Программа IV конгресса

When the Semiotics of Culture dialogues with History

Jorge Lozano & Miguel Martín
Complutense University of Madrid and GESC

Translated by Jesús Miguel Saldaña

Far be it from us to speak as one would, for example, with Wittgenstein (first Wittgenstein, second Wittgenstein) of a first, a second and a third Lotman; even though one might be tempted to distinguish in his work different phases where information, memory, text, cultural typologies predominate, and a last period oriented –as it is implied by the title of this article– towards a dialogue with history. In this sense, we consider that the description that Lotman gave himself of the Greek muse Clio could be applied to his research: “[She] presents herself not as a passenger in a wagon who rolls on the rails from one point to another, but as a pilgrim who goes from one crossroads to another and chooses a path” (Lotman, 1998: 254).

One of his first known articles outside the USSR, translated into Italian in 1967, is Metodi esatti nella scienza letteraria sovietica, where he expressed his interest in these methods: “Scientific texts, being metatexts of the culture, may at the same time be regarded as its texts” (Lotman, 2006: 145).Later on, he dealt with the relationship between Science and Art, distinguishing, in turn, between Science and Technology. He says in Cercare la strada that the progress of the technique is always foreseeable. So much so, that Lotman comments on how even his achievements are anticipated by scientific divulgation and literature, in clear reference to Jules Verne´s prophetic fantasies. In contrast, a scientific discovery is always something unexpected. This distinction is particularly relevant and allows us allows to rate Science as more important insofar as it is more unpredictable, unlike technique, whose progress is always foreseen.

It can be said that in his early works he spoke the lingua franca of informationalism, to which Jakobson had adhered thanks to the koine of Information Theory when he first arrived in the United States. The highest representative of this theory in Russia was, without a doubt, Kolmogórov, whom Lotman turns to in his work The Structure of the Artistic Text. The concept of information has been used since the origins of the Semiotics of Culture in the well-known dissertations of 1973, where culture is defined as the sphere of organization (information) in human society as opposed to disorganization (entropy). The mechanism of culture transforms disorganization into organization, the profane into the initiated, the sinner into the righteous, and entropy into information. Furthermore, he maintains that in the same culture entropy increases at the expense of maximum organization (cf. Lotman: 109).

The concepts of information, entropy, probability, etc. are not only present in Kolmogórov, but also in someone fundamental in his last works: Ilya Prigogine, a physical chemist whose research leads to a formulation of dynamics in terms of processes at the chemical, physical and biological level: “The dynamic processes that take place in balanced conditions are fulfilled along very precise curves. As they move away from the entropic points of equilibrium, the movement approaches the critical points and, then, these processes cease to follow the predictable course (Prigogine called them ´bifurcation points’ […]). At these given points, the process reaches a point where univocal foresight of the future becomes impossible”. (Lotman, 2014: 141). Later on, when we will talk about history, we will see that the concept of event will be marked, as it could not be otherwise, by the calculation of probability based on either its appearance or its disappearance.

After his informationalist stage and on his way to develop the core concept of his Semiotics of Culture, Yuri Lotman, a debtor to Saussurean Semiotics and Russian Formalism, became involved with a new topic of study: the text .Involved by a Saussurean obedience, Lotman´s approach to language was developed attending to its synchronic aspect in order to be able to define the text through its architecture, that is to say its internal organization. Hence, we enter into the crucial role of immanence, whose principle was formulated by Hjelmslev: “being the object of linguistics the form (or la langue in a strictly Saussurean sense), any recourses to extralinguistic facts must be excluded, because it would be a prejudice to the homogeneity of the description” (Greimas, Courtés: 1982). And this is how Lotman expresses it: “isolating sectors of culture from the surrounding historical space was, in the early days of Semiotic Studies, both a partly compulsory and controversial choice” (Lotman, 1994: 28)

Lotman and Uspenskij´s approaches to typological studies of culture are not concerned with chronology, diachrony or other historicizing categories, but with conceptions close to Foucault's episteme, as in the case of the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment. In both historical periods, Lotman observes cultures from the point of view of self-description, rather than attending to diachronic processes. In this regard, he distinguished dominant codes insofar as they played a hegemonic role within a given culture, managing to establish their own organizational structure. The dominant codes can be defined as such not from the external point of view of the scholar, but from the point of view of the culture studied (see Lozano, 2015: 134).

