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The Texture of Culture

An Introduction to Yuri Lotman's Semiotic Theory


Aleksei Semenenko
ISBN: 9781137008541
DOI: 10.1057/9781137008541
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Semiotics and Popular Culture
Series Editor: Marcel Danesi

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Written by leading figures in the interconnected fields of popular cul-
ture, media, and semiotic studies, the books in this series aim to show
the contemporary relevance of cultural theory. Individual volumes
offer an exercise in unraveling the socio-psychological reasons why cer-
tain cultural trends become popular. The series engages with theory
and technical trends to expose the subject matter clearly, openly, and
meaningfully.
Marcel Danesi is Professor of Semiotics and Anthropology at the
University of Toronto. Among his major publications are X-Rated! ; Of
Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things ; Vico, Metaphor, and
The Origins of Language ; Cool: The Signs and Meanings of Adolescence ;
The Puzzle Instinct: The Meaning of Puzzles in Human Life ; and Brands.
He is Editor-in-Chief of Semiotica , the leading journal in semiotics.

Titles:

The Objects of Affection: Semiotics and Consumer Culture ,


by Arthur Asa Berger
Media Literacy and Semiotics , by Elliot Gaines
The Texture of Culture: An Introduction to Yuri Lotman’s
Semiotic Theory, by Aleksei Semenenko

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The Texture of Culture
An Introduction to Yuri Lotman’s
Semiotic Theory

Aleksei Semenenko

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THE TEXTURE OF CULTURE
Copyright © Aleksei Semenenko, 2012.
All rights reserved.
First published in 2012 by

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PALGRAVE MACMILLAN®
in the United States— a division of St. Martin’s Press LLC,
175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.
Where this book is distributed in the UK, Europe and the rest of the world,
this is by Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited,
registered in England, company number 785998, of Houndmills,
Basingstoke, Hampshire RG21 6XS.
Palgrave Macmillan is the global academic imprint of the above companies
and has companies and representatives throughout the world.
Palgrave® and Macmillan® are registered trademarks in the United States,
the United Kingdom, Europe and other countries.
ISBN: 978–1–137–00714–8
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Semenenko, Aleksei.
The texture of culture : an introduction to Yuri Lotman’s semiotic
theory / Aleksei Semenenko.
p. cm.—(Semiotics and popular culture)
ISBN 978–1–137–00714–8 (hardback)
1. Lotman, IU. M. (IUrii Mikhailovich), 1922–1993—Criticism and
interpretation. 2. Semiotics. 3. Culture—Semiotic models. 4. Semiotics
and literature. 5. Mass media. I. Title.
P85.L68S46 2012
401⬘.41092—dc23 2011052886
A catalogue record of the book is available from the British Library.
Design by Newgen Imaging Systems (P) Ltd., Chennai, India.
First edition: August 2012
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Printed in the United States of America.

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Contents

List of Figures and Tables vii


Series Preface ix
Acknowledgments xi
Notes on Transliteration and Bibliography xiii
List of Abbreviations xv

Introduction 1
1 Contexts 7
2 Culture as System 23
3 Culture as Text 75
4 Semiosphere 111
5 Universal Mind 125
Conclusion: The World as a Text 145

Notes 147
References 157
Index 171

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Figures and Tables

Figures
1.1 Yuri Lotman’s portrait by Peter Gullers 8
1.2 TZS, or Semiotika 17
2.1 Saussure’s speech circuit 24
2.2 Speech act by Roman Jakobson 25
2.3 From thought to thought 26
2.4 The reverse translation 27
2.5 The Swedish speed limit sign 28
2.6 The creative function of text 29
3.1 The relation of text to culture 91
3.2 The “Poor Yorick” icon 106
3.3 [Hamlet] the sign 107
4.1 Text as a condenser of semiosphere 117
4.2 Communication in the semiosphere 118

Tables
1.1 Brief biography of Yuri Lotman 9
3.1 Typology of cultures 95
5.1 Hemispheric “specializations” 138

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Series Preface

P
opular forms of entertainment have always existed. As he trav-
eled the world, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote
about earthy, amusing performances and songs that seemed
odd to him, but which were certainly very popular with common
folk. He saw these, however, as the exception to the rule of true
culture. One wonders what Herodotus would think in today’s media
culture, where his “exception” has become the rule. Why is popular
culture so “popular”? What is psychologically behind it? What is it?
Why do we hate to love it and love to hate it? What has happened to
so-called high culture? What are the “meanings” and “social func-
tions” of current pop culture forms such as sitcoms, reality TV pro-
grams, YouTube sites, and the like?
These are the kinds of questions that this series of books, written
by experts and researchers in both popular culture studies and semi-
otics, will broach and discuss critically. Overall, they will attempt to
decode the meanings inherent in spectacles, popular songs, coffee,
video games, cars, fads, and other “objects” of contemporary pop
culture. They will also take comprehensive glances at the relation-
ship between culture and the human condition. Although written
by scholars and intellectuals, each book will look beyond the many
abstruse theories that have been put forward to explain popular cul-
ture, so as to penetrate its origins, evolution, and overall raison d’ être
human life, exploring the psychic structures that it expresses and
which make it so profoundly appealing, even to those who claim to
hate it. Pop culture has been the driving force in guiding, or at least
shaping, social evolution since the Roaring Twenties, triggering a
broad debate about art, sex, and “true culture” that is still ongoing.
This debate is a crucial one in today’s global village where traditional
canons of art and aesthetics are being challenged as never before in
human history.

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x ● Series Preface

The books are written in clear language and style so that read-
ers of all backgrounds can understand what is going in pop culture
theory and semiotics, and, thus reflect upon current cultural trends.
They have the dual function of introducing various disciplinary atti-

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tudes and research findings in a user-friendly fashion so that they
can be used as texts in colleges and universities, while still appeal to
the interested general reader. Ultimately, the goal of each book is to
provide a part of a generic semiotic framework for understanding the
world we live in and probably will live in for the foreseeable future.

Marcel Danesi
University of Toronto

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Acknowledgments

M
ost of the material in this book has been used in lec-
tures and seminars at Södertörn University, Stockholm,
Sweden. I am deeply grateful to Professors Lars Kleberg,
Peter Alberg Jensen, Irina Sandomirskaja, and Lazar Fleishman,
who have read and provided helpful comments on portions of the
manuscript at various stages. I also wish to thank my students and
colleagues from Stockholm, Tartu, Tallinn, and Venice and espe-
cially the participants of the 2011 Summer School of Semiotics,
with whom I have had an opportunity to discuss the many topics
addressed in this book. My thanks are due to Tatiana Kuzovkina
and Olga Utgof at the Lotman Archive at Tallinn University and
to Peter Gullers for his kind permission to use his photoportrait
of Lotman. Last but not least, I express my gratitude to the Baltic
Sea Foundation (Östresjöstiftelsen) and the Center for Baltic East
European Studies at Södertörn University for financial support and
friendly practical help.

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Notes on Transliteration and
Bibliography

R
ussian names are transliterated according to a simplified ver-
sion of the Library of Congress (LOC) system, apart from
internationally known names such as Alexander Pushkin, Leo
Tolstoy, Mikhail Bakhtin, Sergei Eisenstein, and others. By the same
reasoning, in the text of the book Lotman’s first name is given as
Yuri (and not Iurii). In the bibliography, however, all Russian names
are spelled according to the LOC transliteration system. In order to
maintain the chronological order in the bibliography, the spelling of
some names has been standardized (e.g., all of Tynianov’s works are
listed under Tynianov, not Tynjanov or Tynyanov); the references in
the text, however, show the original spelling of the publication.
When citing multivolume editions, volume number is indicated in
Roman numerals followed by page number (e.g., Lotman 1992–93,
I.202). Charles S. Peirce’s works are cited in the text traditionally as
(volume.passage) according to the edition of Collected Papers (Peirce
1931–34). Shakespeare is cited according to W. J. Craig’s Oxford
edition (Shakespeare 1914) with the traditional indication of (act.
scene.lines) in the text.
All emphasis in citations is original, and all translations from
Russian sources are mine unless otherwise indicated.

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Abbreviations

AI artificial intelligence
EO Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
TMSS Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School
TRSF Trudy po russkoi i slavianskoi filologii (Papers on Russian and
Slavonic Philology)
TZS Trudy po znakovym sistemam (Sign Systems Studies)

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Introduction

T
his book is about understanding and studying culture as a
unique characteristic of human beings in the light of the
ideas of one of the most original thinkers of the twentieth
century, the Russian literary scholar and semiotician Yuri Lotman.
The beginning of the twenty-first century saw a somewhat revived
interest toward Lotman’s profound and versatile legacy. More and
more scholars find Lotman’s ideas worth studying and developing;
his works are being read and interpreted in different contexts, from
the polysystem theory to the study of universals. Nonetheless, the
marginality of Lotman’s theory in English books on semiotics of
culture is rather noticeable. For many students and scholars, Lotman
still remains terra incognita , confined within the territory labeled
“structuralism” and “Soviet Semiotics.” This book attempts to offer
guidance to this yet to be fully explored area and to demonstrate
how Lotman’s theory, transcending the traditional boundaries of
academic disciplines, offers a holistic and genuinely interdisciplinary
approach to culture. One of the main aims of this study is to make
Lotman accessible to a larger (academic) audience not limited only
to specialists in Slavic studies and semiotics.
That is why it is also necessary to mention what this book is not .
This book is not a history of Soviet semiotics, although I inevita-
bly discuss different stages of development of the Tartu-Moscow
Semiotic School (TMSS). Nor is this book Lotman’s (academic)
biography, although I write about different periods of Lotman’s
career. In other words, this book is not a historical study in a strict
sense of the word. Instead of peering into the past and “immuring”
Lotman in a certain epoch of the history of semiotics, I try to look at
the future, offering a new approach to Lotman’s theory that can be
used as a basis for further research by scholars of various disciplines.

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2 ● The Texture of Culture

In a certain sense, I focus not on Lotman the person but rather on


Lotman “the text,” that is, his works in their afterlife.
Lotman’s theory is usually described as an evolution from struc-
turalism to cultural semiotics, where the later period is believed to

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be a sort of refutation of the earlier approach. From this perspective,
it would be impossible to describe the main principles of Lotman’s
works of the 1960s and 1990s using one metalanguage. This book,
however, offers a different approach and focuses on the continu-
ity and integrity of Lotman’s ideas and the connections of his ear-
lier works with later ones. In my disposition and interpretation of
Lotman’s theory, I emphasize some aspects and leave out others,
which is an unavoidable consequence of any metalanguage that is
applied to such a complex semiotic phenomenon. In other words,
I act in accordance with the principles of textual analysis that
Lotman himself applied: I establish the boundaries of “the Lotman
text”—the hierarchy of its elements, its core, and its margins—and
present a more or less unified picture of his theory. In doing so I
emphasize the points that are pertinent to contemporary semiotics
but also indicate those that are no longer relevant in the modern
context.
This book is designated first and foremost to researchers and stu-
dents who are interested in cultural analysis, semiotics, and inter-
disciplinary research. For some scholars, this book can serve as an
introduction to Lotman’s works, and some, I hope, will find it useful
in their own studies.

Lotman’s Works
Lotman authored more than 900 publications in different languages
and left an ample archive that is still under the process of systemati-
zation. It is located in two Estonian towns, one part in the library
of Tartu University and the other in the Lotman Archive at Tallinn
University. To date, the largest collections of Lotman’s published
works in Russian are the three-volume edition of Selected Writings
printed in Tallinn (1992–93) and nine thematic volumes of Lotman’s
selected works (1994–2003) published in Saint Petersburg by the
publishing house Iskusstvo-SPB.
In English, apart from the monograph The Structure of the Artistic
Text (1977), the most known edition is the book Universe of the
Mind (1990), which is partly a compilation of Lotman’s works of

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Introduction ● 3

the 1980s. This book, translated by Ann Shukman, first appeared


in English and only later in Russian in 1996. The last book by
Lotman, Culture and Explosion , was not translated until the end of
2009, although it existed in Estonian, Spanish, Italian, and Polish.

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The last two books, Unpredictable Mechanisms of Culture and
Culture and Explosion , stylistically and thematically differ from pre-
vious works. Being seriously ill, Lotman dictated both books to his
wife and secretaries in the period between 1989 and 1992 (Kuzovkina
1999). Unpredictable Mechanisms of Culture was not published in
Russian until 2010 for economic reasons (see its publication history
in Kuzovkina 2010) and first appeared in 1994 in Italian transla-
tion under the title Cercare la strada: Modelli della cultura . Culture
and Explosion was first published in Russian in 1992. Lotman him-
self wrote in one of the letters in 1991 that Culture and Explosion
would probably be his “main book ” (Lotman 2006, 425), and sev-
eral researches readily proclaimed it “Lotman’s testament.” However,
it could be called “testament” only in the sense that in this book
Lotman explores new perspectives that he has not previously studied
and he would have explored further if he had a chance. It is therefore
misleading to consider this book to be a sort of synthesis of Lotman’s
lifetime work because it commits the fallacy against which Lotman
many times warned: in retrospect, the last book always turns into
“the final word.” Culture and Explosion leaves the impression of an
unfinished sentence rather than the conclusive statement and not so
much continues the research delineated in Universe of the Mind as it
offers a new outlook on the study of culture.

Works on Lotman
A number of monographs are dedicated exclusively to Lotman and
Soviet semiotics. Since this book is oriented to a broad audience,
I list only the works published in English and Russian, not men-
tioning a number of studies on Lotman in Estonian, Italian, Polish,
Spanish, and other languages. In Russian, there are only two mono-
graphs so far: Lotman’s biography written by Boris Egorov (1999),
a close friend and colleague of Lotman, and Kim Su Kvan’s (2003)
book that deals with the evolution of Lotman’s theory, describing it
in different stages.
Soviet semiotics from the very beginning drew a lot of atten-
tion of Western scholars, and it is not entirely surprising that in

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4 ● The Texture of Culture

English there are many more monographs about the TMSS and
Lotman in particular: an external observer often sees a bigger
picture than the insider. The first study of Lotman’s writings
is the monograph by Ann Shukman (1977), which is devoted to

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the period up to the early 1970s. Not only did Shukman present
the history of the Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School and Lotman’s
role in it, but she also analyzed his first publications, including
Lectures on Structural Poetics and The Structure of the Artistic Texts ,
offering the English audience the works not yet translated from
Russian.
Edna Andrews (2003) focuses on “updating and contextualizing
Lotman for Western theorists” (xv). In the first part of the book,
Andrews concisely describes Lotman’s main ideas in the context of
contemporary Western semiotics (comparing Lotman with T. Sebeok,
C. S. Peirce, J. von Uexküll, R. Thom, and others). In the second
part, Andrews applies Lotman’s ideas in her analysis of Bulgakov’s
and Zamiatin’s novels and discusses the relation of Lotman’s theory
to cognitive science.
One of the most interesting cases of appropriation and development
of Lotman’s ideas is the collection of articles Lotman and Cultural
Studies (2006), edited by Andreas Schönle. The authors engage and
extend Lotman’s ideas in the context of cultural studies, looking for a
way to make Lotman compatible with such terms as discourse, power,
ideology, and so forth. It is noteworthy that the authors conceive of
culture quite differently from Lotman, listing various facets of life
that make up culture as a whole—“political, economic, social, erotic,
and ideological” (Schönle and Shine 2006, 22)—but this list does
not include “artistic” or any other terms that are central in Lotman’s
works.
Finally, the most recent work on Soviet semiotics is the disserta-
tion by Maxim Waldstein (2008), which is, to date, the only history
of the Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School in English. This study is writ-
ten from the sociological perspective and attempts to present a social
and institutional history of Soviet semiotics.
Despite their differences and sometimes contrasting approaches,
all these works signify that the process of (re)conceptualization of
Lotman’s legacy is in its initial stages and that there is much to
explore for the researchers not only in Slavic studies but in other
disciplines as well.

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Introduction ● 5

Outline of the Book


The book is divided into five chapters. For the reader’s convenience,
at the end of chapters 2 to 5 I list the key premises discussed in these

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chapters.
Chapter 1 presents Lotman’s short academic biography and offers
a historical introduction to the Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School, out-
lining the main historical, academic, and cultural contexts in which
Lotman’s theory has been formed. I describe the connection of semi-
otics with the cybernetic discourse of the 1960s and its self-appraisal
not only as a new approach that unified humanities with natural
sciences but also as a universal method (universal language) for study
of human culture. I further discuss the sociopolitical context of the
TMSS that made, to a certain extent, the exceptional position of the
school even more palpable.
In chapters 2 and 3, I delineate the core concepts of Lotman’s
semiotics and demonstrate how they work in practice as an effective
tool of cultural analysis, illustrating Lotman’s theoretical premises
by examples from various cultures. Chapter 2 focuses on macro-
structures (systematicity) of culture and chapter 3 on microstruc-
tures (textuality) of culture. The key questions that I attempt to
answer in these chapters are:

• What is culture in terms of communication?


• What is the place of art and other modeling systems in culture?
• What are the basic elements of culture?
• How can text be defined?
• What is the relation of texts to signs?
• What are the qualities of the artistic text?
• What is myth and how mythological texts are different from
nonmythological ones?
• Why is translation so important in the context of culture?
• What is meaning? How is it generated?
• What is “the collective memory”?
• Are there any specific “laws” of cultural development?
• Why is unpredictability crucial for any culture?

Chapter 4 focuses on the notion of semiotic space or semiosphere,


arguably the most important and productive concept coined by

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6 ● The Texture of Culture

Lotman, which to some extent encompasses all other key concepts


and has a potential to replace the concept of culture itself. I explore
various characteristics of the semiosphere (heterogeneity, asymme-
try, binarism, and others) and its connection with the concepts of

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cultural memory and text memory. Finally, I discuss the essential
duality of the concept of semiosphere as a metaconcept and also as
the space in which all communication takes place.
Chapter 5 delves deeper into the question of collective versus
personal semiosphere and focuses on one of the most crucial pos-
tulates in Lotman’s theory—that culture is a reflection of human
mind. I scrutinize Lotman’s usage of terms consciousness, intellect ,
and thought , demonstrating how Lotman’s concept of semiosphere at
certain point turns into a model of cognition.

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CHAPTER 1

Contexts

Short Biography of Yuri Lotman


Yuri Mikhailovich Lotman was a Russian philologist by education,
specializing in Russian literature. His works, however, exhibit a clear
tendency to surpass the traditional boundaries of disciplines; the
scope of Lotman’s truly encyclopedic knowledge is not limited solely
to Russian literature and includes European history and literatures,
classical history and art, and other disciplines. What distinguishes
Lotman from many other theoreticians is that he never developed
any theory for the sake of theory and even his most theory-laden
works were as a rule based on actual historical material, ranging
from medieval to modern literature.
Table 1.1 presents a short account of Lotman’s academic biography
and main monographs (the year of the first publication is indicated)

The Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School


Lotman is widely known as one of the founders of the Tartu-Moscow
Semiotic School1 (TMSS). One of the events that led to the establish-
ment of the school was the Symposium on the Structural Study of
Sign Systems held in Moscow in December 1962. The symposium
united the scholars who a couple of years later became active par-
ticipants of the school: Viacheslav Ivanov, Boris Egorov, Vladimir
Toporov, Boris Uspenskii, Aleksandr Piatigorskii, Isaak Revzin,
Aleksandr Zholkovskii, Iurii I. Levin, Dmitrii Segal, and others. At

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8 ● The Texture of Culture

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Figure 1.1 Yuri Lotman’s portrait by Peter Gullers (1988).

the symposium, such notions as semiotics, sign system, model, and


modeling system were introduced for the first time. One of the main
topics of discussion was the problem of artificial languages and the
application of structural linguistics and information theory in the
study of various sign systems (language, literature, art, etc.). The
methodological framework of the symposium was to a great extent
based on the semiotic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure and Louis
Hjelmslev. Yuri Lotman was not present at the symposium but a year
later became acquainted with Ivanov, Piatigorskii, and Revzin and
invited the Moscow semioticians to Tartu. So began the long-term
cooperation of the Tartu scholars with their colleagues in Moscow
and Leningrad.

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Table 1.1 Brief biography of Yuri Lotman

February 28, 1922 Yuri Mikhailovich Lotman is born in Petrograd (now Saint
Petersburg), Russia.

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1939 Begins his studies at Leningrad State University at the Faculty
of Philology. Among his teachers are such prominent scholars
as G. Gukovskii, B. Eikhenbaum, B. Tomashevskii, V. Propp,
M. Azadovskii, and N. Mordovchenko.
1940–1946 Conscripted into Soviet Army, participates in World War II in
an artillery regiment, returns home only in December 1946.
1950 Moves to Tartu, Estonia; teaches at the Teachers Institute and
Tartu University at the Department of Russian Literature.
1952 Defends his candidate dissertation at Leningrad University.
1954 Associate Professor.
1960–1977 Chair of the Department of Russian Literature.
1961 Defends his doctoral dissertation at Leningrad University.
1963 Professor of Russian literature.
1964 First Summer School and first volume of TZS,
Lectures on Structural Poetics.
1970 The Structure of the Artistic Text, Essays on the Typology of
Culture.
1972 Analysis of the Poetic Text.
1973 Semiotics of Cinema.
1980 Commentary to Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.
1981 Pushkin’s biography.
1987 Creation of Karamzin.
(1989) Unpredictable Mechanisms of Culture is written, to be published
only in 2010.
1990 Universe of the Mind (first published in English).
1992 Culture and Explosion;
Department of Semiotics is founded at Tartu University.
October 28, 1993 Dies in Tartu, Estonia.

The year 1964 is considered the birth year of the TMSS, which
appeared to be an exceptionally productive academic group of its
time and became a phenomenon of academic life not only in the
Soviet Union but in the Western world as well. In 1964, the first
summer school was organized and the first volume in a new series of
Tartu University, Trudy po znakovym sistemam (TZS , or Sign Systems
Studies), was published. The journal produced 25 volumes during
the period 1964–1992 and is still being published in English and
Russian. Looking from the twenty-first century back at the 1960s,
it becomes obvious that Lotman, as one of the leaders of the school,
was the one who held this academic community together and made

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10 ● The Texture of Culture

it possible for Soviet semioticians to conduct their work in a friendly


environment in Tartu.

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The Cybernetic Context
The rise of semiotics in the Soviet Union is closely related to cyber-
netics, which experienced a curious turn in the 1950s. In the early
1950s, cybernetics was banned as pseudoscience: the Soviet Short
Philosophical Dictionary from 1954 defined cybernetics as follows:

A reactionary pseudo-science arising in the USA after the Second


World War and receiving wide dissemination in other capitalistic
countries; . . . Cybernetics clearly ref lects one of the basic features
of the bourgeois worldview—its inhumanity, striving to transform
workers into an extension of the machine, into a tool of production,
and an instrument of war. (Rozental’ and Iudin 1954, 236–37; trans-
lated in Bowker 1993, 111)

During Khrushchev’s “Thaw,” however, cybernetics quickly took the


dominant position in Soviet academia. Several key works on cybernet-
ics were published in Russian translation: in 1958, Norbert Wiener’s
The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, and in
1959, Ross Ashby’s Introduction to Cybernetics. In 1961, cybernetics
finally became officially approved by the Communist Party, having
formed an integral part of the official focus on “the scientific and
technical revolution.” In the new edition of Philosophical Dictionary
in 1963, the article on cybernetics was revised and all accusatory
epithets were removed (Rozental’ and Iudin 1963, 197–98).
As Slava Gerovitch (2002) convincingly shows in his study, in the
Soviet context cybernetics was perceived not just as a new discipline
but also as a new methodological and philosophical paradigm. The
reformist cybernetic discourse served as a tool of de-Stalinization of
science and in many ways was an attempt of some Soviet scientists
to get rid of the official ideological phraseology that had dominated
academia for decades:

By promoting cyberspeak as a new universal language of science,


Soviet cyberneticians challenged the dominant role of newspeak, the
vague and manipulative language of Stalinist ideological discourse,

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Contexts ● 11

and began undermining the discursive basis of the Stalinist regime.


(Gerovitch 2002, 155)

The adoption of cyberspeak opened many doors that had been shut

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before. In the 1960s, Soviet academia saw the rise of new institutes
and departments that focused on cybernetics, structural linguistics,
and semiotics, thus officially (albeit reluctantly) acknowledging pre-
viously despised structuralism. Apart from that, a number of peri-
odicals on cybernetics and even a series with the slogan-like title
Cybernetics to the Service of Communism were established. The influ-
ential academicians A. N. Kolmogorov and A. I. Berg, head of the
Research Council on Cybernetics of the Academy of Sciences of the
USSR, played a significant role in the promotion of cybernetics and
development of semiotic studies in the Soviet Union. Semiotics was
largely considered to be an indivisible part of cybernetics, and the
project of the Institute of Semiotics was initiated in 1960, though
these plans never materialized (Gerovitch 2002, 243–45).
One of the conspicuous features of cyberspeak was its explicit
scientistic orientation that Soviet semiotics fully shared as well.
V. Ivanov’s words in the preface to the conference proceedings of
the Symposium on the Structural Study of Sign Systems are most
symptomatic because they stress the role of semiotics as a universal
science:

The fundamental role of semiotic methods for all the related human-
ities may with confidence be compared with the significance of
mathematics for the natural sciences. Nonetheless, on the one hand,
mathematics itself as a system of signs lies within the range of objects
for analysis by semiotics, and on the other hand, semiotics, like all the
other humanities, is gradually becoming imbued with mathematical
ideas and methods. (Ivanov 1978b, 202; see also Ivanov 1994, 487)

Many of Lotman’s works exhibit an explicit scientistic character


as well. One of his articles published in 1967 is entitled “Literary
Criticism Must Be a Science” (Lotman 1967), 2 in which he responded
to several attacks on structuralists by stating that this criticism is
directed toward the scientific approach itself and that a new type of
philologist must ideally be a combination of a mathematician, a lin-
guist, and a literary scholar. As Lotman wrote in one of his letters in
1969 (cited in Egorov 1999, 103–4), “the main ethos of our scientific

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12 ● The Texture of Culture

direction is the achievement of essentially verifiable results.” Lotman


further compares mathematical problems with humanistic ones and
regrets that the latter are not usually perceived as those that require
methodological explanation and verification. Mentioning Descartes,

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he argues that the focus of semiotics should be on how to obtain
the truth (i.e., on methods), not on the truth itself. By proclaiming
semiotics as a new humanistic science, Lotman indirectly attempts
to rehabilitate the status of the humanities in the 1960–70s, which
became overshadowed by “more important” hard sciences.
The scientism of the early years of Soviet semiotics is manifested,
among other things, in the axiomatic nature of their statements and
also in the application of “exact” metalanguages—linguistic, math-
ematical, or even musical—to cultural phenomena. As an example,
let us take two articles from 1965: in one of them, cartomancy
(fortune-telling using playing cards) is described in the metalan-
guage of linguistic terminology (Lekomceva and Uspenskij 1977);
in another article, Iurii I. Levin (1977) introduces a classification of
Russian metaphors that is formalized in mathematics-like formulas.3
The very question of the validity of such an approach—would not
the metalanguage predetermine the results of the analysis?—was not
raised. It is noteworthy that Lotman, as a literary scholar, already
in 1964 saw certain problems with the application of the linguistic
metalanguage to all semiotic (nonlinguistic) phenomena, questioning
the status of linguistics as the semiotic metalanguage. For Lotman,
linguistics imposed unnecessary limits on the humanities, as did
other “mechanistic” applications of one sign system onto another. In
one of his articles, Lotman mentions Lévi-Strauss’s attempt to create
a metalanguage of myth on the basis of the laws of musical narration
as an example of the “semiotic oversaturation” of the mid-twentieth-
century culture (Lotman 1975, 337–38). In that sense, Lotman seeks
in structuralism and semiotics not a new academic dogma but a way
to develop an adequate methodology and a metalanguage for the
description of semiotic systems. Thus semiotics “is not for Lotman
the philosophy of the sign, or its logical relationship with referent or
interpretant” (Shukman 1977, 179), but rather a method, the prin-
ciples of which are outlined in this book.
The other distinctive trait of Soviet semiotics was its universal-
ism. Similar to cybernetics, semiotics was perceived not only as a
new approach that unified humanities with natural sciences but

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Contexts ● 13

also as a universal method (universal language) for study of human


culture. One of the programmatic articles of the TMSS (Zaliznjak,
Ivanov, and Toporov 1977), in which the term “modeling system” is
used for the first time, is characterized by “the belief in some abso-

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lute impersonal and ‘scientific’ knowledge that can be achieved and
that could be expressed in a universal language” (Shukman 1977,
20). Many other articles of Soviet semioticians in the 1960–70s
embraced the same universalistic stance. This factor, among other
things, predetermined the apparent interdisciplinarity of the TMSS
members, who had published hundreds of articles and books cover-
ing a broad spectrum of fields, from literary studies and linguistics
to mathematics and anthropology. This is hardly unusual because
structuralism, semiotics, deconstruction, and other critical idioms
of the twentieth century have a tendency to diffuse the traditional
disciplinary boundaries (Moran 2002, 84). What concerns particu-
larly semiotics is that its orientation toward interdisciplinarity and
scientism was pronounced not only in Soviet academia but also in
the West: in Umberto Eco’s (1978, 83) definition, “semiotics, more
than a science, is an interdisciplinary approach . . . it may be a sort of
unified metatheoretical point of view governing a new encyclopedia
of unified science.”
Universalism of Soviet semiotics was manifested, on the one hand,
in the holistic approach to culture (especially in Lotman’s works),
which allowed studying texts from a truly broad perspective. On the
other hand, a great number of semiotic studies were devoted to eluci-
dation of universals, that is, hypothesized common features of every
language and/or culture. This problematic was extensively explored
by many structuralists and semioticians, from Claude Lévi-Strauss,
who explored them in myth, to Noam Chomsky, the author of the
theory of generative grammar. It is obvious now that the convic-
tion that cybernetics or semiotics can be presented as a universal
language of science is itself a reflection of the old myth of universal
(“ideal” or “perfect”) language, a metalanguage that can reveal “the
truth” or at least most objective results. In the TMSS, the universal-
istic discourse was especially pronounced in the study of myth (see
chapter 2), cultural typology (chapter 3), and the asymmetry of the
human brain (chapter 5).
The cybernetic context played an ambiguous role in the fate of
Soviet semiotics. Its symbiosis with cybernetics in the 1960–70s

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14 ● The Texture of Culture

undoubtedly contributed to its survival but at the same time led


to the fact that after the fall of the Soviet Union, semiotics was
perceived as a marginal field, closely tied to its Soviet context. To
some extent semiotics mirrored the fate of cybernetics, which sur-

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vived its role as a revolutionary science in the 1950s and as a fash-
ionable trend in the 1960s to become part of dominant discourse in
the 1970s (Gerovitch 2002, 288–92).4 Many semioticians and the
TMSS members became deeply disillusioned and criticized semiotics
for its scientistic pretense and universalism, thus posing a question
of the academic relevance of the school.

The Sociopolitical Context


The TMSS is undeniably a sociopolitical phenomenon of its time, and
the Soviet context made the exceptional position of the school even
more palpable. It is apparent that if not for Tartu University, and its
“provincial” location in Estonia, the TMSS could have never become
reality. The political climate in the Estonian Socialist Republic was
much milder than in Moscow or Leningrad, and for many scholars
the periodicals of Tartu University were the only chance to get pub-
lished (Chernov 1988, 16). Semiotics was not officially banned; the
new edition of Philosophical Dictionary in 1963 featured a separate
article on semiotics, which was defined as a comparative study of
sign systems (Rozental’ and Iudin 1963, 400–401). However, it was
still a “suspicious” discipline, especially unwelcome in Moscow after
the 1962 symposium, to which the officials at Moscow University
reacted very negatively. The summer schools organized by Lotman
were therefore a unique opportunity for the scholars to meet and
communicate in a friendly academic atmosphere. The first three
meetings were held on the university sports base in the village
Kääriku, some fifty kilometers south of Tartu. No wonder that this
place, “a province in the province,” became mythologized as a realm
of academic freedom devoid of ideological control, a sort of “safe
haven” and a getaway for oppressed intellectuals and scholars.
This idyllic picture was, of course, far from reality. Although the
intellectual atmosphere in Tartu in the 1960s was indeed much dif-
ferent from the metropolis—in many respects that was due to the
university rector, Fedor Klement, who was very sympathetic to the
publications of Lotman’s department—in the 1970s, the situation

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Contexts ● 15

changed significantly. The TMSS scholars experienced all varieties


of the state control: censorship, delayed and banned publications,
canceled conferences, and interfering university officials. In January
1970, the KGB agents even searched Lotman’s home for illegal lit-

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erature but luckily did not find anything. In the beginning of the
1970s, Lotman and his colleagues faced even more pressure from the
authorities, which made it impossible to conduct summer schools:
the fifth “summer” school was held in the winter of 1974 and was
called Symposium on Secondary Modeling Systems. It is hardly sur-
prising that in the 1970s many active members of the TMSS emi-
grated to the West (Aleksandr Piatigorskii, Boris Gasparov, Dmitrii
Segal, Aleksandr Zholkovskii, and others).
Apart from the pressure from state authorities, the semioticians
faced attacks from Soviet mainstream academics (see Waldstein
2008, 25–28). These attacks, formally presented as an academic
polemic, were purely ideological; the structuralists and semioticians
were initially in a very vulnerable position, and all their opponents
needed was to engage the power of obscure newspeak and declare
them anti-Soviet, antihumanist, or anti-Marxist. Soviet semiotics
experienced one such attack in 1972 when a special “Resolution on
Literary Criticism” (O liternaturno-khudozhestvennoi kritike) had
been released after the twenty-fourth Communist Party Congress.
The real meaning of the resolution was the beginning of the offi-
cial campaign against “ideologically wrong” disciplines in Soviet
academia. For example, Soviet sociology—which was banned as a
“bourgeois pseudoscience” in the beginning of the 1930s and was
rehabilitated for a short period of time in the 1960s—also experi-
enced attacks from the party functionaries, and in 1972, the devel-
opment of sociology as a discipline was “frozen.”
The resolution represents a classic case of Soviet newspeak: criticiz-
ing the activity of literary critics, it reconfirmed the status of social-
ist realism as the main (and the only) method of Soviet literature
and outlined the direction of the Marxist-Leninist literary criticism,
which in fact consisted of a number of ideological imperatives and
slogans, such as “to reconfirm the principles of Party-orientedness
and national ethos,” “to fight for a high ideological and aestheti-
cal level of Soviet art,” “to focus on critique and self-critique,” and
similar others. The main ideologemes of newspeak (together with
the concepts of “socialist realism” or “Marxist criticism”) were never

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16 ● The Texture of Culture

clearly defined and functioned as empty signifiers and a handy tool


of control: any statement or work could be criticized as ideologi-
cally flawed according to any pseudocriterion—for instance, “Party-
orientedness” (for more on “the principle of uncertainty” of the

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Soviet ideological discourse, see Gerovitch 2002, 21–26).
The loyal academics readily reacted to the resolution (e.g.,
Khrapchenko 1972, Miasnikov 1972). Apart from that, a new offi-
cial organ of literary scholarship in the Soviet Union was established,
the annual journal Kontekst . The first volumes of the journal opened
with prefaces that directly linked the journal to the infamous resolu-
tion and emphasized the opposition of Soviet literary methodology
to the Western dominant approaches, which were defined as exis-
tentialist, phenomenological, Freudian, and formalist (Khrapchenko
1972, 7).
In 1973, Kontekst published several critical articles on Lotman’s
theory and in particular on his book The Structure of the Artistic Text .
The academician Mikhail Khrapchenko (1973, 23–28), one of the
main propagators of the “new line” in literary criticism and head of
the Department of Literature and Language of the Soviet Academy
of Science, saw contradictions and flaws of Lotman’s theory in that
it had no “scientific grounds,” was very subjective, and exhibited a
peculiar “semiotic fetishism,” having depicted semiotics as a general
theory of cognition. Another article by Iurii Barabash (1973) was
even more critical and stated that Lotman’s model had nothing to do
with historicism, the “truth of life,” and realism. Barabash accused
Lotman of inconsistency and connected Lotman’s method (which
he interpreted as “an immanent interpretation of the model of art”)
to formalism and structuralism. It is quite clear that these critiques
were not just part of academic polemic but rather an accusation
toward Lotman of deviant and ideologically faulty behavior, which
could have had a serious bearing on Lotman’s career.
Quite expectedly, in order to avoid being controlled and to con-
tinue their work without compromising with the mainstream ide-
ology, nonconformist academics developed their own strategies of
mimicry and adaptation (Waldstein 2008, 30–32). For example, the
cybernetic context served quite a practical purpose for semioticians:
cybernetics was used as an umbrella term for semiotic studies, as a
“safer” alternative for the word semiotics. A 1965 article by Viacheslav
Ivanov is typical for this case. Ivanov outlines the main tasks of

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Contexts ● 17

cybernetic/semiotic study of mankind, which include the elucida-


tion of common features of natural languages, translation between
scientific languages, and the study of human behavior and man as
“a mechanism that performs operations on signs” (Ivanov 1977, 28).

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More importantly, the article presents an apologia of semiotics,
legitimizing the new “suspicious” science in the context of cybernet-
ics. The cybernetic aegis was used for publication of many semiotic
works (for example, Ivanov’s books Essays on the History of Semiotics
in the USSR and Odd and Even and several volumes of TZS ). Apart
from that, the official title of the new series at Tartu University,
“Sign Systems Studies,” avoided the word semiotics, but informally it
was always called Semiotika , and Σημειωτική (in Greek script) was
printed on the book jackets (see figure 1.2).
In this context, not only semiotics but also literary history turned
out to be an arena of ideological battle. A significant part of the TZS
publications was dedicated to the studies in Russian literature and
culture of different periods, from ancient Russia to the early twenti-
eth century (the so-called Silver Age of Russian Literature). It is this
last period that draws one’s attention because many of the writers
and poets of this epoch were found “problematic” by the authorities

Figure 1.2 TZS , or Semiotika.

