Unfortunately, in their attempts to explain the artistic ‘mystery’ in terms of an analyzable device, the Formalists had become entangled in a series of contradictions.
Interest in structural studies of language had led (particularly through the influence of Roman Jakobson) to an interest Introduction viii in the works of the Prague School, and at the same time to the re- discovery of the Russian Formalists of the Twenties.Up until this time, the Formalists had been known only at second hand through the seminal text Russian Formalism by Victor Erlich.In order to understand the interest aroused by these critics, who had been up until now unknown in the West except to a few Soviet Studies experts, it must be remembered that semiotics and structuralism form a highly complex pair of terms.Semiotics aims to study the entire range of sign systems (of which verbal language is the most important) and the various processes of communication to which these systems give rise.The centre of this research paradigm was Paris, although the phenomenon spread steadily throughout Europe and to many North and Latin American universities.
The devastating effect created in Britain by these new approaches to language (and, as a result, to the study of the languages of art) is recorded by David Lodge’s novel Small World , (clear proof that literary works can often be much more informative about the world and our society than many scientific treatises).
Small World was published in 1984, at a time when the series of English translations of Russian and Soviet semiotic texts produced by L. O’Toole and Ann Shukman, Russian Poetics in Translation , had already been in in progress for several years.
However, during the Sixties and Seventies, Lotman’s works were more widely known on the Continent than in Britain.
1 In 1965, Tzvetan Todorov translated many of the Russian Formalist texts into French, 2 and little by little, in steady progression, the most important works of Shklovsky, Tomashevsky and Tynyanov were translated into the European languages (especially into Italian).
Alongside this growth of interest in Russian Formalism, during the early Sixties scholars in Italy and France were beginning to discover the semioticians at work during this period in Russia - principally in Moscow and Tartu.
It may be useful, however, to outline here certain aspects of Lotman’s work which contribute to a fuller understanding of the themes and methods at work in this book.