Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

From Formalism to Structuralism and Beyond (Metatheoretical Meditations)

Igor Pilshchikov


Scientia potentia est; sed parva.

Hobbes, Leviathan 10

Historical memory is very short—all the more so if the history of science is at issue. We remember the heroes of the past only in the days of jubilees. The last few years were rich in the anniversaries of Russian literary studies (literaturovedenie), or “science of literature” (nauka o literature), as its founders preferred to call it. The year 2013 marked the centenary of Viktor Sklovsky’s seminal talk, “The Place of Futurism in the History of Language,” given at the St. Petersburg art café, Stray Dog, in December 1913, and 2014 marked the centenary of his programmatic booklet, The Resurrection of the Word (1914). Either of these events can be considered a “birthday” of Russian formalism, and it is not surprising that they were celebrated by several important conferences all over the globe. [2] This year we celebrate a centenary of the Moscow Linguistic Circle — the intellectual and organizational centre of Moscow formalism, which was founded in 1915.

The theory of literature and poetic language developed by the Russian formalists in the late 1910s and 1920s revolutionized the humanities in the twentieth century. Just as French structuralism and post-structuralism are often called the “French theory”, their early ancestor, Russian formalism, as well as its continuation, Russian structuralism, deserves the name of the “Russian theory” (Zenkin 2002: 305). At the same time, various branches of structuralism and semiotics in pre-WWII and post-WWII Central and Eastern Europe, all of which inherited the legacies of both Russian formalism and their national aesthetic traditions, allow us to speak of pan-European and even global structuralist and semiotic movement and its national variants.

The research project proposed by the Tartu-Moscow School of Semiotics can be considered both the continuation and critical recalibration of the formalist endeavour. In 2012 an international congress was held in Estonia to commemorate the 90th birthday of the central figure of the Tartu-Moscow School, Yuri Lotman (1922–1993), and in 2014 the University of Tartu celebrated the 50th anniversary of his Lectures on Structural Poetics, which formed the first volume of Sign Systems Studies, the first semiotic journal in the world, the former herald of Tartu-Moscow structuralism, and the periodical of the new Tartu semiotics in the 21st century.[3]

Two interesting books — one on Russian formalism, the other on Tartu-Moscow structuralism — came out before this series of anniversaries. They are therefore not influenced by recent and perhaps ephemeral intellectual vogue in Slavic and East European studies, but rather make an independent enquiry in the fundamental problems of the “Russian theory” and its social-cultural context. Both of them are doctoral dissertations which were defended and then revised and published as monographs. Each of them is remarkable in its own way.

* * *

Levchenko, Jan Sergeevich. Drugaia nauka: Russkie formalisty v poiskakh biografii. Moscow: The Publishing House of the Higher School of Economics (2012).

Jan Levchenko’s The Other Science: The Russian Formalist in Search of Biography (Levchenko 2012) discusses several problems. They are: (i) the interrelationship between “science” and “literature” in the life and oeuvre of the formalists and (ii) the “genealogy” of the formalist method (in particular, its connections with Bergson and vitalism, Nietzsche, and German Romanticism with its concept of “romantic irony”). This book is a substantially revised and significantly enlarged version of the author’s dissertation in literary theory presented to the University of Tartu in Estonia in 2003 under the title, History and Fiction in the Work of Viktor Shklovsky and Boris Eikhenbaum in the 1920s. One chapter is a revised version of Levchenko’s preface to the recent republication of some of the works of the so called “junior formalists” — the disciples of Boris Eikhenbaum and Yuri Tynianov (“Mladoformalisty”: Russkaia proza. St. Petersburg: Petropolis, 2007).

