Social construction or universal cultural conceptions? An epistemological rift
Chair: Rea Walldén (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The fundamental axiom of Saussurean semiotics is the social construction of semiotic systems, as expressed by the principle of arbitrariness. In this, it radically differs from the Peircean perception, which includes in its typology of signs non-arbitrary connections to the referent, i.e. iconicity and indexicality. The difference of the two approaches has been particularly apparent in the study of non-linguistic systems. In visual semiotics, for example, the debate has been evolving around the possible specificity of the visual signs, with regards to their social or universal nature. Moreover, in recent decades, the renewed interest in Kant-inspired universals and in the biological foundation of semiosis has re-opened the general epistemological debate. What is at stake is the overall definition of the science of semiotics, which includes wider political implications. This panel invites thoughts on this crucial epistemological issue, which is bound to affect the future of semiotics.
1/ Words, Things, Ideas, and the Conundrum of Semiosis
By Donald PREZIOSI, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
When the Taliban dynamited the statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan in 2001, what was being effaced was not merely some colossal stone statuary but a belief in the idea of a direct and determinate connection between things, words, and ideas: idolatry itself. By their actions, the Taliban manifested a belief in the potency and immaterial efficacy of that stonework, thereby demonstrating precisely that they could not arrest such a determinate link between the material and the immaterial. The paradoxical nature of this activity itself manifests one of the basic conundrums of semiosis: its simultaneous determinacy and indeterminacy; the multifunctionality and multidimensionality of signification; and the illocutionary nature of signing in any medium. From a semiotic perspective, conventional distinctions between ‘social construction’ and ‘cultural universalism’ mark a more fundamental epistemological conundrum: the distinction between what are commonly articulated, on the one hand, as art, artistry or artifice, and, on the other, as religion, religiosity, or theology. The disjunction or rift between ‘art’ and ‘religion’ is strikingly embodied in ancient and modern debates between iconophilia and iconoclasm regarding the truth or falsity of art; between equation and adequation; between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, or, more generally, between determinacy and indeterminacy in signification. Such distinctions are as ancient as those manifested 2500 years ago in Plato’s dilemma regarding the fittingness of mimetic artistry in an ideal or properly ordered city-state; as old as Augustine’s distinction between a (perfect) city of God and an imperfect city of Man; and as recent as the debates among monotheists over the purportedly blasphemous or idolatrous nature of imagery, in particular of the Muslim prophet Mohammed. The distinction between Saussurian and Peircean semiotic typologies, substantially critiqued and modified in multifunctional and multimodal semiotic systems such as those elaborated by (among others) Hjemslev, Vygotsky, or Jakobson, have themselves been augmented by recent developments in the visual, temporal and spatial arts, and in various modes of virtual artistry. This paper investigates such developments in the context of their ethical, political, and philosophical implications, and discusses some of their consequences for recent debates on materiality.
Donald PREZIOSI is Emeritus Professor of Art History & Critical Theory at UCLA and the author of 14 books on art and architectural history, theory, and criticism; visual and material culture; archaeology, and the inextricability and interdependence of philosophy, theology, politics, museology, and semiology. After receiving a PhD in art and architectural history at Harvard (1968), he has taught (in the US) at Yale, MIT, and (since 1986) at UCLA. He has also held professorships in the UK at Oxford, as the Slade Professor of Fine Art, 2001-2, and at the University of York (2010-11); in Turkey (Istanbul, as Getty Visiting Professor in Art History at Bogazici [Bosphorus] University, 2007); in Sweden (Uppsala, Stockholm); in Denmark (University of Copenhagen, The Royal Danish Academy of Architecture; University of Aarhus); and in Finland (Helsinki, Juvaskela). He has lectured widely in the US, and Canada, and in Europe (England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Greece, Slovakia), Egypt (Cairo), China (Shanghai), Australia (Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane) and New Zealand (Wellington). His most recent books are Art, Religion, Amnesia: The Enchantments of Credulity (Routledge, 2014); Art is Not What you Think It Is (with Claire Farago; Ashgate, London, 2004; 2nd. ed. 2014); In the Aftermath of Art: Ethics, Aesthetics, Politics, with a critical commentary by Johanne Lamoureux (Routledge, 2006); and Brain of the Earth’s Body: Art, Museums, and the Phantasms of Modernity -The 2001 Oxford Slade Lectures in the Fine Arts; Minnesota, 2003. His The Art of Art History (Oxford, 1998; 2nd ed., 2009), the most widely used introduction to that subject in English, has been translated into Korean (2013) and Chinese (2014). Earlier books include Minoan Architectural Design (Bloomington, 1982); Architecture, Language, and Meaning: the Origins of the Built Environment (The Hague, 1979); The Semiotics of the Built Environment (Bloomington, 1979). Rethinking Art History: Meditations on a Coy Science (New Haven, 1989; 1991); and Aegean Art and Architecture (with Louise Hitchcock; Oxford, 1999).