Likewise, Lotman maintained that the historian is to be bound by those texts whose significance would not be exhausted in the analysis of their contents: “between the event «as it is» and the historian there is a text and this radically changes the scientific situation. The text is always created by someone and represents an event translated into a certain language. The same reality encoded in different ways produces, at times, different and contradictory texts” (Lotman, 2014: 136). As Lotman recalls, the Bible in the Middle Ages is a religious text and, therefore, true; while in other cultures, the Bible, despite being described as a religious scripture, is considered a book of fiction. In this sense, as he points out, “a text is not a strictly mimetic approach of reality, but a complementary material to reconstruct it. Therefore, the semiotic analysis of a document must always precede the historical one. Once the rules for the reconstruction of reality based on a text have been elaborated, the researcher will know how to extrapolate from the document what, from the author's point of view, did not constitute a fact and, therefore, was subject to oblivion, and that is precisely what the historian can evaluate differently if, in the light of his own cultural code, that “non-fact” intervenes as a significant event” (Lotman, 1975)

In the dialogue with history, we consider the predominance of the unpredictable and the casual to be entirely relevant to the description of any historical phenomenon as well as the relevance of the establishment of the categories within “gradual processes” and “explosive moments” [“The moment of explosion is the moment of unpredictability. Unpredictability must not be understood as an asset of unlimited and undetermined possibilities of passage from one side to the other. Each moment of explosion has its own set of equally likely possibilities of passage to the next state, beyond which the notoriously impossible changes are situated. The latter are excluded from the discourse. Every time we speak about unpredictability, we understand a certain complex of possibilities, of which only one is realized” (Lotman, 1993: 170)]. We strongly argue that explosive moments (sometimes explosive processes) can perfectly overcome the devilish discussion about the event which, as you may know, has had so many ups and downs in contemporary historiography in opposition to the concept of structure.

With the concept of explosion it is possible to decline in a more effective way the temporality and, in this way, to approach the problem of the aspectuality. Moreover, the consideration of the present as “an explosion of space of meaning not yet deployed” and that of the future as "the space of possible states" (cf. Lotman, 1993: 28) makes possible questions such as when the present begins, how long the future lasts, etc. And ultimately, it allows us to define these categories from the point of view of the moment of action that is presented in a given discourse. In that sense, just as Lotman distinguished between origin-oriented and end-oriented cultures, one could speak of both a “future past” and a “future present”: “The categories of 'beginning' and 'end' are the starting point from which spatial and temporal constructions can be developed. Underlining one of these categories does not necessarily imply a structural position analogous to the other: that is, they do not constitute at all a binary opposition in all systems" (Lotman, 1975: 136).

On the basis of these declines, one could argue, in turn, about the problem of the modalizations of the future and its figuration: possible, desired, dreamed, inevitable, uncertain, known, conditioned, improbable, wanted, forced futures, etc. It implies a vast field that would not be reduced to facts already accomplished, but to all those imagined futures that, in spite of not being realized, would exist semiotically and could have a performative value within a certain cultural space: “Each 'great' event not only opens new paths, but it does truncate entire bundles of future potentiality. If this was taken into account, then, the description of these lost paths would no longer represent a naive reflection on dispensable topics for the historian. On the contrary, it would be necessary to take into consideration another circumstance: different, but typologically similar historical movements such as, for example, the Romantic Movement in the different European countries, or the different means of anti-feudal revolution that can choose different paths at the moment of the explosion. Confronting each other shows us what would have happened in this or that country and whether or not the results of the explosion had been different for each country This introduces a whole new aspect to the comparative study of cultures: what has been lost in one national-historical space can be carried out in another, and such a confrontation gives greater substance to reflections on what would have happened if the historical choice had been different" (Lotman, 1993: 86).

When we refer to history, beyond the idea of progressus, and show interest in specific aspects, we rescue from Lotman the concept of interval, formulated by Tynianov, in reference to what stops being in contrast to what starts being, to the absence of difference between “already” and “yet”. In this way, the story is presented to us “not as a ball unravelled into an infinite thread, but rather as an avalanche of living matter that is self-developing, and where it arises struggle mechanisms of increasing entropy and, consequently, of increasing limitation of choice, of reduction of alternative situations to informational zero, mechanisms of constant increase of “crossroads”, alternatives, moments of choice of path, moments in which further development cannot be predicted” (Clio at the Crossroads, Semiosphere II: 252).

