Lotman, Yuri

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Yuri Lotman (1922 – 1993)

Yuri Mikhailovich Lotman was the most significant and influential Soviet structuralist, semiotician, and literary thinker. He was the founder of the Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School and a professor at the University of Tartu (Estonia) from 1954 to 1993. Originally a specialist in the literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Lotman began to elaborate a structuralist methodology in his lectures between 1958 and 1962 that would comprise the material for his first book, Lectures on Structuralist Poetics (Lektsii po struktural’noi poetike, 1964). Its publication was a major event in the Soviet humanities, laying the groundwork for a new school of thought that would be at the center of methodological debates for the next twenty years (see Shukman).



Lotman’s stated purpose is the establishment of a truly objective approach to literature based on a rigorous scientific methodology, as opposed to traditional—ideological, impressionistic—approaches. Structuralism was often accused by orthodox Soviet Marxists of amounting to a neo-formalist approach. Lotman gives formalism its due, but sees structuralism as a more comprehensive methodology. While formalism focuses on the formal aspects of the literary text, structuralism explores the content embodied within the form, understood as the semiotic structure of language imbued with meanings. For Lotman, “the investigation of any sign system brings into crucial focus the question of what is signified, of the content of a discrete sign, and of the structure of the content of the sign system as a whole” (Lektsii 6). At the same time, Lotman seeks to justify the structuralist approach from a Marxist standpoint, citing Paul Lafargue’s “Reminiscences of Marx” (1890): Marx “saw in higher mathematics the most logical and at the same time the simplest form of dialectical movement. He held the view that science is not really developed until it has learned to make use of mathematics” (Lafargue). Lotman attempts to make the case, moreover, that the relationship between the structure and its elements is compatible with the Marxist dialectical law regarding the unity of the whole and its parts.


Model, Text, and Code

Lotman’s key concept is the “model,” a system of signs that reflects a specific fragment of reality while remaining essentially distinct from it. Thus, he implicitly ranges beyond the naive simplicity of Lenin’s canonical theory of reflection, which postulates the full similarity between the object and its cognitive model. In light of language’s communicative dimension, Lotman rejects a strictly mimetic approach to literature, which functions, he argues, not merely as a reflection of reality, but also as a communication between an author and a reader. Lotman proposes a critical method based on the notions of “text” and “code” as complementary aspects of literature, where “text” is the work itself, and “code” is the system of rules by which the work is produced by the author and deciphered by the reader. This division explains the multiplicity of meanings contained in a given text, since it can be read according to a variety of codes based on intercultural or historical differences. Even members of the same family interpret texts according to different codes; moreover, several codes will coexist within one individual consciousness.

Lotman pays particular attention to such “autocommunicative” genres as diaries and personal journals. What leads an author to address him- or herself, given that the “message” would seem to contain no new information? For Lotman, culture is Heraclitus’s “self-generating Logos”—that is, its codes are in a constant state of flux and modification (Lotman and Uspensky 421). Thus, a diary is addressed not to the same authorial self, but to a series of future selves whose codes will change the meaning of the initial writing. It is for this very reason, according to Lotman, that an author likes to reread his or her own writing after its publication: the anticipation of a readership invites the author to sample the text anew, according to the projected codes of others. Further, Lotman extends his semiotic model to larger “texts,” like literature, art, or even culture as a whole; the latter, says Lotman, is autocommunication on a grand scale: the “text” of culture, that is, is addressed to its “author” (humanity), who is also the creator of its codes. As Lotman writes:

Culture itself may be regarded both as the totality of messages exchanged by different senders … and as a single message sent by the collective “I” of humanity to itself. From this point of view, the culture of humanity is a colossal example of auto communication. (“O dvukh modeliakh” 87)

To this we might add that nature, not being manmade, can be interpreted in semiotic terms as a text addressed to humanity by some supernatural Author, while religion would be the reverse—a text composed by humanity and addressed to a transcendental Reader. Only in the communication of culture do Author and Reader coincide.

