Category: core-Blog

Circulating the STS Hub 2023

How is STS, as a scholarly discipline, practised in Germany? Which are the approaches to STS here? How do these relate to each other and which topics stimulate joint interdisciplinary and integrated STS research? Which institutions and actors participate in German STS research communities? The new STS-Hub conference series, hosted for the first time by RWTH Aachen University on March 15th-17th 2023 tackled these questions. This event is the result of several years of talks, organization and planning led by, amon others, c:o/re director Stefan Böschen and Ingmar Lippert, whom we cordially welcomed as a short-term c:o/re fellow. The STS Hub is envisioned to move between established and emerging places for STS in Germany and to have a bi-yearly rhythm in-between the EASST Conferences. Financially, the event was institutionally assisted and sponsored by the BMBF, HumTec, c:o/re and several STS networks and clubs such as stsing, INSIST, the science and technology research section at the DGS and the politics, science and technology working group at DVPW.


Stefan John

Stefan John is a PhD researcher with the Living Labs Incubator (LLI) located at the Human Technology Center within RWTH Aachen University. His academic work focuses on (power) structures in Living Labs and the modes and understanding of experimentation of (knowledge) infrastructures in contemporary knowledge societies. He is also responsible with supporting the networking and research of LLI. Also, he is currently supporting the c:o/re events team.

Taking all possible roles as part of the local organizing team, panel organizer and panelist, I take the pleasure to briefly convey my experience of the conference and its theme, with a focus on the very insightful keynotes by Ulrike Felt and Susann Wagenknecht.


RWTH Aachen offered the Central Auditorium for Research and Learning (C.A.R.L.) as the main venue for the STS Hub.

Before starting the conference and welcoming all guests, INSIST took the chance to make an early career researcher barcamp, discussing the specific needs and problems of this status group and bringing them together. The barcamp format enabled the organisers to allow topics to emerge from direct inputs. To set off, Stefan Böschen and Torsten Voigt, the Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy, took the stage and warmly welcomed the over-300 participants. Following Ingmar Lippert’s short overview of the idea of the STS Hub and its history, STS activities being undertaken at RWTH Aachen were presented in all their varied nuances. Different institutes, chairs and projects, such as the chair of Sociology of Technology and Organization (STO), the chair for Personnel and Organizational Psychology, the Computational Social Science Studies Lab (CSS), led by Gabriele Gramelsberger, the Human Technology Center, the embedded STS work at the WIRKsam project led by Andrea Altepost and, last but not least, the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, as a whole.

Gabriele Gramelsberger introducing the Käte Hamburger Kolleg “Cultures of Research” as an STS place at RWTH Aachen University to the audience. Photographer: Stefan John

After a short break the first of six session blocks started, each lasting for two hours. A broad variety of topics were discussed in over 65 panels. These stretched from experimental democracy and political views to science and technology, to topic driven panels, e.g. on waste and software studies. The event also comprised experimental formats, such as fishbowl discussions and walkshops, and interdisciplinary topics to foster the circulation of STS ideas with other fields like art and educational studies. Discussions tended to relate, to various degrees, to an interest on the circulation of either knowledge, methods or topics. The theme of circulation is at the very heart of STS research, as particularly evidenced by topics such as the production and utilization of knowledge and expertise, import and dissemination of new technologies and innovation models, e.g. the Zimbabwe Bush Pump or the MIT model of innovation. Circulation stands in proximity to other familiar STS concepts such as infrastructure, translation and power. The Covid-19 pandemic gave prime examples of the circulation of a virus, (un)scientific knowledge, policies and infrastructures in all their contingencies. This virality is entangled with a set of political and normative groundworks, conference program explains that “circulations are never innocent – they can come at high costs for some while benefitting others. Costs and profits often emerge from the intertwinement of different systems of circulation. The circulation of socioeconomic value is contingent on the material circulation of waste in oceans as well as knowledge about their contamination. To circulate or not to circulate evokes questions of solidarity and of violence. Is there a responsibility of STS to resist, disrupt, or prevent some forms of circulation? Which circulations do we care for maintaining?” Another salient theme that emerged from the several panels is that of testing, which involves considerations on experimenting and infrastructures. The keynotes also pondered on this matter.

Ulrike Felt delivering keynote. Photographer: Stefan John

The first keynote, by Ulrike Felt, took a reflexive stance towards the tacit governance of contemporary academic knowing spaces. In her talk, “Infrastructuring Circulations”, she noted two coexisting logics at work in academic environments, namely “a deeply rooted logic of circulation” that encounters an increasing presence of a “logic of infrastructuring”. Reinforcing each other and creating friction (Tsing 2005), they create unique and specific arrangements of research cultures and power. The first conference day ended with a reception for more informal circulations.

Another, this time Latourian, take on circulation was presented by Susann Wagenknecht. Closely dissecting leakages in circulation allows for analysis of the transformation, materiality and morality of circulation. Wagenknecht illustrated this through examples of circular economies and handling of leaks.

Susann Wagenknecht delivering keynote. Photographer: Stefan John

Additionally to discussions on content, the STS Hub also served as a platform to talk about the current state of academia. In the Open Forum #WeDoSTS, Fanny Oehme as Ombudsman, Dr. Claudia Gertraud Schwarz-Plaschg and Dr. Daniel Müller were invited to give accounts on power within STS and the academic system as a whole. As activists against discrimination in general and, more specifically, sexism and abuse of power, they presented the prevalent problems, ways to address them and networks to aid in these situations. After this panel, to open up the debate and offer specific insights, small group discussions were offered by the experts.  

The first STS Hub offered an excellent platform for discussion and exchange across hierarchies, new ways of portraying topics in STS through experimental panel formats and an overall welcoming atmosphere for academic collaboration. I would like to wholeheartedly thank Stefan Böschen, Ingmar Lippert and Mareike Smolka for making this Hub possible. We are looking forward to the next one!


Tsing, A. L. 2005. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Research in Times of War – “The War Added One More Factor – the War Itself”

graffito - stop wars

For over a year now the war is raging in Ukraine. Anna Laktionova and Svitlana Shcherbak, two philosophers from Kiev, left after the invasion. They are fellows at c:o/re, an advanced studies center at RWTH Aachen University that focuses on different research cultures and how they change in times of global challenges and transformations. War can have an impact on research, too. It first of all threatens and takes lives and destroys homes – but it can also radically change the scholarly landscape. Concidering the terror against civilians, I was hesitating for a long time to ask Anna and Svitlana about research in times of war, but I finally approached them and asked if they would be open to talk about their experiences during the past year. They agreed, although they both told me how tough and challenging it was to speak about this. I am very greatful that they shared their personal stories and professional perspectives.


Svitlana Shcherbak

Svitlana Shcherback is a researcher with a professional focus on political philosophy, discourse analysis and the political development of Post-Soviet states. She has years of experience in various (international) research projects, for example with the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine or with the Catholic University of America, Washington, DC. In her current studies as a c:o/re fellow, Svitlana works on the aspect of “modernization” in ideological discourses of Post-Soviet states namely in Russia and Ukraine

Stefanie Haupt: When did you become certain that the Russian government was serious about attacking Ukraine? May I ask how you experienced the weeks before, the day of the invasion and the weeks following it? What were your thoughts and when did you decide to leave?

Svitlana Shcherback: It is still not easy to remember the first days of the war. When the embassies of the USA and European countries announced the evacuation of their staff, it became clear that the threat of a Russian attack was quite real. I understood that it was a realistic scenario, but I did not want to believe it until the very end. The slightest hope remained that it was just a bad joke. It seemed to be unbelievable that Putin could make such a decision, which turned out to be a disaster not only for Ukraine, but also for Russia. It was such a terrible and stupid decision that I hoped until the very last minute that it would never happen.

However, a premonition of war was in the air, and in my daily life I acted as if the war was inevitable. I was getting ready for it, buying some important things like medicines and putting my current affairs in order. I used to shop abroad via the Internet; the Ukrainian postal services were quite reliable and fast. However, just before the war, I resisted the temptation to shop abroad, assuming that I would not get it because of the war.

On February 19th, I was together with my children at a concert in the Kiev Philharmonic Hall, we listened to Mozart’s Requiem. Later we often remembered that concert; it was so symbolic… On the 24th of February, we were woken up at about 5 a.m. by the sound of a rocket flying over our house. I remember the feeling – it has happened; there is no more hope, it is war! My kids were frightened, but I felt neither fear, nor despair – the waiting was difficult, but all that was needed now was action. Nobody knew what was going to happen. We lived in the outskirts of Kiev, not far from Gostomel and Bucha, and I never knew that waking up at dawn to the sounds of fighting was going to be our daily routine, that we would learn to identify the sounds of rockets and to determine the direction of fire. In short, that we would acquire the skills that my relatives in Donetsk had acquired long ago, and far better than us.

I had stayed in Kiev for two weeks with my son, while my husband evacuated our daughter and his parents to the countryside near Cherkassy. My mother’s house is in Gostomel, near to the airfield where the Russian airborne troops landed. I was so happy that she was in Germany at the time, because the fighting was right next to her house. It miraculously survived, although it was left without windows and partly without a roof. 

From the first day of the war, all shops except the large supermarkets were closed, public transport was at a standstill, and getting to other parts of the city, especially across the Dnipro River, became a challenge. Kiev was being attacked by the Russians from different sides, and the city streets were partially blocked by anti-tank hedgehogs and cement blocks. Our daily routine had been reduced to the task of survival.

It was clear that the Russians overestimated their military forces and misjudged the situation in Ukraine. They expected an easy and quick victory, obviously believing their own propaganda cliché about the ‘Nazi government’ and ‘pro-Russian people’ in Ukraine. But it soon became obvious that the war would be long and bloody. I did not want to put the children in danger, especially my daughter – she has diabetes, and I realized that because of the war it would be difficult to provide her with all the medicines and equipment she needs to live.

evacuation train from Kiev, photo: Svitlana Shcherback

In the early days of the war, it was extremely difficult to leave Kiev. We could only get out of the city by car or on so-called evacuation trains, overrun by crowds of frightened people. The roads were also jammed, there were roadblocks and traffic jam for miles, and it was very hard to get petrol. It took me a while to decide what to do and where to go, and to get ready for the long journey with two kids. It was scary to go almost nowhere with children. I also waited for the flow of refugees to subside. In the end, we had to take an evacuation train from Cherkassy to Lviv, and, you know, after that trip, other troubles seemed less troublesome than before. I decided to go to Germany, because my mother lived in Ober-Olm, near Mainz.

