World Report

Bulgaria: Semiotics in action

By Nayden Yotov

Historical background

During the so-called “dawn of democracy”[1] the Bulgarian political dictionnary used to have a gamut of meanings, recreating the world anew. Society was full of ideas, when a group of Bulgarian social scientists got together and founded the Bulgarian Semiotic Association. Thus, in mid January 1990 one more creation of the zeitgeist came to life. It carried the powerful dynamics of ideas about to enter the scene of history.

The association issued a bulletin, had international activities, as its founders wanted it to prosper. But soon the activities faded away waiting for times to get better. This arrived in the shape of the conceptual and material support of the New Bulgarian University (NBU) as well as of its international connections. Thus the semiotic movement in Bulgaria gained new supporters and soon the Southeastern Center of Semiotic Studies was formed.

The idea for the Center’s creation formed during the Thessaloniki Conference of the International Association for Semiotic Studies (IASS) and was further developed during the International Congress of Balkan Association of Semiotic associations by Professor Roland Posner (then president of the IASS). He consequently presented it to the president of the Balkan Association Professor Bogdan Bogdanov. In May 1998 during a meeting of the Association the final decision for the founding of the Center was made.

Professor Thomas Sebeok, doctor honoris causa of the NBU, made a significant contribution to the international legitimacy of the Center. The continuous efforts of Bulgarian professors Maria Popova and Ivailo Znepolski should also be acknowledged. Due to their perseverance and diligence, semiotics was established as a field of study very early on through seminars, debates and interdisciplinary events that were documented in a large number of leaflets and compendiums of collected papers.

It is interesting to note that there were important precursors to Bulgarian semiotics long before this time. In the early 1930s, the Bulgarian philosopher Ivan Sarailiev, a student of Henri Bergson, was introducing pragmatism and quoting Charles Sanders Peirce even before the edition of the “Collected papers.” In the 1960s and 1970s Alexander Ljudskanov, a scholar of worldwide renown, was wellknown in the semiotic community for his laboratory in linguistics and machine translation.

The place of the South Eastern European Center for Semiotic Studies (SEECSS) in Bulgarian Academia

The SEECSS is positioned between the fields of social and cognitive sciences in Bulgarian Academia. As a relatively new subject compared to traditional disciplines, the study of semiotics is open to the new trends and tendencies in the vital whirl of theories and practices in the general move towards the reconciliation of different concepts into a unitary and applied theoretical frame. Besides wellknown professors and specialists, the staff of the Center includes a group of PhD students that have become an organic core for the new ideas and projects that the University kindly supports. On the NBU campus the Center collaborates with the Departments of New Bulgarian Studies, Advertising and Marketing, Applied Linguistics, Cognitive Sciences, Philosophy and Sociology, Visual Arts, Theatre, Drama and Cinema.

Events and publications

During the 9th World Congress of IASS in Helsinki and Imatra, Finland, in June 2007, important decisions were taken for the recognition and institutionalization of semiotics as an international thematic network. It consists of many departments that are in constant contact as well as individual scholars and PhD students. The SEECSS was represented by four senior lecturers in the congress taking an active role in the devising future plans for the development of semiotics on a global scale. Debates were initiated about the possibility of a standardization of semiotics as well as making it popular through the translation into various local languages of a common corpus of introductory texts by classical authors (Summa Semioticae) and stepping up international student exchange. This would be based on a comprehensive geographic map of semiotic courses over academic institutions worldwide. Another useful idea emerged as well, namely to share successful practices in order to support the teaching of semiotics in certain universities and integrate semiotics with other developing theories, as well as working on applied and empirically orientated modules.

Winning the project for an “Intensive program in semiotics,” the Center took the responsibility for one among three places as the coordinator of the future project for the thematic network in which more than 30 universities are to participate. The launching of the Master`s program in Advertising and Lifestyles at the NBU (proposed and conducted by the Center and consisting of many semiotic courses that have an applied profile) inspired other semiotic departments in Europe and we already actively share our know-how in the semiotic community.

In addition, a new a tradition of publishing semiotic volumes has been established. At a certain moment in time, the introductory lectures were divided from actual scientific research. Bilingual editions, reflecting the activity of the schools and the international conferences on semiotics, organized by the SEECSS were mad into series presenting the materials from the annual early fall school of semiotics. This experience led us to the most effective publishing format. Two volumes (one in English and one in Bulgarian) comprise the lectures carried out during the Early Fall School of Semiotics (EFSS), translated by the students themselves, under one of our most successful titles – Semiotics in action (Kristian Bankov, NBU Press, Sofia, 2003). This volume consists of selected articles and abstracts from monographies on semiotics by leading contemporary semioticians, demonstrating the applied and theoretical potential of the discipline. Part of the works include Semiotics and practice, Semiotics and the theory of culture, Semioethics, with texts by e.g. Paul Cobley, Jeff Bernard, Ugo Volli, Roland Posner, Gloria Whithalm, Alexandros Lagopoulos, Karin Boukland, Susan Petrilli, Augusto Ponzio, Patrizia Calefato and Eero Tarasti. There also are a couple of anniversary volumes united by the idea of Education and dedicated to the fifth anniversary of the NBU, in which the main topic is contemporary interdisciplinary education and the perspectives for university education. The volume includes articles by Thomas Sebeok, Jørgen Dines Johanssen and Roland Posner.

