Illustration by Moa Thelander.

Reviews Culture as both a text and a system: Reconstructing the connection

+ Aleksei Semenenko The Texture of Culture: An Introduction to Yuri Lotman’s Semiotic Theory, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 177 pages

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Issue 1, 2013, 41-44 pp
Published on on May 17, 2013

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The author of The Texture of Culture is ideally prepared for his task to present Yuri Lotman’s semiotic theory to a larger public. Aleksei Semenenko is an expert in semiotics who shares Lotman’s high esteem for human language, the literary work of art, and their role in culture. So the book subtitled An Introduction to Yuri Lotman’s Semiotic Theory is at the same time a defense of literature and literary studies, now threatened by attacks from various sides, including attacks from “cultural studies”, which manifests only marginal interest in the methods and theories developed for the analysis of literature during the past century. Yuri Lotman, founding member of the famous TMSS (Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School), became one of the world’s most influential thinkers in semiotics during the seventies and eighties.

Semenenko’s monograph is the third in a series edited by Marcel Danesi, professor of semiotics and anthropology at the University of Toronto. Danesi’s explanation of the series title, Semiotics and Popular Culture, deserves attention: “It engages with theory and technical trends to expose the subject matter clearly, openly, and meaningfully.” Could it be that the three adverbs hint at contrasting efforts to expose the subject matter obscurely, surreptitiously, and nonsensically? Danesi’s series preface confirms such an interpretation: “Although written by scholars and intellectuals, each book will look beyond the many abstruse theories that have been put forward to explain popular culture”. Professor Danesi and his authors are evidently fighting for enlightenment about popular culture. That engagement implies a clear concept of low and high culture.

Semiotics, originally associated with Saussure’s linguistics and philosophers like Charles S. Peirce and Edmund Husserl, has since penetrated our common knowledge and everyday language. Along the way, semiotic terms have lost their precise definitions. Accordingly, some scholars spread opinions that obscure Yuri Lotman’s studies. Aleksei Semenenko mentions two publications in particular. In 2003, Krista Ebert reduced the importance of Lotman’s work at TMSS to a phenomenon relevant only to the study of Soviet culture. In Ebert’s view, Lotman appears as the propagator of an “anticulture that undermines the monopoly of the ideological culture” (quoted in Semenenko, p. 19). Andreas Schönle and Jeremy Shine follow a similar line in their introduction to Lotman and Cultural Studies: Encounters and Extensions, published in 2006. Semenenko pronounces a harsh verdict: “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’ — but this list does not include ‘artistic’ or any other terms that are central in Lotman’s works.” In this light one understands better why Semenenko found it necessary to write his own introduction.

Another opinion rebuked by Semenenko sounds particularly strange to scholars of Slavic literatures in Germany and other European countries. When Lotman’s books on structural poetics and semiotics were published in the seventies and eighties, they were attentively studied in the light of Russian formalism, Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory, and linguistic and semiotic achievements since Saussure. Lotman’s approaches to literature not only delivered new analytical tools, but also widened our cultural horizon. Yet his reception by English scholars, apart from Ann Shukman, is marked by indifference, as Semenenko notes: “[T]he marginality of Lotman’s theory in English books on semiotics of culture is rather noticeable”. Igor’ A. Chernov, in his “Opit vvedeniia v sistemu Iu. M. Lotmana” [Attempt at an introduction to Y. M. Lotman’s system], first published in 1982 and republished in 2012, describes why Soviet scholars were initially hostile to semiotics. They regarded semiotics as an ideological weapon of the Western capitalist class against the working people. Later, when the government needed linguists and specialists in computer science for military and industrial production, the ideologically motivated hostility gave way to financial and institutional support, and attacks against semiotics were thenceforth more or less suppressed. Lotman and many other researchers at TMSS profited over a long period from this ideological shift. Reading Semenenko’s book, one gets the impression that the blindness that once characterized Soviet-Russian ideologists has now befallen scholars in the capitalist West.

Such blindness occurs not only in English-speaking contexts. During the 1990s and the first decade of the new century, academic discussions about semiotics disappeared in Europe too. Cultural studies at universities now draws inspiration from other sources. Governments favor comparative studies in cultural stereotypes, seemingly philosophical or psychological studies under headings such as “I and the Other” or “The Familiar and the Foreign” and, more recently, so-called regional studies. All this keeps our students busy and leads them away from true semiotics of culture.

