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Saturday, 30 January 2010

Society for Utopian Studies

There actually is a Society for Utopian Studies (based in Toronto) - publishing a journal called Utopian Studies!

About the Society
Founded in 1975, The Society for Utopian Studies is an international, interdisciplinary association devoted to the study of utopianism in all its forms, with a particular emphasis on literary and experimental utopias. Scholars representing a wide variety of disciplines are active in the association, and approach utopian studies from such diverse backgrounds as American Studies, Architecture, the Arts, Classics, Cultural Studies, Economics, Engineering, Environmental Studies, Gender Studies, History, Languages and Literatures, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology, Sociology and Urban Planning.

Although many Society members are involved in social activism or communitarianism, the purpose of the Society itself is to study utopianism rather than to pursue utopian projects. The Society sponsors an annual scholarly meeting and publishes the journal Utopian Studies and a newsletter, Utopus Discovered, which contains information about upcoming conferences and workshops, and details on publications in the field.

No Bodily phenomenology

My abstract "Intercorporality and relational being: Nature considered as an intercorporal body (the body of all bodies)" has been rejected by the organizers of the conference Bodily phenomenology.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

A couple of things

Here during my current visit in Tartu, I have met with my supervisor (today), with Timo Maran (heading the research project "Dynamical zoosemiotics and animal representations", for which I do zoosemiotic research), and with Riin Magnus and Nelly Mäekivi, with whom I am guest-editing a special issue of Hortus Semioticus (both yesterday).
Of the outcome: Preliminary plans about the date of the first in a series of regular workshops on dynamical zoosemiotics and animal representations, and a soon-to-be distributed call for papers for our special issue on the semiotics of nature, aimed at graduate students and young scholars in particular.

Enlisted at doctoral school

Apparently, I have been enlisted partaking (starting January 1st, I think) in a doctoral school, a 3-4 year project of EU format and Estonian coverage (with a topic akin to "Cultural science"). My final categorization, however, appears not to have been settled (since the Department of Semiotics has also established ties to a second doctoral school, concerned with linguistics, semiotics and philosophy), and it is said that I personally have no say over it - and that further information will follow.

Lotman/Semiotics of technology

What you find below was posted by me last week in the community SemioComm on LiveJournal.
I have just read "Technological progress as a problem in the study of culture" (Lotman 1988 [Russian], tr. to English 1991). A very rich text, dealing not least with various technologies of language (writing, printing etc.). Early on, Lotman attacks Thomas Kuhn's view that "[o]utside the laboratory everyday affairs usually continue as before" whenever scientific revolutions occur (quoted p. 781 of Lotman's article). Here, Lotman portrays himself in contrast with Kuhn - though Kuhn is in other contexts known exactly for emphasizing not only the the social workings of science, but also the way in which scientific intuition and common cultural intuition interact - think only of his analysis of the transition from a heliocentric to a geocentric world view (I don't know how much Lotman read of Kuhn?). At that instant, Kuhn defended the view that it was somewhat rational of the scholars of the day not immediately to adopt the new, revolutionary ideas - because they actually for quite some time contradicted common and accepted knowledge, as well as the everyday intuitions of the day.

As Lotman stresses, the cultural impact of scientific revolutions oftentimes takes time to materialize. "There is a repeated pattern to the immediate consequences of a technological change: having acquired new powerful means, society first attempts to use them for old ends", he writes (p. 782-3), "increasing its possibilities only quantitatively". Lotman's examples of ancient bureaucracies are amusing. His simple observation that the invention of writing made much more advanced architecture and infrastructure administrable is intruiging. In consequence, we can theorize (with Lotman) that the advent of writing also made empires possible. Statehood, then, is from this theoretical perspective a (actual, materialized, factual (though not necessary)) consequence of the written word.

Similarly prolific are Lotman's observations regarding elements in the emergence of capitalism. The technology of printing - enabling mass publication - is a central example, which further points to the modern phenomena of mass hysteria, mass mentality etc (as well as, as Lotman notes, expressions of individualism and eruptions of creativity). The individual and the mass - the individual as representative of the mass - the individual in opposition to the mass (thereby reaffirming the centrality of the mass, nevertheless)... Limitless optimism which can any given moment turn into its opposite, bottomless pessimism...

And I ask myself: This global (or US?) culture of fear and hysteria ... After 9/11 in particular, perhaps ... how is it related to our most recent advances in mass communication? How is language changing today, in cultural terms? This, I realize, is not a new debate... Perhaps the swine flu "pandemia" would represent a good case study. Have we been infected by modern language?

New biosemiotic research project

Kalevi Kull's research project "Biosemiotic models of semiosis" [Semioosi biosemiootilised mudelid] (ETF/ESF 8403) has been granted support from Eesti Teadusfond (Estonian Science Foundation). I am listed as senior personnel (January 1st, 2010 - December 31st, 2011), along with fellow Tartu biosemioticians Riste Keskpaik and Riin Magnus.

