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This editorial appeared in Volume 2 (3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Editorial: The Geopolitics of Signs

by Milena Dolezelová-Velingerová

Every culture, in order to become a culturally distinctive entity, must start by staking out the frontier of its semiotic space. The boundary may separate the dead and the living; the town and countryside; French culture and Russian culture. It could be a river, a gesture, a script, a concept of time and space, or a natural language. No matter how diverse the culture, the boundary has nevertheless one and the same function: to divide the world between "our" space, where communication is possible, and the space of the "others", where communication is not accessible.

Cultural semiotics, despite its youth, has come a long way in the search for the ways semiotic systems work to produce meaning within a singular culture. From the initial efforts to explain the generation of meaning of a particular cultural object along the principles of Saussurian linguistics (Bogatyrev 1936), communication within a particular culture, as we understand now, is at work not only along the syntagmatic line, between the sender and the receiver, but also along the diachronic line. To decipher a cultural text, the receiver must be familiar with the culture's present and past and with its verbal and non-verbal semiotic systems. As Lotman (1990) recently put it: "Semiotic experience precedes the semiotic act (1990:123)".

Driven by the pursuit of the channels which make communication possible, cultural semiotics has kept its exploration thriving within the boundaries which were staked out by a particular culture itself: modern culture, Russian culture, myth, cinema, Chinese painting, gestures, and so on. Such an approach has produced many valuable studies which provided access not only to a specific semiotic network, but also to the perception of differences between them. (e.g. Bailey, Matejka and Steiner 1978; Winner I., Umiker-Sebeok 1979; Yamada Bochynek 1985; Dolezelová-Velingerová 1989).

Yet the twentieth century, with its ever increasing speed of communication and mobility of people, has produced a situation that challenges cultural semiotics to redefine and expand its own boundaries. This situation has been manifested by numerous ongoing processes during which semiotic spheres are suddenly confronted with each other, but which were, in the premodern times, found mutually incompatible.

The birth of modern cultures all over the world abounds with examples of such processes. But perhaps the most baffling one is the brief period around the turn of the century, when Occidental and oriental cultures became maximally receptive to mutual impact. The reasons for this upsurge of interest were sharply different. In the West, the art of Modernism has often been linked with the new scientific thought which uncovered, in Alfred North Whitehead's words, "so many complexities ... regarding material, space, time and energy that the simple security of the old orthodox presumptions has vanished." In the attempt to come to terms with the new scientific understanding of the universe, the modern artist deconstructs the represented object or event and replaces it by a projection of the object or event in various relations and perspectives. During this pursuit of new dimensions, the Modernists therefore eagerly turned to Japanese and Chinese ancient arts (as well as African arts), because the alien artistic systems offered unexpected, indeed shocking configurations of colours, concepts of space, and combinations of visual and verbal components in the artistic text.

In Asia, where the social and political structures were shattered by nineteenth-century colonianism, modern art arose, above all, as a salvational mission to disseminate various Western ideologies in order to bridge the gap between the ancient Asian civilizations and the modern ones. "Modern" did not mean so much the "present", as it was coterminous with things European in opposition to the traditional things Chinese, Japanese, Indian etc.

Although the roots and character of modern culture were viewed different, the Asian and the Western artists shared nevertheless one common distinct feature: to both of them, the semiosis of the distant culture was unknown. Not that they were bothered by it, however. What dazzled the artist rested exactly in the strangeness of the alien signs and semiotic systems. So, for instance, in the late l910s and the 1920s, European realism had a surprisingly decisive impact on Chinese literary criticism and fictional writing, although traditional Chinese art never emphasized the concept of art as an imitatation or representation of the actual world. Or, on the other side of the world during the same period, Sergei Eisenstein and Ezra Pound were smitten by the ability of Chinese script to produce an abstract meaning by an associative combination of pictorial elements (mother-child = good).

The chaotic transference of isolated elements from one established and well organized semiotic sphere to another poses then an intriguing question to cultural semiotics. How does communication work when semiotic experience does not precede the semiotic art?