Two weeks of our stay in Kiev had not passed without a trace. When we arrived in Germany, for the first time we tried to identify the type and direction of a flying rocket, when we heard the sound of an airplane. We forgot that airplanes could be peaceful. And we had only been in Kiev for two weeks. I can only imagine what people in Mariupol or Kharkiv must have gone through.

When the war started, I was in pieces for several reasons. First and foremost, war means death. So many people have already died, and I do not know how many more deaths the war will bring. I was born in the East of Ukraine, in Donetsk. I spent part of my childhood in the countryside, near Zaporizhia.  Hot summer days, endless meadows and fields of wheat and sunflowers, cut through with woodland belts, and the high blue sky above are still before my eyes. It is an arid steppe zone; there is no lush greenery, no big forests, no large rivers, just endless steppe and sunshine. Small villages scattered along the road. It pains me deeply to think that this land, my home country, is now being torn apart by the war. 

I am a Russian-speaking half-Russian and half-Ukrainian, and although I have never identified with Russia, Russian culture is a part of my background. I know that Russia is very heterogeneous, as Ukraine is and even more so. I took the Russian invasion as a shot in the temple to all Russian-speaking people all over the world, not just in Ukraine. Attacking Ukraine was the worst thing the Russian authorities could have ever done for Russians. 

This war is a real tragedy for both Ukrainian and Russian people, and we will have to deal with dire consequences of the war for many years… So many deaths, so much blood and destruction. As a child I often watched films and read books about war, mostly the Soviet ones, but not only. These books and films were different; most of them were rather propagandistic, showing the war just in black and white. But there were also films and books that reflected on the experience of war. For example, Ivan’s Childhood by Andrei Tarkovsky, Trial on the Road by Alexei German, Go and See by Elem Klimov, The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov, All is Quite on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Even as a child, I understood how terrible the wars must have been. War cripples the human soul. As my son said after coming to Germany and returning to a normal life: war should not exist. I believed that it would never happen again, and in my nightmares, I could not have dreamed that it would affect us directly… It seems incredible that this war was initiated by the country that suffered so much during WWII and that used this traumatic experience and the memory of the war as a basis for consolidating society. It seems that most Russians have not yet understood that from now on the responsibility for starting the war lies with Russia and that their children will have to deal with it.

However, I do not support the idea of cancelling everything that has to do with Russia. On the contrary, I think that this tendency makes Russians feel an existential threat and support Putin in his justification of the war as a forced necessity, mobilises them.

Stefanie: It is now one year since the war in Ukraine began. How did you manage to settle in and find routines at RWTH and in the city of Aachen? How did your professional life as a philosopher change? Does the war impact your research agenda? And if so, how?

Svitlana: Of course, the evacuation was not easy. I remember the evacuation train to Lviv, a city in the West of Ukraine. It was packed with people like sardines, and the journey took 16 hours. Let me not remember that time any more. War is always hard; it is a situation of the ultimate existential challenge, the encounter with death, and the ruin of infrastructure and institutions that form the basis of everyday routine. 

We stayed at my mother’s for a short time. I soon found the opportunity to apply for a fellowship at the RWTH, and a week later we arrived in Aachen. In Germany, we were greeted with sympathy and compassion from the very beginning. I am so grateful to the people who met us and helped us, in particular to Rosemarie and Engelbert Gabel from Ober-Olm. In Aachen we stayed with Christina Veenhues, who also supported us, helped us get settled in and became a good friend of mine. It is not easy to name all the people who helped us, but I would like to express my gratitude to Ana de la Varga, Gabriele Gramelsberger, Julia Arndt and Mathias Sannemann, my children’s class teacher at the Anne-Frank-Gymnasium.

I am convinced that any research agenda you are deeply involved in has to be relevant to something really important in your life. Of course, the war has affected my research agenda.

Svitlana Shcherbak giving a lecture at c:o/re

In recent years, I have focused on the political and economic processes in Ukraine and how they are intertwined and influence each other. I was rather critical of the policies of the Ukrainian authorities during Petro Poroshenko’s presidency. In my opinion, the government focused too much on identity politics and neglected economic and social reforms. I was also concerned about the fate of southern and eastern regions of Ukraine. The problem was that the Ukrainian national project postulated a strong link between the preferred language of everyday communication and ethno-political identity (pro-Russian/pro-Ukrainian). These regions were largely Russian-speaking and a mixture of both Ukrainian and Russian cultures, and did not fit into this concept of Ukrainian identity. They were a kind of bridge between Ukraine and Russia; not surprisingly, they ended up becoming a ‘conflict zone’ (I owe this bridge metaphor to my colleague Roland Wittje).

Being a partisan of civic nationhood as a political identity built around shared citizenship within the state, I wanted Ukraine to be more democratic and liberal than it was and was going to be. That is why I was interested not only in applied research on political processes in Russia and Ukraine, but also in common issues of political philosophy. I strongly believe that understanding the post-communist space requires attention to the normative aspects of the ‘political’ and the analysis of developed countries, which turned out to be a kind of supplier and pattern of normativity for post-communist countries. Moreover, I believe that studying only endogenous factors is not sufficient for understanding the problems and challenges faced by post-communist countries, because their institutional configurations were largely formed in response to external influences, even if indirect. 

The war added one more factor – the war itself. It heated up my interest in questions of ideology, propaganda, information warfare, post-truth and other issues related to political epistemology. I was interested in them before, but after the outbreak of the war, my interest to them increased enormously. The war in Ukraine, despite localised, has critically changed the world, and it will never be the same again. I mean not only in terms of geopolitical configuration, but also economic and institutional change. The conflict is far from over, and the question of what the world will look like after it is still open.

Stefanie: What are the circumstances under which researchers in Ukraine work? What would you say how the war is impacting academia there and in the post-Soviet states general?

Svitlana: Working conditions for Ukrainian scientists are not the best at the moment. The damage to Ukraine’s energy infrastructure has had the most negative impact because people’s lives are closely linked to the times when electricity is on. They often have to work at night.

The electricity situation is better now, but questions of how to survive on a daily basis are acute. Few of our colleagues have gone to the front, except on their own initiative, because there is a reservation for the conscription of scientists into the army.

Of course, any war is an existential challenge; it requires a special kind of reflection. On the one hand, we need to take a critical look at the processes in the post-Soviet space that made the war possible and, at some point, even inevitable. This reflection may turn out to be difficult, because the processes in Ukraine itself have been and continue to be very complex and controversial. On the other hand, the moral dimension of the war needs to be considered.

The war occupies the prominent place in the reflections of Ukrainian philosophers and social scientists – round tables, articles, journal issues and monographs are devoted to it. At the same time, even before the war, the agenda of Ukrainian public intellectuals tended to be rather right-wing than left-wing focusing mainly on identity politics. Now, for obvious reasons, it has become more radical. Beyond identity politics, Ukrainian researchers focus on moral issues, trying not only to conceptualise the existential and moral meaning of war, but also to describe current social processes and conflicts in terms of good and evil. I would even say that the front is now not only on the battlefields, but also on the pages of academic journals. Many of our colleagues define their task in terms of the war – to strengthen the consolidation of both Ukrainian and Western societies in their opposition to Russia.

I remember a conversation with a colleague who told me of his idea to write a book about Russia as a “Nazi” state. I argued that one could talk about fascist tendencies in Russia, but not about Nazism. He agreed after a short discussion, but said that for him the writing of such a book was a kind of fight against Russia. Never mind that it would mean deliberately deluding the public (against one’s own better knowledge). 

I am aware that involvement is inevitable; as a good song about the Second World War says, ‘I am not involved in the war; the war is involved in me’ (thanks to Ilya Vorobyev for the idea). However, I consider critical reflection to be an essential part of our professional task and our professional ethics, and I personally cannot refuse it.

The focus of most Ukrainian intellectuals on identity politics leads to a neglect of the problems with various reforms, especially the labour law reform that is currently being implemented in Ukraine under the guise of a ban on criticism of the government’s actions during the war. I would recommend reading a recent article by Volodymyr Ishchenko in the New Left Review on this issue.

Svitlana Shcherbak presenting during the Lecture Series of c:o/re

Stefanie: Do you observe differences and/or similarities between research cultures in Kiev and in Aachen? And in what direction does your own research develop now?

Svitlana: The question of the research cultures is rather complicated to answer in a nutshell. I see both differences and similarities between the research cultures in Kiev and in Aachen, resulting on the one hand from the Soviet past of Ukrainian philosophy, and on the other hand from its kind of postcolonial status today. One of the most striking differences between the research cultures in Kiev and in Aachen is the lack of theoretical discussions among Ukrainian philosophers. The question of the peculiarities of Soviet philosophy and its institutional functions has been discussed many times, mainly by Russian philosophers. Despite the fact that philosophy in the Soviet Union was saturated with ideology, there was some free space for thought. Of course, the works of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin created a corpus of ‘sacred texts’ that described reality in the only possible and truthful way, but they were not comprehensive. In particular, the development of science and the emergence of new disciplines had raised many questions. Philosophy existed in this gap between the prescribed ideological ‘credo’ and the living reality. Discussions sometimes did not follow the logic of their own discursive field, but the logic of the apparatus struggle. However, the common language and methodological framework enabled discussions between philosophers and scientists in the Soviet Union.