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18 ● The Texture of Culture

and were not normally studied or for that matter read. The TMSS
assigned itself a mission to preserve “the forbidden legacy” of Russian
culture (the works of the formalists, Sergei Eisenstein, and others)
and managed to publish and study many names that could have

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been otherwise forgotten. For example, the works of the Russian
religious thinker and theologian Pavel Florenskii were for the first
time printed in TZS 3 (1967) and 5 (1971).
How the Tartu semioticians managed to study the forbidden
subjects and at the same time avoided the censor’s ban can be
illustrated by the 1971 publication of Boris Pasternak’s letter to
Pavel Medvedev, dated August 20, 1929. The letter with Gabriel
Superfin’s comments was published under the title “B. Pasternak
as a Critic of the Formal Method” (Pasternak 1971). In this letter,
Pasternak responds to Medvedev about his book The Formal Method
in Literary Scholarship. Although sympathetic with Medvedev’s gen-
eral stance, Pasternak in fact does not so much criticize the formal-
ists; on the contrary, he states that the author is “unjust” to the
formalists in details. Pasternak goes on to argue that the ideas of
the formalists are “heuristically very long-range” (dal’noboinye) and
the only thing that puzzles him is that they have stopped develop-
ing their ideas “on the most promising heights” (529). Since the
formalists and Pasternak himself were not the best subjects for an
academic publication, the document was published under the cam-
ouf lage of the “loyal” title.
Considering all the aforesaid, it is easy to conclude that the TMSS
is a direct product of Soviet reality and that one should describe its
evolution exclusively in terms of dissidence and struggle with the
oppressive regime. This context played a crucial role in the reception
of the TMSS in the West in the 1970s.5 Soviet semiotics was received
by many Western scholars through the prism of French structuralism
as an “exotic” but at the same time marginal scholarly phenomenon.
The multidisciplinarity of Soviet semioticians was also in stark con-
trast with their more “disciplined” Western colleagues (Baran 1998).
The Tartu scholars in their turn were often skeptical toward Western
structuralists (see Waldstein 2008, 98–102). Apart from that, most
of Western scientific literature was simply inaccessible in the Soviet
Union and personal contacts with Western semioticians (e.g., Sebeok
2001) were extremely rare; so at that time there was no substantial
dialogue between the Eastern and Western semioticians.

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Contexts ● 19

The political context comes to the fore even in recent publications


on the TMSS. For example, Ebert (2003, 48) positions the TMSS in
the context of Soviet culture and argues that (Soviet) semiotics is not
an objective scientific method but its themes and its focus are con-

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fined within the boundaries of the semiosphere “Soviet Culture” as
an anticulture that undermines the monopoly of the ideological cul-
ture. In a somewhat similar vein, Schönle and Shine (2006, 27) also
emphasize the political background of Lotman’s work, which “rests
on an ethical imperative of moral resistance to the Soviet regime
despite outward tactical accommodation with it.”
Some former members of the TMSS accentuate the sociopoliti-
cal context of the school as well. Among these recollections, Boris
Gasparov’s reflections may be singled out: Gasparov (1998) main-
tains that the peculiarity of the school is determined by the social
and psychological climate of the epoch and characterizes the TMSS
as a hermetic community of scholars with its esoteric academic jar-
gon, elaborated as a measure to alienate itself from the mainstream in
an atmosphere of “pure” academic communication. The hermetism
of the TMSS, argues Gasparov, was intrinsically connected with its
utopianism, manifested in the totality of analytic thinking, in the
pursuit of absolute synthesis, and in its “dialectical dualism,” a view
of the world in polarized binary oppositions.
Gasparov obviously touched upon a very sensitive subject—the
ontological status of the school and its members—and his reflec-
tions provoked a wave of responses of other TMSS members (see
Nekliudov 1998). Quite expectedly, they were also very different.
For example, regarding the “esoteric jargon” of the school, Iurii
Levin (1998, 82) asserted that the “gobbledygook” language ( ptichii
iazyk) of the TMSS publications was a necessary camouflage to fool
the censor, but Chernov (1998, 91) argued that, on the contrary, the
scientific idiom of the TMSS was not a mere means of disguise.
The same diversity of opinions is manifested in the discussion of
the school’s integrity. Practically everyone related to the TMSS is
unanimous in stating that the school was a very heterogeneous com-
munity of scholars, not united by some “common doctrine” or one
method, but there are differing opinions as to whether this is a posi-
tive or a negative trait. One of the leaders of the TMSS, Viacheslav
Ivanov (1999, 248), seems to concur with Gasparov when he argues
that the unity of TMSS was maintained only by its opposition to

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20 ● The Texture of Culture

“the official pseudo-science.” Ivanov recalls how Roman Jakobson


did not react to Lotman’s request to sign “Theses on the Semiotic
Study of Cultures” (Lotman et al. 1975), the principles of the study
of culture texts compiled by Lotman, Uspenskii, Ivanov, Toporov,

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and Piatigorskii that was considered to be a manifesto of the
TMSS. Ivanov states that he does not consider this manifesto suc-
cessful because different approaches to semiotics are united “rather
superficially.”
Many other members of the school express the opposite opinion
about the integrity of the school: Sergei Serebrianyi (1998, 129–30)
states that “the Tartu phenomenon” was much more than a school;
it was an attempt to create a free academic environment in which
scholars with very different interests could communicate. Peeter
Torop (1995) maintains that the TMSS is not characterized by a
universal methodological doctrine, or a unified metalanguage, or
a canonized range of methods but is rather a special type of “semi-
otizing thinking,” of structural and systemic perception. Finally,
Lotman (1998) himself in his response to Gasparov states that the
diversity of the school is the unifying factor that has made the TMSS
a viable organism. Lotman sees the value of the school in that it
both united the scholars and also preserved their individuality: the
continuous discussions and disputes between the participants only
strengthened their individual thinking. Furthermore, the hermetism
of the TMSS, its distancing from the outer world, was precondi-
tioned by the orientation of the members toward scientific methods
and not by their self-centeredness; another factor that united such
different scholars was their “unconditional scientific honesty.” It is
worth noting that even in this (self-)description, one of the main
postulates of Lotman’s theory is evident: diversity as a condition of
dynamic development.
As one can see, the crux of the discussion about the status of the
TMSS boils down to the question of whether the school must be
viewed as an artifact of its time, predetermined by its sociopolitical
context, or it has an academic value of its own. In the first view,
Soviet semiotics is just a facade, a form of mimicry of intellectuals
under suppressive conditions. Apart from the fact that this view is
very reductive and one-sided, it commits the fallacy against which
Lotman many times warned in his works: the retrospective view
can easily reduce a very complex phenomenon to a predictable one,

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Contexts ● 21

predetermined by its own “habitat.” These questions are directly


applicable to Lotman’s legacy as well. The described contexts form
an important background of Lotman’s work, and in the course of
this book, I am going to specifically mention when they become

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actualized. However, as this study attempts to show, Lotman’s work
can be presented as a viable theory that is not reducible to the phe-
nomenon of the TMSS, the epoch of the 1960–70s, or a Soviet con-
text in general.

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CHAPTER 2

Culture as System

The Concept of System


Culture is first and foremost a semiotic system. One of the earlier
definitions of a semiotic system can be found in Lotman’s 1967 article
in which he defines a (modeling) system as a “structure of elements
and of rules for combining them that is in a state of fixed analogy to
the entire sphere of an object of knowledge, insight and regulation”
(Lotman 2000a, 387; translated in Lucid 1977, 7). This definition
may seem rather hermetic, but it points out the main features of a
system: it is a structure of discernable elements with certain func-
tions. Structure in its turn is a set of elements organized in a certain
hierarchy (note that this word is used in a purely pragmatic sense
without any axiological connotations) and with certain purpose,
which makes this system distinct and different from other systems
and nonsystems. The crucial point is that a system is a construction
(“fixed analogy”), a methodological (and even cognitive) tool that is
applied in the analysis.
It is important to keep this definition in mind because Soviet
semioticians and structuralists in general have often been criticized
that in their writings it is not always possible to distinguish whether
the term “system” is used as a working concept for description of
certain phenomena or as an ontological category, when some specific
“laws” of the system are “discovered” as an objective fact. In this
book, I stick to the understanding of (semiotic) system as first and
foremost an abstraction, a methodological construct that is used to
describe the products of thinking activity of man such as language,
literature, cinema, art, or culture in terms of periods, different and

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24 ● The Texture of Culture

opposing tendencies, and other parameters as well as to analyze how


we use and interact through them. Culture, language, or any other
semiotic system can therefore be best compared with an interface or
an operating system: they do not exist “on their own” but, on the

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contrary, entirely depend on their users who use, develop, change, or
completely abandon them if necessary. The peculiarity of language
and culture as a whole is that from an early age we absorb them as
an indivisible part of our lives and rarely question how they oper-
ate, which becomes the focus of the majority of Lotman’s semiotic
works.

Communication and Generation of Meaning


The first feature of culture as system is that it serves as a means of
communication between people. There are numerous ways to com-
municate in culture, and it is described by Lotman as a complex
semiotic whole that in turn consists of a number of semiotic sys-
tems. In a broad definition, any system that facilitates “communica-
tion between two or more individuals may be defined as language”
(Lotman 1977d, 7), so art is a kind of language that can be in turn
divided into such sublanguages as literature, cinema, fine arts, and
so on. But what are peculiarities of the communication process in
art and culture as a whole? In order to answer this question, let us
first turn to the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, one of the
fathers of semiotics, and to the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson,
the founder of the Prague school of linguistics and an important
figure for the Tartu-Moscow semioticians.
Saussure’s (1966, 11) scheme in Course in General Linguistics
depicts an ideal process of individual communication in natural

Figure 2.1 Saussure’s speech circuit (adapted from Saussure 1966, 11).

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Culture as System ● 25

language between the speaker and the hearer in which “mental facts
(concepts) are associated with representations of the linguistic sounds
(sound-images) that are used for their expression.”
There is, therefore, a direct correlation between the concept

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and the sound-image. The communication act is depicted as a very
smooth connection unimpaired by possible “noise.” It should be
noted, however, that Saussure emphasizes the physiological processes
of phonation and audition, that is, the physical act of transmission
of sound-images from one person to another and the subsequent psy-
chological association of the image with the concept in the hearer’s
brain (ibid., 12). His main focus is not on differences in individual
speech acts but on the existence of some common denominator in
the act of communication:

Among all the individuals that are linked together by speech, some
sort of average will be set up: all will reproduce—not exactly of
course, but approximately—the same signs united with the same
concepts. (ibid., 13)

The latter statement may seem trivial, but what Saussure points out
here is that all differences notwithstanding, we are able to commu-
nicate with one another exactly because we use “approximately the
same signs” and their combinations.
Saussure introduces the dichotomy of langue and parole, the former
being the homogeneous system of signs and the latter the concrete
messages that are produced on the basis of this system (ibid., 15).
In the final analysis, the communication between individuals is pos-
sible because all individual messages are constructed upon one and
the same system of language.
Another widely known scheme of communication is authored by
Roman Jakobson (1960, 353), who introduces six main parameters

CONTEXT
message

addresser addressee
contact
CODE

Figure 2.2 Speech act by Roman Jakobson.

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26 ● The Texture of Culture

of communication that correspond to six functions of language.


Jakobson describes these functions as referential (orientation toward
the referent, the context), emotive (expressing the a ddresser’s attitude),
conative (influencing the addressee, mostly through the vocative and

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imperative case), phatic (establishing and maintaining communica-
tion or contact), metalingual (conveying information about the code),
and poetic (focus on the message for its own sake).
We might notice that instead of langue, Jakobson uses code and
instead of parole, message. But even in this scheme, there is only one
code that is shared (fully or at least partially, as Jakobson notices)
by the sender and the recipient and only one message that is struc-
tured by the code and is transferred within it. Jakobson also follows
Saussure, defining contact as “a physical channel and psychological
connection between the addresser and the addressee” (ibid., 353).
Lotman argues that this scheme, although important, is not
quite applicable in the field of culture. In his view, the focus must
be on the text , the main vehicle of communication and the cen-
ter of semiotic activity. Lotman quotes a conventional scheme of
message transfer—and shows that this diagram presents only an
ideal situation of information transfer and in reality accents only
one function of the text: to adequately transfer information. If we
consider this function to be the only one, in this case the text can
be compared with a sort of box where the meaning is hidden. The
addressee receives the parcel, opens it, and extracts meaning with-
out any modifications or transformations, and the box does not even
get damaged in the mail. This is certainly an ideal (if not utopian)
scheme, and as Lotman argues, it may be applied only to certain

thought (content of the message) thought (content of the message)

the encoding mechanism of the decoding mechanism of


language language

the text

Figure 2.3 From thought to thought (adapted from Lotman 1990, 11).

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Culture as System ● 27

artificial semiotic systems that are especially designed to transfer


messages with minimal distortion of information. In culture, any
transfer of information is always a translation :

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The act of exchanging information ceases to be a passive transfer of
a message that is adequate unto itself from one bloc of memory to
another and becomes a translation, in the course of which the mes-
sage is transformed and the striving for adequacy enters into dramatic
conflict with the impossibility of its complete realization. The act of
communication begins to include the aspect of tension within itself.
(Lotman 1977a, 97–98)

Interestingly enough, a hallmark feature of a majority of artificial


systems is that they are not able to produce new messages. Lotman
defines a new message again through the concept of translation,
accentuating the dialogic character of communication:

If the translation of text T1 from language L1 to language L 2 leads to


the appearance of text T 2 in such a way that the operation of a reverse
translation results in the input text T1, then we do not consider text
T 2 to be new in relation to text T1. (Lotman 1990, 13–14)

In other words, semiotic systems that exclude inner synonymy, in


which texts are limited to only one interpretation, will be considered
the systems that are not able to produce new messages. Note that
Lotman uses the term translation in a broad sense; it is not limited to
translation from one language to another and signifies any situation
of text transfer between the semiotic codes that are not equivalent
to one another.

Text 1 Text 2
(Language 1) (Language 2)

Figure 2.4 The reverse translation.

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28 ● The Texture of Culture

This can be illustrated by an example of the system of traffic


signs as an artificial semiotic system that is designed for a very spe-
cific purpose and is used in many countries (with some local varia-
tions but nonetheless based on the same principle). This semiotic

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system has quite a limited vocabulary and a very simple syntax (the
combinations of signs) because its goal is to eliminate ambivalence
in interpretation of messages. Once you learn the traffic signs, you
already know all possible messages that can be created by this system.
In that sense, all the messages of the system are “old.” If I invent
some new sign and put it on the road, it can be perceived as an odd
or even a nonmeaningful message (and I will most likely get a fine
for sabotaging the normal communication flow of the system). If we
try an experiment with the reverse translation, as Lotman suggests,
the Swedish road sign (figure 2.5) may be translated into English
as “your speed on this road should not exceed 30 km/h,” and if we
translate this phrase back into “the Swedish road sign language,” it
will still be the same sign. In the same fashion, in the language of
traffic signs only a limited amount of messages can be created; it is
simply impossible to say, for example, “How are you?” This seems
to prove the point that this communicative system is not able to
produce new messages. Indeed, in order to introduce a new sign, the
transport authorities use other languages to convey this information
to the users of the system.
If we communicate in the language of traffic signs, misinterpre-
tation is practically excluded and the texts quite successfully serve
the function of conveying the information as precisely as possible.
In natural languages and especially in art, the situation is radically

Figure 2.5 The Swedish speed limit sign.

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Culture as System ● 29

different: we are able to produce an unlimited number of new mes-


sages that can be interpreted in different ways. If we translate even
a simple English phrase into Russian and then back to English, the
result may vary, sometimes significantly. One should not be deceived

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by machine translation programs, such as PROMPT or Google
Translate, because these programs try to algorithmize the transla-
tion process, treating natural languages as if they were artificial.
For such a machine, synonymy and polysemy are factors that only
contribute to errors. In reality, even if both participants of the com-
munication act share one language, there are too many factors influ-
encing the communication act, which leads to the nonequivalence
of the codes of the addresser and the addressee: their linguistic and
cultural experience, competence, norms, pragmatics, and memory
make the equivalence between them quite relative. And if we try to
make a film based on a book, that is, to translate the book into the
film language and then to write a new book based on this film, it is
most unlikely that we will get two identical books as a result. Hence
the first crucial feature of the communication act is the principle of
asymmetry:

Instead of a precise correspondence there is one of the possible


interpretations, instead of a symmetrical transformation there is an
asymmetrical one, instead of identity between the elements which
compose T1 and T 2 there is a conventional equivalence between
them. (Lotman 1990, 14)

T2´

C1

C2 T2´´
T1

n
C
n
T2

Figure 2.6 The creative function of text (adapted from Lotman 1990, 15).

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30 ● The Texture of Culture

Lotman’s scheme of communication act presupposes the initial


nonidentity of the addresser and the addressee. Lotman expresses
a paradoxical idea that not only understanding but also misun-
derstanding (or rather nonunderstanding, noncomprehension) is a

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necessary condition for communication: “A text that is absolutely
comprehensible is at the same time a text that is absolutely useless”
(Lotman 1990, 80). Furthermore,

if we assume an addresser and an addressee possessing identical codes


and fully devoid of memory, then the understanding between them
will be ideal, but the value of the transferred information will be
minimal and the information itself—severely limited. Such a system
cannot fulfil all the multivariate functions that are historically attrib-
uted to language. You could say that, ideally, an identical addresser
and addressee would understand each other very well, but they would
not be able to talk about anything. (Lotman 2009, 4)

The essential difference between Lotman’s model and other dia-


grams of communication is that there is not just a single code serv-
ing as a channel of communication but multiple overlapping codes
that produce a number of new texts. That is how the text both
transmits messages and serves as a generator of new ones (Lotman
1990, 13). In other words, Lotman, unlike Saussure and Jakobson,
focuses not on similarities but on differences in communication
because only difference can create meaning. Note that the scheme
emphasizes the fact that we always receive not one but several
texts at the same time and, more importantly, that we can choose
between interpretations and may consider several interpretations
to be viable.
The concept of meaning-generation lies at the core of Lotman’s
theory and constitutes the creative function of the text. The cre-
ative function becomes primary in the context of art and culture
and is intrinsically linked with the text’s polyglotism. The idea of
the polyglot nature of the text is often repeated in Lotman’s works
and appears as early as 1970: “The text belongs to two (or several)
languages simultaneously ” (Lotman 1977d, 298). Lotman asserts that
human consciousness is heterogeneous, and “within one conscious-
ness there are as it were two consciousnesses,” one perceiving the
world as a discrete system of coding and another as a continuous
system. The basic unit of the former system is sign, and of the latter

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Culture as System ● 31

it is the text (Lotman 1990, 36). The thesis that the discrete and
continuous languages represent the minimal pair of languages is one
of the most oft-repeated in Lotman’s theory. For example, the mini-
mal act of elaborating a new message is

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a result of the mutual tension between such mutually untranslatable
and at the same time mutually interprojected languages as the conven-
tional (discrete, verbal) and the iconic (continuous, spatial). . . . Iconic
(spatial, non-discrete) texts and verbal (discrete, linear) ones are
mutually untranslatable, and cannot in principle express “one and the
same” content. At the points where they confront each other there is
an increase in indeterminacy and this creates a reserve for more infor-
mation. (ibid., 3, 77)

It is important to keep in mind that the division into iconic and con-
ventional languages is just one of the possible cases and represents the
ultimate pair of mutually untranslatable languages. The most obvi-
ous example is the cinematographic text that may incorporate verbal
and visual signs; it is also simultaneously nondiscrete, perceived in
its totality as a text, and discrete—composed of divisible elements,
or shots (Lotman 1976b, 62). There are other possible “fusions” of
codes: for example, the introduction of “theatricality” in the picto-
rial art, cinematographic “idiomatics” in a verbal text, and so on. It
is therefore practically impossible to speak of purely monolingual
texts, especially artistic ones.
Let us reiterate that Lotman defines language very broadly, as
a specific way of decoding a message, which extends from natural
languages to codes, genres, jargons, and even idiomatic contexts—
for example, “the languages of science.” All these codes are engaged
every time we try to produce or decode a meaningful message,
providing a multiplicity of meanings. In Lotman’s account, it con-
cerns not only artistic systems but natural language as well; Lotman
(1990, 18) states that “the entire sphere of language belongs to art,”
referring to Roman Jakobson’s and Aleksandr Potebnia’s contention
that the artistic component is inherent in natural language.
Here we come to another paradox: it seems that in culture the
text transfer is effectuated not in the easiest but in the most difficult
way. How can such a system be sustainable? For all we know, it seems
to be quite stable, but does not that contradict the very principle of
communication, the correct transfer of information?

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32 ● The Texture of Culture

Information and Entropy


The concepts of information and communication, as we remember,
are historically and terminologically linked with cybernetics and

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information theory. However, there is an essential difference in how
these terms are interpreted: information theory focuses on math-
ematical laws of transmission and processing of information and
on channels of transmission of information, whereas the semiotic
approach is concerned with meaning production (see Danesi and
Perron 1999, 49–52).
Cybernetics, which may be regarded as the twin sister of infor-
mation theory, was intended to be a science of management and
governance; one of its tasks was the construction of predictable
(that is, computable) models. Two concepts are important in this
regard: redundancy (predictability that is structured in a message)
and entropy (unpredictability in the content or form of a message).
Both terms are used to describe the information load of a message.
In order to decode a message successfully, a certain degree of redun-
dancy is necessary; otherwise entropy will be so high that the mes-
sage will be almost unintelligible (O’Sullivan et al. 1994, 106, 259).
Entropy is therefore considered to be a factor that hinders informa-
tion exchange.
Lotman outlines two basic functions of the text: communicative
(transfer of information) and creative (generation of new informa-
tion). In terms of information theory, the creative function of the
text is by all means entropic: it seems to obstruct the communica-
tive one because it increases the text’s unpredictability and ambigu-
ity. Lotman, however, shows that in art and culture unpredictability
is the intrinsic function of the system, and entropy (“noise” that
accompanies the message) is a necessary condition for meaning-
generation.
As an example, Lotman cites the prominent Soviet mathematician
Andrei Kolmogorov, who has introduced the formula of language
entropy or “information volume” (H) of any language: H = h1 + h 2.
The semantic capacity of language, or the ability to transfer meaningful
information in a text, is represented by h1, and h 2 is the language flex-
ibility or synonymy, a possibility to transfer the same content by several
means. Kolmogorov states that the machine and the human generate
information in an essentially different way because the machine can
produce only algorithm-based texts; in other words, “it cannot write

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Culture as System ● 33

poetry.” In artificial languages, in which language flexibility tends to


or equals zero, poetic creation is impossible (Lotman 1977d, 26–31).
Elsewhere, Lotman refers to experiments in which informants
are asked to guess the development of different types of texts.

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Statistically, poems appeared to be much more unpredictable than
newspaper articles, even though rhyme and meter usually facilitate
prompting. This is hardly surprising: an article is more predictable
than a poem because of its rigid and formalized structure, especially
if this article is a leading article in a Soviet newspaper reporting
politically important events; such an article almost entirely con-
sists of standard clichés, which makes the text very redundant. The
unpredictability of the creative text is greater because artists are
much freer in their choice. Furthermore, as Lotman described his
own experiments, poems intuitively perceived as good were guessed
with greater difficulty than those that were regarded as bad (Lotman
1976a, 32–33, 282). This suggests that the value of the text is directly
linked with its unpredictability: originality should be valued more
than triviality. In one of his earlier works, Lotman straightforwardly
speaks about the quality of the artistic text in terms of information
load (Lotman 1964, 187, translated in Shukman 1977, 44):

The information load of the literary text is considerably higher than


that of the normal text and the redundancy at the level of literary
communication tends to zero, although it is preserved at the level of
language. When we learn how to measure precisely this redundancy
we shall receive an objective criterion of artistic merit.

The statement that it could be possible to measure artistic merit


objectively is an example par excellence of the early scientism of the
TMSS, an attempt to directly apply information theory to literary
texts. In his later works, Lotman’s opinion becomes more weighted,
and he maintains that the correlation of the magnitude of infor-
mation (which influences the factor of predictability) and the text’s
value is not at all linear, giving the following example:

If I discover that an event will take place which could happen, not
in one or two but in ten different ways, the informativeness of the
message increases sharply. But this may still not determine the value
of the information. In a fine restaurant I select one of ten entrées.
Answering the question “life or death?” I select one of two. In the first

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34 ● The Texture of Culture

case I obtain much more information in binary quantities, but in the


second the information has much greater value. (Lotman 1976b, 76)

Strictly speaking, Lotman does not speak of artistic texts here, but

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one understands the point he is trying to make. For example, the
value of today’s TV report (or of a manual to a camcorder, or of
a recipe, or of a dissertation) depends exactly on the information
that we might learn from these texts. So if we do not receive any
new information, we will consider these texts useless. However, if
we want to measure the informativeness of the artistic text, the main
criterion would rather be the number of possible alternative messages
(meanings) that the text can generate. That is how the artistic text—
a novel or a poem, for instance—appears to be virtually condensed
with meanings:

When an artistic text simultaneously enters into many intersecting


extra-textual structures and each element of the text enters into many
segments of the intra-textual structure, the artistic work becomes the
carrier of meanings whose correlations are extraordinary complex.
(Lotman 1977d, 300)

However, the value of an artistic text is not directly proportional to


its information load or unpredictability. We have already mentioned
that a text that is absolutely predictable is a text that is absolutely
useless. Yet the opposite statement is true as well: a text that is
absolutely unpredictable loses its value proportionally; it is on the
brim of losing its textuality and risks being altogether rejected as a
text. The recipient can consider it to be too marginal or even not
recognize it as a text at all. On the general scale, the artistic text
is much more unpredictable than the nonartistic one, but in some
artistic texts predictability may be highly valued (for example in
myth; see farther on). All in all, there are no “mathematical” criteria
for textual value, and unpredictability is just one of the factors that
may inf luence it.

Art as Modeling System


Among semiotic systems, art no doubt takes an outstanding posi-
tion. In a popular view, art is often synonymous with culture itself,
as though all other expressions of human activity are not “cultural.”

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Culture as System ● 35

Moreover, art is a universal feature of all cultures, but its main


function is not quite obvious. This problem becomes central in
Lotman’s first semiotic work, Lectures on Structural Poetics (1964),
published as the first volume of TZS . The two following books, The

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Structure of the Artistic Text (1970) and Analysis of the Poetic Text
(1972), are the revised and extended versions of Lectures . All three
books are closely connected with one another, and their method-
ological premises are almost identical ( Analysis focuses more spe-
cifically on poetry).
In these books, Lotman starts with an old philosophical ques-
tion of the relationship between art and life and postulates that art
is a cognitive tool. The relation of art to life is that of similarity
and analogy, not of identity, sameness; art perceives life not analyti-
cally but by re-creating reality by its own means. Hence the essential
duality of the work of art: it is simultaneously part of material reality
and a metaobject. That is how art becomes a modeling system:

The artistic message creates an artistic model of some concrete phe-


nomenon; artistic message models the universe in its most general
categories. . . . Thus the study of the artistic language of works of art
provides us not only with a certain individual norm of aesthetic com-
munication, but also reproduces a model of the universe in its most
general outlines. (Lotman 1977d, 18, 250–51)1

Modeling is the key property of semiosis and lies at the core of any
semiotic system. The language of art re-creates a general picture of
the world (cf. with the notion of invariant text in chapter 3). In
doing so, art adds an additional layer of signification to any system:
“As ballet turns movement into its representation, the artistic speech
turns the word into its image” (Lotman 2010, 102). Returning to
the question of entropy in communication, the modeling property
of art is manifested in its capacity to transform “noise” into infor-
mation, producing multivalent messages or texts. In nonartistic sys-
tems, where the transfer of information is of primary importance,
noise constitutes an entropic force that interferes with the trans-
ferred information, diminishes it, and can finally destroy it. But in
art, “noise” is involved in the sphere of structural relations and all
“abnormalities” in art take on a structural meaning; that is, new
structural elements do not cancel or “erase” old meanings but enter
in semantic relations with them: “In a work of art deviations from the

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36 ● The Texture of Culture

structural organization can be as meaningful as the realization of


the latter” (Lotman 1976a, 120). For example, a statue tossed in the
grass creates a new relation between the marble and the grass, which
gives rise to a new meaning (Lotman 1977d, 75).

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Other functions of art can be summarized as follows: The new
reality created by art is characterized by a much greater freedom
(Lotman 2010, 166). Art makes possible that which is forbidden and
that which is impossible, but in order to perceive it as such, art has
to be looked upon from the point of view of life, in other words, art
has to be perceived as art (Lotman 2009, 150). On the one hand, the
most common critique of an artistic text is, as we all know, that it
“has nothing to do with life,” that the depicted events and charac-
ters are not “real.” On the other hand, all “violations” or the usual
order of things in the artistic text, all imposed conventions, and the
existence of the artistic universe itself are quite easily accepted by
the readers. This creates a certain tension between these two modes
that reciprocally influence each other: “Unpredictability in art is
simultaneously a cause and a consequence of unpredictability in life”
(ibid., 77).
Art thus “enlarges the space of the unpredictable—the space
of information—and simultaneously creates a conventional world
experimenting with this space and proclaiming mastery over it”
(ibid., 122). It is therefore quite common when a concrete text is
taken for the picture of the world; in other words, an imperfect
(incomplete) analogy can be easily taken for a perfect analogy ( Anna
Karenina is a novel about Anna Karenina, but at the same time it
is about adultery as such). This means that the artistic text has the
potential of being an invariant set, realizing itself in a plurality of
possibilities. Furthermore, here is the essential difference between
art and science: the scientific truth exists in one semantic field, but
the artistic truth exists in several fields at the same time (Lotman
1977d, 249).
One of the most important features of art is that it is a self-
sufficient system. The sustainability of art makes it a universal
language, “a universal tool for expression of other systems.” This
statement is not just a reflection of the universalistic ethos of Soviet
semiotics; Lotman states that art, as part of any culture, is capable to
convey the generalized content, bringing together “different spheres
of the artistic information” (Lotman 2010, 100–101). In that sense,

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Culture as System ● 37

art may indeed be considered a universal modeling mechanism typi-


cal of all cultures of the world.

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What Kind of System?
The notion of secondary modeling systems is one of the “trade-
marks” of the TMSS and at the same time probably the most con-
troversial concept in semiotics. Sebeok (1988, 67) argues that the
fundamental distinction between primary and secondary modeling
systems was first introduced by Andrei Zalizniak, Viacheslav Ivanov,
and Vladimir Toporov in their seminal 1962 article “Structural-
Typological Study of Semiotic Modeling Systems” (Zaliznjak,
Ivanov, and Toporov 1977). This work, however, did not use the
terms in question and introduced a typology of sign systems accord-
ing to the degree of abstraction and modeling capacity.
One of the first definitions of the term secondary modeling system
appeared in the editorial of the TZS 2 (published in 1967 after the
first summer school). Secondary modeling systems (such as myth,
folklore, ritual, literature, and fine arts) are formulated as those
that are built upon natural language (primary system) and acquire
supplementary secondary structure of a special type. Therefore, the
secondary systems are somehow related to the language structure,
and this relation has to be determined (Lotman et al. 1965, 6).
In a number of programmatic texts of the TMSS, similar defini-
tions appear: “Systems that have a natural language as their basis
and that acquire supplementary superstructures, thus creating lan-
guages of a second level, can appropriately be called secondary mod-
eling systems” (Lotman 2000a, 387, translated in Lucid 1977, 7). 2
In a 1973 article written by Lotman in collaboration with Ivanov,
Uspenskii, Toporov, and Piatigorskii (Lotman et al. 1975), second-
ary modeling systems are defined as those that help us construct
world models: “These systems are secondary to the primary natural
language upon which they are built—either directly (as the super-
linguistic system of literature) or as a parallel form, music or fine
arts” (Lotman 2000b, 520).3 An apparent contradiction here is that
if music and fine arts are parallel forms, how can they be built upon
natural language?
In other words, if all semiotic systems are constructed upon
natural language, linguistics becomes a universal metalanguage

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38 ● The Texture of Culture

of science. This postulate is probably the biggest fallacy in the


history of semiotics that has haunted semioticians for many years.
It is important to mention, however, that later Lotman and some
of his colleagues rejected this idea. Already in his 1970 book

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Papers on the Typology of Culture , Lotman seemingly confirms the
assumption that culture is built upon natural language and thus
is a secondary system. But a few lines later, he states that culture
can be regarded as monolingual only on a very abstract level, and
in reality any culture is multilingual and its users are polyglot
(Lotman 2000b, 396–97). In 1971, Lotman and Uspenskii directly
question the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Benveniste’s contention
that language determines one’s culture (and therefore conscious-
ness) and argue that languages are inseparable from culture, thus
approaching the concept of pluralistic semiosphere (Lotman and
Uspensky 1978, 212).
Furthermore, in a 1974 article, Lotman discusses whether the
secondary systems are indeed inferior or at least chronologically
“younger” than the primary system of language and argues that
it is impossible to establish any periods in human history without
secondary systems (Lotman 1977a, 95). In a paradoxical manner,
Lotman concludes that from one perspective poetic language (a sec-
ondary structure) is a particular case of natural language (a primary
structure), but from another perspective, natural language can be
considered a particular case of poetic language.4 In the system of
culture, both types of language are in a state of mutual tension, so
the difference is in the functional direction of the translation act:
what is translated into what (98). Later, when the concept of semio-
sphere enters the theory, the question of primacy of some type of
language will be considered irrelevant and the taxonomy of primary
and secondary modeling systems will cease to be topical.
To conclude this discussion, the term secondary modeling system is
problematic and produces more questions than answers. First of all,
it is linguocentric, and second, as some participants of the school
have argued, it was created in 1964 as a euphemism for the word
“semiotics,” which was in disfavor with academic officials (Chernov
1988, 11–12; Egorov 1999, 119). Apart from that, as we return to
this question in chapter 5, natural language itself may be regarded as
a secondary not primary modeling system.

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Culture as System ● 39

The Dialogic Principle and Autocommunication


It is noticeable that Lotman never describes cultural phenomena
in isolation, be it the polyglot text or the system of culture itself.

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Lotman accentuates the principle of dialogism, the assumption of
continuous interaction of semiotic systems and texts with each other.
The principle of dialogism brings to focus such concepts as auto-
communication, myth, and translation.
The word “dialogue” has a Greek origin (διάλογος), from the
verb διαλέγεσθαι, “to converse.” In the majority of modern dic-
tionaries, dialogue is defined as “a conversation between two or
more participants” and is often opposed to monologue, as a speech
of one speaker only. But isn’t communication with oneself essentially
dialogical as well? The communication act is usually described as
“the I-s/he system” where the message is transmitted between two
different physical entities, the addresser and the addressee. The com-
munication in which a person addresses him/herself (“the I-I sys-
tem”) is not usually problematized, but Lotman insists that it lies
at the core of all communication in culture. The function of the I-I
system is not only mnemonic—in that case it is similar to the I-s/he
system, and one individual functions as two, transmitting a message
in time (Lotman 1977d, 7)—but meaning-generating and is quite
common in everyday communication. In the I-I system, it is not the
message but the code and the context that change, and the message,
which is already “received” by the addressee, acquires new meaning
through reinterpretation. Quite simply, what Lotman argues here
is that any communication is essentially dialogic, be it with other
people or with oneself.
A trivial example is our favorite texts—books, films, paintings,
music, and so forth—to which we turn several times during our
lifetime and which provoke a high degree of autocommunication.
It is hard, if not impossible, to rationally explain why we read the
same book or watch the same film over and over again, at some
point knowing it almost by heart, unless we look at every individual
as a certain cultural entity, a “miniculture” (more on that topic in
c hapters 4 and 5). Favorite texts constitute the essence of our cul-
tural self, and autocommunication serves as its homeostatic mecha-
nism, one of the functions of which is to transform the self “into
something desirable” (Lotman 1988, 120). In the final analysis, in

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40 ● The Texture of Culture

order to keep this miniculture in balance, we need texts, and it is


exclusively through texts that we are able to maintain our beliefs, to
understand and reflect on our position in this world.

