World Report

Semiotics in Sweden

By Göran Sonesson

Unlike its close neighbour, Denmark, Sweden has not been a contributor to any of the classical traditions of semiotics. It is only in the last two or three decades that semiotics has slowly begun to establish itself in this country, thanks to the efforts of a small number of scholars working against the grain of accepted university policy. And yet, there is more to semiotics is Sweden than what is commonly known as "the Swedish school" (which could a little more adequately be called the Lund school, as will be done here).

There are at least two ways of writing the history of a discipline such as semiotics which is only now in the process of institutionalisation: either you take account of everything which may even remotely have something to do with semiotics, including movements which are vaguely associated with it in some way, such as structuralism, and poststructuralism; or you apply more strict criteria, referring only to those works which explicitly set out to develop a semiotic theory, making at least some use of the concepts and approaches taken over from recognised semiotic traditions. Several years ago, I already tried my hand at writing the first kind of history of Swedish semiotics ; here, I will opt for the second approach. The reason for this is not only the shortage of space; there simply is more semiotics in Sweden now, even according to the stricter criteria. This will also allow me to bring the account up to the present time.

The institutional framework of Swedish semiotics

As most other places of the world, Sweden has is own association of semiotics, the Swedish Society for Semiotic Studies (sffs), founded in Stockholm in 1991, with Göran Sonesson from Lund University as its first president, followed in 1992 by Göran Rossholm (Stockholm University), and in 2002 by Richard Hirsch (Linköping University). The Swedish Society organised a symposium on the semiotics of culture (with Boris Uspenskij among the invited speakers), in Winter 1993; and a symposium on narratology in October 1994 in Stockholm (invited speakers were Gerald Prince, David Bordwell, James Paul Gee, and Franz Stanzel). This was followed by other conferences in Gothenburg 1995 (with, among others, Roland Posner as an invited speaker), in Linköping in 1997, in Umeå, in 1999 and, in Falun/Borlänge in April 2002.

However, Sweden has also been an active participant in the Nordic Association for Semiotic Studies (NASS), founded in Helsinki in 1987, the seat of which was moved to Lund when Sonesson became its president in 1992. The Nordic Network of Semiotics, created by the NASS in 1993 and financed by the Nordic Research Academy, was also centred in Lund during its seven years of existence. The Second Congress of NASS, which was also the first congress of the Swedish Society, took place in Lund in July 1992. Invited speakers were Francis Edeline and Roland Posner. It was concurrent with the First Nordic Summer School of semiotics, the teachers of which were Igor Cernov, Roland Posner, Dinda Gorlée, Sven Erik Larsen, Jørgen Dines Johansen, Eero Tarasti and Göran Sonesson.

Several other NASS events have taken place in Lund, such as "Modern times/Modern spaces" in December 1993, with lectures by the members of the Nordic network in semiotics and by the French semiotician Manar Hammad; "Visual rhetoric" in April 1994 with participants from Nordic countries; and a conference on "Semiotics and cognitive science" in November 2001. Several international symposia of semiotic interest (with a notable narratological bent) have also been organised through the years in Stockholm by Göran Rossholm with Ann Banfield, James Bordwell, Lubomir Dolezel, Monika Fludernik, Gerald Prince, Franz Stanzel, Claude Vandeloise and Hayden White as invited speakers.

Lund university is the only institution in Sweden boasting a Department of semiotics, where, since 1998, doctorate studies may be conducted. The department grew out of a graduate level seminar, simply known as the Semiotics Seminar, organised informally, but regularly, by Göran Sonesson, from 1986 onwards, first as a way of discussing the findings of his research later published in the book Pictorial Concepts, but then broadening its scope. Participants were doctorate students from a wide range of academic fields using semiotics in their work who thus had an opportunity to present their work at the seminar. The seminar had no official status at the time: it was simply an initiative by Sonesson all through a period when he held many different research positions at Lund University, mostly financed by external funding. At present, there are three graduate students at the department, but the Semiotics seminar continues also to function as a very successful interdisciplinary meeting place for other students and scholars.