2/ Not Natural: An Argument for the Social Construction of Cinematic Semiosis
By Rea WALLDÉN, Athens School of Fine Arts, Greece
This paper argues for the constructed character of cinematic semiosis, without negating its specificity. It is framed in the wider epistemological discussion regarding the arbitrary or motivated status of semiosis in general, and of specific semiotic systems in particular. In this context, cinema has been one of the most contested cases, its expression-substance being both complex and heterogeneous, and including a component of moving, photographic image. This paper uses Hjelmslev’s model of stratification of the sign-function (introduced in his 1954 essay “La stratification du langage”) as a methodological grid, on which to demarcate the areas of discussion. Hjelmslev’s model is a formalization of Saussure’s epistemological rupture with regard to the definition of the sign, consisting in the radical de-essentialisation of semiosis which results from the fundamental semiotic arbitrariness. In this model, the traditional questions regarding the relation between the signifier and the signified are analyzed and re-situated into the conceptually distinct but interrelated issues of signification, reference and material support. Therefore, the question of the social constitution or relative naturalness of a semiotic system can be reformulated as concerning, on the one hand, the relation between its content-plane and expression-plane and, on the other, its relation to its exo-semiotic content-substance; while the specificity of extra-linguistic semiotic systems can be reformulated as concerning their expression-substance, and how this affects the previous question. The paper proceeds with a critical investigation of the main groups of arguments against the socially constructed status of cinematic semiosis, and attempts to refute them. These include arguments stemming from the concepts of iconicity, indexicality, and the literal indexicality of the photographic image, as well as arguments supporting a derivation of cinematic semiosis from the human cognitive faculties or even the physicality of the human body. The paper concludes with certain observations on the ideological character of the naturalization of the social and its political implications.
Rea WALLDÉN is a semiotician and film theorist. She studied architecture at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and philosophy at Cardiff University. She wrote her doctoral thesis on the epistemology of semiotics and deconstruction under the supervision of Christopher Norris. She is currently Adjunct Assistant Professor in Film History at the Athens School of Fine Arts. She has also taught at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, the University of Thessaly, Cardiff University and the Cardiff School of Art and Design. In 2012-13, she held a post-doctoral research grant at Aristotle University. She is a member of the Hellenic Semiotic Society, the Society for European Philosophy, and the European Network for Avant-Garde and Modernism Studies. She has published articles on semiotics, epistemology, film theory and film history, co-written the script for the full-length film Thief or Reality (2001) by Antoinetta Angelidi and directed short experimental films. Her research interests include the epistemological status of cinema, materiality in cinema, and the politics of form in avant-garde cinema.
