Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. April 2004

5.12. Narration in Literature and Writing History
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Gabriella Hima (Budapest)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Chaos in Culture - A Dynamic Model of Historical and Literary Discourse

Tünde Szabó (Budapest)


Until very recently historical and literary discourse were conceived of as being fundamentally different; the historical text was thought of as a reconstruction of reality, while the literary text was thought of as pure fiction. It was only in the 20th century that the narrative quality of historical texts became a scholarship issue, revealing their inherent similarity to literary narratives. In this lecture I intend to provide a concise description of a concept, in which both types of discourse are shown to be part of the semiosphere system, which has evolved through a process of signification.

The term semiosphere is used to denote a concept of culture put forward by Yuri Lotman, the leading figure of the Moscow-Tartu School of Semiotics. Although he is generally known as a structuralist scholar, Lotman has also carried out research in the fields of semiotics and culturology, which induced him to give up his original static concept of structure. He worked out a dynamic system, which included literary and historical texts as well as all those created within the realm of culture in a broader sense.

In Lotman's concept the semiosphere is both a result and a precondition of the concerted intellectual activity of humanity. It is an abstract spatial mechanism, the primary functions of which are to communicate existing information, to generate new information, and to preserve information. Since within the sphere of culture information is postulated in texts, the individual intellect, the text, and culture as a whole can all be conceived as isomorphic in their fulfilment of these three functions. Since ideas are brought into existence through the interaction of two incompatible or only partially overlapping languages, texts, or cultures, they can only function through dialogue and communication with another intellect, text, or culture.

The discrepancies between the different languages and text types in the semiosphere result from the characteristics of the process of signification and the various communicative situations which enable the transfer of information. In Lotman's theory there are two distinct processes of text generation: a discreet mechanism and a continual mechanism. In texts generated in the discreet mechanism, the meaning is a sum result of the individual signs, while in texts of the continual type meaning is generated through an inarticulate stream of signs. It should be noted that the definition of the two types is always a question of relationships. When compared to the continuity of life, naturally all texts are discreet and limited units, but in comparison to the metalanguage of analysis all original texts are continual.

The ways in which communicative situations influence the text to be transferred are also dependent upon a particular point of view and are therefore relative. Lotman defines two extreme situations: I-they communication and I-I communication. In the I-they case the code and the message are constant, while the communicator changes: first, it is the sender (or source), and then the receiver. In I-I autocommunication the communicator does not change, but a new meaning is attached to the original message, which is a qualitative change that leads to an alteration in the structure of I.

The definition of two basic oppositions governing the functioning of the semiosphere (discreet vs. continual mechanisms of text generation and I-they vs. I-I communication) facilitates both the analysis of historical and literary texts from an identical point of view and within the same system and a description of their characteristics and differences.

Lotman claims, that as far as discreet and continual mechanisms of signification are concerned, it is a fundamental characteristic of literary texts that they simultaneously function as articulate structures and inarticulate signs. On the one hand, literary texts can be divided into discreet meaningful units (this facilitates, among other things, a referential reading), while, on the other hand, their meaning (depending on whether or not it is definable) cannot be deduced from the sum total of their parts. According to Lotman, as far as the type of communication is concerned, literary discourse is fundamentally orientated towards autocommunication, although always as part of the I-they communicative situation, since "an aesthetic effect is accomplished at the moment the code is used as a message and the message as a code, that is, when the text is transferred from one communicative system to the other, maintaining contact at the same time with both types in the recipient's mind."(1)

The application of the discreet-continual opposition to the evaluation of historical discourse is of enormous significance, as it takes into account the fact that, when compared to life or the continuity of reality, all texts, including historical texts, are discreet, that is, they can only describe a certain segment of reality. This has far-reaching consequences in the analysis of historical facts, which are corrupted the instant they are transformed into a narrative. Above all, they are subordinated to a former structural pattern coded in language, since communicative acts always organize messages along coordinates of time and those of cause and effect. The act of selection is a corruption in itself, as it arbitrarily defines a starting and a finishing point in a continual series of events. The stylistic and ideological codes of the age when the text was recorded also significantly influence the observed fact(2). The text recording a historical fact is created with a concrete aim in mind, similar to a message in everyday communication. However, the source and the recipient are in general separated by a considerable time period, making autocommunication impossibe. Moreover, the difference in time worsens the corruption of texts at the recipient's end, and the communicative codes of the source and the recipient are also different. According to Lotman, the most serious corruptive effect is caused by the fact that what was present as a full scale of options for the sender at the time of composition (transforming a given historical fact into a text) is reduced to being the sole option when looked at retrospectively from the recipient's point of view. As a result, it is easy to reduce the incidentalness of both historical facts and processes to zero.

