Summer School “Juri Lotman and the Semiotics of Culture”

Getting away from the heat, I moved north to the long-awaited semiotics summer school and a new season of Game of Thrones. Having crossed the Seven Kingdoms (four, to be honest), I found myself in Estonia where dried yellowness of Ukrainian fields turned into the deep green saturation of the forests that always have enough rains to drink and cloudy shadows to rest under. Tartu is my Oldtown: the second largest city in the country, a meeting place of historical heritages, an intellectual and educational centre that boasts its own Citadel – the glorious University of Tartu. But back then, tired after a long bus ride, I saw nothing but an ordinary neat town, unsuitable for stories about great battles and tremendous feats. However, after several semiotics lectures my Tartu experience became more vivid, as step by step I learned to read the city and its inhabitants: from left to right, bottom-up, in boustrophedon, chapter by chapter, as a hypertext, creating my own pagination, commenting in the margin and dropping ice cream on the pavement/parchment.

A weightless touch evokes centuries of grand narratives. Photo credit: Louise Moroz

The first lesson I learned from the semiotics course was to be attentive to the details and read a story behind every object: an abandoned house, a fence covered in graffiti, a signboard, a nameless monument, a cobblestone alley – someone’s aspirations and fears led to the existence of all these things. A weightless touch evokes centuries of grand narratives, so the pure brilliance of a semiotician can be seen in delicacy with which s/he traces resonant omens back to their primordial and ever-changing sources. There are no boring books, just bored and lazy readers.

This was not about us, the participants of the summer school, eager to explore unconventional city spots and add our own stories to Tartu everydayness via fieldwork translation – or transmutation, to put it in correct semiotic terms. Diachrony meets synchrony in the eyes of a decipherer who recognizes all layers of a palimpsest and therefore becomes its integral part.

My fellow summer schoolers are the most amazing people I’ve ever met. They are flexible and multilingual; they easily accept new culture and mentality and recite poems in the languages that are not their mother tongues with genuine and sincere passion, they are brave to doubt the obvious, and most importantly, they share the same values. What I especially love about Tartu summer school is that it gathered peers from the whole world and provided them with all conditions for long talks, long walks, and, I hope, long cooperation in the future. In keeping with the tradition of the semiotics summer schools, initiated by Juri Lotman in 1964 in Kääriku, and their democratic and sublime spirit, we often met in an informal setting, during our regular ‘pub sessions’ and at the poetry evening. Those events are very dear to my heart as they helped to feel other culture intimately and trustfully, through the voice of the Chinese girl reciting Mayakovsky in original, or in passionate discussions about the scientificity of history.

Louise’s fellow summer schoolers are the most amazing people she’s ever met. Photo credit: Louise Moroz

As for the course programme, our professors and tutors managed to combine profound academic classes with exciting extracurricular activity. I appreciate their efforts to explain vague semiotic concepts using the examples of Estonian culture and history. We both got a strong theoretical background and saw abstract concepts working in real life. For example, a lecture on cultural memory described Estonia’s ‘Great Battle for Freedom’ that made me look at the nation-building processes in my home country from a new perspective. During the lecture about transmediality I was so charmed by a phantasmagoric image of an Estonian bestseller The Old Barny by Andrus Kivirähk and its screen adaptation that I immediately put this book in my reading list. Get ready to taste delicious kohuke, visit a remarkable art museum of Tartu University, which displays Immanuel Kant’s death mask (an important destination for every continental philosopher!), see Estonian National Museum and National Archive – an astonishing evidence of how carefully Estonians treat their past.

Each and every of our activities was not just an entertainment, but a valuable addition to the academic programme because only as applied to real people and cultures semiotics becomes a fruitful and transforming science. I liked our well-planned schedule that allowed sufficient time for intense lectures as well as informal friendly meetings.
One important thing to add – in Tartu you’ll never feel alone as hospitable citizens will always be there willing to help you. At the summer school we were surrounded by absolutely wonderful volunteers who were always ready to give us advice, break bread together with us and explain how to analyze a city from the semiotic perspective.

“One important thing to add – in Tartu you’ll never feel alone as hospitable citizens will always be there willing to help you.” Photo credit: Louise Moroz

I am grateful to the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Development Cooperation Scholarship and a provided opportunity to live and study semiotics from the living classics in beautiful Tartu. I always think fondly of the Department of Semiotics of the University of Tartu and its staff – thank you for bringing us together and making these two weeks special and unforgettable for us. I highly recommend this summer school to people who have some background in semiotics, philosophy, culture studies or literary theory and want to deepen their knowledge and get acquainted with the Tartu-Moscow semiotic school. It is a perfect place to learn about the practical application of semiotics, conduct a semiotic field study and meet fantastic people. Feel the city on the tips of your fingers and tongue, breathe its history, talk to the citizens, weave a maze of languages, rhythms, streets – and let your white night semiotic watch begin.

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