Semenenko’s book reconstructs Yuri Lotman’s intellectual development from traditional historian and philologist to innovative structuralist and semiotician. The book’s main thesis fights against the idea shared by many Lotman specialists that a rift exists between Lotman’s structural and semiotic phases. Where others see a break, Semenenko observes a continuous and systematic widening of Lotman’s initial thought. The four main chapters of the book — “Culture as System”, “Culture as Text”, “Semiosphere”, and “Universal Mind” — try to demonstrate Semenenko’s thesis. These chapters, numbered 2 to 5, are preceded by an introduction and a first chapter called “Contexts”.

Also valuable are the notes, where the reader finds additional information about the history of semiotic terms. In note 4 on chapter 3, “Culture as Text”, for example, Semenenko explains the exact meaning of “sign” and “model” in Lotman’s conception: whereas the sign is an icon of the referential object, the model is a transformation of the object on a more abstract level. Most important is also Note 1 on chapter 5, “Universal Mind”, which quotes C. S. Peirce: “Thought is not necessarily connected with a brain. It appears in the work of bees, of crystal, and throughout the physical world”. This attribution of thought to the world outside the human intellect has influenced the conception of signs and communication in modern computer science. Lotman differentiates, with reference to the biologist Jakob von Uexküll, between communicational connections in non-human and human semiotic spheres.

What one misses in the chapters as well as in the notes is a mention of dialectics. In his pamphlet-like article “Literaturovedenie dolzhno byt’ naukoi” (Literary studies must be a science), written in 1967, Lotman declares: “The methodological ground of structuralism is dialectics.”1 He refers to Paul Lafargue, who praised Karl Marx for his insight into the connection between dialectics and mathematics. This was of course a helpful argument against ideological opponents in the Soviet Union. But aside from that topical discussion, one should not ignore that dialectics and mathematics also characterize Russian formalism and Prague structuralism, two schools that are part of Lotman’s intellectual heritage. Members of these schools dissected the work of art into sets of elements and described their functions inside and outside the work. Dialectical thinking in the tradition of G. W. F. Hegel, Marx’s intellectual forebear, became particularly prominent in Prague aesthetics. Perhaps Semenenko wanted to forestall English-speaking readers’ distrust in Lotman’s structuralism and semiotics, and therefore chose not to mention this nonetheless important gnoseological tradition (to use Lotman’s expression).

Let me turn now to a few crucial topics. In chapter 2, “Culture as System”, Lotman’s links with Russian formalism and Mikhail Bakhtin become most obvious. The formalists observed a two-layered structure in the literary work, which they called the sign of a sign or the second-degree sign. The ethnologist Petr Bogatyrev introduced the term to the Prague linguistic circle. The first-degree sign comes from communicative language. In literature, this sign functions as the material basis of the second-degree sign, whose construction follows purely artistic devices that deform the basis. As a result, literature cannot function like the practical communicative system of natural language. It serves its own specific function, called the aesthetic function.

Semenenko describes how Lotman changes this formalist concept into his “secondary modeling system”. The new name indicates that the underlying sign of conventional language is not merely deformed, but transformed into a totally different sign type, the icon. The work as a whole delivers a “world-model”, that is, a new vision of man in his world and in the universe. The iconic sign not only belongs to works of art, but can also be found in myths, rituals, and magic. The question whether such signs are indeed secondary to language, or whether they must be regarded as primary signs, is discussed in depth by Semenenko. From the European perspective, one is tempted to mention André Jolles’s distinction between oral “einfache Formen” (simple forms) and their literary transformations. Jolles’s ideas come close to Bakhtin’s “recheviie zhanry” (speech genres; cf. Semenenko pp. 50, 88 ff.). Neither Jolles nor Bakhtin classifies these genres as icons. Problems connected with the difference between the icon in literary art and the icon in myths, rituals, and magic are discussed in the third chapter.

