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Semiotics in Sweden 2015-2016
Göran Sonesson

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1Given a wide definition of the term, a lot of contributions to semiotic research, mostly understood in the sense of French structuralism, could be recorded in the last century (see Sonesson 1992; 2005). At present, there is, on one hand, the Department of cognitive semiotics, formerly the Department of semiotics, at Lund University, and, on the other hand, a limited number of initiatives, associated with departments with other names, at different Swedish universities. It will therefore be convenient to start with the latter.

2At Umeå university, Anders Marner and his colleagues at the Department of aesthetic subjects teach a course on “Semiotics in educational work” at the level of doctorate studies. The department also offers a short introduction to semiotics in the framework of the education of drawing teachers. A recent example of a doctorate dissertation which uses the models of cultural semiotics, as conceived by the Lund school is “Applying Contemporary Art in Visual Art education” presented by Anna J. Widen in 2016. Fred Andersson, at the Department of art history at Swedish University in Åbo (Turku) in Finland also provides each year an introductory course in visual semiotics and more specialized course in visual rhetoric. Andersson also contributed to the volume celebrating the work of Groupe µ, published in French and English in Nouveaux Actes de Sémiotique (​revues/​as/​3060), also published in a Portuguese translation (​esse/​issue/​view/​8415). Both Marner and Andersson are former associates of the Department of semiotics in Lund.

3Another former associate of the Lund department is Joel Pathermore, now at Skövde university college, who has published in the spirit of cognitive semiotics, notably in Meaning, Mind and Communication (see below). Jens Allwood, a professor of linguistics at Gothenburg university, who is more well-known in Sweden for his contributions to cognitive science, has recently found ample inspiration in Peircean semiotics. His text book, in collaboration, introducing cognitive science, contains some elements of semiotics. At Södertörn university college, outside Stockholm, Aleksei Semenenko earlier taught introductory courses to semiotics, one as a specialization on theory, and another at the department of media studies. There he also recently finished a research project aiming to fuse inspiration from Tartu school semiotics and the study of cognition (“Yuri Lotman’s Semiotic Theory in the Study of Cognition” 2013-2015).

4Stockholm University was for a long time an important stakeholder in Swedish semiotics, until the retirement of Göran Rossholm (on whose work, see Sonesson 1992; 2005). His former doctorate student, Christer Johansson, still teaches a course in semiotics at the advanced level at the Institute for culture and aesthetics, which brings together the former disciplines of literature, art history, musical theory, and history of ideas. His own work on the writings on the Swedish author Eyvind Johnson is partly inspired in semiotic methods, the book on which will appear in 2017 or 2018. He also works on a more theoretical book, with the prospective title “Concepts of mediality”, which will combine ideas from cognitive science, the linguistic tradition of semiotic fields, and semiotics. A preliminary sketch of this work will appear in the book The Power of the In-Between: Intermediality as a Tool for Aesthetic Analysis and Critical reflection, which will be published by Stockholm University Press during 2017.

5Lars Elleström, who has long been active in the study of multimediality and interart studies, in 2015 was able to initiate a Research Centre for Intermedial Studies at the Linnaeus University in Växjö, which he describes as “not completely dedicated to semiotics, but having some semiotic features”. In October 2016, he organized a conference at the university, which was at least in part semiotical in spirit, with the title ”Transmediations! Communication across Media Borders”. In 2016, the centre also accepted two doctorate students from Brazil, Pedro Atã and Letícia Vitral. Pedro Atã’s doctorate project focuses on the question of “how do media relations participate in cognitive processing of information?”. In order to answer this question, the notion of distributed cognitive systems will be used — defined and individuated through a task-based approach — operating in problem spaces determined by cognitive constraints and inhabiting cognitive niches. As for Letícia Vitral, her doctorate project involves the comparison of different theories about transmediation regarding how they treat the epistemic potential of such processes, in relation to different artworks, and to different kinds of modelling processes. Elleström himself currently is concerned to investigate the hypothesis that the basic material, spatiotemporal, and sensorial traits of media are vital for their semiotic potentials.

