Literary and Critical Theory Jurij Lotman
Anna Maria Lorusso
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0074


Jurij (or Yuri) Lotman (b. 1922–d. 1993) was a Russian semiotician and cofounder of the Tartu-Moscow school of semiotics. A Russian philologist by education, his interests ranged from aesthetics to literary and cultural history; from narrative theory to intellectual history; from cinema to mythology. At the core of his theory is a holistic approach to culture as a system whose main feature is the modeling property. Culture is a structural mechanism that generates structurality through a primary modeling system (the verbal language) and secondary modeling systems (art, literature, religion, mythology, etc.). Clearly inspired in the 1970s by the emergence of structuralism in Moscow, over the years he gave an increasingly dynamic interpretation of “structure,” focusing on the evolution of systems and continuous hybridizations of languages. The idea of dialogue as a condition for cultural evolution is a personal echo of Bakhtin’s theory, which assumes an absolute centrality in Lotman. Cultural evolution comes from the relationship with the Other and the exchange with spaces different from our own. In this frame, the idea of border is also pivotal: cultural identities need to define their own borders, but it is precisely on the borders—lines of separation—that we find the maximum exchange. These ideas form the basis of the theory of semiosphere, a successful neologism that, echoing the biosphere of Vernadskij, points out the holistic, functional, and self-organized quality of cultural systems. In his last works (published posthumously in 2009 and 2013), Lotman’s interest in history and temporal layers of cultures is increasingly in the foreground. He focuses on the predictability or otherwise of historical situations, putting the category of explosion at the center of his reflection, as a moment of unexpected acceleration of the historical-cultural dynamism and the creativity of systems. During the 1970s, Lotman’s works and those of other Soviet semioticians were widely read and proved influential, especially in the field of Slavic studies. In the 1980s, they become influential in American and West European academia. Among the scholars who used Lotman’s concepts are the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, the New Historicist Stephen Greenblatt, the semiotician Umberto Eco, the reception theorist Wolfgang Iser, and the feminist critic Julia Kristeva. From 2000s onward, Lotman’s legacy has been pivotal in the field of semiotics, and relevant also to the field of cultural and media studies.

General Overviews

The breadth of Lotman’s interests, and the number of different fields in which he intervened, make the production of this author very broad. He wrote almost exclusively in Russian, but in the 1960s his works began to be translated, first into German, Spanish, and Italian. English translation started later, in 1973, and some scholars noticed a sort of resistance to Lotman’s work, but—just to give an idea of the number of texts he wrote—up until 2014 he has had more than 118 publications translated into English, according to Kalevi Kull and Remo Gramigna (see Kull 2011 and Kull and Gramigna 2014). The reasons why the Anglo-American world was slower than other cultures (such as those of Italy or Spain) in paying attention to Lotman’s theory are complex, and also very interesting from the point of view of a history of culture. According to Blaim 1998, a negative role was played by the Slavic field where Lotman started to circulate, and where he remained to a certain extent confined. Many articles of his were published in journals that specialized in translation from Russian, and this contributed to keeping Lotman studies within the “circle” of Russian studies, thus somewhat neglecting the importance of his general theory of culture and semiosis. The first semiotic center to pay attention to him was that of Brown University, thanks to Thomas Winner and Irene Portis-Winner. Thomas Winner (as discussed in Winner 2002), after a visit in Moscow in 1967 during which he was struck by Lotman’s work, with which he was not yet familiar, published two of Lotman’s books in United States (one in 1968 and the other in 1971), but in Russian, as the first issues of the Brown Slavic Series. We would have to await the work of Irene Portis-Winner to have a significant account of the centrality of Lotman’s theory in the semiotics of culture (see Portis-Winner and Winner 1976). Another reason for the “cold” Anglo-American reaction to Lotman’s work has to do with his political and ideological dimension (see, again, Blaim 1998). Lotman never expressed a clear, explicit political position against the Soviet regime. This attitude was linked to the censorship policy. However, Lotman generally seems to avoid any open discourse about politics, in the name of a personal ethics that would avoid interfering with the field of freedom of opinion and choice. During the 1970s, in which discourse in the United States was dominated by cultural studies centered on ideological topics, Lotman’s lesson seemed quite uninteresting. It was the interest in Russian formalism and the success of structuralism that allowed for a more complete understanding of Lotman’s theory (as Eco 1990 points out).

  • Blaim, Artur. “Lotman in the West: An Ambiguous Complaint.” In Neo-formalist Papers: Contributions to the Silver Jubilee Conference to Mark 25 Years of the Neo-formalist Circle. Edited by Joe Andrew and Robert Reid, 329–337. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998.

    A reflection on the reasons that kept Lotman on the margins of Anglo-American studies for many years. Two of the main elements highlighted are the publication of his works by small publishers that specialized in Slavonic studies, which kept Lotman within this very limited field, and the lack of open political positions in Lotman’s writing.

  • Eco, Umberto. “Introduction.” In Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture. By Jurij Lotman, vii–xiii. Translated by Ann Shukman. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 1990.

    The text places the American interest for Lotman in the 1980s against the backdrop of the new interest in Russian formalism, the success of structuralism, and cybernetic theory. All these components are in Lotman’s work, producing a very multifaceted theory.

  • Kull, Kalevi. “Jurij Lotman in English: Bibliography.” In Sign Systems Studies 39.2–4 (2011): 343–356.

    DOI: 10.12697/SSS.2011.39.2-4.14

    The essay lists all known English-language publications by Lotman, in chronological order. In the preface, Kull gives a very useful outline of Lotman’s publications in the Anglo-American world, dividing them into seven different kinds of essay.

  • Kull, Kalevi, and Remo Gramigna. “Jurij Lotman in English: Updates to Bibliography.” In Sign Systems Studies 42.4 (2014): pp. 549–552.

    DOI: 10.12697/SSS.2014.42.4.07

    This essay completes the list in Kull 2011.

  • Winner, Thomas. “How Did the Ideas of Yuri Lotman Reach the West?” In Sign Systems Studies 30.2 (2002): 419–427.

    A personal account of the encounter of Thomas Winner with Lotman’s theory that is also an account of the Prague school, and how Jakobson and Lotman positioned themselves with respect to Slavonic studies, Saussure’s legacy, and Anglo-American studies.

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