Crimea “Referendum”: Welcome Back Home!

Mihhail Lotman is a member of the Semiotics Research Group at the University of Tartu and Professor of Semiotics and Literary Theory at the Tallinn University. In Tartu, Lotman also teaches in the international master’s programme in semiotics.

Art fulfills several functions in society and, according to the Tartu—Moscow Semiotic School, one of its main functions is prognostic. While the esthetics stemming from Aristotle sees art’s true nature in mimesis, or imitation of life, Juri Lotman emphasised art’s modelling function. Notably, the models that come to life after the creation of a piece of art are particularly important. Mathematician Vladimir Uspenski referred to this as Lotman’s paradox: not only does art imitate life, but life also imitates art.

Recently, an artist known by his pen name, Vasya Lozhkin, has become immensely popular in Russian social media. It seems as though his pictures and songs are acutely political; however, the artist created them much earlier and claims that he only pictures his own subconsciousness.

The picture below has become particularly popular in connection to Crimea’s “referendum”. Putin’s propaganda emphasises with untiring energy that Crimea is a native Russian territory, and what has taken place is not separatism or a break-up, but instead a homecoming. So: “Welcome Back Home!”

Welcome back home! By Vasya Lozhkin.

Welcome Back Home! Image credit: Vasya Lozhkin.

The Estonian version of this post originally appeared on Mihhail Lotman’s blog.

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How Secure Are Small Nations after the Annexation of Crimea?

Heiko Pääbo is the Head of the Center for Baltic Studies, Institute of Government and Politics, University of Tartu. His research focuses on international relations and history of East and Central Europe, mainly on the Baltic States and Russia.


Military conflict in Crimea. Image credit: Sasha Maksymenko / Creative Commons.

Estonia is a very small country on the EU-Russian border whose people are observing the events in Ukraine very carefully. Opinions vary, but the general public discourse condemns the Russian aggression in Ukraine, and at the same time tries to assure the population that, despite some similarities with Ukraine and continuing militant Russian position, “Estonia has never been as strong as it is today” and therefore Estonians should feel secure.

Nevertheless, there is still a lot of uncertainty and nervousness in the air. The actions, rhetoric, and imperialist ambitions outlined by Putin evoke memories from the 1930s, when Nazi Germany justified its expansion through concern for its compatriots (e.g. Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia) or forced smaller nations to accept it by force (e.g. Klaipeda/Memelgebiet in Lithuania). Memories from the eve of World War II, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union made a deal to divide part of Europe, including Estonia, are particularly sensitive.

The Russian aggression has explicitly challenged the post-Cold War international relations that aimed to overcome geopolitical divisions, respect the choices of small nations, and set diplomacy and cooperation far ahead of military intervention. Russia has made parody of the noble principle of protecting human rights. All of these signs should be alarming to small states and raise many concerns: how secure can these nations still be? And what should be done to restore security for small states? Continue reading

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How Understanding Our Mobility Makes Societies Smarter

Olle Järv is a human geographer who recently defended his PhD thesis entitled “Mobile phone-based data in human travel behaviour studies: New insights from a longitudinal perspective“, earning a joint degree from the University of Tartu and Ghent University.

The contemporary world is seeing a constant increase in the mobility of people, goods and information around the globe, which makes societies ever more complex, dynamic, and fluid in nature. Hence, how to maintain the operation of such a system and plan environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable societies in these circumstances? To do so, planners and policymakers need to go beyond traditional information sources and focus on human spatial behaviour at the individual level.

urban development

In developing urban regions it is essential to monitor urban processes and individual daily movement trajectories continuously. Image credit: Olle Järv

Personal spatial mobility and society

Individual spatial mobility is comprised of a complex pattern of movements and activities in space and time. It is the outcome of the continuous interplay between an individual, other people, and the surrounding environment and society at large. In addition to external factors, such as the layout of urban structure, legislation, or societal norms, spatial mobility is also determined by one’s social networks and is further amplified by information and telecommunication technologies (ICT).

Individual travel behaviour has become more flexible and fragmented in space and time, and the objective of spatial mobility may well be the travel itself as an activity. Scholars argue that individual mobility is positively related to an individual’s subjective well-being, creation of social status, and the premise for innovation. Furthermore, ‘being mobile’ has become an established ideology in the contemporary world, and is functioning as a new form of capital. Continue reading

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The Crazy World of Peer Review

Jüri AllikJüri Allik, Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Tartu, belongs to the top one per cent of the world’s most cited scientists in his field. His recipes for becoming a top researcher were among the top 10 most popular posts on our blog in 2013. This is the second post in Professor Allik’s three-part series on scientific publishing. See the first post: Brave New World of Scientific Publishing.

Peer review is one of those things that has made people repeat the famous quote by Winston Churchill about democracy: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried.” Speaking for myself, I don’t think that such praise is actually well-grounded when it comes to peer review. The other systems have not quite been tested thoroughly enough.

Corrupt Legislation, a mural by Elihu Vedder

The peer review system, based on what resembles slave labour and ensures enormous profit margins for publishers, is slow, ineffective, and amoral. Quite like Elihu Vedder’s “Corrupt Legislation” from 1896. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Thus, peer review is mostly an artificial hindrance, set to limit the number of publications. Expert scientists’ opinions of their colleagues’ work is in itself a good reason to write scientific papers in the first place. I will always say that the very essence of science is reciprocal controllability of the results that make it possible for the ideas to compete with each other.

