The Concept of a Text

Lotman, Juri M. 1988 [1981]. The Semiotics of Culture and the Concept of a Text. Soviet Psychology 26: 52-58.

Two tendencies are ascertainable in the development of semiotics over the past 15 years. One has been toward refinement of the initial concepts and definition of procedures of generation. The striving for precise modeling procedures has led to the creation of metasemiotics: the object of study becomes not texts as such, but models of texts, models of models, etc. The second tendency concentrates its attention on the semiotic functioning of a real text. (Lotman 1988 [1981]: 52)
Briefly, these two tendencies are theoretical (metasemiotics) and empirical (analysis of "real texts").
Using Saussurean terminology, we might say that in the first case it is langage that interests the investigator as a materialization of the structural laws of a langue; in the second case it is those semiotic aspects of a text that diverge from the linguistic structure that are the object of attention. Whereas the first tendency is materialized in metasemiotics, the second by nature gives birth to the semiotics of culture. (Lotman 1988 [1981]: 52)
In the first (theoretical) tendency is oriented towards the realization of language, but the second (empirical) with everything else that can't be studied simply as the realization of a language. That is, the second, cultural semiotic, approach takes account of cultural context, other sign systems and the functioning of a text within a culture (a text is a generator of an avalanche of further texts).
The emergence of the semiotics of culture, a discipline that examines the interaction of differently structured semiotic systems, internal unevenness in a semiotic space, and the necessity of cultural and semiotic polyglotism, has to a considerable extent displaced traditional semiotic notions. (Lotman 1988 [1981]: 52-53)
Cultural semiotics has moved on from a single language to the interaction of sign systems. As a vivid illustration, Jakobson time and again puts forth that other sign systems should be considered, but he only considers them in comparison with language. Cultural semiotics, on the other hand, begins with the assumption that the "semiotic space" of a culture is "uneven" and there is something antecedent - a semiosphere - to all languages and sign systems.
The original concepts of a text, which stressed its unitary signal nature, the indivisible unity of its functions in any cultural context, or some other qualities, implicitly or explicitly assumed that a text was a statement in some one language. The first crack in this seemingly self-evident idea occurred when the concept of a text was examined at the level of the semiotics of culture. It was found that for a given message to be defined as a "text," it had to be coded at least twice. Thus, for example, a message defined as a "law" differs from a description of some criminal case in that it belongs to the natural and the legal language at the same time, in the first case constituting a sequence of signs with different meanings, and in the second, some complex sign with a single meaning. (Lotman 1988 [1981]: 53)
Lotman imputes "dual coding" on any text because it is not simply a realization of a single language. Between the language and the text there is a "secondary" system. The example here put forth is quite simple: laws are expressed in "natural language" (keeping in mind that "natural language" is natural is the sense that it is naturally given to the person) but on the genre of "laws" has its own formalized rules of expression. That is to say, Lotman doesn't simply oppose natural to formalized languages as Jakobson (1971 [1967]: 659) but views these as a sequence: the natural language (Estonian, English, etc.) is formalized in order to fulfill a specific social function. In this sense, every distinct subcode of language (legalese, semiologese, sociologese) is a "secondary" system. Even this paper by Lotman is, here, in English, but it uses the register of cultural semiotics.
As may be assumed, historically a statement in a natural language was primary after which followed its transformation into a ritualized formula coded in some second language, i.e., in a text. (Lotman 1988 [1981]: 53)
Exactly my point: natural language is primary, but it is "transformed into a ritualized formula". This contention easily develops into the understanding that every text creates its own code or language, its own special transformation of language.
The language of the dance is conveyed by gestures, actions, words and cries, and by the dancers themselves, who are thereby semiotically "replicated." The multistructured form is retained, although packed, so to speak, into the monostructural shell of a message in the language of that particular art. This is especially noticeable in the specific character of the novel as a genre: its shell, a message in a natural language, conceals the extremely complex and contradictory controversy of different semiotic worlds. (Lotman 1988 [1981]: 54)
Another iteration of the same point: "genre" is a "secondary modelling system" as it is not a token or a particular text, but a type of text. It is relevant that the "secondary" system is not a simple elaboration of the primary natural language, but a complex interplay of "different semiotic worlds".
