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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.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Exam season

Lately I have finished a lot of compulsory course essays (5 the last couple of weeks). Here's a list of all 10 compulsory essays I have completed this semester (latest ones marked with an x) - 46 pp. all in all.

'On the Mathematician and the Student of Nature' (8 pp)
x 'On the Soul' (6 pp)

'Essay on Induction' (2 pp)
'Essay on Paradigms and Normal Science' (2 pp)
'Essay on Scientific Realism' (2 pp)
'Essay on Relativism and the UNESCO Declaration' (2 pp)
x 'Essay on Informed Consent and the Ethical Principles of Science' (3 pp)
x 'Essay on Peer Review and the Lomborg Case' (3 pp)
x 'The Scientificity of Biosemiotics: Why Bother?' (7 pp)

x 'Semiotics of the Nonexistent' ( 11 pp)

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Biosemiotics abstract book - contrapunctuality

The 9th Gathering in Biosemiotics, to take place in Prague, June 30th - July 4th, has made its abstract book available online. My abstract, 'On contrapuntuality. Semiotic niche vs. ontological niche: the case of the Scandinavian wolf population', appears on p. 45. My talk is scheduled to take place Friday, July 3rd, 16-16.30
In this talk I will argue that the notions of ‘semiotic niche’ (Hoffmeyer) and ‘ontological niche’ (introduced by myself) are complementary concepts. While the semiotic niche concept is best fitted to describe optimal ecological situations, in which ecosystems are functional, the ontological niche concept is better fitted to describe situations of ecosystem malfunction. The reason is that a ‘semiotic niche’ is plainly an expression of optimal (or desirable) ecological conditions and relations, whereas the ontological niche depicts the set (or ‘gestalt’) of contrapuntal relations that a being takes part in at any given point of natural history.
In one sense, therefore, the semiotic niche is a general concept, whereas the ontological niche is a specific concept. In situations where the ‘normal’ ecosystem is not left intact, a concept of relational being, such as that of an ontological niche, can be applied to exhibit in what way changing ecological conditions and relations affect the viability of a population of animals, and literally change their place in the world. Some examples will be provided in order to demonstrate the importance of not confusing a manifest ontological niche with the partly indiscernible semiotic niche.
One such example is the behaviour of Scandinavian wolves. Here, the semiotic niche of these wolves would represent their behavioural repertoire. It would be wrong, however, to assume that their current behaviour – as shy animals with a taste for moose and an evident preference for forest-covered, uninhabited habitats – simply reflects their general semiotic competence. Rather, it reflects how they apply their semiotic competence in a certain ecological and cultural context. The fact of the matter is that the behaviour of Scandinavian wolves to a substantial degree reflects our approach to them. In the same way as the shyness of this population results from our century-long hounding of wolves, their avoidance of built-up areas reflects their (partly embodied) experience with encountering people. Wolf behaviour in modern times, to cut a long history short, is just as much an indicator of human behaviour as it is an expression of what it is like to be a wolf.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Book, book chapter

1) My book proposal "The Growth Crisis: Norwegian Ecophilosophy and the Future of the Growth Economy", submitted to Springer, is in preparation for being sent to review. I have agreed to complete two sample chapters (ch. 1, on Zapffe, and ch. 7, on the future of growth) by June 30th.

2) My contribution to Eero Tarasti's anthology (Mouton de Gruyter) "Transcending Signs" is likely to be entitled 'Existential Universals: From Biosemiosis to Existential Semiosis (and Back)'.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Umwelt ethics, deep ecology and Spinoza

In the 30,000 character post 'Bioethics, Defining the Moral Subject and Spinoza', Kvond treats my 2003 article 'Umwelt ethics' in impressive detail, mainly from a Spinozist point of view.


An Ecology of Persons
"Code-duality" and Dual Attributes: Where is the seam?
The "Positioning" of an Imitation of the Affects
Triangulation and the Internal of Cause
Why not a Mountain?
The "Ontological Niche"
Total Umwelt and Biosphere Split

In his essay Morten Tønnessen steers somewhat clear from Hoffmeyer’s wider embrace in order to return to the rich heritage of Umwelt-thinking, and he tries to heal any solipsistic phenomenological drag from the concept by postulating various zones of “total Umwelt” expression. These are still phenomenological states, but simply totalized by some measure. Personally, I don’t see the advantage of returning to Idealism’s internal preoccupation and anchoring, something which ever must return to the notion of a subject. Yet, Tønnessen also extracts from von Uexküll the important idea that the animal and its Umwelt are inseparable. While this still leaves us on the wrong side of the ledger, Tønnessen’s transfer from a terminology of “Tier-Umwelt-monade” to “bioontological monad,” which he reads as counterpart to the biosphere[.]

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Academic news in brief II

1. First step of co-editing (with Kati Lindström) the upcoming special issue of the journal Biosemiotics, entitled 'Semiotics of Perception', is completed, as all abstracts have been gathered and an introduction ('Being in the World of the Living - Semiotic Perspectives') drafted.

2. Last Friday/Saturday I finished my Springer book proposal for the book 'The Growth Crisis: Norwegian Ecophilosophy and the Future of the Growth Economy'. 10 pp. A Norwegian language book proposal was finished in two versions over the course of the last couple of weeks.
1 Zapffe: The distraction economy
2 Kvaløy Setreng: Growth means crisis
3 Arne Næss: Sooner or later economic growth must end
4 Semiotic economy: An economy with room for the living
5 How we became so rich (and the Earth so poor)
6 How rich are we?
7 On the future of growth
3. The blogger Kvond recently posted 'Umwelt, Umwelten and The Animal Defined By Its Relations', in which he discusses a few points from my 2003 article 'Umwelt ethics' (he also refers to Kalevi Kull, John Deely, Paul Bains etc.). He finds that it is a wonderful outline of the possibilities of the thought of an Uexküllian deep ecological ethics, "including an informing critique of Uexküll’s actual political views, but it seems to lack a thorough connection between the two streams, presenting more a juxtaposition." I see that point.
There is much to be said ... about what a Spinozist/Davidsonian analysis could contribute to Morten Tønnessen’s Deep Ecology ethics, and even more to investigate in terms of just how Exowelten could overlap, and with what consequence. I hope to have opened up an avenue of extra-somatic interpretation of the real way that awareness crosses boundaries and resides in organs of perception beyond what is well-considered our “body”.
4. This week there are two guests in town, both Italian - philosopher Carlo Brentari, who is visiting the Jakob von Uexküll Centre and will be offering a 45 min. talk in a biosemiotics seminar, and a certain Umberto Eco.