In April 2021 Prof. Dr. Maida Kosatica got the vocation as Junior Professor of Urban Semiotics and Semantics as part of the Anglophone Studies Department at the University of Duisburg-Essen. We talked with Kosatica about injustice, suffering, and communication and how she investigates this in her work as a linguist.
ak[due]ll: What is your approach to sociolinguistics?
Maida Kosatica: My research always focuses on understanding the role of discursive production and reproduction of different contemporary social problems. Uncovering the ways in which different structures of ideologies of power and inequalities stem from language and communication practices in general. I'm dealing with various instances of social injustice and abuse of power. But I’d like to emphasize that what I do is descriptive linguistics, which means that I'm focusing on the observation, interpretation, and scholarly critique. Why is something represented in a particular way? I'm not interested in looking at incorrect or correct language use.
ak[due]ll: What is the attraction to sociolinguistics for you?
Kosatica: A long time ago, I became conscious about the importance of critique of detail and analytical skills in general. This is something that, in my opinion, all people in different spheres and everyday situations really need. But I guess I trace my interest in many personal and often bad experiences, where I could just not quite understand why exactly people say what they say. Why they choose to treat others the way they do. And not only via language spoken or written but via other communicative modes as well, for example visuals or physical environment. You could say that, since my research interests lie in the politics of emotions, violence and suffering, I'm attracted to this dark side of human language and communication.
ak[due]ll: You were the appointed chair of urban semiotics and semantics. What lies behind those mysterious terms, semiotics and semantics?
Kosatica: Semiotics is usually understood as the science of signs. Dealing with all kinds of different communicational phenomena. Semiotic resources are the actions, different materials and artifacts people use for communicative purposes. From the muscles in our mouth we use to express our feelings when we talk to the pen when we write something. What is also fascinating about semiotics is that it brings philosophy, linguistics and logic, and many different disciplines together. So it is a truly interdisciplinary field, which is awesome. More interestingly, signs and symbols are treated and approached as a key phenomenon in understanding sociocultural and political aspects, because they create meaning. So they are directly connected to semantics because semantics is the study of meaning.
ak[due]ll: And what is the urban aspect of it?
Kosatica: When it comes to urban semiotics, I think about discursive and multimodal construction of space. I consider space as a result of human interactions and different communicative practices in general. So it's all about how space is constructed, how it's invented and reinvented through and in human interactions with signs. In my research related to this specific position here at the university, I will consider migrations that are expected to increase due to climate change. Different affected populations, especially across Western Asia and parts of Africa are what I have in mind. I am specifically interested in exploring how these vulnerable groups fit in contemporary urban space, especially in sustainable and smart urban spaces. Because urban spaces reflect the impact of social inequality and are filled with different collective identities, they undoubtedly have deep socio-political implications. And they do not straightforwardly foster a diverse and inclusive community. They do not necessarily erase socioeconomic stratification or improve education. Such spaces tend to favour the wealthy and well connected. I wonder how exactly the poor, low-skilled and other vulnerable groups participate actively in their green cities on an equal basis. I will be treating the cities as crucial sites for the movement of, for example, excluded inhabitants or migrants and refugees.
ak[due]ll: You are currently investigating the mass-mediatized representation of children’s suffering, to seemingly invoke empathy. Why could that be problematic?
Kosatica: I'm more interested in learning more about the limitations of empathy. A couple years ago, I read this book called Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by psychologist Paul Bloom. He argues that empathy is not the solution to our problems. Instead, we should focus on compassion, which is, unlike empathy, rationally motivated. According to Bloom, the real problem is that people who feel empathy tend to become more insensitive to the suffering of people. This happens when you're constantly looking at those images media outlets are filled with. In my project, I would like to find out more about the effectiveness of discourses that are supposed to trigger empathy. An example would be, after reading the sentence on The Guardian: "Poor nutrition and hunger is responsible for the death of over three million children a year", or after we look at the pictures of starving children, do we actually decide to participate actively in finding a solution for this problem? Of course, empathy discourses are extremely sensitive and there are many questions on the ethics of mediation of distant suffering and exploring such content. But I also think that very sensitive visuals also have to be critically addressed.
ak[due]ll: That sounds like you are touching on sensitive topics. But we do need help in communicating, right?
Kosatica: Exactly! That's why I told you I kind of feel that everything goes back to my own experiences. When I was younger I would watch these horrible images of what happened at the spot of genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina and it was very emotional for me to see, hear and comprehend that. This is something I carefully explore in the book soon to be published, which deals with the complex ways the 1992 to 1995 Bosnian War is being remembered. You're always trying to find yourself in everything you do, to embrace and enjoy it fully.