Yuri Lotman - Two Biographies

Russian philosopher and semiologist. He was born into a family of lawyers. In 1950 he entered St. Petersburg University, where he studied philology under Vladimir Propp. After the defense of his Ph.D. thesis in 1961 he went to Tartu University (Estonia), where he held the post of professor until his death. In 1964 became the first editor of the world-famous journal Sing System Studies and initiated an Annual conference on Semiotics, which still take place every year.

Kristeva considers him to be the first Russian structuralist, who became famous with his book On the Delimitation of Linguistic and Philological Concepts of Structure (1963) and his Lectures on Structural Poetics (1964). His treatment of creative structures of language was close to that of Levi-Strauss; he supposed textual mechanism to be the center of a cyclical-temporal motion of culture. 'Texts created in this way are not, in our sense of the word, plot-texts and, in general, could only be described with great difficulty by means of our usual categories' (The Origin of Plot in the Light of Typology).

He also shared the structural idea that the subject totally belongs to the language that he is speaking and thinking. Culture creates a man, makes a world where he lives; therefore culture has nothing in common with objective reality, but it makes that reality. 'Sound and a language are not one the same. Human culture speaks with us, i.e. communicate information to us, in many different ways' (Semiotics of Cinema). Words create verbal images, which depict reality, they neither reflect nor copy it. 'The verbal image is virtual. In the reader's consciousness it appears as open, uncompleted and not incarnated. It palpitates and counters to the ultimate materialization' (The Structure of the Artistic Text).

He substantively came to the idea of intertextuality, when he considered culture to be a confrontation of texts with anterior and surrounding languages. 'Both groups of texts have their corresponding conception of the universum as a whole. The law-forming center of culture, genetically arising from the original mythological nucleus, reconstructs a completely regulated world, equipped with a single plot and a higher meaning' (The Origin of Plot in the Light of Typology). Basing his argument upon Bakhtin's views, he maintains that in cultural dialog the texts generate the meaning of language. He regarded literature and art as a 'secondary modeling system', which recasts the primary logic of language according to new lingual rules, conferring new mental possibilities. ...


Yuri Lotman (1922-1993)
Russian-Estonian semiotician, aesthetician, and culture historian, founder of the Moscow-Tartu School in the 1960s. Lotman's early studies on literature drew largely on the tradition of formalist structuralism. Later Lotman expanded his structural-semiotic approach to the study of different culture systems.

"Modern science from nuclear physics to linguistics sees the scientist as inside the world being described and as a part of that world. But the object and the observer are as a rule described in different languages, and consequently the problem of translation is a universal scientific task." (from Universe of the Mind, 1990)

Yuri Mikhailovich Lotman was born in Petrograd. His mother, Aleksandra, was a dentist. Mikhail Lotman, his father, was a lawyer, who worked at the Leningradskaja Pravda, formerly the Petrogradskaya Pravda, a daily newspaper, which had been founded in 1918 by the Communist Party. He died during the siege of Leningrad in 1942. Lotman once wrote, that the "history of the city is inseparable from its mythology". Lotman, however, did not refer to the standard Bolshevik mythology, but to the nineteenth-century literature, which had contributed to the creation of Petersburg's fame. Characterized as a "new Rome", its name had been St. Petersburg until it was renamed Petrograd in August 1914, and then changed in 1924 Leningrad after the death of V.I. Lenin.

After graduating in 1939 from the former Peterschule, Lotman entered the Leningrad State University, where he studied philology. His teachers included some of the great names of the Russian formalists - Boris Eichenbaum, Vladimir Propp, Boris Tomashevskii, and Viktor Zhirmunskii. Also the work of Mikhail Bakhtin inspired Lotman, and they both shared the view that in the literary text, conflicting structures have a dialogic relationship. During World War II, Lotman served in the artillery. In 1946 Lotman resumed his studies at the university. His first article, which dealt with the early Decembrist movement, was published in 1949.