Specific cultures, in Lotman’s terms, may also be classified according to the text/code distinction. He identified two cultural types that he called “book” and “manual” cultures. Book culture, which Lotman thinks was typified by Russia, is “textual”: it understands itself as an aggregate of “correct texts,” or canonical works that give expression to its norms and ideals. Manual cultures, like those of Western Europe, structure their self-reflective understanding according to a system of rules; their texts are not normative, but instead illustrative of the principles of the governing semiotic organization. In the West, the basic dichotomy is between organized and unorganized texts, which explains the Western colonial impetus as a will to organize the alien “material” of marginal cultures. Russia, in turn, is marked by a dichotomy between correct texts and incorrect texts, which explains its isolationist tendency (the “Iron Curtain”): alien cultures are perceived as simply wrong (Lotman and Uspensky 415-17).


Semiotics and Typology of Cultures

The typology of cultures is one of the decisive contributions of Lotman’s thought. Aside from the dichotomy of text and code, he also applied to culture a distinction couched in terms of “semioticity” and “non-semioticity.” A “semiotic” culture, such as existed during the European Middle Ages, considers all objects, manmade or natural, as interrelated signs: “In order to have social value, an object had to be a sign, that is, had to substitute for something more significant of which it was merely a part” (Problems 217). “Non-semiotic” cultures, like that of the Enlightenment, base value on the quality of “naturalness.” “Signs become a symbol of falsehood, and the highest criterion of truth is sincerity, emancipation from the use of signs” (218). Whereas for medieval culture, words were considered to be prior to things (since God created the universe with words, and God himself was “the Word”), in the Enlightenment, words were thought to be artificial substitutes for reality, obscurers of true experience.

For Lotman, culture is a secondary modeling system insofar as it uses primary language to articulate itself. This explains the diversity of cultural codes, such as poetic and artistic styles, within the domain of a given national language. Communication must comprise both equivalence and difference: equivalence, because without this, exchange is not even possible; and difference, so that the information exchanged should actually inform, that is, should contain newness. Historically, Lotman identifies a shift in the aesthetic proportionality of equivalence and difference. Ancient folk culture, in his view, was characterized by an aesthetics of equivalence, and valued the art of repetition (just as children enjoy hearing the same story again and again). As folklore evolved into literature, aesthetics began to stress the value of originality. Subsequently, as literature diversified into myriad genres, movements, and styles, difference became the main criterion for the judgement of artistic merit. Interestingly, Lotman interprets freedom through the lens of this diversification, defining the concept in semiotic rather than moral or religious terms. In his view, freedom is commensurate with the multiplicity of codes in one’s cultural repertoire, and, historically, the degree of this freedom has been increasing, a notion that offers a new insight on the hoary concept of “progress”: “This outcome results from progressive growth in the combinatory possibilities of semiotic systems, and also from the continuous abolition of prohibitions against combining them” (“Primary and Secondary” 97).

However, the process of code diversification would, if left unchecked, result in such diversity that a lack of equivalence would undermine the very possibility of communication. Lotman sees a tendency at work that counteracts this progressive diversification: generalization orchestrates the variegated subcultural codes by means of “meta-codes,” or semiotic systems that organize subcultural languages on the level of meta-linguistic descriptions. For example, it is only in the twentieth century, with the proliferation of non-representational trends in art, that criticism (and critical theory) have become a crucial bridge between artistic difference and the need for equivalence. In the contemporary art scene, the diversity of codes has reached such an innumerable level that individual artists—rather than periods or movements or styles—determine the codes by which they create. In response, critics have developed general abstract meta-codes, which make communication between these solipsistic worlds possible. With the increasing individualization of codes comes a corresponding need for meta-codes, which explains the explosion of critical discourse in the twentieth century.



