Cultural Landscape as Text

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


This chapter special attention is paid to theoretical and methodological issues of studying the cultural landscape by means of textual methods.

In the first section we discussed the history of structural and poststructural understanding of the text. Yuri Lotman’s concept of the text and the concept of semiosphere significantly expand the possibilities for studying not only culture, but the geographical space that is transformed by culture—the cultural landscape. Concept of textuality loses certainty of its borders and covers an extremely broad scope of human activity. Necessarily subjective mental constructs in the perception and scientific interpretation of reality were pointed by Boris Gasparov who introduced the concept of presumption of textuality into scientific. The presumption of textuality according to Boris Gasparov (in respect of acts of speech) is the need to submit a statement or event as direct and entirely foreseeable phenomenon. In the context of the presumption of textuality cultural landscape is an ideal object of study. The formation and existence of the cultural landscape defines its semantic structure, where not only events but also places associated with them are perceived as significant and carry a certain message to society. The criterion for significance of place in the culture supports the use of its name as a unit of the text and the ability of name for the formation of secondary (figurative) values, i.e. for denomination (Elena Berezovich).

The secondary or figurative meanings of place names represent the message—for example, the secondary meanings of names Kamchatka and Kolyma doesn’t cause any serious discrepancies. These messages may be read in their historical and, accordingly, the semantic consistency. Sometimes, the loci-messages are used to generate new messages, for example, in the development of pilgrimage routes and thematic tours. In other cases, reading the loci-messages, the interpretation of place meanings and the local text of culture depends on the intentions of the perceiver.

Names of places allow us to consider the texts of the cultural landscape as a «rolled-up mnemonic programs» (Yuri Lotman). Signs-place names and corresponding geographical objects are in certain respects to each other.

The process of creating of any text is indicated by Alexander Piatigorsky as a subjective situation. Subjective situation in the cultural landscape continues infinitely, and the process of reading (perception) also does not stop, respectively, the subjective and the objective situations coincide in time. Culture doesn’t not only deal with (inherits, reflexes) previously created and captured in the geographical space senses, but also makes its own changes, even as a result of perception, if it involves revising messages created earlier. In this regard, with respect to the space semantically ordered by culture, nothing can be more appropriate than the notion of intertext, which occurs as a result of «reading-writing», as a space of convergence of various citations (Julia Kristeva). We come to the fact that the concept of the text is perceived and interpreted extremely broad—as flexible hierarchical, adjustably structuring system of significant elements (Vladimir Abashev), which allows us to interpret the cultural landscape as a text.

In the second section patterns of existence of the text of the cultural landscape are examined. In the cultural landscape, as it was already noted, there is a fixation of meanings in space, which are changing, in spite of all its fluidity, nevertheless these meaning are associated with the place/region or macroregion of their appearing. The spatial structure of the cultural landscape can serve as a text, where each element has strong values and meanings. The intersection of meanings in a single locus gives the increment of meaning. The very multivalency in the space has a value of «cultural saturation», bordering on with the concept of cultural heritage.

Elements of structure «center—province—periphery—the border» determine meanings of each specific geographical objects, occupying a certain place in this matrix. Roads in the cultural landscape serve both a spokesmen idea of communication and proper communication, especially actual in travelling, generating new meanings (the classics of the genre—«Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow» by Alexander Radishchev).

The concept of palimpsest is applied to cultural landscape; the concept is used in interpretation and analysis of other texts of culture. Culture texts of various epochs are manifested in the landscape; overlapping one another, forming unique combinations, many of them falling into a new cultural-historical context are «read» again, sometimes with diametrically opposite permutation of emphasis and meanings.

The logic of the sign system of cultural landscape is nonlinear; it doesn’t have a clear narrative structure. One can imagine the cultural landscape as netting meanings. If there are nodes, there is a fabric of irregular weaving. In the structure of the cultural landscape the emphasis is made on the selection of system of centers and semantically meaningful territories.