3/ For a Sociological Innovation in Translation Studies
By Anthi WIEDENMAYER, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece
Retrospectively, it seems quite peculiar that translation as a phenomenon as old as the human interaction itself needed so much time to be finally examined through a sociological aspect. Every approach was for centuries canonical, even if the famous French-German confrontations of the 19th century implied indications of political and ideological factors, which, however, mostly served for the mutual legitimation of their own canonical postulates. When the research in the translation field was taken over by the linguists, they conceived of the texts as quasi in-vitro objects leaving outside the extralinguistic factors implied in their production. The response in terms of the functionalistic or cultural turn in the emerging Translation Studies brought the translator to light, as the main agent in the production of translations. This led, on the one hand, to cognitive approaches and, on the other hand, to the gradual appearance of a complex totality of agents, such as editors, publishers, literary agents and critics. The cultural approach became thus partly an ideological and political one, while at the same time the Descriptive Translation Studies still operated mainly within the framework of the literary systems, without taking into account that these systems were subject to power relationships negotiated by agents and institutions. It was actually not until the emerging of the 21st century that the demand for an explicit articulation of a Sociology of Translation became loud enough to release a series of reflections on a methodology and conceptualization towards a sociologically sustained approach in Translation Studies. Yet, for such a relatively young discipline with a distinctive interdisciplinary nature and an extremely extensive field of required research data, it might still take a long time until the establishment of a supranational sociological tradition, which would lead to a paradigmatic shift in the overall assessment of translations.
Anthi WIEDENMAYER graduated in Translation Studies, Linguistics and Cultural Studies from the University of Mainz, Germany and holds a PhD on the translation of poetry from the University of Athens. She teaches interpreting, translation and subtitling as Assistant Professor at the Department for German Language and Literature, Aristotle University Thessaloniki. She has been teaching literary translation as visiting professor at the Department for Modern Greek at the Free University of Berlin (2011 and 2013). She also works as a conference interpreter and translator and has served as Chairman of the Greek Association of Translators (2002-2006), where she is an Honorary Member since 2012. She is a Founding Member and Board Member of the Greek Society for Translation Studies. Among her publications are a monograph The puzzle of translation (2011) and papers on different subjects in Translation Studies. Her special research fields are literary translation, sociology of translation and didactics of translation and interpreting. She is currently conducting a research project about portraits of German translators of Greek literature at the Centre for Modern Greece at the Free University of Berlin.
4/ Revelio! A (Socio‑)Semiotic Reading of the Harry Potter Saga
By Gloria WITHALM, IASS-AIS & University of Applied Arts Vienna, Austria
Though it’s already seventeen years that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone appeared, the first novel of the Harry Potter saga concluded by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 2007, the craze about the Boy Wizard has a bit decreased but is by far not over: in 2012 the Leavesden Studio near London (where all eight movies were made) opened as the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London and J.K. Rowling started her interactive website Pottermore; since 2010 fans can visit Hogsmeade and Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry at the Orlando, FL theme park Wizarding World of Harry Potter which has just got a second part depicting Diagon Alley; and in 2016 the first part of a new trilogy dealing with the author of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will hit the movie theaters all over the world.
Reading the books and watching the movies and buying collectibles is definitely not confined to young adults – the original primary target group, nor is all that done just for fun as the long long list of books and articles analyzing the texts and the phenomenon demonstrates. Authors come from the entire spectrum of the humanities (and even a few scientists are among them), however, there are so far not too many semiotically oriented papers.
In my presentation I will try to read the texts (from all three canons: the novels, subsequent writings by J.K. Rowling in print and online, and the movies) from a socio-semiotic perspective predominantly inspired by the work of Ferruccio Rossi-Landi. Especially the character of magical performance can be examined in view of his concepts of materiality, signs and bodies. Other questions can touch the way social reproduction is considered in the texts, and, of course, obvious topics like specific sign systems like runes and divination as well the strong inter- and intratextual relations presented in the saga.
