The Soviet Empire of Signs

Waldstein, Maxim 2008. The Soviet Empire of Signs: A History of the Tartu School of Semiotics. Saarbrüchen: VDM Verlag.
Well, this was a terrific read. I haven't expressed my personal opinion on a book in this blog for a while, but this one certainly merits one. Most of the names were familiar to me from university courses on this exact subject (there are several courses on Yuri Lotman and the Tartu-Moscow school of semiotics in the department of semiotics). This book put all the names in an understandable narrative of the school's history. Many remarks seemed familiar, as if I've heard them from my teachers - it is more than likely that most of them have read this book. As well as they, and my fellow students, should. I gathered some citations about issues I relate to, or need to study further.
The Russian historiography of the School can be divided into a few stages: (1) an initial stream of descriptive, critical and praiseful literature produced in the 1960s and 1970s (see survey in Seyffert 1983), (2) the samizdat (underground "self-publishing") polemics and the attempts of self-reflection in the 1970s-80s (e.g. B.Gasparov 1994a; Panchenko 1995), and (3) the stream of published memoirs, new criticisms and first properly historical and analytical studies produced after 1991 (see Cherednichenko 2001; Egorov 1999; Kim 2003; Koshelev 1994; Nekliudov 1994; Pocheptsov 1998; Städtke 2002). (Waldstein 2008: 4)
This seems to be his personal interpretation of the school's eras. He elaborates them further:
three major periods in the history of the Tartu School: the period of the summer schools (1964-1974), the epoch of Lotman-dominated Tartu School (1975-1985) and the perestroika period. (Waldstein 2008: 39)
The Lotman-dominated period is later on defined as the period of intensive study of Russian daily culture.
...signs are not only models of but also models for (cf. Geertz 1973). At the earlier stages of Tartu semiotics, this "modeling for" was still understood on the model of playing chess: world-models were defined as an "automated formal programs imposed on all members of a group" (Zalizniak, et. al. 1962). Yet, already at this stage, the distinction was made between "limited" (vyrozhdennyi) and "unlimited" models. Artificial languages are most limited, or closed, and most detached from reality; they have the least modeling power. In contrast, such modeling systems as myth and religion are least detached and most powerful. They model not specific aspects of the world but the whole world, its structure and its history ("world-models," modeli mira). This globality, however, comes at the cost of polysemy, loss of precision and openness to multiple interpretative and practical extensions. Their relation to behavior is not the one of rules to operations but exemplars to performances. (Waldstein 2008: 111)
This is where I tend to conflate mythic and religious consciousness: the function of religious texts (e.g. the bible) is not to mediate narratives, but to model aspects the total world view of the religious person: model a sense of god, so to say.
As Lotman (1973b) argued, myth is not about communicating a new message but code itself; it is about preserving and passing along the very structure of the "global world image" of the human condition.(Waldstein 2008: 111)
Following my previous remark, the religious text passes along the image of a created world.
The artistic text is the one which, despite the redundancy of its structural elements, preserves and even increases its own informativeness through multiple contexts and usages. In short, the closer we get to the end of the newspaper article, the less we expect to be surprised; true literature should be able to surprise us all the way through and even upon repeated reading. (Waldstein 2008: 123)
This is why I dare to call a dissertation by a certain researcher scientific poetry (teaduspoeesia): even after repeated readings it continues to avail new ideas.
Bakhtin says that the code is finalized and ready-made but, according to Lotman, it may happen only in the narrow synchronic perspective. Historically conceived, every code is a product of previous making in time and space. Furthermore, the interaction between codes is open-ended. In this respect, the product of such interactions, the text, is similar to human actors. Just like texts, actors are intersections of different codes. Yet they are not reducible to these codes. Lotman makes the analogy between texts and human actors explicit by saying that “the structural parallelism of the semiotic characteristics of texts and persons allows us to define the text of any level as a semiotic individuality and the individuality on any socio-cultural level as a text” ([1983] 1992, 116). Thus an individual personality, a literary work and the whole culture can be considered as “texts” of various levels. (Waldstein 2008: 132)
This is, in effect, an elaboration of Lotman's statement that people (human actors) are socially constructed selections of codes. People are texts, as Lotman says, which we also need to learn to read.
Ultimately, the Tartu School shifted its attention from abstract sign systems to the real time and space pragmatics of "functional correlations" between these systems (Ivanov et al. 1973, 1). In this way, the School opened the doors to the historical studies for cultural production and reproduction. (Waldstein 2008: 132)
Compare this (especially the notion of "functional correlations") to Leeds-Hurwitz (1993: 157).
The secret of this "necessity of culture" is in the kind of work it does. This work consists "in the structural organization of the surrounding world" (Lotman and Uspensky 1971, 328). Cultural texts order the world around us and make it meaningful and reasonably predictable. Furthermore, "culture is a generator of structuredness and thus it creates around the human being the social sphere which, like biosphere, makes life–social, not biological–possible" (1971, 328). Later, in the 1980s, Lotman called this sphere the semiosphere. He theorized this sphere as not just a result of the structuring semiotic activity but as a condition of the possibility of this activity. The semiosphere is the semiotic ecology of human existence, the symbolic space in which languages and media interact (see Lotman 1990, 123-130). In another book, he characterized this space as "the whole resonant space" of human significations "which crosses the boundaries of historical epochs, national cultures and absorbs us into one culture, the culture of humankind" (Lotman 1994a, 8). To say that human activity is enveloped by the semiosphere is to imply that humans act not just on the basis of biological impulses and even immediately available cultural significations but based on "the whole thick mass (tolshcha)" of previous texts of culture, which constitute the semiosphere ([1985] 1992, 201). (Waldstein 2008: 146)
Quoted at lenght, because I'm a sucker for discussion on the semiosphere. I like the wording that it makes social life possible, but presenting it as semiotic ecology or "the culture of humankind" begs to justify calling it an analytically impotent totalitarian notion.
The decade between 1975 and 1985 may be called the Decade of the Semiotics of Russian Culture in the history of the Tartu School. In this period, a series of large articles, often cosigned by Lotman and Uspensky, appeared in the Tartu Works on Slavic and Russian Philology (TRSF) and other publications dedicated to various aspects of medieval and early modern Russian history. The "semiotic" nature of these studies implied the shift in historical research from the "commonplaces" of Soviet historiography (that is the assumptions of social progress, class struggle, Russian backwardness and the quest for causal explanation). (Waldstein 2008: 150)
Instead of "cultural influence," Lotman and Uspensky were concerned about decontextualization, reframing, and ultimately cultural production, rather than re-production of the Western exemplars within local models. Thus, they approached the issues of local agency but interpreted it in terms of the holistic agency of Russian culture as such. (Waldstein 2008: 154)
Holistiline agentsus = individuaaliülene subjektiivsus (kultuur kui tehisintellekt Kultuuritüpoloogiates).
The main benefit of the concept of "parallel science" is that it does not presume the binary picture of the Soviet reality but allows us to analyze it. I have argued that, despite and even due to the emphatic distancing from official procedures, discourses and symbols, parallel science coexisted symbiotically with the formal institutions and official discourses. Precisely because its members and outsiders perceived parallel science to be a form of resistance to and avoidance of the "Soviet realities," parallel science served as a particularly advantageous position within Soviet academia, a site from which Soviet academics engaged in negotiating their place in society and established their effective control over knowledge, culture and languages as valuable social resources. (Waldstein 2008: 186)