Apart from being a seminar, the Department of semiotics at Lund University is also a research centre and a resource centre for semiotics. The surprisingly well-frequented web site maintained by the Department of semiotics (, which exists since 1996, is no doubt the most visible face of Swedish semiotics around the world.

The semiotics seminar was preceded by other, entirely extra-mural, initiatives for the furthering of semiotics. In 1972, Sonesson organised in Lund the Lund Semiotics Circle, a gathering of university students, which however only survived for a year. There has been a Semiotic Circle in another university town, Umeå, created in 1977, and reinstated in 1994, by Alfredo Castro and Anders Marner. The first graduate level course for the whole Faculty of humanities was, as far as can be ascertained, an introduction to semiotics and phenomenology given by Sonesson in Lund in 1977. A more complete two-part graduate course for the whole faculty was given again by Sonesson in 1994. These courses are now part of the Lund graduate program, which comprises four years of study, and includes courses in general semiotics, a specialisation for each student, and a doctorate thesis. The thematic core consists of visual semiotics, semiotics of culture, and semiotic theory. The research profile of the Lund department may best be described as an attempt to wed classical semiotic traditions such as the Prague school, the Tartu school, the Bakhtin circle, Peirce, and French structuralism, as well as Husserlean phenomenology, to more recent findings in the psychology of perception, cognitive psychology, and cognitive science, this giving a more empirical characther to semiotic research.

Since 1990, a faculty course in semiotics has been given once a year, with some interruptions, at Stockholm University. It has undergone several changes through the years but has all the time devoted much attention to Nelson Goodman's theory of symbols. There has also been a graduate seminar during the period 1990-1996, visited by invited scholars such as Jurij Lotman, Boris Uspenskij, Seymor Chatman, Renate Lachman, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Jørgen Dines Johansen, Boris Gasparov, and Wolf Schmid. Like the course, it was organised by Göran Rossholm at the Department of Literature (initially in co-operation with Kjell-Lars Berge at the Department of Nordic Languages). The following years, up to 2002, some of the semiotic themes and problems discussed at this seminar were integrated into three seminar series within the project "Meaning and Interpretation" (financed by the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation, directed by professor Dag Prawitz). These seminars, organised by Rossholm in collaboration with Staffan Carlshamre, Professor of Philosophy, and Staffan Hellberg, Professor in Nordic Languages, were devoted to aesthetic interpretation, perspective, and fictionality, respectively.

In Lund, an undergraduate course in semiotics, open to all students, has only come into existence this year (2004), but is has been preceded, since 1992, by a course in visual semiotics, given as part of the art history curriculum, by Sonesson. Sporadically, courses in semiotics have been organised at other universities, for instance by Richard Hirsch at the Institute of linguistics in Gothenburg in 1990.

Before leaving the discussion of the institutional level, it should be noted that the creation of the Department of semiotics in Lund, in 1998, constituted a recognition, on the part of educational authorities, of semiotics as a discipline, as did the earlier attribution to Sonesson of the title "reader in semiotics", in 1990, and of full professorship, in 2000. The same applies to the research position created by the Swedish Research Council in 2001. For the same reason, it is worthwhile to mention here the research project, "Language, gesture, and pictures from the point of view of semiotic development", initiated two years ago, which is a collaborative effort by the Departments of semiotics, linguistics, and cognitive science at the University of Lund (henceforth called the SGB-project; cf. Starting in 2005, the three Lund institutes will take the collaboration further, when embarking on the EU-financed project of a explictly semiotica character, "Stages in the evolution and development of sign use", together with different institutes in London, Portsmouth, Leipzig, Marseilles, and Rome.

Semiotics of language and literature

In the early seventies, there were efforts by the linguist Bertil Malmberg, at Lund University, and the literary scholar Kurt Aspelin, in Gothenburg, to introduce semiotics in Sweden. In spite of his international reputation, Malmberg was not particularly successful in this respect in his own country, since he was associated with classical linguistic structuralism which was felt to be old-fashioned in comparison with the Chomsky paradigm which at the time reigned unchallenged.