In the late 1940s, the Soviet press launched a campaign against "cosmopolitanism", largely targeted at the Jews. Lotman, who was of Jewish origin and was not able to find employment as a researcher, moved in 1950 to Estonia. He worked first as a teacher of Russian language and literature at Tartu Teacher Training College, and in 1954 he became a docent at the University of Tartu. In 1951 he married Zara G. Mints (1927-1990), a teacher and literary historian, who wrote several works on Russian Symbolism.

Lotman's dissertation on Russian literature in the pre-Decembrist period was published in 1960. In 1963 he was appointed professor at the Department of Russian Literature. A year later Lotman launced the series Trudy po znakovym sistemam (Studies in Sign Systems), published a by the University of Tartu, but closely associated with the Institute of Slavonic Studies in Moscow. He also edited the series Trudy po russkoi i slavyanskim literaturam.

During the reign of Stalin, Formalism was opposed to Socialist realism; it was a heresy which could lead to the deportation to Siberia. In 1962, following a revival of structuralist study of literature, the Institute of Slavonic Studies of the Academy of Sciences in Moscow published the report on a Symposium of the Structural Study of Sign Systems. In Tartu the first summer school of semiotics was organized in Kääriku in 1964. Its papers were published in Semeiotike; the word was originally coined by John Locke, meaning "the doctrine of sign". The first volume of the journal included Lotman's lectures on the structural poetics.

In spite of accusations of "Formalism", summer seminars continued and started to attract international fame. However, in the Soviet Union the work of the Tartu-Moscow received only half-hearted recognition on the part of the official Soviet academic world. It was not until 1986, when Lotman was allowed to travel to the West.

A highly prolific writer, Lotman became the leading theoretician of the Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School, first known especially on the Continent and then in America. It has been said, that reading Lotman's writings was common among those who sought to identify with the liberal minded. As a result, the KGB searched in 1970 his home. Occasionally western visitors in Tartu or Tallinn smuggled semiotic texts out of the country to be published abroad. One of the most famous guests in Tartu was the Russian-born linguistic theorist and Slavic scholar Roman Jakobson, who participated in the summer school of 1966.

In 1967, Lotman wrote an article on 'Exact Methods in Russian Literary Science' for the Italian journal Strumenti critici. The Brown University Press published in 1968 Lotman's Lektsii po struktural'noj poetike and in 1976 appeared the English translation of Analiz poeticheskogo teksta (Analysis of the Poetic Text). Although Lohman's writings covered a wide range of subjects, from cinema to poetics, card games to animated cartoons, and mythology to the history of culture, his major interest was in literature. Lotman published studies on such Russian writers as Aleksandr Pushkin, Nikolai Karamzin, Aleksandr Radishchev, Pyotr Vyazemsky, etc. Noteworthy, he did not write much about Estonian literature.

Much of Lotman's early studies in structural semiotics were based on Saussurean notion of the sign, with emphasis on the dynamic interactions which shape cultural sign systems. Lotman rejected Saussure's principle of arbitrariness in the connection between signified to signifier, stating that the "sign is the model of its content." In Semiotika kino i problemy kinoestetiki (1973, Semiotics of Cinema) Lotman made a distinction between two independent and equally important types of signs, which largely correspond visual arts and literature - pictorial or iconic signs and conventional signs, such as words. In general, Lotman did not write much about music, perhaps the most problematic semiotic system, and music is also excluded from this analysis on the film.

One of Lotman's central areguments was that the text is a meaning-generating mechanism: "Nowadays Hamlet is not just a play by Shakespeare, but it is also the memory of all its interpretations, and what is more, it is also the memory of all those historical events which occurred outside the text but with which Shakespeare's text can evoke associations." (from Universe of the Mind) Natural languages are according to Lotman primary modelling systems. The language of art, cultural rules, religion etc. are secondary modelling systems, or more complex languages built upon natural language. Superficially the construction has similarities with the marxist sociological model of base and superstructure, transferred to study of semiotic structures. ...

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