In the discussions on Russian formalism, only the Petrograd association of the formalists, the Society for the Study of Poetic Language (Opoyaz), is usually mentioned. The Moscow Linguistic Circle (MLC for short) — is hardly featured even in essential studies. Unfortunately, the impact of MLC on the contemporary development of literary and linguistic studies remains underestimated. There are ongoing debates about whether Moscow formalism existed at all (see e.g. Depretto 2008; Dmitriev 2009). Levchenko is fully aware of this problem and warns the reader from the very beginning that, in his book, only the Petrograd branch of formalism is discussed. He is first and foremost interested in Opoyaz’s “triumvirate”: Viktor Shklovsky, Boris Eikhenbaum and Yuri Tynianov, and he is interested in Tynianov less than in Shklovsky and Eikhenbaum. The reason is that Tynianov preferred to separate “science” (research) from “literature” (fiction) (cf. Gasparov 1990), while Shklovsky and Eikhenbaum merged them, each in his own way. Levchenko is fascinated by such “creole texts” as Shklovsky’s trilogy Sentimental Journey (1923), ZOO (1923) and The Third Factory (1926) or Eikhenbaum’s My Journal (Moi vremennik, 1929), which is neither research nor fiction, but “metafiction”, “prose about prose” (p. 14; cf. Waugh 1984; Shepherd 1992).

This conscious self-restriction places specific accents and certain limitations on some conclusions: they cannot, and are not, intended to be extrapolated to formalism “as such” (although it is not so easy to define what is and what is not “formalism”). For example, the “literaturocentrism” (“literature-centredness”) of Russian formalism (p. 7), is, of course, an essential characteristic of Opoyaz, whose members envisaged culture through the prism of literature. To a much lesser extent, however, this can be applied to MLC, which, during the first years of its existence, operated under the auspices of the Moscow Dialectological Commission (Jakobson 1971: 530) and whose members studied linguistics and folklore as actively as they studied literature. As opposed to Opoyaz, MLC “placed much stronger emphasis on linguistics and was inclined to interpret poetry as language in its aesthetic function” (Jakobson 1971: 532). We can say that MLC envisaged culture through the prism of language.[4]

What Levchenko analyses in his book is not so much the formalist system of ideas (although many formalist ideas are discussed in details) or formalist ideology or formalist metapoetics (cf. Steiner 1984), but what can cum grano salis be called “the poetics of the formalists’ behaviour”, or, as the author himself puts it, “the formalist experience of scientific (both public and — first and foremost — intimate, escapist) behaviour” (p. 9). “To extract from scholarly works not the ideas, but an ‘experience of scientific behaviour’ is a strategy which is at the same time popular in contemporary criticism and original when applied to Russian formalism,” as one competent reviewer of Levchenko’s book has noted (Zenkin 2012: 357).

One the one hand, the literary critic’s behaviour is, first and foremost, his/her writing, and Levchenko is not so much interested in formalists as scholars but “formalists as writers” (p. 17). The author appropriately recalls the words of one of the “junior formalists”, Lydia Ginzburg, written in 1927: “Shklovsky argues that every decent literary critic should, in case of necessity, be able to write a novel” (p. 90 ftn. 15). One the other hand, the author of The Other Science questions why the formalist community eventually evolved into an “academic [nauchnoe, scientific] community, where research [nauka, science] is inseparable from biography which is always expressed in every text” (p. 128).

In order to explain the phenomenon of Shklovsky’s “hybrid” writing, Levchenko turns to Tynianov’s notion of “literary personality”. Tynianov introduced this term for the first time in his article, “The Literary Fact” (Tynianov 1924), in which he opposed “literary personality” to “the individual character of the author”. The “literary personality” can be consciously and intentionally created by the writer. To describe this phenomenon, the Russian symbolists introduced the terms zhiznetvorchestvo and zhiznestroitel’stvo (“life-creation” and “life-building”). However, the phenomenon itself originated in the pre-modernist period.

The term “literary personality” appears once again in Tynianov’s article, “On Literary Evolution” (Tynianov 1927). Its renowned eleventh thesis is devoted to “the problem of the reverse expansion of literature into daily life”:

“The literary personality, or the author’s personality, or at various times the hero, becomes the verbal orientation of literature. And from there it enters into real life. Such are the lyric heroes of Byron in relationship to his ‘literary personality’, i.e, to the personality which came to life for the readers of his poems and which was thus transferred to life. Such is the ‘literary personality’ of Heine, which is far removed from the real biographical Heine” (quoted from Tynianov 1971: 75).