After the collapse of the USSR, the philosophical space became fragmented. First, national languages of philosophizing began to develop. Russian lost its function as the main language of communication, and Moscow ceased to be the centre of attraction for intellectuals from the post-Soviet space. Second, Ukrainian researchers were mostly re-oriented towards different philosophical schools and centres in Europe and the USA. They began to play the role of representatives of various Western philosophical schools in Ukraine. Some Ukrainian philosophers see their main task as representing the current trends and disciplines of Western philosophy at the university and in translating of relevant texts. Some do hermeneutics or phenomenology, others communicative or analytical philosophy, and so on. This means that philosophy in Ukraine is more receptive than productive.

Of course, Ukrainian philosophers’ work is not just a historical and philosophical representation of the Western philosophy. There is a number of original and interesting works in Ukrainian philosophy. But they are thematically and methodologically linked to and included in Western philosophical discourses. These books and articles are often published in other languages and become part of the work of researchers from Ukraine, but not of Ukrainian philosophy.

My sketch is rather superficial, I must admit. There are some books devoted to philosophy in the post-Soviet countries, particularly in Ukraine. I would recommend, for example, Mykhailo Minakov (ed.), Philosophy Unchained: Developments in Post-Soviet Philosophical Thought (2023).

Stefanie: I think, your analysis is far from superficial. Thank you Svitlana, for sharing not only your professional perspectives on the academic developments in Ukraine but also on your very personal experiences in the past year.

Svitlana: Thanks, Stefanie, for your in-depth questions. I very much appreciate the opportunity to speak out as one of Ukrainian voices.

Research in Times of War – “Scientific Life Somehow Goes on…”

graffito - stop wars

For over a year now the war is raging in Ukraine. Anna Laktionova and Svitlana Shcherbak, two philosophers from Kiev, left after the invasion. They are fellows at c:o/re, an advanced studies center at RWTH Aachen University that focuses on different research cultures and how they change in times of global challenges and transformations. War can have an impact on research, too. It first of all threatens and takes lives and destroys homes – but it can also radically change the scholarly landscape. Concidering the terror against civilians, I was hesitating for a long time to ask Anna and Svitlana about research in times of war, but I finally approached them and asked if they would be open to talk about their experiences during the past year. They agreed, although they both told me how tough and challenging it was to speak about this. I am very greatful that they shared their personal stories and professional perspectives.


Anna Laktionova

Anna Laktionova is Professor of the Department of Theoretical and Practical Philosophy at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, Ukraine. Among other topics, such as theory of knowledge, and the legacy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, she explores the reciprocally additive character of the relation between “is” and “ought”. In her research project as a c:o/re fellow, Anna explores the possibilities of engaging Philosophy of Technology and Philosophy of Science with Philosophy of Action and Agency.

Stefanie Haupt: I remember waking up in the morning of the 24th of February 2022 to the news of Russia invading Ukraine. Although in retrospect everything pointed towards it – the occupation of Crimea in 2014, the weeks and days leading up to the war, the escalating rhetoric and actions – I was still shocked and could not believe it was actually happening. Looking back, I think that was naïve maybe. When did you become certain that the Russian government was serious about attacking Ukraine? How did you experience the weeks before, the day of the invasion and the weeks following it? What were your thoughts and when did you decide to leave?

Anna Laktionova: Even at 4.00 a.m. on the 24th of February 2022, early morning, when I was not able to fall asleep and I had been watching different news and information on the internet, I could not believe it to be possible. But then after two hours I woke up by the call from my brother telling me that there was already bombing of the North of Kyiv.

Portrait of Anna Laktionova
Anna Laktionova

Since February, 7th, 2022, Vera, my 1-year-old daughter, my husband, and his mother (my mother-in-law, 82 years old) had already been in a rented flat in Uzhgorod (a nice town in the Western part of Ukraine, about 900 km from Kyiv). We had planned to spend half of the year there (the nature, climate etc. is very nice). But we also had a weird intuition about the Russian attack. We thought it would be much easier if I joined my family later than running away from Kyiv all together. As Covid was still spreading at that time, my teaching in the University was online, so I intended to join the family as soon as I felt ok – I did not feel well after I stopped breastfeeding Vera. So, no one in my family believed in a real possibility of war; but we had some intuitions, discussed them and decided not to risk our only child’s safety.

On the 24th of February 2022 at 8.00 a.m., I was already driving a car to Western Ukraine. I don’t have a car; from 6.00 till 7.45 I had been calling everyone of my close and not-so-close friends asking about the possibility to join someone who was heading West, explaining that I was alone, no luggage, just a knapsack (I took just documents, available money; not thinking about anything – even forgot my glasses as I was wearing contact lenses); and that I can drive (I have a driver’s license but no experience in driving as I don’t own a car anymore). Some friends of friends of friends had a car and old parents whom they wanted to send to the West, so I drove them to the small town Stryi close to the Carpathians. The road was extremely busy, the speed was mostly about 20 to 50 km per hour; it took us a bit more than 24 hours to get there. From there I got to Uzhgorod by local trains… On the way from Kyiv to the West, I saw Russian helicopters, aircrafts…

After a few days the possibility of a fellowship in KHK c:o/re Aachen opened up and I accepted it. I am very thankful to many foreign colleagues for trying to find ways of helping me! Me, my daughter, my mother-in-law, we crossed the border between Ukraine and Slovakia by foot on the 4th of March (no cars were allowed to pass through). My former classmates (who emigrated to Germany about 10 years ago) picked us up on the Slovakian side and we drove to Germany. On the border the situation was ‘very touching’: many men were accompanying women with children, helping with the luggage to the point of crossing the border, kissing, crying, and remaining on the Ukrainian side…

Stefanie: I can hardly imagine how much stress and uncertainty you must have experienced during this time. Did you manage to settle in and find routines at RWTH and in the city of Aachen? How did your professional life as a philosopher change? How does the war impact your research?

Anna: In Aachen, colleagues and staff from KHK c:o/re and RWTH were very kind and supportive (to name just a few: Gabriele Gramelsberger, Ana de la Varga, Julia Arndt). They and their friends helped us with everything: documents, finding a place to stay and live (the family of the owners of a flat where we live, the neighbours are also incredibly kind and caring), explaining about peculiarities of German institutions (the situation has also been challenging for them) and habits, also with finding a kindergarden for Vera (but she still doesn’t stay for more than one hour there without me) etc. etc. etc. I remember that in March and April on the streets I was meeting more and more Ukrainian women and children every day… Our situation in Aachen has been lucky enough. We are very thankful to many German people for the help, support, care!

My personal life has been and still is very much engaged with my daughter. It influences my professional life, my daughter is the first priority to me. Everything has been and still is not easy. I cannot participate in the professional life as much as I would like to and as I used to. The fellowship opened up new interesting very promising paths for my investigations, but I cannot accomplish them as largely as I want due to my personal situation.

Anna Laktionova in a conversation with Stefan Böschen
Anna Laktionova and Stefan Böschen at c:o/re

Stefanie: Do you have colleagues in your private and professional network that work at research institutions and universities in Ukraine? Do you know how the situation is for them? I know that you are also still teaching online. How is the situation for your students?

Anna: Colleagues in Ukraine are holding on. Everything is online, sometimes not online but by email correspondence because of problems with electricity, internet, unsafety, air raid alerts… Many of them are helping to support the Ukrainian Army…   

Officially, being a fellow, I don’t have to teach, but I am continuing to supervise some post-graduate students and future magisters. I was also asked by the administration of the faculty from Kyiv to continue teaching some of my courses online, which I do. Some students are outside Ukraine, some stay at home, often not in Kyiv. Meeting online is not always successful: air alarms happen at different times and in different districts of Kyiv and parts of Ukraine. Often the communication is by e-mail correspondence and individual zoom-meetings. Some students are at war, some volunteer in the helping infrastructure. Last year, I was member in several PhD and Doctor of Science committees. Scientific life somehow goes on…

Stefanie: Thank you so much, Anna, for sharing very difficult and personal experiences!

Historicizing STS @ c:o/re: Turning points in reflections on science and technology


Historiciting STS participants (left to right): Benjamin Peters, Salome Rodeck, Arianna Borrelli, Kyveli Mavrokordopoulou, Lisa Onaga.
Photographer: Jule Janßen

On March 14th and 15th the workshop Turning points in reflections on science and technology: Toward historicizing STS took place at c:o/re. The aim of this event was to investigate the turning points in the intellectual history of Science and Technology Studies (STS) over the course of the 20th and 21st Centuries. Discussions converged to open up STS by historicizing this area of inquiry through explorations of the various turns in its development. As such, the meeting generated debates on the broad spectrum of notions of historicizing STS, as well of STS per se. It illustrated the interdisciplinary and multi-perspective study of STS that is being undertaken at c:o/re.

The event was organized in a carefully coordinated collaboration between c:o/re director Gabriele Gramelsberger and c:o/re research fellows. It served as a focused, c:o/re warm-up for the well-known STS Hub, which followed it, also hosted at RWTH Aachen University and organized by c:o/re director Stefan Böschen and other colleagues. The discussions benefitted from the attendance of Professor Ulrike Felt, who also delivered a keynote talk at the STS hub and is short term senior fellow at c:o/re during March 2023.

After Gabriele Gramelsberger, the main organizer of the Historicizing STS workshop, welcomed the participants to our Research Centre and explained the rationale of this meeting, c:o/re fellows Arianna Borrelli and Roland Wittje started off the academic debate. They chaired the panel Turning from History of Ideas and Artifacts to Practices and Society, with a focus on the increasingly close interplay between history of Science and Technology and STS, on the one hand and STS on the other, of which Lisa Onaga  (Max Planck Institute for History of Science, Berlin) and Carsten Reinhardt  (Bielefeld University) provided impressive examples.

Lisa Onaga.
Photographer: Jule Janßen.

Lisa Onaga explored the practical turn in STS by focusing on silk craft. To recontextualize 20th Century Japanese modernisation and offer an example of how a community may reclaim its heritage, Onaga observed what she terms archipelagic thinking, that is, “seeing like an island”. Through this epistemic prism she explained how a remote community is aware of its being perceived peripheral while acknowledging itself as central to itself.