Some useful references:
  • Alexandrov, Vladimir. 2000. "Biology, Semiosis, and Cultural Difference in Lotman's Semiosphere." Comparative Literature 52 (4):339-362.
  • Baran, Henryk, ed. 1976. Semiotics and Structuralism: Readings from the Soviet Union. White Plains, New York: International Arts and Sciences Press.
  • Clifford, James and George E. Marcus. 1986. Writing Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Collins, Randall. 1998. The Sociology of Philosophers. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  • de Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Eagle, Herbert. 1976. "The Semiotics of the Cinema: Lotman and Metz." Dispositio 1 (3):303-314.
  • Gerovitch, Slava. 2002. From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Gumilev, Lev N. 1990. Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
  • Illich, Ivan. 1972. Deschooling Society. New York: Harrow Books.
  • Kristeva, Julia. 1994. "On Yury Lotman." PMLA 109 (3):375-376.
  • Levinson, S. 1983. Pragmatics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rorty, Richard. 1982. Consequences of Pragmatism. Brighton: Harvester.
  • Scheler, Max. 1980. Problems of a Sociology of Knowledge. London, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Scholes, Robert. 1982. Semiotics and Interpretation. London: Yale University Press.
  • Shils, Edward. 1975. Center and Periphery: Essays in Macrosociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Shukman, Ann. 1977. Literature and Semiotics: A Study of the Writings of Yu.M. Lotman. Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Co.
  • Vernadsky, Vladimir I. 1998. The Biosphere: Complete Annotated Edition. New York: Copernicus.
  • Voloshinov, Valentin V. 1973. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. London: Harvard University Press.
  • Wertsch, James V. 1985. Culture Communication, and Cognition : Vygotskian Perspectives. New York: Cambridge University Press.


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