Semiotics in Switzerland
Although Switzerland both historically and geographically would seem to be located in the centre of semiotic Europe, semiotics does not enjoy much support in the Swiss academe. Unlike its neighboring countries, Germany, France and Italy, which have established semiotic traditions, semiotics is not even considered an official discipline in Switzerland and is therefore mostly integrated into other fields of study. Notable exceptions are the Centre de Recherches Sémiologiques at Neuchâtel, which forms part of the university's department of logic, and Peter Schulz's Facultà di Scienze della communicazione at the university of Lugano (UNISI), where semiotic teaching and research is done. There are also no individual professorships of semiotics - what comes closest is Ernst Hess-Lüttich's chair in Discourse Studies at the university of Berne as an exception to the rule.
Yet, like most other places in the world, Switzerland has its own association of semiotics, the Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Semiotik or Association Sémiotique Suisse (SGS/ASS). It was founded in 1981 in Neuchâtel and has around one hundred members; in 1987, it was admitted to the Swiss Academy of the Humanities (SAGW). Its first president was Claude Calame (1981-1984), followed by Jacques Moeschler (1984-1990), Beat Münch (1990-1992), Michael Schulz (1992-1996), Peter Fröhlicher (1996-2001), Christina Vogel (2001-2003) and Ursula Bähler (2003- ). As its name indicates, the association is bilingual, officially French and German, although French clearly dominates. Neither Italian, Switzerland's third official language, nor its fourth language, the marginal (and marginalized) Rhaeto-Romanic, are represented in the association that includes scholars from literature, film, linguistics, communication science, architecture, pedagogy, psychology, philosophy and ethnology.
Every second year, the association organizes an international conference with invited speakers from mainly francophone countries. Hence, among those giving papers at the conference on "Sémiotique et perception" (Fribourg 2001) were Caroline Floccia (Besançon), Michel Constantini (Paris VIII), and Eric Clémens (Brussels); at the conference "Donner du sens" (Zurich 2003) Jean-Claude Coquet (Paris), Jacques Fontanille (Limoges) and Marion Colas-Blaise (Luxembourg); and, at this years conference on "Metaphores" (Neuchàtel 2005), Jean-François Bordron (Paris IV) and Denis Bertrand (Paris VIII). In the years in-between these larger conferences, a smaller "round table" is organized in connection with the annual general meeting on topics such as "Discours, discussion, échange sur Internet" (Lausanne 1996) or the state of semiotics in Switzerland with its various semiotic traditions (Bern 2002). In 2004 (Zurich), Nicola Dusi (Roma/Modena/Reggio Emilia) and Anne Goliot-Lété (Lille III) joined Doris Agotai and Margit Dröhler (both Zurich) for a small conference on "Analyser le cinema". The bulletin InfoSémiotiques is published twice yearly and is mailed out to the members.
As I mentioned at the outset, there is not much support for semiotics as a discipline at Swiss universities on the whole. But there is nevertheless the Centre de Recherches Sémiologiques at Neuchâtel, which was made famous by the work of its longtime director, Jean-Blaise Grize, in collaboration with the psychologist and pedagogue Jean Piaget. In Geneva, the spirit of Ferdinand de Saussure is still very present at the university linguistics department, in particular after the discovery of some original manuscripts that were published by Simon Bouquet and Rudolph Engler in 2002. In Zurich, there even exists an "Ecole de Zurich" at the French department of the university of Zurich, where Jacques Geninasca gathered students and scholars in the French structuralist tradition (e.g. Ursula Bähler, Michael Schulz, Christina Vogel) - a tradition that has been continued by Peter Fröhlicher (also Zurich). In contrast, Max Nänny's teaching and research into iconicity in literature at the English department in Zürich has definitely taken a more Peircean approach, later reinforced in the work of Christina Ljungberg. The Swiss Felix Thürleman who teaches at the university of Konstanz focuses on the semiotics of the image, again from a semiological viewpoint; whereas Pierre Pellegrino, Director of CRAAL (Centre de Recherche en Architecture), has been devoted to the semiotics of space. At the newly created Swiss-Italian university (UNISI), Peter Schulz has developed a broader approach to semiotics with a two-year undergraduate course at his Facultà di Scienze della communicazione, which also offers an MA in cultural semiotics. At Bern, Ernst Hess-Lüttich teaches semiotics regularly as part of his discourse and media studies, aside from publishing widely in semiotics and taking an active part in international research.
The reason why much of the semiotic research associated with the SGS/ASS has focused more on Saussurean and Greimasian semiotics and less on the doctrine of signs proposed by C.S. Peirce lies in the fact that most of it has been done in La Romandie, the French-speaking part of Switzerland, and in the French departments of the German-speaking part. The ties of the French-speaking part with Belgium, France and Luxembourg seem to have always been stronger than those with the German-speaking part, which has instead collaborated more with the German semiotic association (DSG) - Ernst Hess-Lüttich at Bern was even its President during 1993-99. Hence, it seems as if the cultural divide between the two - in popular parlance called rösti, after the potato dish considered typical of the Swiss Germans - is palpable in semiotics, too, at least according to Hess-Lüttich, who says that he has made several attempts at collaboration with the French-speaking part, but generally met with little result. One such attempt was the (now defunct) Bern Conversation Circle (Berner Gesprächskreis Semiotik), that he initiated in 1993 together with Peter Rusterholz and Alfred Lang, and which was intended as a dialogue between the various semiotics paradigms and academic disciplines. Practical issues such as increasing work-loads and retirements seem to have put an end to its more than ten years of existence.
As this short survey shows, semiotics in Switzerland is as fragmented as the Helvetic confederation itself. But thanks to the efforts of a small number of dedicated scholars it is still alive and kicking, with the result that the interest of young students in semiotics seems to be on the increase. That is why Ursula Bähler, the current President of the SGS/ASS, has recently formed a small committee to try to accommodate and integrate the various interests and paradigms within the Swiss semiotics scene, in order for it to open up and become less language-centered than has been the case so far.
I wish to thank Ernst Hess-Lüttich, Peter Schulz, Ursula Bähler, Michael Schulz and Pierre Joray who kindly helped me gather information for this essay.
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