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Semiotic construction of national culture and identity With special reference to Finland


The study of different kind of signs... But signs and texts are based on conventions, codes, habits thus semiotics ... Exemplary texts and canons ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Semiotic construction of national culture and identity With special reference to Finland

Semiotic construction of national culture and
identityWith special reference to Finland
  • Harri Veivo
  • Arts in Finland 14.11.2008

  • Semiotics can be defined as
  • The study of different kind of signs
  • But signs come in bundles thus semiotics
    studies texts consisting of diffrent kind of
  • But signs and texts are based on conventions,
    codes, habits thus semiotics studies different
    kind of systems, rules, practices that govern
    signs and texts
  • But signs and texts represent or stand for
    something and produce interpretations thus
    semiotics studies not entities but action,
  • In short, semiotics can be defined as the study
    of semiosis, i.e., the representing and
    interpretation producing activity of signs and
  • The research object of semiotics cannot be
    reduced to a specific set of objects
    interdisciplinary research

Culture defined semiotically
  • A culture consists of
  • Signs and texts (NB signifying behavior and
    actions included)
  • Sign systems, conventions, practices, structures
    (language being the most important)
  • Representations and models (which are texts)
  • But cultures are also, and essentially,
    organization and differentiation
  • Seen from inside own culture is ordered,
    others chaotic
  • Seen from above all cultures are ordered, but
  • Signs, texts and well as orders and structures
    are produced thus a culture is something made
    and performed, not given

Drawing of border, differentiation
  • The constitution of a culture, its identity,
    depends on differentiation, of drawing borders
    between what belongs to the culture and what does
  • Each culture defines (explicitly or implicitly)
    the elements that are part of it and those that
    are not
  • The borders between culture and non-culture may
    be expressed in varying ways for example through
    oppositions like us vs. others, own vs. foreing,
    same vs. different, undestandable vs. opaque,
    civilized vs. barbaric
  • The drawing of borders, the defining of
    oppositions, is a semiotic process that produces
    differences and thus significations
  • The drawing of borders is also action carried out
    by members of the culture with signs and texts
    defining, repetition of definitions, redefining
    and defining differently
  • Different kind of texts can partcipate in similar
    differentiation procedures
  • The drawing of borders produces both continuity
    and change
  • The borders of a culture are not hermetic, but
    rather places for exchange, interpretation and

Because borders the drawing of borders,
differentiaiton are constitutive for cultures,
a given culture actually exists only in relation
to other cultures (and nature) the others are
in us.
Akseli Gallén-Kallela The defence of Sampo (1896)
  • Representation of a conflict, a border
  • Establishes oppositions human vs. animal, brave
    vs. fearful, male vs. female, light colors vs.
    dark ones, etc.
  • Sitautes oppositions geographically left west,
    right east

Center and periphery
  • When the inner organization of cultures is
    focused upon, one may define two areas or
    components that have their own specific
    functions the center and the periphery
  • NB not geographical notions, but functional ones
    (the case of capitals)
  • The center seeks to keep the culture inchanged
    it is the domain of rule, order, tradition, and
  • The means the center uses for this purpose are
    for example
  • Metatexts that define the languages and sign
    systems of the culture and their mutual relations
    (for example, what are standard ways of speaking
    and what are dialectical)
  • Normative texts that define the values of the
    culture (this function may also belong to
    artistic texts)
  • Exemplary texts and canons
  • Representations, models and images of the world
    that have a determining status for the culture
    and its self-understanding
  • Low or popular texts may also function as
    vehicles for normative discourses for ex. the
    talk about Big Brother

  • Exemplary landscapes represent values, history
    and continuity
  • Natures values purity, peace, harmony
  • Work represents sisu (fighting spirit),
    persistence, progress
  • Repeated from late 19th century paintings to
    modern websites different kind of texts
    participate in the same structuring and ordering
    action within the culture

The neoclassical empire centre of Helsinki
continuity, harmony, order
Center and periphery
  • Periphery is the part of culture that is
    dynamical and open for change the area of
    disorder (or foreign order), chance, exceptions,
    and the new
  • Elements belonging to the periphery are
  • Foreign texts that have not been assimilated to
    the cultur
  • Foreign languages, signs systems and practices
  • Carnevalistic situations and texts where the
    hierarchies, orders and values of the culture are
    (momentarily) contested
  • NB what is peripheral from one point of view may
    be central from another under- and
    counter-cultures may also be highly ordered, even
    though they are peripheral for the mainstream
  • New influences come to the culture through the
  • A process of imitation, translation, adaptation
    and structural reorganization
  • But the center is necessary for maintaining the
    identity of the culture, its sameness and

Markku Laakso Elvis in Finland
Laakso brings a foreing element, Elvis, into
typically Finnish settings and texts intrusion
of the foreign, peripheral elements But is Elvis
really foreign? Or are these true representations
of national cultures in the postmodern era?
Being a Finn
  • From the semiotic point of view, belonging to a
    culture (being member of it) depends on
  • To act in properly signifying ways
  • To recognize correct interpretations and
    intertextual references
  • To use the languages and sign systems of the
    culture in proper ways (i.e., to produce signs
    and texts understood by other members of the
  • However, these requirements can also be
    contested, criticized and changed

The Stefan Wallin Test
  • 1) To go to sauna in the correct way
  • 2) Bodily work to cut wood with an axe
  • 3) Cookery karjalanpiirakat
  • 4) General knowledge war history and sports
  • Dates from World War II
  • Records and medals from long-distance running and
  • 5) Character melancholia
  • The choice of topics reflects the values and
    hierachies of the culture (above all its male

Carnivalization and transformation of cultural
indentities (through bad taste?)
But also play with stereotypical elements Finns
as barbarians, wild animals?
  • Yury Lotman The Universe of Mind. London
    I.B.Tauris, 1990.
  • Andreas Schönle (ed.) Lotman and Cultural
    Studies. Madison University of Wisconsin Press,
  • Edna Andrews Conversations with Lotman. Toronto
    University of Toronto Press, 2003.
  • Eero Tarasti (ed.) Snow, Forest, Silence The
    Finnish Tradition of Semiotics. Acta Semiotica
    Fennica VII. Imatra International Semiotics
  • Semiotica, vol. 87-3/4, Special Issue Semiotics
    in Finland.
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