Lotman’s later works are characterized by two principal shifts. Whereas initially he was preoccupied with the more technical aspects of semiotics (especially with regard to literature, poetics, and film), his later writings are far more philosophically and historically oriented. One offshoot of his philosophical thinking is the notion of the “semiosphere,” which is understood as a semiotic space that precedes any specific linguistic or cultural systems. “The unit of semiosis, the smallest functioning mechanism, is not a separate language but the whole semiotic space of the culture in question. This is the space we term the semiosphere” (Universe of the Mind 125). Echoing Vladimir Vernadsky’s concepts of “biosphere” and “noosphere,” Lotman’s “semiosphere” marked a new “organicist” turn in his thought. More importantly, “semiosphere” resonates with certain poststructuralist theories in the West. As Amy Mandelker put it:

The progression in modern Russian theoretical thought from the biosphere to the logosphere and then to the semiosphere constitutes a new organicism that restructures Russian structuralism in a way paralleling poststructuralist reconsiderations of formalism, structuralism, and semiotics…. Lotman transcends the structuralist gridlock in ways that have yet to be recognized by theorists in the West. (390, 393)

In order for communication to occur, a person must already have some experience of communication. In much the same way as Jacques Derrida’s concept of the arche-ecriture, the semiosphere must exist prior to any specific system of signs; nor can it be fixed to any historical moment of origin. In a certain sense, it even escapes our attempts to rationalize it, because rationalization presumes a semiotic system.

Lotman proposes some basic concepts of the semiosphere, among them its asymmetry and boundary. “Asymmetry” in this context means that different languages existing in the semiosphere have no mutual semantic correspondences; thus, the semiosphere becomes the generator of new information. For example, the fact that literary language cannot be adequately translated into the language of film or ethics, etc., means that any attempt at such a translation must produce new information not conveyed in the literary original. Moreover, for Lotman, translation is the basic semiotic procedure that accompanies all acts of consciousness: to think means to translate from one language into another. Therefore, thinking is the most powerful generator of new information. However, since thinking is translation, “in order to produce texts, one must already have a text” (“O roli” 478). Thinking, then, addresses previous thinking, which in turn addresses thinking from further back, and so on, ad infinitum. Just as an archeologist must presuppose that beneath the excavations of one cultural layer there lies the layer of a preceding culture, thinking cannot be traced to its origin, since it has no other foundation than thinking itself. This view can be compared with Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of infinite dialogue (every utterance having another utterance as its presumption) and Merab Mamardashvili’s idea that the purpose of thinking is the expansion of thinking itself.

Another important feature of the semiosphere is the concept of “boundary,” which is defined as the “outer limit of a first-person form” (Universe of the Mind, 131). In Lotman’s view, culture defines itself in terms of a boundary dividing it from what it is not, which articulates an “internal” space in opposition to an “external” one. Boundary makes difference possible and may be paralleled with the poststructuralist notion of différance. If classical structuralism proceeds from the concept of binary opposition—for example, living/dead, civilization/barbarism—Lotman’s later work approximates the poststructuralist view according to which each oppositional pole contains and depends upon its correspondent. Moreover, when one pole of an opposition is conceived of as historically primary (making its counterpart derivative), it proves to be semiotically secondary. According to Lotman, “culture creates not only its own type of internal organization but also its own type of external ‘disorganization.’ In this sense we can say that the ‘barbarian’ is created by civilization and needs it as much as it needs him” (142). Thus the presumptions included in the semiosphere harbor a paradox: although barbarism is claimed to be historically prior to civilization, the conception of what barbarism means is generated by civilization itself. In the same manner, nature, ostensibly prior to culture, is semiotically derivative of culture as its external space.


Semiotics and History

Along with an increasingly philosophical approach to semiotics, in his later work Lotman begins to elaborate its historical dimension, moving away from the synchronic model of classical structuralism. He sees history as “one of the products of the emergence of writing” (Universe of the Mind 246). He does, however, recognize another type of memory that “aims to preserve information about the established order and not about its violations,” thereby allowing for the possibility of a culture without literacy and without history—“a culture before culture” (Ibid.).