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Myth
The concept of autocommunication is closely linked with the notion
of myth. Myth as a special type of texts that is not limited to folklore
tales and fables has been extensively studied by many structuralists
and semioticians, including Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes,
and Soviet semioticians. The common point of these studies is that
myth does not belong exclusively to the past and archaic cultures but
constitutes an intrinsic part of modern culture as well.
Is there any difference between a note and a knot ? This question
may seem strange at first glance, but Lotman uses this example to
illustrate his point of two different types of text that require opposite
techniques of reading: in the case of a written note, the message is
contained within it and may be extracted, whereas a knot tied on a
handkerchief (or a string tied around the finger or a cross drawn on
the palm) performs only a mnemonic function—it refers to some
message that the reader already knows. The point Lotman is making
by this simple example is that some texts in culture function not as
a source of information but as a catalyst of memory that provokes
autocommunication (Lotman 2000a, 438, 440).
Mythological texts are by definition autocommunicative. They
can be compared with music by their effect on the recipient: myths
do not convey some decodable message but rather make us listen to
ourselves. Myths are designed to organize the world of the listener
and thus are closely connected with the personal semiotic space:
“Myth always says something about me” (Lotman 1990, 153). Apart
from that, mythological texts serve an important social function,
which is to preserve the model of the universe, a certain worldview.
In structuralist works, this function of myth has often been empha-
sized: Roland Barthes (1972) notably studies modern myths as vehi-
cles for perpetuating ideological schemes and exercising power.
Myths are located at the center of culture and are not limited to
the folktales. Any text may in principle serve the mythological func-
tion if it is interpreted as a model of reality. Lotman (1990, 30–31)
gives an example from Alexander Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin , in

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Culture as System ● 41

which Tatiana reads romantic novels and turns them into a model
for interpreting reality (in Universe of the Mind , Charles Johnston’s
translation is used; I offer a newer translation by James E. Falen):

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And then her warm imagination
Perceives herself as heroïne —
Some favorite author’s fond creation:
Clarissa, Julia, or Delphine.
She wanders with her borrowed lovers
Through silent woods and so discovers
Within a book her heart’s extremes,
Her secret passions, and her dreams.
(Chapter 3, X; Falen 1998, 61)

Because myths reflect a particular worldview, they also represent a


specific type of consciousness. In the article “Myth—Name—Culture”
(originally published in 1973), Lotman and Uspenskii describe the
structure of the mythological consciousness as opposed to the descrip-
tive, “historical,” nonmythological consciousness. If the latter requires
at least a pair of differently structured languages, the former is mono-
linguistic. Lotman notices that in the ritualized art any message is
quite strictly delimited: if in Russian or any other language it is possi-
ble to speak about anything, in the language of folktale it is possible to
speak only about certain things (Lotman 2000a, 438). Here Lotman
refers to the works of Vladimir Propp (1968, 1984)—especially his
Morphology of the Folktale (first published in 1928)—who demon-
strated that a majority of folktales were based on a certain invariant
structure that allowed for only a certain degree of variation, thus pre-
senting a very restricted model of the world.
Furthermore, the level of metadescription is peculiar only to the
polyglot nonmythological consciousness, whereas the mythological
consciousness lacks the metalevel in principle. It is because under-
standing in the first case is linked with translation in the broad-
est sense of the word (“Understanding is always a translation of an
unknown object into the language of familiar concepts,” Lotman
2010, 166) and in the second, with recognition and identification.
Formally, in myth no new messages are possible: the message can
only be recognized, not learned. It is worth noting that general sys-
tem theory singles out two similar approaches to cognition: the ana-
lytic approach provides an understanding by examining the parts of

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42 ● The Texture of Culture

an object (i.e., acquisition of knowledge), and the holistic approach


is based on “grasping the whole” (i.e., recognition of knowledge)
(Rapoport 1986, 1–2).
In the world as represented through the eyes of mythological con-

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sciousness, the objects are 1) of the same rank; 2) integral, indivisible
into traits; and 3) unique, that is, not categorized. If for the nonmy-
thological consciousness some objects can be classified as belonging
to one class, for the mythological consciousness these objects will be
considered one and the same object. The mythological consciousness
does not allow for any logical hierarchy of objects, it perceives any
object as unique. Therefore, for this type of consciousness, the sign is
equivalent to a proper name. Myth constitutes an archaic layer of our
consciousness not only in historical but in ontogenetic perspective:
children’s consciousness is typically mythological because a child’s
world consists solely of proper names and knowledge is identified
with the process of naming (Lotman and Uspenskij 1977, 236–37;
Lotman 2009, 32; cf. Ivanov 1976a, 35–37). As a consequence, names
are essentially mythological, and no wonder that they have been and
still are surrounded by numerous conventions, prohibitions, and ritu-
als regarding naming and calling.
The clear border between these types of consciousness (mytholog-
ical versus logical, descriptive) is of course imaginary, and as always
with binary oppositions of the TMSS, these types must be regarded
as the poles of one axis, with uncountable intermediate variants. If
we metaphorically compare culture with a cloth texture, these two
types are the two sides of the same fabric, the mythological layer of
culture being its “wrong” side.
Apart from that, Lotman and Uspenskij (1977, 236) point out the
ontological essence of proper names in the mythological identifica-
tion of the name with the named and of the sign with its referent
(and vice versa). In one of Juliet’s monologues, Shakespeare memo-
rably united this problem with the problem of the arbitrariness of
the sign. Juliet’s soliloquy is usually remembered for its two lines:
“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose / By any other name
would smell as sweet.” Yet Juliet’s lament is in fact much deeper and
concerns the bigger problem of the sign-object relationship:

’Tis but thy name that is my enemy;


Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,

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Culture as System ● 43

Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part


Belonging to a man. O! be some other name:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

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So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.
(2.2.42–53)

In semiotic terms, Juliet states that the (verbal) sign is purely arbi-
trary and questions the logic by which her beloved Romeo turns out
to be her enemy. The tragic subtext of the situation is that Juliet
most likely understands that in their world it is impossible to “doff ”
one’s name. Romeo and his name are completely identified with each
other, and not only that, Romeo happens to be a bearer of the sign
that is more powerful than his own subjectivity. Vendetta (and ven-
geance in general) is a structure peculiar exactly to mythological
consciousness because by its logic all members of a family are consid-
ered to be identical; they are part of one significant whole. Lotman
(1990, 138) illustrates this mythological logic by an example of how
Ivan the Terrible would execute disgraced boyars with their whole
families and even serfs, treating them not as a group of individuals
but as an inseparable whole (by the same logic, in ancient Egypt, for
example, some pharaohs were buried together with their servants
and even family members). And this is just one example that shows
how signs (texts) have the power to model reality.
Finally, humor actively exploits mythological mechanisms in mod-
ern culture. Jokes in particular (together with parodies, anecdotes,
and alike) originate in myth through folktale (Propp 1984, 41–56)
and can be seen as an effective delineator of cultural specifics. That
is why among the most important features of humor are its contex-
tuality and referentiality: most jokes, apart from being “funny,” also
define a certain worldview. Being closely connected to certain phe-
nomena of reality, they help create and maintain beliefs, attitudes,
and stereotypes; they demarcate social and cultural boundaries, often
violate established taboos, and thus serve as peculiar “friend-or-foe”
devices. Apparently, humor exploits the mechanism of recognition
to the full: if the referential connection of a joke is distorted or bro-
ken, its effect is close to nothing.5 Joke is therefore essentially an

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44 ● The Texture of Culture

oral genre because the reaction to a joke is very important to the


addresser: it shows if the implied subtext is understood, shared, or
rejected by the addressee. The example of political anekdots in Soviet
culture is illustrative here (I am using the Russian word to delineate a

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specific genre, which is not identical to anecdote; see Yurchak 2006,
273–75). One could easily get arrested for telling an “inappropriate”
joke to a wrong person. That is why anekdots functioned as an instru-
ment of “silent resistance,” and their status was almost existential.
Here is an example of one such anekdot that also offers a peculiar
metaperspective:

A dialogue between the prisoners in a labor camp: “For what did they
put you here?” “For being lazy.” “How so?” “Well, late at night I and
my neighbor were telling political anekdots to each other, and I got
lazy and thought I would report my neighbor to the KGB the fol-
lowing morning, but my neighbor wasn’t lazy and reported me right
away, so that is why I am here.”

To conclude the discussion of myth, it is pertinent to reiterate that


these two layers of culture are almost seamlessly welded together,
and it is practically impossible to find a whole culture that is totally
oriented toward autocommunication and myth. Even surviving
indigenous cultures cannot be described as totally mythological but
rather as those where mythological structures occupy a significant
part of culture. However, the elucidation of (possible) underlying
mythological structures is an important part of cultural and textual
analysis. We return to this question on the following pages.

Translation and Differentiation


The dialogic principle accentuates translation as the key mechanism
of meaning-generation. As seen earlier, Lotman uses this concept
in its broadest sense and contends that it is virtually impossible to
transfer any message without transforming it. Meaning is not con-
tained in the message but is the product of the translation process.
In Lotman’s view, translation is not a replacement of an element
by another (it is impossible to replace something that is not there
yet, isn’t it?) but the establishment of a dialogic relation between
the elements of the whole semiotic space: a sign with another sign,
a text with another text, and a culture with other cultures. By the

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Culture as System ● 45

same token, meaning is not hidden within the sign or the text but is
the product of their dialogic correlation with other signs and texts.
Apart from that, meaning is always a result of the dialogue between
the text and the reader—and not some abstract reader but a con-

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crete reader situated in a given historical context. Any sign or culture
needs at least one partner in the dialogue because in isolation they
cannot mean anything, nor can they produce any information, thus
being completely useless for communication.
It is obvious that by postulating differentiation as the fundamen-
tal principle of semiosis, Lotman follows both “fathers of semiotics,”
Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles S. Peirce. Saussure argues that
in language

there are only differences. Even more important: a difference generally


implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in
language there are only differences without positive terms. . . . Applied
to units, the principle of differentiation can be stated in this way:
the characteristics of the unit blend with the unit itself. In language,
as in any semiological system, whatever distinguishes one sign from
the others constitutes it. Difference makes character just as it makes
value and the unit. (Saussure 1966, 120–21)

Peirce (1931–34) goes even further (his well-known formula defines


sign as “something which stands to somebody for something in some
respect or capacity”) and extends this principle onto thought, argu-
ing that thought is identical to the sign:

From the proposition that every thought is a sign, it follows that


every thought must address itself to some other, must determine
some other, since that is the essence of a sign. . . . To say, therefore,
that thought cannot happen in an instant, but requires a time, is
but another way of saying that every thought must be interpreted in
another, or that all thought is in signs. (5.253)6

Apart from that,

no present actual thought (which is a mere feeling) has any meaning,


any intellectual value; for this lies not in what is actually thought,
but in what this thought may be connected with in representation
by subsequent thoughts. . . . At no one instant in my state of mind is
there cognition or representation, but in the relation of my states of
mind at different instants there is. (5.289)

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46 ● The Texture of Culture

Montage
The principle of differentiation is closely related to the concept of
montage in its broadest sense. As Sergei Eisenstein notices, if some

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two “pieces” (shots) are put together, they produce a new “image,”
a new meaning that is a result of their juxtaposition (Eizenshtein
1964, 157–58). Eisenstein perspicaciously remarks that this principle
is almost universal and is not peculiar to the cinematographic text.
Apart from that, montage increases the impression of the film text
because it is the viewer who participates in the creation of new mean-
ings; by juxtaposing the first and the second element, the viewer cre-
ates a new third element that is their product, not the sum.7 In the
same fashion, in Semiotic of Cinema , Lotman (1976b, 62) describes
the effect of montage of dissimilar shots as the activation of a junc-
tion of meanings.
The idea of tension or collision as a meaning-generating “spot” in
art is crucial in Lotman’s theory. For example, metaphor is a typi-
cal meaning-generating device because it generates new meanings
exactly by bringing together dissimilar elements in an unexpected
manner. Also, in The Structure of the Artistic Text , Lotman states
that an established relation between two (or more) elements creates
a new artistic effect, so all “noise” and “errors” become meaning-
ful, as in the example cited earlier (a marble statue tossed in the
grass). To formulate this idea succinctly, there are no accidents in art .
For example, a cinematographic text might incorporate some details
that are not intended by the director. From the author’s point of
view, these details may be considered accidental and “wrong” but
being included in the text, they immediately become connected
with other elements of the text and inevitably acquire meaning.
The film director Roman Balaian tells an anecdote how one of the
viewers of his drama Polety vo sne i naiavu (Flights in dreams and
in reality, 1982) assigned meaning to a number of details that the
director himself considered insignificant. For example, in one of
the episodes, the red soles of the protagonist’s sneakers were inter-
preted as a symbol of his alienation and loneliness. For Balaian this
is a case of overinterpretation, but for the viewers it may be an
organic element of the artistic text that enhances its perception.
Thus the authorial intention should by no means signify the ulti-
mate truth because this contradicts the premise of dialogicity of
communication.

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Culture as System ● 47

Finally, Lotman has widely used the principle of contrasting jux-


taposition in his own works as well, often illustrating important
points by paradoxes, as we saw in many examples. As is known, in
the most general sense, the paradox reveals the tension between two

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or more seemingly contradicting statements, producing an unex-
pected insight on the given problem. In other words, the paradox
translates the untranslatable and is not just a rhetorical figure but
also a methodological tool that allows scrutinizing a perceived situ-
ation from a totally new angle.

Excursus 1: The Bakhtinian Dialogue


Dialogism as a semiotic principle inevitably brings to mind another
Russian scholar, Mikhail Bakhtin. In the history of literary theory,
semiotics, and philosophy, Bakhtin’s ideas are usually opposed to
formalism, structuralist theories, and semiotics. A number of works
attempt to describe the divergences and convergences of Bakhtin’s
theory with Soviet semiotics and Lotman in particular (most notably
Reid 1990). 8 Depending on the researcher’s perspective, Bakhtin can
be equally described as a total antagonist of semiotic theories and as
one of the founding fathers of modern semiotics. A noteworthy exam-
ple of the latter approach is Viacheslav Ivanov’s article first printed in
Russian in TZS 5 (1973), in which he accents Bakhtin’s significance
for semiotic studies and portrays Bakhtin virtually as a semiotician,
appropriating his work in the context of the TMSS. Among other
things, Ivanov describes Bakhtin’s work on Rabelais and carnival
culture as “indubitably structural in its principal attitudes . . . built
on analysis of several fundamental binary oppositions, particularly
the top-bottom opposition” (Ivanov 1976b, 336). Ivanov even finds
Bakhtin’s writing congenial to Lévi-Strauss’s study of myth. Still,
not all scholars close to the TMSS are that sympathetic to Bakhtin:
for instance, Mikhail Gasparov (1979) in his highly critical article
accuses Bakhtin of, among other things, hostility to poetry for call-
ing it an “authoritarian monovocal language.”
In this short excursus, I outline several “meeting points” and
some essential differences between Lotman and Bakhtin and his
circle (Valentin Voloshinov and Pavel Medvedev 9). In Problems of
Dostoevsky’s Poetics (first published in 1929), Bakhtin introduces the
notion of a polyphonic novel where multiple voices, free from authorial

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48 ● The Texture of Culture

monological control, coexist in a dynamic dialogue. In his later works,


Bakhtin considered not only Dostoevsky’s novel but novel in general
to be the polyphonic genre (as opposed to monological poetry).
Bakhtinian heteroglossia emphasizes the uniqueness of individual

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utterances that are in constant dialogue with one another. Bakhtin and
his circle thus position themselves as critics of Saussure in that they pri-
oritize speech over language, parole over langue. Bakhtin (1986, 127)
focuses on the multivocal reality of an individual utterance, which is
“unrepeatable, historically unique individual whole,” determined by
social context. In the same vein, Voloshinov defines sign as acquir-
ing its meaning in its social context: “The immediate social situation
and the broader social milieu wholly determine—and determine from
within, so to speak—the structure of an utterance ” (Vološinov 1973,
86).10 The speech is thus not a reflection of the system, langue, but a
social expression of individual experience: “The whole route between
inner experience (the ‘expressible’) and its outward objectification (the
‘utterance’) lies entirely across social territory” (ibid., 90).
In Bakhtin’s view, any understanding and/or cognition is also by
definition dialogic, and this is the point where the views of Lotman
and Bakhtin come as close as possible. Any utterance exists only
in relation to other utterances, thus forming an endless chain of
dialogue: “The word wants to be heard, understood, responded to,
and again to respond to the response, and so forth ad infinitum ”
(Bakhtin 1986, 127).11 Moreover, the dialogic relation is the neces-
sary condition for understanding: here, Bakhtin’s (1986, 107) state-
ment that cognition (comprehension) is dialogic and that the essence
of the text “always develops on the boundary between two conscious-
nesses, two subjects ” is directly congenial with Lotman’s premise of
polyglotism of the communication act.
In contrast to Bakhtin, however, Lotman pays attention not to
different individual voices of presumably the same language (mul-
tivocal reality) but to the polyglot reality, the dialogue of different
languages that create the minimal condition for meaning-generation.
In stating that the monological mechanism is unable to produce any
message at all, Lotman explicitly refers to Bakhtin’s ideas, although
interpreting “dialogic” exactly as polyglot:

No “monologic” (i.e. monoglot) apparatus could produce messages


that are in principle new (thoughts), i.e. could be called a thinking

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Culture as System ● 49

apparatus. A thinking apparatus must have in principle (in the mini-


mal schema) a dialogic (bilingual) structure. This deduction, inci-
dentally, gives new meaning to the prophetic ideas of M. M. Bakhtin
about the structure of dialogic texts. (Lotman 1979, 94)

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The other point of tension in the dialogue of the two scholars was the
concepts of code and text.12 In general, Bakhtin referred to Lotman
directly only a couple of times; in “Response to a Question from the
Novyj Mir Editorial Staff,” Bakhtin (1986, 2–3) speaks approvingly
of Dmitrii Likhachev and Lotman and the fact that they approach lit-
erature as an integral part of culture. In his notes, however, Bakhtin
criticizes Lotman for his interpretation of the multistyled structure
of Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin13 as a multiple recoding on dif-
ferent levels. For Bakhtin (1986, 135), this perspective neglects the
dialogic aspect of the text, and the dialogue of styles turns out to be
a mere “coexistence of various versions of one and the same style.”
This reproach is a reflection of a larger critique of structuralism
(and semiotics) as “monologistic” discourse.14 For Bakhtin (1986,
135, 147), code is opposed to utterance because it presupposes “the
content to be somehow ready-made” and is a mere “technical means
of transmitting information,” a “killed context,” which deprives
communication of its dialogic aspect. Bakhtin sees Lotman as an
adept of structuralism, for whom the text is an immanent whole,
and therefore criticizes the idea of “self-contained” text as not ade-
quate to the essence of utterance, which cannot be defined in “either
mechanistic or linguistic categories” (ibid., 136). Lotman’s retort if
not directly to Bakhtin then to all the critics of structural approach
can be found in The Structure of the Artistic Text : “Even an extremely
schematic description of a text’s most general structural regularities
does more to facilitate an understanding of its unique originality
than any number of statements about the uniqueness of the text”
(Lotman 1977d, 121).
As we have seen, the discrepancies between Bakhtin’s and Lotman’s
approaches are rather philosophical and ideological. Still, there are
points in which the approaches of Lotman and Bakhtin almost con-
verge: for example, in “The Problem of the Text,” Bakhtin (1986,
104–5) defines text as a unique “monad” reflecting all texts within
a given conceptual (smyslovaia) sphere, which can be read as a para-
phrase of Lotman’s description of the relation of a text to culture.

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50 ● The Texture of Culture

Moreover, Bakhtin also states that the meaning of the word “is
determined only with the help of other words of the same language
(or another language) and by its relation to them” (ibid., 118), which
remarkably accents the principle of differentiation of semiosis.

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Apart from direct references to Bakhtin’s works on carnival
culture and Dostoevsky’s poetics, Lotman several times mentions
Bakhtin as the author of productive semiotic ideas: for example, the
principle of ambivalence that allows for the system’s reorganization
and transformation into a new dynamic state is obviously agreeable
with Lotman’s thesis of polyglotism of any semiotic system (Lotman
1977c, 204).
One of the most valuable of Bakhtin’s concepts for Lotman is his
definition of genre as a specific form of social interaction. “Speech
genres” are defined as typified utterances that form and predeter-
mine social actions: “Each separate utterance is individual, of course,
but each sphere in which language is used develops its own relatively
stable types of these utterances” (Bakhtin 1986, 60). Bakhtin distin-
guishes primary genres (simple, belonging immediately to speech)
from secondary genres (complex, ideological, mostly literary genres).
Secondary genres absorb and digest primary genres: for example,
a primary genre such as “everyday dialogue” or letter, being included
in a novel, assumes a special character and a new function (ibid.,
61–62). In that sense, Bakhtin can be considered one of the forefa-
thers of social semiotics (e.g., Halliday 1978; see chapter 3). Finally,
Bakhtin introduces the concept of “genre memory”:

A genre lives in the present, but always remembers its past, its begin-
ning. Genre is a representative of creative memory in the process
of literary development. Precisely for this reason genre is capable of
guaranteeing the unity and uninterrupted continuity of this develop-
ment. (Bakhtin 1984, 106)

This concept was several times mentioned by Lotman because of its


affinity to the notions of text memory and collective memory that
will be discussed on the following pages.
In conclusion, let me reiterate that if for Bakhtin the primary
unit of language is an individual utterance, for Lotman it is the
text. Also, both scholars advocate dialogism as the main principle
behind any mechanism of meaning-generation. As a special tribute

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Culture as System ● 51

to Bakhtin, Lotman wrote an article (published only in German in


1984) in which he described Bakhtin’s dialogicity as in principle
(and with certain corrections) congenial with the principle of dia-
logic interaction of semiotic systems (Lotman 1984b).

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The Structure of Culture: Core versus Periphery
Any system is organized in a certain manner, that is, it has a specific
structure. In the description of the system structure, the inf luence
of Russian formalism—which can be considered the first systemic
approach to literature—on Soviet semiotics and Lotman in particu-
lar is especially evident. In a majority of his works, Lotman consis-
tently transforms the formalist scheme into cultural semiotic theory,
engaging the fundamental concepts of formalism.15 On the whole,
Lotman concurred to the critique of the formalist view of literature
as a (primarily) immanent system16 and criticized them for insuffi-
cient methodology and for their “mechanistic-inventorial” approach.
Already in Lectures on Structural Poetics (1964), Lotman states that
the formalists mechanically adopt the dyad “form-content,” which
leads to the opposition of the former to the latter (Lotman 1964,
54). The most serious critique concerns the formalist-structuralist
view of the text as a “closed, self-sufficient, synchronically organized
system” (Lotman 2009, 13). For Lotman, the isolation of the text
in time and space contradicts the very essence of this concept. In
contrast, Lotman has always distinguished Tynianov among other
formalists, and Tynianov’s inf luence on Lotman’s theory is obvi-
ous in many aspects. Although in one of the letters to Boris Egorov
(July 31, 1984) Lotman clearly expresses his reservations regarding
certain literary-historical ideas of Tynianov, calling them “false”
and “biased,” he nonetheless states that “the general direction” of
Tynianov’s works is exceptionally fruitful and has given a very pow-
erful impulse to the humanistic science (Lotman 2006, 331).
All these differences notwithstanding, Lotman follows Tynianov
in the description of the general structure of culture and other mod-
eling systems as a concentric system:

The entire system for preserving and communicating human experi-


ence is constructed as a concentric system in the center of which are
located the most obvious and logical structures, that is, the most

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52 ● The Texture of Culture

structural ones. Nearer to the periphery are found formations whose


structuredness is not evident or has not been proved, but which,
being included in general sign-communicational situations, function
as structures. (Lotman and Uspensky 1978, 213)

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In this citation, Lotman and Uspenskii complement the formalist
scheme of literary system, where the center (or the core) of the lit-
erary system is occupied by normative (familiar) elements and the
periphery with irregular, innovative, and/or foreign elements.
The core of the system consists of the most established (“canon-
ized”) structures and texts or, in Tynianov’s terminology, the domi-
nant , the advanced position of a group of elements in the foreground
of a system (Tynjanov 1978, 72–73). In the previous quotation,
Lotman and Uspenskii complicate the opposition of the core and
the periphery in terms of the relation of systemic and nonsystemic
elements in the system; it is from the point of view of the core that
the periphery appears to be nonstructured or irregular.
On the periphery of the system, there are located more dynamic
and “deviant” texts. It is therefore “brightly coloured and marked”
in comparison with the more neutral center (Lotman 1990, 141). The
periphery is the space of artistic experiments, that which is usually
called “the avant-garde art.” It is also the space of explicit individu-
ality, whereas the core is usually represented by a more impersonal
“standard” or “ordinariness.” As one of the iconic examples of the
“borderline” art that challenges the canonized repertoire, I may
mention Sergei Eisenstein’s 1923 production of Wiseman , based
on Alexander Ostrovsky’s play. During this production, Eisenstein
formulated the method of “the montage of attractions,” which was
designed to “mould the audience in a desired direction.” An attrac-
tion was defined as “any aggressive moment in theatre, i.e. any ele-
ment of it that subjects the audience to emotional or psychological
influence” (Eisenstein 1998, 30). Eisenstein’s eccentric and gro-
tesque production that incorporated elements of circus and farce and
focused on physicality of action shuttered the conventional border
between the stage and the audience and influenced not only the the-
ater but other art forms as well.
In any artistic system at a concrete point of time (i.e., in a syn-
chronic view), it is possible to construe a normative picture of the
system, distinguishing elements that constitute the core from those

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Culture as System ● 53

located on “the outskirts.” Likewise, in the description of a culture


it is possible to delineate what artistic systems are dominant at this
particular period and which ones are marginal. For example, the
genre of comic books was practically nonexistent in Soviet culture

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and is very marginal now in Russia, in contrast to the United States
of America or Japan, where it occupies a very significant sector of
culture. The core, however, is not static at all; it is subject to con-
stant transformations and is to a certain extent relativistic: differ-
ent cultural, social, and other groups and finally every individual
in a given culture have a different perception of the structure of any
artistic system and, consequently, the whole culture.
The dynamism of the system is due to the centripetal force: the
marginal elements try to invade the center, and the core elements
resist them. The periphery challenges the accepted order of the sys-
tem, and the core in turn attempts to subjugate or even destroy the
marginal elements, proclaiming them nonexistent. In Tynianov’s
account, this struggle constitutes the mechanism of (de)automati-
zation that is the driving force of literary evolution.17 Because any
system inevitably becomes automatized, it leads to the appearance of
a new opposite “constructive principle” (Tynyanov 2000, 37) on the
periphery of the system:

At a period when a genre is disintegrating, it shifts from the centre


to the periphery, and a new phenomenon f loats in to take its place in
the centre, coming up from among the trivia, out of the backyards
and low haunts of literature. (This is the phenomenon of the “canoni-
sation of the younger genres” which Viktor Shklovsky has written
about). (Tynyanov 2000, 33)

The examples of this dynamics are countless: in literature, one


may mention the genre of epistolary novel that becomes popular in
European literatures in the eighteenth century (epistle as a document
and nonliterary form enters the domain of literature and occupies
its core). In film, the amateur and/or (pseudo)documentary genre
periodically bursts from the periphery to the nucleus; an example is
the Dogme 95 movement that appeared as a rejection of mainstream
cinematography and gained much popularity in the 1990s. In fash-
ion, Lotman (1990, 141) gives an example of jeans that were specific
working clothes (nonsystemic factor) and then were “expropriated”
by the youth as a sign of nonconformism (the aggressive movement

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54 ● The Texture of Culture

on the periphery); now jeans are spread all over various layers of fash-
ion, in most cases having neutral connotations as the most casual
and common apparel.
Just like the top-bottom dichotomy, the center-periphery meta-

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phors are very common in culture. The metaphor of culture as a con-
centric structure is often manifested in the hierarchical organization
of living space. For example, the structure of the city with its divi-
sion into downtown and suburbs, ethnic neighborhoods, and so forth
clearly implies the division between the center (as a more important
part) and the periphery. It does not mean of course that all cities are
necessarily constructed concentrically, but it does reflect the fact
that practically all modern cultures semiotize the space of the city in
such a way that it is presented in a certain hierarchy, differentiating
one part from another. The real city may be of any geometrical form
but ideally it may be described as a circle (or as a square, as some
ancient Eastern cities; see Ivanov 1986, 10). Furthermore, some cit-
ies are often proclaimed the center of the world, thus representing a
model of the universe (Lotman 2002, 208).

The Norm
The center of culture is the domain of the norm, and the descrip-
tion of the normative core of a culture is often presented as its typi-
cal “portrait.” In this regard, the problems of self-description and
description of a culture from the outsider’s point of view come to the
fore. To perceive an incident as the norm is a feature of almost all
travelogues, and Lotman turns to this problem in several texts. In
Conversations about Russian Culture, for example, he mentions the
impressions of a Japanese captain who came to Russia in 1791 and
described his experiences (including incidental events) as an estab-
lished norm of the observed culture (Lotman 1994, 115). But the
outsider’s viewpoint provides a defamiliarized picture (also the for-
malist term) of a culture, revealing some features that are “blurred”
for the locals because for them the norm is obvious and represents
the usual state of things. On the contrary, for the foreigner, the
norm may seem a deviation or a peculiarity. This happens because
when we confront a foreign culture, we do not actually see the for-
eign norm but notice the deviations from the normative core of our
domestic system. For example, if we see a strangely dressed person,

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Culture as System ● 55

we can positively say that this dress cannot be worn in our own
environment, but we do not know whether this dress is a norm of
the foreign system (and if yes, what meaning does it have?) or also
an abnormality.

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The other point of bias of the foreigner is the “literalist” approach
to foreign culture: the tourist tends to miss the humor and irony
(which presupposes a metaperspective of the norm), to understand
figurative meanings as literal, and to misinterpret ambivalent sit-
uations or texts, ignoring the multiplicity of meanings (Lotman
1992–93, III.138). The reason for this is that any message con-
sists, as it were, of two parts, what is told and what is not told
(Lotman 1994, 387). Locals reconstruct the second part on their
own because they are immersed in the actual cultural space, but
outsiders lack this point of reference. Consequently, a historian
attempting to reconstruct the past appears to be in the position of
a tourist both in space and time (Lotman 1994, 388).

The Boundary
The division between the center and the periphery is a manifes-
tation of the fact that the semiotic space of culture is permeated
with boundaries. The periphery is not “the end” of a system but
a transition point between different systems and structures. The
boundaries between systems are not exact but quite vague, subject
to constant f luctuations, and resemble not an impenetrable wall
but rather a filter or membrane. The function of the boundary
“is to control, filter and adapt the external into the internal” and
also serve as a catalyst of communication: “Because the semiotic
space is transected by numerous boundaries, each message that
moves across it must be many times translated and transformed,
and the process of generating new information thereby snowballs”
(Lotman 1990, 140). The dialogic principle presupposes a constant
dynamic tension on the boundaries not only of different systems
but also between different levels of any semiotic system. If there
is no tension on the border, no translation occurs and therefore no
new meaning can occur either. The tension is thus essential for the
culture’s sustainability and is created by two tendencies: the given
incomplete mutual translatability and the need for full translatabil-
ity (Lotman 1977a, 96). On the whole, the basis of every act of

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56 ● The Texture of Culture

communication is the paradoxical formula “equivalent but still dif-


ferent”: it should be conventionally equivalent in order to make the
transfer of information possible, and it should be different in order
to transfer meaningful information.

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What is located on the periphery of the system has an ambivalent
character because it f luctuates between systemic and nonsystemic.
The boundary/margin is the sphere of contact of different systems
and subsystems; it both unites and divides, transforming (trans-
lating) noninformation—which comes from other systems—into
information. If in nonartistic systems the contact with the extra-
systemic leads to the decrease of information, in art it leads to the
increase of information and reorganization of the system structure.
Note here close parallels with the formalist legacy: Tynianov repeat-
edly argued that literature, as a part of culture, exists in close and
complicated relations with other cultural series (riady) and at the
same time depends on its immanent systemic laws. The first the-
sis of the article “On Literary Evolution” begins with the asser-
tion that the immanent analysis of a literary system is insufficient
because the literary and extraliterary series are in mutual interac-
tion (Tynjanov 1978, 66); the same holds for the immanent analysis
of a literary work, which is impossible without its correlation with
the literary system. Tynianov argues that such an isolated study is
an abstraction, as is the analysis of isolated elements of a literary
work (ibid., 68–69).18
Artistic systems are closely intertwined with each other and other
systems, but to consider art to be a mere arena for social and politi-
cal struggle is to reduce a complex phenomenon to only one func-
tion, thus presenting a highly biased picture. Even when ideology
attempts to subjugate art for its own needs, art always resists, some-
times in an unpredictable manner. The evidence of this reaction is
abundant: in the Soviet Union, literature for many decades experi-
enced a strong ideological pressure through censorship, repressions,
revised curricula, and so on. The result, however, was far from the
desired: literature appeared to be a very resilient and heterogeneous
system with its “subcurrents” and niches, developing new forms that
resisted the external pressure (e.g., for the situation in the 1920s–30s
in Soviet literature, see Chudakova 2001, 309–37).
To sum up, the boundary is a crucial structural element of any
system, and to depict it more or less adequately we would need an

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Culture as System ● 57

animation rather than a static picture in order to demonstrate the


dynamicity of the system itself, diffuseness of its borders and its sub-
systems, the constant flow of texts between them, and the interaction
of systems with one another. Because any meaning-generating sys-

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tem—or even a semantic space, as Lotman (2009, 19) calls it—“may
only be represented in a metaphorical sense in a two- dimensional
manner with clear and definite boundaries,” these metaphors should
not be taken for a precise analogy.

Metalevel of Culture
Another concept inextricably connected with the concept of bound-
ary and the center-periphery relationship is the notion of metalevel
of culture. The highest form of the structural organization of a cul-
ture is the point of self-description, which any developed culture
inevitably reaches (Lotman 1990, 128):

Self-description demands the creation of a metalanguage for the


given culture. On the basis of the metalanguage there arises the meta-
level on which the culture constructs its ideal self-portrait. . . . The
appearance of an image of culture on the metalevel signifies the
secondary structuration of this very culture. It becomes more rigidly
organized, certain aspects of it are declared to be non-structural, i.e.
“non-existent.” (Lotman 1979, 92)

The appearance of encyclopedias, dictionaries, grammars, chroni-


cles, criticism, literary canon, public forums, universities and various
research institutions, academic works, among which are Lotman’s
works and this book—all of them are manifestations of culture’s
self-awareness and its attempt to comprehend itself as a whole.
The metalevel of culture, together with the norm, is located in the
center. That is why on the metalevel culture always describes itself
as more logical and organized than it is in reality. Moreover, culture
may proclaim some of its elements nonexistent if they do not fit
its ideal self-portrait. For example, in 1674, the neoclassicist writer
and critic Nicolas Boileau published his highly influential The Art of
Poetry (L’Art poétique), in which he establishes the norms in theater
and literature exactly because they are constantly violated; otherwise
his efforts would be absolutely pointless (Lotman 2000b, 613).

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58 ● The Texture of Culture

The Own and the Other


The fact that any culture is defined first and foremost by its bound-
aries actualizes the distinction between the inner space—that which

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belongs to our culture, “us”—and the outer space, that which belongs
to the outside, “them” (Lotman 2003, 107–9). As a consequence,
from the position of a given culture the outer space is usually defined
as nonculture. There is no lack of examples of this practice: the word
barbarian , for instance, appeared in ancient Greece as an echoic
term for uncivilized nations that were thought to produce only unin-
telligible sounds, like “bar-bar.” From the point of view of ancient
Greek culture, barbarians simply did not have any language and thus
belonged to the sphere of nonculture. Another example is nemets,
the word for “German” in many Slavic languages, which literally
means “the mute,” “unable to speak,” and previously designated any
foreigner. The principle, which is still used in everyday communica-
tion, is very simple: if I do not understand your language, I will not
assume that you speak some other language (that you belong to some
other culture) but will rather deny you the ability to speak (proclaim
you noncultural).
Nonetheless, the immanent development of culture and produc-
tion of new information cannot be effectuated without the contact
(dialogue) with the exterior, without the inflow of foreign texts
(Lotman 2000b, 610). “The outside” can be represented by any ele-
ment that is extrinsic to the normative frame of a given structure,
whether it is genre, tradition, or culture as a whole:

Thus, from the position of an outside observer, culture will repre-


sent not an immobile, synchronically balanced mechanism, but a
dichotomous system, the “work” of which will be realized as the
aggression of regularity against the sphere of the unregulated and,
in the opposite direction, as the intrusion of the unregulated into
the sphere of organization. At different moments of historical devel-
opment either tendency may prevail. The incorporation into the
cultural sphere of texts which have come from outside sometimes
proves to be a powerful stimulating factor for cultural development.
(Lotman et al. 1975, 60)

In the final analysis, each dialogic situation begins with the delin-
eation of the own and the alien. The intersection of different semi-
otic codes that are explicitly or implicitly used to produce messages

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Culture as System ● 59

creates countless possibilities to delimit the own from the alien, to


impose boundaries that would distinguish me from them . In lan-
guage, for example, different accents, intonation, slang, and other
markers have the power to transform an otherwise neutral word into

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a unique and personal (or group-specific) signifier.

Cultures in Dialogue
The intrusions of foreign material are crucial for the sustainable
development of culture. Cultures conduct their dialogue almost like
human beings, “listening” (receiving texts) and “speaking” (pro-
ducing texts) to each other, with the exception that these processes
happen simultaneously. Nonetheless, in the history of culture, the
periods of least activity are usually described as intermissions, so
there can be defined several periods when a whole culture or an
art form perceives itself in a state of “decline,” usually borrowing
patterns from other systems and cultures. For example, Russian lit-
erature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries can be
generally defined as being “in the perceiving mode,” when many
significant literary figures claimed that Russia “had no literature”
(Lotman 1977c, 200–201). Another example is the two decades
after 1991 when the statements of the death of Russian cinema were
repeated quite often.
According to Lotman (1990, 144–45), the process of active recep-
tion of foreign material usually takes the following pattern of the
dialogue: inertness — saturation — text generation .

1. Inertness —Culture receives texts that are very different from


its internal organization (i.e., it initially lacks any codes that
can satisfactorily decipher them). New texts and textual struc-
tures from the periphery invade the core.
2. Saturation —Culture starts elaborating new codes on the basis
of these texts.
3. Generation —When these texts are adapted and the language is
mastered, the core (because, as we remember, the generator of
the texts is located in the center, and the receptor mechanisms
on the periphery) begins to actively produce new texts.

It is important to note that the process of text transfer between


cultures is never one-sided and happens with mutual influence.

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60 ● The Texture of Culture

Culture always resists foreign material, trying to assimilate it, to


adapt it to its domestic languages. As a result, the text can endure
some serious transformations. A good illustration of this process is
the story told by Laura Bohannan (1997), when she tested the the-

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sis of universal intelligibility of “the greater tragedies” by retelling
Hamlet to the elders of an African tribe. The result of her retell-
ing was that the Shakespearean play was consistently adapted to the
norms of the target culture and became completely “Africanized.”
Bohannan’s attempts to orient her audience to the source text were
considered “wrong” and were “corrected” according to the recipi-
ents’ expectations. In other words, in order to perceive Hamlet as a
meaningful text, the listeners had to translate it into their domestic
cultural idiom. Moreover, the anthropologist herself had to adopt
the language of her audience. Clearly enough, it was practically
impossible to transfer the text of Hamlet without serious deforma-
tions as a result of the great discrepancy between two cultures, two
different worldviews.
The opposite situation is also possible when a single text is capa-
ble of inf luencing the whole structure of the recipient culture. In
some cases a new text may serve as a model, a new code for cre-
ation of other texts, constituting a whole new genre in culture. In
a 1985 article, Lotman demonstrates how the transplantation of
foreign cultural schemes changes the state of the system and yields
unpredictable results: In 1730, Vasilii Trediakovskii, one of the
pioneers of Russian literature, translated into Russian a novel by
Paul Tallemant (le Jeune), The Voyage to the Isle of Love (Le Voyage
à l’ île d’amour, 1663), one of the many texts of the French préci-
osité movement. The movement opposed itself to the mainstream
c ulture of the French Academy by promoting the hermetic salon
culture, closed for the general public and focused on intimate poetic
genres and jocular behavior in general. Trediakovskii attempted to
transplant the whole cultural phenomenon of salon onto Russian
soil, but the transposition of a foreign text isolated from its cultural
context produced an unexpected result: in Russia, the translation
was received as a model of gallant conduct. On the background of
a number of other instructions, regulations, and manuals, which
were characteristic of the Petrine epoch, the book became an exem-
plary novel and a sort of handbook of romantic behavior (Lotman
1992–93, II.23–27).

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Culture as System ● 61

An example from a more recent period could be the story of the


Fantômas films (a trilogy directed by André Hunebelle, released in
1964–67) and their unexpected reception on Russian soil in 1967.
These films, featuring Jean Marais as Fantômas and Louis de Funés

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as the commissaire Juve, were in fact a parody of the whole James
Bond genre that was highly popular in the Western world at that
time. When the first two films about Fantômas were released in the
USSR, the authorities could not predict that this seemingly harm-
less comedy would cause a wave of crime among the youth. Gangs
of adolescents would scare people, rob kiosks, and perform other
acts of vandalism, all with a necessary reference to Fantômas, the
master of disguise. The situation became so serious that the authori-
ties had to launch a campaign in the media including a TV program
to explain the parodic nature of the film and to call the young
troublemakers to order.19
In order to explain why this film has led to such consequences,
one will have to look at the general context of Soviet culture at that
moment. As stated earlier, the Soviet audience lacked the referential
background to which Fantômas referred, and the text was perceived
not as a parody but as a new genre. Moreover, it was received in the
context of the discourse of underground struggle that was prevalent
in the official canon of Soviet culture. As Elena Markasova (2008)
persuasively shows, this discourse was dominant in the school educa-
tion, and for several generations of Soviet people it came as invisible
baggage. From a very early age, a young Soviet individual was practi-
cally bombarded by the texts in which the heroes were secretly fight-
ing against the czarist regime (as in Valentin Kataev’s Beleet parus
odinokii , 1936), the White Army during the Civil War of 1917–23
(as in the film trilogy Neulovimye mstiteli , 1966–71, and the TV
film Makar-sledopyt , 1984), and the Nazis during World War II (as
in Alexander Fadeev’s novel Molodaia gvardiia , 1946). The most
peculiar example of this discourse is Arkadii Gaidar’s iconic story
for teenagers Timur i ego komanda (1940), which shows a group of
young pioneers who create an underground organization with the
goal to secretly help the elderly and war veterans. The very fact that
even help is given in secret is quite an illustrative manifestation of
the power of underground discourse. The main message the school
was supposed to convey to young people was that of self-sacrifice for
the right purpose, but it also connoted the idea of justification of

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illegal activities. Paradoxically, the Soviet system consistently taught


its citizens the tactics of partisan struggle: how to organize small
units of fighters, how to distribute proclamations, how to perform
terrorist acts, and so on. No wonder that when the first anti-Soviet

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youth groups were disclosed, it turned out that they were prepared
by the very ideology they were fighting against. In the case of the
Fantômas films, the teenagers did not know anything about James
Bond and the clichés these films parodied, but what they imme-
diately recognized was the discourse of clandestine struggle. The
ideological message (to fight the enemy to the point of self-sacrifice)
appeared to be less powerful than a certain behavioral model (of
the partisan fight) that youngsters so willingly imitated. This is of
course not to say that this discourse was the only frame of reference
for the recipients, but it certainly was one of the reasons for this
unexpected reaction.

