Aleida Assmann

Aleida Assmann is Professor Emerita of English and Literary Studies at the University of Konstanz. Her visiting professorships include Rice University in Houston (2000), Princeton University (2001), Yale University (2002, 2003, 2005) and the University of Chicago (2007), among others. The subjects of her early works are English literature and the history of literary communication; since the 1990s her specific interests have centred around the history of German memory since 1945, the role of generations in literature and society, and theories of memory. Professor Assmann is a member of the Academies of Science in Brandenburg, Göttingen and Austria, and she received an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Theology at the University of Oslo in 2008. She has published some twenty books, including more recently: Ist die Zeit aus den Fugen? Aufstieg und Fall des Zeitregimes der Moderne (2013), Im Dickicht der Zeichen (2015), Menschenrechte und Menschenpflichten: Schlüsselbegriffe für eine humane Gesellschaft (2018) and Der europäische Traum: Vier Lehren aus der Geschichte (2018).

Lecture: On the shoulders of giants – from Lotman’s semiotics to cultural memory (Aleida and Jan Assmann)

On the shoulders of giants – from Lotman’s semiotics to cultural memory (Aleida and Jan Assmann)

In his writings, Juri Lotman continuously expanded the scope and scale of his topics. From an analysis of the structure of literary texts he moved on to an analysis of the universe of the mind. In doing so, he opened one door after another for students and scholars interested in the study of culture. The concept of culture, at the time, was under repair. A young generation was no longer satisfied with the extant writings on the history, theory or the criticism of “culture”. There were many new options on offer: The French structuralist ethnography of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the Italian literary brilliance of Umberto Eco, the British postcolonial perspective of Stuart Hall, the American emphasis on “representations” in the circle of Stephen Greenblatt and, not to forget, the German recovery of the works of Aby Warburg on the transmission of affective images. We profited from all of these. But the writings of Juri Lotman became a steady reference for us as they appeared from the early 1970s into the 2000s.

Lotman revealed to us the organization of works of art as energetic entities, and showed us how they function within societies. From him we learned how they model and change world views. His analytic energy spilled over from the analysis of texts into a theory of worldmaking within different times and cultures. When Lotman, together with his colleague Boris Uspenskij, defined culture as “the memory of a collective that cannot be genetically transmitted but has to be passed on”, we picked up their idea and valued it as the cornerstone of our theoretical explorations. The lecture will explore and probe the viability of this path, focusing this time not on how societies remember, but on how they forget.

Photo by Lena Verhoeff

Mieke Bal

Mieke Balis was co-founder of the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam. She also was a Professor in Literary Theory at the University of Amsterdam and Academy Professor of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is an internationally renowned cultural theorist, critic, video artist and curator, the recipient of six honorary doctorates. Her primary commitment is to develop meaningful interdisciplinary approaches to cultural artifacts and their potential effect for the public. She focuses on gender, migratory culture, psychoanalysis, and the critique of capitalism. Her forty-five books include a trilogy on political art: Endless Andness, Thinking in Film (both 2013), and Of What One Cannot Speak (2010). Her early work comes together in A Mieke Bal Reader (2006). In 2016 appeared In Medias Res: Inside Nalini Malani’s Shadow Plays. In connection to her academic work, Bal is a video artist whose films and installations have been exhibited internationally. Her film and installation, Reasonable Doubt, on René Descartes and Queen Kristina, explores the social and audio-visual aspects of the process of thinking (2016). Recently she made a sixteen-channel video work Don Quixote: tristes figuras (2019).

Lecture: Reading the World: The Urgency of Semiotic Thinking

Reading the World: The Urgency of Semiotic Thinking

In relation to the film “It’s About Time! Reflections of Urgency” and with some references to my earlier film and installation project “Reasonable Doubt”, I will foreground the world’s need for the kind of subtle thinking Lotman’s semiotic theory offers as a pathway to “world literacy”. Understanding communication unbound by language and other medium-bound and disciplinarily limited “texts” enables a realization of what is needed today. The film “It’s About Time!” is built on the ambiguity of its title inflected by the exclamation mark that turns (thematic, theoretical) meaning into a rallying cry for urgent action. Various puns, visual ambiguities and instances of reasonable doubt about reality and fiction will be pointed out, in the hope that such uncertainties in thinking can suggest how reading the world beyond language alone can assist us in bringing semiotic practice back into the present.

Boris Gasparov

Boris Gasparov is Boris Bakhmeteff Professor Emeritus, Department of Slavic Languages, Columbia University. He taught at the University of Tartu (1966-1980), the University of California, Berkeley (1982-1993), The Higher School of Economics, Russia (2016-2021), and as Guest Professor at Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Konstanz, München, and Helsinki. Honorary Doctor, Stockholm University. His fields of scholarly interest include Russian and general linguistics, Old Church Slavonic and Medieval Russian literature, literary theory, Russian and European Romanticism and modernism, and history and theory of music. Among his books: Поэтический язык Пушкина как факт истории русского литературного языка (1992; 2nd ed. 2000); Поэтика ‘Слова о полку Игореве’ (1984, 2nd ed. 1999); Литературные лейтмотивы (1993); Язык, память, образ (1996); Five Operas and a Symphony (2007); Speech, Memory, and Meaning (2010); Beyond Pure Reason: Ferdinand de Saussure’s Philosophy of Language and Its Early Romantic Antecedents (2013); Борис Пастернак: по ту сторону поэтики (2013). Dr. Gasparov was a member of the editorial board of the following Tartu University series: Труды по знаковым системам; Труды по русской и славянской филологии; Семиотика устной речи; Studia metrica et poetica; Linguistica.

