146 Timo Maran
Enchantment of the past and semiocide.
Remembering Ivar Puura
When someone close to you passes away, a world ceases to exist. A semiotician
would say it is an umwelt, a subjective world with all the richness of sign pa erns,
personal memories and stories, nuances of expressions and habits that disappears.
A countless number of semiotic connections are severed.
Ivar Puura (b. 1961) died unexpectedly on July 20, 2012. Ivar Puura was a sup-
porter and a good dialogue partner of the Tartu semiotic community for more
than twenty years (for a more detailed biographical overview, see Kull 2012).
A geologist by training and an active proponent of environmental education and
protection, Ivar Puura o en brought fresh perspectives into semiotic debates.
He also acted as a long-time chair of the eoretical Biology Division of the
Estonian Naturalists’ Society, was the main organizer of the annual Spring Schools
in eoretical Biology, and an editor of many thematic volumes of the Society.
Especially remarkable were his views on temporal processes, development, and
evolution, as well as his interest in semiotics of time (including the new eld of
paleo semiotics envisioned by him). Although Ivar Puura published li le in the eld
of semiotics, he gave a number of presentations on various topics related to semiot-
ics, among others “Memory and subjective time: how the story of time is created”,
“Domesticating the unknown”, “Time, chronesthesia and memory”, “From mirror-
ing nature to distorting nature: models, myths and manipulations”.2
Author’s address: Department of Semiotics, University of Tartu; Jakobi 2, Tartu 51014;
Estonia; e-mail: email@example.com.
e original titles and occasions of Ivar Puura’s semiotics-related presentations are the
following: “Mälu ja subjektiivne aeg: kuidas luuakse aja lugu?” [Memory and subjective time:
how the story of time is created] presented at the seminar “Isiklikud loodused” [Personal
Natures], November 25, 2002; “Tundmatu kodustamine” [Domesticating the unknown] at the
conference “Semiootika piirid” [Boundaries of Semiotics], November 24–25, 2006, see also
Puura 2006; “Aeg, kronesteesia ja mälu” [Time, chronesthesia and memory] at “VIII semiootika
sügiskool: Semiootika metodoloogia” [VIII Autumn School of Semiotics: Methodology of
Semiotics], November 3–5, 2006; “Looduse peegeldusest looduse väänamiseni: mudelid,
müüdid ja manipulatsioon” [From mirroring nature to distorting nature: models, myths and
Sign Systems Studies 41(1), 2013, 146–149
Enchantment of the past and semiocide. Remembering Ivar Puura 147
In this volume of Sign Systems Studies we publish a translation of Ivar Puura’s es-
say “Nature in our memory”, which originally appeared in Estonian in Eesti Loodus
[Estonian nature], a popular journal of biological sciences (Puura 2002). e es-
say revolves around two intrinsically semiotic principles: rst, every living being is
connected to its environment by semiotic relations that accumulate in time; and
second, to be human is to be aware of our continuity in time which in turn entails
a capacity to predict future, to manipulate temporal phenomena and to provide
narratives about time. e rst principle unites us with other animals since all bi-
ological organisms rely on natural sign relations and semiotic a ordances3 of the
environment. e second property is rather a peculiarity of the human species that
opens up a rich world of imagination, but also places upon us an ethical responsi-
bility not to misuse our abilities. By introducing an important concept of semiocide,
Ivar Puura directs our a ention to the possibility of misusing our semiotic skills:
according to him, semiocide is “a situation in which signs and stories that are sig-
ni cant for someone are destroyed because of someone else’s malevolence or care-
lessness, thereby stealing a part of the former’s identity”.
Semiocide has the potential to become a useful theoretical concept for describ-
ing relationships between cultures as well as between culture and nature, and for
distinguishing speci c practices applied in these relationships. In its essence, we
can describe any such relationship as an encounter between one’s own semiotic
sphere and another semiotic sphere (to follow the terminology of Juri Lotman
2005), and we can categorize these relationships on the basis of a itude (wheth-
er one’s own semiotic sphere is aggressive or neutral towards or supportive of the
other), level of activity (whether it is passive or active towards the other), and
intentionality (whether the relationship is cognized and intentional or not).