In this project, we are going to study the changes in general semiotics that are resulted from the development of biosemiotic concepts and biosemiotic theory. One of our points of departure will be the general semiotic theory as presented in "A theory of semiotics" by Umberto Eco (which is until now one of the very few existing treaties in the general theory of semiotics), and also some of Eco's later work that has developed the general theory. We will also consider the theoretical work of Juri Lotman (and in some extent of Floyd Merrell, John Deely and Paul Bains). The concepts we are going to study from the point of view of general semiotics will include umwelt, organic code, organic relation, inheritance system, organic need, functional cycle. The biosemiotic work to be analysed will include the models presented in the works of Jesper Hoffmeyer, Howard Pattee, Marcello Barbieri, and Terrence Deacon. The results will be published as review articles and case study analyses in the international top periodicals of semiotics.

My ETIS (Estonian Research Portal) data is to be found here.

Cf. also my question to Umberto Eco on science and fiction.

Monday, 25 January 2010

We the living - abstract to G10

I have just submitted my abstract to the Tenth annual gathering in biosemiotics.

We the living: The reception of Uexküll in Norwegian ecophilosophy

By Morten Tönnessen

Institute of Philosophy and Semiotics, University of Tartu

Submission to the Tenth Annual International Gathering in Biosemiotics,

to be held on June 22–7, 2010

at the Faculty of Philosophy of the Portuguese Catholic University (UCP)

in Braga, Portugal

Arne Naess (1913-2009) and Peter Wessel Zapffe (1899-1990) are two out of three classics within Norwegian ecophilosophy, which has been acclaimed for its influence on 'radical environmentalism' internationally (cf. Peter Reed & David Rothenborg (eds.), Wisdom In The Open Air: The Norwegian Roots of Deep Ecology, University Of Minnesota Press 1992). Both Naess and Zapffe introduced fundamental disciplinary concepts (e.g. 'biosophy' by Zapffe, 'ecosophy' and the distinction between the deep and the shallow ecological movement (thus 'deep ecology') by Naess). And they both based part of their philosophies on Uexküll's work – though Uexküll was admittedly much more central to Zapffe than he was to Naess, for whom Uexküll mattered first of all in the development of his early (pre-environmentalist) philosophy. For a start, we can say that while Naess in the main neglected the experiential and interpretative aspects of Umwelt theory, Zapffe added pessimism to the mixture.

Uexküll plays a significant foundational role in Naess' published dissertation Erkenntnis und Wissenschaftliches Verhalten (Jacob Dybwad, Oslo 1936) as well as in Zapffe's colossal main work (and doctoral dissertation) Om det tragiske [On the tragic] (1941). Interestingly (and fittingly), the Journal of philosophy characterized Naess' 1936 work as "a valuable contribution to a naturalistic, behavioristic description of [...] cognitive ’content,’ and the procedure of science". In Zapffe's work, Uexküll plays the role as the biologist, depicting the worlds of the living and not least the radical difference between the living and the non-living. By using Uexküll's Umwelt theory as a stepping stone, the existentialist philosopher Zapffe makes two basic points:

1) that there is a "brotherhood of suffering" ranging "from the amobea to the dictator", and

2) that humans are unique in having several additional "interest fronts"; not only biological interests but further social, autotelic, and metaphysical interests.

Despite the fact that Uexküll was first of all, in the context of Naess' work, influential at an early stage (and was read by Naess in a slightly simplistic manner), we see here how Zapffe's reading of Uexküll is informing also when we are considering the thoughts Naess was later to develop on the topic of self-development through identification with others. In Zapffe's case, Uexküll's Umwelt theory constitutes a central ingredient in his lifework as such. In order to understand the paradoxical tension between the sympathy/identification with animals on one hand and the explicit anthropocentrism in Zapffe's ethics (where the human experience of wilderness ranks higher than anything else) on the other, we have to start by understanding the biological outlook on which he build his existentialist ecophilosophy.

Announcement of zoosemiotics conference

The first announcement of the conference "Zoosemiotics and animal representations", to be arranged in Tartu April 4-8th, 2011, has been made (linked from I am part of the organizing team.

Full text of the announcement:
International conference
Zoosemiotics and Animal Representations
Tartu, Estonia. 4–8 April 2011.