Gloria WITHALM is Senior Researcher (tenured) and Lecturer at the Department of Cultural Studies, University of Applied Arts Vienna. Apart from 20th century Austrian cultural history, the topics of her courses include cultural semiotics, semiotics and history of the media. Her research interests concern the presentation of history in television programs; the depiction of disabled people in movies; violence and/in film; and in particular: general semiotics, sociosemiotics, and media semiotics. Her main area of specialization is the analysis of modes of self-reflexive discourse in narrative films and television programs. She has written numerous articles in journals and collective volumes and co-authored two books on these topics; the list of (co‑)edited volumes includes more than 40 special/topical issues of journals and books (among them Media old and new. 8th Austro-Hungarian Semio-Philosophical Colloquium = Semiotische Berichte 27(1-4) (ed., together with J. Bernard, Wien 2003), and Macht der Zeichen – Zeichen der Macht. Festschrift für Jeff Bernard / Signs of Power – Power of Signs. Essays in Honor of Jeff Bernard (ed., together with Joseph Wallmannsberger, Wien 2004).
Since the 1980s she acted as co-editor of the journals S–European Journal for Semiotic Studies and Semiotische Berichte. She is Secretary General of the Österreichische Gesellschaft für Semiotik/Austrian Association for Semiotic Studies ÖGS/AAS and in June 2010 she succeeded the late Jeff Bernard as chairwoman of the Institute for Socio-Semiotic Studies ISSS in Vienna; 1984 she became the national representative of Austria to the Executive Comittee of the International Association for Semiotic Studies IASS-AIS, 1984–2004 she was elected member of the board of the IASS-AIS (first Treasurer, then Assistant Secretary General), in 2004 she was appointed Honorary President of the IASS-AIS.
5/ Social Construction and Ideology in Animation Films
By Maria KATSARIDOU, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece
This paper is part of a research on social semiotics and ideology in animation films, which is grounded on the theories of Saussure and Greimas and Courtés. Animation, apart from being a complex semiotic system per se, also hosts under the term “animation film” many different forms of animation, such as cel animation, stop motion animation, computer generated animation, and others. These forms are related to different methods of production, technology, techniques, geographic allotment of production and socio-economic conditions. The aim of this paper is to evince through examples from animation films that even though the meaning is produced within the semiotic system of the animation film, it is related and connected to production, material culture and thus society.
Maria KATSARIDOU is a PhD student at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and an animator. She has worked in various animation projects and she has published articles on animation, semiotics and games. She is a member of Hellenic Semiotic Society, Society for Animation Studies and Digital Games Research Association.
6/ Abstraction in Semiotics
By Russell DAYLIGHT, Charles Sturt University, Australia.
When we press the “a” key on our computer keyboard, an “a” appears on our screen almost instantaneously. In between those two points there are a number of layers of computer program which communicate with each other: the keyboard controller sends a message to the operating system which is interpreted by a word processor, which then returns a message to the operating system, which communicates with the video controller and the video board sends a message that it needs an “a” and this is mapped as a group of pixels which light up on the screen. Except that none of this actually happens. At the level of physical reality, all that happens is the shifting of magnetic fields and the passing of electrons: guided by magnetic fields, the electrons orbiting atoms slide from one atom to the next along wires, among silicon and iron. Entities like computer programs and operating systems are abstractions, stacked layers of abstractions in fact, on top of brute reality. In this paper I argue that this is an appropriate starting point for understanding the role of semiotics in negotiating reality, such as when we “see” a “tree.” It is important because it resets the baseline of “reality” at a lower level. In most theories of semiotics which attempt to negotiate the physical world, the baseline statements of fact are so polluted by conceptuality that it becomes impossible to understand the exact role and scope of language and signs in conceptuality. My inquiry allows us to consider what kind of abstraction we want semiotics to be.
Russell DAYLIGHT is a Lecturer in English at Charles Sturt University, Australia. He is the author of What if Derrida was Wrong about Saussure? (Edinburgh, 2011), and several papers on language, signs, and meaning.