6The most enduring semiotic tradition is Sweden is no doubt the one at Lund University, since it was initiated with the return to Sweden of Göran Sonesson in 1983, giving rise to a semiotics seminar in 1986 which is still functioning. Since its beginning, Lund semiotics has been mainly concerned with two domains within semiotics, pictorial semiotics and the semiotics of culture. In 1998, a doctorate program in semiotics was officially established. Anna Cabak Rédei finished her doctorate thesis, which was concerned with semiotics of culture, as manifested in the dairies of Mme de Stahl in 2007, and Sara Lenninger presented her thesis, which was involved with pictorial semiotics, from both a theoretical and empirical point of view, in 2012 (See Sonesson 2005).

7Since 2009, with the initiation of the Centre for Cognitive Semiotic (CCS), financed by the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation, we have worked at integrating linguistics, semiotics, and the cognitive sciences, with a particular focus on child development and human evolution, using an experimental approach combined with phenomenological analysis. We understand cognitive semiotics as an extension of semiotics, mainly with respect to the use of experimental procedures, of cognitive science, in that it pays attention to meaning and consciousness, and of linguistics, since it is more closely involved with semantics, theory, and semiotic interactions than contemporary linguistics tends to be. With the creation of cognitive semiotics, some linguists, with a more theoretical and/or semantically focused agenda, became part of the new department.

8There have been no thesis defences during the last few years. The doctorate program in semiotics, initiated in 1998, was transformed in 2013 into a doctorate program in cognitive semiotics. Since doctorate position in Sweden are salaried position, only very few can be created, but we were lucky to accept one doctorate students, Anu Vastenius, in 2015, and another one in 2016, Georgios Stampoulidis, both as a result of stiff international competition. Vastenius is concerned to study word order in different languages, as manifested in experimental tasks using pictures and gesture. The theme of Stampoulidis’ thesis is graffiti and street art in several Europeans cities, using semiotic analysis to create a data base. The main director of Vastenius’ thesis is Jordan Zlatev, and that of Stampoulidis Göran Sonesson.

9During the last two years, we have organized two colloquiums. The first took place at the end of 2015, and was the conclusion of the Centre for Cognitive Semiotics (CCS), as financed by the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation. According to the rules set by that foundation, the colloquium took place entirely in Swedish, and consisted mainly in members of the centres presenting different parts of the research programme developed during the last six years. The presentation spanned the five themes of the programme: 1) Semiotic-cognitive (child) development; 2) Semiotic-cognitive evolution; 3) Cultural evolution and history; 4) Linguistic and semiotic universals; 5) Experimental approaches to adult cognitive-semiotic experience. Bending slightly the rules, we invited some colleagues from Denmark and Norway, who, although they could understand our presentations in Swedish, commented on our results in their own language.

10At the end of 2016, we organized a colloquium, which was the final stage of the project MATUS (The Making of Them and Us; see below). This time, the language used was English, and, apart from the presentations of the result of our project, we had a number of invited lectures: Isabelle Klock-Fontanille (CERES, Limoges), Antonis Iliopoulos (Aristotle University, Thessaloniki), Itamar Even Zohar (University of Tel Aviv), Jamin Pelkey (Ryerson University, Toronto), Paul Cobley (Middlesex University, London), Paul Machin (Örebro university college), and Jennie Mazur (Uppsala University).

11The Department/Centre of Cognitive Semiotics organizes a seminar which takes place, with few exception, every Thursday. As always, this seminar consists mostly of presentations of research, by members of the department and other colleague at Lund university, as well as by invited scholars. For the last few years, cognitive semiotics has also been one of the alternative paths within the master in language studies, organized at Lund University, as has always attracted a fair amount of the students in that program.

12The financing of our six-year research programme for the centre ended in 2015. However, since the middle of 2014, we have received financing for another project, directed by Göran Sonesson, with the title MATUS (The Making of Them and Us), which is concerned to investigate the encounters throughout history between different cultures, putting the emphasis on pictorial testimonies of the encounter. This means the project involves the models with have developed for both pictorial semiotics and the semiotics of culture. We choose to concentrate on two historically dense periods of encounter, the so-called Age of discovery in the 15th to 18th century, and the contemporary period. Within the first period, David Dunér studied the 18th century encounters with indigenous people in Southern Africa, Göran Sonesson was involved with the Spanish conquest of Mexico and South America, as manifested, notably, in the richly illustrated books of Spanish friars, and Anna Cabak Rédei, followed the trips of the French artist Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun through Europe. In the second part, Gunnar Sandin was involved the semiotic presence of “American” imagery in Swedish Theme Park architecture. Michael Ranta looked at anti-Semitic pictorial representations from the Middle Ages, the Third Reich, and the contemporary Arab-Muslim world, and Sara Lenninger delved into the recent pictorial genre of suicide bomber self-portrayals.