Incidentalness is not only a crucial component of historical processes and the writing of texts and literary works which record certain segments, but also the most indispensible element of the dynamics of the semiosphere as a whole. Lotman already noted the importance of components outside the system in his early structuralist works. Taking this idea further in his semiosphere concept, he emphasized the role of certain elements in the formation of cultures, which can resist the homogenizing effect of the metalanguage used to describe a given language, text, or culture, and which also lead to explosions brought on by incidental changes.

According to Lotman, the semiosphere is a non-static organism of processes of varying velocity that continually affect one another. The source of the dynamics of these processes is the existing asymmetry in language, space, and time. I mentioned asymmetry in language at the beginning of this lecture, and the dialogue between different and partially overlapping languages (defined by Lotman as various systems of signification capable of transmitting information) is a fundamental precondition of the proper functioning of culture. Translations between the different languages are a source of the dynamic nature of the system, since the resulting anomalies bring about uncertainties and new potential contacts. The most significant form of spatial asymmetry is the separation of centre and periphery. The structures that form part of the centre play a dominant role in any given culture. They are more sophisticated than their amorphic counterparts of the periphery, and they aim to create a metalanguage, which they use to describe themselves as well as peripherical systems. The metalanguage unifies the whole system, thus slowing its activity. However, at the same time development accelerates in areas lacking a metalanguage, resulting in their transformation from periphery into centre and the creation of their own metalanguage. In the field of semiotics there are no clear boundaries between centre and periphery: "...a given area in the semiosphere can function both as centre and as periphery. [...] In reality the circulation of texts is a continual flow involving a great variety of directions and intersections where streams can have an effect on one another..."(3) Apart from translation, it is the two streams that result from the asymmetry of the semiosphere which have the most important role in maintaining the dynamics of the semiosphere through their flow and counter-flow. The temporal asymmetry of the systems that make up the semiosphere play a similar part in maintaining the dynamics. Any synchronic section of the semiosphere reveals systems at different stages of development, since their speed and developmental cycles show great differences (for example, alterations in language are considerably slower than those in the mental-ideological structures growing out of it). "Culture as a whole consists of layers at different stages of development, so any synchronic section will reveal such stages. An explosion which occurs within a given layer may coexist with continual development in another."(4)

Continual development and explosion are analogous, albeit at a higher level, with the initial opposition of the discreet and the continual information generating mechanisms. In Lotman's terminology continual development is that which makes our senses react to small stimuli, which are then perceived as continual movement. "In this sense continuity is nothing but a type of sensible predictability. On the other hand, an explosion brings sudden and unpredictable changes."(5) These two processes can only exist as parallels. The extinction of either would cause the destruction of culture. Like the oppositions characteristic of the more basic layers of the system, continual development and explosion are also synchronically existing structural tendencies in the field of semiotics. They are both interdependent aspects of the same process, continually replacing each other in the unity of dynamic development. A balanced condition of culture is characterized by a predominance of continual development, the movements of which are relatively predictable. In the case of greater semiotic activity, for example, along semiotic boundaries, or the transformation of periphery into centre, this equilibrium may be upset, causing the system to become unpredictable, since it can continue in a number of different directions. At the moment of explosion, when the outcome is still unpredictable, the value of the inherent information of the system increases substantially. After the waves of the explosion have died down and one of the possible options has been realized, the system regains its high degree of definition. Moreover, a process of retrospective interpretation is initiated, a metalanguage is formed, which aims to present the former process as coherent and inevitable.

Lotman's semiosphere-concept shows similarities to the scientific trend, which became known as the theory of chaos in the 1980s(6). This theory originates from the study of non-linear dynamic systems in physics, however its method of modelling has proved productive in various fields of study from meteorology to economics. Chaos is not about hitherto undiscovered phenomena but rather the experiences which show that the random behaviour of simple systems hides a creativity which brings about complexity(7) . Incidentalness, or the lack of metalanguage, is a prerequisite of producing information and thus increases its complexity in Lotman's system, just like noise in the case of physical and other systems.

Taking Lotman's semiosphere concept a step further, the theory of chaos opens up new possibilities in the study of historical and literary discourse, thus closing the gap between the humanities and the natural sciences. This could open new avenues to a unified approach to culture in its broadest sense.

Translated by Kristóf Hegedüs

© Tünde Szabó (Budapest)


(1) Lotman, Ju. M.: Izbrannye stat'i I., Tallin, 1991.

(2) White, Hayden: A történelem poétikája. AETAS, 2001/1. 134-165.

(3) Lotman, Ju. M.: Vnutri mysljaschih mirov. Moszkva, 1999. 204.

(4) Lotman, Ju. M.: Kultúra és robbanás. Pannonica, 2001. 21.

(5) Ibid. 14.

(6) Szabó, Tünde: A gondolkodó világ modellje. Ju. M. Lotman munkássága. AETAS 2003/1. 113-141.

(7) Gleick, James: Chaos. Making a new science. Penguin Books, 1988.

5.12. Narration in Literature and Writing History

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