Malmberg's introduction to semiotics, published in Swedish in 1973 and translated into a number of languages, is focused, as is natural, on the Saussurean heritage and on the linguistic sign, the nature of which is discussed, but the problematic is then widened so as to encompass also "larger signs" such as literary texts, in addition to different writing systems, the sign languages of the deaf, traffic signs and railway signals, diagrams, aesthetical signs, myths, and codes of behaviour. His later, more theoretical, book Signes et symboles, argues for a clear-cut distinction between linguistic significations, termed signs, which are characterised by double articulation, and by the separation of the signified from its referent, and, on the other hand, symbols, where none of these features are to be found. A student of Malmberg, who nevertheless embraced semiotics through a quite different trajectory, Göran Sonesson wrote a doctoral dissertation in 1978, in which he criticised pragmatics as an approach treating all but linguistic meaning as a residue, and suggesting to substitute for pragmatic theories a semiotic framework which construes all meaning as being on par. This semiotic framework, for which any context is just another text, was based on perception, described in the style of Husserlean phenomenology and the psychology of perception. A Nordic scholar who has written widely on stylistics and rhetoric, Peter Cassirer (Gothenburg) has often also included references to semiotics in his work, which ranges from introductory books to concrete text analyses. Jan Anward (Stockholm), who is rather unique among Swedish linguists in having derived influence from semiotically relevant linguists such as Benveniste, without negating the received paradigm, has, in recent decades, lectured about what he terms a semiotics of education. Richard Hirsch, formerly at Gothenburg university, and now in Linköping, has been active in organisational activities involving semiotics; he is now the president of the Swedish association for semiotic studies. Hirsch's work, of relevance here, involves gesture and, more in particular, emblems. Based on a cross-cultural study of emblematic gesture signs, Hirsch has argued that emblems are non-arbitrary but conventional - that is, regulated by rules, but picked up from a small behaviour repertory derived from early experience of feeding, cleaning, grooming, and so on. On the whole, it must be said that theoretically inclined linguists in Sweden only rarely have taken any more than cursory notice of semiotic themes and theories. In his recent work, however, Jordan Zlatev, at the department of linguistics in Lund, who participates in the SGB-project with the departments of semiotics and cognitive science at the same university, has been using fundamental semiotic concepts as essential parts of his argument describing the phases of development in children, and the evolution from primates to man. Formerly employed at the Department of German at Umeå University, and now in Gothenburg, Christiane Pankow has focused on the semiotic description of the relation of language and culture, and on the semiotic parameters of the history of science and cultural styles. Between 1991-94 she directed the research project "Sign, language and ritual. A contrastive analysis of East German and West German TV news". In 2003 she finished a research project on non-verbal behaviour in German and Swedish chat-communication. She is planning a publication on the semiotic foundation of the style of reasoning ("Denkstil") on Ludvik Flecks classical work of the history of science from 1935. She is present in several handbooks of semiotics (Germany, Netherlands) and publications of semiotic studies (Austria, Germany, Finland, France, Mexico, Sweden, USA). Moreover, Pankow was the editor of the papers from the third meeting of the Swedish semiotic association, devoted to the issue of indexicality.. Alexander Pankow wrote his doctoral thesis on the pragmatics of literary translation (Umeå 1993). Since 2001, he is a lecturer at the University college of Crafts and Design, Gothenburg, where he gives lectures on Semiotics of Culture and is co-ordinator for the theoretical courses at the Master Design Programme. His ongoing research involves semiotics of design and semiotics of consumption. In the 60ies, Kurt Aspelin organised a "Critical Seminar" at Gothenburg university, which discussed "new" theories such as Structuralism, Marxism and Hermeneutics; he also edited several anthologies of translations, containing mainly articles by representatives of Russian Formalism, and of