Universe of the Mind

AutorLotman, Juri, 1922-1993
PealkiriUniverse of the mind : a semiotic theory of culture / Yuri M. Lotman ; translated by Ann Shukman ; introduction by Umberto Eco
IlmunudLondon ; New York : I.B. Tauris, c1990
ViideLotman, Yuri M. 1990. Universe of the mind: a semiotic theory of culture. Translated by Ann Shukman; introduction by Umberto Eco. London; New York: I.B. Tauris.

The translator is forced to make a choice. There is even greater indeterminacy when, for instance, a novel is transformed into a film. (Lotman 1990: 14)
This is the word I was searching for: indeterminacy. In my case there is a twofold indeterminacy from what the author of the novel chooses to remark about the characters' behaviour to what the director chooses the actor to enact in front of the camera.
In the second system, while communicating with him/herself, the addresser inwardly reconstructs his/her essence, since the essence of a personality may be thought of as an individual set of socially significant codes, and this set changes during the act of communication. (Lotman 1990: 22)
Finally I have found this brief and important definition which identifies the essence of personality with semiotic codes.
Between the non-discrete flow of life and the demarcated discrete 'arrested' moments which are typical of representational art, the theatre occupies an intermediary position. On the one hand, it is different from a picture and resembles life in its continuity and movement, and on the other, it is different from life and resembles picture by the fact that it divides the stream of events into segments, each of which at each particular moment tends to have an organized composition within any synchronic section of the action: instead of the continuous flow of non-artistic reality we have as it were a series of separate, immanently organized pictures linked to each other by transitional moments. (Lotman 1990: 59)
A surprisingly clear-headed description of theatre in the scale between real life and static pictures. The life in theater is segmented, almost pseudo-continuous.
A poet's symbolic 'alphabet' is not just an individual matter: a poet may draw symbols from the arsenal of epoch, cultural trends or social circle. A symbol is bound to cultural memory, and an entire series of symbolic images runs vertically through the whole course of human history, or large areas of it. An artist's individuality is manifest not only in the creation of new, unique symbols (i.e. in a symbolic reading of the non-symbolic), but also in the actualization of symbolic images which are sometimes extremely archaic. But it is the system of relationships which the poet established between the fundamental image-symbols which is the crucial thing. Symbols are always polysemic, and only when they form themselves into the crystal grid [kristallicheskaya reshetka] of mutual connections do they create that 'poetic world' which marks the individuality of each artist. (Lotman 1990: 86-87)
On the origin of a poet's symbols. I think the "crystal grid" could be a reference to de Saussure's crustallization of the link between signifier and signified.
This extraordinary episode lodged in Dostoevsky's memory and became a symbol; it began to behave like a symbol in culture: accumulating and organizing new experience around it, turning into a kind of memory condenser, and then unfolding into a variety of stories which subsequently the author selectively combined with other plot constructions. The original similarity with Belinsky was almost lost as the symbol went through numerous transformations. (Lotman 1990: 110)
This happens because any experience "can be symbolized further and further on the basis of continuing inward attention to it" (Rogers 1974: 126-127).
A schema consisting of addresser, addressee and the channel linking them together is not yet a working system. For it to work it has to be 'immersed' in semiotic space. All participants in the communicative act must have some experience of communication, be familiar with semiosis. So, paradoxically, semiotic experience precedes the semiotic act. (Lotman 1990: 123)
This is actually not as paradoxical as Lotman makes it sound. By and large it's very similar to age-old notions that society precedes the social man. Of course you have to be familiar with signs to use them for communication. Only a typology of communication could invent something different.
As a person of culture I embody the behaviour prescribed by certain norms. Only what in my behaviour corresponds to these norms is counted as a deed. If, through weakness, sickness, inconsistency, etc., I deviate from these norms, then such behaviour has no meaning, is not relevant, simply does not exist. A list of what 'does not exist', according to that cultural system, although such things in fact occur, is always essential for making a typological description of that system. (Lotman 1990: 129)
Again with the typology approach. Well, the remark about norms is an important one, because it comes to show that there are behaviours which we so to say pre-choose not to see or take into account.
Between unexpectedness on the level of everyday life and unexpetedness in the detective story there is a significant difference. The disconnected sequence of events in a detective story is only seemingly accidental. it seems so to the reader who does not know the secret of the plot and who is inclined to see significance in what is unimportant and vice versa. Since the reader has to be kept in ignorance for as long as possible the mistakes of his or her assumptions are not exposed until later. The wrong answer is the one that seems the most logical and seemingly convincing. Only occasionally is the lack of connection between the different episodes shown up in order to hint at the error in the reader's assumption. (Lotman 1990: 166)
This seemingly trivial paragraph is at the moment the only connection I can draw, or rather the only explanation I could give to why we are made to read Sherlock Holmes in the course on "Theories of Everyday Behaviour". How unexpected and random!
Plot is a powerful means for making sense of life. Only when narrative forms came into being could people learn to distinguish the plot aspects of reality, that is, to divide the non-discrete flow of events into several discrete units, linking these units together by semantic intepretations, and organizing them into ordered chains by syntagmatic interpretations. The essenve of plot lies in selecting the events, which are the discrete units of plot, then giving them meaning and a temporal or causal or some other ordering. (Lotman 1990: 170)
That is, events in narrative text are not random as such but has a temporal and/or causal ordering. In my work, it is important to take account of nonverbal behaviour as a cause for furthering the plot.
