World Report

The Nitra School of Semiotics: A personal account

By Lubomir Plesnik

In literary studies the expression “Nitra school” denotes an output of the former Cabinet of Literary Communication which has become the present Institute of Literary and Artistic Communication at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Constantine the Philosopher in Nitra (Slovakia).

As most scholarly institutions, the "Nitra School" has its canonised history. Here are its basic points: The “Nitra School” was formed at the end of the 1960s. It was marked by an emphasis on what was then considered the scholarly standards of semiotic-communicational research into texts and the objectivity of their interpretations. Against the background of the heavily ideologized literary studies in former Czechoslovakia, the School was perceived as an attractive methodological innovation.

Methodologically, the work of the "Nitra School" was connected with the so-called texto-centric, structural, or semiological line in literary studies, in the pre-WW II period represented especially by Russian formalism and Czechoslovak structuralism. At the time when the "Nitra School" was founded this line of research was inspired by a semantic, or information aesthetics as well as by the New Criticism movement and post WW II French structuralist and semiological works.

The research of the "Nitra School" was characterized by team work and interdisciplinarity. The emphasis was put on the questions of the interpretation of art, the theory of the text, the theory of literary communication and the theory of literary meta-communication, or intertextuality (including translation, literary education, etc.). Since the 1970s, this research has been internationally acknowledged.

Without intending to challenge the official version outlined above, I will give a personal account and expound my own understanding of the "Nitra School" story, keeping in mind that there may be other views, but in the hope that this personal account might shed an interesting light on the history of semiotics in contemporary Slovakia.

Immediately after my coming to the Institute (in 1983), I perceived its status through the canonised story. However, it gradually took a different shape in my mind. Figuratively speaking, instead of a one-way avenue - which is the metaphor of that official version - it looked to me more and more like a multilevel crossing; the intersection of two roads which - as it always happens in multilevel crossings - first get closer, circling and intersecting each other, only to later continue in their own directions. One of the roads was a multi-lane highway with the direction pointers of world theoretical centres. I considered that its main constructor was Anton Popovic. The second road reminded me somehow of a track for a lonely runner. That runner was František Miko.

Indeed, I soon identified in the school two theoretical strategies. Let us examine them in more detail, since they reveal actual methodological problems currently confronting the human sciences, problems that exceed the confines of the "Nitra School" as well as the borders of literary theory.

The basic difference between the two theoretical approaches derives, in my opinion, from the central source of their semiotic legitimacy: the choice of the context to which a theoretical text relates and upon which it founds its ultimate epistemological value. In the first approach, the theoretical statement is decisively influenced by other theoretical texts, that is the context of conceptual statements (conceptuality is understood here in a narrow way, as a sign of theoretical style characterised by abstractness, semio-logical nature, facticity, etc.). The force that sustains this first aspect of knowing are other theoretical texts which:

1. primarily motivate that theoretical act - through an energy of estrangement of the automated rhetoric (the argumentation of "overcome procedures") or through coming to terms with current speech games (the argumentation principle of "new trends");

2. monopolise its themes (the central object of their conceptual re- or de-construction is another theoretical text);

3. become a determining criterion of the correctness of a theoretical act (using the principle of "agreement or non-agreement with authoritative texts" as main argument)

4. are main realizational output (a strategic aim of a theoretical act is to occupy a representative position among other conceptual discourses)

The most important sign of this episteme is the fact that the context of conceptual statements assumes the validity of a referential reality. For example, by literary taste are purposefully meant its conceptual definitions (a history of literary taste or its analysis are presented as a history or analysis of theoretical statements about the taste). This pan-conceptual strategy prevails in current theoretical discourses about literature and art (it does not need an advocate, which is also a reason why I will not deal with its priorities, expressed in its ability to ensure: communication among professionals, methodological evidence, immediate control, deduction and justification through a reference to other theoretical texts, etc.).

By contrast, the second theoretical approach, that was emphasised by František Miko, can be described in the following manner: Its legitimisation comes from that what exceeds the homogeneous field of a scientific discourse, what itself is not a scientific discourse and therefore creates its heterogeneous environment, the otherness context. Along this line, members of the "Nitra School" have approached that context of otherness either from the point of view of intention, calling it "life world", process - "living through", "sensing", or result - "experience".

