From “Culture and explosion” by J.Lotman

January 28, 2007

I started to read the book “Culture and explosion” written by cultural semiotic Juri Lotman originally in 1992 in russian. I have the Estonian version of it, luckily we share the hometown with Lotman so there is semiotics in the air here.

I am writing down some expectations why buying this book. It is not the first thing I read from him ..earlier i have liked his book about “Cultural semiosis”. His ideas about the semiotic systems deal with the semiosis quite differently from the ordinary Peirce’ian assumptions. He does not deal with the translation between two different systems, rather, in one system there are borders that change dynamically that generates translation possibilities and continuous fluctuation between keeping the identity and letting the system changing. These things are of importance in many instructional designs where the perception of borders between common and align create the possibilities for learning..and if the borders are not perceived (even though if they excist), no learning can happen. It is quite similar to the idea with affordances. Another idea relates with the identity of communities, and how to create it by creating the feeling “us and the others” and secondly, how to make communities to exchange by giving “translation areas”.

Now about this book. The chapters “Semantic intersection as the explosion of meaning”, “Text in text”, “Logic of the explosion”. “Internal structures and outer influence”, “Two forms of dynamics” immediately made me think of the phenomena happening in mobile learning where people interpret each others visuals and signs left in the space…and want to create communities… and thus i hope i can get some inspiration for what we are doing in research.

I will continue this article..when reading the chapters. Lets’ see was i right about inspiration.
Now i try to translate some things i found meaningful. Some parts of it are not the exact translation.

CH. Problem statement
The main question in case of any semiotic system is primarly, its relation with the world beyond the borders of the system, and secondly the relationship between statics and dynamics. This last question can be said also other ways: how can the system develop, keeping ist identity?

We presume two level objectivity exists: one for the language itself (objective for this language) and another beyond the borders of the language. One of the central questions is how to translate the meanings of the system (its internal reality) into the reality that exists outside the reality of the language. Two special questions emerge from this: 1) in order to reflect the world outside, we need at least two or more languages; 2) it is inevitable that the space of the reality was not occupied by one separate language, but with the amount of these. Minimal existing structure presumes two languages and that none of them was able to explain the whole reality.
The intermediate un-translability (or limited translability) between languages is essential for adequate reflection of the outside world in these languages.

CH2: Single-language system
All the communication systems are based on the components (Jakobson):
According to this model the main purpose of communication is its adequacy. According to theory it is possible to elliminate all the constraints that hinder communication between the sender and the receiver. These ideas are carried of the abstraction that presumes the complete idenity of the sender and the receiver. It means they are using the same code and similar memory capacity. In reality the usage of CODE instead of LANGUAGE isnt so harmless as it seems. Sending information within the structures without “memory” would result in high identity of the message. The sender and the receiver with the same set of memory would understand each other ideally, but the merit of the information transported is minimal and the information itself is constrained. We can say that mutually identical sender and receiver understand each other ideally, but they have nothing to talk about. This model is suitable for directing orders. Normal communication between people and normal communication between languages presumes the non-identity of the sender and the receiver. In this case it is normal that the language-space of the sender A and receiver B are partially intersected. Communication is impossible if A and B do not intersect, the total intersection (A and B are identical) changes communication meaningless. Permitted is, therefore, partial overlap of spaces, while at the same time two tendences will be in action: while streaming towards mutual understanding, the overlapped area is tried to be increased, in order to raise the merit of the message, the difference between A abd B must be increased. Therefore, to describe normal communication in languages, we must bring in the concept of tension, the contradiction between the certain forces bewteeen spaces A and B.
The overlapped space of A and B becomes their natural area of communication. At the same time the areas that do not overlap seem to be switched off the dialogue. Here we stumble to one more contraversity: communication at overlapped area is trivial. It occurres that not the overlapped area is of high meaning for the diealogue, but the exchange of information between the areas of no overlap. We can assume that translation of nontranslable becomes the carrier of information with high merits. In the area of overlap, between languages that are similar the translation is easy, between the different languages (e.g. poetry and music) it is difficult and creates ambiguient meanings. Not understanding between languages is same valuable as understaning.

From the Taggin Tallinn m-learning activities viewpoint, this chapter seemed the most interesting for me for thinking how the translatable and non-translatable parts of meaning would be distinguished if the observer sees some meanings related with the objects or spaces in town, and also tries to interact with these meanings by translating them into its own system. Analytically i see the possibility to ask what are the translation-points, and what kind of translation happened beyond the shared area of meaningspace.

CH 3: Continuous progress
Continuous and explosive processes are antiteses of each other. One cannot excist without the other. But from the subjective viewpoint one seems the constraint for the other, an enemy, towards which should be streamed. 18-20th century, the meaning of the explosion-metaphor became analogous to the symbol of destruction, however during reneissance and great conquests to the new worlds it would resemble the birth of new creature or the restructuration of new structure.

This chapter introduces the concept of the explosion as the event that may continue to many different ways. It seems unevitable of creating such explosions by our meaning-creating activities. However, Lotman does not explain what initates explosions.

CH4: Continuous and disrupted
Explosion and continuous development are not the phases that replace each other in sequence, but their relationships develop also in the synchronous space. In synchronously operating structure both the explosion and the continuous processes have important functions: the former are responsible for renewal, the latter for stability. In timeline we can perceive texts like stopped moments between past and the future. Past is embedded inside the text structure and also exists as a memory outside the text. The unknown future enables to consider everything meaningful. Future is imagined as the space with all kinds of possible states. The moment of presence is the falsh of the unrolled space of future. It potentially involves the possibility to all the future paths. The choice of future is operationalised as the chance. Therefore the informativity of it is very high.
With the explosion the level of informativity in the system is increased a great amount. During the moment of explosion each element of the system or the elements outside the system may become the dominating ones in the new path of events.

