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