Discrete and Iconic Texts

Lotman, Juri M. 1976. The Discrete Text and the Iconic Text: Remarks on the Structure of Narrative. New Literary History 6(2): 333-338.

IS A SEMIOTIC SYSTEM without signs possible? This question taken by itself may seem absurd. If, however, we reformulate it as follows: "Can meaning be conveyed by a message in which we cannot single out signs in the sense in which they are defined most often - as the words of natural language?" then, if we consider painting, music, and cinema, we cannot but answer in the affirmative. (Lotman 1976: 333)
Exactly the same case that Langer has with her symbolism. Namely, it is clear that art, music and myth are symbolic, but not "in the sense in which they [symbols] are defined most often". Langer is essentially asking: Can there be symbolism without symbols?
The second contradiction concerns the antithesis between semiotic systems that have spatial structure and semiotic systems that have temporal structure. The question is not one of the opposition synchrony/diachrony (since, while diachrony can be identified with temporal ordering, synchrony is not, essentially, spatial), but of the antithesis between texts which are displayed in space, and those whose existence is bound up with time. (Lotman 1976: 333)
I would argue that synchrony is essentially spatial. Diachrony involves the progression of time or "temporal ordering" - that much is clear. But synchrony involves spatial ordering insofar as, well, for there to be synchrony one must consider more than one elements, because synchrony is a relation of simultaneity between something and something else, given that they are separated not by time but by space. Synchronous body movements, for example, occur when two people occupying different points in space performs some action simultaneously. This seems very obvious. But I guess Lotman has his own reasons for arguing in another way.
The questions raised above may well be answered if we consider that the narrative text can be constructed in two ways. The first one of them is sufficiently well known - it is the construction of a narrative text on the basis of a natural language. The word-signs are joined into chains according to the rules of the given language and the content of the statement. (Lotman 1976: 333)
I would venture a guess that these two ways are Langer's discursive and non-discursive/presentational in disguise; and indeed the first one is exactly discursive - successive symbols organized into a proposition according to linguistic rules.
In practice, this only means that if we were to designate the image by the first letter of the word icon, I, the object of the representation by O, and the function which sets up their correspondence by P, then the whole relationship could be expressed by the formula P(O) = I. (Lotman 1976: 334)
Are these letters arbitrary or did Lotman perform a liberal interpretation of the scheme by a man then called "Piers"? E.g. (O)bject, (I)nterpretant, and, well, not (R)epresentamen but P maybe because the cyrillic R is latin P?
From this it follows that the function P can be construed as the rules of transformation of O into I, that is, the function P can be construed as a certain code. The presence of the code is the necessary condition for I to be able to appear as a message. (Lotman 1976: 334)
If my previous suggestion is correct then it appears that there is a connection between Peirce's interpretants and Lotman's codes. This connection would be extremely valuable for my purposes.
In the discrete verbal message, the text is made up of signs; in the second case, there are, essentially, no signs: the message is communicated by the text in its entirety. And if we do treat it as discrete, and single out signlike structural elements, this is because of our habit of seeing verbal intercourse as the fundamental, even the sole, form of communicative contact, and a result of making the pictorial text seem like a verbal one. (Lotman 1976: 335)
Langer writes that the picture is composed of various elements but these have "no significance by themselves" (unlike words, as Lotman made abundantly clear above). Langer points out that we can "single out signlike structural elements" as Lotman puts it, put there are simply too many of them, the description could be virtually endless and still not convey what the "holistic" picture does (a picture is worth a thousand words, huh?).
For the internally nondiscrete text-message of the iconic type, however, narration is a transformation, an internal transposition of elements. A child's kaleidoscope may serve as a model of such narration: its pieces of colored glass that shift in relation to each other and form innumerable variations of symmetrical figures create a certain narrative. (Lotman 1976: 335)
The subtle hints to Langer are outstanding. Lotman is basically trying to say that visual narration is also a case of symbolic transformation of experience. Corcerning music, Langer writes: "The assignment of meaning is a shifting, kaleidoscopic play, probably below the treshold of consciousness, certainly outside the pale of discursive thinking." (1956 [1942]: 198) In the next paragraph here, Lotman is also discussing music. (Coincidence?)
In the iconic text, which cannot be divided into discrete units, the narrative is constructed as the combination of an initial stable state with a subsequent movement. In keeping with its nature (or rather, by virtue of the structure of its material), painting tends to be for the iconic text the ideal embodiment of "the initial state" where the semantic aspect has priority, whereas music is the ideal model of development of movement in its pure form. (Lotman 1976: 336-337)
And this movement can of course take the form of a crescendo, diminuendo, accelerando or ritardando as Langer suggests after Wolfgang Köhler.
We have already had occasion to note that it is not the word that acts as a unit in the poetic text, but the text as a whole - a phenomenon typical of the non-discrete types of semiosis. (Lotman 1976: 337)
"The poem as a whole is the bearer of artistic import, as a painting or a drama is." (Langer 1956 [1942]: 212)
It is interesting here to recall Levi-Strauss' attempt to construct a typically discrete linguistic structure - the metalanguage for the scientific description of myth, on the basis of the laws of music narration. This is a rare example of the creation of a tertiary semiotic model: its scientific perspectives are not yet clear, but it is an interesting illustration of one characteristic of mid-twentieth-century culture - semiotic oversaturation. In this tertiary semiotic model an artistic structure that is secondary in its nature is sublimated to a higher level and transformed into the metalanguage of scientific description. (Lotman 1976: 337-338)
In the footnote, translator Frances Pfotenhauer elaborates:
[In Soviet semiotic terminology, a distinction is made between primary semiotic systems (natural language and other nonartistic sign systems), and secondary systems which are constructed on the basis of the primary systems and which include all forms of art. Tr.] (Lotman 1976: 337ff)
Now it seems that it goes a little something like this:
  1. Primary modelling system - verbal and nonverbal signs and sign systems
  2. Secondary modelling systems - visual and verbal art;
  3. Tertiary modelling systems - theories and criticism
  4. On the basis of this half-assed scheme, it would seem that verbs and behaviours they name are 1st; George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and the film based on it are 2nd; and my theorizing about how the first interact in the second constitutes the 3rd. A shot in the dark.


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