Lecture: Between the system and the subject: Lotman’s Semiosphere and the early Romantic concept of intersubjectivity

Between the system and the subject: Lotman’s Semiosphere and the early Romantic concept of intersubjectivity

That the human mind interacts with the world not directly but via representations (in modern terms, semiotically) has become the central problem of cultural self-consciousness at the turn of the nineteenth century. To the categorical boundaries of reason, drawn by Kant, Romanticism and classical idealist philosophy responded by envisioning the cognitive process as unceasing efforts by the subject to grasp reality in its “absolute” wholeness. Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis responded to the dilemma of the Kantian objective boundaries of reason vs. Romantic subjectivity by suggesting the intersubjective approach, whereby the cognitive appropriation of reality evolves through simultaneous efforts of multiple coagents. The resulting picture resembles what Lotman described as the “semiosphere”. It emphasizes the discontinued and unregulated character of creative efforts stemming from different backgrounds and directed toward different particular goals. Schlegel called this cultural order “republican”. According to this approach, discontinuity and collisions between diverse creative forces is as important for the cultural infrastructure as their dialogical interaction.

Juri Tsivjan

Yuri Tsivian is William Colvin Emeritus Professor in the Slavic Languages and Literatures Department at the University of Chicago. He was visiting professor at the University of Stockholm, University of Amsterdam, and the UCLA. Before moving to the USA in the mid1990s, Y. Tsivian lived in Riga and worked at the Institute of Folklore, Literature and Art of the Latvian Academy of Sciences. He is a well-known expert in the history of film and film styles, semiotics of cinema, the early world and Russian/ Soviet cinema, the production of such filmmakers as Charles Chaplin, Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein; researcher of film editing – history, theory and practice. He is an author of nine books, including four in English: Silent Witnesses: Russian Films, 1908—1919 (1989), Early Cinema in Russia and its Cultural Reception (1994), “Ivan the Terrible” (2002) and Lines of Resistance: Dziga Vertov and the Twenties (2004). One of his books, Диалог с экраном (Dialogue with the Screen), was written together with Juri Lotman. Prof. Tsivian belongs to the second generation of the Tartu-Moscow School members.

Lecture: Lotman, Eisenstein and the Concept of Ambiguity

Lotman, Eisenstein and the Concept of Ambiguity

The subject of this talk is a difference of opinion between the Moscow branch of the Tartu-Moscow school of semiotics on the one hand, and its Tartu counterpart on the other, about whether or not Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of art should be deemed a semiotic art theory avant la lettre — on the same broadly understood typological grounds as Moscow-cum-Tartu semioticians used to co-opt into their cohort earlier writers like Mikhail Bakhtin, Lev Vygotsky, or Olga Freidenberg. Viacheslav Vs. Ivanov had no doubts it should: writing in 1967, 1976, 1998 and 2019, Ivanov kept insisting that Eisenstein handled aesthetics “in a semiotic vein [v semioticheskom dukhe].” Lotman was less sure, as I was quick to find out when he and I, in the late 1980s, sat down to write an introduction to film poetics titled Dialogue with the Screen. According to Lotman, Eisenstein the film director put the mastery of montage above historical truth; as to Eisenstein’s art theory, Lotman held it to be deterministic: Eisenstein, per Lotman, left no room for semantic ambiguity — a concept pivotal to Lotman’s model of art and culture. My task in this talk is: 1) to establish to what extent Lotman’s idea of Eisenstein can be confirmed or contested when set against Eisenstein’s own writings, films and drawings, and 2) to figure out what intermediary sources could have pre-shaped Lotman’s image of Eisenstein.

Boris Uspenskij

Boris Uspenskij is Professor Emeritus of Russian Literature at the Università degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale” and Full Professor at the Higher School of Economics (Moscow), his visiting professorships include Harvard University, Cornell University, Vienna University, and the University of Graz, etc. He is a member of Academia Europaea (1990), foreign member of Austrian Academy of Sciences (1987), Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters (1999), Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences (2011), a honorary doctor of four universities, and a member of several international scientific bodies and editorial boards of academic journals; was awarded with several prestigious international awards. Professor Uspenskij is a recognized Russian linguist, cultural historian, semiotician, who was at the origins of the Tartu-Moscow school. He was one of Juri Lotman’s closest friends and his frequent co-author. Prof. Uspenskij has published some 600 works, 40 books, translated into many languages, including more recently: “Tsar and God” and Other Essays in Russian Cultural Semiotics (2012, together with Victor Zhivov); Ego Loquens. Язык и коммуникационное пространство (2012) and Гентский алтарь Яна ван Эйка: композиция произведений. Божественная и человеческая перспектива (2013).

Lecture: Semiotics and Communication

Semiotics and Communication

Language is a tool of communication necessary for information exchange. For the exchange of information speakers have to coordinate their personal experience: they produce signs which refer to the common experience of different people. Linguistic signs are therefore the product of generalization and abstraction of the experience of different individuals. In this way general meanings (shared by all the members of a given society) are formed which turn out to be essentially independent of any individual experience.

How is this possible? Each of the communicants necessarily relies on their subjective perception of the objective world, yet exchange of information about this world requires a coordination of perceptions. Everyone possesses personal experiences based on individual impressions and associations. However, communication implies a common experience and the possibility to align subjective perceptions: we are supposed to share experiences.

What makes me sure, for instance, that my interlocutor understands the words I use in the same way as I do? How can we correlate our understanding? There seems to be a sort of implied agreement between the communicants. Normally, communicants assume that they use verbal signs in shared senses and put the same meaning into them; this is the initial presupposition of communication. If a misunderstanding occurs, communicants strive to resolve it by using other signs.

How do the speakers of a given language come to this agreement? What is the starting point of coordination of individual experiences? The present paper aims to answer these and similar questions.