Conversations with Lotman

AutorAndrews, Edna, 1958-
PealkiriConversations with Lotman: cultural semiotics in language, literature, and cognition / Edna Andrews
IlmunudToronto [etc.] : University of Toronto Press, c2003
ViideAndrews, Edna 2003. Conversations with Lotman: Cultural Semiotics in Language, Literature, and Cognition. Toronto (etc.): University of Toronto Press.

As always happens with important thinkers whose publishing careers are long, one finds significant changes, modifications, and evolutions in Lotman's approaches through time. It is important to recognize that the works for which Lotman is best known in the West are not necessarily the most indicative of his mature thought. Soviet censorship coupled with very limited translation of Lotman's works into English are two of the reasons why the 'Western Lotman' is only a shadow of the actual 'Russian Lotman.' A specific example of 'Western' Lotman is the claim that his definition of the smallest structural unit of cultural space - the sign - is purely binary. The perception by many American scholars that all of Lotman's works on semiotic modelling systems in the 1960s and 1970s are defined by multiple sets of binary signs has raised important questions regarding the viability of a Lotmanian semiotic theory - a theory that many Canadian, American, and European scholars would reject in favour of a fundamentally triadic Peircean sign (where Peircean semiotic sign theory is by definition not a part of the structuraalist semiotic movement [Eco 1990: vii-xiii]). It is certainly true that defining Lotman as a binarist is a dated practice that unfairly marginalizes his work in contemporary Western semiotic discourse. Although I do not think that Lotman ever completely abandoned all his notions of binarism, I intend to demonstrate that his later works shift their focus to a more complex set of semiotic principles that do not depend directly on a binary sign. This change in perspective results in a truly unique contribution to the field of semiotics. (Andrews 2003: xiv-xv)
This is the point at which I have to admit (embarrassingly) that when I only lately discovered this word ("binarism") I immediately associated the Tartu-Moscow School (including Ju. Lotman) with it.
Lotman provides one of his earliest discussions of culture from a semiotic perspective in his article 'O semioti¢eskom mexanizme kul'tury' (About the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture), written with Boris A. Uspenskij in 1971 (reprinted Lotman 1993: III. 326-44). Lotman and Uspenskij begin their discussion by outlining what the universals of cultural organization would be. First and foremost, each culture defines a model of itself based on phenomena related to that specific culture. Several principles follow from this statement, including the following: (1) each culture will have marks (or signs) [признаки]; (2) no single culture is all-encompassing - rather, it is a bounded space that abuts non-cultural space; (4) cultures are always sign systems (as opposed to non-cultures which are not); (4) cultures replace one another over time; (5) culture and natural language are indivisable; (6) culture is non-hereditary collective memory; (7) culture is only 'acknowledged post factum'; (8) culture is first and foremost a social phenomenon (социальное явление) and, while individual culture is real, it is nonetheless a secondary phenomenon when viewed in the historical context of societal culture; (9) each culture creates its own model of its lenght of existence and con-tinuity; (10) culture generates structure in order to construct its social basis; and (11) every culture is based on a 'presumption of structure' by its participants (Lotman 1993: III.326-30). (Andrews 2003: 3-4)
A neat outline of cultural semiotics.
The central themes of Theses are as follows: the inalienable dynamics of semiotic space; the relationship between information and entropy; the defining properties of semiotic boundaries; the definition of culture text; the relationship between text and sign; the importance of discrete versus continuous modelling systems; the obligatory presence of tension between discrete and continuous semiotic-cultural phenomena; the relationship between text and addresser and addressee; the role of cultural memory; the difference between potential texts and non-texts; the broad range of semiotic text types, which include the central role of natural human language; and the inevitability of the polycultural, multilingual nature of any semiotic cultural space.
The culture text, which is the structure through which a culture acquires information about itself and the surrounding context, is defined as a set of functional principles: (1) the text is a functioning semiotic unity; (2) the text is the carrier of any and all integrated messages (including human language, visual, verbal, and representational art forms, rituals, etc.); and (3) not all usages of human language are automatically defined as texts (Ivanov et al. [1973] 1998: 3.0-3.1). Theses also defines three distinct levels of text that are incorporated into any culture such that they involve a hierarchy of sign systems composed of texts, a mechanism that will generate text, and an overall summation of texts and their corresponding functions. All semiotic systems function in context as relative, not absolute, autonomous structures. As a result, what is perceived as a text in one culture may not be a text in different cultural space. (Andrews 2003: 11)
I really should revisit the Theses again.
