Moscow-Tartu Semiotic School

The Moscow-Tartu school (MTS) is a group of Soviet linguists (including Valerii Ivanov, Isaak Revzin, Vladimir Toporov), folklorists (Eleazar Meletinskij, Dmitri Segal), Orientalists (Aleksandr Piatigorskij, Boris Ogibenin), and literary scholars (including Jurij Levin, Jurij Lotman, Boris Uspenskij) who, since about 1960, have developed in close cooperation a set of comprehensive, semiotically oriented theories of literature, the text, myth and folklore, cinema, theater, and cultural systems in general, dealing with their systematic-structural, typological, and historical-dynamic regularities and mechanisms. The original members of the school, as well as a second generation of scholars, are currently active in both the former Soviet Union and the West. Four periods can be distinguished in the school’s history: the first years, 1958-64, which saw the introduction of mathematical, cybernetic, and linguistic models into cultural studies, mostly on the programmatic level; 1964-70, the intensive development of semiotic models for particular cultural systems; 1970-73, formulation of global models of culture and of cultural universals; and the years since 1973, refinement of the details of cultural theory and applications to the history and typology of Russian literature and culture.

The school’s work, especially in the literary field, is based on structuralist linguistics, classical semiotics (Charles Morris, C. S. Peirce ), information and communication theory, systems theory, russian formalism and film theory of the 1920s (Sergey Eisenstein), Prague school structuralism, and some elements of M. M. Bakhtin’s writings. A logical reconstruction of the group’s mode of theorizing reveals four levels of abstraction and generalization. At the outset, a set of quasi-formal concepts is assumed, including model, dynamic system, (in)variant, hierarchy, binary opposition and equivalence, sign, expression and content, function, code, message, information, and communication. The first step of theorizing proper envisages the development of a unified semiotic metalanguage in terms of which one then proceeds to formulate theories, models, and typologies for a culture and cultural texts in general, that is, a semiotics of culture. As a second step, and using the same theoretical vocabulary, models, and theories, specialized semiotic sciences are established for specific cultural spheres (cinema, myth, literature), bringing out what is specific to each as well as what they share with culture as a whole. Finally, descriptive models, based on the previous two stages, are set up for individual historical formations or phenomena: an artistic period or school, the oeuvre of an author, or an individual work. The MTS thus reveals a high degree of methodological self-awareness and a clear tendency toward the formulation of a hierarchically integrated science of culture. At the center of attention are always the mechanisms of meaning formation and transformation, meaning being seen as a relative-contrastive phenomenon. Formal and pragmatic factors are considered primarily with respect to their semantic contribution.

Culture is defined in MTS as a collective semiotic mechanism for the production, circulation, processing, and storage of information. It is both a collective memory and a program for the generation of new messages. It regulates human behavior and how humans project structuredness upon the world. Culture can be seen as the totality of nonhereditary information and as the means of its organization and preservation. At each time, a culture constitutes a system of systems that stand in relations of complex interdependence. It is a hierarchical totality of all individual signifying systems, each with its own internal structure and relative independence. Culture is hence both a unitary system and a union of relatively autonomous semiotic formations. General semiotics of culture studies the mechanisms of unity of a culture, the interrelations of the diverse semiotic systems within it, and the contribution of each of them to the whole. As a first stage, it seeks to formulate universals of culture, that is, the basic elements, structures, and mechanisms of human culture, that apply to it as a whole as well as to each of its subsystems. Since cultures are inherently dynamic and enormously variable in space and time, such universals must be formal and abstract, formulated in response to basic questions about the demarcation of culture from the extracultural, the specific role of each sign system, and the interrelations between sign systems, such as hierarchy, borrowing, and conflict. Basic pairs of oppositions for the description of components of culture include their systemic or extrasystemic status, their ambivalence or univocity with regard to their context, the distinction between core elements (maximum rigidity) and peripheral ones (disorganization), essential or superfluous in terms of the system and translatable or not into another code or subsystem.