Beginning in the late 1960s, his articles (some coauthored with Boris Uspensky) reflect an increasing preoccupation with Russian history, as he attempted to build a model that might account for temporal transformations. Whereas previously his models stressed a stable typology of cultures, his work from this period seeks to accommodate a diachronic dimension in semiotic terms. Lotman and Uspensky define culture as “the nonhereditary memory of the community, a memory expressing itself in a system of constraints and prescriptions” (411). This explains both the continuity of culture, its connection with the past (“memory”) and its dynamics in the process of self-regulation as opposed to the “hereditary,” conservative mechanisms of nature. If organic creatures strive to stabilize their surroundings, culture has built-in mechanisms of change that de-automatize existing codes and increase the amount of new information. Cultural memory traditionally focuses on exceptional events and anomalous and unusual occurrences, of the sort recorded in chronicles and in newspapers; only relatively unexpected or improbable events generate a significant amount of information. Thus, culture is an apparatus of innovation and constantly multiplies the number of texts.

The dynamics of culture, like its typology, is built around binary oppositions specific to Western and Russian traditions. In Lotman’s view, the West is inclined to mediate between opposing tendencies by finding a middle ground, whereas Russian history has progressed by a series of value reversals, so that each succeeding period attempts to overturn the semiotic opposition of its predecessor. Such dualities as “Russia versus the West,” “Christianity versus paganism,” or “upper classes versus lower classes” lacked any intermediate neutral zone that might have created a structural reserve for a peaceful and gradual evolution. According to Lotman and Uspensky: “Change occurs as a radical negation of the preceding state…. [T]his explains why, over various historical periods, Russia has been characterized by reactionary and progressive tendencies and not by conservatism” (“On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture” 33).

With his increasing interest in the diachronic dimension of culture, Lotman begins to question the semiotic foundations of historical description. In particular, he problematizes the notion of the historical fact, arguing that a historian deals only with texts, and “creates facts by extracting non-textual reality from the text, and an event from a story about it” (Universe of the Mind 218). By addressing a text according to his own semiotic code, the traditional historian offers only a selective interpretation of it, not a presentation of the “real facts” contained in the chronicle. Moreover, the chronicle itself must not be taken as a presentation of facts, since it too was constructed according to a certain semiotic code. Therefore, the historian must begin by reconstructing the code by which the chronicler mediated historical facts. Lotman writes of the historian’s need to understand semiotic conventions; for example, one must be aware that the pictorial depiction of an Egyptian queen as a boy has nothing to do with her actual gender, but reflects the cultural code of the genre of the fresco. Every epoch, moreover, employs codes that condition the selection of “facts”; thus, many events that later generations might consider relevant, such as intellectual and artistic achievements, are omitted by the original chronicler as “non-facts,” since his code may dictate a “factuality” that is based, for example, solely on political and military realities.

Lotman’s historian must also be aware that his own cultural and disciplinary codes mediate the reception and interpretation of the chronicle. Arguing against the widely accepted notion, promulgated in particular by R. G. Collingwood, of the historian’s practice as “thinking of the past as it really was,” Lotman insists that such an approach is impossible, since a historian is limited by his or her own cultural code. While Collingwood argues that the historian must perform a “reenactment,” leaving his own world behind and transferring himself mentally to the world of his historical subject—“thinking for himself what Caesar thought”—Lotman prescribes a different methodology: “Semiotics takes the opposite way, which entails completely exposing the differences between the structures of these worlds” (271). Thus for Lotman, the self-description of the historian’s semiotic code is as crucial to the practice of history as the investigation of the codes that conditioned the texts under consideration. History, then, may be defined as a double translation: “facts” are decoded through two levels of selection—first the code of the chronicler, then the historian’s code. However, translation can never be perfectly “faithful” to the original (recall Lotman’s notion of the asymmetry of the semiosphere). Lotman echoes Benedetto Croce when he asserts that history can never become a rigorous science.


Contingency and Creativity

Another of Lotman’s departures from his early structuralist methodology centers on the notion of contingency in history. Whereas traditional structuralism generally assumes a rigidity in its models, attributable to the deterministic mechanism of semiotic processes, Lotman’s later work advances the role of arbitrariness in allowing for the introduction of unpredictable variations. Just as biological mutation is the creative principle in nature, arbitrariness is the engine of cultural variation, although its role differs among cultural domains. In the sciences, arbitrariness relates to the process of discovery, not to its result. That is to say, Newton’s discoveries were arbitrarily (mythically) attributable to the chance of a fallen apple, but had Newton not discovered his laws, someone else would have, since they correspond to an objective law of nature. Artistic creation, on the other hand, incorporates arbitrariness in both its processes and results. The “infinite monkey theorem” notwithstanding, Shakespeare’s plays could not have been written in another period or by another author. “In order that a given text be articulated, what is necessary is the manifestation of a speaker completely arbitrary from the point of view of the structure of the language” (“O roli” 476). Speech, in Lotman’s terms, is preceded by the semiosphere, but a speaker inhabits a multiplicity of spheres (including the biosphere and noosphere) that have an arbitrary relationship to the semiosphere.