Cultural semiotic systems are always based on non-hereditary collective memory. Thus, on the one hand, culture is a social (collective) phenomenon that is 'acknowledged post factum'; on the other, each culture creates its own model of existence and continuity and both generates and 'presumes' structure. One of the modelling aspects of culture that generates and presumes structure is that culture and natural language are indivisable within a given cultural space. It follows that the fundamental operating principle of any culture is the conversion (or translation) of non-information into information. Thus, culture for Lotman is a structure or mechanism (устройство) that requires at least two languages, produces information, and is by definition anti-entropic (Lotman 1992b: I. 7-9.) Neither of the 'two languages' can adequately and completely capture all of the essential information and principles of the internal cultural space. Furthermore, according to Lotman, it is not the case that culture and cultural systems are solely and entirely semiotic in nature. At the end of chapter 2 we will consider whether this statement is true, in the context of more broadly defined semiotic models and their relationship to Lotman's model.
The other part of Lotman's definition of culture concerns the need to draw a boundary between the internal space of a specific culture (or cultural system) and the external space that lies beyond it. Every culture takes it as a given that something else lies immediately outside it. Without this 'other space,' there can be no sense of cultural self (Lotman 1992a: 7-11; 1992b: I. 10). But it isn't enough simply to recognize this external space; the cultural system must also determine its dynamic relationship to that external space.
In specifying this dynamic relationship, I have found it useful to require more than one type of reference (following G.S. Brown's definition of this term), where explicit reference gives the 'value' of a sign in (semiotic) space and implicit reference specifies an objectivized (our 'outside') observer (or semiotic space) (Brown 1969: 69, 76). Once the observer's position is determined, meaning can be produced both within and between cultural space. The drawing of boundaries between distinct cultural spaces and observers sets up the primary tension between continuous and discontinuous phenomena. In his expanded definition of culture, Lotman defines all aspects of cultural space as struggle between continuous and discontinuous categories. (Andrews 2003: 13-14)
Dynamics of culture.
We must first distinguish between language and code (язык и код) as Lotman uses these terms. In this estimation, code leaves aside history (or cultural memory) and orients the listener towards notions of language as an artificial structure; in contrast, language is code with human history built in (1992a: 12-13). This distinction will not apply to the use of the term 'code' in the communication models presented by Jakobson and Sebeok. In those communication act mdoels, code is coincident with language. (Andrews 2003: 17)
It seems that E. Andrews was not aware of C. Cherry and M. Joos.
Lotman makes repeated reference to different sign types - particularly icons and symbols (1990: 17-18, 69-77, 104-11, 126, 203, 222). on the one hand, he refrains for the most part from making much of indexical signs (1990: 36); on the other hand, in his analyses he very often uses the Jakobsonian conceptualizations of metnymy and metaphor (as the two primary axes, paradigmatic and syntagmatic, of language, not as mere figures of speech) (1990: 39-45). Given the ambiguity in Jakobson's own applications of peirce's sign-object triad, we find that Lotman's usage tends to be more binarized than Jakobson's. This is clearest in those instances when the index (of the icon/index/symbol) triad is omitted from Lotman's analyses and applications, as they often are. (Andrews 2003: 24)
This I have noticed myself, and it's most likely because Lotman got his discrete(symbolic)/continuous(iconic) distinction from the mathematical systems theory of the 50s and 60s which had nothing to do with indexes.

Thus, in information theory, entropy is the 'unpredictability in the content or form of a message ... Entropy in the content is the equivalent of high information, and frequently requires redundancy to be introduced into the form for effective, easy communication. Entropy in the form is usually the result of breaking existing conventions ... Entropy correlates with information on the level of content, and is opposed to redundancy on both levels' (O'Sullivan et al. 1994: 106). (In information theory, where 'information' is determined by the predictability of the signal, if a form is less predictable it has high information and is called entropic; if it has low information it is called redundant. Redundancy, which characterizes at least 50 per cent of all human language, is essential for the decoding of messages [O'Sullivan et al. 1994: 151, 259-60].) (Andrews 2003: 26-27)
Indeed a simple explanation and very applicable. For example, military training is highly redundant, while actual war situation is entropic. In nonverbal interactions, most human movement is redundant, and gestures and facial expressions (the "nonverbal signs" as opposed to mere behavior) is entropic.
The primary role of autocommunication is a cultural one - to create new information. The new information transmitted is qualitatively restructured and necessarily involves a doubling (or even redefining) of both the message and the code; it is not redundant and is never self-contained (1990: 22) (Andrews 2003: 28)
The presumption here is of course that the message and the code is known firsthand and then it is communicated, which doesn't exactly pan out in my understanding of self-communication. This remains to be solved.
According to Lotman, there are four fundamental concepts associated with the semiosphere:
  1. Heterogeneity - The languages of the semiosphere run along a continuum that includes the extremes of total mutual translatability and complete mutual untranslatability (1990: 125; 1992b: I. 11-24; 1992a: 14-16).