Central theses about the structure and mechanisms of culture include the following: The culture-extracultural boundary and the hierarchical organization of culture are different for each culture and period. Within culture as a whole and within any of its subsystems internal variety (heterogeneity, options, alternatives, two or more concurrent structural principles in a state of tension and conflict) must exist at each time to maintain informativeness. A culture can exist only if it contains at least two semiotic systems or means of modeling reality, such as words and pictures. Each culture requires extracultural areas, peripheral ones, and deviations from its norms, which act as essential reservoirs for the next stage of its development. Different cultural subsystems reveal different degrees of organization and complexity and change at different rates and in different directions. Central mechanisms of cultural change include rehierarchization of subsystems, information, and values; change of place between center and periphery; redistribution of functions among subsystems; increase in systemic differentiation and complexity; incorporation of extrasystemic elements and the exclusion of codes or texts from cultural memory.

Jurij Lotman/Pinterest

Because of the difference in their underlying codes, full intertranslatability between different cultural subsystems and between different stages of the same subsystem is impossible; incomplete communication, misinterpretation, and reinterpretation are part of the nature of culture. All cultures manifest a tension between homeostatic and dynamic tendencies. Novelty, diversity, and the proliferation of relatively independent subsystems are in conflict with the desire for uniformity and unification, for regarding the entirety of culture as a homogeneous whole with rigid, stable organization. Without diversity culture ossifies (no self-renewal); without some homogeneity and cohesiveness cultural communication becomes impossible. Beyond a certain degree of inner diversity, each culture produces a metacomponent: a unifying self-image or interpretation of itself and its past, a simplifying universal normative model that gives it overall orientation, hierarchical self-regulation, and stability, but at the price of oversimplification and imposed uniformity. Being a tool of self-organization, it is never an objective reflection of the actual cultural situation.

Cultural typology is the contrastive study of the basic semiotic assumptions and global categorizations of reality embraced by different cultures. In MTS this typology is formulated in terms of binary oppositions. Thus, a culture may tend toward autonomization of the sign (free play or ritual) or toward its semantization, postulating a one-to-one relation between sign and reality. It may regard the expression-content relation in its own system as essential or as merely conventional and may posit itself as the only possible or correct culture or, conversely, acknowledge a plurality of different cultures. A culture’s orientation may be toward absolutization of its current state, or it may adopt an ideology of innovation and change. It may define as its foundation a set of texts or a set or rules, while nonculture may be equated with nature, chaos, the nonsemiotic sphere, or alien cultures. One could also compare cultures in terms of the number, nature, and interrelations of the signifying systems of which they consist. When comparing world models, a topological vocabulary is adopted whose basic oppositions are between being higher and lower, inside or outside a given sphere. Semantic zones, boundaries between them, and an oriented movement into or out of a zone are as basic. These formal categories can be interpreted in spatial, temporal, cosmological, or axiological terms, and different cultures obviously satisfy them differently.

MTS assumes that all the semiotic systems of a culture serve as means of modeling (i.e., cognizing and explaining) the world. The primary modeling system is natural language, while all others are secondary. Some secondary modeling systems (literature, myth) use natural language as their material, adding to it further structures, and all of them are constructed on the analogy of natural language (elements, rules of selection and combination, levels), which also serves as the universal metalanguage for their interpretation. Modeling systems can be regarded as sign systems, as sets of rules (codes, instructions, programs) for the production of texts in the wide, semiotic sense, and as a totality of texts and their correlated functions. In fact, underlying codes can be manifested only through individual texts, and the category of text thus serves as the intermediary link between general semiotics and individual studies.