THe city is a complex semiotic mechanism, a culture-generator, but it carries out this function only because it is a melting-pot of texts and codes, belonging to all kinds of languages and levels. The essential semiotic polyglottism of every city is what makes it so productive of semiotic encounters. The city, being the place where different national, social and stylistic codes and texts confront each other, is the place of hybridization, recordings, semiotic translations, all of which makes it into a powerful generator of new information. These confrontations work diachronically as well as synchronically: architectural ensembles, city rituals and ceremonies, the very plan of the city, the street names and thousands of other left-overs from the paste ages act as code programmes contantly renewing the texts of the past. The city is a mechanism, forever recreating its past, which then can be cynchronically juxtaposed with the present. In this sense the city, like culture, is a mechanism which withstands time.
The rationalist utopian city has none of these semiotic reserves. But the lack of history gave rise to a great wave of myth-making, which would no doubt have appalled the rationalist Enlighteners of the eighteenth century. Myth filled the semiotic void and the artificial city turned out to be extremely mythogenic. (Lotman 1990: 194-195)
A paragraph extremely important for the semiotics of the city [linnasemiootika]. I must consider if cities in dystopic fiction have a "seiotic reserve" or not.
Take the behaviour of an individual. As a rule it accords with several stereotypes which define the 'normal', predictable course of that person's actions. But the number of stereotypes within any particular society is much larger than what one individual can enact. Some possible stereotypes are rejected on principle, others are held to be less preferable, and others again are regarded as permissible. At a moment when the historical, social and psychological tension reaches the point where a person's world picture dramatically alters (as a rule under intense emotional pressure) a person can dramatically change his or her stereotype, as it were leap into a new mode of behaviour, quite unpredictable in 'normal' circumstances. (Lotman 1990: 233)
This is how Lotman handles predictability in individual behaviour: with stereotypes. This can be a valuable discourse for the semiotics of subculture. And the point when a person's world-view alters dramatically could be identified with the "waking up" in dystopic fiction.
As we have already argued, creative intelligence is operative when a text comes into being which could not have been predicted by automatic algorithms. Certian aspects of the text will, however, always be predictable (e.g. 'tradition') and if we only take account of them, then the historical process will seem to be smooth and continuous; other aspects of the text are predictable with some degree of probability, while others are completely unexpected. (Lotman 1990: 234)
This seems equally true in case of behaviour: predictable behaviour is 'traditional'; such as manners, courtesy, and rituals.
An event that is quite unexpected (the apperance of an unpredictable text) radically alters the situation of the next one. The improbable text becomes a reality and subsequent development makes the fact of its existence a starting point. The unexpectedness is forgotten, and the originality of the genius becomes the routine of the imitators... (Lotman 1990: 235)
This is a fairly familiar discussion in the sphere of music; especially in discussions about the 'originality' of The Beatles, for example, and whether or not it brought anything new to music or merely simplified and popularized ("appropriated") earlier styles. The cultural dynamics in literature and modern music is quite alike.
Writing is a form of memorizing. Just as the individual mind has its own memorizing mechanisms, so the collective mind, which has to record what is held in common, creates its own mechanisms. One of these mechanisms is writing. But is writing the first, or more importantly, is it the only possible form of collective memorizing? The way to answer this question is to suppose that forms of memorizing are derivative from what people think has to be remembered, and what that is depends on the structure and orientation of that civilization. (Lotman 1990: 246)
This reminded me of how a friend asked me several times if I remember everything that I read upon first reading... And I tried to explain to him that this blog, in fact, is my memory. What I find significant in my readings I record here. This blog is my memory mechanism.
Socrates tells the story of the divine inventor Theuth who gave science to the king of Egypt:
But when it came to writing, Theuth declared: 'Here is an accomplishment, my lord the kind, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and wisdom.' 'Theyth, my paragon of inventors,' replied the king, 'the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it. So it is in this case; ou, who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your offspring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their rememberance by external signs instead of on their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in sonsequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom, they will be a burden to society.'
(Lotman 1990: 251)
This critique against my very practice comes from Plato's Phaedrus, translated by Walter Hamilton, Penguin Classics, p. 96. It is also enlightening towards the society in Fahrenheit 451 which lacks recollection, but not memory.
A religious act, on the other hand, is based on an unconditional act of self-surrender, rather than on an exchange. The one party surrenders itself to the other without making any conditions at all, except that the receiving party is acknowledged to be the supreme power. (Lotman 1990: 255)
I am a fan of self- notions for the sake of it, but this one has a practical outlet in my study: after torture, Winston self-surrenders to the all-embracing love of the Big Brother. In a sense, this is a religious act - he is converted.
The semiotic aspects of behaviour stresses the play element: the aim of an action lies less in its practical result than in the correct use of the language of behaviour. In West European chivalry the tournament became the equivalent of battle, while in Russia hunting had the function of a tournament in the life of a feudal lord: as a special form of play it epitomized the semiotic values of chivalric military behaviour. This is why Vladimir Monomakh listed his hunting expeditions alongside his military exploits as matters of equal pride.
The opposite kind of behaviour exludes conventionality: it tends to reject play and the relativity of semiotic methods and it identifies truth with the absence of conventionality. Unconventionalized social behaviour may be either of two types: for those at the top of society there is a tendency towards symbolism in behaviour and throughout the semiotic system, but for those at the bottom of society there is a tendency towards zero-degree of semioticity, behaviour being transposed into the purely practical sphere. (Lotman 1990: 259)
Here, Yu. Lotman identifies instrumental/biological/intrinsic/goal-oriented/purposive behaviour with zero-degree of semioticity.


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