It was mostly Bakhtin’s theory of dialogism (dialogichnost’, sometimes translated as “dialogicity”) that inspired Lotman to define interaction between different semiotic systems as a kind of dialogue. Let us recall that neither Bakhtin’s nor Lotman’s concept of dialogism conforms to what a linguist means by dialogue. Where the linguist compares the semantic accumulation in dialogic utterances with the quite different accumulation in monologue, the theorist of culture is interested in the mutual openness or closure of systems and subsystems. Bakhtin and Lotman prefer openness to closure. Such a preference does not make sense to a linguist, for whom each of the two types of utterances has its justification with respect to its function in a communicative situation. As Semenenko repeatedly points out, Lotman often uses terms borrowed from other disciplines in a vague, metaphorical way. In the case of dialogism, better insight into the metaphorical transposition of dialogue to the level of systems would have reduced the confusion that has surrounded that term since Bakhtin’s time, and better enabled the reader to understand the section “Explosions in Culture”. As an example of such an “explosion”, Semenenko takes the political revolt of the Decabrists in the early nineteenth century. Lotman analyzed the Decabrist movement as the result of the confrontation between the hierarchical political system of tsarist Russia and the more egalitarian system favored by young intellectuals. Instead of opening their minds toward these new political ideas from Western Europe, the governing forces closed themselves up. The chance for a gradual evolution by mutual approximation was lost, and Russia sank back into an age of social and intellectual darkness. The example shows that closed systems tend towards inner, doubtless unhealthy explosions. Yet systems as such cannot discuss with one another: human speakers are needed who lay bare their ideas point by point, looking for convergences and divergences in order to find a viable bridge between the two sides. This is where true dialogue comes into play. Openness of systems is only a prerequisite to human dialogue.

The title of the third chapter, “Culture as Text”, announces a new phase in Lotman’s thinking. The underlying idea is that a cultural type can be regarded as one text. Each individual text belonging to the given cultural type is a variation on the invariants, the whole set of invariants constituting what is called the text of that culture. The methodological inspiration is derived from text linguistics, but, as in the case of dialogism, the linguistic terms are applied on a level that is alien to linguistics, called the level of ideas or worldview. The kind of research connected with the conception and the analytical method of “culture as text” can be fruitfully applied in literary analysis, as Lotman demonstrated in his works on Russian literature. In his 1981 article “Semiotics of Culture and the Concept of Text”, he criticizes the tendency of semiotic studies to “‘focus on models and models of models’”, i. e. the tendency towards increasing abstraction. He preferred the opposite current, focusing “on the semiotic functioning of actual texts”. Lotman tried to overcome the limited view of literature propagated by the adherents of realism by showing that realism is an invariant to which many periods of cultural history contributed their variants.

I see a weakness in the way Semenenko tries to explain the concept of “culture as text” as a single sign. The point I have in mind is connected with Semenenko’s thesis that there is a continuity in Lotman’s semiotic thinking. One would expect the form and function of the crucial concept of the secondary modeling system, exposed in “Culture as System”, to be discussed further in “Culture as Text”. Yet even in “Culture as System”, Semenenko states, “the term secondary modeling system is problematic and produces more questions than answers”. Does this mean Lotman drops the term when a culture is envisaged as a single text? Or does Lotman not rather consider a third level of sign-construction, which rests on the first and second levels constituted by the secondary modeling system? That third level allows him to characterize the specific, sometimes revolutionary function fulfilled by the literary work vis-à-vis the dominant cultural type, as in the case of the Decabrists, inspired by Romantic European and Russian literature.

Lotman’s idea about the literary text as a single sign figures in Jan Mukařovský’s articles “Dénomination poétique et la fonction esthétique de la langue” (1938) and “K sémantice básnického obrazu” [On the semantics of the poetic image] (1947). In his 1973 article “O soderzhanii i structure poniatiia ‘chudozhestvennaia literatura’” [On the content and structure of the concept “artistic literature”], Lotman names Mukařovský, together with Yuri Tinianov and Mikhail Bakhtin, as the predecessors who evaluated the literary work of art as a dynamic factor in culture. The Prague aesthetician analyzed the dynamic cultural function of literature in the 1934 article “L’art comme fait sémiologique”. The two later articles describe the specific technique by which the poetic work transforms the manifold verbal signs of the text into one global denomination and one sign. Following this line, Lotman’s concept of the secondary modeling system in combination with culture as text delivers a parallel to and a continuation of the research done in Prague. Semenenko mentions the Prague school in connection with Saussure, but he seems to ignore the fact that Jan Mukařovský’s aesthetics paved the way for modern studies in the semiotics of the arts, including literature, architecture, theater, painting, and film.