Ideology as Delimitation
The tendency toward isolation is not infrequent in culture.
Culture’s boundaries are intrinsically associated with the notion of
autocommunication, myth, and of course ideology, the metalevel
of culture that is oriented primarily toward delineation of borders.
Mythological texts constitute the core of certain microcultural
elements, the so-called subcultures, especially those with specific
hermetic organization. Neo-Nazi groups, totalitarian sects, football
hooligans, and many others are oriented toward maintaining rigid
and palpable boundaries, exhibiting hostility toward the other.
The oppressive regimes and ideologies always attempt to intro-
duce a specific discourse that from a semiotic point of view defies
the dialogic principle of communication: repressive ideological dis-
courses use binary logic not as a tool of analysis but as ontological
categories of own and alien, right and wrong; they tend to make the
boundaries of the culture firm and visible. Furthermore, they more
than any other system are oriented toward autocommunication,
that is, they focus not on the production of new messages but on
the preservation of the existing order. Thus most messages in such
a system become ritualistic reaffirmations of the established hierar-
chies, in this sense making the communication in culture return to
its archaic structures. In the context of cultural studies, the concept

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Culture as System ● 63

of autocommunication is connected with power and is applied to


the political sphere as “a way to recycle old stories while displac-
ing the accents and reconfiguring the self-understanding, cohesion,
and resolve of the group from which it emerges and to which it is

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addressed” (Schönle and Shine 2006, 10).
In Soviet times, it was obviously impossible to analyze contem-
porary ideological discourses in writing. However, to draw parallels
between the past and the present and “to read between the lines” was
one of the habits of a Soviet educated reader, and that was partially
the reason why the works of Lotman and Uspenskii on the bipolar
organization of Russian culture could be read as the implicit descrip-
tion of Soviet times as well. In any way, the conceptual methodology
used in the works of the TMSS scholars proves valid nowadays (see
Schönle 2006 for recent applications of Lotman’s theory in cultural
studies). There is a peculiar irony in the fact that in the 1980s the
KGB approached Boris Uspenskii with a query if it was possible to
apply semiotic models for the description of Soviet reality as well.
Uspenskii gave a negative answer with a pretext that there were no
methods developed for this task. 20

Rhetoric and Metaphor


We have so far discussed the effects of external factors upon the sys-
tem. The boundaries exist, however, not only between large semiotic
entities such as culture or artistic systems but also in the inner struc-
ture of any semiotic system. In the system of literature, for example,
these boundaries are located between genres, subgenres, traditions,
styles, and, finally, texts. The interposition of different structures
generates “hot spots” of semiotizing processes, the points of high
tension where new meanings are created. Moreover, this effect is
manifested in natural language as well. The mechanism that creates
the inner polyglotism of a verbal text (for example, a written text in
English) is rhetoric.
Lotman does not construct an elaborated theory of rhetoric
and metaphor but describes them as an instrument of meaning-
generation. In the 1979 article “Theater Language and Art (On
the Problem of Iconic Rhetoric),” which has been incorporated in
Universe of the Mind , Lotman (1990, 62) defines rhetoric as “the
transfer into one semiotic sphere of the structural principles of

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64 ● The Texture of Culture

another.” The rhetorical text is again described as polyglot; it is


“a structural unity of two (or more) subtexts encoded with the help
of several, mutually untranslatable, codes” (ibid., 57). Rhetoric is
thus a tool for merging different artistic systems in one text, for

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bringing together different types of signs. The rhetorical devices
that produce new meanings are tropes.
Trope is a rhetorical figure that changes the usual meaning of a
word. Theories of tropes are known since Aristotle, and it is usu-
ally stated that tropes pertain to literary and poetic language, but
in another view they are an indivisible part of language. According
to Lotman, a trope is born at the crossing of two languages, at the
juxtaposition of two nonequivalent elements. Thus rhetoric, or met-
aphor in a very general sense, becomes the minimal dialogic device
that shifts the normative structure of language and is closely related
to translation. Lotman rejects the theory that considers metaphor to
be an intrinsic element of language; on the contrary, he argues that
metaphor brings “the alien” from the outside (ibid., 49). Metaphor
increases the semantic unpredictability of the text, at the same time
belonging and not belonging to it. Rhetoric does not arise automati-
cally from language but on the contrary reinterprets and complicates
its structure. In a nutshell, Lotman assigns metaphor and tropes in
general a role of a special cognitive device that is identical to creative
consciousness.
Lotman’s assessment of metaphor as a cognitive device rather than a
figure of speech concurs with the widely accepted view that all (human)
understanding is in principle metaphorical. Metaphors perfuse our life
to such an extent that practically every instance of communication,
every action and thought, cannot do without metaphors (see Lakoff
and Johnson 1980). This fact, however, does not necessarily make met-
aphor part of natural language but instead might be a manifestation of
a specific semiotic capacity of humans (see chapter 5).

Unpredictable History
We have been thus far analyzing the structure of culture from a syn-
chronic perspective. The diachronic perspective brings to focus the
questions of cultural development, periodization, and predictability
of history. The word system often implies some structure that is
functioning in a predictable manner, at least to a certain extent. On

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the contrary, Lotman consistently asserts that unpredictability is an


inherent characteristic of culture. As he argues in an interview for
the Semiotic Symposium in Imatra, Finland (1987), “Predictability
does not exist. Not in the history of mankind, not in the history

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of culture, despite several thousand years of experience” (Lotman
1988, 117). I mentioned earlier that unpredictable intrusions do not
hinder the development of culture but on the contrary are critical for
its vitality: “If the system did develop without these unpredictable
external intrusions (i.e., it formed a unique, enclosed structure), then
its development would be cyclical. In its ideal form it would rep-
resent a continuous repetition” (Lotman 2009, 77). And if culture
were totally predictable, it would become redundant and unusable
because it would cease to produce anything new.
In his last two books, Unpredictable Mechanisms of Culture and
Culture and Explosion , Lotman focuses on the problem of historical
development and attempts to outline an approach to some of the core
questions regarding historico-cultural dynamics:

• How do semiotic systems correlate with the world that lies


beyond their borders?
• How can a system develop and yet “remain true to itself ”?
• Is historical development in principle predictable?
• Do cultures develop in a linear or circular manner?
• What is the place of an individual in history and culture?
• Finally, how does one understand “the language of history”?

Historical Periods?
The description of historical development is closely associated with
the problem of periodization. Obviously, the segmentation of the
past in epochs and periods is one of the ways to understand and
reflect on our place in the world. But are these periods just a meta-
construct, or are they real just like seasons of the year? Either way,
how do periods succeed one another and is there a certain law of this
succession?
The most conventional way is to describe history as a succession
of periods. There are also models of cultural development that pres-
ent a “rhythmical” pattern of structural change in art and ideol-
ogy. In this scheme, two archetypical styles or types—which may

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be defined, for example, as “classical” versus “romantic”/“Baroque”


art—are opposed to each other and alternate in history. Although
Lotman in his works often uses the traditional names of the peri-
ods, such as romanticism or classicism, he rejects the idea of the

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mechanistic alternation of “period A” with “period B” and instead
introduces a dialogical model of culture where periods of relative
stability alternate with periods of destabilization and rapid develop-
ment (Lotman 2000b, 601–2; 2009, 138–39). Stability is understood
here as the state of balance between at least two contrasting ten-
dencies, and destabilization is the period when the balance between
these tendencies is disturbed and one of them assumes dominance.
During the period of destabilization, the boundaries between life
and art can also become transparent: for example, Lotman describes
the Renaissance, the age of Baroque and romanticism, as the epochs
when art “intrudes imperiously upon everyday life,” aestheticizing it
(Lotman 1984e, 159).
On the methodological level, Lotman asserts that a synchronic
section of a culture does not define the totality of a cultural period,
and the homogeneity of a certain period (e.g., classicism, romanti-
cism, etc.) “is a mere illusion resulting from the descriptive language
we have adopted” (Lotman 1990, 103). One might notice a contra-
diction here with Lotman’s own works on cultural typology that
allowed for a great degree of generalization (see chapter 3).

Explosions in Culture
The periods of destabilization are the periods of cultural explosions.
Explosive and gradual processes are mutually complementary, and
both are required for the dynamic development of culture: “The
destruction of one pole would cause the disappearance of the other”
(Lotman 2009, 7). Cultural explosions coexist with gradual processes
because different layers and elements of culture develop at different
rates (for example, language, politics, fashion, and literature all have
various “speeds”; Lotman 2009, 12). An explosion may remain local,
influencing only a specific cultural process, but some explosions may
affect all levels of culture. The gradual and explosive tendencies can
be presented in terms of continuity and discontinuity: continuity
represents “a perceived predictability,” and discontinuity is perceived
as an abrupt change, an explosion.

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Culture as System ● 67

The cultural explosion is defined as a moment of drastic change in


the state of the system when its conventional balance gets disturbed.
In terms of the core/periphery dichotomy, the explosive moment
can be imagined as a gravitational collapse: centripetal forces make

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peripheral elements burst into the core and virtually destroy the bal-
ance of the system. The normative core becomes vague and “shaky,”
ceasing to be the tentative point of departure in comprehension,
interpretation, and/or creation of texts. At the moment of explosion,
the information load of the system drastically increases, and unpre-
dictability increases proportionally. Like a virus that provokes the
immune system to respond, the new elements occupy a significant
part of the system and make it deploy countermechanisms in order to
accommodate the system to a new, changed state. The difference is
that for the organism’s survival the virus should be destroyed, whereas
culture transforms (changes its structure) every time it receives some-
thing foreign, slowly and gradually or rapidly and radically.
The metaphor of explosion should not be understood literally, as
something that happens very quickly with an immediate effect. The
moment of explosion may last several months or years (Lotman 2010,
46n8), depending on the ability of the system to restore stability. The
explosion can be viewed as if consisting in three stages. When an
unpredictable moment of explosion happens in culture, our model-
ing consciousness transforms it on three levels: the actual moment of
explosion, the realization of the explosion by consciousness, and the
moment of redoubling of explosion in the structure of memory, when
the moment is replayed retrospectively (Lotman 2009, 150). Note
that these stages functionally correspond to the described phases of
reception of foreign material (Lotman 1990, 144–45) discussed ear-
lier: inertness, the state of reception of the foreign texts; saturation,
development of new languages for adaption of these texts, and pro-
duction of new texts based on the elaborated languages.
Furthermore, explosions inevitably provoke dampening processes,
as is especially evident in the example of technological revolutions
that are usually depicted as “leaps” forward in the history of man-
kind (e.g., invention of writing and printing, technology of travel,
new weaponry, or the Internet):

Every abrupt change in human history releases new forces. The par-
adox is that movement forward may stimulate the regeneration of

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archaic cultural and psychological models, may give rise both to sci-
entific blessings and to epidemics of mass fear. (Lotman 1991, 798)

Fear and disorientation often follow cultural explosions because

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explosions break the chain of causality, violating temporal boundar-
ies and creating the field of unpredictability:

Each time we speak of unpredictability we have in mind a specific


collection of equally probable possibilities from which only one may
be realised. In this way, each structural position represents a cluster
of variant possibilities. Up to a certain point they appear as indistin-
guishable synonyms. However, movement from the point of explosion
causes them to become more and more dispersed in semantic space.
Finally, the moment arrives when they become carriers of semantic
difference. (Lotman 2009, 123; see also 1990, 231)

The thesis of equally probable possibilities at the moment of explosion


brings to mind the concept of “bifurcation” coined by the physicist
and chemist Ilia Prigogine in his works on irreversible processes in
thermodynamics. The bifurcation is a point of development of the sys-
tem when the system reaches the point of “choice” between two pos-
sible scenarios; this is a random process that can be compared with a
coin toss. Lotman refers to Prigogine’s theory (in this context, he also
mentions Isabella Stengers and Ross Ashby) as congenial to his antide-
terministic view on history and emphasizes the role of unpredictabil-
ity at the moment of instability: future choices come by chance, not by
the laws of causality or probability (Lotman 2009, 14).

Impersonal Chance and Individual Choice


The concept of unpredictability has a specific meaning in Lotman’s
semiotics. First of all, it should not be confused with such terms
as improbability or indeterminacy used in physics and mathematics
(e.g., an analogy with the uncertainty principle in physics might be
misleading). Secondly, in Lotman’s usage, “unpredictable” should
not be confused with “chaotic”:

Unpredictability should not, however, be understood as constituting


a series of unlimited or undefined possibilities for movement from
one state to another. Each moment of explosion has its own collection

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Culture as System ● 69

of equally probable possibilities of movement into a sequential state


beyond the limits of which lie only those changes which are f lagrantly
impossible. (Lotman 2009, 123)

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So the explosion is the sphere of explicit unpredictability, so to say.
With the same connotations, Lotman uses the word sluchai or slu-
chainost’ , which can be translated as “chance,” “accident,” or even
“random event.” In the context of culture, “chance” does not mean
“anything at all” and an accident “is not really so accidental” (cited
in Torop 2009, xxx) because at this moment the conscious choice of
a thinking individual becomes an active factor of historical devel-
opment, which differentiates “human systems” from biological and
artificial in particular (Lotman 1992–93, I.469–70). Thus the mech-
anisms of human psychology turn into the mechanisms of history
(Lotman 1985a, 98). This is Lotman’s answer to the eternal question
whether history is a totally impersonal process or a conscious one in
which individuals play their important role: for him, “the interlac-
ing of historical events” and “the randomness of individual human
fates” are both (contrasting) elements of the same process (Lotman
2009, 134).
In this context, Lotman extensively explored a topic that he
termed “the poetics of everyday behavior.” Everyday life is now a
broadly studied subject, but in the Soviet Union of the 1960s–70s,
this field was practically nonexistent. Lotman dedicated a number
of works to this problem, including the book Conversations about
Russian Culture, in which he studied the culture and everyday life
of Russian nobility (Lotman 1994). One of the well-known cases
of these studies is an article on the Decembrists, a group of noble-
men who attempted a coup d’état against the newly ascended Czar
Nicholas I in 1825 (Lotman 1985a). The coup failed, but as Lotman
argues, the cultural importance of the aristocratic revolutionaries
was that the Decembrists created a special type of historical and
social behavior that was clearly distinct from the norm of that time
(Lotman singles out their action-orientedness, frankness of opin-
ions, theatricality of actions, etc.). It is important to note that for
Lotman this is not a purely psychological problematic: he studies
individual behavior as a historical category because without it the
historical process will be presented as overly schematic. Thus he
accents the “human factor” as an indivisible part of history, which

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70 ● The Texture of Culture

is in apparent contrast with the dogmatic view of historical process


as an impersonal force. Another problematic that Lotman explores
in these works is the study of how semiotic systems exert influence
upon everyday life (e.g., the Decembrists who molded their behavior

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according to the romantic literary model; see also Lotman 1984a,
1984d, 1984e, 1985b).
Lotman notes that the individual component in the description of
any process is usually connected with unpredictability: unpredictable
processes tend to be described as a succession of names (e.g., literary
history), not as an anonymous process (e.g., development of language):
“The space of proper names is the space of explosion. It is no accident
that historically explosive epochs push ‘great people’ to the surface,
i.e., they actualise the world of proper names” (Lotman 2009, 136).
In Culture and Explosion , Lotman (2009, 38) discusses a ternary
model, “the fool—the wiseman—the madman,” that can be read as
the scheme of the relation of individual behavior strategies to the
system. In this triad, the wiseman represents the norm and predict-
able “correct” behavior. The fool is the opposite of the wiseman in
the sense that he never follows the rules and constantly violates the
norm, thus being totally predictable as well. The madman’s behavior
is totally unpredictable because he is an explosive element in the
system and exercises much more freedom in violating the rules. So
this ternary structure is in fact the product of the analysis of the
main opposition “the fool versus the madman” which is reduced to a
set of binary oppositions (the wiseman versus the fool, the wiseman
versus the madman). Another opposition may be added as well, for
example, the holy fool (iurodivyi ) versus the madman (later in the
book Lotman mentions the type of iurodivyi as one of the roles that
Ivan the Terrible assigns to himself; ibid., 84–85). The madman and
the holy fool may be presented both as antonyms and synonyms:
from one perspective, the holy fool is as unpredictable as the mad-
man, but from another, his unpredictability is directly opposed to
that of the madman. The holy fool is believed to know and to follow
some higher truth, inconceivable to others, so he represents a “legiti-
mate madman,” as it were. If the madman is obviously an external,
entropic factor of the system, the fool for God is one of its compo-
nents, although a marginal one.
This brings up the question of subjectivity and agency in Lotman’s
theory. In one view, the power of individual is seen as an intrusive

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Culture as System ● 71

force in the historical process, but in another, individual acts can be


regarded as systemic factors. That is why Lotman states that from
the systemic perspective, at the moment of explosion the system “acts
like an individual.” It may seem at first that for Lotman the system-

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aticity of culture is primary in relation to its agents; in every text and
individual he sees the reflection of the system. Nevertheless, there is
no contradiction in Lotman’s assertion that culture combines these
two antithetical tendencies and that unpredictability and individual
choice are closely bound up with the opposing tendency to make
events foreseeable, continuous, and comprehensible. It is one of
Lotman’s paradoxes that reflects the dynamic nature of culture.
For Lotman, the problem “individual versus system” is also a very
personal topic that is closely associated with the idea of self-creation.
It becomes especially clear in Lotman’s biography of Alexander
Pushkin when he discusses the final days of Pushkin and his tragic
last duel. Lotman explicitly rejects the common opinion that
Pushkin has fallen victim to evil social and political powers. On the
contrary, maintains Lotman, Pushkin did not let the circumstances
take over his life and emerged victorious in his heroic effort to pro-
tect his dignity and his home, even though at a cost of his own life
(Lotman 1981, 245–49; see also Boris Egorov 1999, 178–81). It is
obvious that, for Lotman, Pushkin appears not only as a role model
(Reyfman 1999, 441) but also as the epitome of self-creation. The
same idea is central in another of Lotman’s books on the Russian
writer, poet, and critic Nikolai Karamzin, the forefather of modern
Russian literature, the reformer of Russian language, and also the
first Russian historian. Lotman’s reconstruction of Karamzin’s travel
to Europe in 1789–90 becomes “a story of self-creation, creation
of oneself as another, new person, ‘Russian European’” (Grishakova
2009, 177–78). These books and many other of Lotman’s works on
literary history express his strong conviction that the power of an
individual is a significant historical force.

The Retrospection
If the development of culture is always to an extent unpredictable,
how can one analyze its past? Lotman scrutinizes the common
assumption that the historical analysis is able to explain (recon-
struct) the occurrence of certain events of the past and thus predict

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72 ● The Texture of Culture

the future events. Lotman observes that history is not like a clew
that one can unroll into a single thread (linear predictability) but
rather resembles an avalanche of self-developing live matter (Lotman
1992–93, I.469). In this regard, Lotman (1990, 235; 2009, 126) cites

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Friedrich Schlegel’s aphorism that the historian is a prophet who
predicts the past; that is, the view of a historian is always retro-
spective, it inevitably transforms the past. In retrospect, that which
has occurred is declared uniquely possible, and all other (not taken)
paths are declared to be impossible. Furthermore, explosions are
transformed into linear development, random acts become regular,
and chaotic events turn organized, predictable, and predetermined
(Lotman 2009, 16–17). The retrospection also tends not to count
the human factor, treating the system mechanistically.
Apart from that, there are other factors that influence the gaze of
the historian, and it has to do with “the psychological need to alter
the past, to introduce corrections and moreover, to treat this correc-
tive process as genuine reality” (Lotman 2009, 127). The transfor-
mation of memory does not necessarily occur because of the direct
political need to rewrite history in order to make it “ideologically
adequate” but also happens in all cultural fields because the retro-
spection selects certain texts and inexorably excludes others:

The conversion of a chain of facts into a text is invariably accompa-


nied by selection; that is, by fixing certain events which are trans-
latable into elements of the text and forgetting others, marked as
nonessential. (Lotman and Uspensky 1978, 216)

Lotman’s theorizing here is similar to the general idea that the observer
inescapably influences the object of the study. The historian’s position,
however, is even more unstable because he or she attempts to re-create
the object that does not exist as an objective reality. Elsewhere, Lotman
(2002, 342–49) repeats the idea that the historian, in order to recon-
struct the past events, has to deal with texts, and this complicates the
task immensely because one has to distinguish between what is consid-
ered to be an event for the author of the document and what is an event
in the view of the historian. In this respect, Lotman’s main method-
ological principle is that any historical reconstruction should not turn
into the deterministic, formula-like explanation of the past from the
point of view of the present.

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Culture as System ● 73

Recent examples of “the power of retrospection” are the historical


studies on the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. A great number
of works that have appeared since then are dedicated to explaining
the collapse of the USSR as a logical and historically predetermined

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event. Ironically, these studies mirrored the practice of the main-
stream Soviet historiography, which tended to describe the 1917
revolution as an inevitable event, “elucidating” its “preconditions
and prerequisites.” The main problem is that there is no distinction
between the metaperspective of a post-Soviet observer and the syn-
chronic perspective of the contemporaries of the Soviet era. Alexei
Yurchak (2006) convincingly shows that neither during perestroika
nor in the beginning of the 1990s was it possible to predict the fall of
the Soviet Union, and most of the terms applied to the Soviet period
emerged later in retrospect.
As a very recent example, one may mention the events of 2010–11 in
North Africa when nobody could predict that the regimes of Tunisia,
Egypt, and Libya would shutter under the waves of demonstrations.
What is especially interesting is that many journalists linked the fall
of the Tunisian regime of Ben Ali to the Wikileaks publication of the
documents revealing the corruption of Ben Ali’s family. Whether this
publication was indeed the spark that provoked unrest all over the
country (it is doubtful that Tunisians knew nothing about the cor-
ruption in the president’s family), the role of the text as a catalyst of
explosive processes is per se very significant.

Chapter 2: Key Premises


• Culture is a complex system consisting of several languages or
codes.
• Text is essentially polyglot and belongs to at least two languages
simultaneously.
• Any communication act is a translation.
• Entropy and unpredictability are an indivisible part of semiotic
communicative systems.
• Art is a cognitive tool that models reality by its own means.
• Any communication is essentially dialogic.
• Autocommunication is the homeostatic mechanism of the self.
• The primary function of myth is to preserve a certain worldview.
• No culture/text/sign exists in isolation.

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74 ● The Texture of Culture

• Meaning is the product of the dialogic correlation of one semi-


otic element with other elements.
• The core of culture is the domain of the norm and the culture’s
self-portrait.

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• The tension between the core and the periphery is the basic
mechanism of cultural dynamics.
• The boundary serves as a filter that adapts the external into the
internal.
• Rhetoric is a dialogic device that shifts the normative structure
of language.
• Cultural explosion is the disruption of the conventional balance
between conflicting tendencies.
• The conscious choice of an individual is one of the factors of
historical development.
• In retrospect, the gaze of the historian inevitably deforms the
past, diminishing the element of unpredictability.

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CHAPTER 3

Culture as Text

T
his chapter will take a closer look at the concept of text,
which is indubitably one of the cornerstones of Lotman’s
theory. It may be argued even that Lotman’s semiotics is
definitely “textocentrist.” We have seen so far that in Lotman’s ter-
minology the definition of text is much broader than the concept
of literary work: it is multimodal and polyglot and transcends the
limits of literature, “acquiring semiotic life.”1 Text has also become
one of the “trademarks” of the TMSS: Igor Chernov (1988, 13) states
that “the text (its structure and functions etc.) has been the main
hero of Tartu semiotics through the seventies.” Viacheslav Ivanov
(1976a, 3) maintains that the Russian (Soviet) approach to semiotic
problems (in which he includes Mikhail Bakhtin and other scholars)
is different from the Western semiotics by virtue of focusing on a
coherent text, in opposition to following Saussure’s and Peirce’s lead
in prioritizing the sign. 2 Mihhail Lotman (2002, 37) notices that the
center of Peirce’s semiotics is the sign, whereas in Tartu semiotics,
the sign is the product of the analysis. It is remarkable that in all
these statements, the concept of text is opposed to the sign, but how
exactly do the TMSS scholars define the sign?

The Sign: Peirce versus Saussure


As is known, there are two widely accepted models of sign in
semiotics, dyadic and triadic. The bilateral model is traditionally
attributed to Saussure and the ternary to Peirce. On the general
scale, Saussurean and Peircean traditions can be juxtaposed as

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76 ● The Texture of Culture

two contrasting approaches, where the Saussurean, structuralist


branch is often criticized as linguocentric, restrictive, and con-
fined in its binary logic (see, e.g., Merrell 1992, 3–38). Without
going into much detail, it is worthwhile to note that these two

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models are not necessarily antithetical but can be complementary
to one another.
Saussure defined sign as a dual entity, consisting of two sides: the
signifier (sound pattern—because he was discussing solely linguis-
tic signs) and the signified (concept). This dyadic model has been
accepted and reformulated by many authors and is often presented
as a dichotomy of form (expression, representation, signans, etc.) and
substance (content, meaning, signatum, etc.) of the sign.
In Peirce’s (1931–34) analytical philosophy, the sign is triadic:

A sign, or representamen , is something which stands to somebody for


something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that
is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps
a more developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the inter-
pretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object . It
stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of
idea, which I have sometimes called the ground of the representamen.
(2.228).

Peirce’s representamen can be compared with Saussure’s signifier,


but the interpretant is only roughly equivalent to the signified.
What distinguishes Peirce’s sign from the dyadic type is that the
interpretant is a mental model of the sign in the recipient’s mind.
Elsewhere, Peirce defines sign as “anything that determines some-
thing else (its interpretant) to refer to an object to which itself refers
(its object) in the same way, the interpretant becoming in turn a
sign, and so ad infinitum ” (2.303). This means that a sign is never
isolated; it is a link in an endless chain of signs. The concept of
interpretant accentuates the relativity of perception as well: one
and the same sign may evoke different associations with different
individuals.
If Saussure described exclusively the signs of natural language,
emphasizing the arbitrariness of the sign,3 Peirce came to define 10
trichotomies and 66 classes of signs. However, he never thoroughly
described them and they are rarely mentioned in semiotic works.

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Culture as Text ● 77

The most well known of Peirce’s trichotomies defines three basic


types of signs as icon, index, and symbol (2.247–49).

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• Icon: “Anything whatever, be it quality, existent individual, or
law, is an icon of anything, in so far it is like that thing and
used as a sign of it.”
• Index: “a sign which refers to the Object that it denotes by vir-
tue of being really affected by that Object.”
• Symbol: “a sign which refers to the Object that it denotes by
virtue of a law, usually an association of general ideas, which
operates to cause the Symbol to be interpreted as referring to
that Object.”

In the works of the TMSS, the sign is defined as a rule within


Saussure’s tradition. Peirce’s typology is rarely used or referred to;
even the trichotomy of symbol, icon, and index is not always used
in the Peircean sense. Lotman, for example, actively uses icon and
symbol as contrasting types of signs (the first nondiscrete and the
second discrete, see chapter 2), practically ignoring index or assign-
ing the precursory function to the iconic sign as well. Moreover, he
treats symbol in accordance with the Saussurean tradition, as a con-
ventional sign with elements of iconicity in it (Lotman 1990, 111).
Lotman also assigns symbol a function of a specific cultural entity
that does not express some definite content but rather refers to a
specific semantic field (more details in chapter 4).
On the whole, Lotman never wrote exclusively on the concept
of sign, nor did he follow the Peircean or Saussurean nomenclature
“by the book.” In several articles, Lotman and his colleagues specifi-
cally point out that they treat symbol differently from Peirce and
define it in the context of myth; symbol is thus a sort of micromyth,
and myth is a “symbol with the plot” (Barsukov et al. 1987). In
that sense, symbol is close to metaphor because both are products
of the translation of myth into the nonmythological sphere: “The
mythological text is perceived as symbolic when translated into the
category of nonmythological consciousness” (Lotman and Uspenskij
1977, 240–41, 250).
Like his colleagues in the TMSS, Lotman (2005, 205) also
opposes the text to the sign and distinguishes between two scientific

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78 ● The Texture of Culture

traditions: one that goes back to Peirce and Morris and prioritizes
the sign as the basic element of semiotic systems, and the other,
which he himself advocates, based on Saussure and the Prague
school, which focuses on the text and the opposition of langue and

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parole. Lotman reformulates the Saussurean dichotomy as follows:
langue is “an abstract system of invariant relations” (here he is in
slight contradiction with Saussure, who actually states that language
is no less concrete than speech; Saussure 1966, 15), and parole is
“a stream of individual messages” (Lotman 1977d, 13). Therefore,
for Lotman the concept of text is of primary importance: it is the
basic entity of culture, the product of communication and the main
object of semiotic study, and in that sense is opposed to the concept
of sign. Moreover, Lotman (1977d, 22; 1964, 140) argues that in art,
the artistic text is an integral sign, meaning that it is perceived in its
entirety.4
In the 1981 article “Semiotics of Culture and the Concept of
Text,” Lotman describes two tendencies in semiotic studies of the
last 15 years, one focusing on models and models of models and the
other on semiotic functioning of actual texts. In the latter case, the
nonsystemic and occasional features are central, whereas the for-
mer removes or neutralizes these contradictions through building
models. The second tendency also focuses on those semiotic aspects
of speech that deviate from the structure of language. Clearly advo-
cating the second approach, Lotman describes semiotics of culture
as a discipline that studies the cooperation of differently organized
semiotic systems, cultural polyglotism, and the inner asymmetry of
the semiotic space (Lotman 2002, 158).

The Structure of the Artistic Text


The study of textuality of semiotic systems has always been cen-
tral for Lotman, and it is no wonder that his first monograph was
on the structure of the artistic text. It has already been mentioned
that the modeling properties of art make the creative function of
the artistic text prevail over the informative one. Apart from that,
Lotman (1977d, 51–53) distinguishes three main characteristics of
the artistic text: expressedness, delimitedness, and structuredness,5
which are closely associated with one another. Let us see how they
are revealed in the text’s structure.

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Culture as Text ● 79

Text // System
The expressedness of the text manifests itself in the realization of
the system in a text. In a 1968 article, Lotman and Piatigorskii

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introduce the notion of text function , which they define as the
text’s social role, “a mutual interrelation between the system,
its realization and the text’s addressee-addresser” (Lotman and
Pjatigorskij 1977, 125). Here it is again evident that the TMSS
semioticians follow the formalists’ footsteps: Tynianov defines the
literary function as “the interrelationship of a work with literary
order” (Tynjanov 1978, 74) or, in Lotman terms, of a text with the
system:

The interrelationship of each element with every other in a literary


work and with the whole literary system as well may be called the
constructional function of the given element. . . . The very existence
of a fact as literary depends on its differential quality, that is, on its
interrelationship with both literary and extraliterary orders. Thus, its
existence depends on its function. (Tynjanov 1978, 68, 69);
A work is a system of interrelated factors. The correlation of each
given factor with the other factors is its function in relation to the
whole system. (Tynianov 2003, 565).

Likewise, the question of definition of literature, which is histori-


cally variable, becomes less important than the selection and dis-
tinction of literary facts: what text may be called literary, what is
considered to be literature and what is not, and so forth.
In other words, expressedness is what makes a text a text; it is
what allows us to define a text as belonging to any category, be it
literature, genre, or any other criterion. In practice it means that any
time we communicate with a text—for example, a new novel—we
unavoidably compare it on different levels with some superstructures
as genre, subgenre, style, and others, thus forming the impression
of this concrete text.Because a work of art lies at the intersection of
several deciphering codes, “the relationship of text and system in an
artistic work is not the automatic realization of an abstract structure
in concrete form, but is always a relationship of struggle, tension, and
conflict” (Lotman 1976a, 123–24). This assertion is an important
correction of the essentially Saussurean idea that texts are concrete
manifestations of la langue. Finally, expressedness also refers to “the

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80 ● The Texture of Culture

material envelope” of the text: how it is expressed in any medium,


be it the sounds of natural language, images on film, or symbols
printed on paper or shown on the computer screen. What is essential
here is that when a text is expressed in some material substance, this

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substance becomes semiotized as well, acquiring additional mean-
ings (consider such phrases as “the noble marble of a tombstone” or
“the gleam of a glossy magazine”).

Structure // Meaning
To be perceived as a semiotic whole, any text must also be organized
in a specific way. That is why its elements (signs) are connected with
one another not only syntagmatically but in a complex interrelation-
ship on all levels. The text is hierarchically structured, and in its
structure signs are packed, as it were, inside one another like matry-
oshka dolls (Lotman 1977d, 23).
The structure of the text is not something accessory to it. “Beauty
is information ,” states Lotman (1964, 100) aphoristically, pointing
out that the structure of the artistic text already bears some poten-
tial information. Furthermore, if the structure of an artistic text
is meaningful by itself, an altered structure will convey a differ-
ent idea (Lotman 1977d, 12). As an example, Lotman describes the
concept of repetition that transforms the “normal” system of rela-
tions in language into a specific one. Following Tynianov’s works
on the peculiarities of the poetic language, Lotman states that the
tendency toward repetition is one of the constructive principles of
poetry: “The tendency toward repetition can be treated as a prin-
ciple of verse construction, and the tendency toward conjunction as a
principle of prose construction” (Lotman 1977d, 79).6 If in “normal”
everyday communication repetitions are usually perceived as redun-
dant, needed only if the recipient failed to grasp the information,
in the artistic text repetitions create a difference; every repetition
establishes a correlation that is at the same time a rapprochement,
comparison, and juxtaposition. In myth, the function of repetition is
even more evident: repetitions are widely used in rituals (not neces-
sarily sacral but also profane that are recurrent in everyday life) and,
in a broader sense, magic, where the signs are often identified with
objects.7 Lotman (1977d, 132) shows that repetitions in the artistic
text are never identical and on the contrary increase the semantic

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Culture as Text ● 81

diversity of the text and reveal its structure. Lotman (1964, 74) sum-
marizes this principle of “similarity in difference” and “difference
in similarity” as an essential formula of art that “represents the two
inseparable halves of the unity of consciousness” of human beings

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(Lotman 2009, 147).
Meaning-altering devices manifest themselves on various levels
in the artistic text: syntagmatic, phonological, rhythmical. Rhyme
is one of the illustrative examples: semantically different words
become correlated by a phonological (or sometimes graphical) simi-
larity, which produces the semantic shift. Another meaning-alter-
ing structural device in poetry and literature as a whole is rhythm.
Tynianov (1965) notably describes rhythm as the constructive factor
of verse and introduces the phrase “the compactness of the verse
series,” which means that the line structure in verse deforms and
subordinates syntactical and semantic connections between words.
In general, even “formal” elements of the text structure (e.g., chap-
ters and paragraphs in the written text or montage and other tech-
niques in film) are meaningful and significantly inf luence our
perception of texts.

Form // Content
The structure of the text is often identified with the text’s form,
which in turn raises the question of the relationship between form
and content in the text. 8 Already in 1924, Tynianov (1965, 27)
pointed out that all spatial analogies (e.g., content is contained in
form as wine in a glass) that are applied to the concept of form
have connotations of a static and auxiliary function. Lotman and his
colleagues fully share the formalist statement of the unity of form
and content: “Under the complex operations of meaning-generation
language is inseparable from the content it expresses” (Lotman
1990, 15). Indeed, if the content is much more important than the
form in which it is concealed, as many would argue, then the whole
point of art must be considered futile. Why bother to write a novel
if one can summarize its main ideas and make them public? The fact
that it does not happen signifies that the author’s idea is inseparable
from the artistic structure in which it is expressed, and the artistic
text is therefore a complexly constructed meaning (Lotman 1977d, 12;
1976a, 35).9 To prove his point, Lotman cites Leo Tolstoy’s letter

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82 ● The Texture of Culture

from 1876 where he replies to the critics’ attempts to formulate the


main idea of Anna Karenina :10

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If I wanted to say in words all that I intended to express by my novel,
then I would rewrite it just as I wrote it from the beginning. . . . I have
been guided by the need to assemble ideas linked together for the
expression of myself, for each idea expressed by words alone loses its
meaning, is terribly diminished, when it is removed from that con-
junction in which it is found. (translated in Lotman 1976a, 34)

Tolstoy emphasizes the fact that the meaning of the artistic text can-
not be reduced to simplistic formulas. Besides that, Tolstoy, in quite
a structuralist vein, unequivocally states that the essence of art is
in the “infinite labyrinth of couplings” (stsepleniia), as he puts it,
and that the meaning of the artistic text is inseparable from these
c onnections—that is, the text’s structure. If we return to scheme 2.6,
which depicts the creative function of the text, it becomes clear why
Lotman does not call the multiplicity of T2 a plurality of meanings
that can be extracted from one text. In this view, meaning is some-
thing external to the text, which contradicts the premise of the unity
of form and content.
To further illustrate this point, let us compare the artistic text
with the scientific one as two contrasting types of texts with dif-
ferent creative potentials. If the scientific text “gravitates towards
monosemy,” the artistic text, on the contrary, because of its creative
function, creates a field of possible interpretations (Lotman 1976a,
122). The nonartistic text can be reduced to a simpler structure that
can be considered the invariant meaning of the text. It is possible in
the scientific (scholarly) text because “the ideas of a scientist can be
extracted from the text they are expressed in,” but “the ideas of an
artist are a text ” (Lotman 1990, 237). For example, it is possible to
reformulate practically any phrase in this book so that it becomes
clearer to the reader without serious alteration of meaning, but if
someone translates the phrase “To be or not to be” as “To die or not
to die,” something seems to be lost in translation.
Here we return to the concept of unpredictability of the text.
A scientific text is much less unpredictable because the conventions
of scientific metalanguage are much more rigid and its vocabulary
is much more limited, which is necessary in order to decrease the

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Culture as Text ● 83

unpredictability of the message. The unpredictability (of the artistic


text) presupposes an interpreter; the scientific text aims at eliminat-
ing the mediator. Lotman explains it by the fact that the scientific
text “looks at the world as something already made, constructed”

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and the artistic text creates a world of its own “in which are embed-
ded mechanisms of unpredictable self-development” (Lotman 1990,
236). Put differently, scientific texts are designed primarily to con-
vey information, whereas artistic texts are created to generate new
meanings. That is also the reason why artistic texts are focused on
autocommunication much more than scientific texts.

