Its publication was a major event in the Soviet humanities, laying the groundwork for a new school of thought that would be at the center of methodological debates for the next twenty years see Shukman. Structuralism was often accused by orthodox Soviet Marxists of amounting to a neo-formalist approach. Lotman gives formalism its due, but sees structuralism as a more comprehensive methodology. While formalism focuses on the formal aspects of the literary text, structuralism explores the content embodied within the form, understood as the semiotic structure of language imbued with meanings. Lotman attempts to make the case, moreover, that the relationship between the structure and its elements is compatible with the Marxist dialectical law regarding the unity of the whole and its parts.
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Its publication was a major event in the Soviet humanities, laying the groundwork for a new school of thought that would be at the center of methodological debates for the next twenty years see Shukman.
Structuralism was often accused by orthodox Soviet Marxists of amounting to a neo-formalist approach. Lotman gives formalism its due, but sees structuralism as a more comprehensive methodology. While formalism focuses on the formal aspects of the literary text, structuralism explores the content embodied within the form, understood as the semiotic structure of language imbued with meanings. Lotman attempts to make the case, moreover, that the relationship between the structure and its elements is compatible with the Marxist dialectical law regarding the unity of the whole and its parts.
This division explains the multiplicity of meanings contained in a given text, since it can be read according to a variety of codes based on intercultural or historical differences. Even members of the same family interpret texts according to different codes; moreover, several codes will coexist within one individual consciousness. Thus, a diary is addressed not to the same authorial self, but to a series of future selves whose codes will change the meaning of the initial writing.
It is for this very reason, according to Lotman, that an author likes to reread his or her own writing after its publication: the anticipation of a readership invites the author to sample the text anew, according to the projected codes of others. From this point of view, the culture of humanity is a colossal example of auto communication. Only in the communication of culture do Author and Reader coincide.
Manual cultures, like those of Western Europe, structure their self-reflective understanding according to a system of rules; their texts are not normative, but instead illustrative of the principles of the governing semiotic organization. For Lotman, culture is a secondary modeling system insofar as it uses primary language to articulate itself. This explains the diversity of cultural codes, such as poetic and artistic styles, within the domain of a given national language.
Communication must comprise both equivalence and difference: equivalence, because without this, exchange is not even possible; and difference, so that the information exchanged should actually inform, that is, should contain newness.
Historically, Lotman identifies a shift in the aesthetic proportionality of equivalence and difference. Ancient folk culture, in his view, was characterized by an aesthetics of equivalence, and valued the art of repetition just as children enjoy hearing the same story again and again.
As folklore evolved into literature, aesthetics began to stress the value of originality. Subsequently, as literature diversified into myriad genres, movements, and styles, difference became the main criterion for the judgement of artistic merit. Interestingly, Lotman interprets freedom through the lens of this diversification, defining the concept in semiotic rather than moral or religious terms. However, the process of code diversification would, if left unchecked, result in such diversity that a lack of equivalence would undermine the very possibility of communication.
For example, it is only in the twentieth century, with the proliferation of non-representational trends in art, that criticism and critical theory have become a crucial bridge between artistic difference and the need for equivalence. In the contemporary art scene, the diversity of codes has reached such an innumerable level that individual artists—rather than periods or movements or styles—determine the codes by which they create.
In response, critics have developed general abstract meta-codes, which make communication between these solipsistic worlds possible. With the increasing individualization of codes comes a corresponding need for meta-codes, which explains the explosion of critical discourse in the twentieth century. Whereas initially he was preoccupied with the more technical aspects of semiotics especially with regard to literature, poetics, and film , his later writings are far more philosophically and historically oriented.
As Amy Mandelker put it: The progression in modern Russian theoretical thought from the biosphere to the logosphere and then to the semiosphere constitutes a new organicism that restructures Russian structuralism in a way paralleling poststructuralist reconsiderations of formalism, structuralism, and semiotics….
Lotman transcends the structuralist gridlock in ways that have yet to be recognized by theorists in the West. In a certain sense, it even escapes our attempts to rationalize it, because rationalization presumes a semiotic system. Lotman proposes some basic concepts of the semiosphere, among them its asymmetry and boundary. For example, the fact that literary language cannot be adequately translated into the language of film or ethics, etc. Moreover, for Lotman, translation is the basic semiotic procedure that accompanies all acts of consciousness: to think means to translate from one language into another.
Therefore, thinking is the most powerful generator of new information. Thinking, then, addresses previous thinking, which in turn addresses thinking from further back, and so on, ad infinitum. Just as an archeologist must presuppose that beneath the excavations of one cultural layer there lies the layer of a preceding culture, thinking cannot be traced to its origin, since it has no other foundation than thinking itself.
Moreover, when one pole of an opposition is conceived of as historically primary making its counterpart derivative , it proves to be semiotically secondary. Thus the presumptions included in the semiosphere harbor a paradox: although barbarism is claimed to be historically prior to civilization, the conception of what barbarism means is generated by civilization itself. In the same manner, nature, ostensibly prior to culture, is semiotically derivative of culture as its external space.
Semiotics and History Along with an increasingly philosophical approach to semiotics, in his later work Lotman begins to elaborate its historical dimension, moving away from the synchronic model of classical structuralism. Beginning in the late s, his articles some coauthored with Boris Uspensky reflect an increasing preoccupation with Russian history, as he attempted to build a model that might account for temporal transformations.