Zoosemiotics is an interdisciplinary research program introduced by American semiotician Thomas A. Sebeok in the 1960s with the aim to merge semiotics and ecology and to launch semiotic studies of animal communication. The foundational idea in zoosemiotics is that relations between animals and their environment as well as between different individuals are not purely physical, but are to a large extent sign-mediated. This gives a significant role to the animal subjects, and recognizes more as well as higher forms of complexity in animals than previously assumed. A lot has happened since the concept of zoosemiotics was proposed: the rise of biosemiotics and cognitive ethology are two among many important developments in the field of animal communication studies. Now, almost 50 years after Sebeok’s initiative, the Department of Semiotics at the University of Tartu organizes an international gathering aiming to look back at the history of zoosemiotics, but also to look ahead towards the future of semiotic studies of animals. At this event, the scope of zoosemiotics is defined broadly, so as to include specific studies in the history of science, philosophical accounts of animals, case studies on animal communication as well as animal representations in literature and other media. At the same time, the focus of the conference is explicitly twofold: “semiotic processes” and “animals” are the key concepts that are to guide the conference as well as the individual presentations. To this conference, we invite researchers from various backgrounds who have been inspired by zoosemiotics or who are interested in different aspects of semiotic studies of animals.

Key topics of the conference
- Theory and methodology of zoosemiotics
- History of zoosemiotics, the legacy of Thomas A. Sebeok
- Practical applications of zoosemiotics (e.g. zoosemiotics and conservation)
- Zoosemiotics’ relation to relevant fields such as cognitive ethology, biosemiotics, ecocriticism etc.
- Animal experience (semiotics and phenomenology)
- Semiotic perspectives on animals in literature, art, films etc. (e.g. seeing man in animals, and the animal in men).
- Semiotics of human-animal relationships: historical, social and communicative perspectives (e.g. the semiotics of zoos, of wildlife management, and of domesticated animals).

The conference “Zoosemiotics and Animal Representations” has an international advisory board. All presentation abstracts will be peer-reviewed. The conference is organized by the Department of Semiotics at the University of Tartu under the auspices of the Centre of Excellence in Cultural Theory (CECT, EU/Estonia), and is supported by the Estonian Science Foundation (ETF/ESF).

Conference timeline
First call for papers: March 2010.
Deadline for abstracts: 15 September 2010.
The conference “Zoosemiotics and Animal Representations”: 4–8 April, 2011.
Deadline for conference publications: September 2011.

Postal address: The conference “Zoosemiotics and Animal Representations”, Department of Semiotics, University of Tartu, Tiigi 78, Tartu 50410, Estonia.
Organizing team: Timo Maran, Jelena Grigorjeva, Morten Tønnessen, Kadri Tüür, Silver Rattasepp, Nelly Mäekivi.

Friday, 22 January 2010

The global species

I have at long last (due to some technical email confusion, apparently) received the response from New formations to my contributed article The global species. They are positive, apart from to my omittance of cultural distinctions (in the article I treat humankind as a global culture, in very broad strokes).

I will revise it next week.

Animal play talk

I have omitted mentioning that February 18th (Tuesday this week) I gave a talk in "Filosofisk Forum" (University of Agder - Kristiansand, Norway) entitled "Lek som sivilisasjonens opphav" [Play as the origin of civilization].

15 people were there, pretty much as expected - and the discussion following my talk was lively and engaged enough.

Bibliographical reference for animal play article

Abstraction, cruelty and other aspects of animal play (exemplified by the playfulness of Muki and Maluca). Sign Systems Studies 37 (3/4), 2009: 558-579.

Includes abstract in English, Estonian and Russian.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Contribution to world phenomenology conference accepted

I have been notified that my submission to The 60th International Congress of Phenomenology (to be arranged in Bergen in August), "Semiotics of being and Uexküllian phenomenology", has been accepted by the organisers.

Inclusion in the programme is dependent on the delivery of a full-length paper by May 1st.

All submitted papers are copy-righted for the first option of publication by the Springer journal Analecta Husserliana.

Testemonial online

My testemonial for the University of Tartu is now online (under the headline "Degree programmes taught in English - University of Tartu").

Tuesday, 19 January 2010


My one man-company Spør Filosofen Tønnessen has now launched a new site, Spø, where offers of lectures, readings, Q&A sessions etc. are described (in Norwegian).

Yesterday I was in a meeting with the event bureau Kjentfolk in Oslo, and agreed to start working with them.

Testemonial for UT brochure

I have been asked by the International Relations Office of University of Tartu to appear in a information brochure aiming at recruiting international students (will also be published online). Below is the testemonial I have submitted.
It was the legacy of Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944) that brought me to Estonia, and the Tartu school of biosemiotics. My first visit took place in 2000 - the welcoming kindness of my hosts inspired me to return for conferences and eventually Ph.D. studies. Today I am involved in three research projects in Estonia, and I am happy to be part of a thriving and open intellectual environment.

Morten Tønnessen (Norway), Ph.D. student at Department of Semiotics

Joining the editorial board of Biosemiotics

Editor-in-Chief of Biosemiotics, Marcello Barbieri, has just invited me to join the editorial board of the journal, and I have willingly accepted.