the Prague and Tartu schools. Unfortunately, Aspelin died very young, and neither he nor his students contributed much concrete research based on these theories. In fact, many scholars tried semiotics and then abandoned it for more traditional approaches. Of the themes spurned by early structuralist semiotics, only narratology became a success story in Sweden, but, in the spirit of its practitioners, it early on became detached from the greater semiotic framework. Very rapidly, postmodernist discourse took over. There are some notable exceptions to this characterisation. Göran Rossholm, who is a professor of Literature at Stockholm University, wrote his doctoral dissertation about Ibsen's late play "When we dead awaken", using a very classical structuralist line-by-line analysis, which was then summed up at the theoretical level with the help of Nelson Goodmans' theory of symbols. Since then Rossholm has written many articles on semiotic subjects in Swedish and English concerning such themes as iconicity, fictionality, the typology of interpretation, as well as narrative phenomena and concepts. Many of these articles reappear in revised versions in a recent book of his with the title To Be And Not to Be. Rossholm is presently working on a book about narrativity; a glimpse from this can be seen in his article "Now's the Time". Rossholm is also responsible for a faculty course in semiotics at Stockholm University. A student of Rossholm at the Department of Literature, Stockholm University, Christer Johansson, is working on a dissertation concerning concepts of intermediality (sign, representation, fictionality, narrativity), as well as the interrelations of prose fiction and fiction film. He has published articles on intermediality and narrative theory. On the whole, it seems that semiotics has had a bigger part to play within theatre semiotics. In an 1976 paper on "theatre modernism", Olle Hildebrand, starting out from the Prague school conception of the theatre, set out to distinguish sport, ritual, and theatre by means of a cross-classification involving the dichotomies between stage versus auditorium, and expression versus content, sport manifesting the first dichotomy, ritual the second, and theatre both of them. In his 1978 dissertation, which is predominantly concerned with Eivrenov's play "Harlekin the Saviour", Hildebrand then goes on to show that the peculiar "theatrical" style invented by this author combines ritual and theatre, in the senses specified above. Lars Kleberg, now at the Södertörn university college outside Stockholm, has used a somewhat modified version of this analysis to study the conceptions propounded by the Soviet avant-garde between 1917 and 1927, including Stanislavsky at one end, and Brecht somewhat bordering on the other. These ideas were taken up much more recently, revised, and extended to include many more types of "spectacles", including happening, performance, dance, circus, children's play and LAPK, by Göran Sonesson. Sven Heed, professor of Theatre Studies at Stockholm University, has been promoting theatre semiotics since the 1980s, both in his writings and in his work as a teacher and a scholar. His dissertation from 1983, Le Coco du dada, with the subtitle Victor ou les enfants au pouvoir de Roger Vitrac: texte et représentation, uses the actant model derived from A. J. Greimas in the version of Anne Ubersfeld, taking into account the two sides of the theatrical performance, text and performance. In his more recent research, Heed has given a more central role to the spectator and the reception of the theatrical event. Heed's two contributions to the genre of academic text books, En väv av tecken (A texture of signs) (1989) and more recently Teaterns tecken (The Signs of the theatre) (2002), commonly used at Swedish and other Nordic universities as an introduction to theatre semiotics, are examples of this evolution. In a number of articles, Heed has given evidence of the efficiency of theatre semiotics in the analysis of post-modern elements in contemporary theatre. Conclusion Semiotics in Sweden has been slow to emerge. There was no period of high tide in the sixties and seventies, inspired by French structuralism, as has been the case in many countries, including neighbouring (but to Swedes very foreign) Denmark. If anything, this is the best time yet for semiotics in Sweden. Semiotic research has acquired some amount of institutional structures, as has been seen above, and there are a small number of scholars working seriously on semiotic themes and using semiotic concepts. The interest of young students for semiotics