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ICS0010.1177/1367877914528119International Journal of Cultural StudiesOjamaa and Torop

International Journal of Cultural Studies


2015, Vol. 18(1) 6178
The Author(s) 2014
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DOI: 10.1177/1367877914528119
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Article

Transmediality of cultural
autocommunication
Maarja Ojamaa and Peeter Torop
University of Tartu, Estonia

Abstract
In his studies of culture, Juri Lotman implicitly expressed several ideas that have been rendered
explicit by the contemporary mediasphere. The aim of the current article is to explicate
a link between Lotmanian cultural semiotics and transmediality as one of todays more
innovative communicative practices. Transmediality is hereby located in the context of cultural
autocommunication as a mechanism serving both creative and mnemonic functions. Thus, the
notion is related not only to the questions of textual construction but, even more importantly,
to texts processual existence in culture in diverse media languages and discourses over time. By
explaining the roots and developments of Lotmans concept of autocommunicativity, which is
central to his understanding of culture as a whole, the article simultaneously indicates the areas
of his cultural semiotic studies that we consider relevant and fruitful for contemporary research
into transmediality.

Keywords
cultural autocommunication, Juri Lotman, semiotics of culture, transmediality

The object of the semiotics of culture is the hierarchical correlation of sign systems in
culture (Lotman etal., 2013: 53), therefore, in order to understand culture, it is important
to distinguish between different communicative processes in different sign systems. This
means realizing how culture is being conceptualized in verbal, audiovisual and other sign
systems, how the same messages in different media reach cultural agents and how those
messages and meanings are transformed by the given media. The difficulty of the task
Corresponding author:
Maarja Ojamaa, Department of Semiotics, University of Tartu, Jakobi 2, Tartu 51003, Estonia.
Email: maarja.ojamaa@ut.ee

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lies in the fact that, even though cultural languages can be heuristically described as
separate systems, in practice they are always interrelated and exchange mutual
influences.
It implicitly follows from the above, that it is possible to describe the inherent transmediality of any culture. However, the term of transmediality itself entered academic
discourse as an intentional and innovative strategy of communication and metacommunication. It has mostly been discussed in the framework of transmedia storytelling
(Jenkins, 2004, 2008; Scolari, 2013). In this paradigm, a story is constituted by several
distinctive narrative segments that are represented in different media, eventually creating
a cohesive mental whole, a coherent storyworld. From this viewpoint, transmediality
essentially differs from adaptation as: [t]ransmedia elements do not involve the telling
of the same events on different platforms; they involve the telling of new events from the
same storyworld (Evans, 2011: 27). The mental unity of a storyworld balances the heterogeneity of technical possibilities inside a given mediasphere. Individual medial segments of the narrative enter into a constant interpretative dialogue with each other and
with the whole, even though their medium-specific coding principles could be extremely
different from each other, placing them simultaneously into a situation of nontranslatability (Lotman, 2001 [1990]: 37).
The current article aims to explicate the bridge between Lotmanian cultural semiotic
approach to general communicative mechanisms of culture on the one hand, and some of
the innovative forms of communication in the contemporary mediasphere such as
transmedia storytelling on the other. For this, we will first locate the phenomenon of
transmediality in the wider context of cultural autocommunication, relating it to both
creative and mnemonic functions. Autocommunicativity is a central notion for Lotmans
understanding of culture as a whole and an overview of the roots and developments of
this concept will simultaneously indicate the areas of Lotmans studies that we consider
relevant and fruitful for the research into transmediality. The latter part of the paper provides an illustrative analysis of transmedial and autocommunicative aspects of the online
educational project Inanimate Alice.

Transmediality
As indicated by the above quote by Evans (and by other researchers), the focus of discussing transmedial storytelling practices is usually on the aspect of transformation:
expansion of narrative onto different media platforms, changes and additions of meaning
brought along by this growth. However, we would argue that repetition is simultaneously
a key device of any transmedia storyworld. Every new segment of the whole essentially
repeats a certain invariant of the whole and in accordance with the specificity of a given
medium creatively varies the rest. In this process, the implicit multimodality of any
written text becomes realized in a material form, inevitably leading the researcher to
questions about the relations between narrative and its media (Herman, 2004: 49) or,
more generally, the influence of the medium on the meaning of the message.
Transmedial principles of communication and metacommunication are not only a part
of the narrative entertainment world but have (had) much broader influence, most importantly perhaps in the pedagogical sphere. In the latter, repetition of information with