Placing a theoretical statement in the mentioned referential framework may seem suspicious, especially against the background of the contemporary turn from the questions of being and consciousness to the questions of language, be them derivable from the Saussure's Cours de linguistique générale, Wittgenstein's work Tractatus logico-philosophicus or Heidegger's works ("Was ist das - die Philosophie?", etc.). But to what arbiter does a theoretical text appeals to in the light of this turn, if outside texts, outside the embodiment in the language, that arbiter - the context of "lived world", "experience" or "experiencing" - is thought impossible to exist. I must stress here that in the works of the "Nitra School" representatives that context was identified as a product of different semioses. In it was identified the wholeness of outer and inner statements, realised in various styles (primarily in the colloquial style, as well as in administration, artistic, scientific and other ones) and in different sign systems (including the bodily one). Therefore with regard to the above mentioned two strategies of theoretical conduct, the whole problem of the so-called language turn can be considered ambiguous.

The motive power behind the second episteme is thus a holistically understood context of otherness with which we are concerned not only as theoreticians, but as complex people of our life as well. It is in this context where the theoretical act of the second aspect looks for its motivating challenges. This context intends through concepts. The harmony with this context is a dominant criterion of the correctness of a theoretical statement. From this context the theoretical act derives its sense and through its sense it also turns back to it. Naturally, statements of this type of knowing can be "read" also in the pan-conceptual code. For example, the concept of experience - in such a way that we referentially support it exclusively by theoretical texts, which build on it (through the statements of empiricism, philosophy of life, positivism, etc.). In this case we, understandably, stay within the first episteme, not entering the second one. Therefore I would not derive the methodological background of the second, experiential aspect of knowing, from such a reading of great paradigms (including pragmatism). The tradition with which this aspect is connected leads across the paradigms and has its roots rather in practical stylistics, rhetoric and normative poetics (or in praxeologically oriented parts of sciences about individual kinds of art).

Instrumentally, that is from a perspective of the transfer of scientific information, of generic and stylistic identity and, especially, from a perspective of semantic construction, the second aspect of theory is also firmly rooted into the context of scientific statements. Otherwise, it would not be scientifically possible, since the mentioned two aspects of science do not really operate in an isolated contraposition, in the extremely sharpened form of distinctive signs to which I limit myself here. In fact, they form a complementary continuum. A decisive vehicle of strategic sense, be it denoted as the first or last one - and with this I am concerned here - is, however, only one.

In the Nitra School, the strategic framework of the second theoretical strand, which has been outlined above, has established itself both in research and in teaching. It developed in several stages.

In the first stage of the activity of the "Nitra School" (from the foundation of the Institute in 1968 roughly to the end of the early 1980s), the situation of the second aspect of theory can be characterized by contrast with the immanent approach to the text. Drawing on formalist and structuralist research, this approach focused on the literary text itself, in the context of a developmental order, that is, in the context of literariness. This model was schematically developed into a communicational and, later on, metacommunicational scheme. In the code of the first aspect of theory, the model could be contemporaneously perceived as a fresh innovation of traditional and a prompt citation of current trends in literary critical thinking. Within the second theoretical strategy (with its intention not to lose from sight the sense of the text as a functional link to the context of otherness), the communication model represented, however, mostly an expression of effort to explore the structure of the text from a perspective of its influence on people. (Terms from both ends of communication chain - communicant, receiver, addressee, recipient, percipient, reader, as well as addresser, sender, author, creator, etc. - have been thus covered by a trivial concept of "people" here. This requires an explanation. As it is known, literary critical terms are traditionally connected with a textual corpus. Within the mentioned strategy, the aim was to identify its "human context", which is terminologically covered mainly by philosophy and psychology, applying the concepts of the subject, consciousness, being, experience, or psyche, living through, apperception and other psychical functions. This involved a certain risk, for the mentioned concepts live in the code conditions of the mother disciplines their own semantic life. Here they are subject to special interpretations, corrections as well as challenges. However, we wanted to incorporate into literary theory a human sense of its subject and not to enter a "foreign land" of other scientific fields. So despite the fact that in the works of František Miko and his disciples the mentioned concepts are frequently used, they never resulted in psychological or philosophical specializations. They were transformed into literary critical conceptual language, within it approaching the sense they had in colloquial style from which they had been, after all, taken over by the scientific language (the procedure is not exceptional; only reflecting upon it is rare). If then, for example, the category of subject disappeared from the part of philosophical discourse, the concept of person in the live speech remains.)