Another large part of Bulgarian semiotic studies publications is Individualism & Identity. Here, the thematic scope includes concepts as self-identity, the sign of diversity, socio-semiotic approaches. Its second volume consists of papers from the conference “The Self as a Sign”, and includes e.g. “Pain and identity in two biographies” by Drude von der Fehr; “Identity as ethno-cultural competence” by George Kraev; “Quotidian gestures as a result of ritualization” by Roland Posner, etc. The volume Homo Balcanicus – Signs and Cultural identity presents research on the mediascape and on interpretation, on semiotic inquiry into regional cultures, as well as on themes related to cultural identity, the identification of Homo Balcanicus and the relation between semiotics memory and identity. Here, identity is studied through its significatory aspect, the enactment in context, as well as highlighting the importance of memory. These are regarded as a main guarantor of identity. Other topics of discussion are the role of language, culture, nation, race, religion, profession, and money for the identification of identity.

Further topics of interest at the Semiotic Schools have been e.g. the “Psychoanalysis and Signs” with papers such as “Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalysis”, “King Oedipus” and “Attic tragedy” by Bogdan Bogdanov and “Textual Forms and Genres.” A variety of topics such as communications, text and the body, the erotic and the absent, city and folklore, intellectualism and media analyzed from a semiotics perspective have been explored, by e.g. Ugo Volli, Vilmosh Voight, Jeff Bernard, Vanna Tentokalli, Mariana Net, Alexandros Lagopoulos and Kristian Bankov.

The tenth anniversary of the series of EFSS Collected Papers is the first to have the lectures published in their original language. It includes three essays by John Deely on the history of the sign; the research by Peter Torop on the semiotic understanding of textuality and the chronotope, and on culture as translation; Sarah Rubinelli’s on “Image and suffering in ancient Greek society”; Anita Kassabova’s on the hermeneutic text and Ivan Kassabov on “The minimal language, necessary for optimal communication.” An integral part is also the published PhD research, dedicated to textuality in Sartre`s “Nausea”, theatrality and semiosis and theatrality as a false revelation. Important international and local theoretical contributions are presented in this volume addressing topics like existential semiotics, analysis of narration, modern art, uniqueness of experience, self-reflection in language, semiotics of silence, etc.

Further publications include articles dedicated to the analysis of narrative genres, the relation text-culture-reader, the concept of text and interpretation, the relation between form and content, the notion of structure and the works of Vladimir Propp, structural semiotics and the works of A. J. Greimas, the notion of denotation and connotation in the works of Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco’s modes of textual analysis as well as the modeling systems and the typology of culture from the works of Yuri Lotman. The role of the reader and the correlate semiotics – communication are also highlighted by Patrizia Violi in “A review of cognitive semantic” and in “Four evolutionary scripts about the appearance of the language” by Wolfgang Vildgen. Another publication concerns author-reader perceptions and analyzes hyper-textuality and literature, the boundaries of translation, globalized communication, fashion and sensitivity by among others Augusto Ponzio, Susan Petrilli, Patrizia Calefato and Ana Marostika. Culturological Approaches and Sociolinguistics deals with topics such as the relationship between the individual and the social, knowledge representation in language; Almaleh on the “Seal of Moses”, aspects of semiotic space, urban space in the context of dramatic event, the female otherness, Renaissance music and the semiotics of Thomas Sebeok. On postcolonial semiosis (ed. Eero Tarasti) contains texts by Maria Popova, Bogdan Bogdanov, John Deely, Paul Kobley, Harry Veivo, Vana Tentokalli, Lidya Manitzidu, Alexandros Camis, Mathias Rotte, Mariana Net, Elena Alexieva. The volume is dedicated to the American semiotician Thomas Sebeok. Other publications include Kristian Bankov’s Culture - Semiosis– Sign – Semiotics, Eero Tarasti’s Semiotic notebooks, Jeff Bernard’s Ideologies revealing axiologies, Patrizia Kalefato’s A-gro-ba: contaminations, translations, transculturations, Susan Petrilli’s Music as salvation from time, Bogdan Bogdanov’s Static and dynamic, Göran Sonesson’s History and structure of semiotics of photography, etc.

As an important unit of the NBU, the Center actively organizes and participates in most of the conferences, seminars and Master classes. The main international event that the Center organizes is the annual EFSS that, after eleven editions, has now been enriched with a spring counterpart. At the same time, the NBU hosts a regular seminar dedicated to international advertising and the semiotic aspects of marketing and semiotics in cinema, where lecturers and guest professors from all around the world demonstrate that there are no virtual limits to semiosis.

The SEECSS has the privilege together with only two other centers in the world, namely Imatra, Finland and Urbino, Italy, to offer such schools. The schools in Tartu, Estonia, Helsinki and Sofia are among the few locations which have institutionalized education in Semiotics and which award MA and PhD degrees in semiotics. Programs developed by the SEECSS are, e.g.,the BA program for language and Literature; the MA programs in “Semiotic, Linguistic, Communication”, “Social Studies of Gender”, “Hebrew Studies”; MA program “Advertising and Lifestyles” and the PhD program “Semiotics.” These programs bring more empirical concern, socio-semiotics and qualitative research, as well as visual culture, marketing communications, advertising and a great variety of other lifestyle issues.

The Center has established contracts with ten universities for students’ and lecturer’s exchange under the Socrates/Erasmus programs and has close connections with the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece, the Helsinki University in Finland and the University of Turin, Italy.

Last but not least I have to mention the new generation of PhD students who actively participate in the preparation of the multitude of local and international events. At present they also work on the global internet portal ( ; ), a network for MA and PhD students, designed to provide resources and communication where distances and time will not interfere with the active, collective exchange of ideas and work on common projects by semioticians all around the world. There is a strong social emphasis in this project which I think is an integral part of the best known ways of learning from each other’s experience.


[1] “The dawn of Democracy” is a notion in Bulgarian political slang, which signifies the period after the falling- turnover of the Communist Party (in the period 1989 - 1993), i.e. the early period of so called façade democratization of society (notion by Momchil Badzhakov).