A cultural text may be in any semiotic medium: a painting, silent movie, ballet, or verbal utterance. It is a cohesive unit with overall differential features, an organized semantic unity, a macrosign with global meaning. It possesses fixity, having been set down via the use of signs; it is bounded or demarcated from other texts and nontexts via beginning and end signals. It further manifests internal articulation: texts are multileveled and possess an inner structuration on each level. The structures on different levels (e.g., sound and lexicon) interact, giving rise to a second-order structure of structures. These structures are the textual invariants. One can often extrapolate an invariant structure underlying a whole corpus of texts and regard it as the archetext of this corpus. This method is most fruitful in the study of folklore and mythology but may also be applied to the oeuvre of an author or the total literary production of a movement or school. In general, only those utterances considered worth conserving are considered as texts at a given cultural state. Texts belong to defined genres or types, are means for the transmission of messages, and are assigned an interpretation according to senders’ and receivers’ codes. Since the typologies and codes held by senders and receivers are often different, texts may be assigned to different types and acquire different interpretations over time or interculturally. Texts also possess cultural functions, but once again, the correlation between text types and functions is variable in space and time, and the same holds for the cultural prestige and value of any text type.

For Jurij Lotman, art is a functional category, based on a special mode of textual reception that consists of a hesitation between ludic and real world behavior. In his view, a work of art or artistic text in any medium is an analogue of reality in which reality is translated into the language of the given sign system. Any art is based on a set of semantic conventions that are arbitrary with regard to the objects portrayed, although to participants in the system they may look like the single, natural way of doing things. In fact, to understand any art is to understand its conventions. Some periods in the history of all Western arts (medieval, neoclassical) are based on an aesthetics of identity in which works are expected to satisfy preexistent familiar rules. Other periods (baroque, modernism) are governed by the aesthetics of opposition, where new works embody as a rule new, unfamiliar methods of modeling reality that are in opposition to the prevalent, preexistent ones.

Although MTS has contributed much to the study of visual, filmic, and mythological texts, we must limit our discussion to verbal ones. Verbal art is both a communicative and a modeling system, conveying information and constructing an image of reality. Verbal artistic texts are encoded and decoded according to semantic norms that differ from those of ordinary language communication, and so these texts are unique in their ability to condense information. Their degree of semantic saturation exceeds that of any other kind of discourse due to the complexity of their internal structure. They manifest more patterns of interrelation of elements on each level and among levels—from sound to architectonics—and it is in these texts alone that formal (expression) patterns are semanticized and transformed into the bearers of information.

In fact, the content or “message” of an artistic text is embodied precisely in its formal structures and their interrelations, in its total labyrinth of interconnections. Through their formal patterns, artistic texts create relations of equivalence or opposition between semantic units that are not related in this way in ordinary language, for example, love = death or love vs. death. This gives rise in succession to a secondary, occasional semantics, to a new system of relations between the denotations of these units, and ultimately to a secondary model of reality that is different from that embodied in ordinary language. Literature provides a wide array of such mimetic and conceptual world models, all different from one another and from the standard one. It thus expands and liberates our field of consciousness by formulating alternative views of reality.

So far we have discussed mechanisms of literary meaning-formation that are based on inner textual patterns of interrelation on each level and between levels. The information content of the artistic text is further enhanced by the multiple encoding and decoding relations in which it and each of its levels stand to the extratextual context, consisting of other texts, text models, literary norms and conventions, and communicative situations. We may term the immanent textual information “textual meaning” (znachenie) and the extratextual one “textual significance” (znachimost‘). Textual significance is obviously polyvalent and historically variable. Artistic texts display a heterogeneity of governing norms and a resultant interplay of underlying codes. Any given level of the text may be patterned alternately according to two different competing principles or codes, for example, tragic and comic or natural intonation and regular meter. Different levels of the text may be governed by norms stemming from different codes, for example, romantic characters and realistic style. Another important component of literary significance is the minus device, that is, the absence of an element or pattern that is expected relative to a preceding dominant norm, for example, the absence of lyricisms and elevated style in Aleksandr Pushkin’s “Belkin Stories.”

