Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Wolves, traffic lights and cultural mix

[From Aftenposten's supplementary ad magazine on Estonia, May 27th, 2009 - Norwegian text: Øyvind Rangøy (for transcription, see Utopisk Realisme)]

Norwegian Morten is the first foreign doctoral candidate in semiotics: Wolves, traffic lights and cultural mix

Morten Tønnessen (33) is not only the only Norwegian doctoral student at the University of Tartu, but also the first foreign doctoral candidate at the Department of semiotics. But probably not the last.

We meet Morten in the student town Tartu, and he would like to explain for us what semiotics is. – A familiar example is traffic lights. It is one of the most obvious signs that most people can understand. When you have green and red with yellow in between, most people know that this has a conventional meaning. Green means go – and so on. But it is also a double-encoding, an encoding according to the order. A quick glance at a traffic light, and you can easily get what you are supposed to do. They are symbols with a random meaning that has simply been agreed upon.

Semiotics is thus the study of the signs and the use of them, we are told. – But then we see how many people today just look at the signs – traffic lights – and no longer at the traffic. This is for me a sign of alienation, people are so overtly present in the reality of signs that they no longer see the nature behind it, says Morten.

Semiotics is dealing with the functioning of signs, Morten explains, engaged. – And with the context. Part of the first a semiotician will ask, is what context the signs function in.


– When there is talk of Tartu and semiotics, often the "Tartu-Moscow School" is mentioned. What is that?

– This is a tradition or school in the area of semiotics which is primarily related to Juri Lotman’s work and to semiotics of culture. Lotman and others develop models for society and how cultures and subcultures can be analyzed. But another tradition of semiotics that Tartu and Estonia has is related to the Baltic-German biologist Jakob von Uexküll. – This is more important in my own work. He was the predecessor of the so-called biosemiotics, or semiotics of nature. In Estonia, there is both a tradition of cultural semiotics and a tradition of natural semiotics – a kind of philosophy of nature on the relationship between man and nature. This makes Tartu a potent place in semiotics internationally.

Morten develops what is properly called an Uexküllian phenomenology, a kind of philosophy of nature in which Jakob von Uexküll is important. – A core concept is environmental change, in conjunction with the concrete experienced life worlds of humans and other living beings. Moreover, I have a case study on Norwegian wolf management – a Norwegian-Estonian research project that compares ecological space in Estonia and in Norway.


It is no coincidence that the central persons in the Estonian tradition of semiotics have a diverse cultural background, says Morten: – Juri Lotman was a Russian Jew. He had a complex background, and ended up in Tartu because he was not tolerated in Russia. Soviet powers allowed him to be in a kind of internal exile in the Empire's periphery, and Tartu had an old university tradition. In the 60ies Lotman established the first international journal for semiotics – Sign Systems Studies – which is still published in Tartu.

The other source of the semiotics tradition – Jakob von Uexküll, however, was from a German cultural background and another time. He took his basic university education in Tartu, but was later active elsewhere in Europe. He regarded himself as German, even though Estonia today regards him as one of their own.

A Russian immigrant and a German emigrant are thus important in the Estonian project of semiotics, and this, Morten thinks, is an important point: – The cultural mix was probably part of motivation for these scholars.


– Why hasn’t there been any foreign doctoral student in semiotics here before?

– Yes, why hasn’t anyone gone here on their own before, with that kind of ambition? It is only in recent years that the University of Tartu has sought actively for foreign students at all levels. Now, just like in Norway, there is an internationalization going on at the university here. Currently there are only 5-600 international students here, of 15-20000.

Morten has some visits in Tartu behind him even before he started on his doctoral studies. This year he came to start for real [not so exact...], and his Ph.D. should be completed in 2011. Until then he lives permanently in Tartu with his wife Helena, who is from Brazil.


Tartu, with its about 100,000 inhabitants, is a great city to study, he says. – The students are very visible on the urban scene. The city is also small enough to be pretty transparent when it comes to the subjects I am involved in. It is a city that it is easy to feel at home in, just the right size. At the same time, the institution of the University of Tartu is old and large enough to carry the bulk of the Estonian academic tradition. Tartu is a kind of cultural capital.

Morten the semiotician also has a tip for those who might have become interested in what he is doing. Namely that in the fall, the University of Tartu opens an English language master programme in semiotics.


If you want to learn Estonian, Estonia is the obvious choice. But Estonian institutions further have more than 100 approved international study programs in English. A usual path is 3 years Bachelor + 2 years Master. Some study places are free of charge, if there are any tuition fees Lånekassen can give support.

English Language master - hot tips:

– ICT applications at the Tallinn Technical University and University of Tartu: Cyber Security and Software Engineering.

– The Film Arts – Baltic Film and Media School (BFM), Tallinn.

– Animation – Estonian Academy of Fine Art, Tallinn

– Materials and Processes for Sustainable Energetic – Univ of Tallinn.

– Applied Measurements Science – Univ. in Tartu.

– Semiotics – Univ. in Tartu.

More information:

Source: Mariann Lugus, the Archimedes foundation.

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