Interview with Paul COBLEY,
President of the International Association of Semiotic Studies
Monica MUŢU: This is the last day of the first edition of the conference: ”Semiosis in Communication”. Would you be so kind to summarize the impressions?
Paul COBLEY: I think this has been an excellent conference. It has been very convivial, it has been conducted in an extremely friendly way. It is a small conference rather than a massive conference with too many parallel sessions. So, there is some sense of identity here and as usual with semiotic conferences, it has diversity in terms of subject matter, which I think is really important. If we get a sense of our own interdisciplinary activity then we will be able to continue to promote that. I think that’s extremely important that we have people from all sorts of different subject areas coming together. I have always benefited from, enjoyed and been proud that I would sit alongside people like molecular biologists and designers at conferences rather than people who are in exactly the same subject area as me that teach in universities.
M.M.: The International Association of Semiotic Studies is a prestigious organization, with its more than 50 years history. Could you tell us about the people involved and their motivations?
Paul COBLEY: Yes, certainly, the Association has a long history, and in that way you would automatically assume that it had prestige, and it had tradition and so on. With something that old I think that it is inevitable that there would be some tradition. But let me address the issue of prestige first. The thing that I do like about the IASS it is that it welcomes young researchers and has always welcome new researchers and has done so with a great deal of endeavor. It has laboured on and continued to do that even during difficult times. When the International Association was set up in 1969 by a number of people including Tom Sebeok, Emile Benveniste, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Umberto Eco, and others, it was deemed to be extremely prestigious because I think semiotics was extremely fashionable at that time. Indeed, it was to go through a period of fashionability for the next 10-15 years. Now, that might seem like a long time, but in academic terms that is relatively short amount of time, especially as congresses only took place every five years. Today we have a much faster turnover, but in academia time goes much slower than it does elsewhere; it takes a lot of time to get things done in the precise fashion we demand. You need to simply ask somebody about launching a new degree and they would tell you ”just as long as it takes”, it is not a simple process. So, inevitably, in academia time runs at a different rate from other professions. So, that period of fashionability, I think, was crucial, but it was relatively short lived; and so, from the early 1980s onwards, semiotics has been kept alive by a core of people involved in the International Association, involved in various national societies and associations, and simply involved in the kind of scholarship that is interdisciplinary and diverse. So, those people kept semiotics alive for a long time, as well as the fact that it was clear that in the period of the fashionable semiotics something big had been discovered, something had been contributed to the academy, and there’s no greater tribute to that fact than witnessing the many people hostile to semiotics. When you find the people hostile to you, it indicates that you are an important force. So, for a long time I think that the Association required the commitment and endeavour of a great many people to simply keep it going; but in recent years we became more and more powerful and more and more self-assured. I think in the coming few years we should have the resources to satisfy our membership; and, after all, we exist solely for our membership – to satisfy a membership who wish to be involved in the challenges of academic endeavour in a digital and a global environment and that is something that we have to work very hard on in the coming years.
M.M.: As a ”president of the signs”, do you see the signs of the end of the history and of the world?
Paul COBLEY: Well, that is quite an amusing question. As a ”president of signs” …well, I just do a little bit of organizing and endorse some decisions, mainly on behalf of the global semiotic community. So, I am quite humble about that, particularly as the kind of work that is involved is work that isn’t always of most interest to academics, but it is a work that they wish to see done. So, a lot of the work is that as we call in UK ”legwork”: it is not prestigious, it is not high profile; it is day-to-day secretarial work often. So, I remain humble about that.
And, in respect to the end of the world, well, we were hearing this morning from Andrew Stables that Peircean semiotics in particular has a kind of progressivist tendency and that progressivist tendency could be analogous to the kind of progressivism that is promulgated by the United States in its international and foreign policy. But I don’t think that that is necessarily the case with the outlook of semiotics as a whole. We are a diverse bunch; we have many different schools, many schools are critical of the semiosic structures that exist, particularly in the polis, but in international relations and in relations between foreign cultures. So, a lot of people are critical of some of the ways in which power is distributed, and the circumstances around that; I think even those who are a less critical but certainly very much aware of it, that’s something that the original, fashionable semiotics, sometimes in a benign way opened up, made people more critical, made them aware of sometimes uneven the distributions of power. So we always have that. I will hope we will always have that critical perspective, critical outlook. If we didn’t have that, if we had simply the enumeration of signs in any system or the identification of structure without any critique of that structure, without any quest to renew that structure or to reform it or to produce something new, semiotics would be a very sterile exercise or probably quite pointless. So, we have that as a core, but also there are groups in semiotics who are dealing with not so much the progressivism that Andrew talked about, but dealing with teleological principles. So the idea is that you can never have one sign in isolation; that’s come from another sign, or another set of signs. So any example of semiosis, any example of sign activity that we see in the present, anything like that we encounter, has come from another semioses, and we produce other semioses. So, much semiotics is involved with, not necessarily predicting, but at least acknowledging that will be further semiosis of one kind of another and that we have to be aware that that would be that case. And we can in some way influence those future semiosis to go in a certain direction rather than another, perhaps to go in a constructive rather than in a destructive direction, then we will play our role by making people conscious of the process whereby future semioses depend on the semioses we have in present and those built on semioses from the past.
M.M.: Are the identity systems of Eastern and Western culture, and Middle Eastern in antagonism? What about religious symbolism? What is the remedy?
Paul COBLEY: These are extremely difficult questions. If I had the answer to these, I wouldn’t be the President of the International Association for Semiotic Studies, I would be the President of a superpower, which I am not. And even the presidents of superpowers don’t have the answers to these.
