Semiotic Profile

Jørgen Dines Johansen

By Torkild Thellefsen & Bent Sørensen [1]

Dines Johansen, Professor of Literature at the University of Southern Denmark, started out studying German, Psychology and Philosophy but then decided to focus on General and Comparative Literature. Nevertheless, his first areas of study have accompanied him throughout his scholarly career as one of the foremost specialists in the field of sign studies and semiotics of literature. Nineteenth and twentieth century German thought and philosophy, for instance, Freud and the Frankfurt School, in particular Habermas, have played a decisive role in his work which has insightfully and successfully integrated contemporary thought within a largely Peircean framework.

Johansen’s career took off already when he won the gold medal for Novelleteorier efter 1945 (Post War Theories of the Short Story, 1970). Completing his PhD at the Department of Literature at Copenhagen with a dissertation on the problem of literary interpretation, he went on to become Associate Professor at the Department of Literature at Roskilde Universitetscenter. After receiving a postdoctoral research fellowship at the Department of Literature of Copenhagen University in 1975, he was appointed to the Chair of General and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern Denmark in 1976, a position he has held ever since.

Once a member of the structuralist circle gathering around Poetik, a Danish literary journal, Johansen started out together with another well-known semiotician, namely Per Aage Brandt and a number of Danish literati, e.g., Jørgen Holmgaard, Torben Kragh Grodal, etc Hans Siggard Jensen, Søren Kjørup, Peter Madsen, Ralf Pittelkov, Søren Schou and Niels Erik Wille. However, the arrival of French post-structuralism and of Marxist literary theory functioned as a catalyst to split up the group. Whereas Per Aage Brandt translated Derrida’s De la Grammatologie, Dines Johansen leaned more towards Marxism, even though Habermas quickly became first priority.

It was in fact Habermas’ Erkentniss und Interesse (1968) and Karl-Otto Apel’s Der Denkweg von Charles S. Peirce (1975), published in English as Charles S. Peirce: From Pragmatism to Pragmaticism (1981), which initiated Johansen’s interest in Peircean semiotics. Intrigued with Peirce’s doctrine of signs, he went to Indianapolis to study the unpublished manuscripts at The Peirce Edition Project. The stay in Bloomington and Indianapolis (1982) greatly influenced his relationship with American pragmatism and contributed to making him the important Peirce scholar he is today. The result of these studies first appeared in the article “Prolegomena to a Semiotic Theory of Text Interpretation” (1986), and then in his pioneering monograph Dialogic Semiosis: An Essay on Signs and Meaning (1993). In the following year, he published – this time together with Svend Erik Larsen – an introduction to semiotics, Tegn i brug (Signs in Use), which still is a much used introduction to semiotics. In addition, he has published many groundbreaking articles on Peircean semiotics in both English and Danish (and in other languages). Among those are, e.g., “Let sleeping signs lie: On signs, objects, and communication” (1993) and “A diagrammatic modeling of semiosis” (1999), which won him the prix mouton d’or in Semiotica for the best article.

Dines Johansen’s general interest in semiotics and, in particular, in literary semiotics dates back to the 1970s. Ever since his dissertation on the problem of literary interpretation, his main focus has been the conditions of interpretation and how semiotics can define problems specially related to literary texts, which he discusses in articles such as “Hypothesis, reconstruction, analogy: On hermeneutics and the interpretation of literature” (1989) and “A Semiotic Mapping of the Study of Literature” (1998). This comes fully to the fore in his monumental Literary Discourse. A Semiotic-Pragmatic Approach to Literature (2002, which received the Perkins-award by the American Society for the Study of Narrative Literature in 2004, and his recently published Litteratur og intersubjektivitet (2007). Both make clear Johansen’s conviction that literature has to be studied on three levels: 1) as a special use (language) signs, utterances communicated by an author to readers at a given time und in a special context and 2) as a product of consciousness, deriving from our psyche’s ability to produce fictions (which we do that every night in dreams) about our desires or fears, which literature enables us to share. 3) Literature, finally, is a particular institution and form of literary discourse, which is different from other discourses. These three levels are interdependent: without signs, we would be unable to represent anything at all or even communicate to others. And if the representational and the emotional were not connected in our psyche, there would be no interest in creating visions of or stories about the imaginable. Finally, if we did not have institutions or forms of discourse for this kind of speech, it would be difficult to separate between literature, forgery or lying. That is what these two volumes investigate, though in different ways.