The point of departure for the second stage of the "Nitra School" story (the 1980s and the early 1990s) was an emblematic thesis about the unity of text and communication. This concept was explained in a twofold way: 1. as an indivisibility of the different (example: "unity of soul and body"), and 2. as a correspondence (example: "unity of opinions"). František Miko and his disciples subscribed to the second explanation (unity as identity). Originally, this was supported only by a conviction, based on intuition, that an effort to interpret the work from the aspect of its human validity cannot result in the stepping out behind the borders of the text, that is the extension of the research, but on the contrary, its intensification. This, however, called for some definition of the text's borders, for coming to terms with the text's ontology. The answer to this question was a thesis, stressed in a parallel way, about the reception (Miko) or functional (Plesník) being of the text. The work as a semantic and formal quality has thus been situated to the sphere of human consciousness .

Outwardly, the works dealing with those problems had a form of unreal abstractions. Inwardly, however, this had very concrete consequences. Human experiencing of sense or the experience of a work's reception - that is what represents a context of otherness in relation to a clearly theoretical act - were thus stripped off of their status of being a secondary reflection of the work, an outward replica to it, and were given a validity of the field in which the text as an aesthetic object happens. In agreement with the strategy of the second aspect, it was a justification of the procedure through which the researcher intervenes in the interpretation of the text (also) as a complex personality, that is, in an experiential way, and scholarly operates (also) with that form of the work which is thus given to him/her.

Since the classic of modern semiotics Charles Morris calls the relation of the sign to the interpreter (a human) a pragmatic dimension of semiosis (alongside the syntactic and semantic dimensions), we characterized this conception as pragmatic.

Seemingly abstract ontological exploration had also organisational and practical consequences for the Institute of Language and Literary Communication. The reception was attributed an onto-constitutive task. This was a important argument in favour of the transformation of the Institute from an exclusively research institution into a research and pedagogical one. The teaching process was thus elevated from an auxiliary extension of the research to an instrument of direct connection with the reception of the works, that is, with the object of our exploration. Bearing this in mind, the project of teaching called "aesthetics turned to life" was begun in the Institute. It programmatically takes into account (also) those formal and generic manifestations of literature and art with which the students, the participants in the reception of the works, deal in real context of a living culture. This moment has been included into the Institute's research projects as well. In them, the idea of the poetics of reception and pragmatic aesthetics of the text has been fulfilled in a twofold way: first projects have selectively targeted the trends in contemporary arts which have not been systematically treated so far, that is the brutality, juvenilisation and visualisation of expression. Additional projects have dealt with a reinterpretation, from the perspective of reception and pragmatics, of phenomena which are traditional subjects of literary and art criticism (problems of morphology, form and composition of an artistic text).

The latest of the conceptual shifts (from the mid 1990s up to the present) is not a truly new stage. It is rather a further development based on the results of previous research. The cardinal question of the second aspect of knowing, the question of human sense, has been transferred here to the knowing itself, to the literary critical text. It is the question of the effect of theoretical knowledge on people, on the quality of their lives. The problem is typologically close to Schopenhauer's understanding of eudaimonology. The most recent woks by František Miko and his disciples show that art theories, if they want to come to terms with their eudaimonological sense, should open themselves to the context of otherness, not only thematically, but in their performance as well. This means that, without any detriment to their conceptual essence, they will begin to communicate directly with other levels of the researcher's life world or consciousness, that they will open themselves to what forms a semantic "environment" of the theorising itself. This is why in the naming of this conception the metaphorical attributes of environmental or ecological consideration have been used.

These challenging questions have been dealt with by several scholars (Arthur Schopenhauer, Carl Gustav Jung, Martin Heidegger, to name the most important ones ), addressing the sense of their field of research on the background of essential existential questions in their own ways. But these are already different stories...