In his presentation, Residual Uncertainty in the Long Twentieth Century, Carsten Reinhardt addressed the Anthropocene through residue, as an analytical notion. This inquiry leads Reinhardt to a consideration of un/certainty, as a tension between striving for certainty and maintaining uncertainty. The debate pointed to the importance of reflecting on modernity through non-modern means.

As the second panel, c:ore fellows Benjamin Peters and Kyveli Mavrokordopoulou chaired Turning from Humans to Non-Humans, in a critical examination on anthropocentrism and its limits in the study of science and technology. Their invited speakers featured rising young scholars Salome Rodeck (Max Planck Institute for History of Science, Berlin) and Vanessa Bateman (Maastricht University).

Salome Rodeck on Hawaiian Experiments, New Imperatives: Donna Haraway and Symbiosis Science.
Photographer: Jule Janßen.

Salome Rodeck presented on Hawaiian experiments, new imperatives, referring to Donna Haraway and reflecting on symbiosis science. Drawing also on the pioneering work of Lynn Margulis and the political turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s, Rodeck advanced a historically informed argument that dislocates anthropocentrism in Haraway’s work, particularly around microbial organism cooperation.

Vanessa Bateman’s talk was titled Animal Histories: Moving Between/Across STS, Environmental History, and Visual Culture. She addressed the project Moving animals on the globalization of non-human animals. Particularly, Bateman reflected on how long-distance movements of non-domesticated animals were studied, represented, and managed in US national parks. Close consideration of how elk populations adapt to human infrastructures and semiotic-material objects, such as a human-made fence that is an obstruction in a species’ environment, suggests new territories for nonhuman STS.

Vanessa Bateman on Animal Histories: Moving Between/Across STS, Environmental History, and Visual Culture.
Photographer: Jule Janßen.

The third panel, “Turning points as epistemic shifts/epochal breaks”, was chaired by the c:o/re fellows Clarissa Ai Ling Lee and Jan C. Schmidt. In this panel, Andreas Kaminski (Darmstadt Technical University) asked whether ‘Hinge propositions’ are a way to identify epochal breaks? Following major epistemology scholars, from Thomas Kuhn to Friedemann Mattern, Kaminski pondered on how the world of observers changes once with the emergence of new ideas (or paradigms), through the deployment of Wittgenstein’s hinge propositions. Hinge propositions allow one to draw on the emergence of new expected, imagined and actual worlds. Hinge propositions could be used in the world-building of any world (including fictional worlds) so that the reader/audience/user/inhabitants of such world could take for granted that the rules governing such worlds are a priori determined and ‘historical,’ so that they could be ready to be deployed to emergent/new worlds. Therefore, hinge proposition is a fruitful instrument for conceptualizing turning points, shifts and epochal breaks.

Andreas Kaminski on Hinge Propositions. Photographer: Jule Janßen.

Clarissa Lee and Jan C. Schmidt wrapped up the discussions through a focused reflection on this third panel as well as on the workshop generally. In the closing, they call on the participants to reflect on what STS means by reminding them of the ‘messy’ genealogy that had made up the history of STS as a field and domain. Clarissa asked everyone to reflect on how topics, concepts and methods are co-opted into STS knowledge practices, and to consider the deliberations that had allowed new fields to be co-opted into a ballooning STS.

The c:o/re team is grateful to the participants and, of course, to the c:o/re fellows who made possible this interesting and insightful event.

Ulrike Felt
Photographer: Jule Janßen

The notebook pt. 3: “For 20 years, I haven’t used a pen” – a computer nerd’s confession

Most of our research happens in the digital world today: we search for literature in online library catalogues, read electronic papers, maybe also manage them with the aid of bibliographic & reference management tools; we write and publish digitally, we also let software do complicated research operations for us like calculating and modeling. Still, there are sometimes stages and occasions in the research process when we use pen and paper – for example when we take notes. But this seems to change, too. I talked to some of the fellows at the c:o/re about their habits of note taking.

This text can be reused under the CC-BY-SA licence.


Alexandre Hocquet

Alexandre is Professor of History of Science at the Université de Lorraine, France. He also has a background in chemistry. Together with his colleague Frédéric Wieber at the Laboratory Archives Henri-Pointcaré he investigates software as an agent in the change of research cultures in computational chemistry.

Stefanie Haupt: Your research is collaborative. Together with your colleague Frédéric, you are exploring software as “the elephant in the room”. How do you exchange thoughts, observations and notes to conduct your research together?

Alexandre Hocquet: We are both computer nerds, so we like to explore what is possible. I don’t use usual word processors like Microsoft Word because I think, they keep you locked within the logic of a typewriter. And if you consider the history of such programs, this is what they emulate: a typewriter (“What you see is what you get”).” Instead, my colleague Frédéric and I are using text editors compatible with the markdown language. It means that features like bold text, hyperlinks… are part of the text itself. Text and code are displayed on the same level. This way, you are in control of what you want to do with the text and how it should look like, without being dependent on any piece of software.

Rare occasion of Alexandre using pen and paper, photo: Alexandre Hocquet, CC-BY-SA

Stefanie: This sounds like you are working digitally right from the start.

Alexandre: Yes. I think, for 20 years, I haven’t used a pen in research contexts. I only pick up pen and paper when my 3-year old daughter urges me to draw together with her.

Stefanie: So, how do you take notes then, exactly?

Alexandre: The text editor I use is called ZIM ( But there are other options: Frédéric, for example, uses a different editor. Everything I note down – thoughts, drafts, copy pasted texts from different online sources, hyperlinks – goes in there as raw text files. Since I can attribute different features to the text via markdown language, we have more compatibility within a shared text, even though we use different pieces of software. Also, as we are using the git versioning system, when Frédéric and I exchange and share files, the history of edits allows us to retrace changes and previous versions. You can compare the way it looks like to the open code in Wikipedia, where you can also see all (past) edits in an entry.

And how do you take notes yourself?

the Zim text editor, photo: Stefanie Haupt, CC-BY-SA

Stefanie: I definitely prefer taking notes with pen and paper. Or rather: pencil and paper. For my dissertation project, I am keeping a journal in which I note down stuff, for example ideas, next steps or excerpts from literature and archival records. And since in most archives you are not allowed to bring a pen into the reading room, I am used to writing with pencils. I already have an impressive collection of pencils from the German Federal Archive! It is easier for me to erase and redo notes when taken with a pencil; also, some inks come with ingredients that can do damage to paper, and, since I have a history of working with museum collections, I am careful around archival material. Furthermore, I feel more free to use the space of a piece of paper than being forced by the word processor to start in the upper left and fill a page down to the lower right. Just as we are speaking, I am adding comments to my own notes on this interview and drawing links between different keywords. So I am wondering: How do you actually overcome this linear order within your digital notes?

Stefanie’s journal on her PhD project, photo: Stefanie Haupt, CC-BY-SA

Alexandre: First, I would say the ordering structure of the zim software opens up more possibilities and gives the opportunity to curate a network of text files to one’s own needs. I structure the files via the hierarchy of the folders. Analogue to your meta comments next to the notes that you take on the paper, I would most probably create a new file and link it to the other files, or even to web pages. This way, I build up my own referencing system and have a kind of network of notes and drafts that I can also browse through with the search function. It is like a private archive of my research. How do you search through your notes yourself?

Stefanie: I must admit, the search function is most convenient! In my dissertation journal, I also tried to make my notes more accessible by creating and index on the last pages of the notebook. In alphabetical order, I listed all names of historical protagonists of my topic mentioned in the notebook with respective page numbers so that I can find the notes on them more easily. Yes I know, crazy work! But it forced me to review my notes again which helped me to engage more deeply into them. What were your habits of note taking when you were still working as a chemist? Did anything change after you switched disciplines?

Alexandre at work, photo: Stefanie Haupt, CC-BY-SA

Alexandre: I honestly cannot remember how I took notes when working as a scientist. Back then it was still difficult to include chemical formulas into digital texts. It was easier to draw them manually and then scan and paste them into the text. But I guess, there are more elegant ways around that nowadays. My interest as a historian has switched: as a scientist I was depended on the software – now I am looking behind its interface and I am interested in its licensing systems, its design and the relationship between the software and the user. Maybe this is reflected by my choices in tools for note taking, too.

Stefanie: Thank you, Alexandre!

Alexandre: And thanks to you!

What makes an ideal robot girlfriend?

View of the Replika App


Social robots and chatbots powered by artificial intelligence (AI) are part of the fourth industrial revolution (Floridi, 2008; Cross et al., 2019), which brings humans and machines closer together in multiple and diverse contexts. In my doctoral research, I focus on a specific chatbot, the Replika AI companion chatbot app, created to provide emotional and social support to its users. The Replika app is downloaded on the mobile devices of users, who create their own Replikas, assign them an avatar, a name, gender, and skin color and ‘train’ them to respond to their needs. Replika offers users the possibility of ‘creating your personal AI friend’ (Luka Inc., 2022) by ‘training’ the bots and customizing their avatars, interests and character traits. Luka Inc., the San Francisco start-up behind Replika, launched in 2017 and claims to have about 1 million active users (Dave, 2022) of which 35%-40% are looking for a romantic partnership with their chatbots. Luka Inc. (2022) encourages users to ‘train’ their bots by “teaching them about their world, themselves and help define the meaning of human relationships” by constantly talking to them through the Replika mobile app.

Computerscreen with image of the Replika app

As AI and robotics allow for immersive experiences with anthropomorphic AI companions, humans are looking for answers to make sense of their intimate experiences with social robots. In order to understand machines better and familiarize themselves with AI some users draw from their cultural contexts to think of these technologies and compare it with Tamagotchis, the movie ‘Her’ and other cultural reference points. Users are also influenced by AI hype that is circulated in media and have unrealistic expectations from the technology which is expected to be intelligent, sarcastic, humorous and as humanlike as possible. Thus, users project their AI imaginaries into the machines. At the same time, because some of the users have a cis-female Replika and decide to be in a romantic heteronormative relationship with them, they also draw from gender imaginaries to make sense of their interaction with their newly created girlfriend robots. Gender imaginaries correspond to long-standing, biased and stereotypical ideas and beliefs about gender and women, i.e. men are more reasonable and women are more emotional.