Yuri Lotman developed Tynianov’s concept in his article, “The Poetics of Everyday Behaviour in 18th-Century Russian Culture” (1977/1985). Lotman dates the first years of the making of “the poetics of everyday behavior” in Russia to the Petrine age, and the period when it flourished for the first time to the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries — especially the age of Romanticism. In the Romantic age, “the poetics of behavior” becomes a kind of “consciously regulated activity”:

“The fragmented quality of the Romantic text has long been noted [...]. However, this fragmentation was redeemed by the immersion of the recorded [...] text in the context of the oral legend surrounding the author’s personality. This legend was the strongest factor regulating the poet’s real behavior as well as the audience’s perception of his behavior and his works” (Lotman 1985: 94).

As a result, “the biographical legend became an indispensable condition for perceiving this or that text as a work of art” (ibid.). According to Lotman, the semantic openness of this legend compensated for the Romantic bent for fragmentariness. In the lyrical genre, the literary biography played the same role as the plot played in the epic genre. Then there comes “a demonstrative exclusion of this category by the Realist writers”. However, at the next stage “the poetics of behavior” “rises again in the years 1890–1900 in the lives of the symbolists, in the concept of ‘life-building’, the ‘theater for one actor’, the ‘theater of life’, and other cultural phenomena of the twentieth century” (ibid.).

Levchenko places the literary and academic behaviour of the formalists in the same series and demonstrates that Tynianov’s “concept of ‘literary personality’ leaned in many respects on the living example of Shklovsky” (pp. 143–144, with reference to Dohrn 1987: 88–89). Moreover, the example of Shklovsky could have prompted Eichenbaum to develop his concept of “literary environment” ( literaturnyi byt), which can be interpreted as a reply to “the challenge made by the contemporary literary situation: instead of ‘how to write’ — how to be a writer” (p. 175). For Eichenbaum, Shklovsky was “not not only a writer, but also a special figure of a writer” (Eichenbaum 1929: 131). Shklovsky’s image was a result of “a complementary modelling of his own biography” (p. 142).

Another member of Opoyaz, Boris Tomashevsky, whose essay “Literature and Biography” (1923) deeply influenced the eleventh thesis of Tynianov’s “On Literary Evolution”, was the first to distinguish between two types of writers: “the writers without a biography” and “the writers with a biography”, for whom “their biographies were a constant background for their works” (quoted from Tomashevsky 1971: 49). Now we can speak of “the scholars without a biography” and “the scholars with a biography”. Shklovsky was the first to become “a scholar with a biography”.

According to Levchenko (pp. 85, 123), Shklovsky’s scientist project was summarized and completed in his Theory of Prose (1925). This collection of Shklovsky’s earlier (“scientific”) essays was published after Sentimental Journey and ZOO, but before The Third Factory. It may be added that, besides a new preface, it contains one new piece— namely, the “Index of Literary Names and Terms” (Shklovsky 1925: 179–189). The finalizing and metatheoretical function of this index becomes evident in the context of Levchenko’s reconstruction of Shklovsky’s scholarly/literary biography.

Taking into account the personal relations between the formalists, Levchenko explains both the poetics and the pragmatics of dedications in their essays (pp. 75–79). Thus, Tynianov’s “The Literary Fact” (1924), dedicated to Shklovsky, develops and transforms Shklovsky’s theory of “perceptibility” as the definition of art, while Tynianov’s “On Literary Evolution” (1927), dedicated to Eikhenbaum, poses the problems of literary history and literary biography and thus becomes a “theoretical quintessence” of Eikhenbaum’s own work (p. 79). It may be significant (or not) that both articles were first published without dedications which were added when these articles were revised for Tynianov’s collection of essays, Archaists and Innovators (1929).

Levchenko’s recent article, “The Aftertaste of Formalism” (Levchenko 2014) serves as a kind of postscriptum to The Other Science. (Characteristically, it begins with a dedication to a friend scholar, “colleague and mate”: a post-formalist theoretical reflection as reflected by a post-formalist practice of writing.) Here the author introduces the concept of “‘invisible’ formalism” — perhaps derivative from Diane Crane’s “invisible college” (Crane 1972). This notion describes the aftertaste or afterlife of formalism in the writings of ex-formalists which were published in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. For the recipients of this afterlife, formalism becomes a kind of a ghost — and Levchenko’s research project at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, of which the above mentioned article forms part, is allusively titled “The Spectre of Formalism” ( The quotation from Karl Marx’s Manifesto[5] ironically hints at two possibilities of further development: a new scientific revolution (cf. Kuhn 1970) or the forthcoming oblivion of the utopian project. But “oblivion is a form of historical memory” (Timenchik 1986), or, as Eikhenbaum put it in his Vremennik, “Is not the development of science based on oblivion?” (Eikhenbaum 1929: 16; both quoted on p. 188 of The Other Science).

