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  • Otkrytaia struktura: Iakobson—Bakhtin—Lotman—Gasparov (Open Structure: Jakobson—Bakhtin—Lotman—Gasparov)
  • Petre Petrov
Nataliia Avtonomova , Otkrytaia struktura: Iakobson—Bakhtin—Lotman—Gasparov (Open Structure: Jakobson—Bakhtin—Lotman—Gasparov). 503 pp. Moscow: Rosspen, 2009. ISBN-13 978-5824312546.

Russia's most lasting contribution to the study of literature and language is a tradition of thought that begins in the 1910s with the OPOIaZ group in St. Petersburg and the Moscow Linguistic Circle; continues, through the intermediacy of Roman Jakobson, in the Prague Linguistic Circle of the late 1920s and 1930s; supplies inspiration for the French structuralism of the 1950s and 1960s; and receives further development on Russian soil in the Tartu-Moscow school of semiotics, formed in the mid-1960s. Nataliia Avtonomova's book is a spirited and ambitious attempt to recuperate this intellectual legacy and to advocate its unfading relevance to humanistic studies. She writes as a philosopher who addresses herself primarily to philosophers in order to bring to their attention epistemological riches they have largely ignored. She admits that much of what the book has to offer is common knowledge in literary studies (6); yet to philosophers its contents are recommended as a much-needed schooling in sober rationalism after the intellectual frivolities of postmodern thought.

The book combines the analytical, biographic, memoiristic, philosophical, and documentary modes in a multifaceted generic pattern. On its pages, close scrutiny of critical texts coexists with theoretical reflection, ethical deliberations, reminiscences, biographic sketches, and epistolary material.1 The end result is a sizable volume that holds a manifestly rich and engaging compendium of knowledge but does not fit easily into established conventions of scholarly writing. Avtonomova brings to her project wide erudition, an impeccable research apparatus, and that rare commodity—personalized knowledge of the intellectual personages she discusses. It is a deliberate strategy on her part to treat the four main figures in the book—Jakobson, Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin, Iurii Mikhailovich Lotman, and Gasparov—not merely as "texts" [End Page 752] but as individuals whose lives have bearing upon their work.2 Avtonomova is widely known as the translator who introduced the Russian public to the work of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and her intimate acquaintance with the French intellectual tradition comes as an all-important asset in a book in which French-inspired poststructuralism figures as the main culprit.3

In championing the cause of structuralist cognition, Avtonomova employs two distinct strategies. One aims to establish argumentatively that structures, when properly understood and elaborated, can account for the existence of the particular, the subjective, and the nonsystemic. The other strategy aims to document a great tradition of Russian philology in which thought about structure and the pursuit of rigorous scientific grounding for the study of literature have been kept alive to this day. Making a case and making a monument are complementary intentions within the overall conception of the book, although Avtonomova does not spell out how this tandem is supposed to function. I will comment below on how and why it functions to the author's advantage.

The main text divides into five chapters, four of which treat at considerable length the four main heroes of the book (the chapter on Lotman runs to over 160 pages). As Avtonomova delves into the examination of each individual intellectual profile, the sense of an overarching trajectory becomes attenuated. For long stretches of text, the reader is left to wonder how the current discussion connects with the book's general objective. The four chapters, which draw in part upon previously published studies, retain a considerable degree of independence and never quite coalesce into a concerted ensemble.4

Anticipating criticisms of the coherence of the volume, Avtonomova announces at the outset in a tone of mystery and metaphor: "My heroes meet [End Page 753] in an 'enchanted place'—in open structure" (11). A hostile reader may be tempted to observe that what makes the said place enchanted is that, while it purports to provide a meeting ground, it does not actually exist. "Open structure," the book's cardinal concept, is supposedly something that the thought of Jakobson, Lotman, Bakhtin, and Gasparov projects or anticipates in one way or another, but just what...


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