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variations in different sign systems or media (e.g. oral, written, audiovisual, etc.) is a
central technique of acquisition and preservation of knowledge. Also, research evidence
supports that combining different media platforms in education enhances the outcome of
learning (see for example Harrison and Kerger, 2011; Semali, 2002). In fact, one of the
earlier usages of a term sharing the same stem with transmediality was by Charles Suhor
in his article on a semiotics-based curriculum where he conceptualized transmediation
as the translation of content across different sign systems in the pedagogic context (1984:
250). Transmedial repetition thus bears an important mnemonic function, but it is simultaneously a device of creative expansion. We can trace this mechanism more generally in
culture, where stories and symbols that are considered important are repeated in different
media in order to keep them active in cultural memory and integrate them with cultures
contemporaneity. Examples of this can be found from times both distant (e.g. adaptations
of Shakespeares plays) and recent (e.g. Pottermore). Transmediality is hereby approached
as an autocommunicative mechanism of culture, also serving both creative and mnemonic functions which in turn are equally essential for the preservation of cultural
identity.
In fact, one of the ways Lotman has defined culture is as nonhereditary collective
memory (Lotman and Uspensky, 1978: 213), positing the space of culture as a space
within which texts can be preserved and actualized (Lotman, 1985: 5). From there,
Lotman continues by explaining that collective memory is ensured by the existence of a
number of constant texts and by the continuity of codes or the continuous logic of their
transformations (1985: 5). Ann Rigney explains the functioning of remembrance in culture among other principles through recursivity (2005: 201), especially transmedial
recursivity, whereby the working memory of a particular community seems [] the
result of various cultural activities that feed into, repeat and reinforce each other (2005:
20, originalitalics ). The translation semiotician Dinda Gorle has written along a comparable line of thought: [t]he survival of text-signs lies in their being translated and
retranslated (1997: 156). And from this we could infer that the more diverse media are
incorporated into the process of (re)translation, the stronger is the text-signs or texts
potential to survive.
Translation in its essence is repetition with variation, and the same can be said about
the recursivity of a literary text as a cinematic adaptation. Repetition is a process and an
entity that simultaneously underlines sameness and difference between the new text and
the previous one. Indeed, texts, text fragments, meanings that are considered important
from the point of view of a communitys identity are repeated not only in the natural
language, but in different sign systems of the same culture. This is demonstrated by
countless examples, from church architecture repeating principles from the Bible, to
cinematic adaptations of canonical novels as well as popular cinematic stories that have
grown into franchises. Therefore, the principle of repetition or iteration is important both
from the point of view of textual construction and of culture as a whole. Repeating a
story across different sign systems is cultures way of remembering and increasing the
meaningfulness of a given text.
At the same time, it has to be remembered, that while being an immanent whole on
the one hand, every text is at least bilingual or dually coded on the other (Lotman, 1988
[1981]: 4). Therefore, integrating elements and principles of diverse languages into one

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textual system does not concern the languages as merely formal systems, but also requires
taking into account the cultural position, conventions of representations and functions of
a given language in the given culture. In the case of transmedia texts it is especially relevant to record Clver and Watsons claim that: [t]he greatest difficulties in translating
a poem into another verbal language arise not on the linguistic level but in the codes and
conventions that constitute the literary system which produced it and determine its reception (1989: 61). Analogously, for example a video game is a text organized according to
the representational codes of video games, but also according to the rules and conventions of the cultural system of video games.
Besides, several traditional textual processes take place in a new cultural situation in
which the experience of culture can, in so many ways, be activated by new media. For
example, everyone can extremely simply access background information of almost any
given movie, as well as juxtapose a given film with other films, for example on YouTube.
In such a networked culture the traditional diachronic relations remain irrelevant. While
searching YouTube for information about cinematic adaptations of Shakespeares
Hamlet, one will stumble upon trailers, excerpts of different movies as well as full movies, but also on diverse new media interpretations such as compressed animated versions
(Hamlet in 30 seconds, in 3 minutes, as a summary for a crib, etc.), a computer game for
kids, a superfast-forward replay of movie excerpts for a quick summary, a school musical, an opera, a ballet, a mass of interviews, etc. All these texts exist simultaneously and
constitute an intertextual as well as an intermedial sphere.1 Any text may exist in a series
of possible forms and interpretations, none of which is the ultimate or ideal one. Texts
processuality, especially multi- and intermedial processuality, supplements its structural
aspects.
The aspect of transmediality in such a general cultural viewpoint is implicitly included
already in Lotmans concept of cultural explosion. A fundamental principle of Lotmanian
semiotics of culture is realizing that the most universal of the universals of culture is the
ability for self-description. For this purpose, both specialized and integrated languages of
description are created in culture, concurrently raising the issue of creolization of the
languages of description (Lotman, 2000). The more channels of communication there
are, and the more diversified the technological environment, the stronger also are
attempts at self-analysis. Cultural autocommunication, the striving for self-understanding
and self-description, appears to be especially intense during dynamic situations which
Lotman has termed cultural explosions. The latter are accompanied by a period of
unpredictability during which the variability of cultural change is especially high and the
teleological interpretation of the changes appears especially difficult. The second phase
of cultural explosion is the point where culture aims at self-description and at the explanation of the changes at all costs. This is the moment when the cultural self-knowledge
is most intense:
The moment in which the explosion is exhausted represents the turning point of the process. In
the sphere of history this is not only the originating moment of future development but also the
place of self-knowledge: the inclusion of those mechanisms of history which must themselves
explain what has occurred. (Lotman, 2009: 15)