* * *

Waldstein, Maxim. The Soviet Empire of Signs: A History of the Tartu School of Semiotics. Saarbrücken: VDM (2008).

The other book I want to discuss is Maxim Waldstein’s The Soviet Empire of Signs: A History of the Tartu School of Semiotics (Waldstein 2008). It is a “barely revised and wholly unedited 2005 dissertation in sociology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign”, as one of the discussants characterizes this book in her acute and diagnostic review (Emerson 2011: 263). The most interesting aspect of The Soviet Empire of Signs is its author’s attempt to problematize the sociological aspects of the Tartu-Moscow School of Semiotics. To be sure, he is ready to call it “Tartu-Moscow” or “Moscow-Tartu” School, but chooses “the Tartu School” for the sake of brevity (p. 1 ftn. 1). I will use the abbreviation TMS. Waldstein was one of the first researchers to consider the history of TMS in terms of scholarly networks, competition between academic institutions, strategies of academic behaviour, and “symbolic capital”. These research techniques had not been widely applied to Soviet science and East European science, and the dissertation was successfully defended.

Another appealing feature of Waldstein’s study is the abundance of archival and “actual historical” materials (documents from the archives in Russia, Estonia and the USA, interviews and conversations with the members of TMS, their letters and emails to the author etc.). The author refers to himself as both an outside and inside observer of the phenomena he describes: he was an outsider as a postgrad of a North American university and an insider as a former BA student at Moscow State University (MGU). This is meant to help him both familiarize and defamiliarize the material he studies. Waldstein’s insider standpoint may, however, be questioned, since, being educated as a philosopher and sociologist, he is not always at his strongest when it comes to professional issues in the history of Russian literature, verse theory or cultural semiotics. Meanwhile, the heroes of his book felt/feel perfectly at home in these disciplines. On the other hand, Waldstein’s position as an outsider can also be disputed, because what he seems to re-consider and re-evaluate is the accepted narrative of TMS insiders with all its advantages and shortcomings. One of the symptoms is an unequal treatment of Moscow and Tartu branches of TMS.

Although Waldstein prefers to call TMS “the Tartu School”, the Muscovites are considerably more multitudinous and multivarious in his narrative than the Tartuans. As Igor Chernov once emphasized, the Tartu part of TMS was “multinational and multidisciplinary” (Chernov 1998: 90). For Waldstein, however, “the Tartu ‘branch’ of the Tartu-Moscow School” consisted of only four scholars: Lotman, his wife Zara Mints, his disciple Igor Chernov, and the linguist Boris Gasparov, who joined them later in 1967 (pp. 34 and 55 ftn. 33).  The author de facto concentrates on Lotman alone (cf. Torop 2010, Poseliagin 2011, Ventsel 2011), and hardly analyses even the works of Mints. He practically ignores native Estonians who took part in the Summer Schools of Semiotics in Kääriku near Tartu and published in Sign Systems Studies and other TMS periodicals. In the meantime, these venues featured such significant names as the orientalists Pent Nurmekund and Linnart Mäll, the linguists Huno Rätsep and Mart Remmel, the verse theorist Jaak Põldmäe and other scholars. Of them, only Mäll and Põldmäe are mentioned, the latter only in passing.[6]

One reason for these lacunae is because the school is often considered “Lotmanocentric” (Torop 1995: 231–232) and “Russocentric” (Segal 2011: 268). In the English-speaking world, Lotman remains insufficiently known among literary and cultural theorists outside Slavistics (Blaim 1998; Winner 2002; Todd 2006; Kull 2011: 344–345; Ibrus, Torop 2015: 2–3), and one of the declared aims of Waldstein’s book is to correct this injustice. At the same time, Waldstein seems to oscillate between a “Lotmanopetal” and a “Lotmanofugal” interpretations of TMS, and speaks of “three major periods in the history of the Tartu School: the period of the summer schools (1964–1974), the epoch of Lotman-dominated Tartu School (1975–1985) and the perestroika period [1986–1991]” (p. 39). However, he does not appear to succeed in demonstrating any substantial differences between these periods.

