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Critical Review on Daniele Monticelli’s work on Challenging identity: Lotman’s “translation of the untranslatable” and Derrida’s différance

Stanislav Yevstifeyev

Jury Lotman and Jacques Derrida can be undoubtedly considered as two prominent intellectuals in the pantheon of philosophical thought, namely because of their significant contribution in social sciences and humanities. The aim of this paper is to investigate Lotman’s and Derrida’s concepts compared in Daniele Monticelli work on Challenging identity: Lotman’s “translation of the untranslatable” and Derrida’s différance published in 2012, in Sign Systems Studies, and provide critical review thus estimating scientific value and potential of these ideas. The discussion of this paper is structured around the central notion of the semiotics through the lens of Tartu-Moscow Semiotic tradition and post-structuralist approach of Derrida. The conclusive part of the review will bring about a brief summary to justify the importance of key roles of abovementioned thinkers.

The premier concern that was raised by Monticelli is the definition of linguistic system and its delimitation into two principal elements: langue and parole, as internal and external spaces respectively (2012: 324; Saussure 2000: 8; Derrida 1997: 33-34). Further extension of structuralism allowed envisaging the study of language as the totalized study of sign systems in the semiotic sense (Monticelli 2012: 325). Development of semiotics provided new perspectives on the understanding of abovementioned externality and internality, “the fundamental questions relating to the description of any semiotic system are, firstly, its relation to the extra-system, to the world which lies beyond its boundaries…” (Lotman 2009: 1) and “The outside bears with the inside a relationship that is, as usual, anything but simple exteriority. The meaning of the outside was always present within the inside…” (Derrida 1997: 35). In certain sense, the notions of the externality and internality might be considered as a dichotomy, however the principal of organization through two oppositional categories can pose some obstacles in understanding various social phenomena or abstract notions.

The existence of two dichotomous elements is conditioned by their opposition to each other; in order to illustrate this principal the presented dichotomies may serve as examples: culture versus nature, order versus chaos, irrational versus rational. The nuance that should be taken into consideration is that culture cannot exist without nature, meanwhile nature assumingly appeared long before the former manifested itself through the human activity. In this sense, nature is a raw material from which culture is forged, thus the later can be explained as an extension of a cultivated nature. The similar dichotomous logic can be applied for the chaos and order. Specifically, it is organization of chaotic space that leads to the order, thus chaos can successfully exist without being positioned in systematic opposition. Finally, the rational and irrational can be conceived in the identic way, however some specifications might be needed. To make it clear, under the rational is understood logical thinking deprived of solid emotional base, meanwhile the irrational implies thinking which is not built on a reason. Comparing with the process of semiosis, precisely conversion of non-signs into signs, the process or rationalization can be equally interpreted as an attempt to make a decision or action reasonable. In this case, it is possible to come up with the conclusion that irrational is a form of a material or content that can be subjected to the process of signification and be rationalized.

Apparently, the above listed dichotomous categories can be easily challenged primarily because they are not strictly determined. In this sense the antonymous qualities are a matter of the meaning given to the signs and the established relations between them in the entire system. As it was highlighted by Lotman that any semiotic system can be described through its relation to the extra-system (2009: 1); and emphasized by Derrida that the meaning of the inside is given in the outside and vice versa (1997: 35).

Another conspicuous comparison deserves to be put forward for analysis, namely understanding of Lotmanian concept of dialogue and Derrida’s idea of différance. As it was stated by Lotman, the key principle of dialogue is translation of untranslatable (Lotman 1990: 268, 397), meanwhile Derrida’s notion of différance describes the process of mediation the primary function of which is supporting of the plurality. Additionally, neither dialogue nor différance might be reduced to stability or static state justifying by the fact that semiotic closure is dynamic (Monticelli 2012: 332).

Apparently, it seems recklessly and naïvely to assume that dialogue is entirely dynamic process, therefore there is a need in some clarifications. To shed the light on the missing details it probably makes sense to remind the post-structuralist critique on signifier and signified. To be specific, none of the signifiers is static, their signifieds are in constant flux; moreover one single signifier may refer to a number of signifieds, thus possessing poly-semantic qualities. In order to be successful the process of communication has to temporarily establish the relations between signifiers and signified in the accordance to the communicative context. In other words, dialogue is made of specific utterances or instances of signifiers that bear their signifieds, however being in constant flux these signifiers can produce inadequate meaning that has no relevance to the situation they are used in. Basing on this reasoning, the signifiers and signifieds, as well as the sequence in which they are produced should be clearly structured, meaning that dialogue itself consists of the fixed elements in properly organized relations.

Regarding the Lotmanian understanding of the process of translation and the functions of the semiosphere boundaries the question of translation techniques takes its place. In theory of translation numerous techniques are applied in order to reproduce the text from the source language into the target language and achieve a certain level of equivalence between lexical and semantic units. In the light of Lotmanian works it seems unclear why these transformation techniques were intentionally or unintentionally discredited. Indeed, the process of translation is complex and multileveled therefore various methods known as transformations are widely utilized. Among these transformations it is possible to name: generalization, specification, omission, substitution, modulation, transliteration, transcription, compensation, addition, explication, implication, etc. Due to these transformations it is possible to effectuate translation on the grammatical, lexical, and stylistic levels. It is worth noting that transformation techniques are not confined by written translation, but also can applied in oral interpreting. Therefore, it might be useful to undertake the attempts to use these techniques as analogous of the analysis of semiosphere boundaries; or on the contrary, justify their irrelevance for the description of sociocultural phenomena.

Today’s post-structuralist philosophical paradigm owes its existence to the key figures as Lotman and Derrida. The importance of roles of Jury Lotman and Jacques Derrida is undeniable in the formation of semiotics as a self-sufficient discipline with its particular scientific metalanguage and methodologies. Indeed, the value of Lotman’s and Derrida’s contribution can be estimated not only by the huge number of works the authorship of which belongs to them but also by numerous articles and papers which were written on the basis of their concepts and theories.


Derrida, Jacques 1997. Of Grammatology. (Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, trans.) Baltimore: The JohnsHopkins University Press.

Lotman, Juri M. 1990. Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Lotman, Juri M. 2009. Culture and Explosion. (Clark, Wilma, trans.) Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Monticelli, D. (2012). Challenging identity. Sign Systems Studies, 40(¾), 319-338.

Saussure, Ferdinand de 2000. Course in General Linguistics. (Bally, Charles; Sechehaye, Albert; Riedlinger, Albert, eds.; Harris, Roy, trans.) London: Duckworth.

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Stanislav Yevstifeyev
Stanislav Yevstifeyev