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Jelena Grigorieva

LOTMAN'S CONCEPT OF SIGN, NARRATIVE AND MIMESIS.

 

The article considers some basic notions of semiotics of mimesis by Yuri Lotman, such as model, similarity, and relations between an object and its representation. The way Lotman defines and interprets these notions is compared with definitions given by adherents of the semiotics of the transcendence (German and Russian romanticism and Neo-Platonism, Russian symbolism, theory of mystical symbol). A certain typological proximity of some important theoretical statements ensures the necessity to revise the traditional image of Tartu semiotics as a purely positivistic school of thought.

Writing about the problem of mimesis, Lotman did not use this very term explicitly, but he was constantly engaged in the problem of the borderline between art and life, sign and non-sign. He also showed a vital interest towards the mechanism of mirror and text in text. Still he seems to be permanently avoiding the question of the primacy of patterns. He proves in his works that theatre influences individual behaviour and everyday life, that folk pictures have no strict borders separating them from reality, that periphery phenomena (non-signs) can be transformed into signs in the course of cultural evolution, and so forth, but he never makes any statements of the late Wittgensteins kind. Thus, we deal with a rather complicated picture resembling the Mebius strip with no beginning and no end of mimesis.

In his early article The Problem of Similarity of Art and Life from the point of view of structural approach (1962) Lotman attempts to give a dialectic solution to this basic question. His main idea is that evolution of similarity between art and life is subjected to reductive strategy. This statement is proved with several examples and even algebraic formulas. Essentially, he states that the higher is the degree of metonymy convention the higher is the extent of characteristic individuality of the represented thing. To quote his words: The more in a represented phenomenon is taken out of brackets [...] the more sharply will the phenomenons specifics be stressed. The scarcest is the most characteristic has nothing of a paradox, but a mathematical truth.. (Lotman 1998: 385). This statement apparently makes a link to Yuri Tynianovs notion of the density of the verse line (The Problem of Verse Language (1924) see: Tynianov 1981). Lotman in the wake of Tynianovs thought emphatically insists on the concept that the density directly determines mimetic quality of the poetic language. Thus, the situation of representation is described in a paradoxical way: the less similar (more reduced or sublimed) occurs as the most similar. This kind of logic also refers to the dialectics of Christian exegesis (compare many who now are last will be first Matt. 19:30) and Hegel.

It can be noticed as well that this theoretical point on mimetic qualities of reduction proceeds from the definition of the model which is given in another Lotmans work Art among the other modelling systems (1967): Model is an analogy of a perceived object which replaces this object in the process of the perception (Lotman 1998: 387). It is clear that a model is a kind of reduction. Still it seems that this notion of model is more ambivalent (also in Yuri Lotmans works) than in this formulation. The main question that arises immediately from this definition is at what moment is the object replaced by a model and then by a piece of art? A series of problems follows: where does the borderline between these three different logical notions lie? Up to what extent can we speak of a real object and then of its model? Is a model equal to a piece of art, i.e. dependent on its signified object?

In the programmatic work of Zara G. Mintz, Lotmans spouse, colleague and co-author, Symbol by Alexander Blok, we find a clear and accurate description of the symbolists understanding of the semiotics of the transcendence:

Poetry of V. Solovev [] is inseparably connected with such a symbolicalness that naturally arises from the Platonic romantic dvoemirie (bi-worldness) and with the understanding of the symbolic, sign nature of the very mundane life". (Mintz 1999: 337) For Tartu scholars Symbolism in literature and philosophy was foremost a subject of studies, and in their works they distanced themselves from representation of such thoughts and ideas. But at the same time it is difficult to separate symbolists fiction from their theory, and the theory of art already affected modernists meta-thought including formalists one.

In this connection another name must be introduced. It should be mentioned that symbolists theoretical approach has very much in common with the analytic practice of Pavel Florensky and, what especially interests us, with his work on visual art Iconostasis (Florensky 1993). Pavel Florensky in his turn was one of the most important thinkers for the semiotic school in Tartu. Florenskys works were re-discovered and published anew in Semiotics after a long period of soviet silence (Florensky 1967). It is not a casual point in my reasoning that Florensky was under the most powerful influence of the tradition of cabbala symbolism (this is evident from his theological tractates Pillar, or Confirmation of the Truth). In his theoretical studies Florensky must be considered as the closest source of the Tartu branch of Semiotics. Here is a quotation from his article Reversed Perspective (1919), that was first published in Tartu: The perspective truth, if it only exists, if it is really the veracity, is true not because of the exterior similarity but because of the deviation from it, i.e. due to its inner sense, it is true because it is symbolic. (Florensky 1993: 239; bold font by Florensky J.G.). From this point we can see links both to Tynyanovs notion of the density of artistic text and Lotmans idea of reduction being the best means of similarity.

Then what is the symbolic in the Florenskys perspective?

Thus a picture, no matter what principle of correspondence between the represented and the representation it follows, inevitably only signifies, points at, hints, turns at the idea of the original, but by no means reproduces this image in some copy or model. There is no bridge from the real to the picture in the sense of similarity: here is hiatus that is jumped over first by a creative mind of an artist, and then by an intellect that re-creates a picture in itself. The latter, I repeat, is by no means a duplication of reality in its wholeness, but, moreover, is unable to give even geometric similarity of the skin of things. It is necessarily a symbol of a symbol, because the very skin is already a symbol of the thing. The beholder moves from a picture to the skin of things, and from the skin to the thing itself. (Florensky 1993: 252; bold font by Florensky J.G.)

