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Copenhagen steals academic superstar

New professor of semiotics, intellectual history, and theory of sciences, Frederik Stjernfelt, speaks to the University Post about science in the humanities, collaboration with Aarhus, and his return home

Frederik Stjernfelt – a star of semiotics – is packing up from Aarhus University and moving out to UCPH as a professor at the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies in January 2014.

In an interview with the University Post, he tells us about his career, his new move, and his dreams of football stardom.

An offer he couldn’t refuse

University Post: Can you explain us what your new position at University of Copenhagen will be, and what topics you will be working on?

I shall be professor of semiotics, intellectual history, and theory of science – three different fields in which I have taken interest. I come from a position at the Center for Semiotics in Aarhus, and my habilitation thesis from 2007, Diagrammatology, was, to a large extent, a work of semiotics. My approach to semiotics has always been related to theory of science which is also evident from that book. Currently, I am the principal investigator, together with David Budtz, of the theory-of-science project Humanomics, which is charting current research in Danish humanities and investigating the theory of science of the humanities. Budtz and myself intend to prolong that project into a KU center, tentatively titled EPICENTER. As to intellectual history, I was the co-editor of a three volume intellectual history called Tankens Magt (The Power of Thought, with Ole Knudsen and Hans Siggaard, 2006) and have further research plans also in that direction.

This sounds quite exciting. You also had a nice position in Aarhus – why did you finally decide to move to Copenhagen?

They gave me an offer I could not refuse! I was six years in Aarhus and most of the time it was great; however, I commuted from Copenhagen all of the time. It is almost ten years since I was at the University of Copenhagen, so much has changed, and I am not quite sure what I am returning to in Copenhagen. I shall have shorter travel to work, in any case…

Do you think you will miss certain things in Aarhus?

There are indeed things to miss in Aarhus. I have some really great colleagues there – with whom I intend to continue collaboration, by the way. Universities should compete, indeed, but this country is too small not to cooperate as well. Aarhus has some very talented department secretaries who taught me ways to do things of which KU may take note. Finally, the Aarhus campus is unbeatable – all departments are together, and it is beautiful and close to the downtown area.

Old stomping grounds

You did your MA and PhD in Nordic Literature at the University of Copenhagen. How do you remember your time as student here? Would you say you were a good student back then?

It was a great time – which is maybe not strange as it was coextensive with my youth… Was I a good student? On today’s criteria – I was not. I studied far too long, and only graduated at age 29. This made it possible, however, to follow courses at other departments and to search for a wider orientation.

So, how does it feel to come back to your own university as a professor now?

Not bad!

Is there a favorite spot you had or still have around the University?

As a student I lived in Christianshavn, so I often walked to KUA taking the small bridge over the moat and then crossed the small piece of terrain vague of bushes and blackberries on the other side of Njalsgade.

Star in his field – or on the field?

When thinking back, would you choose the same studies again or is there another – maybe completely different – job or study you could imagine yourself doing?

I have had the privilege to be able to do things in rather different parts of the humanities – even sometimes collaborating with biologists in bio-semiotics and the like. Fields which fascinate me comprise issues as far apart as mathematics and political science.

Talking of fascination: what did you want to become when you grew up?

A professional football player – in which case, I would be long since retired…

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