Semiocide can take place in a situation in which one’s own semiotic sphere is ac-
tively aggressive towards the other semiotic sphere and brings along the destruc-
tion of the la er’s “signs and stories”. e question of intentionality is more ambiva-
lent and by focusing predominantly on the victims of semiocide, Puura’s de nition
is broad enough to include both destruction because of someone’s “malevolence”
that is intentional and directed, and destruction because of someone’s “negligence”
that is unintentional, undirected and o en accidental. I believe, however, that the
manipulations] at the seminar “Ökosemiootika suveseminar” [Summer Seminar in Eco-
semiotics], July 31 – August 2, 2009.
Semiotic a ordances could be understood as “those environmental elements that have a
tendency to act as objects of signs. Such elements could be physical areas, for instance, hybrid
zones between biological communities, animal trails in the landscape, water currents, but also
temporal events, such as seasonal rains, forest res, and the melting of the snow” (Maran,
forthcoming). See also Gibson 1986: 127.
148 Timo Maran
distinction between intentional and unintentional semiocide may be relevant for
the future discussion of the concept: rst, because intentional semiocide requires
planning and awareness of the other’s semioticity, being thus foremost a capacity
of the human species4; and second, because it is in regard to intentional semiocide
that we can speak of speci c practices used in semiocide. Unintentional semiocide
is o en part of our relations with other species: for instance, semiocide can appear
as the damaging e ects of human tra c noise on the vocal communication of wild
birds (Forman, Alexander 1998). Unintentional semiocide can be avoided by in-
creasing our knowledge.
In analysing actual occurrences of semiocide, we can distinguish between cases
in which the destruction of semiotic processes is a by-product of the destruction of
the material environment and objects, and cases in which the semiotic and com-
municative processes themselves are the primary target. Material destruction can
be part of semiocide against biological species and indigenous cultures, in which
case the other semiotic sphere relies mostly on natural (i.e. iconic, indexical) sign
relations that use semiotic a ordances of landscapes and material objects. Also
symbolic manifestations of culture such as statues, religious buildings, heraldic
symbols, natural monuments etc. are vulnerable to material destruction. In cases
when semiocide is targeted directly at semiotic or communicative processes, it can
be more speci cally aimed at any one component of the process. Here we can fol-
low classic descriptions of communication, such as Roman Jakobson’s or omas
A. Sebeok’s communication models, and ask what components of communication
semiocide can a ect: thus, senders and receivers can be persecuted or executed,
the channel of communication can be prohibited, and the communication code
damaged. Ivar Puura’s essay provides examples of all of these cases. We can further
describe speci c strategies of semiocide, for instance masking (replacing informa-
tion and messages with those of dominant culture) and ideological overcoding
(Eco 1984: 22–23).
Puura most correctly stresses that nowadays the phenomenon of semiocide is
very widespread both in human culture and society as well as in relations between
culture and nature. Unfortunately, semiotics appears to have overlooked this dark
side of semiotic relations, as is evident from the lack of a conceptual framework
and studies dedicated to this topic. As we now have a word to denote this phenom-
enon, there is hope that Ivar Puura’s legacy in semiotics will be be er perceived
and also elaborated. is is a question of the ethical responsibility of semiotics.
While chronesthesia and other unique semiotic capabilities have enabled humans
to reach the position from which we are able to intentionally carry out semiocide,
Apparently there are destructive strategies that target the means of communications also in
other species, for instance in parasites of ants and slave-making ants (Lenoir et al. 2001).
Enchantment of the past and semiocide. Remembering Ivar Puura 149
the same capabilities also make us aware that every human being as well as every
animal gravitates towards the “reliable world of dearly loved landscapes and smells,
familiar signs and relationships”. Since the ability to remember our past and to proj-
ect our being into the future makes us so eager to preserve our existence over time,
semiotics can teach us that we can thrive only in our relations with what is other
and di erent. It is indeed a profound semiotic insight that to have a future, any se-
miotic sphere needs a realm (objects, partners of dialogue, context) that remains
(partially) outside it and that it does not fully perceive, understand or control. We
are our memories, but what we predominantly remember, are others – other hu-
man beings, animals, places, books. One of these others is you, Ivar. Fostering the
richness of the world appears to be an essential principle of semiotic ethics.
Eco, Umberto 1984. e Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. Bloomington:
Indiana University Press.
Forman, Richard T. T.; Alexander, Laurene E. 1998. Roads and their major ecological e ects.
Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 29: 207–231.