Creativity, in Lotman’s view, occurs most typically on the margins of different spheres, and on the margins of cultural and temporal sub-spheres within the larger semiosphere. For example, in ancient Rome, the empire’s geographic periphery generated more vital cultural innovations (such as Christianity) than did its center. Cultural margins provide the opportunity for arbitrary interplay and combinations between codes, which give rise to the production of new codes. By contrast, the structural rigidity of the center limits its creative capacity. By the same logic, argued Lotman, the early drafts of an artistic work contain a greater measure of arbitrariness than the polished final version, and thus may anticipate nascent cultural codes that will be articulated in the future. “Drafts predict the next stages on the trajectory of art” (“O roli” 475).


Poststructuralism: Language and Reality

Lotman’s later theories of art move away from the scientific motivations of his early structuralist models by admitting arbitrariness as the decisive factor in the development of history and art. Historical progress proceeds according to a multiplication and fluctuation of alternative codes, thus engendering possibilities for greater freedom. The implication of greater freedom, moreover, is greater responsibility, since in Lotman’s words, arbitrariness “introduces into the historical process such factors as the personal responsibility and moral behavior of its participants” (“O roli” 479). In the dynamics of Lotman’s thought, structuralist models are gradually transformed in the direction of poststructuralism.

The plurality of semiotic codes, including the theoretical languages of their description, is essential for Lotman’s approach to the concept of reality. Poststructuralist theory is inclined to denigrate the very notion of reality as a mere consequence of the metaphysics of presence. According to Lotman, the concept of reality can be both preserved and radically transformed by the adoption of such semiotic mechanisms as appear to negate it. Reality would be unapproachable and transcendental, in the Kantian sense, if there existed only one language of its description. But since languages vary immensely, each of them presumably describes those aspects of reality that are transcendental for other languages. For example, the language of gestures touches upon dimensions of reality that are unattainable to verbal language; the language of cinema reveals aspects of reality that are concealed from literary and musical languages. Reality can be located in the gaps between existing languages as the place of their mutual transcendence. Since one language is never fully translated into another, reality can be defined as this very zone of untranslatability, as “beyond” any particular language and translatable only by the totality of all existing and potential languages:

[T]he relationships between the translatable and the untranslatable are so complex that possibilities for a breakthrough into the space beyond [language] … are created…. Thus, the world of semiosis is not fatally locked in on itself: it forms a complex structure, which always “plays” with the space external to it, first drawing it into itself, then throwing into it those elements of its own which have already been used and which have lost their semiotic activity. (Culture and Explosion 24)

Reality, then, is alternately incorporated into semiotic systems and estranged from them, and it is the extralinguistic character of reality that gives rise to the variability of languages. Lotman’s solution to the problem of reality is different both from the naive assumption of its primary and self-evident presence and from the hypercritical negation of its cognitive relevance from the deconstructionist standpoint. Lotman suggests that the place for non-semiotic reality can be defined in strictly semiotic terms, and what is more, that the assumption of such a reality is indispensable for the construction of semiotic systems. In semiotic terms, reality can be defined as the cause of the proliferation of languages and of their mutual untranslatability.


Cultural Dynamics and Explosion

In his final book, Culture and Explosion (Kul’tura i vzryv, 1992) Lotman further emphasizes the “explosive” nature of structural dynamics and critiqued the claims of earlier structuralism. He writes that “traditional structuralism was based on a principle previously espoused by the Russian formalists: the text was considered to be a closed, self-sufficient, synchronically organized system” (Culture and Explosion 13). Structural-semiotic analysis, in its renovated form, focuses on the interaction between textual and extratextual reality, and also on the interaction between the present and the future. Since the future is not predetermined or fully predictable, the choice of any one possibility is always arbitrary, so that it contains the greatest quantity of information. The future, with its definitive uncertainty, functions as a generator of information.

