Reading Time: 6 minutes

By Thorolf Johannes Van Walsum

Students socializing. Photo credit: Hanna Borkvel.

As I stepped into the room, a wholesome set of eyes swivelled, turned, peered and glimpsed out from their lounging perches amid the chairs and couches. The first material I was impressed with by the December 16th holiday party of philosophers and semioticians was their magnificent collection of held breaths. Let’s talk.

Since the commencement of my 1st semester as a Master’s student of semiotics in Tartu, it has seemed a common, perhaps characteristic, trait of semioticians is the paradoxical coincidence of an absolute apprehension of parole, and the apparent devotion of their entire career to it. To my dismay, it seemed that this silencing strain of habit has been taken up, too, by the philosophers, leaving us to greet one another with all the enthusiasm of peerful pebbles on a grating shore. No, we do not seem to much like talking about ourselves. If we are, therefore, to cover such an ultimately delightful event such as this without detour through depersonalized theorizations, we will have to erect an idol to study and appreciate. Event host and freshman philosophy student Kätri Kiilberg agreed to interview Hortus Semioticus on December 20th, 2022.

Apparently in line with annual tradition but outside the purview of any official institution, Kätri and her fellow first years hosted an end-of-semester get-together. Words bright as snow, they inflected exactly why this sort of event matters. “I got to sit down with some of my professors. We talked about nightclubs, narcotics; what they studied. It was really fun, because it allowed you to have bonding moments with someone you have a lot of respect for. It was really interesting, because I wouldn’t expect my professors- who are usually talking about these big philosophical topics- to talk about these kinds of things. Nightclubs and ketamine.”

Lotman via cake. Photo credit: Hanna Borkvel.

Abundant boxes of wine answered equally to the thirsting cups of professors and undergraduates, and bounties of kringle rewarded any adventurer brave enough to squeeze past the knees that jostled on couches. Although the night brought the convergence of a great number of ideas, and doubtless, once unboxed, the attendees openly tinkered their thoughts like elves slaving to produce new baubles for the coming holiday—it seemed that one implicated, bubbled, and roiled to the status of generality that night.

Soaring past ‘what is Truth’, leapfrogging ‘is God dead’, rising on solar wings past ‘what wrong things are actually right’ and the ever hilarious ‘so what actually is semiotics none of you seem to know’ came the most terrible question of all: ‘what are any of us doing here? Really?’

Kätri and their co-hosts went to great lengths to assure a space of participative creation- an attempt at an open-mic and a de-digitized Kahoot! quiz. Although bolstered with Shooters-sponsored gift certificates, engagement and play remained hesitant. In the end, partly due to a short-notice choice of venue and partly due to zero participants registering, the open-mic idea was scrapped, and only the quiz remained. Silence haunted conversations in proportion to the weighty caution of their words, clinging like mildew. Dialogue was permitted fruit only when untruthfulness and uncouthfulness were begrudgingly set aside. Such caute spirit did not remain passive when presented with a quiz, however; this, and above all this, we were quite equipped for. Joy sprouted and redoubled as teams formed, bickered over their conflicting answers, and then lamented joyfully on the ‘improper’ phrasing of the question. Through the treacherous course of ten questions, two teams emerged equally victorious at eight points apiece. The climax of the night was in the air: the winner would be decided by a trial by philosophical fire. A debate.

Students and staff. Photo credit: Hanna Borkvel.

“I really liked the idea of the debate; we came up with that in the moment. We had two teams who got the same amount of points, and we were thinking, how are we gonna choose the winner, then, are we gonna do, like, rock paper scissors? I forget who said it- Paula or Carmen- someone suggested ‘oh, we should have a debate’!” Kätri grew animate as she spoke of the improvised debate. “We were thinking about what kind of topics we should have? Should we have, like, moral topics—or deep existential questions? But then, we were like, philosophers are more into these kinds of topics; we’ve learned them in depth and everything. Maybe semiotics would be also be on different lines that didn’t suit—but then we thought, how funny would it be if we debated on ‘is university really good for you,’ or ‘should you go to university?’ That was the debate. And I also like that the opposing side won.”

