Russian Fairy Tales (RUSS 047/LITR 047R) -- Spring 2008 -- Swarthmore College

Lecture notes for March 26, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

semiotics and cultural archeology

If you haven’t yet signed up for both of your presentations, please do so right away: there are lots of free slots at the end of the semester, but it’s approaching fast.

More on the Semiotics of Russian Cultural History – Yuri Lotman (1922-1993) and Boris Uspenskii (born 1937; has taught in the US) (other big names are Viacheslav Vs. Ivanov (born 1929) and Vladimir Toporov (1928-2005)) - all were sort of heirs of the Formalists and Structuralists (what Roman Jakobson turned into); semiotics is even considered “the paradigmatic form of structuralism.” But their work offers interesting parallel to the ambitions of Afanas'ev and the “nature school,” who used “linguistic” methods to try to figure out where fairytales and other relics of folk tradition came from, trace them back up the links of a presumed evolution. Why would pagan pre-history be especially interesting to a Soviet scholar? – possibly because it’s not Orthodox, and so marginally more acceptable as a research topic (work on a topic that seems to prove that Russian peasants were religious in a very heterodox way undercuts the idea of Orthodoxy as a crucial constituent part of Russian culture).

The book with this article presents some of the work of the famous Tartu school (our co-author here, Iurii Lotman, in particular). Soviet separation from West meant semiotics there had its own school; “provincial” cities like Tartu in Estonia ("provincial" from the Russo- and Moscovo-centric Soviet perspective, I mean!) could harbor more provocative academic and theoretical work since they might not be under such close surveillance. (Remember Bakhtin, whom I mentioned last time: he was working in provincial Saransk, though he also lived for years here and there in Petrograd/Leningrad or Moscow – his dates, again, were 1895-1975: a generation before the semiotics guys.)

Note for example how many PRE-Revolutionary sources Lotman and Uspensky cite! You could do that, and it obviously had to be okay, if you were talking about older historical periods. Work on paganism was okay, again, because it wasn’t a high-status threat to Soviet official atheism (…heir of the nihilist/positivist scientists or folklore collectors/ethnographers in the 19th century, who aimed in part to prove that the [culturally normative] peasantry was not genuinely religious) the way Orthodoxy was still a threat – but there's an "Aesopian" element here too: the authors’ arguments about the ways revolutionary change was carried out in the Russian past were surely impacted by the way the 1917 October revolution was imagined, carried out and then solidified in rhetoric and ceremony by the Bolsheviks, but they can't say so openly. (This article stops with Peter the Great, though it refers here and there to the later 18th century and early 19th: but the Bolshevik revolution and other 20th century events cry out for this kind of interpretation!)

The “Tartu School” began to disintegrate in about 1991, as some members got too old (Lotman died), and others had the chance to go elsewhere to work.

Note too that “language” in Russian (literally, “tongue”) is “iazyk” язык – which gives the word “iazychnik” язычник ‘pagan’, “iazychestvo” язычество ‘paganism’ – almost readable as a calque for “lingvistika,” a science whose name is clearly taken from French – suggesting (subliminally?) that linguistics will lead us to pagan relics??? That pagan linguistic relics underlie our language? (The word “poganyj” погяный exists in Russian; it has come to mean dirty, foul, unclean (like an inedible mushroom, toadstool), and only obscurely “non-Christian.”)

In the west, vs. E Europe, the semiotic line might go thus: Saussure (1857-1913), Lévi-Strauss (born 1908, anthropologist), Barthes (1915-1980, cultural crit), maybe Jacques Lacan (1901-1981, psychoanalysis), on to Jacques Derrida (1930-2004, lit and cultural crit), Judith Butler (born 1956, philosophy and gender studies) and others. If this is interesting to you and you aren’t yet a junior or senior, you might want to look into Interpretation Theory.

What does semiotics (the influential French say: sémiologie) do or attempt to do? Study of all kinds of systems of signs, and often (traced precisely from Saussure – the language and parole guy), NOT just linguistic signs – so semiotics approaches and discusses all kinds of cultural artifacts as “texts” (their perceivers/consumers as “readers”) – from films or popular songs, posters, even clothing, etc.

Most of what semioticians have done with folk and fairy tales has been like this example: they mention them in order to contribute to a larger hypothesis of how things are understood. The tale is evidence for, say, tracing out certain kinds of pagan survivals – looking for what it can contribute to the study of a particular figure, item, relationship in that culture.

Good quote from p. 65: “The essence of culture is such that the past contained in it does not 'depart into the past' as in the natural flow of time; it does not disappear. It becomes fixed in cultural memory, and acquires a permanent, if background, presence. The memory of a culture is constructed not only as a store of texts, but as a certain mechanism for their generation. Culture, united with the past through memory, generates not only its future, but also its past, presenting, in this sense, a mechanism that works against natural time.”

Possible critique, based on the evidence cited in this chapter: not prioritizing the weight of various artifacts, and no (or only limited) quantitative emphasis: a very quirky example of parole will be cited in the argument if it fits or expands it, even if it might have been quite atypical for the time when it was recorded.

One very influential text from Tartu School (Lotman and Uspenskii cite it a few times here) is Vyach. Vs. Ivanov and V. N. Toporov’s “Slavic Linguistic Modeling Semiotic Systems” – taking lots of individual oppositions in a sort of Lévi-Straussian system (wet vs. dry, house vs. yard and field, village vs. forest), examining which are coded as positive and negative, or (à la Jakobson!) marked and unmarked; masculine and feminine.

So, after all that: what does this reading bring up for you out of the tales we have read? How much are they structured on polarities, or develop through switching poles (positive becomes negative, etc.)? How does it suggest one might undertake the risky business of analyzing the material to find what it might reveal about past beliefs and practices, and how much do you feel you’d need to keep sources like Ivanits and Tian-Shanskaya in mind as you did so?

How are these guys different from Propp (and can you extrapolate: how’s structuralism or semiotics different from Formalism?).


Return to the class syllabus

Proceed to the lecture notes for Friday, March 28, 2008.