The last two chapters present the ideas which will forever be connected with the name of Yuri M. Lotman. In chapter 4, Semenenko discusses the term “semiosphere”, from Lotman’s famous title, in connection with the semiotic space. While “semiosphere” is linked with theories about genetic semiosis in general, “semiotic space” deals with the specifics of the semiotic processes accessible to biological classes of beings. According to Jakob von Uexküll, beings (organisms) are bound to the limited Umwelt of their class. The borders of the Umwelt can not be transcended: “Consequently, an organism will not be able to perceive any signs or texts that are not part of his Umwelt” (quoted in Semenenko, p. 116). Von Uexküll’s term Umwelt hints at the blindness of every being to the worlds of classes other than his own. The human being is no exception, and, even worse, the same blindness separates different human cultures, even though the genetic dispositions of all humans are identical. Yet the human being is able to imagine Umwelten outside his own. That imagination, the field of literature and the other arts, can lead to an intuitive understanding of other cultural worlds, or experimental contacts between man and nature. Semenenko rightly observes that Lotman’s vision of cultures in contact, “which together constitute the semiosphere as a whole”, is rooted in the Enlightenment era. One would have wished for a more detailed presentation of that early philosophical and semiotic tradition. Perhaps the limited space of Semenenko’s book and his focus on modern semiotics only permitted a few hints.

Chapter 5, “Universal Mind”, presents two divergent lines of research at TMSS: that of cybernetics, also called artificial intelligence (AI), associated with the name of Norbert Wiener; and that of neurological studies connected with Lev S. Vygotski and his pupil Viacheslav V. Ivanov, the latter a professor and colleague of Lotman in TMSS. Lotman and his team of philologists were charged with the elaboration of a metalanguage that would unite these lines. Yet it turned out that Lotman’s 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”. So this fifth and last chapter is about a fascinating phase in the history of TMSS and Yuri Lotman.

The reason for the rupture between Lotman and the officials was their different positioning of human and artificial signs. Whereas researchers engaged with AI attributed the central position to artificial signs suitable for communication between machines, and conceded only a marginal position to human language signs, Lotman was inclined to invert the relation. Lotman’s argumentation is interesting in a philosophical respect: He referred to the contrasting roles of error in human cognition and in artificial intelligence. Error fulfils a positive function in cognition inasmuch as it reminds man of his blindness within his Umwelt and warns him against excessive self-confidence, which could result in stupidity. Error in the thinking machine, on the other hand, destroys its value. Lotman argues that natural language renders the human being superior to the machine. Semenenko concludes: “Among all other forms of semiotic expression, natural language takes the central position as the most powerful system”.

To conclude, I should like to mention a parallel in the United States to Lotman’s precarious situation at the TMSS. Joseph Weizenbaum, a mathematician who worked for a long period in Pentagon projects and at MIT, described in many critical publications how specialists in computer science were trained in the technique of ignoring the social and political environment of their work. The constructive deficit of the computer — its lack of contact with the real Umwelt — was thus transferred to the human mind. Professor Weizenbaum lists a number of scientific terms that now flood our common-sense language, where they produce a new kind of brainwashing: “artificial intelligence” is, according to Weizenbaum, no intelligence at all; “virtual space” reinforces a dangerous abstraction from real life; “computer art” is a product of mere chance, devoid of any creativity. As an example of a concept which fatally lost its original signification, he mentions Einstein’s theory of “relativity”, abused to propagate relativistic ethics and epistemology. A more recent example of such abuse is chaos theory and the “butterfly effect”. “Cloud theory”, currently propounded by postmodernists in the humanities, could be added to the list of abused terms. However, one difference between Lotman’s and Weizenbaum’s positions must not be forgotten: Weizenbaum’s critiques (paralleled at MIT by the linguist Noam Chomsky’s investigations of American imperialist policy) were published immediately, while Lotman’s critical studies remained hidden in the archives for some twenty years.

Weizenbaum’s books could well figure in Danesi’s series on “Popular Culture”. One obstacle is of course the fact that “semiotics” in the traditional sense of the term is not Weizenbaum’s specialty. Yet the reader of Aleksei Semenenko’s Introduction to Yuri Lotman’s Semiotic Theory finds many similar arguments in Lotman’s and Weizenbaum’s pleading for human language, literature, and arts, and the expurgation of mystifications from our culture.≈

  • by Herta Schmid

    Professor emerita at Potsdam University. Professorships at universities in Bochum, Munich and Potsdam in Slavic literary studies, especially Russian, Polish and Czech.

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+ Aleksei Semenenko The Texture of Culture: An Introduction to Yuri Lotman’s Semiotic Theory, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 177 pages