Whereas previously his models stressed a stable typology of cultures, his work from this period seeks to accommodate a diachronic dimension in semiotic terms. If organic creatures strive to stabilize their surroundings, culture has built-in mechanisms of change that de-automatize existing codes and increase the amount of new information.
Cultural memory traditionally focuses on exceptional events and anomalous and unusual occurrences, of the sort recorded in chronicles and in newspapers; only relatively unexpected or improbable events generate a significant amount of information. Thus, culture is an apparatus of innovation and constantly multiplies the number of texts.
The dynamics of culture, like its typology, is built around binary oppositions specific to Western and Russian traditions. With his increasing interest in the diachronic dimension of culture, Lotman begins to question the semiotic foundations of historical description.
Moreover, the chronicle itself must not be taken as a presentation of facts, since it too was constructed according to a certain semiotic code. Therefore, the historian must begin by reconstructing the code by which the chronicler mediated historical facts. Arguing against the widely accepted notion, promulgated in particular by R. Lotman echoes Benedetto Croce when he asserts that history can never become a rigorous science. Just as biological mutation is the creative principle in nature, arbitrariness is the engine of cultural variation, although its role differs among cultural domains.
In the sciences, arbitrariness relates to the process of discovery, not to its result. Artistic creation, on the other hand, incorporates arbitrariness in both its processes and results.
Cultural margins provide the opportunity for arbitrary interplay and combinations between codes, which give rise to the production of new codes.
By contrast, the structural rigidity of the center limits its creative capacity. By the same logic, argued Lotman, the early drafts of an artistic work contain a greater measure of arbitrariness than the polished final version, and thus may anticipate nascent cultural codes that will be articulated in the future. Historical progress proceeds according to a multiplication and fluctuation of alternative codes, thus engendering possibilities for greater freedom.
Poststructuralist theory is inclined to denigrate the very notion of reality as a mere consequence of the metaphysics of presence. According to Lotman, the concept of reality can be both preserved and radically transformed by the adoption of such semiotic mechanisms as appear to negate it.
Reality would be unapproachable and transcendental, in the Kantian sense, if there existed only one language of its description. But since languages vary immensely, each of them presumably describes those aspects of reality that are transcendental for other languages.
For example, the language of gestures touches upon dimensions of reality that are unattainable to verbal language; the language of cinema reveals aspects of reality that are concealed from literary and musical languages. Reality can be located in the gaps between existing languages as the place of their mutual transcendence. Culture and Explosion 24 Reality, then, is alternately incorporated into semiotic systems and estranged from them, and it is the extralinguistic character of reality that gives rise to the variability of languages.
Lotman suggests that the place for non-semiotic reality can be defined in strictly semiotic terms, and what is more, that the assumption of such a reality is indispensable for the construction of semiotic systems. In semiotic terms, reality can be defined as the cause of the proliferation of languages and of their mutual untranslatability.
Structural-semiotic analysis, in its renovated form, focuses on the interaction between textual and extratextual reality, and also on the interaction between the present and the future. Since the future is not predetermined or fully predictable, the choice of any one possibility is always arbitrary, so that it contains the greatest quantity of information.
The future, with its definitive uncertainty, functions as a generator of information. However, Lotman believes that explosive processes in culture must be moderated and mediated by accumulative and conservative factors. In keeping with his previous works on dual patterns in Russian history, he distinguishes between binary and ternary models of culture, the former being peculiar to Russia and the latter—to the West.
In the ternary system, even the most powerful explosion does not shake the deepest layers of culture. Similarly, even as the downfall of the Napoleonic Empire represented the explosion of a political structure, the landownership laws established during the revolutionary period would be preserved.
This would have been impossible in Russian society, where an explosion requires the destruction of all spheres and structures. For Lotman, the failure of Russian democratic reforms in the last third of the nineteenth century was a direct result of the inability to establish a middle ground in negotiations between the government and oppositional movements, which drove both sides to the adoption of terrorism, and ultimately led to the catastrophe of the Russian Revolutions of and October This, however, is not the result of some lack of thought, but rather the severe dictates of a binary historical structure.
Despite his faithfulness to the criteria of methodological rigor, he never adhered to any particular theoretical dogma and would flexibly accommodate his conceptual model to the particular features of the material at hand. He began as an acute critic of traditional, amorphous, or dogmatically Marxist methodology, which indiscriminately conflates ideological, sociological, biographical, and cultural-historical approaches.
However, his evolution allowed him to reincorporate many of these traditional elements into his work, which a conservative approach to structuralism would have likely eliminated.
His elder sister Inna Obraztsova graduated from Leningrad Conservatory and became a composer and lecturer of musical theory, his younger sister Victoria Lotman was a prominent cardiologist, and his third sister Lidia Lotman was a scholar of Russian literature of the second half of the 19th century on staff at the Institute for Russian Literature of the Russian Academy of Science Pushkin House she lived in Saint-Petersburg. Lotman graduated from the secondary school in with excellent marks and was admitted to Leningrad State University without having to pass any exams. His professors at university were the renowned lecturers and academicians — Gukovsky , Azadovsky , Tomashevsky and Propp. He was drafted in and during World War II served as a radio operator in the artillery. Demobilized from the army in , he returned to his studies in the university and received his diploma with distinction in
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