Myth-Texts versus Plot-Texts


One of the textual typologies that Lotman uses is that of myth-texts
versus plot-texts. I have already mentioned that myth is oriented
toward recognition and identification and is supposed to maintain a
certain worldview. That is why myth-texts are nondiscrete, meaning
they do not allow segmentation and analysis. They are perceived as a
whole and usually have a cyclic structure. On the contrary, discrete
texts (or plot-texts) allow analytical approach, are linear, and may be
subdivided into smaller elements. The concept of plot is thus broader
and is not limited to narratives; it is an important developmental
element of any semiotic system. Myth is a stabilizing element of the
system that preserves order, norms, rules, and the world picture in
general, whereas plot introduces dynamicity, being a “revolution-
ary element” in relation to the world picture (Lotman 1977d, 238).
A hero in a plot-text is able to cross the established boundaries and
break the existing rules, and plot therefore is always superimposed
on the basic mythological plotless structure (Lotman 1990, 151).
The dichotomy of mythological versus plot-texts is of course ideal.
It is hard to find “pure” plotless texts, and Lotman uses this opposi-
tion primarily in order to illustrate how the structure of culture is
reflected in the artistic texts. In the artistic text, there is always a
combination of these two polar tendencies, innovation and recogni-
tion. As Lotman (1976a, 127) argues, “To write poetry well is to
write both correctly and incorrectly at the same time,” that is, the
text has to combine the expected and unexpected elements in it. As
a very recent example, one may mention the highest-grossing film
in the history of cinematography so far (as of October 2011), James

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Cameron’s Avatar. On the level of story line, the film is a variation of


a trivial plot exploited in numerous texts across many cultures about
an invader in a foreign civilization (here, a distant planet) who takes
the side of the alien people and starts fighting for their freedom. The

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combination of a highly predictable storyline and innovative, even
revolutionary technology of filmmaking combined with CGI and a
clever promotion campaign resulted in a mixture of the recognizable
and the new that proved to be highly appealing to many viewers
around the globe.

The Boundaries of the Text


One of the features of the text is seemingly too obvious: the text is
delimited. The boundaries of the text, its actual or metaphorical
frame, is what distinguishes it from other texts, extratexts, and non-
texts. The iconic gesture of photographers and filmmakers—when
they form a frame out of their fingers—is especially illustrative here:
when a piece of reality is enclosed in a frame, it becomes the artistic
text. The presence of the frame influences practically every aspect
of its perception: the picture can now mean something. In the cin-
ematographic text, the frame (shots that delineate the boundary of
the artistic space; Lotman 1976b, 24) is always marked for the audi-
ence. The play of markedness or unmarkedness of the boundary cre-
ates additional points of meaning-generation; for example, in the
theater, the space of action is usually delimited by the stage and
may be deliberately broken in order to produce a new effect on the
audience.
The concept of the text frame is developed by Boris Uspenskii in
his book Poetics of Composition . Uspenskii (1970, 181–214) argues
that any text creates a special world with its space and time, the
world to which we are related as outside observers and the rules of
which we have to accept in order to make sense out of our interac-
tion with it.
In addition to that, any text is necessarily perceived in relation
to what is situated outside the text and the idea of nontext as well.
If the recipient does not notice the frame, the text is considered to
be a nontext. There are many anecdotes that are constructed around
the problem of invisibility of the frame of an artistic object: when
a painted object is taken for a real one, as in the famous contest

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Culture as Text ● 85

between two renowned Greek painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasios,11 or


when a cleaner at a modern art museum mistakes an exhibition item
for trash and throws it away. Establishing the boundaries of the text
naturally plays an important part in its perception: for example, in

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Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita , it is easy to neglect the “Foreword” by
the fictional John Ray Jr. as seemingly not Nabokov’s text, which
significantly influences the perception of the whole story.
It is therefore important to consider not only those elements that
are present in the text but also those that are not present. Already in
the 1962 article “The Problem of Similarity of Art and Life from the
Structuralist Point of View,” Lotman (2000a, 383) asserts that the
artistic text is always functional, that is, the text is perceived in its
relation both to what is being re-created (life, reality) and to what is
not being re-created (the multiplicity of possible texts). As we have
seen earlier, the idea that the recipient always perceives the text in
a dual way—what is encoded in it and what is not—is frequent in
Lotman’s works. Elsewhere, Lotman refers to molecular physics and
the concept of a hole, which means not just the absence of matter but
its absence in a structural position, so the hole can be measured in
negative terms (there are “light” and “heavy” holes). In the literary
text, there are “light” and “heavy” holes as well; Lotman introduces
the term “minus-device,” the meaningful absence of structural ele-
ments that influences the perception of the text.12 In the same man-
ner, a senseless combination of sounds will be perceived as such,
whereas an unknown word will most likely be perceived as a “minus-
meaning.” For example, in Eugene Onegin , some lines and stanzas
are omitted, marked by lines of dots, which turns the absence of text
into a “minus-text,” a meaningful omission. Finally, in a literary or
cinematographic text, some elements may not be shown/described
but the reader would logically deduce them. Formally, these ele-
ments do not exist in the text, but at the same time they are its
intrinsic part, being located “between” the sequences of the film or
the passages of the written text.
Another type of textual boundary is to be found in narratives. In
the narrative text, the boundaries are temporal: regardless of how the
plot is constructed, the narrative unfolds in time and its elements are
perceived consequently and not simultaneously as, for example, in a
picture or sculpture.13 Naturally, the narrative has the beginning and
the end, and these structural signposts become semantically loaded

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86 ● The Texture of Culture

because they reflect the human tendency to understand reality, to


ascribe sense and purpose to it. The beginning and the end intro-
duce segmentation to the continuity of life, making it discrete and
meaningful. Lotman returns to the question of relation of art and life

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and states, “As the concept of art is linked to reality, notions of text/
text boundary are also inextricably incorporated into the problem of
life/death” (Lotman 2009, 162). The ending thus becomes a textual
counterpart of death in life and gains special importance because it
influences the perception of the whole text; it is what makes a text
meaningful: “That which is without end is without sense” (ibid.,
161). The rejection of the end in a text is no less meaningful and only
emphasizes its structural importance, creating a “minus-position,”
a meaningful absence. Aside from the classical example of Laurence
Sterne’s Sentimental Journey,14 open and alternative endings are very
common in literary and cinematographic texts and are even domi-
nant in certain genres.

Isomorphic Textuality
After our discussion of the structure of culture and the structure
of text, we have come to another crucial point of Lotman’s theory,
the description of culture as text. If I had to formulate the essence
of “the Lotman approach” to culture very generally and in one sen-
tence, I would probably put it as follows: Lotman studies culture as
a very complex polyglot text, which is isofunctional and isomorphic
to individual intellect. This assumption lies at the basis of Lotman’s
theory and makes up the law of cultural isomorphism. According to
this principle, culture is both a “collective mind” and an invariant
text. We have seen so far that Lotman describes the features and
functions of the text similarly to the features and functions of the
system. This is not a coincidence but a reflection of the law of iso-
morphism: culture is studied as an exceptionally complex text that
consists of a hierarchy of “texts within the texts” (Lotman 2009, 77).
The metaphor of matryoshka doll springs to mind again: the whole
is structurally identical to its parts; subsystems are isomorphic to
systems (e.g., art is functionally similar to culture, literature to art,
etc.), and any text reflects the whole culture in itself. Culture is thus
both a mechanism that generates texts and a text itself (Lotman and
Uspensky 1978, 218).

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Culture as Text ● 87

The principle of cultural isomorphism is the main ethos of


Lotman’s works on Russian cultural history and is brief ly sum-
marized in the conclusion to Conversations about Russian Culture :
“History, ref lected in one person, in his life and gesture, is isomor-

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phic to the history of mankind. They are ref lected in one another
and are comprehended through one another” (Lotman 1994, 389).
In other words, Lotman always sees the general in the particular
and vice versa, describing the ref lection of system in a text and
the ref lection of culture in the life of an individual. In the con-
cept of the semiosphere, this principle will become even more
pronounced.

The Invariant
The idea that culture as a whole may be considered a complex text
is recurrent in Lotman’s works, occurring in early texts as well as in
his last book. What exactly does Lotman mean by that? As Lotman
states in 1969, when describing a group of texts that are believed to
belong to one culture, it is possible to “obtain a textual construct
which will be the invariant of all the texts belonging to the given
cultural type.” This “culture text” will also represent the worldview
or “the most abstract model of reality” of the given culture (Lotman
2003, 104). Consequently, in the context of autocommunication,
culture can be regarded as a message transmitted by the collective
“I” of humanity to itself (Lotman 1990, 33).
The concept of the invariant has immediate practical applications.
Texts that are not familiar to the recipient—a genre or even an artis-
tic system—will be perceived as identical because the attention of
the reader will be focused only on the macrostructure, not on indi-
vidual peculiarities. For an unprepared audience, for example, all
religious icons may seem identical, just like all faces of a foreign race
might seem identical at first glance. That is why when we describe
a group of texts as one text of a higher level, it will contain only the
systemic elements or an invariant system of relations (the romantic
text, or a comedy, or an artistic text) (Lotman 1977d, 54–55). In
textual analysis, it is therefore possible to elucidate groups of texts
with a similar invariant structure. The invariants may be found on
different levels, from a group of texts to an invariant text of a cul-
ture, bringing into focus the concept of genre.

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Genre
Genre is one of the oldest and most disputed concepts in literary
criticism, much older than the term “literature” itself. Genre under-

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went a long process of transformation and evolved from the notion
of “literary kinds” to a social and communicative concept that tran-
scended the boundaries of the literary domain. It also moved from
the level of static and normative taxonomies to the level of dynamic
and structural discursive devices.15 The term is now widely used in
sociology, anthropology, and other disciplines; genre theory is an
essential part of any discussion on literary history and/or theory and
an object of many separate studies.16
Lotman understands genre as an invariant structure of a group of
texts. He focuses on the cultural function of genres as an effective
mechanism of preservation of information in culture, and he links the
concept of genre to the concept of text as a modeling mechanism and
to the concept of cultural memory, a capacity of culture to preserve and
reproduce information (see the section on collective memory later):

The existence of memory in the channel of communication can


also be associated with the ref lection, in the structure of genres, of
communication features which sometimes can be traced back to the
preceding period (the “genre memory,” according to M. M. Baxtin).
(Lotman et al. 1975, 67)

Lotman’s notion of the invariant is in many ways congenial to the


description of genre in structuralist and modern semiotic theories.
The first immediate connection is the mentioned Vladimir Propp’s
Morphology of the Folktale, which studies genre as an invariant struc-
ture, and the formalist theory. Tynianov focused on the structural
function of genres in the context of literary evolution as a dynamic
system in continuous transformation: old genres become obsolete
and new ones move to the center from the periphery:

The evolution of genres consists in changing the relation between the


parts of the system. . . . It usually results in a combination of genres or
even the total extinction of certain genres, i.e. the re-organization of
the whole genre system. (Tynianov 1977, 301)

Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of speech genres, as we have seen, moved


beyond literary boundaries into the sphere of sociology. Tzvetan
Todorov’s works drew upon both the formalist theory and Bakhtin’s

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Culture as Text ● 89

ideas. Todorov (1990, 15) describes the evolution of genres in a


rather formalist way: “A new genre is always the transformation of
an earlier one, or of several: by inversion, by displacement, by com-
bination.” As genres derive from speech acts, their main function is

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social: “A genre, whether literary or not, is nothing other than the
codification of discursive properties,” which each society codifies in
accordance with its ideology (ibid., 18). Institutionalization allows
genres to function as mediating devices between writers and readers
because genres function as “horizons of expectation” for readers and
as “models of writing” for authors.
The social function of genres is addressed in the works of such
researchers as Carolyn Miller (1984, 159), who defines genres as
“typified rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations,” and Anis
Bawarshi (2000, 336), who argues that genres are rhetorical environ-
ments within which we reproduce practices, situations, and identi-
ties. A genre is therefore “the textual instantiation” of a situation
(ibid., 357), the textualization of a social event. From this point of
view, genres become synonymous with the concept of discourse and
are primarily seen as containers of values and ideology.17
The social function of genre highlights the idea of textuality of
everyday interactions. However, the overestimation of the social
function of genres seems to derive from the (intentional) confusion
of literary genres with the types of “recognized social situations.”
For instance, it is obvious that the main function of the genre of the
Patient Medical History Form, one of Bawarshi’s (2000, 353–54)
examples, is rather pragmatic: a sociorhetorical condition is espe-
cially designed to facilitate contact between the patient and the
doctor. The function of literary genres is much more complex, and
even if they can function pragmatically (structuring the production-
reception process), the poetic function (or sign function) of genres is
more important and cannot be equated with the social one.
The sociology of genre focuses on the main participants of the
generic situation: the recipient (e.g., the reader) and the sender (e.g.,
the author). In this view, genre functions as an interpretive context
that facilitates—and to a certain degree predetermines—inter-
pretation (cf. the heuristic and constitutive function of genre in
Hirsch 1967, 78).18 Many theoreticians emphasize the interpretive
(and communicative) function of genres: John Hartley describes
them as “the recognized paradigmatic sets into which the total
output of a given medium (film, television, writing) is classified”

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90 ● The Texture of Culture

(O’Sullivan et al. 1994, 127), John Swales (1990, 46) defines genres
as “shared set[s] of communicative purposes,” and Jonathan Culler
(2002, 137) speaks of literary competence—“a set of conventions
for reading literary texts.” From this perspective, genre appears to

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be a special code shared by the addresser (creator of a text or a
group of texts) and the addressee (recipient of such texts) or a set of
conventional rules that serves as a mechanism of predictability of
textual structure that shapes the reader’s expectations.
Because genre describes the relation between texts and functions
as a frame of reference, it evolves to be an intertextual concept (see
Wales 2001, 221). The mechanisms of intertextuality come to the
fore especially in the context of artistic production/reception and
are inextricably intertwined with each other. The basic intertextual
mechanisms can be generally defined as imitation and transforma-
tion (e.g., pastiche and parody).19 These two processes were described
in Tynianov’s influential works on parody as a powerful device
that enables literary evolution and accounts for the shifts in liter-
ary systems. Tynianov differentiates between the parodic function
( parodiinaia funktsiia) and the parodistic form ( parodichnaia forma)
where the latter is “the use of parodistic forms in a non-parodic func-
tion,” as when a work is taken as a model (maket) for creation of a
new work (Tynianov 1977, 290). 20 It is worthwhile to note that in
Tynianov’s view, as well as in many modern works on parody, the
intertext becomes not so much a matter of the writer’s intention as
of the reader’s perception.
To summarize all the aforesaid, Lotman’s understanding of genre
as an invariant intertextual structure is one of the key notions in the
description of textuality of culture. In this context, genre can be finally
defined as a certain dynamic model of the structural organization of
any text and an intertextual link between the participants of the dia-
logic situation (Semenenko 2004, 137). It is a device that is used both
as a modeling mechanism (used by the author for production of texts)
and as a form of identification of texts by the recipient (genre helps
predict the text’s structure and even its content). Genres also make the
readers sensitive to the appearance of new forms in literature and the
process of their transformation. We can depict this relationship in a
form of inverted pyramid, where the tip represents a single text and
the invariants are located according to the level of generalization, or
again as a set of matryoshkas inserted into one another (figure 3.1).

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Culture as Text ● 91

Culture

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System
(Literature)

Genre
(Tragedy)

Text
(Hamlet)

Figure 3.1 The relation of text to culture.

Hamlet as Model
The relation between genres and texts is subject to mutual inf luence,
and the example of Hamlet is especially illustrative here. For more
than 400 years, Hamlet manages to survive the oblivion, success-
fully securing its place in the literary canon of many countries. It
is no longer a “normal” text; after centuries of exceptional popular-
ity, it has come to function as a model for creation of other texts as
well. It has spawned numerous translations of the play into different
languages and thousands of films, theater productions, parodies,
and other texts that somehow refer to the Shakespearean classic.
The modeling function of Hamlet is especially noticeable in Hamlet
production: the theater director Daniel Mesguich notices that when
staging Hamlet , one stages “the fact that it is a classic” (quoted in
Heylen 1993, 124). That is, the director always has to deal with
the history of the play’s production and criticism in order to pres-
ent something innovatory to the audience. Given that the audience

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92 ● The Texture of Culture

already expects something new, a traditional production of Hamlet


may evoke a negative reaction. It is enough to look through the lat-
est reviews of any Hamlet production to see that in most cases the
critic’s attention is focused on certain “nodal points” of the play

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and on the interpretation of these episodes by the director and/or
actor(s). For example, Peter Holland (1997) describes several perfor-
mances of Hamlet on the English stage in the 1990s with reference
to some particularly recognizable scenes and their interpretations.
Performances are also evaluated along the axis of their originality
and/or connection to a certain tradition: whether or not the con-
trast between dramatic text and theatrical performance produced
the desired effect on the audience.
One of the consequences of the text’s canonization is that its
structure can be used as a framework for referring to sociocultural
events: the text becomes a sort of “container” filled with a new con-
tent every single time. How Hamlet is perceived as such a struc-
ture is well illustrated by usage of the play in a political context, in
which the conflict between the hero and “them” becomes dominant:
Hamlet is portrayed as a rebel opposing the authorities (or masses/
mainstream, etc.) and is used as a symbol of nonconformism, liberal
thinking, and dissidence. It appeared in contexts only remotely con-
nected with the tragedy, to the point that sometimes the tragedy was
used as a form of Aesopian language, a canonized structure where
the creators and translators could express their critique or protest
(see Semenenko 2007, 141–42).
All these examples show how Hamlet serves as a model for creation
of other texts, being a sort of “one-text genre.” It is obvious now that
the process of genre formation consists of the combination and trans-
formation of existing genres not only on the upper level of categories,
models, and paradigms but on the level of concrete texts as well. The
usual perception of genres as a system that works deductively—that
is, from the general to the particular—must be complemented by
the mechanism of canonization, when a unique text moves on to the
upper level of models and functions as a specific (sub)genre, as it hap-
pened to the Shakespearean classic. This idea was in a sense antici-
pated by Tynianov (1977, 210–12)—who argues that automatization
of an obsolete device results in the production of the new model,
which in turn becomes a prototype for further texts—and also by
Tzvetan Todorov (1990, 15), who states that “no sooner is [the work]

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Culture as Text ● 93

recognized in its exceptional status than the work becomes a rule.”


Also, in his earlier book The Fantastic, Todorov (1975, 7) formulates
the principle of analysis that Lotman applied in his works as well:
“Every literary study must participate in a double movement: from

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the particular work to literature generally (or genre), and from litera-
ture generally (from genre) to the particular work.”

Typology of Cultures
If cultures can be described as texts, it is then possible to classify
them according to the principles of their textual structure, to create
a sort of “vocabulary” of cultural idioms. The problem of typol-
ogy of cultures—the classification of the main culture types and
the description of developmental dynamicity of semiotic systems—is
one of the central topics of interest for the TMSS scholars.
Lotman has published several works on this problem, includ-
ing the collection Essays on the Typology of Culture (1970). In one of
his first articles on this problem in 1967, a “die-hard” structuralist
approach is evident. Lotman formulates the goals of the typology of
culture as

1) description of the main types of cultural codes on the basis of


which the “languages” of individual cultures, with their compara-
tive characteristics, take shape; 2) determination of the universals
of human culture; 3) construction of a single system of typological
characteristics relating to the fundamental cultural codes and uni-
versal traits that constitute the general structure of human culture.
(Lotman 1977b, 214)

Apart from that, Lotman formulates the future task of cultural


typology as “the creation of a grammar of cultural languages” (ibid.,
216). Lotman argues that the number of fundamental cultural types
is relatively small and the historical diversity of cultures is the result
of their complex combinations. This static approach is of course in
stark contrast with the parallel attempt to describe the dynamic vari-
ety of cultures (Thompson 1977, 236). As an example of contrasting
cultural codes, Lotman describes the cultures of the Middle Ages
and the Enlightenment: the former is based on the iconic relation
between the sign and its content and the latter on the conventional
relation. If medieval culture is highly semiotized and the sign is

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placed at the top of cultural hierarchy, Enlightenment disapproves


of the very principle of signs, emphasizing their conventionality.
The icon/symbol opposition remains at the center in another article,
coauthored with Boris Uspenskii in 1971, “On the Semiotic Mechanism

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of Culture.” Lotman continues the description of cultural grammars,
paying special attention to the relation of culture to the sign and the
process of signification. This principle—what kind of invariant text
a culture constructs of itself—is basically the main criterion of the
comparative description of cultures. The authors distinguish between
the expression-oriented cultures and the content-oriented cultures:
“Cultures directed primarily towards expression have this conception
of themselves as a correct text (or aggregate of texts) whereas cultures
directed mainly towards content see themselves as a system of rules”
(Lotman and Uspensky 1978, 218). Furthermore, these two types of
culture may be defined as oriented toward the opposite types of signs:
for the expression-oriented cultures, the ritual (which is based on the
iconic, one-to-one correlation of the level of content with the level
of expression) is the main type of sign, whereas for content-oriented
cultures it is the symbol (the arbitrary/conventional correlation). The
ritual presupposes the content to be inseparable from its expression,
and therefore, to the expression-oriented culture, “the entire world can
appear as a sort of text consisting of various kinds of signs, where con-
tent is predetermined and it is only necessary to know the language;
that is, to know the relation between the elements of expression and
content” (ibid., 217). In such a culture, the ritualized forms of behav-
ior and the notion of correct designation constitute the core of the
system. As an example, the authors refer to the medieval ideology, but
it is obvious that the official Soviet culture can also be characterized
in exactly the same way (Lepik 2008, 66–68).
In the opposite type of cultures, “some degree of freedom is
assumed both in the choice of content and in its relation to expres-
sion” (Lotman and Uspensky 1978, 218). Furthermore, in its self-
description, the content-oriented culture opposes itself to chaos/
entropy/nonculture and therefore sees chaos as the sphere for its
potential expansion, whereas the expression-oriented culture con-
structs the image of the other as anticulture or the wrong culture
and therefore attempts to separate itself from it by all means. In
summary, the outline of these two types can be presented in the
oppositions listed in table 3.1.

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Culture as Text ● 95

Table 3.1 Typology of cultures

Culture 1 Culture 2

• Expression-oriented • Content-oriented

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• Correct text • Set of rules
• Ritual • Symbol
• Opposed to anticulture (correct vs. • Opposed to nonculture (organized vs.
incorrect) unorganized)
• Inward isolation • Outward expansion

Although cultural typology allows effectively elucidating differ-


ences between cultures, the problems with this contrasting descrip-
tion are obvious. In different works, the members of the opposition
become confused with one another: if in one article (“Canonical Art
as the Information Paradox,” 1973) the neoclassicist and medieval
cultures belong to the same “aesthetics of identity” type, in another
article (“On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture,” 1971), they are
contrasted: the neoclassicist model is based on the orientation toward
rules and the medieval toward texts. Furthermore, neoclassicism is
also opposed to European realism of the nineteenth century: both
cultures require rules as “a minimal condition for the creation of cul-
ture,” but in the neoclassicist model the critic is much higher in the
hierarchy than the creator of the text, whereas in the realist model
the critic follows the writer (Lotman and Uspensky 1978, 219). In
other words, cultural types may be classified differently, depending
on which characteristics are taken as the main criteria for descrip-
tion. For instance, in the article “Canonical Art as the Information
Paradox,” Lotman differentiates between cultures oriented toward
following/executing the rules (ritualized art, the “aesthetics of iden-
tity” that characterizes folklore, the Middle Ages, and neoclassicism)
and cultures oriented toward breaking canons (“aesthetics of con-
trast”; e.g., the nineteenth-century culture) (Lotman 2000a, 437; cf.
Lotman 1977d, 290).
What is especially noteworthy in these works on cultural typol-
ogy is that Lotman and his colleagues use the words epoch, culture,
ideology, and consciousness interchangeably, with the meaning of a
typical worldview of a certain social group. Given that the goal of
typological description is to elucidate the similarities and differences
between cultures according to the principle of construction of their
semiotic sphere, the typology of cultures is not limited to historical

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periods. For example, the type of “medieval consciousness” can refer


to a specific period (the Middle Ages or neoclassicism, for example)
and even not-time-bound entities such as folklore. It is therefore obvi-
ous that the “culture one” type in table 3.1 resembles what Lotman,

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Uspenskii, and other TMSS scholars used to call the mythological
consciousness. Another feature of these articles is that the opposing,
“modern” consciousness is usually described quite vaguely and in less
detail, serving as a necessary opposition for the first element of the
dichotomy. On the whole, it is evident here how Lotman approaches
culture as an expression of collective consciousness, which brings
cultural analysis to the boundary with sociology and psychology.
This approach will become more evident in his latest works, which
will be discussed in detail in chapters 4 and 5.
In general, the main problem of the invariant is the universalistic
generalization that tends to ignore the deviations from the norm,
thus focusing entirely on the ideal self-portrait of culture. This view
nullifies the differences between concrete texts, reducing them to
some common denominator, which is the problem that Lotman him-
self mentioned in his works. Furthermore, the method of description
of culture types in binary oppositions constitutes yet another prob-
lem that requires a separate excursus.

Excursus 2: The Problem of Binarism


The notion of binary opposition is one of the most disputed ones
in structuralism and semiotics. Opposition as a universal principle
of description and cognition has been propagated by many scholars
(Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, Lyons, Halle, etc.) and can be traced back
to Aristotle. In the works of the TMSS scholars, as we have seen,
dual models are a significant part of their terminology.
It is, however, important to distinguish between the two sides of
this concept: binarism as, so to say, an intrinsic, ontological qual-
ity of any semiotic system and binarism as the principle of semiotic
analysis and interpretation. In the first case it is a prescriptive con-
cept, and in the second a descriptive one, but in many structur-
alist (and semiotic) works it is sometimes difficult to distinguish
these two poles. In the interpretation/description of any continuum
(such phenomena as time, culture, language, etc.), binary opposi-
tions become elementary devices for reducing the continuous to the

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Culture as Text ● 97

discrete (Culler 2002, 16). The principle of opposition is also a nec-


essary instrument of cognition: the most trivial way of making sense
of a new phenomenon, alongside comparing it to something (defin-
ing it through synonyms), is to define it negatively, as opposite to

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something: “A is like B but also opposed to C.” In one of his earliest
works, Lotman (1977d, 265) observed that only that which has an
antithesis is meaningful—that is, he emphasized the cognitive func-
tion of binarism.
The greatest advantage and at the same time danger of binarism
“lies in the fact that it permits one to classify anything” because prac-
tically any two elements can be placed in a binary relation (Culler
2002, 17). Apart from that, a classification just for the sake of clas-
sification never explains anything. One of the pitfalls of binarism is
that when operating exclusively within binary logic, the deduced ele-
ments may be assigned some functions they do not possess in reality,
and some other functions of the studied phenomena may be totally
ignored. Consequently, the analysis may yield oversimplified and/or
biased results.
Lotman often used oppositions in the structuralist sense, for
example, describing the structure of the plot as a complex of oppo-
sitions: “us/them,” “up/down,” and so on. In Universe of the Mind ,
Lotman defines binarism as “a principle which is realized in plural-
ity since every newly-formed language is in its turn subdivided on
a binary principle” (Lotman 1990, 124). Here Lotman speaks of a
growing number of art languages that appear as a result of inner sub-
division, giving an example of cinema that can be subdivided into
documentary films, entertainment films, cartoon films, TV, and so
forth. So in this context, binarism must be understood as multiplic-
ity that can be reduced to binary models. Although Lotman does not
abandon the idea of binarism in favor of the principle of plurality
and polyglotism, I would suggest that, in his idiom, this concept is
less structuralist and more formalist, close to the concept of differ-
ential quality (see a similar proposition by Shukman 1977, 39). The
multidimensional character of culture can therefore be represented
by a diagram where each of the main oppositions is an axis with
uncountable intermediate variants that in their turn can relate to
other elements of the system.
In Lotman’s semiotics, binarism thus can be described as the prin-
ciple of differentiation in the context of the postulate that the text

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belongs to at least a pair of languages simultaneously. In this context,


one might note that if a language that consists of only one element
cannot exist, a pair of elements is already sufficient for creation of a
language that can produce and transfer information; a vivid example

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of this is the binary code, which consists of two elements represented
by the digits 0 and 1.
In his late works, Lotman introduces ternary models and opposes
them to binary ones. In one of his articles, Lotman (1992, 85–86)
discusses the difference between binary and ternary models and
states that if the first proceed from models to reality, the second
move from reality to models. However, it appears that a ternary
model is a combination of at least two binary models and is therefore
contradictory, in contrast to binary models that are consistent.
The opposition of ternary versus binary structures is central in
the last typology of cultures that Lotman develops in Culture and
Explosion . Lotman contends that there are cultures in which the
explosive model of development dominates and there are cultures in
which gradual changes are more evident. Consequently, the former
are based on dual models and the latter on ternary. This is a follow-
up to an earlier 1977 article by Lotman and Uspenskii in which
they analyze the history of Russian culture up to the end of the
eighteenth century as based on dual models. A culture dominated
by binary structures is extremely polarized, with sharp boundar-
ies between the poles and “without an axiologically neutral zone”
(Lotman and Uspensky 1985, 31). In such a binary system, an abrupt
change “penetrates life in its entirety” and tends to destroy the order
in its attempt to realize some unrealizable ideal, whereas ternary
structures adapt the ideal to reality, bringing new elements from the
periphery (Lotman 2009, 166).
Lotman illustrates this point with the example of Russia in the
last third of the nineteenth century, when “the simultaneous turn
to terror tactics by both government and democrats” triggered the
explosive events of the beginning of the twentieth century (ibid.,
169). As an example of a binary structure that transforms into a ter-
nary one, Lotman refers to the transition period of the late 1980s and
early 1990s in Russia (perestroika, the collapse of the USSR, and the
independence of former Soviet republics). This is a rather precarious
point of Lotman’s theorizing because, on the one hand, it is directly
linked to the turbulent period of the 1990s to which Lotman was

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Culture as Text ● 99

a witness, and on the other, it treats the proposed dichotomy too


loosely and generally. Russia as a culture based on dual structures
is opposed to the Western ternary culture, and the implied differ-
ence between them is that in the latter there is a “neutral zone”

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between the extremes, which mitigates revolutionary tendencies and
facilitates gradual evolution of the system. It is also remarkable that
this essentially historiosophical problem is presented as yet another
opposition of binary versus ternary, which comes quite abruptly in
the book and is not sufficiently developed. Apparently, in the last
chapters of Culture and Explosion , Lotman explored new perspec-
tives that were unfortunately never meant to materialize.

Internet as a Metatext of Culture


As a side note in this chapter, I may separately mention that Lotman’s
study of textuality of culture also emphasizes how saturated with
texts and textual structures our life is. To indicate a topic for fur-
ther exploration of this area, the Internet should be mentioned as a
suitable candidate. The Internet can be seen as a model of culture
that copies (translates) its structures with an additional degree of
organization and can therefore be considered a global metatext of
culture, one of its dynamic self-portraits. The very term hypertext —
which signifies any text in digital form—reflects the connotations
of a more complex, multidimensional structure that exhibits greater
flexibility and connectivity than “traditional” texts. The interactive
participation of the users with the hypertext also makes it a dynamic
rather than static structure and the center of the Internet activity.
In the same manner, the textuality of social interactions, which may
be implicit or blurred “in real life,” in the Internet becomes more
palpable and explicit, sometimes especially emphasized. This phe-
nomenon is especially evident in social networks, which provide var-
ious formats of communication and self-presentation but also offer
some features that simply do not exist in real life. On the whole, the
exceptional popularity of Facebook, for example, can be explained
by the fact that the offered structure of social interaction is much
more organized than in reality, which makes it easier to interconnect
and receive feedback, to live one’s social life in general. The formats
of communication imposed by social networks can be quite restric-
tive, thus seriously limiting users’ possibilities. Nonetheless, despite

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these limitations, the most important feature of social networks is


that they offer a unique opportunity to modify one’s personality
and even to create multiple personalities with various features; in
other words, they are erasing the boundary between the artistic and

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nonartistic sphere.

Culture as Collective Memory


The description of textuality of culture cannot be full without the
concept of collective memory, which functions first and foremost
as a mechanism of self-preservation and self-propagation of culture.
Collective memory rests on texts, and from an early age, we absorb
different texts that shape our semiotic space: family stories, tales,
school and university curricula, media stories, and many other tex-
tual entities that compose our individual cultures.
In the article “The Concept of Memory from Culturological
Perspective” (1985), Lotman defines culture as collective intellect
and collective memory, or a mechanism that preserves and transfers
messages, simultaneously producing new ones (Lotman 1992–93,
I.200–202; see also Lotman 1979; Lotman and Uspensky 1978;
Lotman and Uspensky 1985, 65). Cultural memory is panchronic and
defies the division of time into past, present, and future; because mem-
ory plays an active role in creation of new texts, “the past” in culture
has not really passed, but it is “always there.” Consequently, culture in
principle cannot repeat its past because it constantly re-creates it.
Semiotic systems are designed to preserve information in quite
a peculiar manner: memory appears to be “not an immobile store,
but an apparatus for active and ever new modelling” (Lotman
1979, 95; see also Lotman 1990, 272). That is why meanings in
cultural memory are not stored statically, like books in the library
or bytes on the hard drive, but transfigure, serving as an active
background for decoding and interpreting texts. As is obvious,
practically any text that is not quickly forgotten and is “stored” in
the memory of an individual is not preserved exactly in the same
form because individual memory is in the state of constant trans-
formation. Memories (i.e., texts), therefore, are not “retrieved” but
are dynamically re-created every single time. 21
Just like individual memory, the memorizing mechanisms of
collective memory vary according to their function: for example,

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Culture as Text ● 101

writing (and also various audio- and video-recording techniques)


is a form of memorizing and one of the most important means of
preservation of discrete events, whereas oral tradition focuses on
nondiscrete texts. Writing (recording of fixed texts in general) con-

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centrates on memorizing anomalous and unusual occurrences, thus
accumulating the historical material, and oral tradition focuses on
preservation of information about the established order and is there-
fore mythological (Lotman 1990, 246). Writing and oral tradition
are bound up with natural language, but apart from these, there are
many other systems that play an equally important role in culture’s
dynamics (especially in the era of digital media that becomes more
and more oriented toward audiovisual texts). It is also apposite to
note that the Internet in many ways dissolves the boundary between
the written and oral traditions and questions the criteria of fixedness
of the text.
Another feature of cultural memory that Lotman has always
emphasized is its nonhereditary nature (Lotman and Uspensky 1978,
213; Lotman 1977b, 213; Lotman 2000b, 395, 652). That means that
it is a social phenomenon and does not come as an “invisible pack-
age” with innate codes and structures, as the adherents of the “natu-
ralistic” approach would argue (see Zylko 2001, 393). This question
becomes topical in the discussion of the origin of language and cul-
ture, and in that context, Lotman emphasizes the historical variabil-
ity of cultures and the unpredictability of their development.
As any language contains many dialects, jargons, and idiolects,
culture too consists of many “dialects of memory” that are specific
to different groups or “subcultures.” These cultural dialects are orga-
nized differently; for instance, one can distinguish between texts
belonging to “high culture,” or to “emo culture,” or even to the cul-
ture of an individual family. The boundaries between these sub-
groups may often be quite vague, but certain groups may exhibit
clear hermetic properties, producing almost esoteric texts, incom-
prehensible to other cultural collectives. Such texts, when surpassing
their original cultural boundaries, might need supplementary mate-
rial or metatexts that would make them accessible to other collec-
tives (commentaries, lexicons, textbooks, translations, etc.).
In general, every instance of text interpretation presupposes the
common memory of the addresser and the addressee, which sig-
nificantly affects reception: the less memory is shared, the more

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102 ● The Texture of Culture

creative is the decoding process on the part of the addressee. The


text that meets its designated audience is comprehended faster
and requires less interpretation. In the 1977 article “The Text and
the Structure of Its Audience,” Lotman (1982) affirms that not

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only the text is transformed in the process of transfer from the
addresser to the addressee, but the addressee is shaped by the text
as well. This happens because any text has the image of the recipi-
ent imbedded in it; it has a “presumption of author and audience”
that does not always coincide with the real author and the real
audience. The text lies at the intersection between the author and
the reader, which makes it “a functional rather than a stable object
with constant properties” (Lotman 2009, 115). Functionality of
the text also means that it is not a fixed object but a dynamic one:
the text is inevitably included in some context, diachronic (histori-
cal) and/or synchronic (conventional); the author’s context, status,
and ideology; and the reader’s context, competence, and ideology.
The reader therefore does not really “decode the text” but is posi-
tioned in a dialogical relationship with it and is shaped by the text
as well.
One of the crucial properties of collective memory is, paradoxi-
cally, forgetting. Just as nonunderstanding is equally important for
communication, just as individual memory normally cannot func-
tion without forgetting mechanisms, the possibility to forget is also
crucial for the dynamic development of culture:

Culture continually excludes certain texts. The history of the


destruction of texts, of the purging of texts from the reserves of the
collective memory, proceeds alongside the history of the creation of
new texts. Every new movement in art revokes the authority of the
texts by which preceding epochs oriented themselves, by transfer-
ring them into the category of nontexts, texts of a different level, or
by physically destroying them. Culture by its very essence is against
forgetting. It overcomes forgetting, turning it into one of the mecha-
nisms of memory. (Lotman and Uspensky 1978, 216)

Apart from forgetting texts (sometimes as a result of “natural” causes,


sometimes deliberately, through censorship and different restrictions
imposed on text production and distribution), the process of “recol-
lection” of forgotten texts is also part of cultural mnemonic pro-
cesses. One of the most spectacular cases of such recollection is the

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Culture as Text ● 103

“rediscovery” of Shakespeare by German romantics at the end of


the eighteenth century when the Bard was made the center of the
European literary canon. In the seventeenth century, as is known,
Shakespeare was found problematic by many neoclassicist authors,

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and the English theater in general was considered to be in the mar-
gin of the European canon. 22

Automatization
Automatization is one of the features of individual memory that is
reflected in collective memory as well. It is a truism that any action,
when repeated a number of times, becomes automatic. For example,
when we are learning to dance or to fence, first we learn certain
movements, reflecting upon them and trying to “understand” them;
with time, and after a number of repetitions, we perform all of these
actions almost automatically. A similar principle is valid for nonmo-
tor memories as well: to understand something is to adapt the new
information to the old one, activated at this particular time. The
difference is that instead of performing a sequence of motor actions,
we establish a relation between the texts and signs of numerous semi-
otic systems. When we receive a new text, we “connect” it to our
personal knowledge and cultural competence, our semiosphere (see
chapter 4). The more similar texts we receive, the more automatized
becomes this relation; we “understand” (i.e., translate) texts faster,
and they become more and more predictable. Meeting someone is
a typical example: the initial stage of such an interaction is almost
ritualistic, close to automatic, because possible messages are quite
limited and often strictly codified.
Comprehension and understanding (i.e., generation of meaning)
can thus be depicted as a process of establishment of the correspon-
dence between the new and the known elements of our cultural mem-
ory (let us reiterate Lotman’s statement: “Understanding is always
a translation of an unknown object into the language of familiar
concepts” [Lotman 2010, 166]). Since meaning directly depends on
the principle of differentiation, the faster the relation between the
elements is established, the more automatized meanings become,
inevitably “washing out” (the case of metaphors is illustrative here).
One may also mention the formalists who notably described the
center-periphery relationship in terms of automatization: the center

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104 ● The Texture of Culture

is occupied by most repeatable, automatized, and predictable ele-


ments and the periphery with more diffusive ones. Remembering
and, in a broad sense, understanding is not a process of addition of
an item to a registry but a complex interaction of a new item with

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those stored in memory, the continuous process of disruption and
restoration of our personal cultural homeostasis. In a way, to under-
stand means to remember something that one did not know. It may
be also argued that this dynamics is what makes up the conscious
experience of the human being.
In this context, the mythological text could be defined as one that
is to a high degree automatized. Automatization creates mytholo-
gies, so the power of discourse mentioned earlier hides exactly in the
exploitation of automatized cultural codes that allow for manipula-
tion and control.