In the cultural landscape there are polysemantic signs and lacunae of meaning. Actually the natural properties of the area have their meaning, but only in the presence of the observer. Lacunas may arise as wrong side of meanings in a particular system of philosophical, aesthetic, ethical origin. It is like natural landfills or «tent cities» of homeless that recur in the landscape of the city, but in places, virtually uncontrolled by urban civilization. The concept of the «escheated» area allocated by researchers there where weaker qualities or features for which this or that territory belongs to the great cultural or economic center of gravity is interesting in this respect.

In cultural studies, though culture is seen as a text, the structural unit of the text is not defined. But the spatial component of culture requires a manifestation of the structure. In the cultural landscape the locus/place can become the structural unit, but in a different sense—as the locus-symbol, locus-message, locus-sign, for it implies that the symbolic value is connected to a particular territorial unit.

The third section presents opportunities to explore the urban landscape rendered as a text. City is a special type of cultural landscape, which has a hyper-semantic richness, where each element and relationship of elements bears a message. A cityscape is full of symbols and messages where semantic of bypassed historical periods is transmitted; the elements of urban structure are also charged semantically—the planning of historical center and outskirts speak for themselves, etc.

Deep ideas or the archetypes of world culture lie in the notion of the city. Myths, symbols and images serve as the basis of perception and reading the city: squares, circles, vertical lines are perceived in their archetypical sense—as a mandala (a symbolic scheme of the universe) of a city (Alexander Barabanov).

Exploring the semantics of the landscape of St. Petersburg, Vladimir Toporov identifies such coefficients as: straightness, curvature, sloping streets; organization of space; indoor-outdoor space; the discontinuity-continuity and separation-fusion of space. The city has its own «language»—its physiognomic elements and objects (streets, squares, monuments, etc.), the city is interpreted in cultural studies as the heterogeneous text and has some common sense.

The internal structure of the city, like the internal structure of the text, consists of a system of units and nodes (Kevin Lynch), links (relations) and the properties inherent in the city (the text), as a whole. Cities like literary texts have their own genre image that expresses to some extent the meaning of the place, the meaning of the city (Ekaterina Koneva).

The fourth section discusses possible strategies for reading the text of the cultural landscape.

In contemporary philosophy of culture (Valery Podoroga) the process of reading is understood as an attempt to understand the Other. The reader engages into communication with a text, which may be presented as the entity that understands its reader. The text grows, pervades its reader.

Therefore, «reading» the text of the cultural landscape is similar to the method of modeling images of place offered by Dmitri Zamyatin—latent information is converted by a researcher, who comes in an active communication with it, in the space-sign model.

In the act of reading the text of the cultural landscape one should take into account the fact that semiotic systems, as they determined by Yuri Lotman, while being read require a translation, as the semiotic mechanisms—that are not only essential for accurate transmission of the text, but they are mechanisms of the creative consciousness. The message, which appears as the text, suggests at least two cultural codes, not identical but equivalent—one encodes the text; the other is used for its decoding. Given that the exposition of the text of the cultural landscape is non-linear and does not determine by itself the direction of reading, that gets the reader more opportunities for deciphering and interpretation.

In the cultural landscape there are always some areas, lines, and «blocks» for reading. The texts-landscapes of national history are easiest for reading. For example, the study of the semiotic structure of the cultural landscape of Russia based on Russian Poetry (Olga Lavrenova) shows that it is «frozen in the space a wave of colonization». Earlier developed European part of Russia is separated from the structureless, internally chaotic the space-place name Siberia by border-frontier of the Ural Mountains.

The same text of the cultural landscape of Russia can not be read in historical, but also in religious and mythological way. This reading, in contrast to the historical, is more versatile and at the same time more general. Texts of cultural landscapes of regional and local levels can be read in the same vein. Geopolitical reading (in the prism of politics in the cultural landscape of Russia, where quite other structural elements stand out –for example such as «red belt»), reading from the history of ideas or geobiography of individuals can be justified.

Reading of the landscape has a few other key approaches. First, it is determined by the point review, and secondly, plastic landscape, its rhythm, structure stand out as important elements. Reading of the landscape has three main levels—poetry (sensitive), aesthetic and cognitive.