All of the foregoing creates additional information through the confrontation between underlying textual codes. Still more information is engendered by the communicative context. The producer of an artistic text always has at his or her disposal a plurality of alternative literary codes to choose from; thus, any selection he or she makes is informative. What is more, the text producer may formulate his or her individual message according to an innovative, unfamiliar code that the reader needs to elicit from this very text, and innovation is always information. The receiver of a literary text does not know in advance which code(s) underly the text being confronted, so that their very identification is informative. Like authors, readers too have several codes available to them, codes that change radically in the course of time and that may be very dissimilar from those employed by the author. This ensures that in literary diachrony new and different significances will be ascribed to the same text, rendering it semantically inexhaustible in this respect.

The secondary semantic organization of artistic texts is most evident in lyric poetry. As we know, the constructive principle of poetic texts is repetition or parallelism. Such repetition on the expression level of phonological, prosodic, morpho-syntactic, and graphic (position in the line) features creates formal equivalence between the corresponding text segments. But in the secondary language of art, these formal patterns also have semantic significance. Whenever words, parts of words, or word groups are juxtaposed into a pattern because of formal equivalence, we presume a semantic relation between them that often does not exist in ordinary language. An occasional, ad hoc semantic paradigm is created, and the reader is called upon to establish a relation of equivalence and opposition (so-protivopostavlenie) between its terms and to define a semantic common denominator (invariant) for them. Such invariants then function as terms in pairs of opposites on the next higher level, and so on. Opposites on the highest textual level define the polarities of the textual world model.

Several consequences follow from this view: occasional semantic paradigms take precedence over the standard language syntagmatic patterns existing in the poetic text and sometimes replace them altogether, as in many modernist texts. Lyric poetry is the only kind of text in which the content level is crucially organized and determined by properties or patterns on the expression level. In this sense, the linguistic sign becomes iconic in poetry. Since the secondary, poetic semantics is determined by features and patterns on the expression level, and since these are text- and language-bound, lyric poetry can be neither paraphrased nor translated without loss of meaning. The grid of formal equivalences that forms the backbone of the semantic organization of the poetic text is, by its very nature, spatial and regressive, not temporal and progressive. Poetic decoding involves constant reference back (vozvrashchenie) to earlier text segments, since parallelism can be perceived in retrospect only. Strictly speaking, a lyric poem can only be reread. A confrontation is inevitably created between the spatial occasional meaning system provided by the poetic code and the standard, successive semantic network ascribed to the text by ordinary language. This engenders dual perception and dialectical tension between the two, thereby enhancing the semantic density and overall informativeness of the text.

MTS work on narrative is based on cultural semiotics as well as folklore and mythology and bears little resemblance to Western narratology , with the exception of the study of point of view. Thus, Toporov and Lotman, respectively, are interested in the reconstruction of archaic, mythological world patterns in modern narrative and the emergence of plot, character, and point of view from myth. Lotman contrasts the cyclical time of myth, with its eternal typological recurrence, with the linear, directed time of narrative, with its unique events and agents. In his view, the most basic element of narrative is physical space, whose zones (e.g., home and forest) and boundaries model basic conceptual patterns. The originary space is divided into at least two areas, representing two semantic or axiological fields in binary opposition, such as life and death, riches and poverty, or one’s own and alien. Each of these areas contains one or more inhabitants, who are identified by the bundle of differential features that define their area. The basic event of narrative is the shifting of a figure (personazh) across the boundary of a semantic field, typically the hero who goes out into the world and returns home with a boon (bride, riches). The static, classificatory conceptual structure of the narrative universe is thus dynamized through the mobile agent. The character of a literary figure is the paradigm of all the binary oppositions between it and other figures in the text. For Lotman, then, as for Bakhtin, action and character are anthropomorphizations of conceptual features, opposites, and transitions, and not full-fledged mimetic or psychological units.

