Cultural Landscape as a Sign System

  • Olga LavrenovaEmail author
Part of the Numanities - Arts and Humanities in Progress book series (NAHP, volume 8)


This chapter reveals specific of semiosis, where geographical objects take part as a «material envelope» of signs and/or their names.

The first section discusses some theoretical principles of semiotics, concerning in particular the categories of signs and sign situation in relation to the realities of the cultural landscape. Culture is based on the semiotic mechanisms, it is continuously generated new signs and preserved existing ones, both of them come into the communication process, i.e. acquire, transform and transmit information (Yuri Lotman).

A sign is a very vast concept, we will not introduce the new definition, but take it to the broader sense as an object which, under certain conditions (in particular sign situation), has a value not equal to the object itself.

According to some definitions, not only the objects, events and actions can serve as a sign (information signal), but also images, playing the role of representatives of another object, properties or relations.

To paraphrase Alexander Piatigorsky, we can say that people can use loci, geographical objects as characters precisely because some properties inherent in them (not in the psyche of the people and not in the acts of signal communication) objectively allow for such use. We propose to consider the ontological duality of objects in the geo-cultural space—they are not only or mainly representatives of the physical reality, but of culture itself, and when the name of the object—place name—is used as a sign, there is always the image of the thing beyond and physical reality of the city, river, mountain, plain associated with this image. The architectural features of the city, length, size, physical and geographical peculiarities of the natural landscape components are usually included in geographical image.

Unlike metaphor, considered earlier in the context of geo-cultural space, the main function of the sign is a communicative function. In the case of the cultural landscape metaphors may be reduced to symbols, and vice versa, they can return a quality of metaphorical projections in both cases adding to and enriching the images associated with this or that geographical object in a specific culture. In this case, signs with symbolic meaning are generated.

For geographical objects in the context of culture we can talk about the symbols, more valued than the sign, and related to it by their nature. Symbols are closer to the making of images, and the more meanings symbols have the richer is their content.

So called cultural signs are considered, signs having a cultural component in the denotative or connotational part (Yulia Pikuleva). All semiotic forms in the cultural landscape have cultural component mainly in its denotative component. The content of signs that is a part of the cultural landscape is as multidimensional, as the meaning of the lexical unit.

In the second section we investigate the relation of images and signs in the cultural landscape. The sign is the information unit; the concept of the sign includes the information carried by the sign, and the amount of knowledge about the object or concept denoted by this sign.

Information processes perform an organizing role in all the «spaces» , conditionally allocated within the geographical space, particularly related to human activity—i.e. in economic, socio- and geo-cultural spaces.

Information and sign processes are studied in the materialized forms of their manifestation and in the form of so-called «intangible heritage» , which is also recognized as an integral part of the cultural landscape. Also it is examined the evolution of culture in its living space—the ways of introduction of new impulses (innovation), the spatial aspects of their interaction with the long-established structures of the cultural landscape.

A man, a bearer of a culture, transforms the perceived spatial information in accordance with the code of culture (if under the code of culture to understand the system of internally related concepts that define human behavior in culture).

Culture understands space, and it is associated with the birth of multi-level geographical images—from image of the world to the image of place. Stable images of a geographical objects, locality, landscape elements, that exist in the public consciousness and/or recorded in works of art, are referred to as the image of the place and become, in turn, an integral part of the cultural landscape.

From the visual landscape images arises the symbolic landscape of culture; the construction of symbolic imagery passes through the stages of schematization—the isolation of characteristic detail of the landscape, conventialization—anchorage the detail of this code of value, providing meaningful parts (a slope, a review, meaningfulness) and finally—the birth of the matrix circle of meaning (Evgeny Kolbovsky). Semiotics of the perceived landscape-space can be considered as the language of space, and may act as a «modeling package of culture» (Yuri Lotman).

In the Dmitri Zamyatin’s concept geographical images represent a research construct, where the most important nuances of all the values and meanings associated with a particular place are structured and identified.

Although the geographic image exists in culture, like any other image, the priority of space in the mentality of culture leads to what it is perceived and re-presented as a «cloud of meanings» , swirling around the site/landscape with its own coordinates in geographical space and its geographic features. As elements of the image of the place such phenomena as topophily (affection to some places) and topophoby (disgusting to some places) are considered (Yi-Fu Tuan).