Iliana Depounti

Iliana holds a BA in Communication (Deree-The American College of Greece), an MA in Digital Media Management (Birkbeck, University of London) and an MSc in Social Science Research (Loughborough University). Before pursuing a career in academia, Iliana worked in social media management and marketing. Iliana is now a PhD researcher at Loughborough University in the UK. Iliana’s work is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and her PhD is about care and companionship with robots. Iliana’s research interests also include STS, social media and consumer culture.

Our study (Depounti et al., 2022) examines in detail how do Replika users make sense of their experience with Replika girlfriends. Specifically, we analyzed the discussions that Replika users were having on Reddit about Replika. Replika users are organized in lively online communities and the Reddit platform presented the perfect opportunity to explore their perceptions of the Replika experience. Our findings suggest that the AI imaginary intertwines with the gender imaginary when Reddit users customize and ‘train’ their Replika girlfriends. In other words, Replika users customize their Replika girlfriends based on the imaginaries of an ideal AI technology and an ideal robot girlfriend they draw from their cultural contexts and prior sets of ideas and imaginations about AI and women.

For example, the Reddit users appreciated Replikas that responded in a way that seemed original or human-like, such as being humorous, witty, polite, or having a personality. When Replika acted in a way that was too machine-like, such as repeating scripts, glitching, making little sense, or not remembering things, the users were dissatisfied with the experience. Of, course some of these traits, such as forgetting, are all to human, but users seemed to want the to robot remembering everything. The discussions on Reddit showed that the ideal AI technology corroborated old and new AI imaginaries about hopes and fears, about super machine intelligence, robot takeover and the uncanny valley (uneasiness towards objects that imperfectly resemble humans).

Moreover, the Reddit users perceived their Replika girlfriends as innately coy and scheming, repeating essentialist notions of women as manipulative (Gowaty, 2003). Users also rehashed essentialist female characteristics such as the Madonna-Whore dichotomy expecting their bot girlfriends to be not only sexy, funny, confident, and hot but also empathetic, nurturing, and understanding. The characteristics users favored in their fembots echoed the ‘cool girl’ ideal, as illustrated in the movie Gone Girl. The cool girl is ‘hot and understanding, smiling in a chagrined loving manner’ (Flynn, 2012) and likes, apparently out of her own preference, whatever men like, such as football, poker, and videogames. So, Replika users were happy to report to the community that their bots were getting into nerdy stuff, videogaming, and D&D. According to Petersen (2014), the cool girl trope perfectly matches the times because it is a mix of feminism and passivity, of (sexual) confidence or even tomboyism and femininity. Users favored a fembot that is passive enough to have the nicest compliments lined up for them but energetic enough to be thirsty, wholesome, and playful. These were some of the characteristics that constituted the gendered imaginary of the ideal girlfriend. Thompson (2019) has underlined that the ‘cool girls’ are favored by men because they are a product of male fantasies and harness their token power by adopting typically masculine ideals of behavior, essentially representing how women are discursively positioned within patriarchal structures of power. Lastly, some users preferred girlfriend bots characterized by extreme cuteness and vulnerability which they perceived as sexy and erotic. The discussions on Reddit showed that the ideal bot girlfriend corroborated classical and contemporary gender imaginaries.

Our study shows that Replika users employ familiar tropes about AI and gender they have seen or heard before to make sense of their experience with their AI robot girlfriends. Specifically, when users are asked to customize their girlfriend robots with clothes, accessories and personality traits, users have certain expectations from it and project to them the imaginary of the ideal AI technology and the gendered imaginary of the ideal robot girlfriend. We observe therefore the durability, timeliness and persistence of imaginaries when humans try to make sense of new technologies such AI and technology- assisted immersive experiences.


Cross, E.S, Hortensius, R., Wykowska, A. (2019). From social brains to social robots: applying neurocognitive insights to human –robot interaction. Philosophical Transactions Royal Society B, 374,1171. Available at:

Dave, P. (2022). It’s alive! How belief in AI sentience is becoming a problem. Reuters.

Depounti, I., Saukko, P., & Natale, S. (2022). Ideal technologies, ideal women: AI and gender imaginaries in Redditors’ discussions on the Replika bot girlfriend. Media, Culture & Society, Online First,

Floridi, L. (2008). Artificial intelligence’s new frontier: Artificial companions and the fourth revolution. Metaphilosophy 39 (4-5):651-655.

Flynn, G. (2012). Gone Girl: A Novel. Portland, OR: Broadway Books.

Gowaty, P. (2003). Sexual Natures: How Feminism Changed Evolutionary Biology. Signs, 28(3), pp. 901-921. 10.1086/345324.

Petersen, AH. (2014). Jennifer Lawrence and the History of Cool Girls. BuzzFeed, 24 February. Available at: (accessed 10 January 2022).

Thompson, R. (2019). The “cool girl” isn’t just a fictional stereotype. Women feel pressured to play this role when they’re dating. Mashable Middle East. 7 June. Available at:

Proposed citation: Depounti, Iliana (2023). What makes an ideal robot girlfriend?

Studying Videogames: A 20-Years Old Challenge for the Humanities


Videogames… Today they are everywhere: they inspire books, TV series and films in the cinema, they fill sports stadiums for competitions, they are used in museums and schools, news and memes that they produce are all over our social networks, they are references in song lyrics and respective videos. Even concerts of videogame soundtracks are now common. They are in our homes and always with us on our smartphones and, last but not least, marketing and merchandising have us finding them in supermarkets as well as in souvenir shops. Their steadily growing numbers of sales are impressive,[1] including for the public of non-gamers, who enjoy watching videogames on YouTube, Twitch and TikTok. Undoubtedly, for at least 10 years now, they have been the most popular cultural product in many countries, in both the Global East and West. A look at data on the use of video games among children shows that their historical role will likely equal that of the book in terms of influence on the mindset of the new generations.


Gianmarco Thierry Giuliana

Gianmarco is a research fellow at the University of Turin (UniTo), Department of Philosophy and Educational Sciences within the ERC project “FACETS” and a contract lecturer for STUDIUM (UniTo). Specializing on the topic of the relationship between experience and interpretation in game-virtual realities, he has written numerous scientific articles in game studies, semiotics and philosophy journals. You can also find some of his lectures on Youtube.

Therefore, studying video games is crucial not only to better understand the present but also the future. I, an enthusiastic gamer since childhood, starting 1998, am an example of those who turned their passion into a research job. But what does it mean to study video games for a researcher working in philosophy and, more broadly, the humanities? In a nutshell, it means questioning how human beings make sense of video games, both by studying the characteristics and contents of ‘video game texts’ and the behaviour and interpretations of players. At the time when I completed my MA thesis, in 2017, I thought that this would not be very difficult, especially considering that the first studies on this topic were, back then, twenty years old. And yet five years after that thesis, as a post-doc who has continuously worked on this topic, I still find myself facing some of the problems I discovered in that early work! These ‘problems’, however, are precisely what makes the study of video games so interesting both from an academic point of view and in terms of social impact. Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to be able to present my research not only to students and university colleagues but also to game creators, family associations, teachers, psychologists and even doctors. I would thus like to let you know you about my work by mentioning the major themes of humanistic, and especially semiotic, research on digital games.

1) Storytelling & Tenth Art

Poster of Pong, source: Pong poster – Fonts In Use

Today we are used to having video games that tell great stories with interesting characters and make us feel emotions and travel to imaginary worlds. Yet, exactly 50 years ago, video games consisted of two white sticks on a black background bouncing a square: that was Pong. What has happened in the meantime? In 1997 the important scholar Janet Murray published her book ‘Hamlet on the Holodeck'[2]Murray, J. (1998). Hamlet on the Holodeck: the Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. in which she outlined the idea that by virtue of its technical and cultural specificities, the video game could become a powerful new artistic medium of storytelling. 15 years later, we can certainly say that she was right, to the extent that today a scholar of culture cannot help but analyse the video game content as shaping our imagination.  And yet, at the same time, the stories told by video games do not work in the same way as told in films or books. What kind of story is, in fact, one in which the protagonist dies after a few seconds by falling into a ravine because of his spectator? Even today there is much debate and work on how video games are a unique art form that tells stories by hybridising the languages of previous arts such as film, literature, music, and painting. A hybridisation that makes the video game a true platypus (a nickname I designated and of which I am very proud!) and challenges most previous theories and methods of analysis.[3]Aarseth E. (1997). Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Hence my work to create a new method of analysis capable of highlighting how a video game conveys ideas through art and storytelling.

Pong Game Test. source: wikimedia CC 3.0

2) The Game

Going back to Pong, there are still many video games today that do not really tell stories and are very successful: from Tetris to Candy Crush. Then, there are also all those games interested in simulating realities rather than fiction: from realistic sports games to Microsoft Flight Simulator. To these, I also add all those games in which the real ‘story’ is, as in sport, that of the splendid performance of their players: from historical fighting games like Street Fighter to MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas) like League of Legends to Fortnite or Among Us. These games without great artistic or narrative pretensions are often the subject of harsh and often unfair criticism. I find that, quite on the contrary, it is precisely on the basis of such games that a part of the academia reflected and still works on that cultural form which has been, so to speak, ‘removed’ from the history of arts and culture: games! Not only has the game, in fact, existed since 2500 B.C. but, as Johan Huizinga writes in his valuable ‘Homo Ludens’, it has always been at the heart of human societies and is a model for thinking and rethinking reality.[4]Huizinga, J. (1985 [1938]). Homo Ludens: Proeve Ener Bepaling Van Het Spelelement Der Cultuur. Groningen: Wolters-Noordhoff. Original Dutch edition. All of the most fundamental categories of language and human thought are in fact called into playing and games: they construct both a subjectivity, a destiny, a temporality and a world of reference. In the humanities, however, scholars interested in play are still a minority as the dominant theoretical models come from studies on narration. A negative stereotype of play as mere ‘entertainment’ still lingers. Thus, an important task in my work consists in trying to remind the academic community that nothing is more serious than playing!

