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Journal of the International Association for Semiotic Studies / Revue de l'Association Internationale de Sémiotique

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Volume 2020, Issue 232


The cultural semiotics of African encounters: Eighteenth-Century images of the Other

David Dunér
  • Corresponding author
  • Lund University, Lund, Sweden
  • Visiting fellow, Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS), Wallenberg Research Centre at Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch 7600, South Africa
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Published Online: 2020-01-11 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/sem-2019-0030


This a contribution to the cultural semiotics of African cultural encounters seen through the eyes of Swedish naturalists at the end of the eighteenth century. European travellers faced severe problems in understanding the alien African cultures they encountered; they even had difficulty understanding the other culture as a culture. They were not just other cultures that they could relate to, but often something completely different, belonging to the natural history of the human species. The Khoikhoi and other groups were believed by Europeans to be, from their perspective, the most distant culture. The Linnaean disciple Anders Sparrman and others, however, tried to transcend this cultural gap, and used their cognitive resources, such as empathy and intersubjectivity, in order to understand the alien culture they encountered.

The aim of this paper is to unearth the cultural semiosis of African encounters and the intersubjective challenges that human interactions provoke. These encounters not only changed the view the travellers had of the Other, but also changed themselves and their self-perception. The encounter between the Ego and the Other is, however, not static, something predestined by the differences in their cultures, but dynamic, changing according to individual encounters and the actual intersubjective interplay that transform and change the perception of the Other. There are in particular four meaning-making processes and challenges within cultural encounters that are in focus: recognizing cultural complexity; invoking intersubjectivity; determining similarities and dissimilarities; and identifying the Other as a mirror of oneself.

The triad of cultures – Ego, Alter, and Alius – can be understood as gradual and changing aspects depending on the actual situation of the encounter and the personal perspectives, interpretations, and behaviour of the thinking subjects involved. Using concrete examples from Southern and Western Africa in the 1770s and 1780s, this study aims to explore this dynamic semiosis. One of the conclusions is that the relation between the Ego and the Alter/Alius is not something only predetermined by the cultures involved and their ideologies, but also depends on the individual thinking subjects and how they use their specific cognitive and semiotic resources, not least their intersubjective abilities, within specific temporal and spatial contexts.

Keywords: cognitive history; cultural encounters; cultural semiotics; history of abolition; history of Africa; history of exploration; Khoisan; Linnaean disciples; natural history


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Published Online: 2020-01-11

Published in Print: 2020-02-25

Citation Information: Semiotica, Volume 2020, Issue 232, Pages 103–146, ISSN (Online) 1613-3692, ISSN (Print) 0037-1998, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/sem-2019-0030.

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