Gibson, James J. 1986. e Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Hillsdale: Lawrence
Kull, Kalevi 2012. Ivar Puura jäljed semiootikas [Traces of Ivar Puura in semiotics]. Acta
Semiotica Estica 9: 258–259.
Lenoir, Alain; D’E orre, P.; Errard, Christine; Hefetz, Abraham 2001. Chemical ecology and
social parasitism in ants. Annual Review of Entomology 46: 573–599.
Lotman, Juri 2005. On the semiosphere. Sign Systems Studies 33(1): 205–229.
Maran, Timo forthcoming. Semiotization of ma er. A hybrid zone between biosemiotics and
material ecocriticism. In: Iovino, Serenella; Oppermann, Serpil (eds.). Material Ecocriticism.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Puura, Ivar 2002. Loodus meie mälus. Eesti Loodus 11: 24–25.
Puura, Ivar 2006. Domesticating the unknown. In: Maran, Timo; Salupere, Silvi; Väli, Katre
(eds.) Conference Abstracts. Boundaries of Semiotics. Tartu, Estonia, 24–25.11. 2006. Tartu:
Eesti Semiootika Selts, 39.
150 Ivar Puura
Nature in our memory1
Humans seem to have been set apart from other animals by their ability for mental
time travel, into the past as well as into the future. In case this is so – have we tried
to appreciate the true wealth that this ability gives us? Are we able to perceive these
opportunities and the full responsibility that it brings along?
“If we kept all our wonderful abilities except for the sense of time, we would
still remain uniquely di erent from all other animals, but we would hardly be hu-
mans in the sense we understand it now,”2 believes Endel Tulving (2002). Tulving
writes that the unique human sense of time – chronesthesia – is related to the
development of speci c brain regions (prefrontal cortex and frontal lobes). By
chronesthesia Tulving understands “a form of cognition that allows human be-
ings to think about subjective time and enables travel through subjective time”.
Furthermore, he concludes that “for the development and continuance of civilisa-
tion and culture it is indispensable for a human being to be aware of her own and
her o spring’s continued existence in time that includes not only the past and the
present but also future” (Tulving 2002).
Each moment of communication with our surroundings involves recognition
of signs, establishment of their interrelations, a ribution of meaning – in other
words, there occurs semiosis. Chronesthesia can be seen as a type of semiosis in
which personal memories are arranged on a subjective timeline. It is only on the
basis of remembering the personal that trust can appear or disappear. Wisdom as
well as stupidity, sincerity as well as deceit are all recorded in the mind. On the ba-
sis of experience all of us shape our own landscape of memory, space of values, at-
titudes and (pre)conceptions.
Personal time travels intertwine memories and acquired knowledge. Among
these there are general signs of culture that “[...] actualize behavioural, ideological,
temporal and spatial codes in the mind of the receiver” (Torop 1999). Kalevi Kull
and Mihhail Lotman (1995) have suggested: “A sign requires to be recognized.
What an interpreter does not recognize is not a sign for her. is, seemingly a rath-
er self-evident and primitive statement brings along rather important implications,
such as semiosis being inseparably connected to memory.”
Originally published as “Puura, Ivar 2002. Loodus meie mälus. Eesti Loodus 11: 24–25”
All quotations from Estonian are translated by Elin Sütiste and Timo Maran.
Sign Systems Studies 41(1), 2013, 150–153
Nature in our memory 151
Jaan Kaplinski (1996) has wri en: “In a simple case, the free part of mind is
lled with a simple re ection of the surroundings. But our mind is hardly ever a
mere mirror: laments of memory connect each of our perceptions to something
past. ere is no such thing as a pure present. Memories bring into it the past,
wishes and expectations the future; imagination and thinking combine all this into
new pictures and thoughts.”
A notion of temporal relations accompanies us everywhere. e pillars of our
world picture – ideas about the emergence and development of phenomena,
about causality and repeatability of experiments – all entail temporal relation-
ships. Wri en and unwri en rules of communal life, morality, ethics, (behavioural)
norms, laws and responsibility for our past – all these are based on our own and
others’ personal (life)stories unfolding in time.
