Opening speech Imatra ISI Summer congresses, Finland, June 5, 2011

Eero Tarasti:

Opening speech Imatra ISI Summer congresses, Finland, June 5, 2011

It is a particular joy and honour for me to wish you all welcome to our traditional gathering in Imatra, in fact at our 26th International Summer School for Semiotic and Structural Studies.

For most of you this is not your first time to be here, but, sure, someone has never been here earlier.

Anyway, the history of these summer congresses is rather long, indeed. Frankly said, thinking of what all has happened in general in semiotics and in cultural and academic life in Finland and abroad, it is a small miracle that the ISI continues with perseverance, energy and goal-directedness.

We should say like the Romans in the antiquity: Perfer et obdura, labor hic tibi proderit olim. Or like the Rector of Indiana University, Bloomington in the day of commencement, at the times of Tom Sebeok: Follow your passion, and furnish your mind. We are all convinced that it is this passion for semiotics which has brought us here!

If I said ‘goal’ you may with full reason ask: which goal? What are we semioticians aiming for, what is our aspiration? Is it an effort to semiotize the whole world? Is it a crusade of believers to conquer the entire globe? Is it an intellectual adventure and experiment? Is it a project to improve the world? Is it a program to unify the science? Is it a prospect for education of young people, to make them capable to analyze the globalized world in which we live? Is it a guideline for better career expectations, economic prosperity…and even equality? Is it a language of international scholarship, as it was said as early as thirty years ago?

Certainly there is no one right answer, semiotics continues to challenge younger and older scholars in all countries and continents nowadays. Although by its theoretical objectives it wishes to be ‘universal’ – I say this although the term ‘universal’ may already irritate someone – in every context there are certainly also local, national and particular reasons for adopting it. The success of semiotics is perhaps based on the following facts: it is really a theory and discourse about the contemporary actual world and its problems, that means the world of communication and signification. When exploring the actuality of the world all the time new trends, not to say ‘fashions’, emerge within it, so semiotics has to renew its vocabulary and arsenal continuously. Yet, on the other hand it is keeping touch with its classical heritage. Therefore to study semiotics means to get familiar with its roots in the history of science. Insofar this tradition of thought appears in a certain language it forces us to translate the classics so that they are available for all cultures and communities.

Moreover, it means that always new approaches, methods and concepts have to be forged and elaborated. One should not be afraid of using ‘difficult’ abstract concepts since at the end the most abstract theory can prove to be the most practical one. If there is an emansipatory function and task of semiotics so to say ‘improve’ the world, it is possible only from a deep conceptual analysis. Semiotics is not an easy way to success in the so called’ innovation’ science which is the fashionable and very unfortunate term of contemporary science policy everywhere – and as we know leading to disastrous results as well. Science is slow and tedious, never fast and immediate. If it were that it were probably not science in the true sense, but a kind of exploitation of science for shortsighted practical goals.

If I would make a list of problems and threats of semiotics and for semioticians, it would be as follows:

1) science policies, budgeting, education in general, particularly in the EU, where the only goal is to train young as quickly as possible and with as little costs as possible to certain professions and jobs. What was called by the German, untranslatable term ‘Bildung’ (human development?) seems to be forgotten.

2) In this canonic doctrine of the commercialized world semiotics is seen as a harmful factor, disturbing with its intellectual criticism

3) semioticians have isolated themselves within their own discourse, no longer understood by general public. This view is further nourished by the fact that media has turned its back to semiotics – except the big media stars of it à la Umberto Eco.

4) due to these facts, albeit semioticians graduate from many universities, MA:s and PhD:s in semiotics have difficulties to establish themselves in the academic and work life

5) semiotics itself is split into various schools and groupings which do not communicate with each other; such a ‘cold war’ among its representatives diminishes its authority seen from outside and makes it difficult to join the forces for shared goals.

However, all these aspects can be also turned into positive ones. My colleague from Edinburgh Raymond Monelle once gave a speech entitled: “Semiotics does not threaten anyone.”

