Schönle on Lotman and CS

Schönle, Andreas 2002. Lotman and cultural studies: The case for cross-fertilization. Sign Systems Studies 30(2): 429-440.

Cultural studies emerged partly in response to a single-minded focus on high literature in English Departments, and it rests on a definition of culture as the totality of cultural production, including mass culture in all its variety. (Schönle 2002: 430)
This is how culture is defined in cultural studies. I think this definition differs from semiotics of culture in a few significant respects. Firstly, semiotics of culture doesn't seem to be as single-mindedly interested in cultural production, as cultural reception and a host of other cultural processes; e.g. production implies creation of new, while reception also includes rediscovering the past. Secondly, as cultural semiotics is a semiotic enterprise, it is most interested in semiotic aspects of culture, rather than social-psychological (as it is in cultural studies). And thirdly, indeed, cultural semiotics is not focused on mass culture, but rather high culture. Even when investigating mass culture pheonomena (such as cinema), Lotman focused on pieces (films) which were either significant to (film) theorists or high in taste.
As Tony Bennett puts it, cultural studies is "a term of convenience for a fairly dispersed array of theoretical and political positions which ... share a commitment to examining cultural practices from the point of view of their interaction with, and within, relations of power" (Bennett 1992: 23). (Schönle 2002: 431)
For cultural studies, cultural practices are interacting with and within power relations.
While Lotman is perhaps not as single-minded in his analysis of the nexus between cultural production and power, this collection discusses his conceptualization of the semiotic expression of power. His analysis of the relations between center and periphery echoes the infatuation with margins of culture in cultural studies. Lotman is acutely aware of the fact that ownership of information confers powers, and he discusses the ways in which groups fight for monopoly over information and develop special languages to keep other groups at bay (Lotman 2000a: 395). Even more pointedly, he underscores the intrinsic power (or energy) of signs, their ability to effect changes in their surroundings, so that the development of a particular discourse is in itself a form of power (Lotman 2000b: 9). (Schönle 2002: 431)
Power is expressed semiotically in relations between center and periphery. Ownership of information confers power and special languages and codes are developed to maintain monopoly over information and for keeping other groups at bay. Signs also have an intrinsic power (or energy) to effect changes in their surroundings. Compared to Foucault's conception of positive/productive power, it emphasizes not only the power of discourses, but other cultural practices as well (art, everyday behavior, etc.). With respect to special languages to withhold valuable information, Lotman's approach is similar to both Basil Bernsteins notion of restricted codes, and Foucault's understanding of culture, which is only accessible to a selected few (at least in the Antique culture he was studying in The Hermeneutics of the Subject).
Two competing paradigms of culture underpin the project of cultural studies: a humanist "culturalist" concept of culture as a whole way of life that can be described empirically and a "(post) structuralist" perspective that posits a web of discourse that determine identity and meaning and that need to be analyzed semiotically or rhetorically. The former view focuses on the experience of subjects who generate their own meanings and adapt social institutions to their own needs. The latter view conceives of the autonomous human subject as an ideological notion peddled by discourse in order to obfuscate the real identity of the subject as an effect of text (Hall 1980: 57-72). This debate, fundamental in cultural studies, has played itself out in various forms, affecting the ways one conceives of hegemony, identity, and resistance. (Schönle 2002: 431)
The "culturalist" concept sounds like Clyde Kluckhohn ("the total way of life of a people") and the "(post) structuralist" concept sounds like what Merrell calls "textualist essentialism" (the self as a web of narratives/discourses). Cultural studies seems to foster both conceptions, but one more heavily in the US and the other in the UK.
Lotman's definition of culture as a "bundle" of semiotic systems, that may, but need not be, organized hierarchically (Lotman 2000a: 397), shares the (post) structuralist premise of the primary role of discourse in founding reality. For example, Lotman considers participants in communicative exchanges full-fledged subjects only when they accept a set of restrictions imposed upon them by culture (Lotman 2000c: 562). Yet at the same time, Lotman's emphasis on the natural striving of culture toward diversity (Lotman 2000c: 564), indeed, on the obligatory presence of diversity for a semiotic environment to function propely, mitigates the subject's dependence upon discourse. Thus, subjects act on their impulse to autonomy by playing discourses against one another, recoding them in an act of autocommunication that generates novelty in the process. Thus Lotman grants individuals the capacity to intervene in semiotic systems and thereby affect their cultural environment. In a way, this conception bridges the two paradigms intrinsic to cultural studies. It maintains the discursive nature of reality but empowers the subject to manipulate codes and wrest some measure of autonomy. (Schönle 2002: 432)
The text/semiosphere organizes reality. To take part in the social construction of it, participants in communicative exchanges must accept restrictions imposed by culture. Using the words of Berger and Luckmann: the subject must accept the objectified stock of knowledge. The relationship of subjectivity and text/semiosphere/discourse is very similar in Lotman and Foucault, too. Just as individuals are the elements of the articulation of power/knowledge, so are individuals constituted by text/semiosphere, which enables it to function semiotically and construe its identity via self-description.
...Hall calls on Gramsci to suggest that "ideas only become effective if they do, in the end, connect with a particular constellation of social forces", i.e. if their "coupling" with the ruling classes is secured (Hall 1992: 43-44). While the nature of this connection is not entirely clear, it seems safe to assume that for Hall, ideologies are successful, i.e. become dominant, when they represent the ruling classe's view of social relations. Underpinning his discussion is the assumption that ideology has referential value, albeit, perhaps, a contested, plural, or ambiguous one.
In his treatment of auto-communication, Lotman shows that when a subject internalizes an extrinsic discourse, the process of recoding weakens, if not entirely suspends, the referential force of language. As a result, ideology's relation to social reality need not be as pertinent or direct as Hall presupposes, and it may therefore serve a more disparate set of groups, not solely social classes. Ideologies become successful, i.e. articulate the identity of a group, because they tie in with, and reinforce, a group's meta-discourses, its discursive memory, despite the fact that they may come from outside. Ideology, then, has neither a partial, nor distorted, but, rather, an imagined relation to social reality, one that sooner reflects a group's field of discourse, than its social experience. (Schönle 2002: 435-436)
In cultural studies, ideology represents the social relations (interests) of the ruling class. Using Lotman's concept of auto-communication, Schönle explains that in cultural semiotics the relationship between ideology and social reality is not so simple, as auto-communication makes allowances for re-coding ideological discourses, to discard the ideological influences.


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