World Report

Reflecting on Practices

By Christina Ljungberg
Notes on the Swiss Semiotics Association’s Biannual Conference in Zurich, 24-26 April 2009, organized by Doris Agotai, Rita Catrina Imboden, Christina Ljungberg, Marie Theres Stauffer, Margrit Tröhler

How do the sciences and the arts reflect on their own practices? That is what the 2009 Biannual Conference of the Swiss Association of Cultural Theory and Semiotics (SGS/ ASS) explored when scholars from Germany, Holland, Finland and Switzerland gathered at the University of Zurich during the two days of the 24th and the 25th of April. Art and cultural objects as well as the products and processes of technology and various crafts generate their own material and medial (self-)reflexivity. Furthermore, the interaction between the research of these practices and the scientific methods used in research does not only enrich theoretical procedures, but it also influences the crafts themselves. This draws into sharp focus the interchange between technology-based crafts and discursive practices within the areas of architecture, film, theater, literature, ethnology and history as well as philosophy, computer science, history of art and weaving.

The contributions were divided into three sections, “Theory as Practice,” “Media Reflections” and “Craft as Theory.” Setting the note for the conference, Winfried Nöth (Kassel and São Paulo) started out by questioning the traditional view of the sign as an instrument, which he outlined from Plato’s Cratylus to Wittgenstein, Bühler, Prieto, and Vygotsky. He showed that the view of homo semioticus as a semiotic craftsperson using signs as instruments in order to realize his or her own intentions and goals is opposed to Peirce’s theory of the sign as a quasi-autonomous agent in processes of semiosis, according to which signs are not only tools serving those who use them but semiotic agents with a certain autonomy of their own not determinable by sign producers. He then examined further anti-instrumentalist semiotic tenets in structuralism (Saussure), cognitive science (autopoiesis, distributed cognition), and the philosophy of mind, with a special focus on Ruth Millikan’s topical theory of teleosemantics, which he reinterpreted as a teleosemiotics. Nöth concluded with the argument that the awareness of how signs are becoming less and less the instruments of their users is becoming increasingly important since computers have ceased to serve as mere instruments but are becoming semiotic machines acting as quasi-semiotic agents.


Marga van Mechelen (Amsterdam) developed her thoughts on what New Art History (NAH) – the term was coined in England in the 1980s – has brought to semiotic studies. New Art History is viewer-oriented, puts the individual art work in the center, allows for several meanings and interpretations, which can have far-reaching consequences as she showed in her discussion of new digital media and fashion design with texts by, e.g., Rosalind Krauss, Griselda Pollock, Francis Frascina and Mieke Bal. In what he termed a “experiment in history,” Thomas Späth (Bern) analysed the anecdote about Cato Uticensis in Plutarch’s biography (in which Cato gives his wife to his best friend as mistress) and showed how a ‘factual’ text becomes the Ur-text for the production of other texts.

In the following section, “Media Reflections,” Thea Brejzek (Zurich) outlined theater production design as the ‘phantom’ between space and its dramatic direction in the theater as a non-linear process between cultural practice and the theory of performative space. What characterizes the notion of interpretation in the sense of a public and shared text, one that represents the work interpreted through processes of modeling and adaptation (e.g., contextualization, generalization, condensation and diverse forms of inferences) producing its own criteria of validity? That was what Harri Veivo (Helsinki) explored in order to get to the notion of interpretation, which he analysed as an uneasy balance between private, contextual and contingent reading on the one hand and ‘scientifically’ coherent and logically theorizing on the other. How signs are thought and produced by artists and designers was the topic of André Vladimir Heiz’s (Lausanne) sophisticated as well as engaging contribution which suggested new and surprising sign combinations and ideas. Taking the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor’s utterance that there is emotional awareness beyond signification as his departure, Akos Moravansky (ETH Zurich) talked about this architect’s attempt to capture “an atmospheric aesthetic” and acknowledged the need for further research in this area.

The extent to which the concept of structure in structuralism is flanked by the concept of texture and filled with metaphors from both weaving and building was the topic of Erika Greber’s talk. Opening the conference’s third part, “Craft as Theory,” she demonstrated the prevalence particularly in Roman Jakobson’s work of references to motifs from such domains as folkloristic handicrafts, sacred motifs in Slavic Medievalism, and modernist poetic theory in which textile metaphors and theory are often closely connected. Ellen Harlizius Klück (Munich) explored algebra as an arithmetic metatheory, using Plato’s differentiation between theoretical and applied mathematics to suggest that reflections on the structures used in pattern weaving underlie the theorizing of mathematics in respect to algebra, logic and algorithms. That there is a close connection between textile techniques and architecture was Christoph Elsener’s (B.E.R.G. Architekten Zurich) topic, who examined the extent to which building techniques have been influenced by textile modes of production and traced the influence of methods of textile production on both architectural theory and practice. Christian Tschudin (Basel) ended the conference by showing that, while the Jacquard loom allowed loom programming for different weaving patterns, modern computer programming based on the Turing machine functions very differently. The pattern challenge for computer science is how to program reactive chemical patterns occurring in nature in a seemingly ‘unprogrammed’ way, a question which already fascinated Turing.