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At these moments, the state of the collective memory of texts and the state of the memory
of sign systems and media are of the utmost importance.
As twenty years after the publication of Culture and Explosion, transmediality has
become an autonomous research object, the innovation of Lotmans approach is easier to
understand. And at the same time, it facilitates the creative development of his approach
to cultural autocommunication, while taking into account the technological changes of
the cultural environment.

Cultural autocommunication
Cultural autocommunication is a complex notion, the meaning of which is best revealed
by taking account of the whole concept of Juri Lotmans semiotics of culture. The reconstruction of the Lotmanian system of viewpoints should begin with two general possibilities of interpreting communication processes: every given communication process
between sender and receiver is in principle interpretable as cultures communication with
oneself, as cultural autocommunication. Cultural autocommunicativity is in turn describable as metacommunication or intercommunication (see Saldre and Torop, 2012).
The basis of metacommunication is cultures functioning as the system of primary or
proto-texts and of secondary or meta-texts, and culture is describable as a process of
interpretation, mediation, deformation, elimination, etc. of texts. The more a text has
been interpreted and mediated, and the more active the dialogue between the text and its
surrounding culture, the more strongly is the text tied to the culture. A novel and films or
plays based on it, illustrations, reviews, advertisements, annotations, interviews and
other meta-texts are autonomous texts when taken separately, and as such they presume
different tools of analysis. As a textual system, however, they form a communicative
environment that reflects both the source texts (proto-texts) capability of dialogue with
cultural environment as well as cultures capability of dialogue with the given source text
thus, cultural autocommunication. Intercommunication complements metacommunication with the difference that it signifies implicit rather than explicit relations between
texts. On the intercommunicative level, culture is a mental whole in which boundaries
between texts are not always specified beyond doubt.
The notion of autocommunication is thus a key term in Lotmans cultural semiotics
because his understanding of culture is based precisely on autocommunicativity. During
the 1960s, there was a big wave of interest in typologies in the humanities. However,
Lotmans searches were different from other linguistic and semiotic approaches in relation to his understanding of cultural universals
As referred to above, for him, the most universal feature of any culture is the capability of self-description because without this it would be impossible to speak about cultural
identity. The capability of self-description does not mean the existence of a universal
language for Lotman, but refers to the diversity of cultural sign systems or cultural languages. It is precisely the coexistence of diverse types of languages that enriches culture
and raises its autocommunicative capability. From this principle arises the concept of
cultural polyglotism, the understanding of text as the generator of languages, and cultural
memory as analysis of mnemotechnics.

