World Report

Report on the 9th IASS/AIS World Congress of Semiotics

June 11-17, 2007, Helsinki and Imatra, Finland

By Harri Veivo
University of Helsinki
The Finnish Network University of Semiotics

The IASS/AIS had its 9th world congress in Helsinki (University of Helsinki) and Imatra (The Finnish Network University of Semiotics & International Semiotics Institute) on June 11-17. The organization of the event was carried through by a local committee led by the president of the IASS/AIS, professor Eero Tarasti, and gathering over 20 Finnish semioticians and student assistants.

The theme of the congress, “Communication: understanding/misunderstanding”, attracted almost 500 participants from over 50 countries and representing all fields and trends within semiotics. The program consisted of plenary lectures given by Anne Hénault, Youzheng Li, Yuri Tsivian, Eliseo Veron and Eero Tarasti, and of lectures of the Fenno-Ugrian scientific, cultural and semiotic tradition given by Ilkka Niiniluoto (Rector of the University of Helsinki), Vilmos Voigt, Jaan Kaplinski and Pirjo Kukkonen.

The theme of the congress was discussed at a more specific level in round tables and sessions that constituted the main body of the program. The number of papers given in the 125 round tables and sessions was almost 570 and the languages used were all the four official languages of the IASS/IAS. It is thus quite impossible to give due attention to all the interesting contributions. One can however point out, on a very subjective basis, a few interesting directions and themes. It seems that the pragmatic-semiotic theory is gradually developing into a well established approach within semiotic research on art. Several interesting papers analyzed visual, musical, literary or multimedia art works with Peircean notions and within a pragmatic-semiotic frame theory of semiosis, proposing not only applications, but also opening up new ways of understanding both semiotic theory and art in a dialectical way. On the other hand, more traditional approaches, such as Lotmanian theory of cultural semiotics, still seem to be valid in analyzing specific artistic phenomena such as montage.

Biosemiotics was strongly present with several round tables and sessions consecrated to different aspects of the field. If biosemiotic research has by now established itself as a legitimate field of empirical research, it still raises discussions on the limits of semiosis and the place of human semiosis within the natural world – discussions which seem to get replaced by each generation of researchers, but, happily one might say, not resolved.

Within the field of social semiotics understood in the large sense, cities constituted one leading interdisciplinary theme. Different signifying practices within cities and about cities were analyzed in several sessions where the specific topics ranged from design districts to new kinds of urban theme parks and artistic interventions within the urban space. Another important field of research was the media, from TV and newspapers to contemporary information technology. Several important contributions especially from Latin America discussed the social and political impacts of phenomena such as for example transnational soap operas. One should also mention the “classic” topic of intercultural communication, which was discussed from varying angles ranging from local political conflicts to media representations.

The sessions and round tables devoted to theoretical reflection gathered a wide range of approaches varying from hermeneutics to modal logic. Peirce’s theory was strongly present, enhanced by the international “Applying Peirce” conference organized by the Charles S. Peirce Society that took place at the same time in Helsinki as the IASS congress, with scholars switching flexibly from one event to the other. However, the leading theme seems to be ethics, which has been advancing to the front line of discussions during the past 5-10 years and was now discussed above all in the sessions devoted to existential semiotics, the emerging “neosemiotic” approach that seeks to bridge a semiotic understanding of signifying practices with hermeneutic and existential philosophy.

The current and future state of semiotics as an academic discipline was the theme of a specific round table, of several informal discussions in the cafeteria and of the congress train that took the participants from Helsinki to Imatra after the third day of the congress. Despite its large diffusion, semiotics has been able to achieve a real institutional recognition in the form of chairs and departments in very rare occasions. Instead, several universities have developed networks, summer schools and small or medium size study programs on semiotics. Experiences from the different projects ranging from Finland, Estonia and Bulgaria to Russia, Israel and Bangladesh and developing in very different contexts were brought together with the purpose of learning from each others successes and difficulties. It seems that even though the local contexts are quite different, the practical and institutional challenges are quite much the same. There is thus need for further international cooperation in teaching semiotics.

A first step in this direction was taken in an informal meeting where preliminary plans for a EU application for a thematic network in semiotics were discussed. The idea is to start a three year project gathering 31 universities where semiotics is taught in one form or another. The project would then diffuse information between the partners and constitute a platform for seminars and workshops mixing teaching with research.

The congress was also the occasion for the General Assembly of the IASS/IAS, which took place at the Cultural Centre of Imatra, home of the International Semiotics Institute and the Finnish Network University of Semiotics. The president of the association and 6 members of the board as well as approximately 200 members of the Association were present at the meeting. The main topics discussed were the organization of the future world congresses, the membership fee and the functioning of the Association.

José Maria Paz Gago gave an overview of the plans for the 10th world congress that will take place in 2009 in La Coruña with the theme “Communication des cultures/cultures de la communication”. It seems that the preparations are well on schedule and that one can look forward to the realization of the event with confidence. Preliminary candidates for the 11th world congress were also mentioned, but the issue was not developed further as yet. If the topic of world congresses was discussed in optimistic consensus, one can not say exactly the same about the membership fee and the functioning of the Association and, especially, of its website. Several members in the audience expressed their concern about the difficulty in judging the relation between the cost of the membership fee and the advantages it offers as well as about the problems of finding information on the Association’s website. The comments gave rise to a discussion that was at times rather critical in tone; the task to find concrete solutions for the problems was forwarded to the board’s and the executive committee’s future meetings.

The congress hosted also a book exhibition and sale with stands by Mouton de Gruyter, Helsinki University Press, Umweb, Acta Semiotica Fennica and numerous copies proposed for consultation by reviews, associations and individual scholars.

The social program of the congress (a very important ingredient that should not be forgotten!) was rather extensive. In Helsinki, receptions were offered by both the University of Helsinki and the City of Helsinki; a gala dinner was organized in the Great Hall of the Old Student House, one of the historical headquarters of academic life in Finland. At Imatra, participants were treated to a reception offered by the International Semiotics Institute, a show at the international puppet theatre festival and a tango evening at one of the most popular dance pavilions in the country. Films and photo exhibitions tracing the history of semiotics in Finland were also shown in both cities.

As a member of the organizing committee, it is impossible for me to evaluate the success of the congress. Judging from hearsay from colleagues known and unknown, the local team did quite well; for all of us, it was a hard but most rewarding experience. I have the impression that the practical aspects of the organization functioned smoothly enough to offer the participants the opportunity to follow and enjoy a vast panorama of semiotics in its current state across the world and to take actively part in its advancement.