K ulturwissenschaftliches Institut für Europaforschung
(Lüneburg, Mai 2004)
Boundary is centralShifting Boundaries: Identity in/of European Films and Visual Art
After discussing some specific European, Estonian and German phenomena of filmic and visual art we reached the conclusion that the common denominator of those cultural facts is the boundary in the broadest sense. However, to narrow down a little and specify a bit more the meanings of this rather frequently exploited scientific term, I am going to give a very brief introduction how it is used in the tradition of Tartu-Moscow school of cultural semiotics.
I. The notion of 'boundary' in the vocabulary of Tartu-Moscow School of Semiotics
1. Some of Juri Lotman's works are crucial to the creation of general theoretical models for the whole school. So I will mostly rely on his writings about semiosphere to describe the notion of boundary.
2. The ninth chapter of Lotman's "Universe of the mind" is entitled "The notion of boundary". In the beginning of this chapter we can find the following statements:
a. "One of the primary mechanisms of semiotic individuation is the boundary"
b. "Every culture begins by dividing the world into 'its own' internal space and 'their' external space."
c. "This space is 'ours', 'my own', it is 'cultured', 'safe', 'harmoniously organized', and so on. By contrast 'their space' is 'other', 'hostile', 'dangerous', 'chaotic'."
d. The boundary "may be a state frontier, or a social, national, confessional, or any other kind of frontier."
e. "There is an amazing similarity, even between civilizations which have no contact with each other, in the expressions they use to describe the world beyond the boundary".
3. This last point implies that the outside is not totally out of reach, it is still a construction from the perspective of the inside. Very often its features are just the opposites of what is central to the cultural space: it is an inverted picture of the 'normal' order of things (normal >< abnormal). The extracultural space is frequently an anti-space.
a. "1.2.4. The opposition "culture-extracultural space" is the minimal unit of the mechanism of culture on any given level."
b. "2.0.0. Thus culture is constructed as a hierarchy of semiotic systems, on the one hand, and a multilayered arrangement of the extracultural sphere surrounding it. (Theses on the Semiotic Study of Cultures 1973/1998: 4/36)"
4. Text - culture - semiosphere-all exhibit features of an autonomous personality. Within certain contexts they can be approached as semiotic individuals. In some sense personal and national identity construction are isomorphic processes.
5. The boundary makes the semiotic unit a unit-a self-sufficient whole. But at the same time it unites this unit with other wholes and thereby makes it a part of larger units. The hermeneutic circular movement between the whole and the part is one of the mechanisms that give rise to the shifting of boundaries and thereby also identities.
6. The boundary fulfils a crucial function in the semiosphere: it is an area of translation processes between the cultural and extracultural. These impossible 'translations' give birth to new texts, trends, patterns within the culture. Boundary is the site of intensive semiotic activity - innovation.
7. Although taking in and misinterpreting unfamiliar texts, behaviours, formal principles etc can and mostly will destabilize the existing state of affairs, it indispensable for the dynamics of the sphere of culture.
II. An Estonian imagination of a West European 'other': Florian Flug in "Agent Wild Duck"(2002)
My concrete example to illustrate the construction of cultural "other" is an Estonian feature film, which deals with the topic of boundary crossing foreign influences on the (organisational) culture from an Estonian perspective. The story is set in an era of globalisation, where the boundaries are becoming more penetrable than ever before. Individual and collective identities are destabilized because of the vigorous and constant influx of alien influences.
The story is about an old-school industrial spy (completed his training just during the end of the Cold War) Hans Gens whose skills and work-ethics gradually devalue when the new age of ravaging capitalism unfolds. The setting is not specified, but it could be set in any of the post socialist countries (though the language and the problem with the miners indicate that it is Estonia). The espionage company Konfident Kapital that employs Hans is bought by a similar company in Germany. The new owners give orders to reorganize the enterprise and fire some of the old staff. They send their own specialist to conduct the re-qualification of the old Soviet spies.
Although the film depicts a clash of two individual characters it is justified to interpret them as representatives of certain kind of larger communities and behavioral principles. The protagonist Hans is an example of all the more or less positive stereotypical features that the Estonians like associate themselves with in the context of work. Florian, the German "top" expert, has several of the more or less negative features that the Estonians tend to ascribe to Western European people.
The two contrasted protagonists can be opposed as follows:
Attitude towards work Must be exciting, electrifying; consequences are not to be considered;
enjoys the process and fulfilling the mission is the only thing
consequences that matters; emotional reactions are to
The ethnic aspect of differentiation is actually not the central borderline which creates the necessary conflicts that make this story unfold. The Russian, Estonian and German characters are first and foremost not the representatives of their nation. Rather they embody in a grotesque manner certain social, ethical and behavioral types of our time that can be found within any Western national community. The clash and contrasting of these character types takes place mainly on the basis of being liberal, innovative or old-fashioned, conservative. This could also be described within terms of norm and resisting the norm kind of dynamics. But still the normal is 'our' guy and abnormal is the 'foreigner'. Being from different nationalities just amplifies the contrast.
It is an auteur-movie and not a realistic or naturalistic one. It is rather some kind of subtle satire or irony, painting a mocking caricature of the new economic situation and its influence on values and ethics (that changes radically even the world of spies).