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In the pioneering Theses on the semiotic study of cultures (Lotman etal., 2013
[1973]), cultural languages are understood semiotically as synonymous with the notion
of sign system. At the same time, the logic proceeds from natural language. During the
formational period of cultural semiotics in the first half of 1970s, there were two methodological keys for conceptualizing cultural languages: (1) all five senses are important
in human culture, but most communicative processes are based on verbal (discrete) and
visual (continuous) languages. Those languages can be viewed as autonomous (e.g. natural language, film language, language of painting etc.), but also as interwoven in texts or
in the processes of human thought; (2) any kind of interpretation in culture is based on
the relation between described language (object language) and descriptive language
(meta-language). The boundary between object language and descriptive language is
shifting, depending on the technological development of cultural environment, and is
most directly linked with questions of transmediality.
In 1972, a volume of translations about the usage of exact methods in the analysis of
cultural phenomena was published in Moscow (Lotman and Petrov, 1972). By this time,
Lotman had claimed several times that not only do the humanities need the experience of
the exact sciences, but the exact sciences also need contacts with artistic texts for their
development. In 1969, in accordance with the example of bionics, Lotman used the
notion of artistics (Russian artistika) to signify a future science that would study the
patterns of artistic constructions in the interest of the advancement of information technology. Some years later, he signified the future cybernetics of artistic text with the name
of artonics (Russian artonika). In 1972, Lotman already juxtaposed the languages of art
and mathematics:
It is precisely the relatedness of the language of mathematics and the language of art in the
single structure of culture on the one hand, and the conceptual difference of their immanent
organization on the other hand, that render the act of mutual translation of texts in these
languages meaningful, i.e. facilitate their mutual existence as the basis for the creation of the
metalanguage of description. (Lotman and Petrov, 1972: 6)

It is a distinctive feature of Lotmanian cultural semiotics, that the criteria for analysing
culture include the typology of cultural languages in which the boundary between object
language and meta-language is mobile. This mobility means that, in culture as in the
system of learning and teaching for example, literature, theatre and cinema could be
reflectors of the everyday environment, interpreters of everyday life, but can also be a
natural living environment, a part of everyday life, and are not regarded as something
that has a separate existence. Today, new media is one such transition zone, and even
school education has to take into account that, for students, the internet is not just a technical device but, in the form of social media, is a natural part of the living environment.
According to the logic of Lotman, the richness of any culture is determined by the
multiplicity of its cultural languages and the activeness of the interpretative relations
between them. Even though the language of mathematics is not directly translatable into
the language of art and vice versa, the attempts to produce such translations enrich culture. Between totally different cultural languages within one culture, but also in

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Table 1. Self-descriptive languages of culture.

situations of common translations between different cultures, relations of conditional


equivalence are established between structures of languages.
In its own time, Lotmans treatment of culture can be understood via understanding
cultural polyglotism. Cultural languages are distributed from everyday languages to artificial languages on the scale of object languages and descriptive languages (metalanguages) (see Table 1). However, Lotmans typology of cultural languages was clearly
ahead of its time and adequately meets todays needs. His hierarchy of cultural languages
is methodologically translatable into discursive as well as into medial treatments of culture. Proto- and metacommunication is describable as a system of object- and metalanguages, but also as an intertextual and interdiscursive complex. In accordance with
the evolution of new media, it would be fruitful to understand discursivity as a medial,
multi-, inter- and transmedial complex. Such a change in the terminological field does
not just take account of theoretical developments, it is also in accordance with cultural
dynamics and with the need to find a more flexible descriptive language for the sake of
complex analysis. The question of cultural universals is still there and the analysis of
autocommunicativity remains important, but the cultural environment has changed, and
the notion of cultural languages needs to be expanded upon (Table 2).
At the end of the 1980s, when Lotman introduced the foregoing notion of explosion
into cultural analysis, he developed a two-phase treatment of cultural dynamics from the
relations of conditional equivalence. The moment of explosion in culture means unpredictability, coexistence of several equipotent descriptive languages and absence of a single uniform description. The moment after explosion is an extremely variable phase
(ranging from weeks to decades in duration), when culture step-by-step works out selfdescriptive mechanisms, finds an optimal language or hierarchizes the existing languages, and some kind of unified understanding is established in the society.

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Table 2. Cultural environment.


Immediate culture
Object languages, discourses, modalities
Cultural memory
Discrete and continual
image of past

Cultural
Experience (learning and
teaching as typological
features of cultures)

Cultural identity
Cultural identity (consumption
creation and description of
culture)

Meta-languages, interdiscursivity, inter- and transmediality


Mediated culture

Any kind of unity of meaningful processes can take place in a possible world that
Lotman has called the semiosphere. As we have no intention of giving a longer treatment
of this notion here, let us use one possible way of interpreting it. Namely, John Hartley
regards semiosphere in the vein of Lotman as the condition for semiosis:
Like the atmosphere and biosphere, the idea of the semiosphere is not simply that it covers
the planet, but more importantly that this global organism is the condition of existence for all
the differentiated parts and interactions that go on at local level. (Hartley, 2008: 67, italics
original)

