Research project at Centre for Cognitive Semiotics, Lund University, Lund University, Sweden, funded by The Marcus and Amalia Wallenberg Foundation, 2014–2016
Human encounters are a central issue of the human sciences. Human beings constantly meet other human beings and their cultures, and have always done so, and this has had consequences for their way of being, their knowledge, ideas, and values pertaining to themselves as well as to others and the world. Our knowledge of other cultures expanded considerably in the 16th century, being as much conveyed by pictorial narratives as by verbal ones. This is still true today when the meeting of cultures has become an affair of each and every moment. Yet there has been very little systematic research so far into such pictorially transmitted cultural encounters. In addition to taking on this task, our approach is original in several ways.
1. It is grounded in the semiotics of culture, which allows for fine-grained analyses of actual or experienced (dis)similarities between different kinds of alien cultures and our own. It is particularly concerned with the pictorial rendering of the cultures involved, and it highlights the narrative potentials of these pictures, which has often been doubted. Not only written sources, but pictures in various forms, have always participated in the task of conveying information from one culture to another, even though, before television and the Internet, these were fewer in number and less easily distributed. Pictures, just as written documents, are always conceived from one particular point of view, giving “our” vision of “them”, as well as “their” vision of us. Whenever possible, we consider pictures expressing the perspective of both cultures involved in the encounter.
2. Furthermore, our approach is based on a close study of the pictures, which makes use of analytical tools from visual semiotics as well as insights from cognitive psychology and narratology. We will take into account what the images and their elements refer to, as well as several different aspects of what constitutes senders and receivers. A cognitive perspective on narratology will inform the study, in the sense that the capacity of images to contain and convey narrative elements will be studied, and will here be grounded in a theoretical positioning against those strands of linguistics and philosophy that regard narratives as conveyed solely through verbal resources.
In the studies of visual culture, polarized worldviews, like that of a home culture and a foreign culture, appear regularly, sometimes as preconditions for the study itself. In this project such perspectives will be problematized in terms of cultural semiotics, which means that the notion of “other” or “foreign” in cultural encounters will be studied with regard to an “Ego-culture” that often itself starts out making a distinction within the field of foreign elements between an “Alter-culture” of high value and/or good communicational standing, and an “Alius culture” with less (or no) value and/or outside the range of what can be mutually communicated. In an historical perspective, the relations between Ego, Alter and Alius start to become more complex, and more reciprocal as soon as the amount of cultural encounters increase.
3. Since it is impossible to cover the whole historical development of our acquaintance with other cultures, we will concentrate on a number of case studies, illustrating different notions of cultural semiotics, and pertaining either to the beginning of the expansion of cultural knowledge or the state which it has reached in contemporary society.
- In the first domain, we will put the emphasis on the discovery of the “new” continent of the Americas, the detailed exploration of other parts of the world, and the documentation of Europeans lands in the portraits of a travelling painter.
- The second strand will highlight the latest century with its complex and contested image-production tied to cultural identity, covering for instance the ideals of Americanization, National Socialist conceptions of cultural-racial identities, and the ceremonial communication of the suicide bomber photograph.
The project will increase the knowledge concerning the cognitive and semiotic mechanisms of images depicting the other and self of cultures, in particular in the historical periods of early modernity and current times. On a theoretical level, the interpretation of cultural encounters will be modelled in terms of semiotics, and discussed in relation to the narrative capacity of images.