Such telling sociology-of-science characteristic of TMS as “an invisible college”, suggested by Igor Chernov (1988: 8) and Peter Torop (1995: 233), is also missing from Waldstein’s analysis (Torop 2010: 517). The school as an “invisible college” spanned all manner of borders, identities and domains: “Estonian,” “Russian,” “Soviet,” “Orientalist,” “Slavist,” “linguist,” “philosopher,” “historian,” “critic,” and so on. From this point of view, Crane’s concept more adequately describes the phenomenon of TMS than Waldstein’s “parallel science”.

The author devotes an entire chapter to the role of Roman Jakobson as an originator of global structuralist and semiotic movement and/or mediator between its various branches. At the same time he fails to explain the symbiosis of structuralism and semiotics in one broad trend. Jakobson considered poetics a branch of linguistics, and linguistics a branch of general semiotics (Jakobson 1960: 350–351). This position goes back to Saussure, but, in my opinion, it cannot be explained by Jakobson’s attempt to combine Saussurean and Peircean traditions of semiology/semiotics (pp. 85–87), and should be traced back to the debates in the Moscow Linguistic Circle in the 1920s and the Prague Linguistic Circle in the 1930s. This brings us to another considerable drawback of Waldstein’s book: lack of any references to the scholarly studies of these important associations, which are in fact crucially relevant for the book’s topic.

Waldstein erroneously describes Roman Jakobson as “a leader of the Moscow Linguistic Circle in 1915–1924” (p. 4 ftn. 9). In fact, however, Jakobson presided the MLC only in 1915–1919 and in January 1920. After he left the Soviet Russia in mid-January 1920, other members served as presidents of the Circle, namely Mikhail Peterson (until September 1920), Aleksei Buslaev (until October 1922), Grigori Vinokur (until March 1923) and Nikolai Yakovlev (until November 1924) (see Shapir 2001: 592). At the same time, in the early 1920s some of the young MLC members (Maksim Kenigsberg, Boris Gornung and others) were followers of Gustav Shpet, the main proponent of Husserl’s ideas in Russia. In contrast to the empirical positivists, who dominated in the Circle when Jakobson was its president, the phenomenologists wanted to build a system of poetics based not on phonology, but on semasiology because they considered language a semiotic phenomenon par excellence. The positivists (namely, Jakobson and Boris Jarcho) conceived of poetics as part of linguistics, while the phenomenologists (namely, Shpet and Kenigsberg) regarded poetics as part of semiotics (see Shapir 1994: 75–77, 82–83; Pilshchikov 2011: 86–87). Jakobson later described the split in the MLC:

“In vehement disputes on linguistic essentials — phenomenology of language and the strictly empiricist approach; the place of phonetics and semantics in the science of language; the problem of the Humboldtian internal form; criteria for the delimitation of poetic and ordinary language; or finally the relation between language and culture — the Moscow team lost its former unity of purpose and principles... and in the summer of 1924, during the tenth year of its existence, the [MLC] was formally dissolved” (Jakobson 1971: 532).

Although in the 1920s the dichotomy of structural linguistic approach and semiotic approach led to the collapse of MLC, Jakobson synthesized them in his later work. In 1934, Jan Mukařovský spoke to the Eighth International Congress of Philosophers in Prague and proposed the concept of semiotics as general aesthetics (Mukařovský 1934; see Steiner 1976: 370; Winner 1976: 443–445; Striedter 1989: 4). The next year, Jakobson started to combine the linguistic approach with the semiotic approach, as if he wanted to “solve” the contradictions between the antagonistic methodologies within MLC (Pilshchikov 2011: 99). In his course of lectures on Russian formalism, which he delivered in Czech at the University of Brno in 1935, Jakobson recalled:

“During the first years of the existence of the formal school ardent debates took place over whether the problem of poetry... can be reduced to a linguistic problem, that is do we have a right to reduce the scholarly problem of poetry to the problem of language in its aesthetic function [...]. In the poetic form [...] there are elements which [...] do not contain anything specifically linguistic, but represent a semiological problem. Thus, an integral understanding of the sign helps to include poetics [...] in semiology, the study of signs” (Jakobson 2005: 80; translation mine).

