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Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Lotman/Semiotics of technology

What you find below was posted by me last week in the community SemioComm on LiveJournal.
I have just read "Technological progress as a problem in the study of culture" (Lotman 1988 [Russian], tr. to English 1991). A very rich text, dealing not least with various technologies of language (writing, printing etc.). Early on, Lotman attacks Thomas Kuhn's view that "[o]utside the laboratory everyday affairs usually continue as before" whenever scientific revolutions occur (quoted p. 781 of Lotman's article). Here, Lotman portrays himself in contrast with Kuhn - though Kuhn is in other contexts known exactly for emphasizing not only the the social workings of science, but also the way in which scientific intuition and common cultural intuition interact - think only of his analysis of the transition from a heliocentric to a geocentric world view (I don't know how much Lotman read of Kuhn?). At that instant, Kuhn defended the view that it was somewhat rational of the scholars of the day not immediately to adopt the new, revolutionary ideas - because they actually for quite some time contradicted common and accepted knowledge, as well as the everyday intuitions of the day.

As Lotman stresses, the cultural impact of scientific revolutions oftentimes takes time to materialize. "There is a repeated pattern to the immediate consequences of a technological change: having acquired new powerful means, society first attempts to use them for old ends", he writes (p. 782-3), "increasing its possibilities only quantitatively". Lotman's examples of ancient bureaucracies are amusing. His simple observation that the invention of writing made much more advanced architecture and infrastructure administrable is intruiging. In consequence, we can theorize (with Lotman) that the advent of writing also made empires possible. Statehood, then, is from this theoretical perspective a (actual, materialized, factual (though not necessary)) consequence of the written word.

Similarly prolific are Lotman's observations regarding elements in the emergence of capitalism. The technology of printing - enabling mass publication - is a central example, which further points to the modern phenomena of mass hysteria, mass mentality etc (as well as, as Lotman notes, expressions of individualism and eruptions of creativity). The individual and the mass - the individual as representative of the mass - the individual in opposition to the mass (thereby reaffirming the centrality of the mass, nevertheless)... Limitless optimism which can any given moment turn into its opposite, bottomless pessimism...

And I ask myself: This global (or US?) culture of fear and hysteria ... After 9/11 in particular, perhaps ... how is it related to our most recent advances in mass communication? How is language changing today, in cultural terms? This, I realize, is not a new debate... Perhaps the swine flu "pandemia" would represent a good case study. Have we been infected by modern language?

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