This description could be included in a natural way into C.-S. Pierce writings and simultaneously seems to fit accurately into the positivistic semiotics of Lotman. What makes here the difference is that Florensky does not regard the notion of model to be a symbol, so he seems to be less a symbolist than his follower is.

Florensky distinguishes two different types of representation: false naturalistic and true symbolic ones.

Moving from the real into the imaginary naturalism proceeds in a sham image of reality, empty double of an everyday life; the inverse art symbolism embodies another experience in real images and thus what is given by it becomes the higher reality. (Florensky 1993: 19-20; bold font by Florensky J.G.).

Then he adds: The same happens in mysticism. (Ibid.). So here we see an apparent connection to the philosophy of Symbolism that also made use of the parallel between the true language (symbolic signification) and revelation of the truth. We even can observe here that a sign (symbol) appears as the highest reality, i.e. replaces naturalistic everyday reality with itself. Orthodox icons and the temple as a whole are analyzed in Iconostasis as such symbols-models of the higher reality. It can be stated that this strategy of defining symbol is compatible with the notion of model by Yuri Lotman. Again the difference between mystic semiotics of Florensky and positivistic semiotics of Lotman lies not within formal aspects but rather in the sphere of evaluation. Whereas Florensky uses generously such words as higher, highest, false, improper, Lotman thoroughly avoids this language mode. My question is whether this is enough in order to stay a true and consistent positivist?

So we must state that seemingly positivistic definition of symbol is not in contradiction with the definition of symbol in true mysticism at all. Christian cross is one of such symbols-models that apparently replace the object in the process of perception. Use of the cross in all its objective materiality can cardinally change symbolic reality of everyday mundane life. So we must state that seemingly positivistic definition of symbol is not in contradiction with the definition of symbol in true mysticism at all. Christian cross is one of such symbols-models that apparently replace the object in the process of perception. Use of the cross in all its objective materiality can cardinally change symbolic reality of everyday mundial life.

At the same time Lotmans model is of a specific hierarchical character and can work in a rather complicated regime of interplay between different levels of reality. He demonstrates the mobile nature of the borderline between model and representation and model and reality in different kinds of visual art: in folk pictures (Artistic Nature of Russian Folk Pictures 1976), still life (Still Life in Semiotic Perspective 1986), and portrait (Portrait 1993). This situation can be defined as theatrical behaviour of artist and his model. We may state it was precisely Lotmans works on semiotics of theatre (see Lotman 1973a; 1973b; 1978; 1980; 1989) that influenced his approach to static forms of visual art. Theatre becomes a metamodel for any kind of art and gives a perspective to all investigations into artistic text. Nevertheless, this whole witty and intelligent construction makes the problem what is a model of what even more complicated than one could have expected at the starting point of the reasoning. The language ambivalence of the word model (model as a person or object of representation, model as a representation itself) stays unconditioned.

Art according to Lotmans semiotics is a model of life in its semiotic activity. In this formula a very important difference with the transcendent semiotics should be traced. This difference concerns the ontology of the two mutually reflecting entities. Whereas the transcendent semiotics is considered as the borderline between the natural and supernatural (God), positive semiotics is believed to observe the interrelation of the natural and artificial. In fact, the situation is rather different from this ideological expectation. The situation of the totality of semiosis that is depicted by Lotmans reasoning does not leave any space to something that would not be subjected to the process of signification. The whole universe seems to work as a mechanism producing languages and composing messages in them. Art simply models this mechanism, repeats it for the reasons of training practice to keep humans ready for all possible information the world would deign to share with them. This logic naturally leads to the later notion elaborated by the scholar, i. e. what he calls semiosphere. The problem which remains and which seems to be avoided by Lotmans thought, is the following: if language is a model, then a model of what is this language activity of nature?

Art according to Lotmans semiotics is a model of life in its semiotic activity. In this formula a very important difference with the transcendent semiotics should be traced. This difference concerns the ontology of the two mutually reflecting entities. Whereas the transcendent semiotics is considered as the borderline between the natural and supernatural (God), positive semiotics is believed to observe the interrelation of the natural and artificial. In fact, the situation is rather different from this ideological expectation. The situation of the totality of semiosis that is depicted by Lotmans reasoning does not leave any space to something that would not be subjected to the process of signification. The whole universe seems to work as a mechanism producing languages and composing messages in them. Art simply models this mechanism, repeats it for the reasons of training practice to keep humans ready for all possible information the world would deign to share with them. This logic naturally leads to the later notion elaborated by the scholar, i. e. what he calls semiosphere. The problem which remains and which seems to be avoided by Lotmans thought, is the following: if language is a model, then a model of what is this language activity of nature?

The functioning mechanism of semiosphere, its evolution, and thus, perhaps, its origin, is explained by Lotman by the asymmetry and exchange between central and periphery realms. It is possible that exactly this productive dialog between the centre and the periphery can give us a clue to the paradox of model and representation. Something in culture is reserved for being a model and something for being a representation of it, and then they can change their roles in a complicated and non-predictable mode.

Full text of the article in Russian (173 KB)


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