On Yury Lotman by Julia Kristeva

From: Peter Smagorinsky (smago@coe.uga.edu)
Date: Tue Apr 13 2004 - 03:08:57 PDT

While looking up a reference on Lotman, I found this eulogy, which I
thought some might find worthwhile. Peter

This article has been published in Publications of the Modern Language
Association (PMLA) 109(3), 375-376 (1994). http://www.ut.ee/SOSE/kristeva.htm
On Yury Lotman
Julia Kristeva

When did the Berlin Wall come down? However much this event took us by
surprise in the autumn of 1989 - indeed, no one foresaw either its rapidity
or its consequences - I believe that the fissures in the wall began to be
clearly felt in the early 1960s. A few unknown scholars - thinkers
expressing disturbing ideas in hermetic idioms - were regrouping, like a
colony of ants, to carry out subversive labors. Too complex for the already
nascent media culture, their work was, of course, invisible from Paris or
New York; but the masters of the Kremlin were not unaware of its
undermining effects.

Yury Lotman was one of these scholars. Born 28 February 1922 in Petrograd,
doctor of philology, professor at the University of Tartu, Estonia, this
former student of Vladimir Propp became in 1964 the editor of Sign Systems
Studies, a journal published by the University of Tartu. Established as the
first Soviet structuralist with his book On the Delimitation of Linguistic
and Philological Concepts of Structure (1963), Lotman published his
Lectures on Structural Poetics in the first issue of Sign Systems Studies
(1964) and pursued his analyses in The Structure of Artistic Text (1970)
and An Analysis of the Poetic Text (1972), before taking up the study of
film (1973) and finally, 1992, addressing culture as a specific fact in
Culture and Explosion. All in all, he produced more than 550 texts.

During the strange decade of the 1960s, a few foresaw the wave of the
future in Lotman's discreet and modest researches. Still smarting from the
Algerian war, France could no longer see the relevance of the traditional
worn-out clichés propagated at the Sorbonne and was tiring of the
metaphysical generalities dear to existentialism, which had been renewed
only superficially by a few touches of Hegelo-Marxism. Already the
"samurai" of the structuralist and poststructuralist generation were
patiently but passionately grappling with the new signs emanating from the
surrounding culture - from its myths, its writings, its images. For them,
for us, the intensive analysis proposed by the Tartu school and most
especially by Lotman was an accomplice, if not a precursor, in the desire
to address meaning - which we knew was the very stuff of human beings -
with a critical lucidity that could unearth nonmeaning and foreshadow

In 1968 I published in Tel quel (no. 35) the first French (indeed, the
first Western) translation of the Tartu semioticians. Together we
established the International Semiotics Association; although Lotman could
not leave the Soviet Union to attend the founding congress in Warsaw, he
became vice president of the association in 1968. The persecution of Lotman
followed soon after. Infinitely more protected, we in Paris were accused
only of esotericism - and of spying for the Reds! Clearly, stupidity comes
in all shades.

Even so, the apparachiks on both the Right and the Left surely sensed
something subversive in Lotman's cogitations. First there was his notion of
the text as a "reduced model of culture", not a philological phenomenon but
the complex and interactive activity that creates meaning - the semiotic
activity. This notion shifted the focus from the text to its periphery,
thereby immersing the text in history and society: the text is engendered
not only by the internal play of linguistic elements within a closed
structure but also by cultural movements and documents. The synchronic
structure that we read (a particular text by Shakespeare, for example) is
thus the product of a confrontation of texts with anterior and surrounding
languages. Engendered by cultural dialogue (note the influence of the
post-formalist Bakhtin), the text generates the meaning of language - not
the other way around, as one might readily think. Reacting against a narrow
formalism, Lotman highlighted the general principles external to the work
and made the work the most typical manifestation of them.

As a result, the language of art could not be studied by a simple
transposition of linguistic models, as Jakobson and certain structuralists
still insisted. Parallel with my concept of intertextuality, Lotman
elaborated a notion of art as a "secondary modeling sytem". Based on
natural language, art is nevertheless of another, "superstructural" order:
it redistributes the primary logic of language according to new logical
rules, conferring on humanity new mental (or, as one would say today, new
cognitive) possibilities, different principles of logic for the
reconstruction of the self and the world.

 From that point on, semiotics was for Lotman the science that recognizes
the intercommunication and the reprocessing - the "perestroika", as he said
(see Lotman 1994 [1981]) - of information and of structures as an essential
cultural fact, as the essence of cultural and social life. He maintained
that no culture, no study of culture, is possible without taking into
account the transformative essence of meaning, and idea that raises a
problem for formalism - and for dogmatism.

He applied this semiotic or theoretical concept not only to Russian
cultural history, notably Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, but also to Voltaire,
Montesquieu, Velazquez. In distancing himself from the classic semiotics of
Hjelmslev, Carnap, Peirce, and Morris, Lotman did not, however, cross over
into the kind of analysis that is attentive to the effects of the
unconscious or even to many individual effects revealed by textual
stylistics. It is regrettable that his flights as a generalizing
theoretician were not accompanied by more specific attention to the
exceptional discourse of each subject, which ultimately constitutes the
richness of literature and culture.

Nevertheless, this modest, immensely cultured man, this meticulous
technician who was also an improvisor of unusual verbal seductiveness and a
tireless generator of new ideas, foregrounded and in this sense prefigured
the dynamics of cultural facts, including the upheavals that Russian
culture is now experiencing. In the current period of stagnation,
arrivisme, and regression, it seems right to think of Lotman's work as
testifying to those shoots of modest but tenacious vitality that sometimes
- indeed, more often than one might think - grow under the snows of Russian
winter and that the West is not always alert or sensitive enough to detect.

I would like to share with the readers of PMLA my conviction that the old
Russian saying about the dead takes on for this man its literal,
polyphonic, cultural, and transcultural meaning - the sort of meaning that
Yury Lotman always knew how to decipher in both texts and beings: vechnaya
pamyat', Yurij Michailovich. Our memory is with you always, Yury Mikhailovich.

Lotman Yuri M. 1994 [1981]. The text within the text. PMLA 109(3), 377-384.
[This is an abridged translation of the paper first published in Sign
Systems Studies 14: 3-19 (1981).]

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