Tartu and the MA in Semiotics: four years after

Remo Gramigna

Started in the fall of 2009, the International Master’s Programme in Semiotics taught at the University of Tartu, has now turned four. As Anti Randviir (senior researcher of sociosemiotics) pointed out during the last graduation ceremony’s speech at Tartu university, the moment in which international students joined this university and “entered its semiotic space marked the beginning of interaction and exchange of knowledge and values” (www.uttv.ee/naita?id=12385) . Likewise, Prof. Kalevi Kull (head of the Department of Semiotics and professor of biosemiotics) during his welcoming speech for the same occasion, almost two years ago, has remarked that “the best periods in the history of Tartu university have been characterized by the interest of students from other countries to come and study here…Today we can say that such a period has begun again” (www.uttv.ee/naita?id=5574). Thus, Tartu and semiotics are experiencing a new era of interest and growth thanks to the encounter, exchange and dialogues of different cultures. Tartu itself has always been a place where diverse cultures met: Baltic-Germans, Russian and Estonian. Indeed, this situation is also evident in the developments of semiotics as such where the key figures rest Juri Lotman and Jakob von Uexkull. To this we ought to add the influence of American branch of semiotics through the leading figure of Thomas A. Sebeok.

The Department of Semiotics was established in 1992. This establishment entailed a division between the Department of Russian Literature –where semiotics was taught during the 1960s and 1970s by Juri Lotman and his colleagues – and the Department of Semiotics. Since 1992, thus, Semiotics has got its own programme and an independent curriculum. At the present, the program of semiotics includes four curricula – bachelor, master and doctoral studies (in Estonian), plus the International Master’s Programme (in English). The latter thus represents a completion of the process of institutionalisation of semiotics in Tartu.
In the spring of 2012 the department has seen its second wave of international students graduating in semiotics. Among the fifteen graduates there were students coming from Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Egypt, Latvia, Mexico, Lithuania, Serbia, and U.S.A. Many of them graduated with cum laude and some are continuing their semiotic studies in Tartu at doctoral level. During the current academic year eleven international candidates were admitted in the MA in Semiotics.

In 2011 the “Tartu Summer School of Semiotic”  took place in Palmse (north Estonia). The importance of this event is linked to the history of the Tartu-Moscow school. In fact, a series of summer schools held in Kääriku during the 1960s led to the establishment of the semiotics of culture. Reawakening the spirit of the ‘old times’, the Summer School 2011 focused on a key issue for the Tartu-Moscow school, namely, the concept of ‘semiotic modelling’. Many were the participants and here there are four interviews available on-line that were conducted with some of the main figures that attended to the event: 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) (blog.ut.ee/podcast-semiotics-in-estonian-summer/).
The year 2012 has brought many important events celebrating semiotics in Tartu. First of all, we can remember the international conference “Cultural Polyglotism” dedicated to Juri Lotman’s 90th Anniversary which took place in Tartu from 28th of February to the 2nd of March 2012, organized by Department of Semiotics and Chair of Russian Literature in Tartu University. The event focused on Juri Lotman’s insights in his last book, “Culture and Explosion”, with specific reference to his idea of cultural polyglotism. Beside the conference, the event included the opening of the exhibition Lotman’s School today and the award ceremony for the ‘Juri Lotman stipendium’ which is an award assigned, since 2011, to one semiotic and one Slavic philology student every year (blog.ut.ee/yuri-lotman-90/).
During the summer of 2012 the University of Tartu hosted the 12th International Gathering of Biosemiotics . The gathering, started in 2006, is an annual meeting of biosemioticians from all around the world and this year has seen a conspicuous number of participants.

From left: Davi William Herreira Gomes (Brazil), Tyler James Bennett (USA), Karlina Vaivade (Latvia), Sigita Tamošauskaite (Lithuania), Claudio Julio Rodriguez Higuera (Chile), Iuliia Popova (Ukraine), Thomas Mark Boyle (USA)

Now the very first documentary directed by a PhD student in semiotics that introduces the International MA Programme has been launched. The main aim of the short film is to portray Tartu and semiotics through the words of students and professors who actually study and work at the University of Tartu. The original idea was exactly to provide a view from within. The video presents 10 interviews with international and Estonian students of semiotics of the University of Tartu (first year MA students, second year MA students and doctoral students) as well as professors of semiotics. The title, Märk, is an Estonian word that means ‘sign’. The video was shot in Tartu during May, June and July 2012. The original soundtrack for the film includes works written by the Italian-American composer Walter Bianco. Hopefully this video, now available in YouTube, will be of use for degree-seeking students who search for information about semiotics in Tartu and it might also serve to spread semiotic ideas around the world.

1 Comment

  1. I love this review. However, there is a lacuna in the tremendous development of semiotic research in Tartu and cultural revivalism in sub-Saharan Africa. We have been left out of this mode of cultural investigation, though you have mentioned Egypt. I am researching the semiotics of African mask for my M.phil. If I am given the opportunity Tarttu is the site to engineer my discourse into a formidable theory.Thank you for this insightful review.

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