Memory of the Text


Cultural memory consists of texts, but, as we know, the texts are
not stored in memory like books on the shelf but rather function as
active links that connect them with other texts, codes, and contexts.
That is why the mnemonic function of the text appears to be no less
important than the informative and creative ones. The mnemonic
function of the text accentuates its intertextual quality: every text
is packed with meanings and links to other texts, not necessarily as
direct citations or references but often as part of the text’s “meaning-
space”:

The sum of the contexts in which a given text acquires interpre-


tation and which are in a way incorporated in it may be termed
the text’s memory. This meaning-space created by the text around
itself enters into relationship with the cultural memory (tradition)
already formed in the consciousness of the audience. As a result the
text acquires semiotic life. . . . Nowadays Hamlet is not just a play
by Shakespeare, but it is also the memory of all its interpretations,
and what is more, it is also the memory of all those historical events
which occurred outside the text but with which Shakespeare’s text
can evoke associations. (Lotman 1990, 18–19)

It is not surprising that Lotman uses Hamlet as an example of the text


with the great “burden” of cultural memory. This vast baggage does

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Culture as Text ● 105

not hinder the text’s perpetuation through time but on the contrary
greatly facilitates its preservation in culture. Hamlet has become an
integral part of various cultures, and one can hardly find a person
in Europe and in most of the world who has never heard about the

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Prince of Denmark. Hamlet ’s persistence in cultural memory is due
to a number of factors, and the most important of them is the pro-
cess that can be termed hypersemiotization, the expansion of the text
into various semiotic modes and the reduction of the text to different
types of signs.
One of the factors is the early separation of Hamlet the character
from Hamlet the play. The hero’s personality had become such a com-
monplace that the hero became dissociated from his Shakespearean
context (Conklin 1957, 23). This in turn gave birth to the phenom-
enon of Hamletism, 23 a tendency to interpret Hamlet as a symbol,
which embodies certain philosophical, social, psychological, or
political characteristics and represents a certain type of behavior. It
is normally stated that such representation is not necessarily iden-
tified with the context of Shakespeare’s tragedy, and therefore the
symbol “lives on its own” as a sort of universal sociopsychological
archetype. As Iurii Levin (1978, 192) rightly points out, the nature
of Hamletism is different from the practice of calling a jealous hus-
band Othello or a bloody tyrant Richard III. What is interpreted is
actually Hamlet’s character, not the play’s story line. The phenom-
enon of Hamletism is part of what Lotman described as the mytho-
logical layer of culture. As we remember, myth is the space of proper
names and recognizable types that become such a natural part of our
cultural vocabulary that we classify into them some other meaning-
ful events of reality.
Thus Hamlet the character has come to function as a conventional
sign, the meaning of which can vary in time and which is subject to
continual change. As in any symbol, the relation between the signi-
fier and the signified is conventional—that is, there is no inherent
connection between them—and at the same time, this symbol is not
arbitrary but culturally motivated. The symbolic meaning can vary
in time, but there are some features that are stable even in different
representations, and they originate from (or can be reduced to) a core
formula that more or less fully comprises the invariant structure of
Hamletism: Hamlet is a lonely (and tragic) hero in conflict with
the world and/or himself who finds himself in a position of choice,

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106 ● The Texture of Culture

whether he is put there by the circumstances or by himself. Also,


when Hamlet is used as a metaphoric referent, depending on the
context, it will most probably include the semantic fields of alien-
ation, opposition, doubt, melancholy, oppression, and so on.

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During four centuries, numerous interpretations attempted to
solve the assumed mystery of Hamlet’s character and the controversy
of his actions. Hamlet wore many masks through time: he has been
gentle and melancholic, ref lective and irresolute, passionate and
brutal; he has been an avenger and a “superf luous man,” an intel-
lectual and a freethinker, a Philistine and a decadent, a maverick,
a messiah, and “despair personified.” The crucial point here is that
Hamletism and Hamlet the play cannot be separated as completely
different entities, one as “the text proper” and the other as “the psy-
chological (cultural) type.” One the contrary, they are interrelated:
the text’s canonical status strongly depends on Hamletism; every
new symbolic meaning assigned to Hamlet means that the memory
about the text is active. This inevitably inf luences the production,
translation, and interpretation of the text, and thus Hamletism
becomes one of the means by which the text is expanded through
time, a powerful (extra)textual mechanism that shapes the percep-
tion of the text by the recipient and establishes the frame of refer-
ence in which the production-reception process occurs.

Figure 3.2 The “Poor Yorick” icon.

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Culture as Text ● 107

In my study of Hamlet textuality (Semenenko 2007), I have dem-


onstrated that in cultural memory Hamlet the text is represented in
the form of three basic types of sign: symbolic signs (as in the prior
examples, e.g., Hamlet as a “superfluous man”), the precursory signs

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(indices), and iconic signs. The most known index of the tragedy is
of course the line “To be or not to be.” Referring to the text by synec-
doche, it is used most often among other phrases that also acquired
idiomatic status and serve as verbal indices of Hamlet the text, such
as “I must be cruel only to be kind,” “Poor Yorick!,” “Gertrude, do
not drink,” and others. The most recognizable iconic sign is undoubt-
edly the depiction of a man holding the skull (of Yorick) in front of
him (see figure 3.2). 24
All of these signs comprise the complex semiotic entity [Hamlet]—
written in brackets to separate it from Hamlet the character and
Hamlet the text. In Lotman’s terminology, it corresponds to “the
meaning-space” that the text creates around itself in cultural mem-
ory (Lotman 1990, 18). Figure 3.3 best illustrates this relation.
This picture is of course rather idealized because in reality these
signs often overlap: they may in various degrees, and sometimes
indirectly, refer to one another, to the actual text of the tragedy, and

Symbol
Hamlet the character
representing
melancholy, reflection,
messianism, etc.

Icon Index
the “poor Yorick’’ “To be of not to be’
icon, etc. etc.

Figure 3.3 [Hamlet] the sign.

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108 ● The Texture of Culture

to other signs. Apart from that, they rarely function as “pure” icons,
indices, or symbols but on the contrary combine all three functions.
Peirce (1931–34, 4.448) argued that the most perfect sign is “in
which the iconic, indicative, and symbolic characters are blended as

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equally as possible.” There are no objective criteria that define “the
perfectness” of the sign, but it is without doubt that if some semiotic
entity is represented in all three modes, it has better chances to sur-
vive in cultural memory. After all, one of the main functions of all
the representations of [Hamlet] is to activate the collective memory
about the text in the consciousness of the recipient.
The question that may be anticipated here is how we can equate
the reduced or “condensed” representations with the actual text of
the tragedy. Indeed, Hamlet seems to be known by “everyone,” but
how exactly is it known? How to distinguish among knowing a text,
knowing about a text, or not knowing it? What are the criteria for text
knowledge? To remember its every word? This is of course possible,
but very uncommon and absolutely unnecessary. To remember the
plot? But this knowledge can be gained from a third party. To have
read the book at least once? But people tend to forget what they read.
Is seeing a theater performance or a film equal to reading the text?
What about audiobooks? All these questions are to an extent rhetori-
cal. There are no fixed rules for deciding if a person “really knows”
the text or not, and even if there were, such a rule would be just a
conventional construction, not the ultimate criterion. Paradoxically,
for cultural memory there is no difference between Peter who rereads
the play every year and knows several soliloquies by heart and Paul
who is only acquainted with some of the [Hamlet] signs.
It appears that culture consists not only of “texts proper” but also
of numerous signs such as [Hamlet] that function as unifying mecha-
nisms of culture. Lotman defines symbols as semiotic units that per-
meate almost all levels of culture and serve as mediators between
different languages of culture, preserving culture from disintegrating
into isolated chronological layers (Lotman 1990, 104). It is now evi-
dent that it is not necessarily symbols but such units as [Hamlet] that
perform this function and serve as an efficient tool of dissemination
of texts in culture. These signs occupy primarily the “world of oral
memory,” the mythological level of culture that is full of mnemonic
signs (ibid., 247–50). Apart from oral memory, this function is also
performed by the “subsidiary” texts in culture such as TV commercials

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Culture as Text ● 109

and advertisements, posters, slogans, (user-generated) news aggre-


gates on the Internet, and other similar texts. The proposed mecha-
nism has certain similarities with the process of preservation of all
sacral texts, especially religious ones that are represented in memory

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in different semiotic modes and are often ritualized. For example, in
Christian church hymns, icons and rituals represent and refer to Holy
Scripture. If in the church such unity is deliberate and conscious, in
secular/profane canons such as [Hamlet] this feature is more implicit
and the process of its formation can be less controllable.
In this connection, it is appropriate to mention the concept of
microcanonicity. Mikhail Gronas (2011) defines “small-scale can-
onicity” as the situation when the minimal fragments of literary
canon—for example, expressions or idiomatic phrases—become rec-
ognizable and reproducible in culture (in that respect microcanonic-
ity is close to idiomatics and phraseology). Memorable quotations,
recognizable situations, jokes based on the text, parodies, imitations,
related merchandise—practically anything that may function as a
reference to a certain text—constitute the mnemonic mechanisms of
culture and secure the text in cultural memory, playing a significant
role in the reproduction of texts. It may, however, happen that the
verbal indices are used so often that they detach themselves from the
source text: the signified is forgotten but its signifiers are still in use.
There are many examples of phrases from books, films, and commer-
cials becoming speech clichés and entering the folklore as separate
idioms, but this question requires a separate study. 25 The mechanism
of hypersemiotization that creates microcanons is peculiar of many
texts of the so-called popular culture; for instance, George Lucas’s
film saga Star Wars (1977–2005) or J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy
The Lord of the Rings (1954–55) gave birth to whole subcultures with
rich semiotic vocabulary.

Chapter 3: Key Premises


• In the artistic text, the content is inseparable from the form.
• The artistic text is a complexly constructed meaning.
• The “frame” is one of the key features of the text.
• The absence of structural elements in a text is as meaningful as
their presence.
• Culture is a hierarchy of texts within the texts.

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110 ● The Texture of Culture

• Culture is both a generator of texts and a text itself.


• Genre is both a modeling mechanism and the framework for
identification of texts.
• Culture is a nonhereditary collective memory.

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• Collective memory is a dynamic mechanism of self-preservation
and self-propagation of culture.
• The text’s meaning-space consists of several types of signs that
facilitate its preservation in cultural memory.

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CHAPTER 4

Semiosphere

The Semiotic Space


The key notions of Lotman’s semiotics that have been described in
the previous chapters—text, system, memory, dialogue, translation,
and so on—have finally crystallized in the concept of semiotic space
or semiosphere. The concept of semiosphere first appeared in the
1984 article “On the Semiosphere” (Lotman 1984c), published in
the issue of TZS that was dedicated to the concept of dialogue as
the basis of semiotic systems. In this article, Lotman for the first
time mentions “a specific semiotic continuum, which is filled with
multi-variant semiotic models situated at a range of hierarchical lev-
els” (Lotman 2005, 206). This continuum is termed the semiosphere
by analogy with Vladimir Vernadsky’s concepts of biosphere and
noosphere.1 Let us see what exactly caught Lotman’s attention in
Vernadsky’s theory and why he considered it important to indicate
this connection.
Vernadsky was a mineralogist and geologist whose study of liv-
ing matter on the earth’s surface inf luenced many fields, including
ecology, biogeochemistry, and studies of ecosystems. In his seminal
work The Biosphere (1926), Vernadsky, after the geologist Eduard
Seuss, describes biosphere as “a life-saturated envelope of the Earth’s
crust.” The uniqueness of Vernadsky’s concept is that in his view
living mater is not an accidental creation but is the geological force
that inf luences all geological forces on the Earth: “Without life,
the crustal mechanism of the Earth would not exist” (Vernadsky
1998, 58). Vernadsky studies the living organism of the biosphere
as “a particular body that cannot be entirely reduced to known

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112 ● The Texture of Culture

physico-chemical systems” (ibid., 52) and emphasizes the idea that


during all geological periods there has never been any evidence that
a living organism could be created from inert matter, nor have there
been any geological periods devoid of life.

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These ideas strongly resonated with Lotman’s views on the prin-
ciples of semiosis and the process of meaning generation. In a 1982
letter to Boris Uspenskii, Lotman (2006, 629–30) writes that he is
struck by Vernadsky’s ideas, especially the postulate that life comes
from life and cannot emerge from inert matter. In a similar vein,
Lotman states that any text must be preceded by another text and
any developed civilization by another developed civilization, and any
thought can originate only in another thought: “Only the existence
of the semiotic sphere makes message a message. Only the existence
of intelligence [razum]2 explains the existence of intelligence.”3 In
other words, Lotman reformulates—once again, in a paradoxical
form—the crucial law of semiosis, arguing that the complex is pri-
mary and the simple is secondary, not vice versa. Just as the text is
primary in relation to the sign, the unit of semiosis, “the smallest
functioning mechanism, is not the separate language but the whole
semiotic space of the culture in question. This is the space we term
the semiosphere ” (Lotman 1990, 125). Lotman especially stresses that
the semiosphere is not just the sum total of semiotic systems but also
a necessary condition for any communication act to take place and
any language to appear:

The semiotic universe may be regarded as the totality of individual


texts and isolated languages as they relate to each other. In this case,
all structures will look as if they are constructed out of individual
bricks. However, it is more useful to establish a contrasting view:
all semiotic space may be regarded as a unified mechanism (if not
organism).4 In this case, primacy does not lie in one or another sign,
but in the “greater system,” namely the semiosphere. The semio-
sphere is that same semiotic space, outside of which semiosis itself
cannot exist. (Lotman 2005, 208)

Formulated in this manner, the concept of semiosphere fundamen-


tally changes the structure of communication. In Universe of the
Mind , Lotman introduces the concept of semiosphere through the
description of communication act, once again referring to Jakobson’s
scheme: he argues that all six parameters (addressee, addresser, code,

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Semiosphere ● 113

message, context, contact) are still not a sufficient condition for com-
munication act to occur unless this system is immersed in the semi-
otic space. By the same token, one must have some prior semiotic
experience before initiating communication. Thus the traditional

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scheme of communication

language > text > dialogue

turns “backward”:

dialogic situation > real dialogue > text > language.

The dialogic situation “precedes both real dialogue and even the
existence of a language” (Lotman 1990, 143), and therefore, the text
creates not only its own context (M. Lotman 2002, 34) but also its
own language.
It is essential to point out that this scheme is not just a paradox
for the sake of paradox but represents quite a pragmatic approach to
communication. Indeed, the need to impart a message comes even
before the message is created. For example, if we need to express
somehow that we like this particular sunset, we will structure the
message using one or several semiotic systems, based on the charac-
ter of the assumed dialogue and the way we want to impart it to an
addressee. To a person next to us, we may tell this in English or in
any other language or may just make a gesture; we may take a picture
of it in order to share it on the Internet or just keep it for ourselves;
we may even write a poem or create a painting—there are numer-
ous possibilities, which in turn create numerous texts that are not
equivalent to each other. Not only does the text structure existing
languages, but it also creates new ones! As an example, Lotman refers
to the situation when the need for dialogue between the mother and
her newborn child creates unique messages and languages. Indeed,
any parent knows that a child first develops some idiosyncratic dia-
lect, understandable mostly by his/her family, and only then learns
the normative language. To continue this thought, the “mystery” of
language acquisition5 by children may be explained by the fact that
an infant starts his/her semiotic experience by interacting with the
semiosphere as a whole and only then learns to distinguish separate
languages and signs.6 The semiosphere therefore turns out to be not

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114 ● The Texture of Culture

a static conglomerate of separate fixed languages but a unique ability


of mankind to create countless texts and semiotic systems and com-
municate through them.
There is still a question whether semiosphere is an objective

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(material) substance or an abstract concept. In a 1984 article,
Lotman specifically points out that in difference to the noosphere,
which is a three-dimensional material space,

the space of the semiosphere carries an abstract character. This,


however, is by no means to suggest that the concept of space is used,
here, in a metaphorical sense. We have in mind a specific sphere, pos-
sessing signs, which are assigned to the enclosed space. Only within
such a space is it possible for communicative processes and the cre-
ation of new information to be realised. (Lotman 2005, 207)

So on the one hand Lotman does not suggest that the semiosphere
is a material space, but on the other he insists that it is real and
concrete in the sense that it belongs to the mental sphere in which
semiosis occurs. It should be noted that even before the term semio-
sphere was coined, in many of his works, Lotman had been widely
using “spherical” metaphors when describing the structure and orga-
nization of culture. The semantic flexibility of the concept is dem-
onstrated by Chang (2003, 7–8), who gives a comprehensive list of
various instances of usage of the word sphere in Lotman’s works (e.g.
“the sphere of organization,” “the sphere of culture,” “the sphere of
natural languages,” “the sphere of the unconscious,” etc.). It appears
that Lotman treats the term quite loosely, which may be explained
by the fact that for Lotman, “sphere” reflects all important features
peculiar to his model of culture: the core and the periphery, the
boundary, and the holistic model of cognition and communication.
Other important characteristics of the semiosphere are asymme-
try, polyglotism, heterogeneity, binarism, and isomorphism.

Asymmetry
Already in the 1970s, Lotman and Uspenskii described “the entire
system for preserving and communicating human experience . . . as a
concentric system in the center of which are located the most obvious
and logical structures” (Lotman and Uspensky 1978, 213). The struc-
ture of the semiosphere is therefore identical to other semiotic systems

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Semiosphere ● 115

and is built on the asymmetrical relationship between the center (the


core) and the periphery, as discussed in chapter 2. The core is occu-
pied with the most organized systems (languages), and the less orga-
nized ones are located on the periphery. Natural language takes the

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central position in the semiosphere because it permeates almost all
semiospheric levels and quite a number of semiotic systems are based
on it (e.g., literature and partially cinema and theater).

Polyglotism and Heterogeneity


The semiosphere is essentially polyglot and consists of a diversity
of semiotic systems or languages. These languages are not equiva-
lent to one another but at the same time are mutually interprojected
and have various degrees of translatability. The continuous dialogue
between these languages creates tension that is necessary for com-
munication and the generation of meaning. This makes the semio-
sphere the universal mechanism of meaning-generation.

Binarism
Lotman lists binarism as one of the features of the semiosphere as
“a principle which is realized in plurality since every newly-formed
language is in its turn subdivided on a binary principle” (Lotman
1990, 124). The problems arising from the application of binary
logic have already been discussed (see chapter 3), and I will reiter-
ate my point that in this context binarism should be understood as
multiplicity that can be reduced to binary models.

Isomorphism
Finally, Lotman compares the semiosphere with the collective intel-
lect, a network of individual minds in constant interaction. Likewise,
culture is described as a whole isomorphic to its parts, that is, indi-
viduals (Lotman 2010, 58). All levels of the semiosphere—from an
individual person to various levels of culture and finally to the whole
semiosphere—are “semiospheres inserted into one another” (Lotman
1984c, 22),7 like matryoshka dolls. Each of them is simultaneously
“both participant in the dialogue (as part of the semiosphere) and
the space of dialogue (the semiosphere as a whole)” (Lotman 2005,
225; see also 1977d, 23). Consequently, a part of the semiosphere

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116 ● The Texture of Culture

may function as a whole and the whole may function as its part.
As we know, Lotman asserts that just as any single text is isomor-
phic to its culture, an individual mind (or individual semiosphere)
is isomorphic to the collective semiosphere, so the semiosphere may

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be described as the universal mind. The whole semiotic sphere may
therefore be conceived as a net of individual semiospheres.

Umwelt, the Individual Semiosphere


The concept of individual semiosphere—a complex combination of
explicit and implicit knowledge of the world of a human being—is
congenial with the concept of Umwelt (plural Umwelten), coined by
the theoretical biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864–1944). According
to Uexküll, Umwelt is a phenomenal self-world, the reality that sur-
rounds an organism as the organism perceives it: “Each species thus
lives in its own sensory world, to which other species may be partially
or totally blind” (Francois Jacob, cited in Sebeok 1988, 73). That
means that all external stimuli are perceived through a kind of filter
of the organism’s Umwelt. Consequently, an organism will not be able
to perceive any signs or texts that are not part of its Umwelt (Andrews
2003, 64). If for lower organisms it is a biological limitation, for
humans this “blindness” is of cultural/psychological character:

A man receives only what he is ready to receive, whether physically or


intellectually or morally, as animals conceive at certain seasons their
kind only. We hear and apprehend only what we already half know. If
there is something that does not concern me, which is out of my line,
which by experience or by genius my attention is not drawn to, how-
ever novel and remarkable it may be, if it is spoken, we hear it not,
if it is written, we read it not, or if we read it, it does not detain us.
(Thoreau 1961, 212–13)

That is why it is sometimes stated the unknown can become known


only if it is partially known. In this respect, it is necessary to mention
that in semiotic terms, the totally unknown may simply be ignored
because it will be perceived as a meaningless “noise.” In other words,
new messages are interpreted always on the background of the inter-
preter’s cultural memory. What is even more important, in order to
perceive something new, one (and it concerns individuals as well as
cultures) has to be predisposed to a dialogic situation, be ready to

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Semiosphere ● 117

experience the other. Similar to humans, cultures (as we remember)


tend to perceive everything that is external to them as a domain of
nonculture, trying to assimilate it on their terms.
One pivotal factor that makes humans very different from all

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other living beings is that they are able to reflect about their own
modeling, conceive of other types of modeling, and construct new
ways of modeling as well. In other words, it is our capability to imag-
ine reality that is external to our own Umwelt and to understand
that other beings may have different Umwelten . In the final analysis,
it appears that human beings need other Umwelten for their own
existence. An isolated person, culture, or text is not able to survive,
let alone develop without other persons, cultures, or texts—this
thought is recurrent in Lotman’s writing and echoes in the works of
many theorists, from the Enlightenment era to modern semiotics (see
the discussion of “I” versus “the other” in chapter 5). The dynamic
development of semiotic systems is the result of a continuous dia-
logue between interconnected Umwelten , which together constitute
the semiosphere as a whole.

Text as a Condenser of Semiosphere


The concepts of semiosphere and cultural memory are closely related;
since the semiosphere is represented as a net of Umwelten , it can also
be regarded as a network of individual memories. If individual mem-
ory is preserved in the mind, collective memory rests on texts. Here
we return to the notion of culture as a complex text. The relation of
culture to a concrete text manifests itself in the fact that the text, as a
basic element of culture, translates and condenses its culture in itself.
Any text contains the memory of its semiosphere and functions as a
condenser of cultural memory, which is depicted in figure 4.1.

text

SEMIOSPHERE

Figure 4.1 Text as a condenser of semiosphere.

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118 ● The Texture of Culture

The concept of text as a semiospheric condenser makes us modify


the scheme of communication one more time. In the initial scheme
(see figure 2.6), the source text is received through a number of over-
lapping codes, thus resulting in a plurality of texts as well. Now one

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may state that instead of a variety of codes it is the membrane of per-
sonal Umwelt that serves as a meaning-generating mechanism both
when the message is created and when it is received (figure 4.2).
Because the recipient inevitably receives the text through the fil-
ter of his/her semiosphere, the process of “condensation” (creation
of the text) and the process of its interpretation cannot be equiva-
lent by definition. The range of interpretation largely depends on
to what extent the communicating Umwelten are overlapping. It
also creates the main problem for historical analysis of text: it is
practically impossible to reconstruct the text’s initial semiosphere
in its entirety because the “packing” mechanisms of text creation, as
Lotman insists, are not algorithmic and are to a degree unpredict-
able. It is therefore highly improbable to reconstruct an invariant
text of a culture inductively, on the basis of one or very few texts:
a text is just one of the uncountable ways to “condense” a culture,
and one has to consider other possible (and impossible) ways as well.
The law of unpredictability of meaning-generation may be termed

Umwelt 1
(text1)

Semiosphere
Umwelt 2
(text2n)

Figure 4.2 Communication in the semiosphere.

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Semiosphere ● 119

the law of irreversibility of semiosis: any interpretation (or “recon-


struction” of the original semiosphere) does not eliminate meanings
but on the contrary creates new meanings as well.
Along with the text, one of the key vehicles of cultural memory

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is symbol. Following Saussure’s definition, Lotman (1990, 111, see
also Lotman 2010, 111) states that the symbol “is distinguished from
a conventional sign by the presence of an iconic element, some like-
ness between expression level and content level.” However, it is not
this trait that makes the symbol special; it is its function: Lotman
assigns to the symbol an important role of mediator between differ-
ent languages and levels of culture:

Since symbols are important mechanisms of cultural memory, they


can transfer texts, plot outlines and other semiotic formations from
one level of a culture’s memory to another. The stable sets of symbols
which recur diachronically throughout culture serve very largely as
unifying mechanisms: by activating a culture’s memory of itself they
prevent the culture from disintegrating into isolated chronological
layers. (Lotman 1990, 104)

As discussed earlier, by symbol Lotman understands not a spe-


cific type of sign as in Peirce’s classical definition but something
in between the sign and the text, a certain textual entity that vir-
tually “holds the culture together.” The cross, the heart sign, the
pentagram, the circle—to mention a few “elementary” symbols—
are recurrent in many texts of many cultures throughout centuries.
These “simple” symbols are less fixed than texts, but because of their
mnemonic function, their referential capacity is also larger than that
of the sign. At the same time, they have a very high semantic capac-
ity and flexibility, being incorporated in thousands of texts of differ-
ent semiotic systems:

A symbol, then, is a kind of condenser of all the principles of sign-


ness and at the same time goes beyond sign-ness. It is a mediator
between different spheres of semiosis, and also between semiotic and
non-semiotic reality. In equal measure it is a mediator between the
synchrony of the text and the culture’s memory. Its role is that of a
symbolic condenser. In general terms we can say that the structure of
symbols of a particular culture shapes the system which is isomorphic
and isofunctional to the genetic memory of an i ndividual. (ibid., 111)

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120 ● The Texture of Culture

That is why national or area boundaries of cultures are often defined


by the stable sets of symbols. Given that symbols recur diachronic-
ally, they unite the past and the future of a culture and occupy the
nucleus of the collective memory: the core symbols of a culture “go

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back to pre-literate times when certain signs . . . were the condensed
mnemonic programmes for the texts and stories preserved in the
community’s oral memory” (ibid., 103). Even in our “literate times,”
cultures are permeated with signs that function exactly as condensed
mnemonic programs. The most recurrent of them constitute the
“semantic halo” of a particular culture. More complex symbols often
originate in the so-called classical (canonical) texts and preserve
their interpretive potential through many years, as seen earlier on
the example of Hamlet .

Semiosphere as Method
The concept of semiosphere is essentially dual, that is, it is simulta-
neously an object and a metaconcept. As a metaconcept, semiosphere
is “a construct of semiotic method” (Kull 2005, 184) that takes a
holistic approach to culture, and as an object it refers to a given semi-
otic space that is studied in the analysis. Somewhat paradoxically, it
is possible to say that “semiosphere is studied by means of semiosphere ”
(Torop 2005, 164–65). For that reason, one might distinguish
between the semiosphere, the totality and precondition of semio-
sis, and a semiosphere, a specific semiotic space that is described or
reconstructed in the analysis.
The concrete applications of this method constitute the core of
Lotman’s textual analysis. Even before the term semiosphere was
coined, Lotman’s analyses had followed the principle of re-creation
of the cultural history of a concrete text. Lotman departs from the
conceptualization of historical processes involved in the text’s evolu-
tion, attempting “to relate the structure of the work to the structure
of the culture in which it was created” (Shukman 1977, 117). The
goal of cultural analysis is “to approach the reader to the semantic
life of the text ” (Lotman 1980, 415) or, in other words, to reconstruct
the text’s actual semiosphere. Apart from that, Lotman focuses on
the relation between the meaning-production space and a particular
message and attempts to reconstruct the (ideal) audience of the text,
thus delimiting the direction of the textual interpretation.

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One of the best examples of this approach is Lotman’s commentary


to Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin (EO ). Lotman has published several
articles about this text and two books—one in 1975, a follow-up to
his specialized course at Tartu University, 8 and another in 1980, the

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comprehensive commentary to the novel. This later text is an exem-
plary reconstruction of the semiosphere (including “the image of the
audience of the text”) of the 1830s, which combines the description
of a typical intellectual background of the epoch with textual com-
mentary. The book is subtitled “A Textbook for Teachers,” although
the depth of the commentary is obviously far beyond the require-
ments of the school program.
Before the actual commentary, more than 100 pages are devoted
to several introductory texts that are supposed to reconstruct the
“semantic life” of a typical reader of the 1830s. The introduction
consists of several subsections: “The Chronology of Pushkin’s Work
on EO,” “The Inner Chronology of EO,” “The Problem of the
Prototypes,” “Main Literature on EO.” The next chapter is entitled
“The Everyday Life of a Noblemen of the Onegin Epoch” and also
has subsections. The topics covered in this excursus are property
status, education and service of noblemen, interests and activities of
noblewomen, noble house in the city and the countryside, entertain-
ment and daily activities of a nobleman, the ball, the duel, and trans-
portation. The following 300 pages are the actual commentary.
To emphasize the particularity of Lotman’s approach, let us turn
to the duel between Onegin and Lenskii in chapter 6 of EO. I will
compare Lotman’s commentary with another, most detailed and
scrupulous book by Vladimir Nabokov published in 1964. Lotman
(1980, 12) refers to Nabokov’s text on several occasions, noting none-
theless that Nabokov’s comments are sometimes subjective and often
excessive, taking many turns and side paths that have a very remote
relation to Pushkin’s novel.
One of the main questions that puzzle today’s reader is why
Onegin does not try to avoid killing his friend Lenskii in the duel.
Nabokov (1990, 16–17) states that Lenskii sending Onegin a car-
tel of defiance is “the only logical course” for an honorable man
but is too bewildered by Onegin’s “odd” behavior when he does not
attempt to evade the duel and even “fires first and shoots to kill.”
In his opinion, Onegin could have reserved his fire, discharging the
pistol in the air.

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Lotman’s commentary can be seen as an indirect response to


Nabokov to demonstrate that the latter misinterprets both the moti-
vation of the character and the logic of the code of honor of that
time. Lotman argues that the one whose behavior is questionable is

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actually Zaretskii, Lenskii’s second. The nobleman Zaretskii, “in
duels classicist and pedant,” has many serious reasons to cancel the
duel but, however, ignores them: he does not discuss the possibilities
of peaceful solution of the conflict when delivering the cartel; he vio-
lates the rule that both seconds should discuss the course of the duel
a day before and also ignores the direct insult to him when Onegin
shows up with his valet Guillot as his second. Finally, Zaretskii has
a formal right to state that Onegin has forfeited the duel when the
latter appears much more than 15 minutes late but does not do this
either. In other words, Zaretskii behaves as someone who is inter-
ested in the most scandalous and bloody outcome of the conflict, not
as a nobleman and “pedantic” second (Lotman 1980, 98–99).
With respect to Onegin’s behavior, Lotman states that Pushkin
undoubtedly wanted to make him an involuntary murderer. Lotman
gives several examples to illustrate his point: first of all, a duelist
who wants to kill his adversary in the duel never fires first from the
farther distance but waits for his opponent to fire and then fires at
the unmoving target from a minimum distance. Apart from that,
Onegin does not reserve his fire nor discharges the pistol in the air
because according to the code of the duel only the opponent who
fires second may fire in the air. The one who fires in the air first risks
to insult his adversary because the latter is compelled to reply in the
same manner (ibid., 100–102).
On the other hand, Pushkin also demonstrates the ambiguity of
Onegin’s behavior: although Onegin (in quite a dandyish manner)
shows his contempt and irritation for the situation by violating the
rules of the duel code, he still cannot resist the accepted order of
things and becomes “a doll in hands of the impersonal ritual of the
duel” (ibid., 103; see also 303). The idea Lotman emphasizes in his
commentary is that for Pushkin’s contemporary this was the semiotic
field in which the text was perceived and interpreted, and the reader of
the 1830s would not have asked such questions as Nabokov. In other
words, reconstructing the semiosphere of Pushkin’s text, Lotman
does not present an unlimited encyclopedia of the time but holds the
text in the center, tying its texture to concrete cultural contexts.

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This is just one example of Lotman’s cultural analyses, which


demonstrates that Lotman systematically describes various aspects
of cultural life of the past that other historians and literary schol-
ars simply ignore. An immediate question that arises in this context

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is how accurate Lotman’s semiospheric reconstructions are. As we
have seen earlier, Lotman seems to be fully aware that any descrip-
tion of cultural phenomena cannot be nonintrusive and that it is
the observer who decides what pertains to the system and what is
considered to be outside of it. The major difficulty of this position
is that there are no exact criteria for judging whether any historical
reconstruction is adequate or biased. The main principle that can
be deduced from Lotman’s analyses may be formulated as follows:
the plausibility of this or that interpretation depends on how well it
is possible to reconstruct the “semantic life” of an analyzed text in
the given period—that is, to demonstrate the correlation of the text
with its cultural context, its semiosphere. In other words, Lotman
attempts to see what the text tells about its culture and what culture
reveals about the text. It is beyond the scope of this book to attempt
to prove or disprove the results of Lotman’s historical studies, but it
is pertinent to mention that these works clearly distinguish them-
selves on the background not only of ideologically laden Soviet his-
torical literature but of many modern studies as well.

Semiosphere versus Culture?


Semiosphere is probably the most productive and flexible concept in
Lotman’s theory, which was one of the reasons why the term gained
much popularity after its introduction. Kalevi Kull (2005, 178–80)
gives several examples of different scholars defining the semiosphere
in their own way, as

• the sphere of communication,


• the world of multiple truths,
• the space of meaning-generation,
• the set of all interconnected Umwelten ,
• the space where distinguishing occurs, where distinctions are made,
• the totality of interconnected signs.

It is obvious that each of these definitions emphasizes one aspect of


this multifaceted concept, and which meaning is preferred depends

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on the angle of the research. There is still a question of how the terms
semiosphere and culture relate to each other. Is semiosphere identical to
culture? Can semiosphere replace the concept of culture altogether?
First of all, semiosphere as a concept is much more flexible and at

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the same time broader than culture. In many aspects, the semiosphere
and culture are undoubtedly isofunctional, but Lotman unequivo-
cally states that the semiosphere is a primary condition for any cul-
ture to come into existence. In that sense, a culture is a concrete
manifestation of the semiosphere, and that is why it is traditionally
understood as delimited by some boundaries, historical, political,
geographical, or social. In the final analysis, if culture is the product
of human semiotic activity, the semiosphere is a model of the unique
semiotic capacity of human beings (see chapter 5).
The semiosphere as a multidimensional space that produces
equally multimodal messages always emphasizes the situation of
dialogue between different “dialects” of culture. The national con-
text is a traditional delimiter of a given culture, but it is quite a crude
criterion because national boundaries often presuppose cultural
monoglotism and therefore may neglect other phenomena that do
not fit the culture’s self-description. Apart from that, semiosphere
as a metaconcept allows describing larger entities of semiosis that
transcend national borders (e.g., film noir, rock-n-roll music, or art
nouveau architecture) as well as “microcultures” of various groups
or even “individual cultures.” From the methodological point of
view, such a f lexible concept turns out to be more accurate than
the historically and politically laden concepts of “national culture,”
“subculture,” or “mass culture.”

Chapter 4: Key Premises


• The semiosphere is the precondition of semiosis.
• The dialogic situation precedes any language or text.
• The semiotic space can be depicted as a net of interconnected
personal semiospheres.
• Any text translates and condenses its semiosphere in itself.
• The semiosphere is both an object and a metaconcept.

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CHAPTER 5

Universal Mind

T
he principle of cultural isomorphism and the concept of indi-
vidual semiosphere inevitably raise the question of defini-
tion of consciousness. Lotman comes close to the domain of
cognitive studies when he discusses such terms as thought, intellect,
and consciousness, and it is time now to scrutinize this topic in more
detail. How does Lotman define consciousness and thinking? How
exactly may culture be presented as the “collective mind”? Is it pos-
sible to speak of the “collective intellect”? This chapter is going to
establish if Lotman’s approach may shed additional light on these
questions that lie at the intersection of semiotics, philosophy, psy-
chology, and neuroscience.

Intellect and Consciousness


The term consciousness has several meanings in Lotman’s idiom. The
most recurrent definition of consciousness has to do with the oft-
repeated postulate that there are at least “two essentially different ways
of reflecting the world and working out new information” (Lotman
1990, 36). In this context, Lotman uses the words language, con-
sciousness , and intellect as synonyms with the meaning “the modeling
property [of the mind]” or “a way to recreate the world picture.” As
we remember, Lotman described all semiospheric levels from human
personality to the text to larger semiotic unities as “semiospheres
inserted into one another” (Lotman 1984c, 22). Consequently, if
individual consciousness (intellect) is isomorphic to culture, culture/
semiosphere becomes an extension of human mind—the universal

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mind—and an individual mind in turn becomes a microculture.1


Culture has therefore many synonyms in Lotman’s works, such as
“collective consciousness,” “social consciousness,” “collective intel-
lect,” “collective personality,” and “collective memory.”

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Collective consciousness thus designates a paradigm of thought of
a given period, a specific worldview of a particular group of people,
and/or the invariant text of a culture. We have seen many exam-
ples of how Lotman describes several periods as characterized by
a specific type of consciousness: for example, Lotman (1990, 105)
describes the collective consciousness of the nineteenth century as
a desymbolizing one, that which interprets symbols as simple mes-
sages, opposed to the symbolizing consciousness, which interprets
simple messages as symbols.
The conscious mind has a capacity not only to model a picture
of the world but also to generate new information, that is, to pro-
duce nonalgorithmized messages. From this perspective, culture as a
mechanism is comparable with the individual creative consciousness
(Lotman 1990, 1–3). In the same manner, Lotman singles out three
parameters of human intelligence that correspond to the three func-
tions of the text discussed earlier: informative, creative, and mne-
monic. Functions of semiotic mechanisms are equated with human
intelligence in this view. Lotman draws parallels with human per-
sonality and extrapersonal semiotic entities on different levels, and
it is not a coincidence that one of his last books is entitled in English
Universe of the Mind and in Russian Inside the Thinking Worlds.
It should be noted separately that the very term mind , which is
much more semantically loaded in the Western tradition, appears
in the English translation of Universe of the Mind as an alternative
translation of the Russian word soznanie, consciousness (“medieval
mind,” “collective mind,” “modern mind,” etc.). Apart from that, the
word mind may evoke associations with the “mind-brain problem,”
on which Lotman never wrote directly. Later in this chapter, I will
try to clarify his position on this matter.