When asked what, in his own view, he has contributed to literary semiotics, Dines Johansen points to the following three elements:

  • The analysis of traffic lights in the third part of Dialogic Semiosis, which demonstrates the use but also the limitations of structural analysis, in particular when approached from Hjelmslev’s glossematic perspective, and why it should be complemented by a semiotic-pragmatic analysis. Here, Johansen shows the extent to which Peirce’s concept of semiosis better accounts for the meaning and function of sign systems such as traffic lights which involve much more complex processes than would appear at first sight. In fact, as his analysis makes clear that , so viewed, traffic lights function as an exemplary model of semiosis (1993: 311-342).

  • His semiotic text models, especially the so-called “semiotic pyramid” (2002: 55) which maps the complex relationships between the sign and its object and between the sign and its interpretant, as well as the dimension of the utterer and the receiver.

    The starting point for interpretation seems to be a two-sided relation between work and reader. For instance, representation, the sign-object relation, depends on the way the text determines its interpretation, and this cluster of relationships depend on the receiver / addressee’s knowledge of conventions, norms and models, attitudes and beliefs as well as on our cognitive capacity to use such models in order to understand or react to a situation. Not only must readers master linguistic codes and conventions, but they must also possess knowledge and understanding about the universe produced by the text. But the sign also mediates between the addressee and the addresser, which presupposes a mutual understanding of how to interpret it, which in turn depends on shared experience, knowledge and will to cooperate. Moreover, semiosis is intimately bound up with the addresser’s / utterer’s intentions and desires and the addressee’s / reader’s expectations and experience, which makes literary semiotics transcend the text to include a number of complex and complicating factors such as ambiguity, speech act particulars, polysemy etc.

  • The third element concerns the question about the iconicity of literary texts. Peirce distinguishes between three kinds of iconic signs: image, diagram and metaphor. An image shares qualities with the object it represents (i.e. a photograph). A diagram shares a structural community with the object it represents (i.e. a map or an architect sketch), while a metaphor depicts the object in another domain or in another medium (i.e. a thermometer, where the body’s temperature is depicted by the height of the mercury column). Thus we get three forms of iconicity, which all plays a decisive part in literature, imaginization, diagrammatization and allegorization.

    Imaginization ties the symbols of the text together with images, as in the case of readers to whom reading a novel is like watching a movie on their “inner screen” of consciousness. It also occurs when the reader recreates sounds images and rhythms from a written text, which generates feelings central to reading lyrics. Hence, the text’s representation of human joy or suffering ties itself to fragments of the reader’s personal knowledge and experiences. Some readers deliberately only create images of particular parts of the text: they may imagine a face, but not a figure, a furniture but not a wall.

    But the predominant manner of iconization may be that of diagrammatization, which is abstract, systematic and concerns the text in its entirey, not with focusing on details as in imaginization. To many readers, it is much more important to control the meaning of the various text elements and to trace changes as a kind of abstract operations affecting the relation between the single parts of the text. Diagrammatization aims to discover and to describe existing qualities of the texts. Hence, it opens up the text to various possibilities of interpretation, not as a claim to exclusively represent the text but that it gives a valid representation of the relationships buried in the text.

    Allegorization, finally, implies a continuously allegorization of the text in an interpretation searching for or adding additional meaning. Allegorical reading tries to relate textual meaning to what is – at a given time – understood as relevant and valid interpretation of the world and of life in general, in order to balance the textual meaning in relation to what is considered important aesthetical, moral or cognitional questions.

Johansen’s clear and instructive writings have been invaluable to any scholar interested in general and literary semiotics as they stretch far beyond narrow academic disciplinary borderlines to offer much wider views and interpretative possibilities, which no doubt will benefit both future literary and scholars in other disciplines.

This article is a modified and translated version of the biography on Jørgen Dines Johansen in Torkild Thellefsen, Bent Sørensen and Peer Bundgaard (eds), Danish Semioticians (forthcoming 2008-09).


[1] The authors would like to thank Christina Ljungberg for completely revising this article and giving it its present shape.