13PATOM (Phenomenology and Typology of Motion), headed by Jordan Zlatev, is another current project, initiated in 2016, which studies how we experience different kinds of motion events and how different languages and individual speakers construe such experience. The project combines methods and concepts from phenomenology (the systematic study of consciousness), cognitive and typological linguistics, studying universals and variation in the semantics of languages, and developmental psycholinguistics, studying the way children acquire the conventions of their linguistic communities. The project elicits descriptions of motion situations from speakers of four typologically and genealogically different languages: French, Swedish, Thai and Bulgarian. Analysing these spontaneous “verbalizations of experience”, alongside with the speakers’ gestures, will provide insights for addressing important theoretical questions on the interrelation between phenomenology and cognitive semantics and between experience and language more generally. Apart from Zlatev, the participants are Johan Blomberg and Simon Devylder from cognitive semiotics, Joost van de Weijer from linguistics, and Benjamin Fagard from CNRS in Paris.

14The interdisciplinary project “Storytelling in Rock Art”, in which two CCS members, Anna Cabak Rédei and Michael Ranta are participating, aims to investigate - theoretically and empirically - the narrative potential of image-making in Scandinavian pre-literal cultures, in order to elaborate means for, and to gain a deeper understanding of, their general social and communicative significance. This 3 year-project which started on January 1, 2017, will explore pictorial storytelling during this period with analytic tools and theories not only from archaeology, but also from narratology and cognitive semiotics.

15In 2014, we held the first conference of the International Association for Cognitive Semiotics (IACS) in Lund, which is an association we were very active in founding. During the period covered here, we were content to participate in the second conference of IACS, which was held in Lublin, Poland, in 2016.

16Among our collaborators, Jordan Zlatev is the editor in chief of the online journal Public Journal of Semiotics, and Göran Sonesson is a member of the editorial board of the journal Cognitive Semiotics, published by Mouton de Gruyter. The journal Cognitive Development published in 2015 a thematic issue on semiotic and cognitive development, which gathered together papers presented at a colloquium organised at Lund university a few years earlier, which was edited by Sara Lenninger, Göran Sonesson, and Chris Sinha, all at the time members of the CCS (​science/​article/​pii/​S0885201415000301). In the same year was published, in Swedish, a book summarizing the results of the CCS-project, written by Göran Sonesson. In 2016, we have published two books at Peter Lang publishing house. The first publication was the book Human Lifeworlds. The Cognitive Semiotics of Cultural Evolution, edited by David Dunér and Göran Sonesson, both members of the CCS (​view/​product/​23306). We have also published selected papers from the first conference of the IACS in Lund: Meaning, Mind and Communication. Explorations in Cognitive Semiotics, which was edited by Jordan Zlatev, Göran Sonesson, both at CCS, as well as by our colleague Piotr Konderak at the Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, Poland (​view/​product/​22221?rskey=tXPHFa&result=1). The MATUS colloquium mentioned above is scheduled to be published as a thematic issue of Semiotica, edited by Göran Sonesson, Sara Lenninger and Anna Cabak Rédei.

17Our collaborator Johan Blomberg was a post-doctoral research fellow at Technische Universität in Berlin during most of 2016. Another one of our collaborators, Michael Ranta, left in December 2016 for half a year of Erasmus exchange with the semiotics department at Chengdu, China. Although this oversteps somewhat the limits of the report, it could be added that Göran Sonesson was a guest professor at CERES in Limoges during January and February 2017.

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Sonesson, Göran (1992), "In search of the Swedish Model in Semiotics. Considerations on a body of literature in the process of constitution", in Semiotica, 90:1/2, May/June 1992; ss. 31-123.

Sonesson, Göran (2005), "Semiotics in Sweden", in Semiotrix, 2005, Bulletin 3 (First edition).

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Göran Sonesson, « Suède », Signata [En ligne], 2015-2016, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2016, consulté le 22 octobre 2019. URL :

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Göran Sonesson

Division of Cognitive Semiotics, Lund University

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