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Interviewed by Paola Pianese


Have you ever asked yourself: “What if I hadn’t studied semiotics in Tartu? Would my approach to semiotics be different? Would I know different things now?”

I’d say… perhaps.

I’m currently studying for a Master’s degree in Semiotics in Bologna, but I spent 6 months in Tartu as an exchange student. I really think that my career would have been completely different if I had done the opposite. Semiotics is a broad field (or discipline?). You can study almost anything. The study of signs leads to an infinite amount of enquiry, and I think it’s quite legitimate to feel lost and overwhelmed. Texts are so rich and articulated that you have to circumscribe your object of research and thus create it. Personal interests are important, but so are habits and previous knowledge. Authors you come across in your courses, methods and theories you’re familiar with, professors who inspire you and introduce you to their field… all contribute to your academic growth and influence where you want to go. And then there’s your personal life, which is affected by where you live and has an impact on what you want to do. So, I think that yes, the place of your Master’s deeply affects your career. That’s why I asked some of my classmates in Bologna, Matteo (26), Giulia (28) and Giandomenico (31), to meet me after a seminar and talk about it. I asked the following questions to everyone at once, and we had a conversation about their experiences with semiotics and what they think of the specific semiotic program they are attending.

How did you become interested in semiotics and why did you decide to study it at Master’s level?

Matteo: I became interested in semiotics during my undergraduate studies in communication science. From the outside, semiotics seemed like the ideal instrument to mediate between a humanistic analysis and a scientific approach—which is what I’ve always wanted for things.

Giulia: My decision was made a long time ago. I didn’t study communication, I studied modern literature in Milan. I discovered hermeneutics and the philosophy of literature, especially thanks to Professor Ballerio. “What will it be, this semiotics?” I asked myself. So, I started to study it on my own and I realised that it was what I was really interested in. I thought, “How wonderful to finally realise how we give meaning to things, and why we do that, instead of focusing specifically on what they mean”.

Giandomenico: My journey was perhaps a little less straightforward. I first heard about semiotics in 2011 from a friend of mine who was studying design. He was learning about the semiotics of art. That was my first exposure. However, I had a bachelor’s degree in Oriental languages and cultures from the Sapienza University of Rome. While studying linguistics and philosophy of language, I discovered, through Saussure, that linguistics could be encompassed by a wider perspective, that of semiology. I then thought that I was interested in the relationship between signifier and signified and that I could study this relationship outside natural languages.

Finestrella. Photo credit: Paola Pianese.

Why did you come to Bologna in particular? There are other semiotic centres in Italy, like Turin, Rome, Palermo. Did you consider other options?

Matteo: I considered three different paths: sociology, anthropology and semiotics. Once I decided to do semiotics, Bologna was an easy choice because it offers a fully coherent degree in semiotics. When you think of semiotics in Italy, you immediately think of Bologna.

Giulia: It was quite difficult for me to decide. At first I wanted to study geography, and I even wrote my bachelor thesis on it. But I felt that I lacked an analytical and formal perspective, which is what semiotics gives you. There’s this struggle between more theoretical and more practical approaches. But semiotics gives you the opportunity to see everything, depending on the methods you choose. I didn’t want to limit myself to studying space, but I wanted to have the opportunity to do so. I was already here in Bologna and I had a lot of reasons to stay, I think it’s the best you can get in Italy in terms of education. Besides, it’s the only Italian degree that focuses on semiotics. I would’ve chosen it even just for its history and Eco.

Giandomenico: My other option was to study Japanese in Venice, at Ca’ Foscari. But I didn’t feel so confident in the language and the job prospects didn’t seem so good. On the contrary, semiotics seemed to offer more professional prospects.

Via del Pratello. Photo credit: Paola Pianese.

Now that you are students, what do you like most about this Master’s program? And what do you like least?

Giulia: I believe that knowledge can be an instrument for emancipation, and that horizontal rather than top-down processes are among the most natural ways to acquire and grow knowledge. Bologna allows that. Doing semiotics here is about interaction. There are only a few of us, so it’s easier to interact with people, especially your peers. I think this university gives you the opportunity to interact with other people in a less formal, less codified way that allows you to really engage in a discussion. I think that is the only thing that matters in a healthy educational process.

