Wednesday, 10 December 2008

PHENOMENOLOGY MEETS SEMIOTICS (where culture meets nature)

The events that will take place in Tartu, February 2009, represent a meeting between the traditions of phenomenology and semiotics in general, and a phenomenology of the sensuous and semiotics of nature in particular. Though many other scholars are now getting involved, the occasion of the events is philosopher David Abram´s visit to Estonia (for a brief introduction to his work, and a few quotes, see below).

The topic of the first workshop, 'The Ecology of Perception: Landscapes in Culture and Nature' (Feb. 6-7), is the land that sustains the living and constitutes their life worlds. A second workshop, 'Animal Minds' (Feb. 9-10), will focus on the existential condition of animality - including the animal factor in human nature.

TO THOSE WHO HAVEN'T REGISTERED, BUT WOULD STILL LIKE TO COME, EVEN ONLY FOR ONE TALK: Feel free to do so (you can sign up at the conference itself).

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The Tartu Workshops

On The Semiotics/Phenomenology

Of Perception

1. Workshop:

The Ecology of Perception: Landscapes in Culture and Nature

Time: Feb. 6-7, 2009

Location: Domus Dorpatensis, Raekoja Plats (Town Hall Square)

Friday Feb. 6

09.00-09.15 Opening Words By Morten Tønnessen

09.15-10.00 Presentation By Wendy Wheeler

"With Environment in Mind"

10.00-10.15 Q&A

10.15-11.15 Questions For Discussion (Incl. Group Work)

11.15-11.30 Coffee Break

11.30-12.15 Presentation By Kalevi Kull

"On Consortia, Umwelten, and Biophony"

12.15-12.30 Q&A

12.30-14.00 Lunch

14.00-15.30 Major Talk By David Abram

"Earth and Awareness: The Land’s Elemental Moods"

15.30-16.00 Q&A

16.00-16.15 Coffee Break

16.15-16.45 Discussion By Keywords

16.45-17.15 Open Discussion

Saturday Feb. 7

11.00-11.45 Presentation By Kati Lindström

"Perceptual Markers in Landscapes – Estonian and Japanese Examples"

11.45-12.00 Q&A

12.00-12.15 Coffee break

12.15-13.00 Presentation By Morten Tønnessen

"Wolf Land. The Phenomenal World of Wolves on the Scandinavian Peninsula"

13.00-13.15 Q&A

13.15-14.40 Lunch

14.40-15.00 Minor Talk By David Abram

"Depth Ecology: The Visible and Invisible Landscape"

15.00-15.45 Questions For Discussion (Incl. Group Work)

15.45-16.00 Coffee break

16.00-16.30 Discussion By Keywords

16.30-17.00 Open Discussion

17.00-17.15 Closing words By Kati Lindström

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2. Workshop:

Animal Minds

Time: Feb. 9-10, 2009

Location: Tartu Hotell, Conference Hall “Sugar”

Monday Feb. 9

09.00-09.15 Opening Words By Kalevi Kull

09.15-10.00 Presentation By Timo Maran

"Zoosemiotics and Animal Minds"

10.00-10.15 Q&A

10.15-10.30 Coffee break

10.30-12.00 Main Talk By David Abram

"The Discourse of the Birds"
12.00-12.30 Q&A

12.30-14.00 Lunch

14.00-15.00 Questions For Discussion (Incl. Group Work)

15.00-15.45 Presentation By Wendy Wheeler

"Thomas A. Sebeok, Zoosemiotics and Animal Mind"

15.45-16.00 Q&A

16.00-16.15 Coffee break

16.15-16.45 Discussion By Keywords

16.45-17.15 Open Discussion

Tuesday Feb. 10

10.00-10.45 Presentation By Morten Tønnessen

"Steps to a Semiotics of Being"

10.45-11.00 Q&A

11.00-12.00 Questions For Discussion (Incl. Group Work)

12.00-12.15 Coffee break

12.15-13.00 Presentation By John Deely

"The Semiotic Animal – and the Semiosic"

13.00-13.15 Q&A

13.15-14.45 Lunch

14.45-15.15 Discussion By Keywords

15.15-15.45 Open Discussion

15.45-16.00 Coffee break

16.00-16.15 Closing Words By Morten Tønnessen

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Open Reception

Time: Sunday Feb. 8

Location: T.B.A.

Public Lecture By David Abram

Time: Tuesday Feb. 10, 2009 – 18.15-20.00

Location: Tiigi 78-127

Title: "Language and the Ecology of Sensory Experience"

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The Springer journal Biosemiotics, edited by Marcello Barbieri, has made clear that it welcomes submissions from the presenters of the workshops. Depending on the number of quality-papers eventually submitted, the final outcome might be a special section in, or a special issue of, Biosemiotics. Guest editors will be Kati Lindström and Morten Tønnessen. The resulting publication will include excerpts from David Abram´s second book (to be published in the United States in 2009), Becoming Animal.