Self-Consciousness
Lotman defines the concept of self-consciousness in the semiotic
context as well. In his last book, Lotman reinterprets his own thesis
of polyglotism—that in order to reflect a given reality, at least two

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Universal Mind ● 127

languages are needed—as “a condition of existence” that dictates the


necessity of the other. “I” and “other” represent two sides of the same
coin, inseparable in the act of self-consciousness: “Only in human
consciousness do ‘I’ and ‘all others, except me’ hide within them-

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selves something that is both unified and conflicting at one and the
same time” (Lotman 2009, 33). This thesis goes back to Fichte’s idea
of “not-I” as a necessary condition of self-consciousness, which is fre-
quent in Peirce’s writing as well:2

We become aware of ourself in becoming aware of the not-self. . . . And


this notion, of being such as other things make us, is such a promi-
nent part of our life that we conceive other things also to exist by
virtue of their reactions against each other. The idea of other, of not ,
becomes a very pivot of thought. (Peirce 1931–34, 1.324)

It is evident that the idea that “I” is always expressed through “the
other” refers to the principle of differentiation in the context of cul-
tural dialogism, which has been discussed on several occasions in
this book. This principle is manifested on all levels of semiosis, from
individual consciousness (the self needs the other, mind requires
other minds) to the text (as opposed to other texts and nontexts) to
culture (versus other cultures and its image of nonculture).3

Anthropocentric Semiotics
It has been several times noted that Lotman focuses entirely on
human semiosis and even more specifically on semiotics of culture,
not paying attention to such branches of semiotics as biosemiotics,
phytosemiotics, and others.4 For example, already in The Structure
of the Artistic Text , Lotman (1977d, 7) refuses to call biochemical
regulation of signals in the nervous system a language.
Nonetheless, Lotman in his last books discusses symbolic behav-
ior of animals in order to illustrate the uniqueness of human con-
sciousness (Lotman 2009, 27–29, 34). The dialogue between
animals essentially differs from the dialogue between humans:
animals use one concrete language that eliminates ambivalence in
communication, and the interpretive possibilities of any message
in animal interaction are predetermined.5 Human communication,
in contrast, always presupposes the conflict between collective and

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individual memory, between various individual languages (Lotman


2010, 38–39). Put differently, Homo sapiens are the only species that
can create multivalent and unpredictable texts, that is, “art.” The law
of cultural isomorphism is also the main principle of human culture

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that distinguishes us from other species (ibid., 57).
Apart from that, animals are subordinated to the law of repeti-
tion: their world develops in a cyclical, repeatable motion in con-
trast with the linear development of humans. Humans are subject
to the biological law of cyclical reiteration only partially, and this
trait makes us unique: if animal behavior is ritualistic, humans are
able to break the rules and become unpredictable; animals “play by
the rules,” humans may “cheat.” Thus from the “cybernetic” point of
view, which is not far from the Cartesian view of animals as “autom-
ata,” animals may be considered something in between the machine
and the human: they seem to be “programmed” by their nature, and
deviations from the “hard-wired” code are anomalous and rare.
From Lotman’s theorizing, it follows that it is culture that makes
human beings different from other species. Even more, it might be
argued that man’s hegemony on the planet is the direct result of us
being “cultural animals.” Culture is therefore not something acces-
sory to Homo sapiens ; quite the opposite, culture is a conditio sine
qua non of human existence. It is apposite to note here that this
contention is agreeable with the ideas of the anthropologist Clifford
Geertz, who asserts similarly,

Tools, hunting, family organization, and, later, art, religion, and


“s cience” molded man somatically; and they are, therefore, necessary
not merely to his survival but to his existential realization. . . . The
cultural resources are ingredient, not accessory, to human thought.
(Geertz 1973, 83)6

On the general scale, the contention that Homo sapiens are first and
foremost cultural/semiotic/symbolic species (Homo culturalis or
Homo symbolicus, in Terrence Deacon’s terms), characterized by a
unique capacity to create and use countless sign systems, echoes in
the works of many philosophers and theorists and most obviously
in Ernst Cassirer’s An Essay on Man . Inspired by Uexküll, Cassirer
termed man animal symbolicum , “a symbolic animal,” conceiving
of the outer world through the membrane of symbolic meanings
(Cassirer 1944).

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Universal Mind ● 129

Artificial Intelligence
According to Lotman, culture is a feature that distinguishes our species
not only from other animals but also from other forms of intelligence

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and especially from those that are assigned to machines. As mentioned
in chapter 1, in the 1960s–70s, cybernetics permeated almost all levels
of Soviet academia, having positioned itself as the universal science. In
the context of “the scientific and technical revolution,” the problem of
artificial intelligence naturally became one of the dominant themes;
after all, the cybernetic viewpoint practically eliminated the essential
boundary between man and the machine. As Norbert Wiener and
his colleagues state in a 1943 article, “A uniform behavioristic analy-
sis is applicable to both machines and living organisms, regardless of
the complexity of the behavior” (Rosenblueth, Wiener, and Bigelow
1943, 22). So according to the teleological point of view—in cyber-
netics, teleology is understood as purposeful behavior controlled by
feedback—humans, animals, and machines are functionally identi-
cal to each other and therefore can be studied by the same methods.
This view was shared by many Soviet academics as well; in fact, man-
machine metaphors became such a commonplace that they needed no
special introduction (Gerovitch 2002, 224).
The TMSS semioticians were involved in the study of artificial
intelligence as well, with various degrees of interest—if Viacheslav
Ivanov directly participated in the experiments with machine trans-
lation, Lotman’s interest was focused mainly on the differences
between artificial communicative mechanisms and culture. But the
most interesting case of the semiotic study of AI was “the lunar proj-
ect” in which semioticians from Tartu and Leningrad took part.
Boris Egorov (1999, 206–10) tells a story that now seems to be
unreal: in the 1970s, he got acquainted with Prof. Mikhail Ignat’ev,
chair of the Department of Cybernetics at the university that is now
called Saint Petersburg State University of Aerospace Instrumentation.
The department used to receive special contracts from military orga-
nizations, and one of them concerned the development of robots for
the planned moon exploration (obviously, a very “hot” topic after
the 1969 Apollo moon landing). Ignat’ev had a possibility to con-
clude subcontracts and hire specialists outside his department, and
that was how Egorov’s colleagues at Herzen Pedagogical Institute
and Lotman’s department at Tartu University were included in the
project. Their task was to design special communicative systems for

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the community of lunar robots. In that context, the collaboration of


cyberneticians with literary scholars (i.e., semioticians) did not seem
unnatural.
Lotman’s department was assigned a specific task to develop

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metalanguages of different strata of culture in the context of artifi-
cial intelligence. Yet the spectrum of themes explored in the frame-
work of this project in 1973–75 was not limited solely to artificial
intelligence and included such topics as cinematography, mytho-
logical language, functions of metamechanisms of culture, dynamic
models of semiotic systems, problems of collective psychology, semi-
otic typology of eighteenth-century Russian culture, models and
programs of behavior, and many others. A special term was coined
for this “cybernetic-like” discipline by analogy with bionics: arton-
ics, from Latin ars — artis. The discipline was supposed to study the
structural laws of artistic systems that could be applicable in infor-
mation theory and cybernetics. As is obvious, to a degree the project
was just a cover that allowed Tartu scholars to conduct their own
research, which had only a remote relation to the problem of AI or
the moon exploration. It was not entirely unexpected when in 1976
the officials terminated all side contracts with literary scholars in
Tartu and Leningrad.
One of the articles, written by Egorov, Lotman, and Ignat’ev as
a conclusion of this “lunar project,” was only published 20 years
later (Egorov, Ignat’ev, and Lotman 1995). It is devoted exclusively
to the problem of AI, which is seen as a metamechanism or meta-
system of culture, that is, a superindividual intellectual system
manifested first and foremost in common memory. Among other
metamechanisms of culture, the authors single out myth and natu-
ral language. The metamechanism of AI functions as follows: on
the periphery of the system there are located “semiotic individuals”
that serve as “outer sensors” of the system, receiving information
from the outer world and then transferring it to the core, thus
translating it into the metalanguage of the cultural whole. There is
an essential tension between the unifying system of metalanguage
and the increasing variety and relative independence of cultural
subsystems, which makes up a complex equilibrium necessary for
normal functioning of any culture. If the metastructure of culture,
its ideal self-description, submits all individual subsystems, culture
will cease being a dynamic system and will ossify; on the other

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Universal Mind ● 131

hand, if the tendency to independence of subsystems prevails, cul-


ture will risk disintegration (ibid., 280–81).7 As is obvious, the
authors use the term “artificial intellect” in a rather metaphorical
sense, only indirectly related to technological problems.

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In the 1977 article “Culture as Collective Intellect and the
Problems of Artificial Intelligence,” Lotman singles out several
problems that make the definition of intellect very difficult: first
of all, “intelligent” should not be equated with “human-like,” as in
Alan Turing’s test (whether the human can tell the machine from
the human being during a conversation); second, all attempts to
distinguish one single feature that constitutes intellect or with-
out which intellect would be impossible greatly reduce the task;
as a consequence, any artificial model that tries to imitate some
cognitive operations cannot be equated with intellect as a whole.
Lotman goes on to argue that collective intellect as a model for AI
has several advantages over individual intellect because it is a more
explicit mechanism, represented and recorded in a variety of texts
and languages. After all, one of the characteristics of intellect is the
capacity to “go out of one’s mind”: a thinking mechanism must in
principle be able to “go mad,” as an alternative to rational behavior.
Culture, in this respect, can be described as a mechanism of collec-
tive intelligence because it too has “pathological,” irregular periods
in its functioning.
Lotman mentions that most common definitions of intelligence
boil down to “a capacity to behave, in radically altered conditions,
in a manner that is both new and expedient” (Lotman 1979, 85).
Lotman reinterprets this definition in the semiotic context as a
capacity to create new languages and texts; that is, he once again
declares the meaning-generating function the central feature of
intellect. Speaking apart, this could be the reaction to a narrow
definition of creativity that caught Lotman’s attention in the arti-
cle “The Processes of Creative Thinking” by A. Newell, J. C. Shaw,
and H. A. Simon, translated in a collection of articles on the psy-
chology of thinking (Matiushkin 1965, 500–513). Lotman marked
a couple of passages in his copy of the book where the authors
equate creative thinking with the behavior that simulates human
problem solvers. They state that creative activity appears to be
simply a special class of problem-solving activity characterized by
novelty, unconventionality, persistence, and difficulty in problem

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formulation. They demonstrate some successful algorithm-based


programs that utilize the method of trial and error but admit that
such creative tasks as the composition of Beethoven’s Seventh
Symphony are beyond the scope of their analysis. For Lotman, such

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a narrow and mechanistic definition of creativity was obviously
inacceptable.
In other articles (“The Phenomenon of Culture” [1978] and
“Brain–Text–Culture–Artificial Intelligence” [1981]), Lotman is
even more skeptical toward the possibility of creation of AI by anal-
ogy with individual human intellect. He singles out three main
characteristics of artificial systems: omniscience (in the limits of its
own system), lack of doubts (any action is unambiguous), and the
full identity of the addresser with the addressee. There is therefore
an essential difference between the predictability of artificial devices
and the variability of a human individual. After all, concludes
Lotman, it is not at all in our interest to create AI as an exact copy
of human intellect because in that case such machine would become
“neurotic” and would be prone to ignorance, misunderstanding, and
doubts (Lotman 2000b, 577–78, 589).
Even 30 years later, the main points of Lotman’s theorizing
are valid. Indeed, the best features of modern robots and com-
puters are not at all identical to human features because they are
designed with the purpose of surpassing humans in their abilities.
Computers are constructed in many ways as opposite to human
beings: they are able to perform millions of calculations per second,
and their memory is built exactly as a storage device. A computer
that “forgets” the stored information or distorts it in different ways
(i.e., behaves like a human being) is worthless. This once again
proves that unpredictability, which is considered to be an error fac-
tor in artificial systems, is essential for human mind and culture.
Obviously, for Lotman the most important point in this respect is
to emphasize the similarity of human intellect and culture to put
them both in opposition to the machine intellect.

The Thinking Worlds


The ability to think is without doubt the central feature of intellect.
In the general context of Lotman semiotics, thinking (myshlenie)
can be defined as the process of meaning-generation. Moreover, the

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essential unpredictability of meaning-generation seems to be the


key feature of man’s thinking ability. Lotman consistently blurs the
boundary between the individual and the collective, stating that
it is not only human mind but also cultures and texts that can be

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called the “thinking worlds.”
In other aspects, Lotman’s account of thinking has similarities
with both Saussure and Peirce. First of all, for Lotman thinking and
consciousness are impossible without semiotic expression. Lotman
stresses that our consciousness is simply indivisible from the level
of expression, that these two entities are firmly fused together:
“Thought is within us, but we are within thought, just as language is
something engendered by our minds and directly dependent on the
mechanisms of the brain, and we are with language” (Lotman 1990,
273). Among all forms of semiotic expression, natural language takes
the central position as the most powerful sign system:8

We are immersed in the space of language. Even in the most basic


abstract conditions, we cannot extract ourselves from this space,
which simply envelops us, and yet it is a space of which we are also
a part and which, simultaneously, is part of us. . . . We need to exert
a tremendous effort to push ourselves beyond the limits of language
and it is precisely to language that we ascribe our lies, deviations
from the norm, and the majority of our defects and perversions.
(Lotman 2009, 114)

This can be read as a reference to the power of discourse, but here


it is first and foremost a manifestation of a more general prin-
ciple of cultural isomorphism, the ref lection of cognitive proper-
ties in the structure of semiotic systems. This thesis echoes in the
works of Peirce (1931–34), who argues that human consciousness
is the sum total of our semiotic capacity (to express something in
a language):

My language is the sum total of myself; for man is the thought. . . . But
the identity of a man consists in the consistency of what he does and
thinks, and consistency is the intellectual character of a thing; that
is, is its expressing something. (5.314–15)

Consequently, by “thought” or “idea” (mysl’ , ideia) Lotman usually


understands something that has to be expressed in some language: “For

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human thought all that exists is that which falls into any of its lan-
guages” (Lotman 2009, 134). As we remember, one of the schemes of
text transfer (figure 2.3) illustrated the process of text generation as
a path from the thought (as the content of a message), via encoding

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mechanisms of language, to the text. This idea is of course remi-
niscent of Saussure’s contention that language “ is a form and not a
substance ” and that thought is “only a shapeless and indistinct mass”
or “a vague, uncharted nebula.” Because thought is amorphous by
nature, it “has to become ordered in the process of its decomposi-
tion.” The relation between thought and sound is illustrated by the
metaphor of air in contact with water, which creates waves (Saussure
1966, 122, 111–12).
This idea seems to be supported by Lev Vygotsky (1986, 251),
who wrote in 1934, “Thought, unlike speech, does not consist of
separate units. . . . In [the speaker’s] mind the whole thought is
present at once, but in speech it has to be developed successively.
A thought may be compared to a cloud shedding a shower of words.”
Indeed, any thought can be structured by some specific medium,
but it is obvious that not every thought needs to be expressed in
speech or in any medium at all. An old cliché of “reading some-
body’s thoughts” as reading them literally as a written text is
explainable because thought is otherwise very hard to describe in
any of the existing metalanguages. But if we do not think in words,
how do we think?
Vygotsky asserts that language functions as “the social means
of thought” (ibid., 94).9 In this connection, he pays special atten-
tion to the study of inner speech (internal self-directed speech) and
egocentric speech of children. Unlike Jean Piaget, the psycholo-
gist known for his studies of children’s thinking, Vygotsky defines
egocentric speech of the child as “a phenomenon of the transition
from interpsychic to intrapsychic functioning, i.e., from the social,
collective ability of the child to his more individualized activity—
a pattern of development common to all the higher psychological
functions” (ibid., 228). Thus inner speech is defined as an autono-
mous speech function and “a distinct plane of verbal thought .” Both
egocentric and inner speech would be incomprehensible to others;
one would need to translate one’s inner speech in order to produce
an intelligible message. The reason for that is one of the most crucial
features of inner speech: the word in inner speech is “so saturated

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with sense that . . . it becomes a concentrate of sense” (ibid., 247).


Thus, in order to produce a message, one has to disentangle a knot
of meanings and construct a syntactically articulated combination
of signs.

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The similarity with Lotman’s concept of text as a semiospheric
condenser is not a coincidence here: semiosphere designates not only
the semiotic space but also a model of thinking as well. To con-
tinue Lotman’s theorizing, in the context of semiosphere, thought is
provided by a variety of semiotic mediums and codes that we have
acquired during our lifetime, and in order to produce a message intel-
ligible to others we have to considerably reduce—or “condense”—
this variety into one palpable message. Returning to the scheme of
communication in the semiosphere (figure 4.2), it should be reiter-
ated that although Lotman emphasizes the dependence of thought
on the expression plane, it is not one single natural language but
polyglot semiosphere that makes possible the thinking processes of
man. The semiosphere thus allows delimiting and, so to say, “neu-
tralizing” our specific and unique thoughts in the collective mind in
order to make them accessible for other individuals. From this view,
thinking appears to be not a text or its content or an “uncharted
nebula” but a continuous process of synthetic processing of infor-
mation. In other words, we think “in the semiosphere” but have to
express our thoughts in concrete languages. Thinking is thus char-
acterized by simultaneity, continuity, and synthesis, and the process
of “precipitation” of a particular text is characterized by successivity,
delimitedness, and discreteness. Therefore, in terms of discrete lan-
guages, it is possible to describe only the product of thinking activity
but not the process.

The Semiotic Capacity


In one of his books, Thomas Sebeok advocates the notion of pre-
language semiotic capacity and argues that language is in fact a second-
ary, not primary, modeling system “by virtue of the all-but-singula r
fact that it incorporates a syntactic component” (Sebeok 1988, 77).
In his view, language evolved as an adaptation (when an organism
changes in order to better suit its habitat in the process of evolu-
tion) and speech developed out of language as an exaptation (when
a trait that originally serves one function becomes adapted to serve

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another function). The primary modeling system is thus the “non-


verbal modeling” employed by animals or infants; it is primary “in
both a phylogenetic and an ontogenetic sense” (ibid., 75). Therefore,
those systems that are called secondary by the TMSS scholars are in

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fact tertiary modeling systems because on this level both verbal and
nonverbal “sign assemblages blend together” (ibid., 78).10
The supposition of existence of a certain semiotic capacity peculiar
to all humans is shared by many scholars including the eighteenth-
century philosopher Etienne de Condillac (2001), who speaks of a
protolanguage of the speech that he terms “the language of action,”
and Saussure (1966, 10), who equates this general faculty with the
linguistic capacity: “There exists a more general faculty which gov-
erns signs and which would be the linguistic faculty proper.” Lotman
does not mention the notion of semiotic capacity directly, but it is
certainly congenial to his concept of semiosphere as a precondition
of any semiotic system, including natural language, and as a space
where all semiosis and communication takes place. In this respect, a
new question arises whether the notion of semiosphere may receive
some biological or even neurological foundation.

Culture in the Brain?


In the late 1970s, Lotman reformulates his thesis of bilingual orga-
nization of consciousness in a new context:

A thinking apparatus must have in principle (in the minimal scheme)


a dialogic (bilingual) structure. . . . The analogy between the asymme-
try of culture and the asymmetric structure of the brain highlights the
problem of the correlation of discrete and non-discrete languages and
the problem of the mutual equivalence of the texts created in them.
(Lotman 1979, 94)

In this article, Lotman refers to Viacheslav Ivanov’s study of “semi-


otic specialization” of hemispheres, in which Ivanov states that the
left hemisphere is oriented toward discrete and the right hemisphere
toward nondiscrete languages (myth). Lotman thus makes a sugges-
tion that an artificial thinking machine must include “the block of
child consciousness” or “the mechanism of myth-generation” that
would correspond to the functions of the right hemisphere of the
human brain (ibid.).

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Lotman repeats the thesis of correlation of the cultural asymme-


try with the brain asymmetry even in Universe of the Mind :

To our surprise, observations about the bipolar asymmetry of

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semiotic mechanisms has [sic] been paralleled by research into the
functional asymmetry of the large hemispheres of the brain. The
discovery of mechanisms in the individual thinking apparatus which
are functionally isomorphous to the semiotic mechanism of culture has
opened up a wide field for future semiotic study. (Lotman 1990, 2–3;
emphasis added)

It is understandable why Lotman refers to neurological studies: it


appears that his postulate that culture is minimally a two-channel
meaning-generating structure receives an unexpected confirmation
in the anatomy of the brain. The analogy is thrilling: it suggests
that the structure of human culture is predetermined or at least
influenced by the brain structure. Nonetheless, Lotman—unlike
Viacheslav Ivanov, for example—does not develop this topic further,
and we would need to reconstruct the context of that period in order
to understand Lotman’s outlook on this problem.
In the 1970–80s, the semioticians associated with the TMSS took
great interest in the then-hot topic of the functional asymmetry of
human brain as a possible neurophysiological basis of thought and
consciousness.11 The leading researcher in this field was Viacheslav
Ivanov, who in his several works, primarily in the book Even and
Odd (1978), took up the question of brain asymmetry together with
the problem of artificial intelligence. Ivanov had been interested
in this problem since the 1950s and participated in, among other
things, the work of Alexander Luria’s12 laboratory in the Institute of
Neurosurgery in Moscow. At the same time, he was involved in the
cybernetic experiments with the creation of computers that could
model human intellectual abilities. In his book, Ivanov describes
asymmetry as a universal feature of semiosis that has its foundations
in the structure of the brain. The central idea is that culture is iso-
morphic to the brain (which is defined as “the minimal cybernetic
community”) and not on the abstract but on the physical plane.
Ivanov straightforwardly states that the hemispheres are functionally
different—each of them reflects and models the world in an essen-
tially different way, being in constant dialogue with one another.
As a consequence, in order to create AI, one would need to build

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two-machine computing complexes that could be able to reconstruct


the dialogue between the hemispheres. Another scholar close to the
TMSS who actively studied possible neurophysiological foundations
of language was Roman Jakobson (see Jakobson 1980).

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In the 1980s, the Tartu semioticians were in close contact with
the group of the Leningrad neurophysiologists led by Lev Balonov
and Vadim Deglin that was specializing particularly in studying the
functional asymmetry of the brain based on clinical observations of
patients who were treated with unilateral shocks.13 The result of this
cooperation was two volumes in 1983 and 1984 in the TZS series
dedicated almost exclusively to the problem of functional asymme-
try of the brain. TZS 16 is entitled Text and Culture, and TZS 17 is
dedicated to the structure of dialogue as a principle of functioning
of semiotic mechanisms. These volumes together with other similar
publications of Soviet semioticians presented a unified picture of
semiotic specialization of the hemispheres of the human brain that
are summarized in table 5.1.14
One can see that these studies have presented a very harmoni-
ous picture of the hemispheres as representing two “languages,”
two models of consciousness that reflect the world in different
ways. Because normal functioning of an individual depends on the

Table 5.1 Hemispheric “specializations”

LH “controls” a RH “controls”

social reality; worldview;


cognitive perception; immediate recognition;
language and speech; gestures;
sign-concept relation; sign-referent relation;
signifiers; signifieds (i.e., “meaning” that does not depend
on the sound pattern of a sign);
production of new sentences; reproduction of stored entities, language clichés/
formulas (e.g., “Hello!”);
discrete entities; non-discrete, iconic entities;
syntagmatic relations; paradigmatic relations;
verbs and abstract words; nouns and names of concrete objects,
hieroglyphics;
grammatical analysis and synthesis, face and voice recognition, music composition,
logic, etc. movement in a concrete space, etc.
a
LH is the dominant hemisphere of the majority of people. There are, however, people with dominant
RH and there are people with almost equal redistribution, although statistically they are less than 10%
of the world population.

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Universal Mind ● 139

constant dialogue between the hemispheres, any hindrances in their


dialogue lead to the distortion of normal perception. This binary
principle appears to be fundamental for any culture and is mani-
fested, for instance, in the organization of the space of archaic tribes

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(Ivanov 1978a, 20–21).
The very fact that the problem of functional asymmetry of the
brain became central in a semiotic journal demonstrates the broad
spectrum of interest of Soviet semioticians, but it also reveals a pro-
nounced universalistic and “naturalistic” bias of these publications.
Most results of these studies were interpreted exclusively as the man-
ifestation of universals in culture, and it was not a coincidence that
Noam Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar was often used as
a reference point, especially his opposition of “deep structure” ver-
sus “surface structure.” In Chomsky’s theory, any concrete sentence
is built upon an underlying deep structure, which in turn reflects
an innate universal language system peculiar to each individual.
Consequently, in the description of hemispheric functionality, the
right hemisphere becomes responsible for deep structures, with the
left hemisphere “translating” them into surface structures.
On the whole, the discussed works are one of the most vivid
attempts of semioticians to fuse humanities with natural sciences
under the umbrella of semiotics. Interpreted very broadly in the
neurological context, binary oppositions appeared to be universal
ontological categories, peculiar to all semiotic systems and predeter-
mined by the very structure of the brain. Almost every study treated
the obtained data as unequivocal evidence of the bipolar semiotic
mechanisms that govern our semiotic abilities, hence the tendency
to generalize the context-specific experimental results. As Grzybek
(1993, 5) notices with regard to Ivanov’s book Even and Odd , “It
becomes very clear how much semiotic terminology and related
semiotic concepts influence the interpretation of neuropsychological
findings.”
The main problem with this fundamentally “phrenological” and
deterministic approach was that it raised more questions than it
attempted to answer: Is it possible to speak of brain functions exclu-
sively in terms of hemispheres? What about subcortical structures?
Why does nobody pay attention to the differentiation of functions
between the lobes of the cerebrum? Isn’t the assumption that the
brain is divided into two language systems in fact an inverse look at

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140 ● The Texture of Culture

the thinking process, an attempt to describe thinking as “speech”?


In case of electroconvulsive therapy, doesn’t the method directly
inf luence the results of these studies? The most striking feature
of these publications is that no concerns were expressed as to the

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ethical implications of using the data from experiments on mental
patients.
Even at that time some scholars—among them Rozenfel’d (1983)
and Lotman—made several reservations as to the danger of direct
analogies and the application of binary logic, especially if the brain
functions are described in terms of linguistic dichotomies. In a
revised edition of Even and Odd , Ivanov (1998) corrected and refor-
mulated a number of arguments and eliminated practically all cyber-
netic discourse, especially the analogies between the brain and the
computing machine. Nevertheless, the “hemispherical dichotomies”
remained the core of Ivanov’s analysis,15 although he stated in the
preface that “the limitless optimism” of the 1960s–70s had been
replaced with a more reserved approach.
Quite expectedly, since the 1980s, the problem of brain asymme-
try in semiotic studies has been raised quite rarely. The newest neu-
rological findings corrected and refuted many previously accepted
assumptions, having shown that lateralization and brain asymmetry
are too general concepts to serve as an explanation for all or a major-
ity of brain functions, let alone for human thinking. For example, the
preface to the volume The Asymmetrical Brain , edited by K. Hugdahl
and R. Davidson (2003, x), opposes the folk mythologies that have
been fixed in the discourses on the brain functions (e.g., the ana-
lytic left hemisphere versus the emotional right hemisphere or two
“consciousnesses” that are represented by each hemisphere); it states
that the crude division of all functions of the brain into one or two
gives a highly inaccurate picture and that asymmetries exist on all
levels of the nervous system. On the whole, the question of cor-
relation of brain anatomy with higher psychic functions is still far
from being resolved. Professor Tatiana Chernigovskaia, who actively
participated in the work of the Balonov group in the 1980s, in a
recent article maintains that the new achievements in neuroscience
only emphasize the discrepancy between the metalanguage and the
obtained data: “It becomes more and more obvious that some break-
through of methodological and even philosophical nature is needed”
(Chernigovskaya 2007, 108).

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Universal Mind ● 141

As to Lotman’s attention to the study of brain asymmetry, the


early 1980s may be considered a brief period of his attention to the
problem. Lotman discussed these problems with the neurologists
Balonov and Kaufman, who happened to be his dacha neighbors

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(Ivanov 1994, 490). In Lotman’s library, there are a number of books
on the functional asymmetry of the brain from clinical and physi-
ological perspectives, on psychology of speech, psycholinguistics,
physiology, and biochemistry of memory. They include Balonov’s and
Deglin’s books (e.g., Balonov and Deglin 1976, Balonov et al. 1979,
and Deglin 1984), the translations of Richard Atkinson’s Human
Memory and the Learning Process (1976, translated in 1980); Culture
and Thought by Michael Cole and Sylvia Scribner (1974, translated
in 1977), Friedhart Klix’s Erwachendes Denken (1980, translated in
1983), Herbert Krause’s Gehirn contra Computer (1976, translated
in 1982), and Peeter Tulviste’s doctoral dissertation, “Cultural and
Historical Development of Verbal Thinking” (1987).
Nevertheless, Lotman did not take the results of neurological
studies for granted and his attitude to this problem was quite ambiv-
alent. He considered it to be a serious shortcoming that most of
the experiments with unilateral shocks were conducted with mental
patients, not healthy subjects (Ivanov 1994, 490). Apart from that,
the gender aspect of brain lateralization caught Lotman’s attention
in a 1983 translation of Sally Springer’s and Georg Deutsch’s Left
Brain, Right Brain (1981): he marked the statements that lateraliza-
tion is less evident with women and that space and speech skills of
women are more bilateral than those of men. Apparently, for Lotman
it was an important correction of generalizing dichotomies regard-
ing the functional asymmetry of the brain.
In the article “Asymmetry and Dialogue” (TZS 16), Lotman
warns against straightforward analogies between cerebral asymme-
try and the asymmetrical structure of culture but at the same time
states that the idea of asymmetry of cultural mechanisms (culture
as a two-channel structure that connects different semiotic genera-
tors) receives now a neurotopographical foundation (Lotman 2000b,
598–99). Lotman describes the “simplest intellectual mechanisms”
that lie at the core of higher forms of consciousness as the opposi-
tions of “discrete/non-discrete,” “iconic/conventional,” and so forth.
The asymmetry of semiotic structures makes texts circulate, being
constantly recoded from one system to another. Just as external

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impulses are transformed and interpreted in the central nervous sys-


tem, the extracultural phenomena enter culture and then transform
in accordance with its languages, giving start to an “avalanche of
information,” which makes possible the dynamic development of

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culture. Lotman uses “hemispherical” metaphors for the description
of cultural development as well: culture combines “left hemisphere-
and right hemisphere-tendencies” that during the periods of stability
are in a state of a balanced dialogue. During the periods of dynamic
change (destabilization), some tendency assumes dominance and
culture becomes more rigidly organized, suppressing the opposing
tendencies and pushing them to the periphery. In The Unpredictable
Mechanisms of Culture, Lotman (2010, 184) offers another meta-
phor: “Art is one of the hemispheres of the collective brain of the
mankind.”
As is obvious from these texts, Lotman actually does not discuss
the functions of the brain but rather uses neurological metaphors for
description of cultural mechanisms, although contradicting his own
warning as to the danger of direct parallels between culture and the
brain. Apparently, this idea was still very tempting to him, but apart
from the statements cited previously, Lotman never explored this
topic again, and his colleagues also testify that Lotman’s interest in
this problem had much decreased after the discussed period. One of
the reasons for this was undoubtedly the realization of the fallacy of
the “anatomical” explanations of cultural mechanisms.
In conclusion, it is clear that the controversial statements regard-
ing brain anatomy and the structure of culture found in Lotman’s
texts are in principle redundant. Paradoxically, it was exactly on the
background of this “semio-neurophysiological” works that Lotman
coined the concept of semiosphere, which essentially defies “natu-
ralistic,” deterministic, and “phrenological” approaches of culture.
Lotman’s attention has always been focused on the “external” side of
semiosis; even when he speaks of consciousness, he means, so to say,
the cultural fabric of consciousness manifested in texts. Thus the
concept of semiosphere does not require any materialistic founda-
tion, which is undoubtedly the main reason for Lotman’s decreasing
interest in neurology. By the same token, Lotman does not con-
struct any specific theory of mind but instead focuses on the actual
product of our thinking activity, that is, culture. In a nutshell, what
Lotman’s semiotics tells us is that in order to understand how we

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Universal Mind ● 143

think, it is not necessary to go deep inside the brain and attempt to


find the answers in its microstructure, but on the contrary, we have
to look around ourselves, at the semiotic space that envelops us and
makes up our conscious experience.

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Chapter 5: Key Premises
• Collective consciousness is both the worldview of a particular
group and a paradigm of thought of a given period.
• The self exists only in relation to the other.
• Culture is what makes Homo sapiens different from other
species.
• The semiosphere is congenial to the notion of semiotic capacity,
the precondition of any semiotic system.
• The semiosphere may also be presented as a model of cognition
and thinking.

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Conclusion: The World as a Text

D
ifferent researchers and critics create different portraits of
Lotman as a theoretician: he has been depicted as a struc-
turalist, a cybernetician, an “organicist,” and a philosopher.
As we have seen, in Lotman’s writing one can indeed encounter struc-
turalist dogmas and scientistic/universalistic idioms; there are traces
of cybernetic discourse, references to various disciplines, and also
rather philosophical ref lections on history and culture. As regards
philosophy, there were several attempts to expose the philosophical
grounds of Lotman’s theory, characterizing it as Hegelian (Egorov
1999, 252–53), Marxist-dialectical (M. Gasparov 1996), Platonian
(Vetik 1994), or Kantian (M. Lotman 1995). Such a broad spectrum
of opinions can be explained by the fact that Lotman never explic-
itly pointed out any “father f igure” that had shaped his views but on
the contrary demonstrated the f lexibility of his approach: in various
works Lotman refers, most notably, to Ferdinand de Saussure, Emile
Benveniste, Iurii Tynianov, Mikhail Bakhtin, Andrei Kolmogorov,
Ilia Prigogine, and Vladimir Vernadsky. Each of these theoreti-
cians—whose ideas Lotman absorbs, develops, and incorporates in
his own theory of culture—contributes something to Lotman’s the-
ory and ref lects a different side of Lotman’s multifaceted personal-
ity. In that sense, Lotman can be compared not with a disciple who
truly follows his teacher; rather, he is like a translator who does not
attempt to be true to the original but becomes inspired by it and cre-
ates his own original work. I hope this book has demonstrated that
it is impractical to reduce Lotman’s multifarious personality to only
one dominant philosophical/methodological/political paradigm or
discourse because it in fact switches the focus from the core constit-
uents of his theory to marginal ones, thus dramatically diminishing

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146 ● The Texture of Culture

its applicability. It is this “synthetic” quality of Lotman’s approach


that makes his theory unique.
In my disposition of Lotman’s theory, I attempted to distinguish
what is time-specific and what has a potential for further development

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and application, at the same time showing that Lotman’s method is
based on certain discernable principles, which I have expounded in
this book and which I summarize as follows:
The core principles of Lotman’s semiotics can be formulated as
the principle of cultural isomorphism —which postulates that all
semiotic entities from individual consciousness to the totality of
human culture are based on similar heterogeneous mechanisms of
meaning-generation—and the principle of textuality of culture, the
assumption that culture is an exceptionally complex text that in turn
consists of texts within the texts. Both principles are closely con-
nected with one another and together constitute what may be called
the Lotman approach to culture. In other words, the metaphor of
“reading the world as a text” in Lotman’s interpretation receives
tangible methodological, and even philosophical, implications. In
a nutshell, this approach concentrates on connections of any single
text with its semiotic space and of any person with their cultural
space; it focuses on the essential dialogism of text production and
perception; it asserts the primacy of the text—the real unit of com-
munication—over metaconstructions such as language or code; it
aims at the elucidation of underlying textual structures in our every-
day life; finally, it sees culture as an external representation of mind,
as a model of reality expressed in texts, and as a manifestation of our
unique semiotic capacity.

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Notes

1 Contexts
1. The school is called differently in different publications: the Tartu-
Moscow Semiotic School, the Moscow-Tartu Semiotic School, the
Tartu School of Semiotics. In any case, the Tartu component, as
Liubov’ Kiseleva (1996) argues, is undoubtedly central.
2. It should be mentioned that in the Russian language, the word nauka
(and its derivatives) is more general than the English science ; it can refer
both to natural sciences and humanities and to scholarship in general.
3. For instance, the metaphorical construction “Willows weep, poplars
whisper” is presented as follows: A 3(v1,n 1) & A 3(v2 ,n 2).
4. It is also noteworthy that cybernetics (derived from the Greek root
κυβερνώ, to steer, to govern), intended by its creator Norbert Wiener
as a discipline studying governance, control, and communication, is
now associated mostly with the computer and sci-fi jargon (hence such
derivatives as cyberspace, cyborg, etc.).
5. The works of the TMSS scholars were published in English in sev-
eral collections, e.g., Sebeok (1975), Baran (1976), and Lucid (1977).
A number of articles appeared in the journals Tel Quel , Semiotica , New
Literary History, etc.

2 Culture as System
1. Cf. Sebeok (1991, 12), who states that semiotics “is not about the ‘real’
world at all, but about complementary or alternative actual models of
it. . . . what a semiotic model depicts is not ‘reality’ as such, but nature
as unveiled by our method of questioning.”
2. Cf. Lotman (1977d, 9): Secondary modeling systems are “built as
superstructures upon a natural linguistic plane,” or “constructed on the
model of language.”
3. Translation mine; in both English versions published in 1973 and 1975,
this passage is missing. In the Russian version, it can be found just before

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148 ● Notes

paragraph 6.2.0 and after this sentence: “Thus the analysis of Slavic cul-
tures and languages may prove to be a convenient model for investigating
the interrelations between natural languages and secondary (superlin-
guistic) semiotic modeling systems” (Lotman et al. 1975, 78).