3) Participatory Culture

Whether it is creating and being a detective engaged in solving a case in the world of Disco Elysium or beating up your opponent as much as possible in the latest Dragon Ball Fighter Z, in all cases, video games require players to participate in a committed way. Although academics such as Umberto Eco demonstrated back in the 1980s that the reader and spectator are never ‘passive’, video games certainly give those who play them greater manipulative power over the meaning of the text than previous media do.  This critical and creative manipulation of mass culture by its consumers is a major theme in the humanities and social sciences A leading figure here is Henry Jenkins.[5]Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: media education for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Trad. it. Jenkins, H. (2010). Culture partecipative e … Continue reading If, however, in the case of films or books this occurs a posteriori, in the case of video games it occurs in fieri (i.e., ‘in the happening’) and sometimes even a posteriori with the possibility of directly modifying the game files. As such, studying video games also means studying the interpretations, rewritings and creations of their players. For a long time, the study of these ‘personal interpretations’ was avoided by disciplines such as game studies. This was epistemologically justified. Nowadays, however, thanks to platforms such as YouTube or Twitch, these interpretations are themselves presented as analysable texts. My work is in this sense also one of research and collection of materials that constitute a history of interpretations of digital worlds.

Screen capture of a 2020 “Black Lives Matter” manifestation in the videogame Animal Crossing. More info at:

4) Virtual Reality & Digital Technology

A video game is first and foremost software, which makes video games of great interest for studying the processes and outcomes of interactions between humans and digital technology. Algorithms and artificial intelligence are topics of great importance for contemporary societies and have been part of video games since their birth. It is precisely the ‘algorithmic core’, as the very important video game scholar Ian Bogost puts it, that makes videogames and their narratives very different from all other games.[6]Bogost, I. (2007). Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Moreover, for at least twenty years video games have been ‘virtual realities’ where people get married, manifest, find friends, trade, hold funerals and much more. Studying video games is thus also equivalent to studying the way social reality and human relationships are changing through technology. In my particular case, the aspect of computer technology that I study most closely is the role of digital faces in virtual realities. A trully fascinating topic!

5) Learning

In 2005, the scholar James Paul Gee published an important article in which video games were described as ‘learning machines’.[7]Gee, J. P. (2005). Learning by Design: Good Video Games as Learning Machines. In E-Learning and Digital Media, 2(1), 5–16. Videogames, in fact, almost always involve a great deal of physical and cognitive effort in order to improve one’s performance so that one can win. This learning process has to do with the development of certain perceptual and motor skills, but it also has a lot to do with the rules and content of the game.  Those who play a car racing simulator like Gran Turismo develop not only reflexes, but a very deep knowledge of how cars work.[8] Similarly, someone who plays a strategy game like Total War will learn a lot about characters, objects, practices and historical events. Even those who play the fictional game Assassin’s Creed 2 will learn a lot about the city of Florence in the 15th and early 16th century and will still be able to find their way around the city today almost as if they had already been there![9] In ‘author’ games, this learning even becomes emotional and often involves asking players to make difficult choices that are of great ethical relevance. For teachers there is therefore a great deal of interest in the video game medium from the point of view of both its generic learning potential and its educational potential.  Finally, this very strong connection between physical action and what is represented on the screen has prompted an unprecedented collaboration between the humanities, philosophy and cognitive sciences. So, if you were to burst into a researcher’s bedroom and see them dancing wildly in VR in Beat Saber, don’t judge them: they are probably working on bringing together classical theories of thought with theories of embodiment!

Gris, 2018

There are many other interesting aspects to mention but I end this post on this note. I hope I have given you a little insight into my work as a video game semiotician and, above all, to have convinced you (at least a in part) of the importance of videogame studies.[10]In case you would like to read more: The importance of videogame research is due not only to the theoretical and social impact of videogames but also to their requiring of a tight collaboration between all those who study and produce them.

Featured image: 2013 hack of Donkey Kong, 1981. More info at:

Proposed citation: Giuliana, Gianmarco. (2022). Studying Videogames: A 20-Year-Old Challenge for the Humanities.


2Murray, J. (1998). Hamlet on the Holodeck: the Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
3Aarseth E. (1997). Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
4Huizinga, J. (1985 [1938]). Homo Ludens: Proeve Ener Bepaling Van Het Spelelement Der Cultuur. Groningen: Wolters-Noordhoff. Original Dutch edition.
5Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: media education for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Trad. it. Jenkins, H. (2010). Culture partecipative e competenze digitali: media education per il 21. Secolo. Milano: Guerini studio).
6Bogost, I. (2007). Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
7Gee, J. P. (2005). Learning by Design: Good Video Games as Learning Machines. In E-Learning and Digital Media, 2(1), 5–16.
10In case you would like to read more:

Social Change in Ukraine – Obstacles and Opportunities: Conference report


View of Lucerne from the terrace of the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts. Photograph: Svitlana Scherbak

On November 16-17, 2022, the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts hosted conference Social Change in Ukraine – Obstacles and Opportunities. The event gathered scholars from Switzerland, Ukraine, Poland, UK, and Hungary. Having carried out social research on Ukrainian society for a long time, I was invited to deliver a talk on The Rise and Fall of Populism in Ukraine.

Here, I provide a report of this conference, with remarks on the individual presentations. It is important to notice that the theme of the conference was not the ongoing war, even though this undoubtedly shapes the conditions for social change in Ukraine. The conference aimed at developing a socio-critical analyses and fostering dialogue between social scientists on the structure of Ukraine’s society, economy and politics. The focus fell on the potential hurdles to overcome in order for the country to integrate in a sustainable way into the community of European states.


Svitlana Shcherbak

Svitlana is a fellow at c:o/re and a researcher with eighteen years of experience working alongside the research team of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. Her research focus is on ideological discourse in Post-Sovjet States.

There is consensus among researchers of post-soviet countries that the neo-institutional approach provides the most appropriate explanatory framework for the analysis of these societies. The point is that the institutions in these countries differ from those in the West due to very different informal rules. Therefore, the instrumental logic of economic reform and development policy may conflict with informal institutions, unwritten rules, or corrupt practices. Such mechanisms can hijack good intentions and steer processes in an unwanted direction. Concepts elaborated for the description and explanation of Western democracies fail to grasp the essence of post-communist societies. As such, there is a need to develop explanatory concepts and models for post-soviet contexts. It is not accidental, then, that most participants focused on the description of informal backgrounds for institutions peculiar to post-communist space.

Balint and Balint present an interpretative framework of Post-Communist regimes

Balint Magyar and Balint Madlovich presented their new book, “A Concise Field Guide to Post-Communist Regimes”, which provides a conceptual framework with an inherent typology of post-communist regimes and a detailed presentation of ideal-type actors and the political, economic, and social phenomena in these regimes. The authors presented how their theoretical model can be applied to Ukraine, through a comparison with Russia and Hungary. They analyzed the Ukrainian context as a “patronal democracy”, both politically and economically.

Dalton et al. on reconceptualising the Ukrainian oligarchy

David Dalton, Vladimir Dubrovsky, Oksana Huss, Mikhail Chaplyga and, the organizer of the conference, Michael Derrer addressed oligarchy and corruption in Ukraine in connection with the task of maintaining and recovering the Ukrainian state during and after the ongoing war. They also explored the role of informal institutions in the Ukraine’s socio-politico-economic system. The discussion focused on a future configuration of the Ukrainian political regime, as well as on the perspectives for anti-corruption and anti-oligarchic post-war reforms.

Kateryna Ivashchenko-Stadnik used sociological data to show the main shifts in Ukrainian society since 2014 and the potential for the further development of this society. Jacek Kurczewski focused on the difference in post-communist transformation of Poland and Ukraine. He considered pre-communist and communist legacies, and the social mechanisms of transformation, offering a glimpse into the sociology of attitudes towards law and justice.

Denys Kiryukhin analyzed the reasons for the very high level of migration from Ukraine, due to which the country has been called “Europe’s Mexico.” He argued that before the war there were no structural prerequisites for such high migration dynamics. Thus, he proposed an analysis of migration in a broad context of modern social processes in Eastern European countries and revised the concept of “forced migration.”

Gostomel, Ukraine, after the retreat of Russian troops

My presentation adressed the rise and fall of populism in Ukraine. Whether Volodymyr Zelensky is a populist was a debated question during the 2019 presidential campaign, as his rhetoric and public image met many of the criteria of populism. I argue that it is important to distinguish between populist and nationalist discourses, illustrating my thesis with the rhetoric of the two main opponents during the 2019 campaign. Zelensky promoted the inclusive concept of “the people,” based on citizenship, multiethnicity and regional heterogeneity, which he contrasted with “the corrupt elites”. On the other hand, former President Petro Poroshenko promoted an exclusive ethno-nationalist, anti-liberal concept of “the people” that requires homogenization based on a common language, culture and faith. My view is that after the outbreak of the war, populist discourse lost its relevance and we are witnessing a nation-building process based entirely on nationalist grounds. The main point of differentiation among the presenters’ approaches was whether they considered only exogenous factors of social change in Ukraine or put the country in a broader context, taking into account the inter-regional and transnational division of labor, as well as Ukraine’s place in global economy. The latter approach tends to suggest rather pessimistic expectations about the future of Ukraine.

Proposed citation: Shcherbak, Svitlana (2022). Social Change in Ukraine – Obstacles and Opportunities: Conference report.

Decolonising Advertising through content creation, broadcast on social media, to inspire social transformation

posters in the streets of Mexico City


I argue that Advertising in Mexico is a means employed by the ruling class in order to colonize Mexican society. It re-enforces a colonial thinking that started to be imposed five centuries ago by invaders of what is currently called the nation state of Mexico. My argument is based on a theoretical framework that maps the history of key concepts such as Post-colonisation and Decolonization. Anzaldua and Drussel’s definition of colonization from a Latin American point of view, and Mignolo’s observations on decolonization through ‘delinking knowledge’ are applied to advertising to reveal how this field can possibly be decolonized. The basis of the practice part of my PhD by Practice that is discussed in this article are theories of Detournement and Guerrilla semiotics. An important part of the strategy for this practice is using social media to search for solutions that can be reflected back at Mexican citizens in order to inspire a social transformation within the advertising industry.