  2. Asymmetry - The structure of the semiosphere is asymmetrical at multiple levels, including asymmetry in terms of internal translations, centre versus periphery, and metalinguistic structures (1990: 124-7; 1992a: 25-30; 1992b: I. 16-19).
  3. Boundedness - One of the primary mechanisms of semiotic individuation is the creation of boundaries, which define the essence of the semiotic process. Boundaries are abstractions, and are often described as series of bilingual filters or membranes that are by definition permeable and fluid, on the one hand, and as areas of accelerated semiotic processes, on the other (1990: 131-40; 1992b: I. 13-16).
  4. Binarity - The beginning point for any culture is based on the binary distinction of internal versus external space.
Lotman insists that binary oppositions in the semiosphere exist only as plurailities - that is, as mechanisms that are obligatorily included for multiplication of languages (1990: 124; 1992b: I. 13-17).
Beyond the boundaries of the semiosphere, one finds externally given, unorganized, 'non-structural' surroundings. Even if one were to imagine that there was no space beyond the semiosphere, Lotman's conception of the semiosphere nonetheless would require the construction of a chaotic external field (1992b: I. 15-16). (Andrews 2003: 33)
Another neat outline.

Calvin and Ojemann 81944: 109-21) distinguish at least three types of neurological perception-based activities, including recognition (a form of decoding), recollection, and the process of encoding into memory. Thus, we may want to propose a schema for talking about how memory is stored and retrieved that is, at the very least, triadic. Most certainly, memory is one of the central issues in any theory of cognition, and perhaps pection as well. (Andrews 2003: 53)
Compare this to the schema of Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness in varieties of other sources.
5. Natural living organisms exhibit self-regulated movement.
6. The constant molecular movement between the biosphere and its organisms - including internal and external transfer - is unique. (Andrews 2003: 57)
Thus, these points abstracted from Vernadsky (1989: 141-144) prove the case for self-mortification: obeying commands and following directed movements breaks the natural "unique" movement patterns of the individual, thus he becomes in a sense "dead."
Uexküll's model of semiosis includes an important time structure whereby perception is defined as a 'meaning specifier' but 'meaning-utilization' is only realizable at some future point (T. von Uexküll 1986: 133). For a particular species, the actual lenght of the movement will vary. Sebeok notes that the hic et nunc (the human moment) lasts for three seconds (1990: 134). Since the relationship between subject and object (also read sign and object) is contextually determined, the resulting relationship is realized only through an interpreter. (Andrews 2003: 63)
Uexküllian perspective on time.
Sebeok places Uexküll's words in perspective by reminding us that human beings are semiotic texts (1991:19). (Andrews 2003: 64)
Huh, reading people.
Lotman consistently supports the perceptive that human language is at the core of all semiotic space and that language plays a central role in the codification of collective and individual memory.
However, Lotman makes a more profound claim about memory as an important function of complex semiotic text connects itself with the surrounding cultural context (and this happens in a variety of ways, including interaction between addresser and addressee, between the readership and cultural tradition, between the reader and him/herself, between the reader and the text, and between the text and the cultural context), it achieves the 'ability to condense information,' and as a result of this ability develops its own memory, where extratextual information is preserved as well as transformed and new information is created (1992b: I. 131). (Andrews 2003: 68-69)
Yet another reflection of Lotman's model of the text (it's 5 relationships). Still I don't know where exactly this is from.

As we have noted, culture texts for Lotman are sign-based invariant constructs that contribute to a definition of culture. Culture texts include verbal texts (including aesthetic, religious, and poetic text types), but are more broadly defined to encompass a variety of non-verbal texts - visual, musical, or those based on everyday human behaviour. The two major groupings of culture texts are based not on the verbal/non-verbal distinction, but rather on the characterization given by the text itself - either at the level of universal structure and its resulting construction, or at the level of the individual instantiation and its place in the larger semiospheric context. (Andrews 2003: 73)
Stuff like "invariant constructs" and "universal structure" still remain vague for me.
I also noted the membranelike, bilingual nature of the outermost boundaries of the semiosphere, and discussed how old and new boundaries are constantly renegotiated within the asymmetrical internal spaces of the semipshere. Furthermore, we have considered different types of boundaries in the context of the ever-present tension between continuous and discontinuous dynamics - dynamics that are essential toa functioning semiotic space. In part, these dynamics play themselves out in the languages and codes that facilitate the translation of information across these boundaries. These languages and codes and their descriptions alternate between the poles of continuity and discontinuity in terms of construction, production, and perception. (Andrews 2003: 82)
The fundamental heterogeneity of the semiosphere worded differently.