Claude Lévi-Strauss (2001), who studied the “savage mind” of indigenous peo-
ple, described tribes who responded to the researchers’ wish to learn their language
with spreading out a pile of plants. e names of the hundreds of plants make up
a considerable part of a tribe’s common vocabulary and signscape. Some under-
standing of the depth of such “savage thinking” can develop in a person whose
knowledge of nature approaches that of indigenous peoples.
homas A. Sebeok (from le ), Kalevi Kull and Ivar Puura at the seminar “Uexküll and the Liv-
ing Environment” at the Estonian Naturalists' Society, Tartu, June 8, 1999 (Photo: T. Maran
152 Ivar Puura
As a contrast to the world in which there still exist shreds of the “savage mind”,
Jean Baudrillard describes a world of simulacra, in which groves and meadows are
replaced by arti cial environments, such as Disneyland or McDonald’s. While in
earlier times natural landscapes were transferred onto maps, at the present time
programmes to change nature are devised in the paper reality of landscape plan-
ning. A modelled arti cial environment as a simulacrum starts to prevail over the
primeval and the natural, both in the physical world as well as in the human mind.
e diversity of nature is overwhelming. Every living creature, being part of a
greater whole, carries in itself memories of billions of years of evolution and em-
bodies its own long and largely still unknown story of origin. By wholesale replace-
ment of primeval nature with arti cial environments, it is not only nature in the
biological sense that is lost. At the hands of humans, millions of stories with bil-
lions of relations and variations perish. e rich signscape of nature is replaced by
something much poorer. It is not an exaggeration to call this process semiocide.
I understand semiocide to be a situation in which signs and stories that are signif-
icant for someone are destroyed because of someone else’s malevolence or careless-
ness, thereby stealing a part of the former’s identity. In everyday life this o en takes
place in the form of material or mental violence among children as well as grownups:
things that are signi cant and have become dear to somebody are threatened to be
or are actually destroyed. In the cultural sphere, semiocide can be looting of tombs
or destruction of heritage objects. Classic nature protection looks out for individual
natural objects also in the sense of their physical as well as semiotic existence.
When semiocide is targeted at some nation or group of people, it can manifest
itself as ideological pressure or as sacrilege that o en goes together with physical
violence or occupation. A form of semiocide – linguacide, i.e. suppression of na-
tional languages – is something we remember from our own recent past and can
see everywhere in the world today. Semiocide has also been the destruction of
totems of indigenous people and the banishing of people from their home sign-
scape– from the native land of their forefathers, taking away from them everything
which all together means home.
What is homesickness if not a wish to return to our reliable world of dearly
loved landscapes and smells, familiar signs and relationships? What keeps families
in their homes until the last moment when burning lava or rising water is already
threateningly near? Why do families refuse to accept nancially tempting o ers to
move away when their homes get in the way of new mines or roads?
If we took time to get to know ourselves be er, we would discover nature
in ourselves. Deep in our memory our sensations are related to the signs of na-
ture that we see, smell and hear even when we have not yet become aware of
this. Nature that is intimately familiar to us embodies the signscape that carries
Nature in our memory 153
traditions going back through centuries, helps culture to persist and helps human
beings to stay human.
How can we nd this nature in ourselves? We can always listen to nature’s music
that lightens our mind. Some people experience an elevated mood, others perceive
the nuances of the melody, yet others are able to write the music down as a score,
and nally there are some who are able to create music. e richness of melodies
and signs hidden in nature is not elitist, it cannot be fenced in or marketed. Nature
just is. When need be, it comforts the traveller of the (memory) landscape. And
sometimes nature gives us a jolly wink and is willing to tell its stories, unfolding
multilayered meanings and o ering joy of discovery to last one’s entire lifetime.
Baudrillard, Jean 1999. Simulaakrumid ja simulatsioon [Simulacra and simulation]. Tallinn:
Kaplinski, Jaan 1996. See ja teine [ is and that]. Tartu: Tartu Ülikooli Kirjastus.
Kull, Kalevi; Lotman, Mihhail 1995. Semiotica Tartuensis: Jakob von Uexküll ja Juri Lotman
[Semiotica Tartuensis: Jakob von Uexküll and Juri Lotman]. Akadeemia 7(12): 2467–2483.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude 2001. Metsik mõtlemine [ e savage mind]. Tallinn: Vagabund.
Torop, Peeter 1999. Kultuurimärgid [Signs of culture]. Tartu: Ilmamaa.
Tulving, Endel 2002. Mälu [Memory]. Tartu: Tartu Ülikooli Kirjastus.
Translated by Elin Sütiste and Timo Maran