In semiotic studies, the problem was first briefly touched upon in the seminal "Theses on the Semiotic Study of Cultures as Applied to Slavic Texts" (Theses 1973) by the Moscow-Tartu group of semioticians. There, it was remarked with insight that when two widely distant cultures meet, they are unable to decipher each other's cultural systems as a whole, thus the receiving culture must accept the alien one only in fragments and out of historical context.

This assumption works well in the modern cultural situation. Pound and Eisenstein, indeed, mistook only a very small number of Chinese characters -- the pictographs -- for the whole Chinese script. In a similar fashion, the modern Chinese artist was not aware that Realism arose in opposition to Romanticism. For him, it was an artistic trend that truthfully depicted the society and so assisted in its betterment.

Misunderstanding in the sphere of arts, though still little studied by semioticians, seems to foster, rather than hinder artistic creativity. Because the access to the mechanisms of the semiotic system is fully or partially blocked, the alien system is "empty" and can be appropriated by the receiving culture to suit its present requirements. Thus, in spite of the two Western artists' ignorance about the whole system of Chinese script, both ingeniously and independently of each other, recognized that the fundamental principle of organization in Chinese script is metonymic association, a principle which proved instrumental in the restructuring of metaphoric Victorian poetry, as well as in the sought-for structuring of the new visual art: cinematography.

In China, meanwhile, Realism was gradually revealed as running counter to the previously established principles of Chinese culture, particularly the unity of subject and object, or of the artist and the surrounding cosmos. Observing this contradiction, but prevented from knowing that the effect of reality is achieved by the Western artist's language and artistic devices, Chinese artists step by step dismantled Realism by introducing new devices which were familiar to them in their own culture. In this way, the modern Chinese realistic texts are profusely subjectivized, organized along the salient traditional principle of parallelism and saturated by signs which are superficially identical in Chinese and Western cultures but have different meanings in the semiotic systems of the two cultures. The final results are thus artistic texts which are profoundly symbolic, but at the same time could parade as realistic. The different meanings are generated by the way readers decipher the texts: if they are familiar with the semiosis of Chinese cultural system, then the text is polysemic; if they are not, the text reveals only part of the message and appears as "realistic".

The topic of cross-cultural relations is addressed with sophistication by Yuri Lotman in Universe of Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture (Lotman 1990). The copy of his discourse on the subject is lodged in Part Two of the book, where he explicates his notion of the "semiosphere" and the two related concepts of "boundary" and "dialogue mechanisms between semiospheres" (pp.123-150). Lotman who coined the term "semiosphere" defines it as

the semiotic space necessary for the existence and functioning of languages, not the sum total of different languages; in a sense the semiosphere has a prior existence and is in constant interaction with languages. In this respect a language is a function, a cluster of semiotic spaces and their boundaries. Which, however clearly these are in the language's grammatical self-description, in the reality of semiotics are eroded and full of transitional forms.
(Lotman 1990:123-4).

In this situation the boundaries represent "the hottest spots for semiotizing processes, because

the boundary is a mechanism for translating texts of an alien semiotics into 'our' language, it is the place where what is 'external' is transformed into what is 'internal', it is a filtrating membrane which so transforms foreign texts that they become part of the semiosphere's internal semiotics while still retaining their own characteristics
(Lotman 1990: 136-7)

In the chapter "Dialogue mechanisms" Lotman expands the notion of the boundary by an explanation of the process of "transmission" and "reception" in the dialogue of semiospheres represented by distant and unrelated national cultures.

On the basis of excellent examples from the history of Italy (from the fifth century, when Italy apparently lost its cultural identity during the invasion of the "barbarians", to the golden age of Italian culture in the Renaissance and Baroque periods), France (in the era of Enlightenment) and Russian culture (during the adoption of Christianity and its later relationship to Western European culture during the reign of Peter the Great), Lotman is able to deduce an abstract model of reception shared by all described cultures.