Sign systems of cultural landscapes are «crystallized» coming out of the system of geographical images with the assistance of symbolic and metaphorical elements.

The third section is devoted to the semiotics of cultural landscape.

Semiotic structure of the cultural landscape of the local level is based on the sign objects and environmental zones, which are also full of meaning. Spatial codes are distinguished and they govern semiotization of local space—these codes are: architectonical structure (volumes, plastic form), object-function (functions of objects), social and symbolic—according that the significant form (of monument, a triumphal arch, etc.) becomes the term of spatial judgment and acquires its meaning only if it is installed at the appropriate place (Leonid Chertov).

Appealing to another territorial and hierarchical level, which is not perceived immediately for its scale, we can say that in the cultural landscape of the region and macroregion architectonic code do exist not in the direct perception of objects, but in their images. The volume and mass of mountain systems and plains, depressions and seas are read through a map; they are perceived and interpreted through the luggage of geographical knowledge, which a person receives in secondary school.

Subject-functional codes at maсroterritorial level are relatively rare, since such thing as a narrow functional object doesn’t exist, except for science cities, military installations and military grounds. Existed during the Soviet period labeled regions of specialized industrial production, such as «the forge of the country», «the breadbasket of the country» is now a thing of the past.

Analogues of expression having a subject-predicate structure in the cultural landscape of the country can serve the cities if their building were a kind of symbolic act. Such, for example, as St. Petersburg and Komsomolsk-on-Amur—the first one was a «window to Europe» and at the same time was the equivalent of the name of the patron saint of its creator, the other—was assigned the Soviets at the far eastern frontier and carried in its name the idea of communism. Renaming of cities in the Soviet period and the emergence of city-names, such as the Kirov, Kuibyshev and others, also served as a statement of names of the new political elite in the cultural landscape. New Jerusalem bores both in its name and semantics of its internal structure religious idea of Heavenly city, the heavenly Jerusalem, and of Jerusalem as analogue of terrestrial city.

Signs-names of the places, signs-geographical objects, signs-landscapes may have precedential genesis or may be a spokesmen for a «typical situation», «typical, standard landscape» . A precedential cultural symbol acts as a kind of cultural character and correlates with the notion of value as a cultural value characteristics (Yulia Pikuleva). With respect to the dichotomy of a cultural (and/or historical) precedent and a «typical situation» in the case of objects of geographical space super-personal character (known to all members of the community) of the sign is important, its relevance in terms of process of cognition (cognitive and emotional), its constant or regular use among certain culture.

Geographic objects and landscape elements become symbols in the case if in the culture there are strong associations with the momentous historical events, with the artifacts and unique features of the natural landscape.

Considering the cultural landscape as a sign system, we can observe that it complies with the most of the rules of semiotics—minimization of the original text, discrete transfer of continuous content, delimitation of the text, metonymy.

In relation to the signs of the space-semantic web the classical classification of Charles Peirce is applied—symbolic, index and iconic signs are single out in the cultural landscape. But symbolic and index signs are most used.

Interpretation of the cultural landscape as a sign system can be expanded using a more modern classification based on the «base sign» , developed by Abraham Solomonik. Geographical locations and place names serve as natural, imaging, linguistic, hieroglyphic (writing systems) signs. The symbolic level of the sign system, as the maximum level of abstraction, according to Abraham Solomonik expressed in mathematical codes, is practically inapplicable to the cultural landscape.

So, if we consider the semantics of geographic objects, which is readable within semiosphere of world culture, the geo-cultural space appears as a spatial-semantic network. The nodes of the network are the cities, rivers, mountain peaks and mountain ranges filled with history, meanings and ideals of humanity. Different objects of spatial-semantic networks are in complex, rich with nuances, but undeniable relationship. For example, the relationship of names and corresponding cities, such as «Vatican—Jerusalem—Constantinople» is read as symbols of the two branches of Christianity. Otherwise, for example, the bipolar attitude to «Jerusalem—Mecca» is read as the unmerging of two cultural and religious worlds.


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  1. 1.Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences RASMoscowRussia

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