Some ideas become appreciated and will live on in future works, based on the forerunners. Others are plain wrong or not productive enough and should rather become extinct. Basically, this means that the peer review concept is a system for devitalizing the ideas that are not fertile enough. A single question remains: Is there point in maintaining a complex killing machine for ideas? Maybe letting bad ideas die their natural death would cost less? Because science is turning irreversibly towards all-electronic publishing, there’s no great need for an obstacle that would help save paper and ink.

But before presenting a system superior to peer review, the one which currently reigns, it would be reasonable to enlarge upon the little-known dark sides to peer review. The system of review that closed publishing is based on has three main shortcomings: slowness, ineffectiveness, and amorality. Continue reading

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What About Disagreements?

Daniel Cohnitz

Daniel Cohnitz is Professor of Theoretical Philosophy at the UT Institute of Philosophy and Semiotics. He teaches in the new master’s programme in philosophy. Image credit: Benjamin Decker Photography

The Simpsons are funnier than Family Guy, at least for the early episodes. You object to my claim. You say that I’m wrong and that Family Guy is funnier. You and I disagree. However, our disagreement doesn’t lead to any excessive dispute, and that’s not because we don’t care enough about the matter. You and I are true fans, but de gustibus non est disputandum – there is no disputing matters of taste.

Of course, it suffices to take a quick glance at the comments that accompany YouTube videos by Justin Bieber to be convinced that this Latin proverb is not a true statement of fact. Perhaps, instead of saying that there is no disputing matters of taste, it should say that there shouldn’t be such disputes.

Why is that? It seems that the idea behind the famous proverb is that matters of taste, and thus matters of what’s funny or what’s delicious, etc. aren’t matters of objective fact, they are subjective in the sense that they are funny or delicious because we find them funny or delicious. Thus, when I find something hilarious that you don’t find funny at all, it’s not that one of us is getting the facts wrong, as when I say that Tartu is in Estonia and you disagree.

Disagreements about matters of taste suggest that there are at least some disagreements where none of the disagreeing parties needs to be wrong about the objective facts, where nobody is making a mistake. Perhaps this much is common sense. The philosophical problem, as it so often does, starts when we begin to take a closer look at the common sense idea. Continue reading

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Brave New World of Scientific Publishing

Jüri AllikJüri Allik, Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Tartu, belongs to the top one per cent of the world’s most cited scientists in his field. His recipes for becoming a top researcher were among the top 10 most popular posts on our blog in 2013.

This is the first post in Professor Allik’s revealing three-part series on scientific publishing.

To publish, or not to publish?

scientific journals

Few people could imagine the normal working day of a scientist. A scientist is imagined as wearing a white boiler suit and thoughtfully examining a test tube, with all kind of gadgets in the background. Actually, even an experimenter spends most of his or her time at the computer, answering emails or filling out often pointless write-ups and forms.

The older one gets, the less time that will go into research, and more time each day is spent making the results of the research public — also known as publishing. One of the ways to publish something is by going to a conference and presenting results there, be it an oral or visual presentation.

But one can seldom be a key performer at a big conference with thousands or more in the audience. Usually, just a couple of good acquaintances come to listen to your report, in addition to some diligent Japanese or Chinese, to whom you could have said everything in an evening with a glass of wine. It’s also bad that sometimes it’s possible to pretend to have message when, in fact, there isn’t one.

The most efficient way to report results is still through an article in a good, well-read journal. It’s possible that those in the humanities might be an exception, as they may consider anything less than a book not even to be a text; however, I have my well-grounded doubts about this as well. Continue reading

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My Farm Is My Stage: Insights into Estonian Rural Tourism

Ester Bardone is a researcher at the Department of Ethnology of the UT Institute for Cultural Research and Fine Arts. Recently she defended her thesis, “My Farm is My Stage: A Performance Perspective on Rural Tourism and Hospitality Services in Estonia”, and now continues studying rural tourism and hospitality entrepreneurship in Estonia. 

smoke sauna at Mooska

The sauna experience is a commodity to sell to an urban tourist. Eda, the hostess of Mooska Farm, is explaining to the guests the story behind a pictogram attached to her smoke sauna. Image credit: Ester Bardone

Why the performance perspective?

When I started my dissertation project I often heard comments such as: Why do you think rural tourism entrepreneurs are performing? Do you mean that they are deceiving their clients? You should study real rural life, not these fake attractions created for tourists! These assumptions reflect the challenges a researcher always has to face when getting involved in using theatre as a metaphorical analogy for describing social life.

Estonian Travel GuideTouristic representations of rural life, in turn, often amplify such assumptions, creating idealised or idyllic images of rural life, such as this image on the right, which is the cover of the Estonian Rural Tourism Association’s travel guide from 2009.

However, for my research, the performance perspective to rural tourism business did not mean merely describing similarities between theatrical performances and tourism services. It also included taking an interdisciplinary challenge and making sense of culturally complex processes, in Estonia as well as in the European Union, in which performing rurality emerges. Continue reading

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