Students and staff socializing. Photo credit: Hanna Borkvel.

What were we doing here? Philosophy? Semiotics? Why—for who? Opening the debate was the pro-university side. In a sweeping gesture, they appealed to the most logical force at their disposal; that we, philosophers, semioticians, and for the time at least academics, all, were here. Reconstructing their argument from an anarchy of accounts, we find that whether a university-derived career is worthwhile or no, to debate its worth is nonsensical by reason that each person present has already chosen this life above each alternative; regardless of whatever rhetoric is wheeled about, we have already given our answer. We are here: say no more. This point seemed washy and emotional, however, in the face of the opposition. “The people who are really professors at university, who were against going to the university, won, because they had the good arguments. I don’t believe it, but their arguments were convincing; they were like ‘no you can get everything out of YouTube, you have to pay money, it’s a waste of money and you don’t have to go.’ It’s really fun.”

Let’s swap our jolly holiday hat for the semiotic thinking-cap, for a moment. What is the nature of such an event? Does a this moment warrant generalizing speculation? Might we, attracting all hazards to ourselves by doing so, permit ourselves the question, ‘How perfect is this?’ Clearly I am trying to lead you somewhere; if you may, forgive my impetuosity, and hold my thread. What this miniature drama enacts for us is something almost tragically becoming of minds swaddled in dialectics.

Let us state some obvious facts. The very condition of being present for this brilliantly-hosted party was a value placed on university experience. Professors, graduate and undergraduate students may be called such because we are marked by a multi-year dedication to the project of institutionalized learning. Whether this fact was cited in the room with a coup de main or a pointed finger, this is factually no less true of any attendee. The idea that the exact counterpoint to this, that the university is a dead and twitching invertebrate of the 21st century, won, and won by orchestration of a team of university professors, aught to dazzle us with its harmony.

Although outwardly pessimistic, lamentory, in appearance, this paradoxical allegiance to self-abnegation really is the wink of the impossible kernel that graces us all. That the height of an evening of thinkers should come with the joyful parody of thought itself is the happiest thing! In this night, from the cold halls of silence, thought herself dances a ditty. As I have already exposed myself as an iresome critic of the marbled, anxious, overly-vested philosophy type, I will hopefully have little fury left to provoke by reciting some Hegel. “The surrender of one’s own will is only from one aspect negative; in principle, however, or in itself, it is at the same tie positive, viz. the positing of will as the will of an ‘other’, and specifically of will, not as a particular, but as a universal will. […] The surrender of its own will, as a particular will, is not taken by it to be in principle the positive aspect of universal will.  […] In other words, [consciousness] has successfully struggled to divest itself of its being-for-self and has turned it into mere being. In this movement it has become aware of its unity with this universal, a unity which, for us, no longer falls outside of it since the superseded single individual is the universal, and which, since consciousness maintains itself in this its negativity, is present in consciousness as such as its evidence.”

Victorious philosophers. Photo credit: Hanna Borkvel.

If we were to follow the language of an academic paper, this would be an appropriate cue for a theological turn; Christ’s suffering as the bimillennial offering-up of selfish consciousness, the philosopher climbing atop the sacrificial altar of their own voice. The Socratic proto-saviour. “We owe a cock to Aesculapius.” Yet, this is a battle which belongs to a longer medium. For our intents, we might find a happier religiosity; that this night truly was the Meaning of Christmas. If this is not gift enough, we will conclude with some advice Kätri intended for any future hosts. “Don’t begin planning the event two weeks in advance; we ran into a lot of problems this way.” Happy holidays, semioticians. Stay paradoxical.

hortus semioticus

Hortus Semioticus is a peer reviewed online journal of semiotics featuring new generation of semiotic researchers.

Hortus Semioticus on eelretsenseeritav semiootika võrguajakiri, mis on pühendatud uue põlvkonna semiootilistele uurimustele.


Our blog is a digital resource where everyone passionate about semiotics can share their knowledge, questions and experience on stuff that matters.

Meie blogi on koht, kus semiootikahuvilised saavad vahendada mõtteid ja infot kõigest, mis loeb.