Sensorial-Environmental Signs, Natural Disasters, and Semiotic Transformations of Culture: the Case of the Volcanic Eruptions of Mt. Merapi, Indonesia

This study examines the entanglements of natural disasters and cultural changes from an ecosemiotic point of view, presuming that interrelations between human populations and the environment are fundamentally mediated by signs. This study applies Lotmanian semiotic inheritance as a theoretical framework for analyzing nature-culture relations and developing a Lotmanian ecosemiotic perspective. Taking a case of Mt. Merapi’s periodic eruptions and the locals’ interpretations of such constant natural hazards, it is based on empirical data gathered through longitudinal qualitative fieldwork with the local communities that live around this volcano. The first fieldwork was carried out in 2013 and the second in 2019, and contact with the local communities was preserved between the two. During the fieldworks, I conducted participant observations, semi-structured and open-ended interviews, and informal discussions.

In order to adapt to the constant natural hazards in their environment, disaster-prone societies develop unique sign systems binding cultural and natural processes. This study shows that the unique sensorial-environmental sign systems that have shaped the embodied and habitual skills of the locals in coping with the local environment also become the basis of communication between the locals and their environment. The locals perceive the eruption as a communication involving them and local environmental agencies, in which messages are transmitted in particular media, such as movements, sound etc., which are shared and accessible to all participants.

However, such natural-cultural semiotic structures exhibit a historical dynamic, being characterized by double-sided change: natural disasters, entangled with other cultural processes, play a fundamental role as the trigger of semiotic changes; while such semiotic changes can in turn change the interpretation of the natural disaster itself, and therefore shift the way humans perceive and interact with their environment. This study shows how the eruptions have triggered the adoption of new livelihoods, as well as acceptance of new scientific signs concerning the volcano and its eruption, which have in turn brought up other significant cultural changes, including the adoption of the idea of progress, the shift of the locals’ perception of the eruption, and the transformation of the previous entanglements of local culture and its natural environment.

Muzayin Nazaruddin

Department of Semiotics, University of Tartu, Estonia

doctoral student at the Department of Semiotics, University of Tartu. His doctoral project concerns the semiotics of natural disaster: the entanglements of environmental and cultural transformations therein. He is also lecturer at the Communication Department at the Universitas Islam Indonesia. His academic interest includes environmental communication, ecosemiotics, disaster studies, and memory studies. His recent publications are, among others, “Media and visual representation of disaster: analysis of Merapi eruption in 2010”, in R. Djalante, (eds.), Disaster Risk Reduction in Indonesia: Progress, Challenges, and Issues. Springer International, 2017; “Social media and alternative discourse on natural hazard: a case study of Facebook Group Info Merapi”, Jurnal Komunikasi: Malaysian Journal of Communication, 36 (1), 2020.

sensorial-environmental signs
natural disaster
culture-nature entanglements