The editorial board now counts (26 people all in all):

Myrdene Anderson, Argyris Arnellos, Stefan Artmann, Søren Brier, Luis Emilio Bruni, Paul Cobley, Stephen J. Cowley, Fatima Cvrcková, Charbel Niño El-Hani, Marcella Faria, Almo Farina, Mario Gimona, Peter Harries-Jones, Alexander V. Kravchenko, Dario Martinelli, Yair Neuman, Stephen Philip Pain, Susan Petrilli, Joanna Raczaszek-Leonardi, Luis Mateus Rocha, Stanley N. Salthe, Frederik Stjernfelt, Morten Tønnessen, Tommi Vehkavaara, Bruce H. Weber and Günther Witzany.

In addition, there's 4 associate editors ( Donald Favareau, Jesper Hoffmeyer, Kalevi Kull, Anton Markoš) and an Advisory board wherein sits (15 people, namely) Prisca S. Augustyn, Gérard Battail, Peter A. Cariani, Han-liang Chang, Sergei V. Chebanov, Marcel Danesi, Terrence Deacon, John Deely, Claus Emmeche, Cliff A. Joslyn, Koichiro Matsuno, Winfried Nöth, Howard Hunt Pattee, Alexei Sharov and Jean Umiker-Sebeok.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Contribution to the conference "Bodily Phenomenology"

I have just submitted my contribution to the conference Bodily Phenomenology, to be arranged in Sweden in May.



MAY 19-21, 2010

The body and the world are obviously related. Not only is the body the immediate centre of the physical world for any given perceiving (and acting) subject. Not only is any perception of ‘the world’ necessarily mediated by the body (organism) of the perceiver. We can further observe that the living world (nature) is in actual fact constituted intercorporally, in other words by the numerous relations that exist between the countless bodies about which we have come to learn.

For me, as a biosemiotician, embodiment is perhaps the most central general topic possible. Consciousness is but the top of the iceberg – mind, in the elemental sense of awareness of something, is everywhere in nature, since every living being is capable of, and dependent on, interpreting, understanding and acting upon its relevant surroundings. Mind, then, is more-than-human, even more-than-animal, and embodied mind must in its most general sense be taken to signify the embodiment not necessarily of an anthropoid, more or less articulate consciousness, but of a highly diverse repertoire of oftentimes diffuse awarenesses.

This is nature. An intercorporal body – a global web of bodies attuned to each other and routinely in conflict with each other – the body of bodies. This is nature – where body relates to body, as partner, as predator, as prey – a world built on bodies all partaking in relational being, a kind of existence wherein the particular beings (you, me, Muki) are constituted in and by their relationships with others.

In the course of this talk, I will allude to elements of the philosophy of embodiment in the work of Jakob von Uexküll, David Abram, Gabriel Marcel and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. My broader project is that of contributing to the development of an Uexküllian phenomenology worthy of the designation semiotics of being.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Third semioethics interview confirmed

My contribution (abstracted) “The Semioethics Interviews III: John Deely: Human Understanding in the Age of Global Awareness”, submitted upon invitation to Nova Science Publishers' planned anthology Semiotics: Theory and Applications, has been accepted for inclusion in this volume.

The publication is likely to appear either late this year or early in 2011.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Semioethics interview in Nova's semiotics anthology

I have submitted an abstract entitled “The Semioethics Interviews III: John Deely: Human Understanding in the Age of Global Awareness” to Nova Science Publishers' planned anthology Semiotics: Theory and Applications, upon invitation.

The first interview in this series was published in Hortus Semioticus. The second and fourth are still to find their places of publication (interested, anyone?).

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Academic reports II

The last few days I have, in effect, concluded 2009 reporting to two research projects, "Dynamical zoosemiotics and animal representations" (10pp) and "Methods of Biosemiotics" respectively. The former includes plans for 2010 (field trips, research stays, conference participation and expected publications).

In the process I am updating my info at the Estonian Research Information System (ETIS).

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

David Abram release date(s)

David Abram's follow-up to The Spell of the Sensuous, entitled Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, is scheduled for publication August 24th, cf. Random House.

A chapter from Becoming Animal, "The discourse of the birds" (which I can testify is good reading), will appear in the special issue of the journal Biosemiotics "The semiotics of perception", that very same month.

Academic reports

The last week I have completed two academic reports (and began on a third, having a fourth scheduled):

1. General report of the 4rth quarter for the research project "The cultural heritage of environmental spaces" (3pp)

2. Status report for the special issue of "Biosemiotics" Semiotics of Perception, due August 2010 (6pp)

As for the latter, Silver Rattasepp and John Deely have cancelled their contributions, while Ane Faugstad Aarø (UiB/Hermes text) is now on board.

Economist profiles

Now in place: