The Unpredictable Workings of Culture

Ivanov, Vyacheslav V. 2013. Preface to the Russian Edition. In: Pilchikov, Igor and Silvi Salupere (eds.), The Unpredictable Workings of Culture. Translated by Brian James Baer. Tallinn: TLU Press, 7-16.

Lotman found his own solution in the contemporary semiotics, in the development of which he played a direct role. He conceived the history of semiotics as the blending of Saussurean linguistics and the study of literature as practiced by the Petersburg formalists, who were closest to Lotman in terms of scholarly orientation. (Many of us at the time were less interested in the logical approach, which stemmed from the work of Peirce.) In the contemporary version of semiotics which he helped to create, Lotman found a similar connection between the linguistic approach of the young Moscow semioticians, which he admired, and the line of researc that continued in a formalist orientation, to which he attributed the very foundations of his own scholarly work. But Lotman saw the linguistic terms, such as the designation of cultural phenomena as languages and of their mutual relationship as diglossia, or bilingualism, as perhaps more important for the emerging discipline than his colleagues, who treated linguistic terms with the caution of specialists, were willing to admit. (Ivanov 2013: 12)
An apt statement on Lotman's semiotics. It is possible to find both Saussure and the Formalists in almost everything he has written (on semiotics).

Lotman, Juri M. 2013. The Unpredictable Workings of Culture. Translated by Brian James Baer. Edited by Igor Pilchikov and Silvi Salupere. Tallinn: TLU Press.

The Sociological Model. According to this model in all its variants, the mechanics of social change are located outside the borders of art, which can only reflect those changes. For example, Grigory Gukovsky's model, which was profoundly influenced by Hegel, was built on the supposition that ideological and philosophical structures are at the basis of art. The spirit of government, reflected in Classicism, gives way to the spirit of individuality, formulated in Romanticism, which then gives way to the spirit of the folk - the basis of Realism. From this point of view, differences between Zhukovsky and Batiushkov, or between Pushkin and Ryleev, are of secondary importance and lose all significance against the backdrop of their common historical unity. Each new stage in history is, therefore, predictable, appearing as the dynamic antithesis of the one preceding it. (Lotman 2013: 46)
I have pondered on the application of this approach on the early dystopian works, so as to show that their underlying philosophical and ideological beliefs stem from political movements or occurrences current at the time, e.g. Zamjatin and the Bolshevik revolution, Huxley and eugenics, Orwell and war propaganda, Bradbury and Nazi book-burning.
Formalism was a new movement founded on the conviction that what is said is inseparable from how it is said. But insofar as this "what" was territory already conquered and well-defined, this new movement concentrated its attention on the "how." This led to the commonly-held conception that the Formalists ignored content on principle. The Formalists reiterated, to no avail, that this was untrue for, as they conceived it, content was always structured in a specific way, and so it was simply impossible to study content while ignoring a work's structure. But no one listened to them. They were not questioned; they were "exposed." Even when Boris Eichenbaum cited the words of a writer like Lev Tolstoy, whose positions were often so far from those of the Formalists, it was to no avail:
If I had wanted to say in words all that I intended to express with a novel, I would have written the exact same novel I wrote from the start. And if short sighted critics think that I wanted to describe only what I like - how Oblonsky dined and [Anna] Karenina's shoulders - they would be mistaken. In everything, almost everything I write, I am directed by the requirements of a collection of ideas, linked together, in order to express myself. And every idea that is expressed in a particular way in words loses its sense, is horribly reduced when it is taken out of the chain in which it was located. Every chain is composed not out of a thought (I think) but out of something else, and to express the basis of this chain directly in words is impossible; it is possible only indirectly - in words is impossible; it is possible only indirectly - in words that describe images, actions, situations. (Tolstoi 1955: 155)
Here we have a case not of a chance parallel but of a profound similarity in position. Tolstoy was responding to his critics - "leftist" and "right-wing" alike - for whom art was only a means for declaring a particular ideological position. From this point of view, one can find a great deal of "superfluous" material in any work of art. Tolstoy saw in an artist's work the construction of a "second reality." An artist's work is co-created with reality and so is semiotic by its very nature. (Lotman 2013: 49-50)
The first bold instance concerns the so-called "phono-semantic knot" in Jakobson's writings: poetry is made from phonological form (sounds) and semantic content (meaning). The bold passage in Tolstoy's quote concerns concourse: that in order to express something in words one must do it in a roundabout way by building a chain of words that describe people, places, situations, what people say and do. Tolstoy's quote comes from O literature: Stat'i, pis'ma, dnevniki [On Literature: Articles, Letters, Diaries].
Human dialogue is of a fundamentally different nature, although an exchange of signals is also inevitably present in verbalisation among people as part of a complex system of dialogue. The memory of animals is either inherited or constructed by selecting what is the same among individual creatures. Human memory is individual or, more precisely, it consists of a complex hierarchical structure situated somewhere between the memory of the species and the memory of the individual - something informative for "me alone." The element of individuality in verbalisation introduces into human dialogue a degree of problematised understanding; every human dialogue becomes conversation in languages that are only to some extent equivalent to one another. Describing a dialogical structure presents enormous difficulties. However, this structure forms the basis of human communication. (Lotman 2013: 54-55)
The hierarchical nature of cultural memory, e.g. the memory aspect of collective, or "supraindividual" semiotic self.
One psychological detail especially important here is that Percherin's entire life was one of rupture and disillusionments. Most essential for Pecherin was not how much he took on but rather how much he cast off. Pecherin's tragic life was always a journey "from" to a far greater extent than it was a journey "toward." The hero of the Pecherin variety values himself (not without the influence of the psychology of Romanticism) as a nexceptional individual, an outcast, situated outside all social groups. (Lotman 2013: 60)
This is also characteristic of the dystopic (especially Orwellian) protagonist, who is unsure whether he is the only one thinking the way he does or not.
Reflection on the nature of the collective, the masses, human solidarity, and their relationship to the individual enters in some form or another into all socio-philosophical theories. Such reflection is basically organised around the initial premise that the unity of the individual and the masses is possible (or impossible) and desirable (or tragic). The individual and the masses - of which the crowd and the folk are synonyms within this frame of reference - are posited as the two starting points of any social system. The space between them, it is assumed, encompasses everything that is given to the individual in the realm of social structures. (Lotman 2013: 71)
E.g. while Ruesch distinguishes intrapersonal, interpersonal, group, and society, Lotman distinguishes the two extremes - individual and social.
Diverse philosophical and artistic ideas appear over the course of centuries to have exhausted all possible variations in the concrete interpretation of this antithesis. One characteristic, however, remains constant: the plural form for the masses and the signular for the individual. This opposition of the singular to the plural can be supplemented with the opposition of the first person to the third:
I - WE
However, no real human we or they consists of geometrically, physiologically, or psychologically identical units. The collective is always a very complex synthesis of similarities and differences. It is simultaneously I and they. The loss of one of these extremes destroys the synthesis, transforming it into either a coincidental unity of unrelated and unrelatable particles or into a crowd suppressing the I of each individual. Nevertheless, in certain situations one or the other tendency will dominate. (Lotman 2013: 72)
This seems to be exactly what happens in Orwell's 1984.
The older generation of Russians may recall the ethical tension surrounding sexual issues among Russian youth during the Revolutionary period. The dominant mood in Komsomol circles was rather ascetic. Isolated attempts to justify sensual freedom as one form of the liberation of the individual failed to receive widespread support and were perceived as effects of "bourgeois influence." "Comradely" relations with women became a slogan, reducing women to yesterday's victims of oppression (oppresion incarnated in the family and marriage). Women had to be liberated and made equal to men, and that equality was perceived as liberation from women's particular nature. (Lotman 2013: 81)
The extinction of orgasm. Why Julia is a (in this sense counter-)revolutionary only from the waist down.
Before the creative act takes place, it seems unattainably complex and is ruled out as impossible. But when illuminated by the flames of creative inspiration, the discovery appears simple and natural. It seems so simple to repeat the invention that the question of why it hadn't been discovered before now appears as an inexplicable mystery. (Lotman 2013: 93)
The problematic of creative explosion.
This can be compared with the testimony of a contemporary of Nicholas I who described how during church services the tsar would constantly make remarks concerning the behaviour and bearing of the grand dukes and would correct their position and posture. Having made his absolute power into a real "immobile" idea, Nicholas betrayed a deeply hidden lack of confidence with his constant attempts to control himself from the point of view of an imaginary observer. (Lotman 2013: 121)
The absurdity of absolute self-control.
Here the following law is in effect: a part serves as a symbol for the whole. The presumption of this law in the relative independence of the symbol is possible because on its own, outside of a context, the symbol is neutral and can be filled with a variety of semantic content.
The autonomy and self-sufficiency of the symbol links it with other signs that are neutral in their signification. (Lotman 2013: 124)
Metonym → symbol's generality → introversion → synfunction.
The fine arts are also capable of being transformed into universal artistic languages. Naturally one could point here to music, which has more than once in its history been the dominant art form, the language of art's languages. The verbal arts are situated on the opposite axis. First of all, they are assigned a particular place within the national language. It is precisely in the verbal arts that the problem of translation arises. But the problem is not only one of translation. The art of one word is linked most directly to content. In order for non-artistic speech to become artistic in the same language, it must somehow be destroyed and created anew. Speech must be taken out of its natural state, combined with a specific rhythmic form, and then put back into a new, transfigured form. Similar to the way in which a ballet dances transforms movement in his or her representation, artistic speech transforms the word into an image of the word. Mikhail Saltykov-Schedrin in the spirit of rational materialism spoke of the absurdity of poetry. To speak in verse is, from his point of view, the same as trying to walk while squatting down on one's haunches every few steps. (Lotman 2013: 128)
Deformation/estrangement. Poetic speech is like "silly walk".
The process of exchanging artistic information is dual in nature. At its source there occurs what could be called a semantic explosion, that is, something that until now was unknown becomes clear and evident after an unexpected and unpredictable upheaval. This explosion is then transformed into a text that is conveyed to an audience. Therefore, culture is made up of a continuous dynamic process consisting of semantic rebirth and regeneration. The mechanism of that process is art itself. (Lotman 2013: 130)
This is not only the mechanism of art, but also of contemporary media. Every week demonstrates a different explosive topic - gay rights, anti-vaxxers, net neutrality, police brutality, the scientist's inappropriate shirts, etc. It is also typical that two different and incompatible issues go hand in hand at the same time, leading to metacomparisons.
[Take thought of the seed from which you spring:
you were not born to live as brutes,
but to follow virtue and knowledge.]
(Inferno XXVI, 118-120)
Dante and Ulysses, however, follow different paths to knowledge. For Dante, knowledge is linked to the constant ascent of the one seeking knowledge along the axis of moral values; this knowledge is given in exchange for the moral improvement of the knowledge-seeker. Knowledge raises the individual up, and the elevation of one's morals enlightens the mind. Ulysses' thirst for knowledge, on the other hand, is amoral. It has nothing to do with morality or immorality; it lies on another plane and has no relation to ethical problems. (Lotman 2013: 151)
The difference between amoral and immoral is sometimes lost on those who fault their morality over others.
The relationship of word and deed is one of the most important indices in the typology of culture. Historical self-consciousness oscillates somewhere between the complete separation of the two and their total identification. The presentation of the juridical essence of these concepts serves as a clear standard. At one end of the spectrum is the concept that a word cannot be identified with a deed and does not appear among acts punishable by law. From the premise evolves the position that asserts the freedom of speech within certain boundaries; but there, within those boundaries, the word does not have the value of an unmediated act. At the other end of the spectrum lies the conviction that the word itself is an act. As such, it appears as an object of law in line with other acts. (Lotman 2013: 154)
I think the latter to be absurd. A word is an act only by virtue of convention, and conventions come and go. Aside from passing judgment, I find the topic relevant if not tedious.
Let's look at the role of art in provoking behaviour. The path from the page of a literary text to action in a reader can be broken down into three different stages: the creation of the literary text, its perception as non-artistic information, and the stimulation of behaviour in the reader. (Lotman 2013: 158)
Very psychological (involving perception). The matter seems too simplistic here. I don't believe that an artistic text or work has to be perceived as non-artistic for it to influence behaviour. A work of art can trigger action on its own terms.
The following example is characteristic. In the first stage of their development, the totalitarian regimes arose in the 1920s and 30s granted the arts a certain degree of independence. This was due to the fact that several of the leaders of the Futurist movement were associated with the revolutionary movement in Russia or with the Fascists in Italy. But more important is the fact that the authorities were initially interested in unmediated political thought and conducted little investigation into the essence of artistic structures. Moreover, a regime that still had to solidify its power had an interest in feigning artistic freedom, demanding only political loyalty. Times like those may produce phenomena such as the rise of Soviet cinema in the 1930s. This was especially the case in the field of applied arts, where strictly political tendencies were concealed. (Lotman 2013: 162-163)
An interesting historical note. It completely stands to reason that during times of political struggle there are more important things to deal with than art, leading to considerable degree in artistic realms.
The intrusion of artistic phenomena into the historical process radically alters the very nature of that process. If history is a window onto the past, then art is a window onto the future. This metaphor, however, requires a crucial amendment: alongside panes of glass in these windows, mirrors have been installed. And if in the first instance the past is understood as a direct path to the present (the present in this perspective appears as the only possible result of the past), then the shift to the future is conceived of as an explosion. The unpredictable lies between the present and the future. (Lotman 2013: 168)
The window pane metaphor is neat. In 1984, all three are present: there are windows onto the past (tidbits of Bolshevik experiments), mirrors of the present (war-torn London, for example), and projections into the future (the predictive or even prophetic nature of the novel).
The relationship between non-artistic reality and art is constructed along two axes moving in opposite directions. The first divides up non-artistic reality into parts, subjects these parts to recombinations, translates them into the language of art and attributing additional freedom to the parts, and then imbues them with new meanings. A process of rearranging the untransposable and of recombining the uncombinable occurs. And so in poetic speech, elements of phonetics, vocabulary, and syntax, as well as various repetitions and oppositions, acquire meanings they did not have in their non-artistic use. The artist who can attribute meaning to a visual image through light or contrasting perspective, a caricaturist who can do that by increasing or decreasing the proportions of the face, or an actor, by assigning significance to a certain detail with his voice or an emphatic gesture all produce a deformation of the object, dividing it into parts and altering its proportions; in other words, they make the neutral significant. Everyday experience enters as a backdrop against which the freedom that art brings to the world by attributing meaning to it becomes perceptible. (Lotman 2013: 171-172)
This concerns the deformation of the object, while Jakobson more often speaks of the deformation of the linguistic expression.
In totalitarian regimes, newspapers lose their informational character and become a form of ritualised communication about unfortunate, unjust, anomalous events in an "upside down" world of one's enemies and about the just world of "one's own," which has been delivered from all events and unexpected happenings. The most unique positive event is seen as upholding the "positive nature" of "our" life as a whole. This is where the expression "mass heroism" comes from: "in our country everyone becomes a hero." In such instances the newspaper ceases in fact to be a newspaper and takes on the character of a sacred text. There are well-known cases in which tossing newspapers on the ground was taken as a hostile political act. (Lotman 2013: 182; footnote 42)
Not having lived during Soviet times, I know this world primarily through 1984. It could be argued that such newspapers are in fact "phatic" in the strict sense of having not the referential/informational/cognitive function as the dominant function, but only existing because it is the custom, a necessary thing that must exist, if even for appearances only.
We have been transported into semiotic space, but at the same time we are an inseparable part of that space. To separate an individual from the space of language, signs, and symbols is as impossible as stripping off his skin. In that space, the human individual acquires a double life for he is isomorphic with all culture and, at the same time, he is a part of that whole. The former aspect of the individual's existence underscores his or her likeness to the entirety of his or her culture and leads to the rejection of qualitatively spatial indicators as insignificant. The individual, in the image of the universal and at the same time of God, takes upon his or her shoulders all the positive and negative qualities of humankind as if obliged to bear personal responsibility for its sins. The individual, however, exists simultaneously in a contrary, qualitative world. Here, he or she is but an insignificant speck in the enormous multitude of humankind. If the first aspect of the individual's existence instills in him or her a sense of personal guilt, the second emphasises the individual as universal victim. (Lotman 2013: 221)
The "skin" metaphor in the semiosphere paper should become a little bit clearer with this.
Along this path we encounter a fundamental problem - the relationship between the individual and the general. And the aspect of most interest to us is the conflicted unity of personal and genetic memory. As a participant in a genetic structure, a human being is not an individual. From this point of view, he or she is like material in which the supra-individual memory of heredity is embodied. The former has essentially one goal - to continue to exist. But in acquiring individuality, or life, in accordance with a great number of archaic myths, a human being also acquires death. This is the price of individuality. From this, the age-old mythical conception arises that the fullness of individual life, its richness and saturation, entails payment in death. (Lotman 2013: 222-223)
"You are the dead."

Kuzovkina, Tatiana 2013. Afterword to the Russian Edition. In: Pilchikov, Igor and Silvi Salupere (eds.), The Unpredictable Workings of Culture. Translated by Brian James Baer. Tallinn: TLU Press, 233-238.

Throughout 1990, a frequent guest of Lotman was Mikhail Bogustov, the publisher of several issues of the journal Akhmatovskii Vestnik [The Akhmatova Messenger], published in the Estonian city of Valga. Although Bogustov did not have a background in philology, he was eager to acquire knowledge of the field and to work on educational projects. Wishing to support the young man, Lotman responded to his frequent requests and gave him the second copy of the manuscript of The Unpredictable Workings of Culture, which had been sent to Italy. The monograph was published in Russian in 1994 in the newspaper Valgaskii Arkhiv [The Valga Archive] (under the seal of the Literary Archive Sõna [Word], Valga (Estonia) and the A. S. Pushkin State Museum-Preserve in Mikhailovskoe (Russia), No 1) and was accompanied by illustrations of the title pages of Lotman's book with notes to Bogustov, as well as reproduction of the publisher's profile on the first page. The poor quality of the publication - the footnotes, which were printed in six-point type, were virtually unreadable - significantly hampered the reception of the work. This small first edition immediately became a bibliographical rarity, preventing the monograph from entering into scholarly circulation. (Kuzovkina 2013: 237)
Young well-meaning men from Valga sometimes fuck up.

Lotman, Mihhail 2013. Afterword: Semiotics and Unpredictability. In: Pilchikov, Igor and Silvi Salupere (eds.), The Unpredictable Workings of Culture. Translated by Brian James Baer. Tallinn: TLU Press, 239-278.

Within the Tartu-Moscow School, the most important scholar was Vladimir Uspensky, who had participated in the first Summer School in Kääriku. He was the one to offer the term 'secondary modelling systems,' as the term 'semiotics' was still banned in the Soviet Union. (M. Lotman 2013: 246)
For some reason it's so difficult to remember this. I thought it was Pjatigorski or someone's brother.
While linguists and mathematicians focused, first of all, on the syntactics of sign systems (that is, their formal structure), JL's attention was focused from the very beginning on teh problems of semantics. Second the Moscow scholars proceeded from the traditional understanding of simple systems (e.g. traffic signs, chess, cards, and so on) should be described first, and only then can one move on to more complicated ones (e.g. language or myth), while art systems may be too complex altogether for scientific analysis. This last claim was made with particular conviction by the mathematical linguist and translation theorist Isaac Revzin. On the other hand, JL believed that semiotics offered an opportunity to describe the most complex and irregular systems. He later came to the conclusion that most "simple" systems which function in society are either parts of some larger systems (that is, they are incapable of operating independently) or the consequence of the reduction of larger systems. (M. Lotman 2013: 246-247)
This can be connected with the topic of auto- and synfunction, and concentrically concatenating contexts.
Fear turns out to be a powerful semiosis, one of the most important features of which is its shifting referentiality: it is an extremely stable semantic point but one that is nonetheless complex and continuously transformed into new referents. This can also be interpreted another way, namely, that it is not the dangerous thing that causes fear, but rather vice versa. Fear seeks an object. This phenomenon is well known in psychology: one phobia inspires others and under certain conditions can be replaced by them. But JL is not so much interested in the processes occurring in an individual mind as he is in the cultural-semiotic mechanisms of fear. Fear creates an extremely coherent semantic complex, which, just like a genie in a bottle, is searching anxiously for an exit and a host - who will often end up its victim. The fundamental ambivalence of fear is reflected already in the word 'phobia' itself: the one who is feared is also hated. A hater feels that he is a victim of the object of his fear, but at the same time the latter becomes his victim. (M. Lotman 2013: 253)
The case is similar with Winston's anger during Two Minutes Hate.
When JL wrote these papers in the 1980s, he could not express everything openly due to the political conditions in the Soviet Union, but an attentive reader nonetheless understood the clear implication that a similar semiotic mechanism had functioned during the political repressions in Stalin's time, in the course of which the accused admitted that they were public enemies and at least some of them sincerely believed it. The most dramatic examples of this are cases in which a person, on his own initiative, turned himself in to punitive organs (as when some women in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries declared themselves to be witches). Moreover, there are documented cases, where someone's anti-Soviet activity was inspired by literature containing fabricated accusations against the regime. Soviet Neo-Nazis, who had no access to authentic materials, were mostly inspired by Soviet propaganda literature and films. (M. Lotman 2013: 254-255)
Such is also the case with Goldsteinism.
There are two basic approaches to the semiotics of culture. In American semiotics, founded by Peirce, culture is one of the many objects a semiotician might study: we can speak of the semiotics of language, sociosemiotics, biosemiotics, ecosemiotics, even phytosemiotics, and so on. Thus, in the expression 'semiotics of culture, 'culture' means the object of study, while 'semiotics' refers to the method of study. The Tartu-Moscow School of Semiotics approaches this problem differently. On one hand, semiotics is regarded as a scholarly discipline that does not enter culture from somewhere ouside it, but is instead a part of culture and so evolves in certain ways within certain types of culture and at certain stages of their development. On the other hand - and it is perhaps even more important - culture is essentially semiotic. All more important functions and mechanisms of culture are connected with producing, switching, processing, and preserving of signs. Therefore, culture is not just one of the many possible objects of semiotics: it is its primary and most important subject matter. Most other fields of semiotics are related to culture in one way or another, making semiotics, first and foremost, the semiotics of culture. Second, semiotics is not just one of many possible ways to approach culture: it is a perspective on culture that is organically connected with the nature of culture, making culturology, first and foremost, the semiotics of culture. (M. Lotman 2013: 262)
I haven't used this tag in a long time: semiotic imperialism.
Returning to the Culture and Explosion we have to note that there is a certain contradiction between the book's idea and its structure. The grounds for the conception of this book (as well as that of The Unpredictable Workings of Culture) is the idea that in the field of culture simple models do not precede complicated ones, but, vice versa, simple models are the result of the investigator's abstraction or the result of the reduction or degeneration of complicated systems. Nonetheless, the structure of this book itself is built up in the opposite - traditional - way, from simple to complicated: on the one hand, from simple biological systems to systems with consciousness, and then on to culture as a system of such systems; on the other hand, from elementary artificial monolingual systems to the multilingualism of actual cultures. This idea is most consistently expressed in the articles "On the Semiosphere" (Lotman 1984, 2005) and "Semiotic Space" (Lotman 1990: 123-130). (M. Lotman 2013: 267)
This is also how I feel about what I call "body codes". I switch "language" for "code" in this expression exactly because language (according to Colin Cherry's formulation) has developed organically, while code is created - and what we know as "body language" was definitely created, as opposed to the complex system of systems bearing on nonverbal communication which have developed naturally for as long as there have been living organisms.


Post a Comment