is clearly on the increase. In spite of its slow and difficult beginnings, Swedish semiotics now therefore seems poised to make important contributions to the study of meaning. I would like to thank all those contributors to semiotics in Sweden who have sent me information on their recent work for the present essay (most of those mentioned below). In particular, I want to thank Göran Rossholm for information about the institutional situation of semiotics in Stockholm. For the sake of consistency, I will refer to myself in the following in the third person. Malmberg, Bertil, Teckenlära. Stockholm: Bonniers 1973; Signes et symboles. Les bases du langage humain. Paris: Picard 1977; "Signe et symbole: problème terminologique et conceptuel", in A semiotic landscape/Panorama sémiotique. Actes du premier congrés de l´Association internationale de sémiotique, Milan 1974.. Chatman, S., Eco, U., & Klinkenberg, J.M. (eds.), pp. 318-320. The Hague, Paris, & New York: Mouton 1979. For more on these contributions, cf. Sonesson, op.cit. Also see, Hirsch, Richard, "Gesture universals: Material and formal constraints", in Advances in visual semiotics. Sebeok, Thomas A, & Umiker-Sebeok, Jean, (eds), 475-492. Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter 1995. Cf. Zlatev, Jordan, "Mimesis: The "missing link" between signals and symbols in phylogeny and ontogeny". In A. Pajunen (ed.), Mimesis, Sign and the Evolution of Language (pp. 93-122). Turku: University of Turku Press 2002; "Meaning = Life (+ Culture). An outline of a unified biocultural theory of meaning". Evolution of communication 4:2, 2003, 253-296. See, for instance, "Sign, Language and Ritual. Contrastive Discourse Analysis of East German and Soviet TV-News". In: Nordic Research on Text and Discourse. Nordtext Symposium 1990. Ed. by A.-Ch. Lindeberg, N.E. Enkvist, K. Wikberg. Åbo 1992. 139-147. Zeichenkonzeptionen in Rhetorik, Stilistik und Poetik vom 19. Jahrhundert bis auf die Gegenwart. In: SEMIOTICS. A Handbook on the Sign-Theoretic Foundations of Nature and Culture. Eds.: Roland Posner, Klaus Robering, Thomas A. Sebeok. Vol. 2. De Gruyter Berlin - New York. 1998. 1601-1625. Chr. Pankow (ed.): Indexicality. Papers from the Symposium and Annual Meeting of the Swedish Society of Semiotics 1995. SSKKII Report. Göteborg 1996. Rossholm, Göran, Ibsens 'Når vi døde vågner', en analys. Stockholm: Institute of literary history [Dissertation] 1987; .To Be And Not to Be - on Interpretation, Iconicity and Fiction . Bern: Peter Lang, 2004; "Now's the Time", in Essays on Fiction and Perspective, ed. Rossholm, Göran, pp. 199-222; Bern: Peter Lang, 2004. In English, see "Fictionality dissolved: On four different representational phenomena related to the (traditional) Concept of Fiction", in Fact and Fiction in Narrative, red. Lars-Åke Skalin (Örebro Studies in Literary History and Criticism 3: Örebro universitet), to be published in 2005. In English, see Klerberg, Lars, "Vjaceslav Ivanov and the idea of theater", in Theater and literature in Russia 1900-1930. Kleberg, Lars, & Nilsson, Nils Åke, (eds.), pp. 57-70. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International 1984; Sonesson, Göran. "Action becomes art. 'Performance' in the context of theatre, play, ritual - and life". Visio, 5, 3, 2000, 105-122 (which also contains an extended discussion of Hildebrand and Kleberg). Sonesson's biblography, too abundant to be quoted here, may be consulting on The working papers of the SGB-project are available here: Papers by Marner, some of them in English, are available at his homepage. Orfali, Ingrid, Fiction érogène à partir de Klossowski. Etudes Romanes de Lund 38. Lund 1983 Malmberg, Torsten, Human territoriality. Survey of behavioural territories in man with preliminary analysis and discusssion of meaning. The Hague, Paris, & New York: Mouton 1980; "Territory as information", in Environment and population: problems of adaptation., Calhouin, J.B., (ed.), pp. 1271-1280. New York: Praeger 1983.. Hornborg, Alf, "Ecology as semiotics: Outlines of a contextualist paradigm for human ecology". P. Descola & G. Pálsson, eds., Nature and society: Anthropological perspectives, pp.45-62. Routledge 1996. "Money and the semiotics of ecosystem dissolution". Journal of Material Culture 4(2), 1999:143-162; "Vital signs: An ecosemiotic perspective on the human ecology of Amazonia". Sign Systems Studies 29(1), 2001:121-152: "Symbolic technologies: Machines and the Marxian notion of fetishism". Anthropological Theory 1(4), 2001:473-496; The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment. AltaMira/Rowman & Littlefield 2001.