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  • The Soviet Empire of Signs: A History of the Tartu School of Semiotics
  • Caryl Emerson
Maxim Waldstein, The Soviet Empire of Signs: A History of the Tartu School of Semiotics. xii + 219 pp. Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller, 2008. ISBN-13 978-3639056051. Paper, $116.98.

Can empire ever be a good, honest, open-ended thing—even an empire of signs, and even one that prides itself on transcending (rather than relying upon) big-power politics? Throughout this account of Iurii Lotman and the rise of the Tartu school, Maxim Waldstein, a sociologist by training, teases out an answer to this question. His verdict comes only late in chapter 6, and in appealingly tentative form. Waldstein intimates that in semiotics, as in every ambitious body of procedures, there is imperial heavy and lite. Heavy is the hardcore interventionist position: the assumption that since "semiotic mechanisms take place everywhere," semioticians can "claim expertise over almost any field of knowledge" (162). Little wonder that the movement was accused of disciplinary promiscuity. What tempted its members was not only the rigor of quantification—its promise of common denominators and the possibility of arriving at objective data in the humanities—and not only the refreshing indifference of cybernetics or information theory to political ideology. Waldstein repeatedly notes that the Tartu scholars, working at the periphery of a centralized state, were universalizers by temperament. Their model, consciously or no, was the multinational, multilingual, multiethnic Soviet empire, the uncomfortable but familiar home that both trapped and nourished them.

But this Tartu Empire of Signs was not a bully state. Semiotics in its mature form remained universalist in scope and implication, but in spirit its practitioners were empire-lite. They presented their findings as a "parallel science [or scholarship]," a breathing place for intellectual activity and free imagination off to the side of ossified communist institutions. As a field of study, Lotman eventually called this free imperial space a "semiosphere," a utopian realm without punitive structures or oppressive hierarchies. No single ethnic group or dialect held any other in subjection; the scholar studied diversity and multi-voicedness for its own sake and for the sake of interesting overlaps and untranslatable gaps. Among the forceful points made in Waldstein's book is the distinction between [End Page 262] Russian-style "culturology" (of which the Lotman school is paradigmatic) and two powerful theoretical benchmarks in the West from roughly the same decades: French structuralism / poststructuralism (significantly, Waldstein blurs the boundary) and Anglo-American "cultural studies" (129–33). The Western pair, arising in rich, uncensored bourgeois democracies, targets the stupefied consumer and aims to deconstruct or subvert—words, artifacts, entire socio-cultural systems. Natural to it is an overtly engaged left-wing agenda for political change. Russian Soviet-era culturologists, in contrast, are "archaic," elitist, preservationist, disgusted with every aspect of the political turn. "If the target of radical Western intellectuals of the 1960s and later decades was existing class, gender, and race privilege embodied in educational institutions, Soviet intellectuals were more concerned about preserving their privilege as knowledge- and cultural tradition-producers and transmitters," Waldstein writes (134–35). "If French authors aimed at decentering 'canonical' cultural authorities, e.g., the 'Western Canon' and classical philology, Tartu scholars desired to reestablish them after what they saw as the ideological 'destruction' of classical culture in the course of attempts to appropriate it for the purposes of producing the docile Soviet subject" (133).1 Moscow–Tartu semiotics was not a weapon, not even a tool (or in Formalist parlance, a "device"), but high culture's safe haven.

This story has been told before, but in Waldstein's view inadequately and from too "heroic" a perspective. The Soviet Empire of Signs—Waldstein's barely revised and wholly unedited 2005 dissertation in sociology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—is a goldmine of insights, corrective facts, passionately held opinion, postcommunist interviews, and useful contexts relating to the forty-year reign of this celebrated semiotic enterprise. It is also a "book with a tendency". In the second paragraph of his preface Waldstein is already bawling out his reader. Without "delving deeply in the empirical thick of things just recently...


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