Podcast: Semiotics in The Estonian Summer

Playing back the interviews with several world-leading semioticians recorded at the Tartu Summer School of Semiotics in the end of August, one involuntary actor vividly projected over the human voices – the Estonian summer.

The park in Palmse, EstoniaChirring grasshoppers, humming mosquitoes, buzzing tavern visitors, popular Estonian music, voices in the night, and possibly, the falling stars – the diverse soundscape of the late Estonian summer in picturesque Palmse formed a unifying context for the interviews with four outstanding semioticians:

Boris Uspenski, member of the  Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School, Eero Tarasti, President of the International Association for Semiotic Studies, Winfried Nöth, Professor of Linguistics and Semiotics at the University of Kassel, and Marcel Danesi, Editor-in-Chief of Semiotica, a major academic journal covering semiotics.

Besides shedding light on the current state of semiotics and exploring the future of the field, the interviewees elaborate on a number of intriguing ideas and connections. It’s an expanded and relaxed version of the concentrated podcast: Semiotics – Lingering or Thriving?

Notably, both Boris Uspenski and Marcel Danesi point out an open atmosphere and lack of ideology in Tartu’s semiotic endeavors. Uspenski highly values the honesty and researchers’ aspirations to operate beyond ideology during the complicated conditions of the Soviet regime.

Both Marcel Danesi and Winfried Nöth outline the importance of technology, new digital media, and communication. Danesi argues that the concept of self-presentation has become powerful as never before: We use sign systems to present ourselves on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. “It would seem that the Internet has become a very large psychoanalytical couch, where people for some reason need to write a diary, an ongoing autobiography, about themselves – a lot of it artificial, made up, and a lot of it real,” he says.

I conducted the first interview with Boris Uspenski. After we had talked for a short while, it struck me that what I could hear in my earphones was just an ongoing soundcheck. The recording function was off, so the resulting audio starts abruptly and roughly in the middle of a conversation with this awe-inspiring scholar.

Winfried Nöth was working on his presentation when I approached him for the interview. He was positive and talked extensively about the life of signs. Indeed, life was flourishing around us in the shape of truly annoying mosquitoes.

Eero Tarasti gave the interview during a short break between lunch and a meeting on the international doctoral program in semiotics. Among other things, he pointed out the power of semiotics in dealing with “cross-cultural misunderstandings” in the Islamic world and elsewhere.

I knew Marcel Danesi as a fabulous speaker who formulates his thoughts in a very clear manner that is easy to understand – it would have been a shame to miss out on this interview with him. Luckily, I got his immediate consent for a talk while queuing up for a drink at the bar (it’s all about being in the right place at the right time).

We set up in a room that seemed less noisy than the rest of the tavern. At some point, when the noise became even louder, we moved to the table outside, but had to put up with the music and mosquitoes. When Prof. Danesi was talking about the great role of technology and how his famous teacher, Marshall McLuhan, interpreted technology, the batteries of my recorder went dead. No worries – I had fresh ones.

Tartu Summer School of Semiotics in Palmse in 2011

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