Semiotics never dies. If the conditions in the public academic life turn unbearable, it goes underground. For such movements modern technology has provided a lot of support and help via facebook and other connections. Can semiotics be a radical science intervening the problems of actual, real life? Yes, to my mind. I just read in facebook a blog maintained by the indignant young Spanish students at their demonstrations. There were fifty entries with the word ‘semiotica’, the analysis of the political situation was just based on semiotic principles. We can only imagine what role semiotics can have in future in many countries now under crises and quick transformations and fights for the freedom. When the Finnish Foreign Ministry supported this event quite remarkably we had to reason and base our application on principles they want to favour: human and civil rights, gender equality, democracy, security, ecology etc. It is true that semiotics can have a lot of pragmatic value for many problems.

We have to note that in Finland President Martti Ahtisaari, the Nobel Peace Prize winner two years ago, has always supported semiotics; and his spouse Eva, whom we just met at a coffee party in Helsinki, has often attended our semiotic events in Imatra. I do not want to steal anyone’s word but I would quote here the words by our colleague, semiotician and just nominated Professor of Translation at Helsinki University, Pirjo Kukkonen, who said that “semiotics is science of hope”. About hope we shall certainly hear even more from Professor Arno Munster, a specialist of Ernst Bloch and his Prinzip Hoffnung.

In fact, many of the sessions and roundtables of our summer school here are, answers to the problems hitherto mentioned. Thanks to our Ministry we have here eminent scholars from Latin America, Cameroun, India and Iran. Moreover China is present, with a delegation sent here by Nanjing Normal University to plan the next world congress of semiotics by the IASS in October of 2012. We wish you warmly welcome!

In spite of the critical comments above concerning the present globalized civilization, we have to be reasonable; at the same time we also have to live in this world and under its conditions. I find it legitimate to utilize and exploit its structures for semioticians so that they get foothold in most diverse positions in the contemporary society. Only by this means semiotics can become influential in the society. It is in this sense we have a section on How One Becomes A Semiotician – which of course for a Lévi-Straussian anthropologist sounds an echo from the chapter Comment devient on ethnologue from Tristes tropiques. The EU is funding a project which endeavours to create a Paneuropean doctoral program in semiotics, a program which should avoid mistakes of some previous experiments in the field, namely that it takes into account the so called labour market orientation. So there is in the studies themselves already anticipations of future jobs. This pilot project is managed by the Lapland University, Rovaniemi, and its partners are Tartu, Turin and New Bulgarian Universities from Estonia, Italy and Bulgaria. It should be ready in 2012; thereafter any European university can join it.

Other themes are Interrelationships of Arts. The utility of semiotics appears often just when by it one finds new connections among familiar fields and phenomena. It is a heuristic method in this respect. Furthermore, the topics of authenticity and inauthenticity approaches the categories of Nature and Culture in Tropics and Arctics, in two different surroundings with applications to tourism and other issues of high social value. There are plans to extend this topics in the Arctic region to cover what can be called ‘arctic identity’ which transgresses all the conventional borderlines among Russia, Finland, United States, Canada, Norway Sweden, and Iceland.

One of the most expected sessions will be the semiotics of corporeality. Body inevitably is the center of all our semiotic activities and processes, be they biosemiotical or aesthetic or psychological. We are grateful to Professor José Enrique Finol for organizing this. And a tradition of its own is already formed by semiotics of translation. If all is said to be communication, we could as well argue that all is translation.

This is the official part of the symposium, In the side of all this many other things happen: we have many Board meetings of different societies and communities, the Finnish semiotic society, has its annual meeting, the ISI Board as well, a part of IASS Board convenes unofficially. Books in the exhibition at State Hotel are mostly from the semiotic collection of City Library of Imatra which has been built during these 25 years. Also books published at our series Acta semiotica fennica are available there.

However, you may guess, that to maintain such a tradition as Imatra ISI, is not always quite an easy task. We are all the time grateful to the City of Imatra, that it serves as our host here in this fabulous and already legendary town of semiotics. The Mayor of the town, Pertti Lintunen will join us on Tuesday to tell the prospects of people living in Imatra; today we shall hear greetings by the great friend of semiotics, emeritus Mayor Tauno Moilanen.

Among the institutions to be thanked I add here the private Niilo Helander Foundation who supported our event again.

With these words and in the atmosphere of hope and optimism, and hilarious expectation of these rich, forthcoming days, I wish you all welcome once again to Finland and Imatra.

Eero Tarasti

Professor (University of Helsinki), Director of the ISI, President of the IASS/AIS

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