The very category of “explosion” becomes the center of Lotman’s thought since, in contrast to gradual progress or evolution, it presupposes the utmost uncertainty: “The moment of explosion is also the place where a sharp increase in the informativity of the entire system takes place” (28). However, Lotman believes that explosive processes in culture must be moderated and mediated by accumulative and conservative factors. In keeping with his previous works on dual patterns in Russian history, he distinguishes between binary and ternary models of culture, the former being peculiar to Russia and the latter—to the West. In the ternary system, even the most powerful explosion does not shake the deepest layers of culture. For example, the French Revolution, despite all its radicalism, did not disrupt the day-to-day functioning of theaters and restaurants; conversely, during the Russian Revolution all the detritus of “corrupt bourgeois culture” was washed away. Similarly, even as the downfall of the Napoleonic Empire represented the explosion of a political structure, the landownership laws established during the revolutionary period would be preserved. This would have been impossible in Russian society, where an explosion requires the destruction of all spheres and structures. For Lotman, the failure of Russian democratic reforms in the last third of the nineteenth century was a direct result of the inability to establish a middle ground in negotiations between the government and oppositional movements, which drove both sides to the adoption of terrorism, and ultimately led to the catastrophe of the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and October 1917.

Lotman explains the poignant difficulties of Russia’s post-Soviet transition to democracy in terms of the inner contradiction between a desired evolutionary model and the explosive means of its realization:

Even when we are talking of gradual development, we want to accomplish this through explosive techniques. This, however, is not the result of some lack of thought, but rather the severe dictates of a binary historical structure. (174)

The evolutionary manner of reform attempted by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s degraded into a drawn-out series of palliatives and bureaucratic prescriptions, with no contact with reality; whereas the revolutionary means employed by Boris Yeltsin, including his method of shock therapy and the instantaneous launching of marketization and privatization, endangered the very goal of evolutionism, and brought the country, at the time of Lotman’s writing, to the brink of civil war. As an inveterate Westernizer, Lotman cites the proletariat anthem “The International” so as to urge Russian society to join the ternary, Pan-European system and forego the ideal of destroying “the old world to its very foundations” and then “constructing a new one on its ruins.” But as a rigorous scholar of Russian history, Lotman understood, better than many politicians, the near-impossibility of this evolutionary change of cultural paradigms.

Lotman’s legacy will undoubtedly remain a cornerstone of the Russian humanities, however the methodological approaches to his work might continue to develop in the twenty-first century. Despite his faithfulness to the criteria of methodological rigor, he never adhered to any particular theoretical dogma and would flexibly accommodate his conceptual model to the particular features of the material at hand. He began as an acute critic of traditional, amorphous, or dogmatically Marxist methodology, which indiscriminately conflates ideological, sociological, biographical, and cultural-historical approaches. However, his evolution allowed him to reincorporate many of these traditional elements into his work, which a conservative approach to structuralism would have likely eliminated. In Lotman’s later thinking, we see how he integrated elements of biographical, historical, and philosophical approaches together with structuralism and semiotics, forming his own version of a consciously pluralistic poststructuralist methodology. Regardless of which element of this amalgam might take precedence in the future study of his work, Lotman’s corpus will remain a model of methodological synthesis based on the rigorous analysis of and discrimination among various levels of cultural systems.

Mikhail Epstein, June 2018



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—. “Primary and Secondary Communication-Modeling Systems.” Soviet Semiotics. An Anthology. Ed.  Daniel P. Lucid, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988, pp. 95-8.

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—. Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture. Introduction by Umberto Eco. Trans.  Ann Shukman. Indiana University Press, 2001.

Mandelker, Amy. “Semiotizing the Sphere: Organicist Theory in Lotman, Bakhtin, and Vernadsky.” PMLA, vol. 109, no. 3, May 1994, pp. 385-96.

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