This condition brings about a certain environment and, for todays culture, the medial
environment or mediaspehere is the most immediate one:
Like the semiosphere it expresses the various forms, relationships and structural conditions for
existence and interaction of a worldwide system of media communication. The mediasphere is
multiplatform, not conned to one medium []. It cannot be understood without the global
interactive system that has shaped it and allows it to operate in any given local instance. (2008:
67, italics original)

The last turn of the century was indeed a period of refreshing old notions. Digitalization
had become a reality and the internet, as the environment of mass culture, ascribed a new
meaning to concepts such as repetition in culture or intertextuality. When traditional
intertextuality implied, first and foremost, the interpretation of a text through its relations
with other texts (both those encoded by the author and arbitrary ones), intertextuality in
digital culture on the other hand is rather the variation of a given text in diverse forms
and media. The result of this is the institutionalization of intertextuality as an aesthetic
norm (Darley, 2000: 139).
A relatively new phenomenon that has occurred with the general availability of technological means and that responds to the universal human enjoyment in telling and hearing stories, is the practice of digital storytelling. Hartley and McWilliam have described
its fruitful potential for understanding the current cultural context:

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Table 3. Cultural mediation.
Levels

Languages of culture

Object
languages

Metalanguages

Oral languages
Written language
Behaviour
Narratives
Performances
Texts
Discourses
Media
Multimedia
Education
Criticism
Sciences
Terminologies
Formal languages
Artificial languages

Processes
Textuality
Mediality
Multimediality
Metatextuality
Intertextuality
Intermediality
Interdiscursivity

Directions

Transmediality/
Crossmediality

Digital storytelling is a good way to explore how individuals can help each other to navigate
complex social networks and organizational systems, which themselves rely on the active
agency of everyone in the system to contribute to the growth of knowledge. Digital storytelling
uses computational power to attempt human contact. (Hartley and McWilliam, 2009: 15)

At the same time, the authors have also drawn attention to the discrepancy between
potentials and practices: the potential for serious work is underdeveloped there is
too much attention to self-expression; not enough to the growth of knowledge (2009:
15). All of the above is integrated in the problem of education.

Cultural mediation
To understand culture as system of education we need to concretize the aspects of cultural mediation (see Table 3). On a very general level it is possible to describe all cultural
processes as object- or metalevel processes. On a lower level of description there exists
a diverse and dynamic system of cultural languages between these two poles, and all
these languages can find manifestations in processes of mediation in the form of texts,
media, multimedia, intertextuality, intermediality and interdiscursivity. All of these manifestations are describable on two levels. On the first, the motion of messages between
media and their transmedial functioning can be regarded as cultures elemental (unpredictable) autocommunication, in which texts inspire the creation of other texts and cultures creativity is realized in textual diversity. On the other level, we can trace the usage
of different media, platforms and text types in pragmatic (target-oriented) marketing
communications. Even though there is still no clear distinction between transmediality
and cross-mediality, the latter term has been used more often in the context of marketing
processes.

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The conceptual relatedness of autocommunication and transmediality becomes apparent in the juxtaposition of the principles of cultural semiotics with cultural dynamics. In
every era, there exists a certain language of cultural description that changes along with
the culture. At the same time, cultural processes are universal, regardless of technological improvements, and it can be claimed that, while searching for better analyzability of
culture, the cultural semioticians of the Tartu-Moscow school implicitly expressed ideas
that todays culture renders explicit. Culture is based both on inner dialogue as well as on
dialogue with the surrounding world. This in turn assumes that culture must be visible
both as a whole and as a system of parts. Lotman has described this as a situation, where:
[C]ulture itself can be treated both as the sum of the messages circulated by various addressers
(for each of them the adressee is another, s/he, and as one message transmitted by collective
I of humanity to itself. From this point of view human culture is a vast example of
autocommunication. (Lotman, 2001 [1990]: 33)

Autocommunication is a polyglot process in culture and methodologically it is possible to


regard all the communicative processes in culture as autocommunicative. This implies a
clear understanding of the differences between the object level and metalevel of culture.
Therefore, it is methodologically correct to first acknowledge the working of a metamechanism in culture:
The metamechanism of culture establishes a unity between the parts that strive for autonomy
and becomes a language in which internal intercourse inside that culture is carried on. It
contributes to the unification of separate structural nodes. Through it the isomorphism of the
culture as a whole and its parts comes into being. (Lotman, 1979: 923)