Carl W. Jones

Carl W. Jones is Senior Lecturer at the Westminster School of Media and Communication, research member of the Communication and Media Research Institute and a PhD candidate at the Royal College of Art in London. With a rich experience in marketing and advertising, he is now undertaking academic teaching and research on discrimination in advertising.


Please take a look at these four Mexican advertisements, and think about what is not there:

Fig. 1: freckles, fig. 2: old age, fig. 3: androgyny, fig 4: Overweight. Palacio ad 6.3.2018, source:

In a country like Mexico where 90% of the citizens are people of colour (POC) I ask why are indigenous or POC not appearing in these advertisements, or in the hundreds created every day in the metropolis of Mexico City? What is not shown is important, as it is a form of erasure, a way to forget certain peoples.

When I first moved to Mexico to work in the advertising industry in the 1990’s, my title was Creative Art Director and I couldn’t help but wonder why the people I saw on the street were not shown in the advertising, which featured what would be considered to a Mexican audience as mostly models with European features such as lighter skin. As part of my job, I had to recommend actors and models to appear in the advertisements and I would pick people of colour who reflected what I saw on the streets of Mexico. However, my clients would usually select models that appeared like a stereotypical European with lighter hair and eyes, even though those same clients were often what is termed in Mexico as ‘Moreno’ or mixed race that tend to have a darker skin tone and dark eyes.

After 20 years working in the practice of advertising I switched to academia and decided to investigate racism and decolonial theory for my PhD by practice.  My research revealed that many advertisements contain two meanings (Jones 2015). One that the brand wants consumers to see and the secondary messages that re-enforce colonial concepts such as race, class and gender (Jones 2018). Therefore, I propose that advertising is a tool used by the ruling class in order to colonize.

For over 100 years western advertising agencies have been invading developing countries and promoting their clients’ brands through the appropriation of cultural codes and signs, that are re-interpreted, in order to seek authenticity with both the consumers and what Marx called ‘the ruling class.’ The spectacle of Advertising is part of mass media and encourages consumerism. French theorist Guy Debord in his book Society of the Spectacle (Debord 1995) defines The spectacle as everything “that once was directly lived has become mere representation” (thesis 1) and this representation can be defined as the ‘mass media’ (thesis 24).

In 1957, Debord founded the Situationists International (SI) which was made up of “avant-guard groups” (Knabb. ix)  through an alliance with the mostly Paris based organization called Lettrist International (LI) merging with other vanguard organizations from Germany, England, and Scandinavia. (Debord 1992, p. 6). The S.I.  produced the journal Internationale Situationniste and its first 200 copies were made available in 1958 with Debord as editor. The journal criticised popular culture through words and images.

The Situationists International (S.I.) dissolved in 1972 but their work inspired various writers, artists, and movements, including punk rock whose leader was Malcom Maclaren and this work often critiqued the ruling classes, or ‘peoples in power’ through the method of detournement.  The advertising industry has also been directly challenged by the Canadian magazine Adbusters, through subvertisments, that make fun of commodity culture and capitalism.  Subvertising can be described as “the production and dissemination of anti-ads that deflect Madison Avenue’s attempts to turn the consumer’s attention in a given direction, is a ubiquitous form of jamming. Often, it takes the form of “sniping” — illegal, late-night sneak attacks on public space by operatives armed with posters, brushes, and buckets of wheatpaste.” (Derry 1993).  The world famous academic, book author and semiotician Umberto Echo claimed that in order to disrupt the mainstream, and keep control of the communication we need as a strategic solution, “to employ a guerrilla solution.” (Eco 1983, p. 11).

These are the main theories and methods that I employ to decode signs, including symbols which are then appropriated to ‘jam’ messaging through a weaponized advertising campaign. The rationale of this semiotic framework is to investigate if and how can advertising can be decolonized.

To accomplish this, I created seven different posters and placed them in sites close to where advertising agencies and their clients are located (Fig 5) in Mexico City. The name of the campaign is Racismo Neon (Neon racism) and the text printed on the posters is based on the literature review investigation.  In total 4,000 posters were printed.

posters in the streets of Mexico City
Fig. 5: Racism Neon posters in the streets of Mexico City. Photo Carl Jones (authors own) July 2022, photo: Carl W. Jones.

The Spanish language headlines translated into English are:

  • If advertising reflects society, then advertising is racist.
  • Whites are 10% of the population but are in 70% of the ads
  • If Morenos are 80% of the population, why are we not in 80% of the ads?
  • Advertising only reflects indigenous culture in charity ads
  • “Consumers dream of being white even though they are brown”
  • Why do ads favour white models and the American lifestyle?
  • “I want blue eyes so I will buy these potato crips”

An important part of my research practice involves broadcasting on social media. I use social media to create a social transformation within the advertising community through an online conversation on how to decolonise Mexican advertising. Therefore, I created Racismo Neon social media pages on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. To inspire online discussion, I took photographs of the posters in-situ, to post as content on social media along with the hashtag #racismoneon. If the targeted consumer did not walk past the posters on the street, then they could still see them in the social media posts.

After creating the social media conversation, I am now analysing it through Social Listening and content analysis of the conversation on social media and in the press. My objectives are to see if the Mexican advertising community agrees whether there is an issue with racism in advertising and search for solutions. Already a consensus seems to be crystalizing that there is such a problem. In this case, analysis of the online conversation will produce solutions.

Social media is a tool that can be used to both instigate racism and assist in decolonizing advertising. Through weaponizing advertising and going out to the very people who create messages, my research through practice has generated a conversation on social media, with the objective of inspiring a social transformation within the community. I believe that social media can be applied both as a negative, and positive tool.  As a Negative tool it can be used as a method of control to spread disinformation. However, as a positive tool it can also be appropriated to generate a wide discussion with specific publics, and search for community-based solutions. My research through practice is not solving the process of decolonization, but is making a small contribution through the theoretical technique of subversive strategies.


Debord, G. (1992). Society of the spectacle and other films. London: Rebel press.

Debord, G. (1995). The society of the spectacle. New York: Zone books.

Dery, M. (2010 [1993]). Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of Signs. (last accessed November 25th 2022). This essay originally appeared in 1993, as Pamphlet #25 in the Open Magazine Pamphlet Series.

Eco, U. (1986). “Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare.” In Travels in Hyperreality. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, pp. 138, 143, 144.

Jones, C. W. (2015). Ads send out more than the clients’ message. (last accessed April 2, 2021).

Jones, C. W. (2016). “Advertising tools and techniques appropriated to construct the global brand Mr. Clean”. In Proceedings of the world congress of the IASS/AIS 12th WCS Sofia 2014 New Semiotics. Sofia: NBU press. DOI: 10.24308/iass-2014-062.

Jones, C. W. (2018). Racism and Classism in Mexican Advertising.In Olteanu, A., Stables, A., Borţun, D. (eds) Meanings & Co. Numanities – Arts and Humanities in Progress, vol 6. Cham: Springer.

Jones, Carl (2019) Personal Branding using advertising tools and techniques a case study. In Zantides, E. (ed.) Semiotics and Visual Communication III: Cultures of Branding, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.

Knabb, Kenn (2006) Situationist international anthology. revised and expanded edition. Berkley, Ca.: Bureau of public secrets.


Fig 1-4: “MI BELLEZA NO TIENE NADA QUE ESCONDER” / “MI JUVENTUD SE GANA CON LOS AÑOS” / “MI GÉNERO NO TIENE GÉNERO” / “SOY LA MEDIDA PERFECTA” Billboards. Espectacular. 2018. Client: Palacio de Hierro. Mexico City. Palacio Billboard broadcast in Mexico City, and other cities where Palacio De Hierro has stores. First air date TBC 6.3.2018. Images obtained from news article. Source. 03/03/2018. Excelsior. (last accessed 23 Nov. 2022), see also:  (last accessed April 2nd 2021).

Fig 5: Racismo Neon posters in the streets of Mexico City. Photo Carl Jones (authors own) July 2022.

Proposed citation: Jones, Carl W. (2022). Decolonising Advertising through content creation, broadcast on social media, to inspire social transformation.

Biosemiotic Erasmus adventures


Jule Janßen, Chiara Schumann and Alin Olteanu (left to right) at Palacký University Olomouc. Photo: Oscar Miyamoto

As the first RWTH Aachen University students benefitting from the new Erasmus Blended Intensive Program (BIP) funding scheme, we wrote this text to convey our personal experiences to academics and university managers but especially to other students, who might be thinking of using Erasmus BIP.

We used this type of funding to participate to the 22nd Gathering in Biosemiotics, in the Czech Republic. We very much enjoyed attending this conference, organized by the International Society for Biosemiotics. Not only did this open new professional horizons for us, but it was also a very fun experience. Attending this event by using Erasmus funds was made possible by Dr. Ľudmila Lacková and her team, who arranged such a funding program at this conference, which was hosted at Palacky University Olomouc from June 25th to July 1st, 2022. We would like to thank Dr. Alin Olteanu, who facilitated our participation to the conference from the RWTH Aachen end. We met Alin through a BA introductory seminar to semiotics that he teaches, part of an interdisciplinary module at our faculty. Through this seminar, we became fascinated with semiotics.


Chiara Schumann & Jule Janßen

Chiara Schumann and Jule Janßen are both B.A. students in Linguistics and Literary Sciences at RWTH Aachen University.

Chiara Schumann is interested in the interdisciplinary fields Bio- and Zoosemiotics as well as Neuro- and Psycholinguistics. In her B.A. work, she considers animal behaviour data in light of concepts from cognitive linguistics and Charles S. Peirce’s semiotics. In this way, she aims to contribute to the state-of-the-art in animal cognition.