But what can we contribute to this, from semiotics, to the world of signs, that exists in all of these structures you mentioned, and exist in potential conflicts. Well, perhaps we can contribute something quite modest on the one hand, that is to recognize that the sign systems of all cultures are continuous and must be continuous in many respects, because we are all humans, and as humans we are locked into a certain kind of sign production and sign reception. Of course, in reality, the complexity of human semiosis is such that we have managed to develop ways in which those signs systems clash. It is quite productive in a way to be able to produce such clashes which really shouldn’t happen because we are all part of the human species. And in local instances, those signs systems mean so much to those people in those particular circumstances that they amount effectively to reality and to things very close to the heart. So, I completely acknowledge that. I think there is a large semiotic element in postcolonial thought, in particular. But, by the same token, in order to depart from the kind of ultimate pessimism on this issue, I’m inclined a stand back a little bit. There are some features of semiosis which I think that we have to start taken seriously again. So, for example, in postcolonial thought, universalism is rightly something that we are advised to be suspicious about, because it has been a component of colonial thought which eradicates the differences between people: universally we are all the same, and actually that train of thought has been in service of subjugation of certain peoples. So, we acknowledge that; but in certain areas of semiotics, in particular biosemiotics, we are encouraged to think about some of the things that do make us the same – as humans. Certain universal principles do have extreme importance for the way that we exist in the world within certain kinds of semiosis. So, we are thinking about that a little bit in semiotics as well. And let’s not forget that although postcolonial thought in particular has been suspicious of universals, sometimes in certain areas of the world, certainly in African literature for example, the idea of universality has been a liberating concept rather than a concept designed for subjugation and colonial thought. So, there is potential in this, it is not something that needs to be thrown out with the bathwater completely. Perhaps we need to acknowledge that are some aspects of human semiosis that are demonstrably universals, things that we all share, while at the same time, acknowledging the fact that they can perhaps be manoeuvred into situations where they can be oppressive. That is some of the work that we’ve been doing on a cross-cultural basis.
M.M.: In a world that is changing, where globalization brought cultures with their own systems of signs together, will differences be flattened? Or is there another way for global intelligibility?
Paul COBLEY: An extremely interesting question, which again follows on from the considerations that we just giving to postcolonial thought. And it is a difficult one. It involves prediction. Futurologists are constantly suggesting that globalization is somehow a democratizing influence. In the same way as progressivists readings of American imperialism suggest that is a democratizing influence. What we have to face, of course, is that some people don’t want that and with globalization, in particular, and in the sphere of signs, signs are also indigenous and local. So, there is immense localization. To take a relatively trivial example. Yesterday, Kristian Bankov talked about ‘hipster university’ and I am not necessarily taken so much with the notion of the hipster university, so much as what he is referring to beyond that. That is the desire of the students to be independent, to keep things small, to do things local, to be, even if temporarily, removed from power structures and to circulate certain signs which are felt to be common to a particular peer group rather than completely globalized peer group. Now all the opportunities of globalization, they seem to be very close at hand, in global communication, and the way that social media has promulgated such a mass of information. And it is also personal information, as well. So, there are all these opportunities there. But what we are recognizing increasingly is that is also a desire for more localized information, for more autonomy and even if that autonomy is ultimately illusory – perhaps it might be that is subject to commercial interests, and to a capitalist mode of production – even if that is the case, at least it is an indication of pockets of resistance, of pockets of rejection of the current world order of which globalization is a major part. For sign systems, I don’t think they are being flattened; there are plenty of opportunities to participate in a landscape that is flattened – theoretically flattened, through social media, for example. But often the people who engage in the social media believe, possibly through narcissism, that they are completely self identical, that they have their own identity, that they are individuals. In the people who are rejecting that – sometimes rejecting they call technopoly, having to carry a phone, and to be able to send emails and have messages all the time – people who wish to reject that, even if temporarily, offer indications that there is some resistance to flattening, I think.
M.M.: Crisis, as semiosis, is present in our neighbourhood, in Ukraine. Could you discuss the situation in the light of the fascist comparisons used? And also the meaning of the use of colours, like in Orange Revolution, and textiles, like in Velvet War?
Paul COBLEY: That is a very difficult question and it’s for somebody who is more specialized than me to be able to say something. The use of textiles, although they are absolutely central to kind of topics which we pursue, in semiotics.
What do I want to say about Orange Revolution and the Velvet War? Well, war and revolution are extremely violent and evils, aren’t they? Orange and velvet are nice. So, I will make some observations, very simple. First, I rather like those instances where the violence upheaval is completely subsumed into something that quite nice. Now, in Estonia, they had the Singing Revolution. A singing revolution, the phrase, I think, in English, means a revolution is subsumed into singing. Whereas in these instances, the Orange Revolution and the Velvet War: I think, certainly, in the Orange Revolution, revolution is not subsumed. And velvet is slightly more subsuming of war into that. So, I’m conscious that I am not being very specific here and I am avoiding the question because I don’t know the answer in terms of the true documentary details, the etymology of those terms, the real personalities involved in promoting them and the complexity of the social and aesthetic conditions by which they gained currency. Nevertheless, what I would say in the spirit of the foregoing discussion and within the frame of reference occupied by semioticians is that we sometimes need to go back to fundamental semiotic principles in order to enhance our understanding of politics and political imagery. This is not just a matter of ‘facts’ pertaining to the recent history of electoral politics, nationalism and social conditions in Ukraine. ‘Orange revolution’, for example, as a term might occlude all manner of power relations in a catchy phrase. If we are able to both deploy and resist such phrasing on the basis of a sense of the way signs customarily work, then that is integral to developing a geopolitical worldview, I would say. If we forget or ignore how signs customarily work, we are not likely to develop such a worldview.