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4. In a similar manner, Lotman (1977d, 101) asserts that artistic prose
has arisen against the background of the poetic system as its negation,
so the view of prose as “ordinary speech” and of poetry as “specially
constructed” speech is in fact misleading.
5. The same holds for parody, which is also based on the “familiar-
in-unfamiliar” situation (apart from literary parody, impersonat-
ing somebody is just one example of the everyday use of parody).
However, as Tynianov shows in his works, parody belongs not only
to the domain of humor but serves as an intertextual device and a
vehicle of literary evolution (see chapter 3).
6. In a similar manner, Peirce (1931–34) states that a thought “is always
interpreted by a subsequent thought of our own” (5.284) and thus,
“one concept is contained in another” (5.288).
7. Cf. Tynianov (1977, 337), who argues that meaning is produced
between the shots and montage is the “differential succession of shots.”
8. Reid’s comparative work on Lotman and Bakhtin attempted to dem-
onstrate that Bakhtin, usually perceived as a philosophical and schol-
arly antagonist of structuralist and semiotic theories, has many points
of convergence with Lotman’s semiotics. On the problem of Bakhtin
and Soviet semiotics, see also Matejka (1973), Titunik (1976), Danow
(1988), Grzybek (1995), Egorov (1999, 243–58), and Emerson (2003).
There are several other works on Bakhtin and Lotman that are beyond
the scope of this excursus.
9. The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship (1928) and Marxism and the
Philosophy of Language (1929) came out under the names of Bakhtin’s
disciples Medvedev and Voloshinov, respectively, and the debate about
the authorship of these books has been going on for quite a long time
now. The matter is still not resolved, and there are different opinions
as to the degree of participation of Bakhtin in these two works. For
example, Ivanov (1976b, 366) argues that Bakhtin is their immediate
author. For our purposes, this problem is not of primary importance,
and I will therefore refer to Voloshinov’s and Medvedev’s works as sep-
arate from Bakhtin’s.
10. Cf. “Expression-utterance is determined by the actual conditions of the
given utterance—above all, by its immediate social situation ” (Vološinov
1973, 85).
11. Cf. “Understanding is to utterance as one line of a dialogue is to the
next” (Vološinov 1973, 102).
12. Bakhtin never clearly defines the concept of text and uses it sometimes with
opposite meanings; in some contexts, text means the same as utterance,

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Notes ● 149

sometimes it is directly opposed to utterance, and in other instances it is


synonymous with work. For a more detailed account of Bakhtin’s concept
of text in relation to Lotman’s, see Reid (1990), Grzybek (1995).
13. Bakhtin most likely refers to Lotman’s 1965 article in TZS 2, “On the

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Problem of Meaning in Secondary Modeling Systems,” where Lotman
argues that the problem of content is the problem of recoding (Bakhtin
2002, 610–11). Bakhtin might have also read Lotman’s 1966 article in
TRSF, “Khudozhestvennaia struktura Evgeniia Onegina,” or Lotman’s
description of Eugene Onegin in The Structure of the Artistic Text . It is
necessary to mention that all these texts are quite different from the
later book of 1980.
14. On the context of this polemic, see detailed comments in Bakhtin
(2002, 610–15, 722–25).
15. Another theory that “originates” in formalism is the polysystem theory
by Itamar Even-Zohar (1990, 88), who defines polysystem as “the ‘sys-
tem of systems’ . . . a multiply stratified whole where relations between
center and periphery are a series of oppositions.” Even-Zohar also refers
to Lotman’s earlier works as emerging from almost the same tradition.
16. Peter Steiner (1984, 127) argues that Tynianov “saw literary develop-
ment as determined mainly by the internal conditions of the literary
system and regarded the extraliterary context as secondary, merely
complementing the internal developmental causes by providing litera-
ture with speech constructions fitting the needs of the de-automatizing
principle of construction.”
17. It should be noted that the formalists in their programmatic works
criticized the study of literary history as “a history of generals”
(Tynjanov 1977, 66; Brik 1977, 90) and studied literary development
as an impersonal process. The TMSS scholars in many ways continued
this tradition as well.
18. Cf. “The question of a specific choice of path, or at least of the domi-
nant, can be solved only by means of an analysis of the correlation
between the literary series and other historical series. This correlation
(a system of systems) has its own structural laws, which must be sub-
mitted to investigation. It would be methodologically fatal to consider
the correlation of systems without taking into account the immanent
laws of each system” (Tynjanov and Jakobson 1978, 80–81). These
statements, by the way, seem to contradict the common critique of the
formalists as focused exclusively on the immanent laws of literature.
19. The Fantômas mania among the youth is ref lected in the 1974 film
Aniskin and Fantomas , in which a country police detective named
Aniskin finds out that behind juvenile Fantômas-inspired hooliganism
there is an adult criminal who used teenagers for his dark purposes.
20. Personal communication at Tartu Summer School of Semiotics,
August 22, 2011, Palmse, Estonia.

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150 ● Notes

3 Culture as Text
1. Cf. similar approach to text by Roland Barthes (1977) in his essay
“From Work to Text.”

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2. This seems to be an exaggeration; for example, the text is central in
Roland Barthes’s writings as well: “Interdisciplinary study consists in
creating a new object, which belongs to no one. The Text is, I believe,
one such object” (Barthes 1989, 72).
3. It is necessary to note that Saussure was most probably inf luenced by
the German romantic theory when advocating the arbitrary nature of
the (linguistic) sign. August Schlegel was the first to state that the
signifier and what is signified are tied by a very loose bond and not
in fact the same: “There is in the human mind a desire that language
should exhibit the object which it denotes, sensibly, by its very sound,
which may be traced even as far back as in the first origin of poetry.
As, in the shape in which language comes down to us, this is seldom
perceptibly the case, an imagination which has been powerfully excited
is fond of laying hold of any congruity in sound which may accidentally
offer itself, that by such means he may, for the nonce, restore the lost
resemblance between the word and the thing” (Schlegel 1846, 366).
Friedrich Schlegel expresses similar ideas, stating that if the criterion
of truth is understood as the correspondence of the representation with
the object, then the object has to be compared with the representation.
But this is not possible because one can only compare one representa-
tion with another (Bowie 1997, 74). Novalis summarizes the problem
in the following way: he maintains that the confusion of the symbol
with what is symbolized (picture/original, appearance/substance, sub-
ject/object) and the belief in true complete representation is the cause
of “all the superstition and error of all times” (ibid., 66). Fichte defines
language as “an expression of our thoughts through arbitrary signs”
(Behler 1993, 264–65). Finally, Wilhelm von Humboldt emphasizes
the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign by stating that all forms of lan-
guage are symbols that are “not the things themselves, nor signs agreed
on” but sounds that are found in real and mystical connections with
the objects and concepts they represent (Berman 1992, 152–53).
4. In a 1967 article, Lotman identifies artistic texts with iconic signs and
formulates the crucial difference between the sign and the model: “2.2.
The difference between the sign and the model is that the latter not
only replaces a certain referent but effectively [ polezno] replaces it in
the process of cognition or organization of the object. Therefore, if in
natural language the relation of language to the referent is historically
conventional, the relation of the model to the object is determined
by the structure of modeling system. In that sense only one type of

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Notes ● 151

signs— iconic signs —can be equated to models. 2.3. Works of art are
constructed as iconic signs. This means that the information enclosed
in a work of art is inseparable from its modeling language and from its
structure as a sign-model” (Lotman 2000a, 388).

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5. I use Shukman’s (1977) translation because it is more precise than
Ronald Vroon’s “expression,” “demarcation,” and “structure.”
6. Cf. Tynianov (1977, 55): “The constructive principle of prose is the
deformation of sound by meaning, and the constructive principle of
poetry is the deformation of meaning by sound.”
7. Magic is a separate semiotic problem and a form of semiosis; see an
overview in Nöth (1990, 188–91). See also Lepik (2008) as a case of
application of Lotman’s theory in the study of magic.
8. Cf. Pavel Medvedev, who asserts that “meaning of art is completely
inseparable from all the details of its material body” and that the work of
art is “meaningful in its entirety” (Bakhtin and Medvedev 1991, 12).
9. Vroon translated “slozhno postroennyi smysl” as “intricately con-
structed thought ,” but I use the more precise “meaning” here because
Lotman aphoristically summarizes his description of the text as a
meaning-generating mechanism.
10. Tolstoy’s formula has gained much popularity and is quoted, for
instance, by Lev Vygotsky in The Psychology of Art (1925) and in Boris
Eikhenbaum’s article “How Gogol’s Overcoat Is Made.”
11. In the Elder Pliny’s account, Zeuxis painted grapes so convincingly
that birds started to peck the painting. Zeuxis then asked Parrhasios
to remove the curtain so that he could see the painting behind it, but
it turned out that Parrhasios’s painting was the curtain itself (Pliny
1968, 111).
12. Lotman also uses such terms as “minus-rhetoric,” “minus-trope,” and
“minus-context.” The term “device” ( priem) is obviously borrowed from
the formalists, although Lotman (1964, 59; 1977d, 103) claims that he
defines it more precisely as “the structural element and its function.”
13. Attempts to break the linearity of the narrative are manifested in the
discrepancy between the story (events in chronological order) and the
plot. For example, Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch (Rayuela) realizes
the metaphor of the hopscotch game by presenting (at least) two nar-
ratives on the basis of one text, depending on the order in which the
chapters of the book are read.
14. The last sentence of the book reads, “So that when I stretched out my
hand, I caught hold of the Fille de Chambre’s—”. This example is also
cited in Viktor Shklovskii’s Theory of Prose.
15. Without delving into the history of genre definitions, it is important
to note that the romantics played a pivotal role in shaping what has
now become modern genre theory. Opposing the neoclassical model,

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152 ● Notes

the romantics significantly reconceptualized the Greek/Roman theory


of genres. They advocated the infinite changeability of genres and the
emergence of new literary forms instead of a fixed and static hierar-
chy; they opposed the creative power of genius and imagination to the

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mimetic and subsidiary nature of art. In general, if the neoclassicists
viewed genre as a stable, prescriptive entity (an order), the romantics
rejected all generic rules and lay emphasis on individual works (see
Behler 1993; Szondi 1986, 75–94).
16. See, for example, Strelka (1978). One of the most recent works on genre
theory is an anthology edited by David Duff (2000). For a recent exam-
ple of the discussion of genre in ancient Greece and Rome, see Depew
and Obbink (2000).
17. As McQuail (2005, 370) argues, genre (especially in the mass media)
can function as a practical device for the economic (and commercial)
needs of customers. Also, as it is defined in social semiotics, genre is a
mediating category between the micro and macro structures, between
texts and discourses: genre is “the site where social forms of organi-
zation engage with systems of signs in the production of texts, thus
reproducing or changing the sets of meanings and values which make
up a culture.” Genres, therefore, “only exist in so far as a social group
declares and enforces the rules that constitute them” (Hodge and Kress
1988, 6–7).
18. It must be noted that Hirsch’s theory is essentially intentionalist, posit-
ing authorial intention as the only criterion for interpretation.
19. For instance, according to Gérard Genette’s (1997, 28) diagram of
hypertextual practices, the structural difference between parody and
pastiche is that the former is a transformational device, whereas the
latter is imitational.
20. In his work on Dostoevsky and Gogol, Tynianov analyzes Dostoevsky’s
novel Selo Stepanchikovo as an unrecognized parody of Gogol. Because
it has not been identified as such by readers, the text is taken out of its
context ( plan), and the work itself is inevitably changed. As Tynianov
(1977, 226) states in this article, “If a parody of tragedy is a comedy,
a parody of comedy may result in a tragedy.”
21. In neurological terms, memory is a spatiotemporal pattern, and mem-
ory revocation is presented as a resonance of an active spatiotemporal
pattern with the “old” one(s) (Calvin and Ojemann 1994, 129–30).
22. See, for example, General History of the Stage by Luigi Riccoboni (writ-
ten in 1738, translated into English in 1741): “If some time or other
the English Poets would submit themselves to the three Unities of
the Theatre, and not expose Blood and Murder before the Eyes of the
Audience, they would at least partake of that Glory which the other
more perfect modern Theatres enjoy” (quoted in Bailey 1964, 6).

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Notes ● 153

23. The problem of Hamletism (and particularly Russian Hamletism) has


been addressed in many works; see Levin (1978), Rowe (1976), Clayton
(1978), Foakes (1993, 12–44), Holland (1999), and Semenenko (2007,
139–42).

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24. The history of how the “Poor Yorick” icon came to signify the emblem
of the tragedy and why the “To be or not to be” soliloquy became the
most popular excerpt from the play is described in detail in Semenenko
(2007).
25. One should differentiate between these “fatherless” idioms and memes.
Richard Dawkins coined the concept of meme in 1976, and the term
gave birth to a whole new discipline of memetics. A meme is defined
by Dawkins as a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.
Dawkins argues that memes—among them are tunes, ideas, catchy
phrases, etc.—propagate themselves from one brain to another by the
process that is close to imitation (hence the origin of the word: an
abbreviated version of mimeme, from a Greek root, “to imitate”). The
problem with Dawkins’s definition is that he insists on direct analogies
with Darwinian evolution and the biological process of genetic replica-
tion, arguing that memes are “living structures, not just metaphorically
but technically” (Dawkins 1989, 192). Texts cannot of course replicate
on their own, and such analogies are essentially misleading. Another
problem with this understanding of memes is that practically anything
can be called a meme, which simply devaluates the concept and exhib-
its a very superficial approach to the textuality of culture. Memeticists
developed many different, sometimes contrasting approaches to memes,
but in popular usage this word signifies a virus-like textual entity that
is copied from one user to another. Especially abundant viral texts are
in the Internet because of the ease and speed of text dissemination and
reduplication. However, even superficial analysis reveals that memes
have a very f lexible (sometimes indefinable) semantic field, and their
main function is actually referential, as in a majority of mythological
texts. Memes do not directly transmit any information but rather serve
as unifying contexts, creating the common field of memory among the
users. Ironically, the current usage of the word suggests its provenance
from the word “memory” rather than “mimesis.”

4 Semiosphere
1. In 1930s, Vernadsky adopts the concept of noosphere as the last stage
of the evolution of the biosphere in geological history, in which man-
kind is reconstructing the biosphere in the interests of humanity: “The
noösphere is a new geological phenomenon on our planet. In it for the
first time man becomes a large-scale geological force. He can and must

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154 ● Notes

rebuild the province of his life by his work and thought, rebuild it radi-
cally in comparison with the past” (Vernadsky 1999, 99).
2. The Russian noun razum is multivalent and may be translated as mind,
intelligence, reason, ratio; and the adjective razumnyi , accordingly, as

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intelligent, rational, sapient.
3. Note the similarities with Peirce’s statement that “every thought must
address itself to some other, must determine some other” (1931–34,
5.253).
4. The epoch of technical revolution of the 1950s–60s and the dominance
of cybernetic discourse suggested an abundance of machine metaphors,
so the usage of such terms as “system,” “mechanism,” and “appara-
tus” in semiotic terminology is not surprising. However, Lotman often
uses “mechanistic” and “organicist” (Mandelker 1994) metaphors
interchangeably. This is probably the inf luence of the formalists, who
also deployed “biological,” “morphological,” and “technical” models
in their studies of the literary techné (especially Shklovskii) and were
first to describe literature as a system (Tynianov) (on main models in
formalism, see Steiner 1984).
5. The hypothesis of the existence of a special “language acquisition
device” in the brain, as propagated by Noam Chomsky and Steven
Pinker, has not been confirmed with substantial evidence and quite
expectedly provoked a wave of criticism. For example, Philip Lieberman
(2000) attacks the notion of universal grammar and argues that lan-
guage, as any other skill, is not an innate instinct but “a learned skill,
based on a functional language system (FLS) that is distributed over
many parts of the human brain” (Lieberman 2000, 1). He shows that
language makes use of a distributed network, including neocortex and
basal ganglia (“our reptilian brain”). Subcortical basal ganglia play a
crucial part in FLS: among other things, they are involved in learning
particular patterns of motor activity and play a part in sequencing the
individual elements that constitute a motor program (ibid., 82).
6. In a similar manner, Terrence Deacon (1997, 135) asserts that children
remember “the most global structure-function relationships of utter-
ances” while they cannot reproduce concrete words. In other words,
first they learn the structure, and then they differentiate between indi-
vidual symbols, which is a remarkable ref lection of Lotman’s idea of
the primacy of the text before the sign: the text creates its language,
not vice versa. Deacon’s idea that language as a social phenomenon
represents “a virtual common mind” (ibid., 427) can too be read as a
paraphrase of the concept of semiosphere.
7. The English translation of this article (Lotman 2005, 225) gives “are
a seemingly inter-connected group of semiospheres” instead of a more
accurate “are semiospheres inserted into one another, as it were.”

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Notes ● 155

8. The 1966 article and an excerpt from the 1975 book on EO are pub-
lished in English in Hoisington (1988).

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5 Universal Mind
1. The assertion that intellect and thought are not limited to human con-
sciousness is found in Peirce (1931–34), who assigns thought even to
the material world: “Thought is not necessarily connected with a brain.
It appears in the work of bees, of crystals, and throughout the purely
physical world; and one can no more deny that it is really there, than
that the colors, the shapes, etc., of objects are really there” (4.551).
2. In Bakhtin’s works, the dialogical principle also presupposes the other;
“I for myself ” is perceived against the background of “I for the other”
(Bakhtin 1984, 205); see also “Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity”
in Bakhtin (1990).
3. Cf. “For its own existence every semiotic entity (sign, text, mind, or
culture as a whole) needs the other ” (M. Lotman 2002, 35).
4. Several semioticians extend Lotman’s ideas to a larger field; e.g., Petrilli
and Ponzio (2005) use the term semiobiosphere, merging together
Lotman’s semiosphere with Vernadsky’s biosphere (cf. Nöth 2006, 258).
5. To continue this thought, it is essentially erroneous to equate human
language with animal communicative systems, as has been shown in a
number of studies. For example, Marler (1998, 15) demonstrates that
even if we can find some animal sounds that have symbolic meanings,
“these particular signals come as an indivisible package, with no under-
lying combinatorial phonocode.”
6. However, Geertz (1973, 44) sees culture as “a set of control mech-
anisms—plans, recipes, rules, instructions (what computer engineers
call ‘programs’)—for the governing of behavior” and studies first of
all the symbolic dimensions of social action (art, religion, science, law,
morality, etc.). For a comparative overview of semiotic versus anthro-
pological view of culture, see, for example, Posner (1988).
7. The authors point out the increasing autonomization of individuals
as a result of the growing number of recording techniques, from writ-
ing to tape recorders, which they consider to be the subsystems of AI
(Egorov, Ignat’ev, and Lotman 1995, 284–85).
8. In Analysis of the Poetic Text , Lotman postulates that apart from natural
language people have at least two other naturally acquired (stikhiino
dannye) systems that actively but tacitly form our consciousness—the
system of “common sense,” that is, our everyday knowledge, and the
spatio-visual picture of the world (Lotman 1976a, 133; 1972, 132).
Lotman mentions these systems in order to show how poetry is able to
break their automatism. Otherwise, it is of course very problematic to

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156 ● Notes

state that “common sense” and the spatio-visual picture of the world
are indeed semiotic systems.
9. Cf. Saussure (1966, 23), who defines the object of linguistics (i.e.,
language) as “the social product deposited in the brain of each

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individual.”
10. See Sebeok and Danesi (2000) for the detailed account of the trichot-
omy of modeling systems.
11. At that time, the topic of brain asymmetry was actively explored both
in the West and in the USSR. See, for example, Bogen (1973), Dimond
(1972), and Winner and Gardner (1977).
12. Alexander Luria (1902–77) is a renowned Soviet psychologist and neu-
rophysiologist, Lev Vygotsky’s disciple, and the founder of the Soviet
neuropsychology. Among other things, Luria and Vygotsky initiated
the study of higher psychical functions as functional systems.
13. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), introduced in 1938 by Ugo Cerletti
and Lucino Bini, has been widely used in treating manic-depressive
psychoses, different varieties of depression, and schizophrenia. This
procedure is still controversial and may lead to various memory impair-
ments and is now used only as the last measure in treatment. The
peculiarity of the unilateral electroconvulsive therapy is that only one
hemisphere is stimulated by electroshock, which leads to temporary
inactivation of this hemisphere and reciprocal activation of the other
hemisphere. This procedure is considered to be a milder alternative to
ECT (see, for example, Fleminger, de Horne, and Nott 1970). During
the experiments conducted by the Balonov group, the patients under-
going the treatment of unilateral shocks were asked to perform various
tasks, and deviations from the norm in their behavior were recorded.
14. The table is based on the following articles and books: Ivanov 1978a,
1979, 1983; Jakobson 1980; Chernigovskaia and Balonov 1983;
Deglin, Balonov, and Dolinina 1983; Kaufman and Trachenko 1983;
Nikolaenko 1983; Nikolaenko and Deglin 1984; Chernigovskaia and
Deglin 1984 and 1986; Trachenko 1986.
15. For instance, Ivanov (1998, 453–63) assigns consciousness to the left
hemisphere and the unconscious to the right hemisphere, thus follow-
ing Eccles (1989, 218), who considers human self -consciousness to be
exclusively bound with the left hemisphere and consciousness with the
right hemisphere. See also Ivanov (2004).

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Index

analogy, 23, 35–6, 57, 136–7, 140–1, Benveniste, Émile, 38, 145
153 Berg, Aksel’, 11
Andrews, Edna, 4 bifurcation, 68
anekdot, 44 Bigelow, Julian, 129
anthropology, 13, 60, 88, 128, 155 binary oppositions, 19, 42, 47, 62, 70,
arbitrariness, 42–3, 76, 94, 105, 150 96, 99, 115
Aristotle, 64, 96 binary models, 62, 115, 139, 140
art, 37, 41, 63, 65, 66, 73, 95, 97, 130, biosphere, 111, 153, 155
148, 151 Bohannan, Laura, 60
as cognitive tool, 35, 73 Boileau-Despréaux, Nicolas, 57
as modeling system, 32, 34–7 boundary, 43, 48, 55–9, 62–3, 66, 68,
vs. life, 35–7, 66, 85–6 74, 83–6, 88, 98, 100, 101, 114,
artificial intelligence,129–32, 136, 137 120, 129, 133
Ashby, Ross, 10, 68 Bowker, Geof, 10
asymmetry brain, 25, 126, 136–43, 153, 154,
of the brain, 136–41, 156 155, 156
in communication, 29–30
of culture, 78, 114–15, 136–7 Cameron, James, 84
Atkinson, Richard, 141 canonicity, 52, 53, 57, 91–3, 105–9, 120
autocommunication, 39 see also microcanonicity
automatization, 53, 92, 103–4, Cassirer, Ernst, 128
149, 155 center vs. periphery, 2, 51–4, 59, 62,
Azadovskii, Mark, 9 67, 74, 114, 115, 130
CGI (computer-generated image), 84
Bakhtin, Mikhail, 47–51, 75, 88, 145, chance (in history), 68–9
148, 149, 155 Chang, Han-liang, 114
Balaian, Roman, 46 Chernigovskaia, Tatiana, 140
ballet, 35 Chernov, Igor’, 19, 75
Balonov, Lev, 138, 140, 141, 156 choice (of an individual), 68–71, 74
Barabash, Iurii, 16 Chomsky, Noam, 13, 139, 154
Baroque, 66 cinema see film
Barthes, Roland, 40, 150 city, 54
Bawarshi, Anis, 89 code, 25, 26, 30, 39, 49, 60, 90, 98,
Beethoven, Ludwig van, 138 112, 146

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172 ● Index

cognition, 6, 23, 48, 64, 97, 114, 133, discrete vs. nondiscrete, 30, 31, 77, 83,
138, 143, 150 86, 97, 135, 136, 138, 141
see also art, modeling dominant (in formalism), 52
Cole, Michael, 141 Dostoevsky, Fedor, 47, 48, 50, 152

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collective memory, 50, 88, 100–4, 108, duel, 71, 121–2
110, 116, 117, 120, 126, 130
comic books, 53 Ebert, Krista, 19
Condillac, Etienne B. de, 136 Eccles, John, 156
consciousness Eco, Umberto, 13
archaic, 42 ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), 138,
children’s, 42, 136 140, 141, 156
collective, 95–6, 125–7, 142, 143, Egorov, Boris, 3, 7, 51, 129–30
146 Eikhenbaum, Boris, 9, 151
medieval, 93–6, 126 Eisenstein, Sergei, 18, 46, 52
mythological, 41–4, 68, 77, 96 ending (of a text), 85–6
self-consciousness, 126–7, 156 Enlightenment, 93, 94, 117
content vs. expression, 31, 32, 51, 76–7, entropy, 32, 35, 70, 73, 94
81–3, 90, 93–5, 109, 119 Even-Zohar, Itamar, 149
core (of culture) see center vs. periphery everyday behavior, 69–70
Cortázar, Julio, 151 explosions (in culture), 66–73
creative function see text expression see content vs. expression
Culler, Jonathan, 90 expressedness (of a text), 78–82
cybernetics, 10–14
cyclicity, 65, 83, 128 Fadeev, Aleksandr, 61
Falen, James, 41
Davidson, Richard, 140 Fantômas (film), 61–2, 149
Dawkins, Richard, 153 fashion, 53–4, 66
Deacon, Terrence, 128, 154 Fichte, Johann G., 127, 150
death, 86 film, 23, 24, 29, 31, 39, 46, 53, 59, 61,
Decembrists, 69–70 81, 83, 85, 86, 89, 97, 109, 115,
defamiliarization, 54 130, 149
Deglin, Vadim, 138, 141 fine arts, 24, 37
delimitedness (of a text), 78, 84–6 Florenskii, Pavel, 18
Descartes, René, 12 folklore, 37, 40, 44, 95, 96, 101, 108,
Deutsch, Georg, 141 109, 120
diachrony, 64, 102, 119, 120 form see content vs. expression
dialogue, 27, 39, 45, 46, 47–51, 55, 58, formalism, 16, 18, 47, 51, 52, 56, 79,
59–62, 64, 66, 73, 74, 102, 113, 81, 97, 103, 149, 154
115, 116, 124, 127, 136–9, 146, functions of language (Jakobson), 26
148, 155
differentiation, 44–6, 50, 79, 97, 103, Gaidar, Arkadii, 61
127, 148 Gasparov, Boris, 15, 19, 20
discourse, 4, 5, 10, 13, 14, 16, 49, 61–3, Gasparov, Mikhail, 47
89, 104, 133, 140, 145, 152, 154 Geertz, Clifford, 128, 155

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Index ● 173

generative grammar, 13, 139, 154 artificial intelligence, 129–32,


Genette, Gérard, 152 136, 137
genre, 44, 48, 50, 53, 60, 61, 63, 79, interdisciplinarity, 1, 2, 13, 150
86–7, 88–93, 110, 151, 152 Internet, 67, 99–100, 101, 109, 153

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social genres, 89 interpretant, 76
speech genres, 50 intertext, 90, 104, 148
Gerovitch, Slava, 10 invariant, 35, 36, 41, 78, 82, 86, 87,
Gogol, Nikolai, 152 88, 90, 94, 96, 105, 118, 126
Gronas, Michail, 109 irony, 55
Grzybek, Peter, 139 isomorphism, 86–7, 114, 115–16, 119,
Gukovskii, Grigorii, 9 125, 128, 133, 137, 146
Ivan IV, the Terrible, 43, 70
Halle, Morris, 96 Ivanov, Viacheslav, 7, 8, 11, 16, 19, 20,
Hamletism, 105–6, 153 37, 47, 75, 129, 136, 137, 140, 148
Hartley, John, 89
hemispheres (of the brain) see Jakobson, Roman, 20, 24–6, 30, 31,
asymmetry 112, 138
heterogeneity, 30, 56, 114–15, 146
see also polyglotism Karamzin, Nikolai, 9, 71
Hirsch, Eric, 89, 152 Kataev, Valentin, 61
historical development, 64–73 Kaufman, O., 141
Hjelmslev, Louis, 8 KGB (komitet gosudarstvennoi
Holland, Peter, 92 bezopasnosti), 15, 44, 63
holy fools, 70 Khrapchenko, Mikhail, 16
Homo sapiens, 128, 143 Khrushchev, Nikita, 10
Hugdahl, Kenneth, 140 Kim Su Kvan, 3
Humboldt, Wilhelm von, 150 Kiseleva, Liubov’, 147
humor, 43–4, 55, 148 Klement, Fedor, 14
Hunebelle, André Klix, Friedhart, 141
hypersemiotization, 105, 109 Kolmogorov, Andrei, 11, 32, 145
hypertext, 99, 152 Krause, Herbert, 141
Kull, Kalevi, 123
I-I system vs. I-s/he system, 39
icons (religious), 87, 109 language
ideology, 4, 10, 14, 15, 16, 17, 19, 40, acquisition, 113, 154
49, 50, 56, 62, 72, 89, 94, 95, artificial, 8, 27–9, 33, 69
102, 123 natural, 24–5, 28–9, 31, 37–8, 63,
Ignat’ev, Mikhail, 129–30 64, 76, 80, 101, 114, 115, 133,
inertness, 59, 67 135, 136, 148, 150, 155
information theory, 8, 32–3, 130 langue, 25, 26, 48, 78, 79
informativeness, 33 laterality see asymmetry of the brain
intellect and intelligence, 100, 112, Levin, Iurii D., 105
115, 125–6, 141, 154, 155 Levin, Iurii I., 7, 12, 19
see also consciousness Levi-Strauss, Claude, 12, 13, 40, 47, 96

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174 ● Index

Lieberman, Philip, 154 metaphors, 12, 46, 57, 63–4, 77, 103,
Likhachev, Dmitrii, 49 114, 142, 147, 154
linguistics, 8, 11, 12, 13, 25, 29, 49, 76, meter, 33
139, 140, 147, 150, 156 microcanonicity, 109, 153

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as metalanguage, 12, 37 Miller, Carolyn, 89
literature, 7, 8, 9, 15, 16, 17, 18, 23, 24, mind-brain problem, 126
37, 51, 53, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, 66, minus-device, 85–6, 151
71, 75, 79, 81, 86, 88, 90, 93, 115, mnemonic mechanisms, 39, 40, 102,
120, 149, 154 104, 108, 109, 119, 120, 126
literary canon see canonicity modeling, 23, 34–8, 78, 88, 90, 91,
literary evolution, 53, 56, 88, 110, 117, 125, 135–6, 151, 156
90, 148 montage, 46–7, 52, 81, 148
literary facts, 79 Mordovchenko, Nikolai, 9
Lotman, Mihhail, 75 Morris, Charles W., 78
Lucas, George, 109 music, 12, 37, 39, 40, 138
Luria, Aleksandr, 137, 156 mythological consciousness, 41–4, 68,
Lyons, John, 96 77, 96
mythological texts, 40–4, 62, 73, 77,
magic, 80, 151 80, 83–4, 104, 105, 136
Markasova, Elena, 61
markedness (of a text), 84 Nabokov, Vladimir
Marler, Peter, 155 Commentary to Eugene Onegin,
mathematics, 11, 12, 13, 32, 34, 68 121–2
Matiushkin, A. M., 131 Lolita, 85
McQuail, Denis, 152 narrative, 83, 85–6, 151
meaning see differentiation, neoclassicism, 57, 95, 96, 103,
polysemy, text 151, 152
meaning-generation, 30, 39, 44, 46, neuroscience, 125, 136–40, 142,
48, 50, 55, 57, 63, 64, 81, 83, 84, 152, 156
103, 110, 112, 115, 118, 119, 123, Nicholas I, 69
131–3, 137, 146 nonculture, 58, 94, 95, 117, 127
Medvedev, Pavel, 18, 47, 148, 151 noosphere, 111, 114, 153–4
memes, 153 norm, 33–5, 52, 54–5, 57, 58, 60, 64,
memory, 30, 40, 103, 104, 128, 132, 67, 69, 70, 80, 83, 96, 113,
152 133, 156
collective, 50, 88, 100–4, 108, 110, Novalis (Friedrich Leopold, baron of
116, 117, 120, 126, 130 Hardenberg), 150
forgetting, 72, 102
of text, 50, 104–9, 117 oral tradition see folklore
Mesguich, Daniel, 91 Ostrovsky, Aleksandr, 52
metalanguage, 12, 13, 20, 37, 82, 130, other, 58–9, 62, 94, 117, 127,
134, 140 143, 155
metalevel (of culture) see self- “own vs. alien,” 58–9
description see also other

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Index ● 175

paradigms, 89, 92, 126, 138, 143 repetition, 65, 80, 104, 128
parody, 43, 61, 62, 90, 91, 109, representamen, 76
148, 152 retrospection, 20, 67, 71–4
parole, 25, 26, 48, 78 Revzin, Isaak, 7, 8

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Pasternak, Boris, 18 rhetoric, 47, 63–4, 74, 89, 151
pastiche, 90, 152 rhyme, 33, 81
Peirce, Charles S., 4, 45, 75, 76, 77, 78, rhythm, 81
108, 119, 127, 133, 148, 154, 155 Riccoboni, Luigi, 152
perestroika, 73, 98 ritual, 37, 41, 42, 62, 80, 94, 95, 103,
periodization, 64–6 109, 128
periphery see center vs. periphery romanticism, 60, 66, 70, 87, 103, 150,
philosophy, 12, 47, 76, 125, 140, 145 151–2
Piaget, Jean, 134 Rosenblueth, Arturo, 129
Piatigorskii, Aleksandr, 7, 8, 15, 20, Rozenfel’d, Jurii, 140
37, 79
Pinker, Steven, 154 salon, 60
Pliny, the Elder, 151 Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, 38
plot, 77, 83–4, 85, 97, 119, 151 saturation, 12, 59, 67
plot-texts, 83–4 Saussure, Ferdinand de, 8, 24–6, 30,
poetry, 33, 35, 38, 47, 48, 57, 60, 64, 45, 48, 75–9, 119, 133–6, 145,
80, 81, 83, 89, 148, 150, 151, 155 150, 156
polyglotism, 30, 38, 39, 41, 48, 50, 63, Schlegel, August von, 150
64, 73, 75, 78, 86, 97, 114, 115, Schlegel, Friedrich von, 72, 150
126, 135 Schönle, Andreas, 4, 19
polysemy, 29 scienticism, 11–13, 14, 33, 145
polysystem theory, 1, 149 Scribner, Sylvia, 141
Potebnia, Aleksandr, 31 Sebeok, Thomas A., 4, 37, 135
préciocité movement, 60 secondary modeling systems, 37–8,
predictability see unpredictability 135–6, 147, 148, 149
Prigogine, Ilia, 68, 145 Segal, Dmitrii, 7
primary modeling systems, 37–8, self-description (of culture), 54, 57, 74,
135–6 94, 96, 99, 124, 130
proper names, 42, 70, 105 semiosphere, 38, 87, 103, 111–25,
see also mythological texts 135–6, 142, 143, 153–5
Propp, Vladimir, 9, 41, 88 semiotic capacity, 64, 124, 126, 128,
Pushkin, Aleksandr, 9, 71 133, 135–6, 143, 146
Eugene Onegin, 9, 40–1, 49, Serebrianyi, Sergei, 20
121–2 Seuss, Eduard, 111
Shakespeare, William, 42, 103
Rabelais, François, 47 Hamlet, 17, 60, 91–2, 104–9, 120
realism, 95 Romeo and Juliet, 42–3
redundancy, 32–3, 65, 142 Shine, Jeremy, 19
Reid, Allan, 148 Shklovskii, Viktor, 53, 151, 154
Renaissance, 66 Shukman, Ann, 3, 4, 97, 151

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176 ● Index

sign ternary models (of culture), 70, 75, 99


arbitrary, 42, 76, 94, 105, 150 text
conventional, 31, 93–4, 105, artistic, 31–6, 46, 78–87, 109, 150
119, 141 cinematic see film

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function, 89 as condenser, 117–18
iconic, 31, 77, 93, 94, 107, 108, 119, creative function, 29–33, 78, 82,
138, 141, 150, 151 104, 126
index, 77, 107–9 invariant, 35, 36, 41, 78, 82, 86, 87,
Peirce’s model, 76–7 88, 90, 94, 96, 105, 118, 126
Saussure’s model, 76 memory, 50, 104–9, 117
signified, 76, 105, 138, 150 as model, 91–3
signifier, 16, 59, 76, 105, 138, 150 mythological, 40–4, 62, 77, 83–4,
symbolic see symbols 104, 153
vs. text, 75–8, 112, 146, 154 narrative, 83, 85–6, 151
socialist realism, 15 vs. nontext, 84, 102, 127
social networks, 99–100 sacral, 80, 109
sociology, 4, 15, 88, 89, 96 scientific, 82–3
speech, 24–5, 35, 39, 48, 78, 109, 134, vs. sign, 75–8, 112, 146, 154
135, 136, 138, 140, 141, 148 value, 33
egocentric, 134 text function, 79
inner, 134 textuality, 5, 78, 89, 99–100, 107, 146,
speech circuit (Saussure), 24 153
speech genres, 50, 88–9 theater, 52, 57, 63, 84, 92, 103,
Springer, Sally, 141 115, 152
Steiner, Peter, 149 thinking and thought, 26, 45, 48–9,
Stengers, Isabella, 68 64, 112, 125–7, 128, 131–7,
Sterne, Laurence, 86 140–3, 148, 150, 155
structuralism, 1, 2, 11, 12, 13, 16, 18, TMSS (Tartu-Moscow Semiotic
23, 40, 47, 49, 51, 76, 85, 88, 93, School), 1, 4, 5, 7, 9, 13, 14–21,
96, 97, 148 33, 37, 42, 47, 63, 75, 77, 79, 93,
structuredness (of a text), 52, 78, 80–3 96, 129, 136, 137–8, 147, 149
subjectivity, 43, 70 Todorov, Tzvetan, 88–9, 92, 93
Superfin, Gabriel, 18 Tolkien, John R. R., 109
Swales, John, 90 Tolstoy, Leo, 81, 82, 151
“symbolic animal,” 128 Anna Karenina, 36, 82
symbols, 77, 94, 95, 106–8, 126, 150 Tomashevskii, Boris, 9
as unifying mechanisms, 119–20 Toporov, Vladimir, 7, 20, 37
synchrony, 51, 58, 66, 102, 119 Torop, Peeter, 20
synonymy, 27, 29, 32 translation, 5, 17, 27–31, 38, 39, 44, 55,
syntagmatic relations, 80, 81, 138 60, 64, 73, 77, 103, 111
compare paradigms Trediakovskii, Vasilii, 60
tropes, 64, 151
Tallemant, Paul (le Jeune), 60 Tulviste, Peeter, 141
technological progress, 10, 67 Turing, Alan, 131

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Index ● 177

Tynianov, Iurii, 51–3, 56, 79, 80, 81, Uspenskii, Boris, 7, 20, 37, 38,
88, 90, 92, 145, 148, 149, 152, 154 41–2, 52, 63, 84, 94, 96, 98,
typology (of cultures), 13, 38, 66, 112, 114
93–6, 130

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TZS (Trudy po znakovym sistemam), Vernadsky, Vladimir, 111–12, 145,
9, 17, 18, 35, 37, 47, 111, 138, 153–4, 155
141, 149 Voloshinov, Valentin, 47, 48, 148
Vygotsky, Lev, 134, 151, 156
Uexküll, Jakob von, 4, 116, 128
Umwelt, 116–17, 118, 123 Waldstein, Maxim, 4
universalism, 35–6, 96, 115, 125–7, Wiener, Norbert, 10, 129, 147
154 Wikileaks, 73
universal language, 5, 10, 12–13, 20, writing, 67, 101
37, 139
universals, 13, 93, 139 Yurchak, Alexei, 73
unpredictability, 5, 32–4, 36, 56, 60,
64–5, 67–71, 73, 74, 82–3, 87, Zalizniak, Andrei, 13, 37
101, 118, 128, 132, 133 Zholkovskii, Aleksandr, 7, 15

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10.1057/9781137008541 - The Texture of Culture, Aleksei Semenenko
Copyright material from www.palgraveconnect.com - licensed to New York University - Waldmann Dental Library - PalgraveConnect - 2016-02-23