CH5: Semantic intersection as the explosion of meaning. Inspiration.
It would be correct to imagine the bundle of meanings, which borders are formed from the amount of individual users. Relating non-relatable things in the creational tension is inspiration.
Semiotic space opens in front of us as the intersection of different layers of texts, that all together form some layer, which has internal compex relationships, different level of translability and spaces of nontranslability. Beneath this layer lays the reality layer, that is organised and hierarchically related by different languages. These both layers together form the cultural semiotics. Reality beyond the language borders lies outside of the semiotics of culture. The relationships between the translable and non-translable are so complex that they create possibilities for breakthrough to the space beyond the borders. This function is fulfilled by the explosions, that create windows to the space beyond the language borders.

CH: Text in text
The reality is even more complex: each system is situated in the space where also exist other systems and the fragments of broaken systems. Therefore, the systems do not follow only their own path of development but collide with other cultures. Often during these collisions something compleatly new is generated that is not the logical continuation of any systems. The contrasting of reality and unreal is common to all text-in-text situations. Thus, texts themselves are not homogenous. These texts-in-texts start the unpredictable interplay with the elements of text and increase the storage of unpredictable future developments. If the system was developing without these unpredictable interventions from outside (as a self-closed structure) it would develop cyclically and exhaust itself in time. Continuous intake of align elements to the system makes the movement of the system linear and also unpredictable.

CH: Logic of explosions
One of the main characteristics of the semiosphere is that it is uneven. Semiologic room is filled with structural pierces freely exchanging places, each of which keeps the memory of the whole and when becoming part of the new system will start recovering its own system. Colliding semiotic systems in space have the property of transforming and keeping their identity in these transformations. The source of invariability created by the continuous outbursts and intake of layers of culture would lead to chaos unless there were also the forces working to the opposite direction.

In this chapter i like the idea that each of the align fragments has a memory of its own system and ability to recreate it.

CH. The moment of unpredictability
The moment of explosion is the moment of unpredictability.Talking of unpredictability we mean the equally probable bundle of possibilities (but not all the possibilities..some probable ways are outside the choice of the certain explosion), of which only one will be realised. Distancing from the place of explosion the synonymes will be differed more and more in the meaningspace. This process is regulated by opposite trend that aims to restrict differentiation, changing antonymes into synonymes. When we look from present to future, the presence seems as the bundle of possibilities, when we look from the future to the past, we see linear path where other, unrealised possibilities seem fatally impossible.

CH. Views
Explosions are inevitable part of linear dynamic processes. In binary systems this dynamics is very specific. Ternary systems try to accommodate ideals with the reality, binary systems try to realise unrealizable ideals. The inner central part of the ternary system may live through the explosion, ternary structures however will keep their values, transforming them from the periphety to the core of the system.

Lotman seems to distinguish cultures that are ternary /having three elements, parts, or divisions/ (like western culture) and cultures that are binary (like russian culture). I wonder how it is transformable into the communities of practice..or any communities.

CH. Instead of conclusions
Understanding that the source of any semiotic system is not the isolated sign, but the relationship of at least two signs, pushes us to reevaluate the basis of semiosis.
The startingpoint is not the single model, but the semiotic space. This space is filled by the conglomerate of elements having various relationships that may seem as colliding meanings, that move in the space between complete identity and absolute difference. Each system remembers its pervious states and has a potential vision about the future. Thus, the meaningspace is chronologically and synchronically many-angeled. It has fuzzy borders and ability to be involved int the explosion processes.

Here i like the description of the meaningspace characteristics: fuzzy borders, different languages with the identity, translations between the languages to explain the reality, explosive and linear, self-sustaining and renewing are only some of these.



  1. […] and interpretation and generate similarity-based connections between artifacts. If to follow Lotman’s cultural semiotics and translation ideas, two kinds of translations may occur: subjects that are translating on the basis of similarities, […]

  2. Thanks for these bits of translation — i’m in the middle of Universe of the Mind, the English translation of Lotman’s earlier book, and happened upon this page. Fascinating. I wonder why no English translation of Lotman’s last book is available yet. Anyway thanks for posting this much of it!

  3. You can take a look to the department of semiotics page of the University of Tartu. They have a lot of interesting information about Lotman in English as well.

  4. […] The topic of boundaries is a key concept in translation and semiosis. For instance in the works of J. Lotman he assumes that there must exist semiotic boundaries within the system that are constantly in move […]

  5. Lotman’s last book “Culture and Explosion” has now been translated into English and should be published later this year.

  6. Wilma, who is the publisher of the forthcoming ‘Culture and Explosion’ and when is it going to be released?

  7. See this link http://www.ut.ee/SOSE/lotman.html

  8. […] learners. Wilma has recently translated in English Lotman’s book Culture and explosion which i referred earlier, it will appear soon. Her other translation is Lotman’s […]

  9. Readers of this page and the replies may be aware of the fact that the book “Culture and Explosion” has been published by Mouton/deGruyter and lists for US$140.00. So far, I have found no shops offering the book at a discount.

  10. […] Taming the spaces This blog is about virtual and augmented spaces and our attempts of taming them for education « Ontobrands as prototypical stories attract stigmergic narrative mediation and swarming Ecology of Embodied Narratives in the Age of Locative Media » Obstacles in implementing SECI model in organizations January 14, 2010 These are some (but not all) obstacles in temporarily extended professional communities to use SECI model. There is one interesting aspect, the model is usable both for “organizations” and “communities”, however in the latter case, the border of the community is not so clearly defined. Interesting ideas are for example in Lotman’s Culture and explosion. […]

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