The research programme proposed by TMS suggested the further expansion of semiotic methods into the study of literature, art, folklore, myth, culture and history.

Waldstein justly observes that, in contrast to French post-structuralists, Lotman’s attitude to the concepts of history and culture is embodied in the metaphor of reconstruction, rather than deconstruction (p. 7; cf. McCarthy 1991). The importance of the search of the lost past in the context of the Soviet non-conformism was evident to contemporaries. In his influential overview, “Semiotics in the USSR”, Roman Jakobson’s disciple Stephen Rudy wrote:

“The need to rediscover one’s cultural past, so essential for the health of a culture and the individuals who comprise it, is particularly acute in the case of Russian culture in view of the radical disruptions and discontinuities that country suffered during the first half of the twentieth century” (Rudy 1986: 559).

It is interesting to note in this context that one of Lotman’s last books, Sotvorenie Karamzina [The Creation of Karamzin] (1987), is subtitled Roman-rekonstruktsiia [A Reconstruction Novel]. Nikolai Karamzin, the key figure of the transitional period in Russian cultural and literary history (late eighteenth and early nineteenth century) and one of Lotman’s favourite historical-cultural personages, is hardly mentioned in The Soviet Empire of Signs. Neither Lotman’s reconstruction of Karamzin’s biography (Sotvorenie Karamzina) nor the edition of the Complete Poetical Works of Karamzin (1966) with Lotman’s extensive introduction and commentary are discussed. Yuri Lotman and Boris Uspensky’s edition of Karamzin’s prosaic opus magnum, Letters of a Russian Traveller (for an Anglophone edition see Karamzin 2003), is described as “the private letters of Nikolai Karamzin” (p. 73) which nobody allegedly regards as a “consensual masterpiece [sic]” (p. 74). This misunderstanding can shock not only “a specialist in Lotman”, as one reviewer mildly put it (Poseliagin 2011: 342–343 ftn. 11), but any lover of Russian literature. Curiously enough, on other occasions Waldstein calls the Letters of a Russian Traveller a “travelogue” and even “one of the first widely-read Russian novels” (p. 169)!

Moreover, Waldstein totally misinterprets the academic context of the Lotman-Uspensky edition: the culturally and politically charged discussion of its orthographic regime did not, as Waldstein claims (p. 73), involve the representatives of Literaturnoe nasledstvo [Literary Heritage] — a book series affiliated with the Moscow-based Institute for World Literature. In reality, the editors discussed this problem with the experts of the Moscow branch of Nauka Publishing House: Nauka was (and still is) responsible for another book series, Literaturnye pamiatniki [Literary Monuments]. The Karamzin edition was intended for the Literary Monuments series and not for the Literary Heritage series. The Letters of a Russian Traveller were eventually published in 1984 in the less censored Leningrad branch of Nauka Publishing House, but this strategic shift is not explained in The Soviet Empire of Signs, which attempts to clarify the fundamental rules of the Soviet academe — the rules underlying the social “strategies” of TMS “as a player in the Soviet academic field” (pp. 7, 11).

Unfortunately, the misunderstanding described above is not an exception, but rather a somewhat characteristic feature of Waldstein’s book: it is full of factual mistakes and misinterpretations. I will point to the most obvious inaccuracies.

Viacheslav V. Ivanov was not “a student of Roman Jakobson” (p. 1) even “in absentia” (p. 22): he was a disciple of Mikhail Peterson, whom Waldstein mentions once in a footnote. Peterson was not a “specialist in phonology” (p. 33 ftn. 38), but a scholar of Russian syntax and Indo-European languages. It should be noted that Peterson succeeded Roman Jakobson as the president of Moscow Linguistic Circle. Ivanov accompanied Jakobson during his academic trips to the Soviet Union and left memoirs about his older friend (Ivanov 1999).