Fluctuations within the field of "semiotic homogeneity ↔ semiotic heterogeneity" is one of the formative factors in the historical evolution of literature. (Lotman 1988 [1981]: 54)
This general statement still holds true. Modern literature, for example, is full of e-mail exchanges, SMS messages, information gleamed from the internet, etc. The "text within the text" of the 19th century was a court case transcript, newspaper clippings, etc. whilet he "text within the text" of the 21st century involves everything the information era has to offer - from URL links to embedded images.
The creation of a work of art marks a qualitatively new stage in the growing complexity of the structure of a text. A multilayered and semiotically heterogeneous text may be capable of entering into complex relations both with the surrounding cultural context and with its readers; it ceases to be an elementary message from sender to receiver. Revealing a capacity to condense information, it acquires memory. At the same time, it reveals a quality that Heraclitus defined as "self-growing logos." At this stage of growing structural complextiy, a text displays the properties of an intellectual device: it not only conveys the information put into it from without but also transforms messages and develops new ones. (Lotman 1988 [1981]: 55)
My favorite example of this involves Orwell's 1984, which became "iconic" soon after its publication. Today it is quite commonplace that people use terms like "orwellian" and "Big Brother" quite freely. Not to mention the plethora of literary works that Orwell has inspired (Olev Remsu's Kurbmäng, by the way, being one of them).
1. Communication between addressant and addressee. A text fulfills the function of a message from the bearer of information to the audience. (Lotman 1988 [1981]: 55)
Despite being aware of these five "functions", I have yet to really consider them. The first one seems to be the very basic one of any message - the exchange of information between sender and receiver.
2. Communication between the audience and the cultural tradition. A text fulfills the function of a collective cultural memory. In this capacity it discloses a capacity for continual replenishment and for retrieving some aspect of the information stored in it and temporarily or totally forgetting others. (Lotman 1988 [1981]: 55)
Here the reader is "communicating" with the "memory" of the text. Put very generally: texts are mnemonic. Since texts are "fixed" in signs, they can be revisited and re-read (which is impossible with verbal utterances that fade into time as soon as they are uttered). In this second sense text carries something from the past into the future and enables the reader to "wake up" the meanings "sleeping" in the text (and, as Lotman notes with "totally forgetting", some of them remain asleep for ever). Communication with the "cultural tradition" is exemplified easily enough on the basis of this very text - by reading it I am communicating with Lotman's cultural semiotics and the tradition of cultural semiotics in total.
3. Communication of the reader with himself. A text - this is especially important for traditional, ancient texts distinguished by their high degree of canonicity - retrieves certain aspects of the personality of the addressee himself. During this type of communication of the recipient of information with himself, a text plays the role of mediator, helping to reorganize the personality of the reader and change its structural self-orientation and the extent of its links with metacultural constructions. (Lotman 1988 [1981]: 55)
This is extremely important. It can be condensed to the maxim "In every reading, you are reading yourself." This type of communication is the one I'm most at home with, because my method of learning involves not only reading and quoting, but extensive commenting at every step. The text is indeed a mediator between me and myself: whatever I read is bound to spark some ideas within myself; make me recall something I already know and form new associations based on what's in the text, etc. It is important to note that here Lotman says that the text helps to "reorganize the personality of the reader". Here we should question: what is meant by "personality"? Because we know that Lotman has his own definition of personality that involves a set of socially significant codes. Or as Ülle Pärli elaborated, the personality is rather an intersection-point of various codes and texts. "Personality" is a dot in the social matrix of communication (or, alternatively, the semiosphere). The general contention seems to be that in reading and mediating myself I am changing who I am.