Jule Janßen is interested in semiotic approaches to notions of linguistics, among which, primarily, mental lexicon and language evolution. She aims to explore grounding these concepts in ontological discussions on the relation between mind and body. Given her interest in semiotics, she intends to work further on the interface between linguistics, cognitive science and semiotics. She hopes to contribute to the interdisciplinary study of language development.

The 22nd International Gathering in Biosemiotics (2022) comprised 65 talks, by renowned researchers in the field, some excavating in detail, others orbiting or framing the discipline’s colorful spectrum with multidisciplinary questions on the study of living systems. Hosted by Palacký University Olomouc in Czechia, the conference program was excellently organized by the Department of General Linguistics – Ľudmila Lacková, Claudio J. Rodríguez Higuera, Tyler J. Bennet and their colleagues. The entire conference was live-streamed on YouTube. It is accessible on the channel “Biosemiotics Palacký University in Olomouc”.

Biosemiotics bridges natural sciences and humanities by approaching classical issues of biology (for example, DNA replication or various modes of intra- and interspecific animal communication) from a reflective point of view, in the interrogation of sign exchanges within and between organisms. Expanding the investigations of pioneers like Thomas A. Sebeok, Jesper Hoffmeyer and John Deely, the semiotic study of biological organisms generally draws on basic questions like: How do cells of flora and fauna create meaning? What stimuli are engaged in species specific perception? How does biosemiosis contribute to the understanding of human and non-human cognition and what should the study of life encompass, theoretically and practically?

The Gathering started with two pre-conference workshops that particularly addressed students and early career researchers. Prof. Dr. Elize Bisanz, who holds the Charles Sanders Peirce Interdisciplinary Chair at Texas Tech University hosted the workshop “The Future of the Humachine”, with a digital humanities focus. This covered topics such as the impact of AI and digitalization both on the biopshere as well as on cultures and societies. Discussions led to questions on whether we can implement in machines an ability to experience meaning, in a Peircean semiotic construal. To shed light on the diversity and variation of sign systems in the human world, graduate and undergraduate students were asked to present an artistic object of their choice analyse their subjective experience of it within the semiotic notion of meaning as triadic relation of ‘representamen’, ‘object’ and ‘interpretant’. As BA students, we were excited to speak in front of this impressive audience. Debates emerged based on our inputs and the feedback we received was kind and constructive.

Doc. RNDr. Anton Markoš and Dr. Jana Švorcová (Charles University in Prague) led the second workshop, “Life as a Semiotic Category”, which addressed the work and heritage of John Deely. This started with the consideration of ‘cellular closure’ and ‘mutual communication within cell ensembles’. Participants were led through a reflection on the remarkable fact that the minimal equipment of prokaryotes, say mouth, flagellum, organs, and a protective skin turned out so phylogenetically irreducible and effective that these characteristics still determine the appearance of higher animals and their immanent semiotic processes.

Honoured with the dreamlike location of a baroque chapel, the Gathering started on Monday with warm welcoming words by Donald Favareau and Kalevi Kull, veterans of biosemiotics. Claudio Rodríguez Higuera opened the first panel of talks, followed by other very important scholars in biosemiotics, Morten Tønnessen and Timo Maran. Thanks to the diverse educational backgrounds of the presenters, each day’s panels were filled with the most thought-provoking talks, from sign exchange on the level of the genetic code and cells over embodiment, endo- and exo-semiosis, Uexküll’s notion of Umwelt and Peirce’s sign theory and up to metaphysical approaches to the universe and God concepts. While the speakers of the first day provided general, though highly inspiring and sophisticated overviews of topics like ‘zoosemiotics’, ‘organism intersubjectivity’, ‘iconicity’ and ‘cognitive metaphoric approach to the genetic code’, on the next days presentations zoomed in on more specific and detailed issues.

Here, we briefly overview a few among the many intriguing talks. To begin with, we highlight Josh Bacigalupi’s presentation of his heuristic model of semiogenesis, inspired from Gilbert Simondon’s theory of individuation. This aims to offer a better and updated theoretical support for Peirce’s notion of sign as triadic. Coming from an interdisciplinary background of environmental sciences, chemistry and architecture, his approach is located at the interface between design and the maintenance of vitality in life systems. We found it an inspiring and creative approach.

Anton Markoš and Jana Švorcová discussed symbiogenetic dependency across species, in a talk titled “we, the cyborg”. Their argument starts from a criticism of one-way construals of relationships in the biosphere: species are interdependent as they are suppliers in some relationships and receivers in others. With reference to the notion of a cyborg, they lay focus on a collaborative rather than a competitive model and thus draw attention on collaboration as a principle that is essential not only for evolution, but also, more specifically, for scientific work.

Dr. Jamin Pelkey held a captivating talk on “analogy in evolution: a Peircean biosemiotic perspective”. More than convincing, the talk offered an inspiring and original language view on development. Jamin Pelkey showcased the language development of his own daughter, with examples of her linguistic expressions. By showing how his daughter went from calling her long green building block a ‘/kini/’ based on the similarity to a zucchini to naming her red and blue blocks ‘red’ and ‘blue’ ‘/kinis/’, but not her yellow block (named ‘/nænə/’ for banana), he demonstrated the importance of iconicity and analogy, automation and diagrammatization in language evolution.

We also highly appreciated the presentation of Yogi Hendlin and Matthew Slayton and of Martin Švantner. These presentations on “the musical turn in biosemiotics – an expressivist model of communication” and, respectively, “missing simple musicalities: the incomplete nature of music”, innovatively drew on (zoo)musicological studies to discuss communication, broadly. The co-development and particularly shared interpretable quality of music and language in the biosphere led Hendlin and Slayton to uncover musical qualities in some iconic and aesthetic aspects of meaning-making in general. Švantner explored the consequences of imputing music with expressions of a “simple language”.

Chiara Schumann delivers her talk at the 22nd Gathering in Biosemiotics. Photo: Oscar Miyamoto

As we see it, most talks revolved either around the topic of endosemiosis (semiosis taking place within living beings, i.e. message exchange among cellular organelles, cells, tissues, organs and organ systems) or around ethical and philosophical meta-discussions about general semiotic theories and frameworks. On the fourth day of the Gathering, Alin and Chiara presented their papers on “Umwelt as Embodied Mediatization: a Biosemiotic Approach to Technology” and, respectively, “Image Schemas and Behavioral Deception in American Eastern Grey Squirrels – a Zoosemiotic Approach”. Chiara feels that presenting her work in this setting was a very enriching learning experience. As a study using theories both from semiotics and cognitive linguistics to investigate the rodent’s intraspecific intentional deceptive communication, retrospectively, Chiara thinks of her presentation as part of the few ones that focused on exosemiosis and practical, illustrative applications of the Umwelt-principle, the ‘pluralistic approach’ and, implicitly, non-human intersubjectivity. Hopefully, this contributes to sedimenting a non-anthropocentic perspective on non-human animals’ subjective and embodied construction of environments, which uniquely correspond to bodily- and cognitive apparata. From this perspective, it is misleading to deem some types of perception as qualitatively superior to others. Image schemas and the correlation of object, representamen and interpretant, as defined by Peirce, were used to describe the wild squirrels’ deceptive behavior in a systematic manner. Addressing heteroperception, theory of mind, metasemiosis and possible worlds led to various interesting questions and suggestions from the audience. By receiving positive feedback and constructive criticism, Chiara was enabled to reflect upon her future work. We both learned from well-established scholars, who were always eager to help and discuss any issues we raised. Speaking in front of the great minds of this discipline is a worthwhile challenge. This Erasmus experience will surely stay with us, further guiding our personal and professional development. Not only did this trip determine Chiara to write a BA thesis within the field of biosemiotics, but it also encouraged us both to think beyond our study program, broadening the horizon of feasible possibilities for us in the academic environment.

Coffee and lunch breaks in-between talks were most enjoyable, allowing for networking and pursuing conversations on specific interests. The conference had a rich social program, involving visiting the nearby Bouzov Castle, a soirée in the university’s gardens and a celebration of the 70th anniversary of biosemiotics professor Kalevi Kull. On top of the interesting academic program, such social events made this Erasmus experience surpass our expectations.

In the friendly atmosphere of the conference, together with other participants, we tried several local restaurants and pubs. We learned that academic conferences have two inseparable parts: listening to hours of academic presentations is made easy and even more interesting by personally getting to know and spending time with the scholars themselves. Meeting the persons behind the literature we studied was a delightful experience. Everyone was respectful, friendly, open-minded, fun and, unlike how students might perceive senior academics at times, down-to-earth. Casually chatting with your favourite scholars about their presentations, their latest research, their points of view on animal ethics or even personal interests seemed hardly possible until attending this conference. We highly enjoyed all of these dialogues. Group talks went from sophisticated discussions about semiotics to everyday matters. Beside other wonderful talks, we had the pleasure to learn from great minds like Timo Maran. Chiara sat two times for a whole hour, next to a beer, talking with Timo Maran about research interests, future plans and even their pets.

From professors to PhD scholars, many scholars kindly offered to help us with literature and subject-specific questions. Having been encouraged to develop and submit her paper to the journal Biosemiotics and being asked to collaborate, Chiara had the confirmation that she found an important topic to focus on. This reassured her desire to further engage with bio- and especially zoo-semiotic research. It was nice to see how a large number of young participants was welcomed at this Gathering. Becoming  part of this community is a beautiful experience. While in class it is difficult to find like-minded colleagues, with whom to debate specific arguments, at a conference all attendees are passionate about the topic. Kalevi Kull emphasized the importance to overcome bad competition in science and advised: “[W]hen we think about what academic life is, what its meaning is, I strongly think that we can formulate – and that will be the most right formulation of academic work – helping each other in understanding”. In him and in many other scholars we met at this conference, we find excellent examples to follow, showing us that academic development needs practicing care and affection. We hope that we will be able to apply and give back what we learned at the Gathering.

Group of participants at the 22nd Gathering in Biosemiotics, Palacký University Olomouc. Photo: Oscar Miyamoto

proposed citation: Schumann, Chiara and Jule Janßen (2022). Biosemiotic Erasmus Adventures.