Both Lotman and Uspenskij discuss point of view in great detail, and in both clear echoes of Bakhtin are discernible. Lotman defines point of view as an orientation or relation between a subject (a consciousness) and a domain that results in the construction of a model or image of the world, or part of it, for this consciousness. Uspenskij defines point of view as the relation between representation and that which is represented and distinguishes four basic aspects or planes on which this relation manifests itself: the spatio-temporal, psychological (especially perceptual), phraseological (stylistic), and ideological (axiological). The communicative structure of the narrative text defines three basic, hierarchically ordered communicative or representational positions: author (either global impersonal narrative voice or implied author), marked narrator, and characters. Since each of these three positions can be manifested on all four planes, a narrative yields up to twelve varieties of point of view. Uspenskij’s book Poetics of Composition provides a comprehensive typology or calculus of the functioning and the possible interrelations, especially combinations and shifts, among these varieties in the course of the narrative text. From the perspective of an author, all of these varieties are compositional options, to be selected and combined according to particular artistic goals. Uspenskij singles out several artistically significant combinations, such as the association in a narrative of different planes with different communicative positions (e.g., perception from character, ideological evaluation from author) or the association of particular objects in the text’s world with one communicative position in terms of one or more planes. Conversely, the information on a given plane may come alternately from two or three positions, while planes (e.g., perception and style) may not concur within an utterance coming technically from the same speech position, as in free indirect discourse or irony.

Lotman is primarily interested in the connection between the ideological and stylistic planes. To him, each stylistic variety (key, idiom, register) chosen by an author for a particular speech position is correlated with a specific world-view or axiological stance, especially when such a variety is associated with an antecedent literary tradition, school, or genre. Each stylistic-ideological position, together with the narrative speaker associated with it, claims to convey the truth about what happened in the narrative world, as well as about human nature and the ways of society. Narratives created by some schools are such that within their artistic worlds there is one authoritative world model, one full objective truth that is normally associated with the implied author’s position. If the text presents several ideological perspectives, they are all seen as partial and subjective and are ranked according to their degree of coincidence with the dominant authorial standard of truth. When different ideological stances, embodied by different narrative voices, are juxtaposed in a narrative, a process of multiple internal transcoding takes place, as in Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. The same event, character, or situation will be encoded by different speakers in different idioms, each embodying his or her modeling of this element, based in its turn on his or her own modeling system. All these partial idioms are translatable into the implied author’s superior code in order to reveal their relative truthfulness or error. In some works, though, such as Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, multiple internal transcoding constantly occurs, but there is no longer a superior authorial idiom, a second-order ideological system, or standard of truth. Each of the ideological styles and stances in the text conditions and relativizes the others, and a complex game of juxtaposition and interaction among them ensues. Truth now resides in this dynamic interplay of partial, sometimes contradictory, perspectives, and not in any of them in isolation. One can thus no longer single out and absolutize any one position; there is no singular, ultimate truth, and no perspective can be ruled out.

Lotman’s views on literature and literary criticism as dynamic systems reveal a historical relativism based on MTS general theories of cultural systems. The literary system is defined in terms of the aesthetic function— with its twin presumptions that the text is multiply encoded and that all of its expression elements are also content elements—as well as in terms of textual forms (signals and patterns). At each period, different text types are canonically associated with the aesthetic function, so that texts originally associated with it may lose their literary status over time, and vice versa. The boundary between literature and nonliterature is hence historically mobile. In different periods, the position of literary texts in the general cultural hierarchy of values is quite different, ranging from low in the Middle Ages to supreme in the context of art for art’s sake. Within the literary system there are permanent binary oppositions between written and oral texts, high and popular kinds of writing, native and alien texts, and prose and verse ones. These subsystems represent heterogeneous factors standing in relations of conflict and tension. But the nature of the literary-historical process is such that textual elements and forms always move between the two poles of each oppositional pair.