A poster has been designed to promote events - feel free to print it (preferably in colours) and help to make these events visible.

The workshops are open to everyone interested. To register, write an email to the main organizer, Morten Tønnessen (mortentoennessen AT specifying which workshop you would like to attend and academic affiliations (if any).

Other events will include a public lecture in Tartu, Tuesday Feb. 10th, and an open reception (Sunday Feb. 8th).


DAVID ABRAM is an American phenomenologist and deep ecologist.
His thought - in part inspired by Maurice Merleau-Ponty - took shape when he lived as a sleight-of-hand magician among indigenous peoples in Indonesia, Nepal, and the Americas. Today Abram lectures widely, including for American environmental NGOs. Author of the modern classic 'The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World' (1996), and founder (as well as creative director) of The Alliance for Wild Ethics.

JOHN DEELY is an internationally distinguished semiotician and professor of philosophy at the Center for Thomistic Studies of the University of St. Thomas, Houston, USA
. In the spring semester of 2009 he will be at Department of semiotics, Tartu, as a visiting scholar. Deely, which specializes in historical conceptions of the sign, calls for a philosophical revolution through which simplified, reductive interpretations of 'objects' and 'subjects' can be overcome. His publications include "Basics of Semiotics" (1990, 2005), "Four Ages of Understanding" (2001) and "The Semiotic Animal" (with Susan Petrilli and Augusto Ponzio, 2005).

KALEVI KULL, originally a botanist, is head of the Department of Semiotics at University of Tartu and a professor of biosemiotics. He is one of the most prominent biosemioticians internationally, and also has an interest in theoretical biology.

KATI LINDSTRÖM is a researcher at Department of Semiotics, University of Tartu, and an assistant editor of the journal 'Sign Systems Studies'. Her specialities include the semiotics of landscapes and Japanese studies.

TIMO MARAN, one of the leading zoosemioticians (who also regularly published within ecosemiotics), is a senior research fellow at Department of Semiotics, University of Tartu. His speciality is the theory and semiotics of biological mimicry. Another interest of his is nature writing and nature poetry.

RENATA SõUKAND is a PhD student at Department of Semiotics, University of Tartu.

ØNNESSEN, a Norwegian PhD student at Department of Semiotics, University of Tartu, is developing an Uexküllian phenomenology, centered around a case study on Norwegian wolf management.

WENDY WHEELER of London Metropolitan University (UK) is a lecturer in literature with interest in ecophenomenology and biosemiotics. She is in the Editorial board of New Formations, and the author of The Whole Creature: Complexity, Biosemiotics and the Evolution of Culture (2006). Currently she is writing a book with the work title The Human Telos: Biosemiotics, Creativity, Ecocriticism.



Excerpts from The Spell of the Sensuous.

Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World

"It is my belief", David Abram stated some 20 years ago ("Merleau-Ponty and the Voice of the Earth", p. 101 - see below)
, ‘that the phenomenological investigations of Maurice Merleau-Ponty provide the seeds of a new and radical philosophy of nature that remains true to the diversity of experience within the biosphere of this planet.’ Barely ten years later, he published the modern classic The Spell of the Sensuous, which has been praised by names such as Max Oelschlager, Gary Snyder and Lynn Margulis. Abram’s focus has in particular been on “those indigenous cultures still participant with the more-than-human life-world … that have not yet shifted their synaesthetic focus from the animate earth to a purely human set of signs” (p. 217).

The simple premise of this book is that we are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.

[O]ur obliviousness to nonhuman nature is today held in place by ways of speaking that simply deny intelligence to other species and to nature in general, as well as by the very structures of our civilized existence – by the incessant drone of motors that shut out the voices of birds and of the winds; by electric lights that eclipse not only the stars but the night itself; by air ‘conditioners’ that hide the seasons; by offices, automobiles, and shopping malls that finally obviate any need to step outside the purely human world at all.
p. 28

Hunting, for an indigenous, oral community, entails abilities and sensitivities very different from those associated with hunting in technological civilization. Without guns or gunpowder, a native hunter must often come much closer to his wild prey if he is to take its life. Closer, that is, not just physically but emotionally, empathically entering into proximity with the other animal’s ways of sensing and experiencing. […] Through long and careful observation, enhanced at times by ritual identification and mimesis, the hunter gradually develops an instinctive knowledge of the habits of his prey, of its fears and pleasures, its preferred foods and favored haunts. Nothing is more integral to this practice than learning the communicative signs, gestures, and cries of the local animals.
p. 140

[The ancient Hebrews were] perhaps the first nation to so thoroughly shift their sensory participation away from the forms of surrounding nature to a purely phonetic set of signs, and so to experience the profound epistemological independence from the natural environment that was made possible by this potent new technology.
p. 240


Abram, David 1997. The Spell of the Sensuous. Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. New York: Vintage Books.

Other Abram texts:
Depth Ecology
Merleau-Ponty and the Voice of the Earth (Environmental Ethics 10, 1988: 101-120).

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