotted only 3 minutes to report on his/her most current research. Many mentioned such fields as discourse, text, culture, narratology, dialogue, translation, gender, genre, multimodality, etc. But almost no one mentioned semiotics! Although the work they were doing was just and precisely semiotics.

This trend is noticeable in a broader framework as well. Consider, for instance, the British cultural studies approach, which has expanded into so many fields recently, as seen in the use of such widely used textbooks as Chris Barker’s Cultural Studies (Sage 2000). The book – and it is only one example – offers thorough discussions of phenomena such as representation, articulation, subjectivity, culturalism, structuralism, postmodernism, anti-essentialism, textual character of culture, ideology, signifying systems, cultural codes, myth, discourse, body, post-colonial literature, identity, ideology, global, digital, cyber, time-space, city as text, difference, and more. Yet, in the index, the term semiotics appears only twice, and occurs only passingly in the glossary. Such well-known names as Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, Foucault and others are introduced, but never referred to explicitly as semioticians. Rather, they appear as individual geniuses who invented this or that notion, but are not seen in their proper intellectual milieu and tradition – which is precisely semiotics.

This phenomenon is indeed paradoxical. One the one hand, we may sense (rightfully) that semiotics has conquered the whole world. Comments about the “Sebeok century” certainly designate this state of the art. We see how ideas, concepts, methods, and theories created by great semioticians in the flow of time have found currency everywhere, in the most diverse fields and disciplines, from the natural sciences to the humanities and social sciences. In this respect, we can only acknowledge that semiotics has made a universal conquest, establishing its presence in a plethora of domains.

On the other hand, this success has taken place at the cost of semiotics losing its name and identity as a discipline. Consider that, if no-one mentions semiotics any longer, and if younger scholars believe they can study directly their great gurus of postmodern thought without notice of their roots in the history of semiotics and its forerunners, then why would semiotics be needed any longer? It is as if people were ashamed to be recognized as semioticians. Perhaps in making a career, one no longer gains faddish credits by using the term semiotics.

To this we can add some present trends in academia and management in many universities. The old idea of a discipline,which was the center and core of all academic and scholarly activity, is fast disappearing (I hope not everywhere). The idea is considered old-fashioned, as soon as college students want teaching to focus on certain concrete and acute problems of contemporary life. Young people think that it is enough to recognize a problem and then, without having any previous erudition, start to study it. This means that, even pragmatically speaking, their arsenal of methods and tools will be very scanty and will hardly lead to any deeper understanding of a phenomenon.

What a pity this is for semiotics, after several decades of fighting to be identified and recognized as a discipline with its own object and methods, alongside other respectable scientific approaches! Should we, then, return to the phase when semiotics was considered an interdisciplinary, umbrella-science that unites and combines other sciences? To put it brutally, semiotic notions have been “stolen” by other, more fashionable and up-to-date looking fields such as cognitive studies, cultural studies, etc. At the same time, it is considered old fashioned for a scholar to represent a discipline called “semiotics”. In all the enterprises of education and management of semiotics, one has had to admit that the term appears side by side with such fields as communication, multimedia, multimodality, psychoanalysis, cognition… and often subordinated to them. Given this situation, I would encourage everyone involved to make overt use of the term “semiotics” and thus return it to its proper place in the history of ideas and science.

It is perhaps proper here to mention something about our future. At the Nanjing congress,election of the new Board of our association will not be held. That election will take place at the following IASS congress, to be held in 2014. For that, the New Bulgarian University in Sofia was settled on as the next congress site as early as in La Coruna, and preparation for the even has already been started on by Vice-Rector of the University, Kristian Bankov. We may note that this, too, will be a historical moment, since it will be the first time the world congress has convened in the southeast Europe.

In closing, I wish all participants of our Nanjing congress smooth and successful preparations, as well as pleasant journeys. We thank in advance our Chinese colleagues for all their precious and painstaking work for semiotics and the IASS. For many this will be a true experience of crossing cultures and of bridging civilizations.

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