The next methodological step is differentiating between the object- and metalevel of
culture, both of which are related to many different languages object- and metalanguages respectively. Both object- and meta-languages constitute a system of cultural
languages and are in principle describable as pure systems (language, discourse, medium,
terminological system, artificial language) on the one hand, and as a synthesis of objectand meta-languages (creolization, hybridity, etc.) on the other.
For Lotman, cultural languages are functionally divided into a dynamical system of
object- and meta-languages (the more cultural languages there are, the richer is cultures
self-description) and into discrete and continuous languages. Languages evolve in language usage and the usage is expressed in different types of cultural texts and it is indeed
precisely in texts where cultural processes are expressed most clearly. Text has been the
key notion in cultural semiotics and, for the present article, it is important to see the
multi-layeredness of textual communication. Texts exist autonomously in culture but
also form textual systems within one medium as well as integrate diverse sign systems or
cultural languages, for instance in the case of a multimedia text (an illustrated book
would be an elementary example). On the level of textual processes it is thus important
to distinguish between meta-textuality and intertextuality, and the interpretation of the
latter through the notions of intermediality or interdiscursivity in the contact zone of
media and discourses.

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Every culture functions as a whole and the basis for the parameter of the whole lies in
cultures autocommunicativity, which is a cultural universal, together with the understanding of culture as a system of education. Methodologically, this is related to the
understanding of the orientation of cultural mechanisms. One and the same culture can
be understood as a culture of a (nation) state or of smaller interest groups, who control
and direct textual processes by controlling politics, ideology, marketing, the school system and mass media. By generalization, this could be termed as the direction of crossmedia, which is based on channelling certain messages into culture by consciously using
diverse or even all medial tools. The other direction stems from cultural life that is a less
regulated system, in which the basis for textual creation is the creativity of individuals or
small groups, which together constitute a uniform culture. This uniformity in multiplicity
is especially likely to appear in the conditions of new media and the term transmediality
seems suitable for signifying it (especially when accompanied by terms from the same
field, such as convergence, divergence and participatory culture).
Cultural mediation as cultures communication simultaneously with others and oneself is thus founded on cultural literacy that is, in turn, the result of the richness or poverty of cultural experience. And cultural experience is in turn directly related to the way
cultural languages are cultivated in a given society during a given historical period as the
richness of cultural languages is related to the growth in multiplicity and richness of the
cultural self-descriptive processes. The state of cultural experience and cultural selfdescriptions is in turn influenced by the functioning of the cultural whole as a system of
education, which was an important cultural parameter for Lotman as well. In this system,
a certain balance can be located between self-education and active teaching (from school
system to mass media brainwash) and between exploitation of cultural dynamics and
resistance to them (e.g. the case of new media and pedagogics). On the level of culture
as a whole, the parameter of education is correlated with the state of cultural memory and
cultural identity in a given society. And this mechanism of culture reaches both inner and
outer observer through the understanding of the multiplicity and hierarchical system of
object languages and meta-languages. Whereas, as stated at the beginning of the present
text, the hierarchy of cultural languages is cultural semiotics declared object of study.

Inanimate Alice: aspects of transmediality and


autocommunicativity
A relatively rare example of a new media project in which the authors have striven to
explicate the educative and pedagogic aspects of the story, is Inanimate Alice.2 It was
first conceived as entertainment but soon acquired an overarching educational function.
The project was created by Kate Pullinger, Chris Joseph (babel), and Ian Harper in 2005
and is introduced on the webpage as a digital novel about a young girl who grows up to
become a videogame designer at the biggest games company in the world. The immersive experience of the narrative whole is planned to consist of 10 episodes, 4 of which
are internationally available online for free since 2008. Some of the content added later
is accessible only in Australia. In addition, there are episodes created by users, mostly as
school projects, uploaded to YouTube and several other internet sites. All of the official

