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Yuri (also Juri, Jurij) 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, perhapsthe most European Soviet state . 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.

In his last major work in cultural semiotics, Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture (1990), Lotman introduced the all-embracing term semiosphere, which he defines as "the semiotic space necessary for the existence and functioning of languages." Lotman sees the term analogous to V.I. Vernadsky's biosphere, "the totality and the organic whole of living matter and also the condition for the continuation of life." Lotman's spatial model refers likewise to reality, and is linked to the specifics of actual space. Outside the semiosphere, the space of culture, there is no communication or language. It is the whole semiotic space of the culture in question, heterogeneous, constantly changing, but at the same time unified.

In 1969 Lotman was elected one of the four Vice-Presidents of The International Association for Semiotic Studies, and his articles were published in Semiotica, the official journal of the association. Lotman was a member of several prestigious scientific organizations and professional societies, among them the Social Sciences Council of the UNESCO. He was a honorary member of the American Society of Semiotics and in 1979 Lotman was made honorary member of the Semiotic Society of Finland. A selection of Lotman's writings, covering the period of 1973 to 1985, was published by the friendship society Suomi Neuvostoliitto Seura (Finland Soviet Union Society) under the title Merkkien maailma (1989). Lotman also lectured in 1987 at the University of Helsinki. In 1990 he was appointed member of the Estonian Academy of Sciences.

The last years of Lotman's life coinced with the fall of Communism and the triumph of liberalism, or the "end of history," as Francis Fukuyama famously put it. Maxim Waldstein has suggested in The Soviet Empire of Signs (2008) that Lotman had an imperial agenda concealed under the concept of semiosphre. Lotman's real models were the "Holy Roman Empire, Austria-Hungary, the British Empire," and at the end, the the multinational, multilingual, multiethnic Eurasian empire, whatever government dominates it. Vladimir E. Alexandrov has argued that Lotman's attempt to seek grounding for his new type of semiotics in evolutionary biology is undermined by fundamental difference between the two systems.

Lotman died of embolus in Tartu on October 28, 1993. His son Mihhail Lotman, professor at the Estonian Institute for Humanities, became also a semiotician. The Lotman-Institute for Russian and Soviet Culture at the Ruhr-University of Bochum was established in 1989. Lotman's grave was vandalized in 2011; its bronze cross was stolen.

For further reading: The Soviet Empire of Signs: A History of the Tartu School of Semiotics by Maxim Waldstein (2008); Conversations With Lotman: Cultural Semiotics in Language, Literature, and Cognition by Edna Andrews, Iu. M. Lotman (2003); Biographical Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Philosophers, ed. by Stuart Brown, Diané Collison and Robert Wilkinson (1996); Iu. M. Lotman: Tartusko-moskovskaia semioticheskaia shkola, ed. by A.D. Koshlev (1994); Literature as Communication and Cognition in Bakhtin and Lotman by Allan Reid (1990); Semiotics and the History of Culture in Honor of Jurij Lotman, ed. by Morris Halle et al. (1988); Semiotics of Russian Cultural History: Essays by Iurii M. Lotman, Lidiia Ia. Ginsburg, Boris A. Uspenskii by Alexander D. Nakhimovsky, Alice Stone Nakhimovsky (1985); Theories of Literature in the Twentieth Century, ed. by D.W. Fokkeman, Elrud Kunne-Ibsch (1978); Literature and Semiotics: A Study of the Writings of Yu. M. Lotman by Ann Shukman (1977); Semiotics and Structuralism: Readings from the Soviet Union, ed. by Henryk Baran (1974) 

Selected works:

  • Lektsii po struktural'noi poetike: vvdenie, teoriia stikha, 1964 (introd. by Thomas G. Winner, 1968)
  • Struktura khudozhestvennogo teksta, 1970
    - The Structure of the Artistic Text (translated by Ronald Vroon, 1977)
  • Predavanja iz strukturalne poetike; uvod. teorija stiha, 1970
  • Analiz poeticheskogo teksta, 1972
    - Analysis of the Poetic Text (translated by D. Barton Johnson, 1976)
  • Semiotika kino i problemy kinoestetiki, 1973
    - Semiotics of Cinema (translated by Mark E. Suino)
  • Aufsätze zur Theorie und Methodologie der Literatur und Kultur, 1974 (edited by Karl Eimermacher; translated by Karl Eimermacher, et al.)
  • Roman A.S. Pushkina "Evgenii Onegin": Kommentarii: Posobie dlia uchitelia, 1980
  • The Semiotics of Russian Culture, 1984 (with B.A. Uspenski; edited by Ann Shukman)
  • Struktura dialoga kak princip raboty semioticeskogo mechanizma, 1984 (in Trudy po znakovym sistemam, vol. 17)
  • O semiosfere, 1984 (in Struktura dialoga kak princip raboty semioticeskogo mechanizma, Trudy po znakovym sistemam, vol. 17)
    - On the Semiosphere (translated by Wilma Clark, in Sign System Studies, 2005)
  • Sotvorenie Karamzina, 1987
  • V shkole poėticheskogo slova: Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogolʹ, 1988
  • Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture, 1990 (translated by Ann Shukman, introduction by Umberto Eco)
  • Kultuurisemiootika: tekst, kirjandus, kultuur, 1990
  • Kuljtura i vzryv, 1992
    - Culture and Explosion (edited by Marina Grishakova ; translated by Wilma Clark, 2009)
  • Izbrannye statʹi: v trekh tomakh, 1992-1993 (3 vols.) 
  • Dialog s èkranom, 1994 (with Yuri Tsivian)
  • Besedy o russkoi kulʹture: byt i traditsii russkogo dvorianstva XVIII-nachalo XIX veka, 1994
  • Pushkin, 1995 (ed. by B.F. Egorov)
  • O poetakh i poezi, 1996
  • Vnutri mysliashchikh mirov: chelovek, tekst, semiosfera, istoriia, 1996
  • Velikosvetskie obedy, 1996 (with E.A. Pogosian)
  • O russkoi literature: statʹi i issledovaniia (1958-1993), istoriia russkoi prozy, teoriia literatury, 1997
  • Pisʹma, 1940-1993, 1997 (edited by B.F. Egorov)
  • Russkaia literatura i kulʹtura Prosveshcheniia, 1998 (ed. by L.O. Zaionts, et al.)
  • Semiosfera, 2000
  • Istoria i tipologiia russkoi kulʹtury, 2002
  • Za tekstom: Zametki o filosofskom fone tartuskoi semiotiki (Stat'ja pervaja), 2002 (in Lotmamovskii sbornik, by E. Permiakov, M. L. Gasparov, IU. M. Lotman)
  • Statʹi po semiotike kulʹtury i iskusstva, 2002
  • Perepiska, 1964-1993 / Yuri Lotman, Boris Uspenskii, 2008 (ed. by O. Kel'bert, et al.)
  • Chemu uchatsia liudi: statʹi i zametki, 2009
  • Nepredskazuemye mekhanizmy kulʹtury, 2010 (ed. by T.D. Kuzovkina and O.I. Utgof)

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