“Mikhail Gasparov excelled in the studies of the poetic metre and rhyme in ancient Greek and modern Russian poetry”, Waldstein remarks (p. 39). Well, Gasparov studied not only metre and rhyme, but also rhythm and the stanzaic structure of Russian poetry,[7] whereas Ancient Greek poetry is unrhymed.

The English and Estonian annotations to Lotman’s Lectures on Structural Poetics describe this book as a revised version of his “course of lectures on structural poetics delivered at Tartu State University in 1958–1963” (Lotman 1964: 193, 194). The main bulk of this course was delivered in autumn 1960 — the first lecture of the autumn term was held on 13 September 1960 (see Kuzovkina, Trunin 2012: 85–86). Waldstein incorrectly indicates that Lotman started this course in autumn 1962 and finished in spring 1963 (p. 34). The difference between 1958/60 and 1962/63 is significant for the Sturm-und-Drang period in the development of TMS.

Victor Erlich (1914–2007) and Andrei Grishunin (1921–2006) are described as living scholars (pp. 66 ftn. 56 and 74), which must be explained by the fact that the text of the 2005 dissertation was not revised for the 2008 edition. Dmitri F. Markov (1913–1990) is described as a living scholar (p. 51 ftn. 17) with no evident reason.

Viacheslav V. Ivanov and Vladimir Toporov did not become full members of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1992 (p. 75), and their election was in no way connected with the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the readers might think: Toporov was elected to the Academy as early as 1990, and Ivanov — as late as 2000.

When Lotman and other TMS members use the categories of “centre” and “periphery”, they do not avoid citing Edward Shils’s Center and Periphery: Essays in Macrosociology (1975) because “these categories were ‘in the air’” in the 1970s, as Waldstein attempts to explain (p. 157 ftn. 24). The Russian scholars used these concepts in another frame of reference and borrowed them from another source: Yuri Tynianov’s “The Literary Fact” (1924).[8]

Such shortcomings can perhaps explain why this book, although in many aspects innovative and approved as a doctoral dissertation in a major American university, was not published with any reputable university press. Instead it appeared with a publisher that does not always adopt rigorous peer-review in its policies.


Dr. Hab. Igor Pilshchikov is Visiting Associate Professor in the Department of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Languages and Cultures at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles).


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[1] My work on this essay was supported by the Estonian Research Council grant PUT634.

[2] See the conference sites: Russian Formalism (1913–2013): An International congress which convened to mark the 100th anniversary of the Russian formal school organized by the Russian State University for the Humanities and the National Research University “Higher School of Economics” (Moscow, Russia, 25–29 August 2013), URL:; Russian Formalism and the Digital Humanities (Stanford University, California, USA, 13 April 2015), URL: ; Russian Formalism and Eastern & Central European Literary Theory, The University of Sheffield, U.K., 15–16 May 2015, URLs: and

[3] See the jubilee lecture series to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sign Systems Studies (in Estonian and English): (10 September — 17 December 2014, The University of Tartu, Estonia).

[4] Fredric Jameson sent the Opoyaz members to “the prison-house of language” (Jameson 1972), whereas René Wellek categorized Opoyaz as a “linguistic trend of twentieth-century criticism” (Wellek 1961: 106). This characteristics seem to be more adequate if applied to the Moscow formalists (such as Roman Jakobson, Grigorii Vinokur or Boris Yarkho), rather than their Petrograd colleagues.

[5] “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism”.

[6] Lotman emphasized the importance of the work of Rätsep, Nurmekund and Mäll for TMS in his article “Semiotics and the World Today” which was written in 1970 but remained unpublished until 2003 (see Lotman 2003). Mäll’s first name was Linnart and not Lennart, as in Waldstein’s wrong spelling.

[7] Cf. the title of one of his most important books: An Outline of the History of Russian Verse: Meter; Rhythm; Rhyme; Stanza (Gasparov 1984).

[8] “It is not a case of one single age-old stream moving and evolving in an uninterrupted succession in the centre of literature, while the new phenomena merely float in from the sides. No, these selfsame new phenomena actually occupy the centre itself, while the centre shifts down to the periphery” (quoted from Tynianov 1999: 33).