4. Communication of the reader with the text. Manifesting intellectual properties, a highly organized text ceases to be merely a mediator in the act of communication. It becomes an interlocutor on an equal footing, possessing a high degree of autonomy. For the both the author (addressant) and the reader (addressee), it may work as an independent intellectual structure, playing an active and independent role in dialogue. In this respect, the ancient metaphor of "conversing with a book" turns out to be fraught with profound meaning. (Lotman 1988 [1981]: 55-56)
This is also quite easy to comprehend. Texts are "artificial intelligences" in so far as they are not simply a realization of a single language to convey a simple message, but autonomous "semiotic worlds" that can be interacted with. Aside from the semiotic heterogeneity point I think this is so because a text is always open to reinterpretation. It is not as simple as reading the text, studying what it says and moving on. No, different readings yield different results. That is to say, every conversation we hold with a book is different.
5. Communication between a text and the cultural context. In this case the text is not an agent of a communicative act, but a full-fledged participant in it, as a source or a receiver of information. The relations of a text to the cultural context may have a metaphorical character, as when the text is perceived as a substitute for the overall context to which it is, in a certain respect, equivalent, or as metonymic, as when a text represents the context as a part of the whole. Since the cultural context is a complex and heterogeneous phenomenon, the same text may enter into different relations with its different structural levels. (Lotman 1988 [1981]: 56)
Here text becomes a fully fledged artificial intelligence - it assumes an agentive position - it can send and receive information. It does so, certainly, through the readers, but it nevertheless does it. An example can be found elsewhere in Lotman: a holy figurine has ritualistic value for the savages who created it, but in a museum, divorced from its original social context, it becomes something wholly different. So do texts vary in their significance (I purposefully chose this word instead of "meaning") through time. Thus, there indeed is a "communication" between a text and its cultural context. The "exchange" part of this communication can be thought of as, firstly, the change of the text's role in the culture (Marx's Das Kapital is something wholly different to a modern Estonian than it was to a Soviet Estonian), and secondly, the text disperses signification into the culture (despite its diminished popularity, Das Kapital is still an influential piece of work).
Finally, texts, as the more stable and demarcated structures, have a tendency to pass from one context to another, as usually occurs with relatively long-lived works of art: when they move into another cultural context, they function as an informant that has moved to a new communicative situation and bring out hithero latent aspects of their own coding system. This "self-recoding" in accordance with a situation reveals an analogy between the symbolic behavior of a person and a text. Hence, a text, in likening itself to the cultural macrocosm, on the one hand becomes more significant than itself alone and acquires the features of a cultural model, while, on the other hand, it has a tendency to effect an independent behavior insofar as it likens itself to the autonomous individual. (Lotman 1988 [1981]: 56)
This seems to touch upon the topic of "self as text". The analogy Lotman puts forth concerns "the symbolic behavior of a person and a text". As far as I can see, the analogy hinges on both being "autonomous individuals" that can change (its self-orientation) and recode itself "in accordance with a situation". Just as the life of the person involves physical and intellectual growth and change, so does a text "grow" (nest itself it the culture's memory and become more and more known - you probably know about Das Kapital despite not having ever read it) and change (it's significance fluctuates; Peirce's writings were virtually unknown in the 1920s and will probably achieve its height of popularity and relevance in the 2020s).
In light of the above, a text presents itself not as a realization of a message in some one language, but as a complex system storing diverse codes capable of transforming messages received and generating new ones, a generator of information with the traits of an intelligent person. This modifies our notion of the relationship between the user and the text. In place of the formula "A user deciphers the text," we can be more precise: "A user communicates with the text." He enters into contact with it. The process of deciphering a text becomes extremely complicated and loses its one-time and definitive character, becoming more like acts, familiar to us, of semiotic communication of one person with another autonomous personality. (Lotman 1988 [1981]: 57)
Indeed it is so. And the more complex the text, the better a conversation partner it makes. Lotman's 2010. collection of papers in Estonian, Kultuuritüpoloogiast, and Anti Randviir's doctoral thesis are two of my favorite partners that I've conversed several times before and wish to converse again, soon.


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