In the fifth section, another strategy for reading of the text of the cultural landscape is proposed—through local cultural texts representing a body of art, documentary and folklore texts related to a specific place. The texts of works of art serve as generators of meanings for a specific cultural landscape/place. The presence of texts that are genetically related to the landscape implies that the landscape as a semiotic system is also built on the principle of «mosaic of citations», as the product of absorption in the informational component of the landscape of other texts and while reading this intertext—the generation of other texts are launched.

Vladimir Toporov fundamentally investigated for the first time the issue with local text of culture by the resorting to the example of St. Petersburg text of Russian culture, which he defined as a construct of a general nature, characterized by semantic overcompaction, which he termed as synthetic supertext tuned to a higher meanings and purposes, having a semantic connection, wholeness, the presence of the core rising to a single source. Vladimir Toporov examines and classifies (in axiological and ontological key) semantic aspects of the image of the city, ranging from high to low, explores the myths that underlie the text of St. Petersburg—the myth of the creator, the eschatological myth, the myth of the ontological opposition to Moscow. Nature and landscape features serve as one of the storylines in the St. Petersburg text. It is fully justified to view the Petersburg text not only as a meaning, but also as a communication function of the landscape of St. Petersburg, transmitting itself as a message «to Russia» and outside.

Vladimir Abashev investigated Perm text of Russian culture. Analyzing the written sources starting from Epiphanius the Wise, Boris Pasternak to modern «samizdat» poetry, posters and brochures, the researcher includes semiotizated features of the landscape, history, geography, consumer attitudes and behavior in the Perm text. As the result paradigm of the local text is determined, here we can find both specific objects of the urban landscape and complex hybrid units like the «Permian animal style». An important element of Perm text is the ability of of its name «Perm» to be applied in anagrams, which are used as giving birth to meanings in shaping the image of the city. Resonance of Perm text in Russian culture, of course, can not be compared to the St. Petersburg text. Nevertheless, since the time of Aleksander Pushkin, pronounced the famous «from Perm to Tavrida» in the poem, addressed to «the slanderers of Russia», the name of «Perm» sounds like some kind of expression of existent ultimacy.

Another limit can be found in the above mentioned poem filled with patriotic fervor «To the slanderers of Russia»—Tavrida—inspired Aleksander Lyusy to study the text of the Crimea, which is a more recent variation on the theme of ancient myth. The same author explores the Caucasus text of Russian literature, where, unlike other local texts, themes of captivity, love and revenge are clearly expressed.

Miron Petrovsky considers Kyiv text not in the regard of Russian culture in general, but in Mikhail Bulgakov’s literary heritage, where the city of Kiev is interpreted as the eternal city (Rome-Jerusalem), perishing in a global cataclysm. The plastic landscape of Kyiv and its metaphysics (inverting spaces) are reflected in the storylines of many novels.

The reflection on «the genius and the place» is no less interesting than the local texts, in this reflection authors from different positions and with different methodological arsenal study images of places and spatial concepts in some classical works of Russian literature. The monograph of Pyotr Vail «Genius Loci» seems to be the most significant study of concepts of space, made in philological vein.

The sixth section—it is another strategy for reading of the cultural landscape, this time with the help of travel, which as a cultural phenomenon has its own semantic categories. The semantics of the cultural landscape requires not a dispassionate observation in the direct contact with it, but empathy—the study applying hermeneutical method of research. Worldly, mundane space is available to third-party observation and description, but it is very poor in its semantics. These spaces exist simultaneously in one and the same cultural landscape, and a traveller moving along the face of the planet, chooses in which of them he will make his way and accordingly how rich and polysemantic his observations will be.

Travelling is seen as the geographical self-awareness of culture, as a prototype of a metaphor and concept of the way that is one of the fundamental in any culture. There is a classification of travel in the context of semiosphere—it is a vector in the plane for everyday travel, circling for eternal wanderers or cursed mythological characters, the vector of ascent—for spiritual journeys and pilgrimages.


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

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