According to Lotman, the receiving process, seen from the point of view of the receiving culture, proceeded in five stages: 1. The texts coming in from the outside keep their "strangeness", but the receiving culture idealizes the "new" culture and breaks with its own tradition. 2.The "imported" texts and the "home culture" restructure each other, while the receiving culture tends to restore the links with the past. 3. The alien culture falls out of favour and the national characteristics of the receiving culture are stressed. 4. The imported texts are entirely dissolved in the receiving culture. The receiving culture changes to a state of activity and begins rapidly to produce new texts based on cultural codes which in the distant past were stimulated by invasions from outside, but which now have been wholly transformed into a new and original structural model. 5. The receiving culture becomes the centre of the semiosphere and changes into a transmitting culture which issues a flood of texts directed to other, peripheral areas of the semiosphere (Lotman 146-7).

Lotman never claims that his model of cultural contacts among distant and unrelated cultures in Europe is valid universally; but to a large extent the model confirms the results of earlier research about the interaction of distant non-European cultures and, to some extent, between China and the West as well. Thus, already in 1940, A.L.Kroeber, a noted anthropologist interested, among other topics, in the ancient contacts between the Mesopotamian and Chinese cultures, formulated the concept of "stimulus diffusion", in which the receiving culture adopts ideas and patterns from the outside source, gives them a new, native content and is thus propelled in directions it would not otherwise have taken (Kroeber 1940). The prominent historians and theoreticians of Chinese painting, Michael Sullivan (1973,1989) and James Cahill (1982), likewise pointed out that the key to the understanding of new directions in seventeenth century Chinese painting is the European art brought to China by Matteo Ricci and other Jesuits in the sixteenth century. Lotman's tenet about homogeneous processes of contact among different semiospheres fits also well the findings of the ambitious project by Prague Asianists who examined six Asian literatures (Armenian, Persian, Bengali, Indonesian, Chinese, and Japanese) during their modernization under European impact (Kral et al. 1965, 1968, 1970). Although genetically unrelated, the six literatures developed along similar patterns from the time of the first intensive contacts in the second part of the nineteenth century to their consolidation as modern literatures around 1930. From the 1900s on, however, modernized Asian literatures developed their own characteristics in consonance with their pre-modern cultures.


R.W., Matejka L. and Steiner P. eds. (1978, revised printing 1980) The Sign. Semiotics Around The World. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Contributions 9.

Bogatyrev, P. (1936) "Kroj jako znak (Costume as Sign)." Slovo a slovesnost 2: 43-47. Y. Lockwood tr. In Matejka L. and Titunik I. eds. (1976). Semiotics of Art: Prague School Contributions. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Cahill J. (1982). The Compelling Image: Nature and Style in Seventeenth-Century Chinese Painting. Chap.3. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Dolezelová-Velingerová M. ed. (1989) Poetics East and West. Toronto: Monograph Series of the Toronto Semiotic Circle 4.

Kral, O. et al. (1965, 1968, 1975) Contributions to the Study of the Rise and Development of Modern Literatures in Asia. 3 vols. Prague: Academia.

Kroeber A.L. (1940) "Stimulus Diffusion." American Anthropologist n.s. 1:42, 1-20.

Lotman M.Y. (1990) Universe of Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture. Shukman A. tr. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Theses (1973) "Theses on the Semiotic Study of Culture (as Applied to Slavic Texts)." In Structure of Texts and Semiotics of Culture. Paris The Hague: Mouton.

Sullivan, M. (1989). The Meeting of Eastern and Western Art. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Winner l.P. and Umiker-Sebeok J. eds. (1979) Semiotics of Culture. Paris-The Hague: Mouton.

Yamada-Bochynek Y. (1985) Haiku East and West: A Semiogenetic Approach. Bochum: Brockmeyer.

Milena Dolezelová-Velingerová is Professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Toronto, past president of the Semiotic Circle, and a member of the senior editorial board of SRB. She is currently a visiting scholar at the John King Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University. Her numerous works on Chinese storytelling 20th century Chinese fiction and classical Chinese theory of fiction include Ballad of the Hidden Dragon (1971) The Chinese Novel at the Turn of the Century (1980) A Selective Guide to Chinese Literature 1900-1949 (1988) Poetics East and West (1989) and Seventeenth Century Chinese Theory of the Novel (in preparation).

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