As for the interval, it seems to us to be also completely relevant the problem of the rhythm that, according to Benveniste, means to run, to pass (in the sense of course of time). In the etymology of rhythm, he suggested “the regular movement of the waves” as in the sea, from which rigorously one cannot say that it flows. However, it does happen and flows with the river, which has no rhythm but whose course runs (the river has been a metaphor used by Lotman). Rhythm manifests itself in any cultural phenomenon, for example, in fashion, which is defined by Lotman as the “metronome of cultural development”. Fashion, on the other hand, would accept the definition of rhythm as "the characteristic adaptation of the parts in a whole". In rhythm there is continuity and discontinuity of both long duration and instants, there is tension and distension, there is euphoria, dysphoria and aphorism. In short, in rhythm there is passion. Let me point out just one them: waiting; a passion that, moreover, is a discursive strategy so present in history as, for example, through the "project".

History, then, cannot be understood as a mere concatenation of events defined by causality, but it does also address to the increasingly important domain of chance. One can therefore glimpse a necessary future or, what is the same, a space in which new meanings and senses not yet foreseen or foreseeable can appear.


Greimas, A. J. & Courtés, J. (1982) Diccionario razonado de la teoría del lenguaje. Madrid, Gredos

Lotman, Y. & Uspenskij, B. (1975) Tipologia della cultura. Milano, Bompiani

Lotman, Y. (1993) Cultura y explosión. Lo previsible y lo imprevisible en los procesos de cambio social. Barcelona, Gedisa

Lotman, Y. (1994) Cercare la strada. Modelli della cultura. Venezia, Marsilio Editori

Lotman, Y. (1998) La semiosfera. Vol. 2, Semiótica de la cultura, del texto, de la conducta y del espacio. Madrid, Cátedra

Lotman, Y. et al. (2006) "Tesi per un´analisi semiotica delle culture" en Sedda, F. (coor.) Tesi per una semiotica delle culture en Sedda. Roma, Meltemi

Lotman, Y. (2011) La estructura del texto artístico. Madrid, Akal

Lotman, Y. (2014) "Voluntà di dio o gioco d´azzardo? (le leggi della storia e i prozessi casuali)" en Gherlone, L. Dopo la semiosfera. Milan, Mimesis

Lozano, J. (2015) El discurso histórico. Madrid, Sequitur

Annex: The Semiotics of Culture in Spain

Miguel Martín

Translated by Jesús Miguel Saldaña

Following the school of thought inaugurated by Lotman, in 2008 the Group of Studies of Semiotics of Culture (GESC) was constituted in Spain. Under the direction of Jorge Lozano, the GESC has brought together researchers from different universities around the world dedicated to the Semiotics of Culture, as well as a group of doctoral students, most of them enrolled at The Complutense University of Madrid. It is precisely in the Faculty of Information and Sciences of this university where the subject “Semiotics of Culture and Semiotics of Fashion” has been taught since 2010 within the graduate program of Journalism Research (M.S). Since the establishment of GESC, and within this line of research, several doctoral theses have been defended such as «Semiotics of Suspicion», «The Semiosphere of Superhero Comics» o « The Islamic State, a Semiotic Universe. Analysis of Dabiq magazine», all of them with international mention. Also, two more dissertations will be read soon: one of them focused on the problem of fame, and the other one on the role of clothing in Chinese cinema.