Literary criticism and literary historiography are metatexts of the literary system. They constitute its selfdefining, self-organizing mechanism and embody its self-description and procedures of interpretation and evaluation at a given time. The critical component consists of normative texts that set out rules of literary production, define the boundary between literature and non literature, and rank existing types of literary texts and establish one of them as the very essence of literature. Literary criticism thus formulates essential, closed definitions of literature that regulate literary production and reception alike. The criteria formulated in these metatexts are subsequently applied to past texts as well, leading to the exclusion from the literary canon of those that do not satisfy them. Each phase of the literary system thus creates a tendentious image, mythology, or legend of its own past, where one part of the past literary production is canonized as the only representation of this past. Both literary criticism and its resultant literary historiography change radically in the course of time, so that the collective literary memory is not an inert form of conservation but rather a mechanism of active and ever new modeling of past facts. Finally, literary criticism and historiography are themselves objects of study for the literary theorist, on a par with literature itself. The observing scholar may not adopt either the vocabulary or the norms of these metatexts, on pain of confusing his or her theory and its object, theoretical metalanguage and object language.

C.S. Peirce and the Semiotics

Umberto Eco and the Semiotics


Semiotics/ Semiology

Russian Formalism

Prague Linguistic Circle

Henryk Baran, ed., Semiotics and Structuralism (1976); Karl Eimermacher, ed., Semiótica Soviética (1962-1973) (2 vols., 1986); Reno Faccani and Umberto Eco, eds., Semiótica della letteratura in URSS (1969); Jurij Lotman, Analysis of the Poetic Text (ed. D. Barton Johnson, 1976), Aufsätze zur Theorie und Methodologie der Literatur und Kultur (ed. Karl Eimermacher, 1974), La Semiosfera (ed. Simonetta Salvestroni, 1985), The Structure of the Artistic Text (ed. Ronald Vroon, 1977), Testo e contesto (ed. Simonetta Salvestroni, 1980), Universe of the Mind (ed. and trans. Ann Shukman, 1990), Vorlesungen zu einer strukturalen Poetik (ed. Karl Eimermacher, 1972); Jurij Lotman and Boris Uspenskij, Semiótica e cultura (ed. Donatella Ferrari- Bravo, 1975), The Semiotics of Russian Culture (ed. Ann Shukman, 1984); Jurij Lotman et al., Semiótica de la cultura (ed. Jorge Lozano, 1979), Theses on the Semiotic Study of Culture (1975); Jurij Lotman and Boris Uspenskij, eds., Travaux sur les systèmes designes (1976); Daniel Lucid, ed., Soviet Semiotics (1977, 2d ed., 1988); Russian Poetics in Translation, vol. 2, Poetry and Prose (1976), vol. 3, General Semiotics (ed. Μ. O’Toole and Ann Shukman, 1976); Soviet Semiotics and Criticism: An Anthology, special issue, New Literary History 9 (1978); Soviet Semiotics of Literature and Culture, special issue, PTL: A Journal for Descriptive Poetics and Theory of Literature 3 (1978); Boris Uspenskij, A Poetics of Composition (ed. Valentina Zavarin and Susan Wittig, 1973). Henri Broms and Rebecca Kaufman, Semiotics of Culture (1988); Karl Eimermacher and Serge Shishkoff, Subject Bibliography of Soviet Semiotics: The Moscow-Tartu School (1977); Stephen Rudy, “Semiotics in the U.S.S.R.,” The Semiotic Sphere (ed. Thomas A. Sebeok and Jean Umiker-Sebeok, 1986); Russian Literature 5 (1977, special issue on Jurij Lotman); A. Scheffcyzyk, “Moscow-Tartu School,” Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics, vol. 1 (ed. Thomas A. Sebeok, 1986); Dmitri Segal, Aspects of Structuralism in Soviet Philology (1974); Peter Seyffert, Soviet Literary Structuralism (1985); Ann Shukman, Literature and Semiotics (1977); Dolf Sörensen, Theory Formation and the Study of Literature (1987).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Categories: Russian Formalism

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