If the two theoretical approaches are juxtaposed here, it is not with the intention of challenging one of them. It must be emphatically stressed that presenting a plurality of theoretical modes of knowing is not aimed at promoting one over the other. Eventhough one may have personal preferences regarding a research strategy, the fact that there exist different theoretical assumptions and research methods bear witness to the fertility of the human mind and, as such, constitutes a challenge for the metatheoretical ambitions of the semiotic inquiry itself.

A. Main scholars of "Nitra Semiotic School" and its bibliography:

FRANTIŠEK MIKO (*13. April 1920) - literary semiotician, creator of the system of expressional aesthetic categhories and the model of the receptional being of work of art

Research Monographs: 1969. Estetika výrazu. Teória výrazu a štýl. (Aesthetics of the Expression. Theory of the Expression and Style.). Bratislava : Slovenské pedagogické nakladatelstvo. 1970. Text a štýl. K problematike literárnej komunikácie. (Text and Style. On Problematic of Literary Communication). Bratislava : Smena. 1973. Od epiky k lyrike. Štylistické prierezy literatúrou. (From Epics to Lyrics. Stylistic cross-section by Literature. Bratislava : Tatran. 1976. Štýlové konfrontácie. Kapitolky z porovnávacej štylistiky.(Style Confrontations. Chapters of Comparative Stylistics.) Bratislava : Slovenský spisovatel. 1978. Style, Literature, Communication. Bratislava : Slovenské pedagogické nakladatelstvo. 1978. MIKO, František - POPOVIC, Anton. Tvorba a recepcia. Estetická komunikácia a metakomunikácia. (Creation and Reception. Aesthetic Communication and Meta- Communication). Bratislava : Tatran. 1979. Poézia, clovek, technika. (Poetry, Man, Technics.) Bratislava : Slovenský spisovatel. 1980. Hra a poznanie v detskej próze. (Play and Knowledge in the Prose for Children.) Bratislava : Mladé letá. 1982. Hodnoty a literárny proces. (Values and Literary Process.) Bratislava : Tatran. 1985. Verš v recepcii. (Verse in Reception.) Nitra : Pedagogická fakulta. 1987. Analýza literárneho diela. (Analysis of the Literary Work.) Bratislava : Veda. 1988. Umenie lyriky. Od obrazu k zmyslu. (Art of Lyrics. From Image to Meaning.) Bratislava : Slovenský spisovatel. 1989. Aspekty literárneho textu. (Aspects of Literary Text.) Nitra : Pedagogická fakulta. 1995. Význam, jazyk, semióza. Metodologické reflexie. (Meaning, Language, Semiosis. Metodological Reflections.) Nitra : Vysoká škola pedagogická.

ANTON POPOVIC (*27. July 1933 - † 24. June 1984) - literary semiotician, creator of theories of artistic (meta)communication, translation and meta-text

Research Monographs: 1961. Ruská literatúra na Slovensku v rokoch 1863 - 1875. (Russian Literarture in Slovakia.) Bratislava : VSAV. 1968. Preklad a výraz. (Translation and Expression.) Bratislava : VSAV. 1970. Štrukturalizmus v slovenskej vede. (1931 - 1949). (Structuralism in Slovak Science 1931 - 1949) Martin : Matica slovenská. 1971. Poetika umeleckého prekladu. Proces a text. (Poetics of Artistic Translation. Process and Text.) Bratislava : Tatran. 1975. Problémy literárnej metakomunikácie. Teória metatextu. (Problems of Literary Meta-communication. Theory of Meta-text.) Nitra : Pedagogická fakulta. 1975. Teória umeleckého prekladu. (Theory of Artistic Translation.) Bratislava : Tatran. 1976. Dictonary for the Analysis of Literary Translation. Edmonton : The University of Alberta. 1978. MIKO, František - POPOVIC, Anton. Tvorba a recepcia. Estetická komunikácia a metakomunikácia. (Creation and Reception. Aesthetic Communication and Meta- Communication). Bratislava : Tatran. 1981. POPOVIC, Anton - LIBA, Peter - ZAJAC, Peter - ZSILKA, Tibor. Interpretácia umeleckého textu. (Interpretation of Artistic Text.) Bratislava : Slovenské pedagogické nakladatelstvo. 1983. Komunikacné projekty literárnej vedy. (Communicative Projects of Literary Science.) Nitra : Pedagogická fakulta.