The GESC has also edited various volumes about the Semiotics of Culture. Among them, it should be worth highlighting the following: En torno a la semiótica de la cultura: actas del I Congreso Internacional del GESC (Fragua, 2012), Ídolos e iconos en la semiosfera mediática (Universidad Complutense de Madrid, 2015) y Documentos del presente. Una mirada semiótica (Lengua de Trapo, 2018). In addition, a volume entitled Semiótica de la cultura. Hacia una tipología del presente is currently being coordinated for the journal 'DeSignis', and in 2021 an issue on methods and concepts of Semiotics of culture will be published in the journal 'Cuadernos de Información y Comunicación' (CIC). Before the foundation of GESC, between 2003 and 2010, was published 'Entretextos', a Spanish electronic journal dedicated to the studies of Semiotics of Culture, where a total of sixteen issues were published. Since 1978 different works by Yuri Lotman have also been translated into Spanish, as well as different publications on Semiotics of Culture. In particular, and thanks to Silvia Burini, a member of GESC, Lotman's article on the witch-hunt was published in 'Revista de Occidente' and the text "Il problema del fatto storico" was translated into Italian and included in the volume La exuberancia de los límites. Homenaje a Jorge Lozano (Biblioteca Nueva, 2013). In 2015, in collaboration with Silvia Burini and Alessandro Niero was organized a session dedicated to “The Last Lotman”. And in 2018, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of Yuri Lotman's death and the publication of Culture and Explosion, was held the International Seminar “Lotman and the History of the Present” at the Faculty of Information Sciences of The Complutense University of Madrid, where the semiotics Paolo Fabbri, Tarcisio Lancioni and Gianfranco Marrone were invited to participate under the coordination of GESC. The following is a sample of the intellectual production of Semiotics of Culture that has been published in Spanish.

Yuri Lotman's works in Spanish

Estructura del texto artístico
Translated by Victoriano Imbert
Madrid, Itsmo, 1978

Estética y semiótica del cine
Translated by José Fernandez Sánchez
Barcelona, Gustavo Gili, 1979

La semiosfera. Vol. 2, Semiótica de la cultura, del texto, de la conducta y del espacio
Translated by Desiderio Navarro
Madrid, Chair, 1996

Cultura y explosión: lo previsible y lo imprevisible en los procesos de cambio social
Foreword by Jorge Lozano. Translated by Delfina Muschietti
Barcelona, Gedisa, 1999.

Culture La semiosfera. Vol. 3, Semiótica de las artes y de la cultura
Translated by Desiderio Navarro
Madrid, Chair, 2000.

Caza de brujas. La semiótica del miedo”
Introductory note by Silvia Burini. Translated by Margarida Ponsatí
In Revista de occidente, n. 329, 2008.

Estructura del texto artístico
Translated by Victoriano Imbert
Madrid, Akal, 2011.

“La moda como metrónomo del desarrollo de una cultura”
Excerpt from “Cultura y explosión en Moda. El poder de la apariencias”.
Jorge Lozano (coor.). Madrid, Sequitur, 2015.

Publications in Spain

Jurij M. Lotman y Escuela de Tartu. Semiótica de la cultura
Introduction, selection and notes by Jorge Lozano. Translated by Nieves Méndez
Madrid, Chair 1979.

El discurso histórico
Foreword by Umberto Eco. Jorge Lozano
Madrid, Alianza Editorial, 1987

“En los límites: fronteras y confines en la semiótica de la cultura”
Jorge Lozano in Revista de Occidente, n.316, 2007 (Issue dedicated to: Edward
Said: el intelectual como exiliado).

“Listas, Enciclopedias, Laberintos: la Semiótica de la Cultura en Umberto Eco”
Prologue by Jorge Lozano to Cultura y Semiótica. Umberto Eco. Círculo de Bellas
Artes de Madrid, 2009.

11-S todavía: Semiótica del acontecimiento y explosión”
Jorge Lozano in CIC, Cuadernos de Información y Comunicación, Volume 9: Cultura
de Masas, 2004.

En torno a la semiótica de la cultura: actas del I Congreso Internacional del GESC
Marcello Serra (ed.)
Madrid, Forge, 2012.

“Jurij y el problema del hecho histórico”
Silvia Burini in La exhuberancia de los límites. Homenaje a Jorge Lozano. Marcello
Serra, Pablo Francescutti and Raúl Magallón (coor.). Madrid, Biblioteca Nueva, 2013.

El discurso histórico
Foreword by Umberto Eco. Jorge Lozano
Madrid, Sequitur, 2015.

Revista CIC vol. 20: Ídolos e iconos en la semiosfera mediática.
Jorge Lozano (coor.)
Publication of the Complutense University of Madrid, 2015.

Documentos del presente. Una mirada semiótica
Jorge Lozano and Miguel Martin (coor.)
Madrid, Lengua de Trapo, 2018.