What I like least is everything else. I would definitely have preferred a deeper knowledge of some other fields, not so much linguistics, which is done enough, but rather philosophy or something else. We should concentrate more on semiotics as an all-encompassing field. I don’t think you can do semiotics without doing anthropology, for example.

Here, semiotics is often seen as a descriptive discipline, and yet we could say the same things in other words, even if they do not come from our discipline. But I believe that our discipline is a resource that allows us to produce knowledge, to say new things and not what has already been said. I think we have lost sight of that a little bit. And then a solid foundation is taken for granted. I mean semiotic argumentation, its existence is taken for granted, whereas it is the construction of a method.

Giandomenico: I think of two contradictory things. On the one hand, there are courses that can open your mind. On the other hand, you also feel at home. For example, discussing in a semiotic way certain musical trends, TV series, films; so, you feel at home, but you approach it from a different side. I agree with Giulia about the weakest points. Another thing is that a giant such as Umberto Eco is more likely to be discussed in an optional course than in a compulsory one.

Matteo: What I find stimulating is the approach to semiotic applications. You are immediately immersed in it. You are immediately given tools, especially the Greimasian methodology. They’re very good. Maybe ugly, but very good. You are encouraged to produce something that has to do with your own interests. I think this is a praiseworthy thing, something to look for, and I really appreciated it. On the other hand, the course is quite fragmented—idiosyncratic—But that makes it easy to adapt to everyone’s needs.

Portici. Photo credit: Paola Pianese.

What was your favourite class?

Matteo: Philosophy of Communication with Professor Francesco Bellucci. We delved into Peirce’s writings, quite philologically, which I think is something that is rarely done in semiotics. We had a reading of the author that was not mediated by textbooks. I saw the professor’s work because it was something that had been done out of his own research. There was the text of the author and there was the interpretation of the text, starting from work done in the field.

Giulia: Semiotics of Perception and the Body by Professor Claudio Paolucci. It encouraged me to develop a different perspective from the one I was used to. His focus on cognitive semiotics was definitely stimulating.

Giandomenico: I would also add the other one by Professor Paolucci, Interpretative semiotics. The two seem to be complementary, one provides the basis for the other and vice versa. They allowed me to reread what I had already studied but from a different point of view.

Last question: What is it like to live in Bologna? What’s your favourite place?

Matteo: I come from a completely different experience. I used to study in Rome. It’s a completely different city, especially because Bologna is on a human scale, while Rome is not. You also have a lot of interesting places scattered all over the place. I live in front of the department of semiotics, and two minutes’ walk away there’s the Lumière cinema, which I love.  The fact that it is such a small city means that I can more or less walk anywhere I want, even without public transport. Then there are a lot of places that are suitable for students. Wherever I go, I can stop somewhere (libraries, clubs, parks, study rooms) and take some time to study.

Giandomenico: Like Matteo, I used to live in Rome, and I agree with him about the comparison. I found Bologna much more human, much more welcoming. This is a great bonus of the city. I would not know how to choose just one favourite place. I have more places like via del Pratello[1], maybe because I live nearby, or just below the towers, so basically via Zamboni[2], the university street, because the university gave me very intense moments, very beautiful. I could never decide.

Giulia: I see Bologna as a city where life happens.  It is full of artistic, cultural and human stimuli. Above all, Bologna is a city where high and low merge and are no longer distinguishable. It’s a city whose great disadvantage becomes its bonus. That is to say, in the streets of Bologna you can never see the sky. It is a low city, completely horizontal, a kind of labyrinth. But then, when you get to an extreme point of the city, where the sky opens up, it gives you unprecedented answers. For this reason, my favourite place is the Matteotti Bridge, the one that overlooks Bologna’s railway station. From there you can see the tracks branching out and people coming and going. It’s like seeing things more clearly.

Via del Pratello. Photo credit: Paola Pianese.
Via Zamboni. Photo credit: Paola Pianese.

[1] One of the most characteristic street in Bologna, with the typical Bolognese portici and buildings in pastel colors . At night, it becomes the favorite spot for young people to gather.

[2] The oldest headquarters of the university are here, including many of the departments from the humanities.

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.


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