7/ Semiotic space and boundaries – between social constructions and semiotic universals
By Tiit REMM, University of Tartu, Estonia
This paper studies the opposition of social construction and cultural universals in the field of space and spatial metalanguage in social and cultural research. In more detail I focus on the notion of ‘boundary’ and its object, asking how can an understanding of semiotic and spatial nature of boundaries help social and cultural research?
I argue that ’boundaries’ should be considered being by definition of semiotic and spatial character. This leads to the understanding that boundaries (as far as there is a reason to consider them namely boundaries and not for example, mediatiation, translation, explosion,etc.) are, first, depending on recognition and distinction by some subject and, second, enforcing spatialization of the distinction. Thus, bounding is a practice of semiotization that dynamically interrelates levels of conceptualisation and levels of spatiality. The latter is based on the semiotic understanding of space as being grounded in relations of co-existence and their recognition by at least an indexical umwelt.
While boundaries are semiotic and often descriptive social constructions, there are also aspects of boundaries that can be approached as cultural or even semiotic universals, most notably so-called boundary mechanisms and basic semiotic nature of space and spatial distinctions.
The paper concludes with exploring the applicability of the theoretical argumentation for a semiotic approach in archaelogy. In what sense can we talk about cultural boundaries in research, as social constructions or cultural universals, as parts of object level world image or parts of researcher’s models, as material objects or as structural relations? How can we find boundaries in fields like archaeology and how can we improve our knowledge by considering these boundaries?
Tiit REMM is a PhD student and researcher of semiotics in University of Tartu, Estonia. He is studying the semiotic nature of spatial modelling. His research interest is focused on the spatial metalanguage of social and cultural theories as semiotic modelling, especially in the case of authors like Lotman, Bourdieu and Sorokin. He has researched and published articles on uses of spatial notions like cultural space and social space in social and cultural theories and on semiotics of the city, particularly on multiple levels of semiotization of urban space. He is lecturing courses on sociosemiotics and urban semiotics in the University of Tartu.
8/ Sociosemiotics: Centrifugal and Centripetal Forces
By Anti RANDVIIR, University of Tartu, Estonia
The emergence of sociosemiotics in the second half of the 20th century was of a controversial nature. It came along in the process of specialisation in the social and humanitarian sciences, accompanied by the discovery of new research areas and objects, oftentimes of ad hoc essence. Due to relatively specific studies, the paradigm of sociosemiotics did not appear in clear theoretical structure, nor was it featured by fine boundaries. It was characteristic that understanding this vague area was even echoed in terminology – sometimes this new land was and is being called social semiotics, sometimes sociosemiotics. Yet there are some decisive and essential arguments for preferring the latter.
On the other hand, search for the roots of sociosemiotics takes us back to the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. There we can find movements in the study of man, culture and society that were driven by aspiration for a holistic paradigm. The pragmaticist context of the birth of modern semiotics set up a completely novel understanding how to study meaningful phenomena and was defined by the pragmatic dimension of semiotics. This understanding was shared by ground-breaking works that formed ground for the birth of several disciplines individual disciplines during later years. Yet the foundation of psychology, cultural anthropology, sociology, philology was the same essentially semiotic soil.
The introduction of sociosemiotics is an example of the logic of disciplinary evolution in the course of formation, separation, joining and re-formation of research areas characterised by terms as multi-, poly-, cross-, inter-, transdisciplinarity. In the context of sociosemiotics as a possibility to again join together the semiological and the semiotic trends, it seems important to understand the fundamental need to study man, culture, society and environment from a coherent and holistic perspective. That, at the beginning of the 21st century, leads us back to certain fundamental scholarly principles the held a century ago.
Anti RANDVIIR is Senior Researcher at the Department of Semiotics, University of Tartu, Estonia. He is author of Mapping the World: Towards a Sociosemiotic Approach to Culture and Semiotics of Space: Mapping the Meaningful World; and co-editor with P.Cobley for Sociosemiotica. Special Issue of Semiotica.