Potential infinity is expressed as a variable that is always more or less described in terms of movement to positive or negative infinity; in contrast, actual infinity is expressed by a constant. But this constant is not determinable as a number; rather, it is available to human perception only as the symbolic effect of something that is greater than any finite entity because such a constant is unknown and 'un-name-able.' Thus, infinite continuity is equivalent in some sense to Florensky's potential infinity, while finite continuity is closer to Florensky's actual infinity. (Andrews 2003: 86)
Some notions from Florensky's Pillar and Confirmation of Eternal Truth (1914/1990).
I will use the term intertextuality in a distinctly different and broader sense than it has been used by Julia Kristeva. Kristeva's intertextuality is defined mainly in terms of the adressee's role in reproducing and reconstructing the open text (Kristeva 1986: 111); she does not see intertextuality as a 'study of sources' (111). (Andrews 2003: 93)
Since I only recently found out that intertextuality is Kristeva's term, I see it prudent to keep this definition in mind.
According to Lotman, artistic space is multifaceted, and translates into a synthetic whole the author's idiosyncratic modelling system. This translation involves applying the actual languages and codes used to create these dynamic spaces (1992b: I. 414). The languages and codes are always a shared cultural space that is only marginally intersected at the level of actualization of the artistic text. Thus, on the one hand, any and all Russian language texts (artistic and non-artistic) written is what is recognizably Russian will necessarily overlap in many ways. Yet the more that logically consistent structures coincide - especially if they are by definition highly improbably - the higher the probability that there is a goal-oriented trend to be discovered. (Andrews 2003: 101)
Thus, the idiosyncratic "modelling system" of the author is recognized, but it must still be translated into shared languages and codes.
Превращение зримого в рассказываемое неизбежно увеличивает степень организованности. Так создаётся текст. (The metaporphosis of the visual into the verbal inevitably increases the degree of information. This is how texts are created).
Jurij Mixailovič Lotman
Dunlea (1989: 2) points to the growing evidence that vision is important in 'the emergence of communication,' and to the potential impact of this on blind people's language acquisition and development. Many studies conducted with sighted infants have indicated that visually based strategies play an enormously important role in establishing 'elicited behaviours,' especially those involving specific eye contact (2). Vision and visual signs are important to conceptual development and to establishing referential relationships. It is through such relationships that children are able to abstract from concrete, specific referential names to comprenehsion and usage of those 'names' on a more generla, symbolic level (3). (Andrews 2003: 140)
Pertinent note on visual communication.
The connection between brain and langauge is even more viable at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a time of rapid expansion of neuroscience's knowledge of the human brain. Here again, Jakobson is at the forefront of a movement. As early as 1980, with the publication of 'Brain and Language,' he was articulating the direction of development of this particular scientific paradigm:
At present, those governing functions of the brain which are connected with the output of speech and with its input lend themselves to an attentive examination, and it seems as if the joint efforts of linguistic and neurologists are summoned to suggest and open ever deeper insights both into the structure of language with reference to the brain and into the structure of the brain with the help of language. ([1980] 1985: 177)
What is missing from Jakobson's statement, and from most contemporary studies of the brain and language, is a strong statement regarding what types of information the linguist and the cognitive scientist will acknowledge as central to the construction of meaning and meaningful categories in language. It seems impossible to imagine any theory of linguistic meaning that fails to take into account reference. And reference inevitably leads to a range of overlappinng and discrete extralinguistic signs, signs that are always bound in semiospheric space-time. Thus, we must also question how culture, as well as the cultural context, becomes codified in human language. There are two fundamental ways that cultural information is coded and communicated within speech communities - in the creation of texts (using lotman's definition), adn in the creation of individual and group memory. (Andrews 2003: 145-146)
Brain, language, memory, reference, meaning.
I conclude this section by noting that neuroscientists like Rose (1992: 91), who are very articulate in their opposition to brain/computer metaphors, refer specifically to the distinction between information and meaning; for them, meaning 'implies a dynamic of interaction ... a process which is not reducible to a number of bits of information.' Such a distinction brings to the fore the important view that memory is not a static phenomenon whereby engrams are permanently imprinted on a particular part of the cortex; rather, any given memory is always modified in any instantiation. As Rose correctly ascretains: 'Our memories are recreated each time we remember' (91). This distinction is reminiscent of the Peircean notion of knowledge as 'observed facts' versus 'practical knowledge' (Buchler 1955: 150-1). It is only through interferences that knowledge (and this necessarily involves memory) can be activated for future behaviour and decision making. And that which Schacter refers to as explicit remembering is diagrammatically determined: 'Explicit remembering always depends on the similarity or affinity between encoding and retrieval processes' (1996: 60). In this vein, we now begin to see that memory, like language, 'is not confined to a small set of neurons at all, but has to be understood as a property of the entire brain, even the entire organism' (Rose 1992: 322). (Andrews 2003: 152)
Good stuff.
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