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episodes tell a story of Alice searching for someone (e.g. one or both of her parents) or
something (e.g. her way out of an abandoned house) in different parts of the technologyaugmented near-future world. Thus, there is a repeated narrative structure combined with
problem solving and gameplaying, but an increase in complexity and interactivity as well
as duration with each consecutive episode. The text is inherently inter- and transmedial,
combining subtexts of literature, different visual modes (photos, schemas, paintings,
drawings), comics (split screen composition and speech bubbles), videos, sound effects
and music, gameplaying, interactive hypertexts and also classroom activities in an
organic way. In the memory of the reader, however, all these subtexts together form a
more or less coherent storyworld. The project is polyglot in a literal sense too as the first
the episodes are available not only in English, but also in Italian, French, German and
Spanish. Inanimate Alice has been widely recognized as a successful device for teaching new and digital literacies, foreign languages and social skills, as well as other school
subjects. The main text is accompanied by pedagogic materials provided on the
webpage.
By combining several modes and languages into telling one coherent story, the text
first paves the way for an ability that has sometimes been termed as transliteracy, reinforcing the ability to read and write across more than one (i.e. verbal) sign system. Henry
Jenkins has used the term transmedia navigation in the pedagogic context and defined
it as the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities
(Jenkins etal., 2006). Although, for example, the systems of verbal text and visual
images can be and have often been conceptualized as binary opposites, and their mutual
relationship as one of non-translatability, in the memory of the cultural agent (e.g. the
reader), a relation of equivalence between them can be established on the level of textual
realizations. At the same time, the elements transposed to a new form preserve the memory of their previous context (see also Lotman, 2001 [1990]: 137), for example in the
case where elements of one sign system are organized or encoded according to the rules
or conventions of another. The character of Alice is first introduced as the protagonist of
a (digital) novel, however, she has rather been encoded according to the conventions of
certain video games. Every episode starts off with a short written announcement that
includes a reminder of the protagonists name and states her age in the given subtext. The
only visual representation that we have of Alice is from behind her back, the unfolding
story is mediated by point-of-view-type frames and sounds, and the dominant function of
her character tends to be puzzle solving (whether searching for her parents, fleeing from
ill-willed men or looking for a way out of a labyrinth). All these are devices intrinsic to
video games rather than to more traditional narrative texts.
The transmedial communicative strategy underlines the crucial role of the receiver
because creation of a whole essentially takes place in the mind of him or her. Furthermore,
the concept of convergence culture implies the collision not only between different
media but also in the form of produsage (Bruns, 2008: 17; Carpentier, 2011) between
the traditional author and audience, who instead of simply produsing or using a text,
start interacting in unpredictable ways.3 The receivers interpretative activity that has
always been there, is now complemented with new levels of cognitive and often physical participation, as the audiences play games, solve puzzles, determine the way the
story should proceed, step into social networks with characters, etc. A reward for these

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activities can often be a new piece of information about the storyworld or the continuation of the story itself. Each such piece transforms the whole, not just as a mechanical
part of the sum but as a meaningful element which also affects the way the other pieces
are perceived, understood and remembered. All this inevitably brings along questions
about the ontology of text itself.
Lotman has explained the textual frame (i.e. beginning and ending) and textual
coherence as the main conditions for the existence of text or for the recognition of
something as a text. The latter, coherence, is achieved by the repetition of certain
structural elements in sequentially disposed sentences (2001 [1990]: 223). In fact,
according to Lotman, the whole multiplicity of textual constructions can be reduced to
two main principles: the one of repetition and the one of combination. The first is
essential for verse, the second for prose, but in actual texts both are of course present
in each (1977 [1970]: 79). In accordance with the principle of repetition all the elements of an artistic text become equivalent, even though in the system of natural language they can be very different or even opposites. In this sense, every artistic text is
a self-organizing system that creates a language system of its own with semantics of its
own (1977 [1970]: 80). For example, there is no extratextual reason to associate the
sound of mobile phone interference with a special and personal rapport with technology but in the semantic system of Inanimate Alice precisely such equivalence is
established. Being a noise and perhaps also a device of immersion at first, it acquires
narrative meaning after the reader gets to know Alices Ba-xi (that is substituted by
Zeron Igrat by episode 3), her self-created digital (imaginary) friend Brad and Brads
role in Alices adventures.
Repetition is inevitable in (artistic) texts as they are combined of a finite number of
elements from a given cultural language, but at the same time, precise repetition is
impossible as the recurrence of an element simultaneously recalls the context of the previous occurrence. This is made evident for example by rhyme in poetry (Lotman, 2001
[1990]: 212) where the phenomenon does not belong only to the level of phonetics, but
also to that of semantics as the rhyming words are not similar only for their sound, but
acquire a closeness of meaningful content within the context of that particular poem
(2001 [1990]: 217, 230). In the case of a transmedia text, the repetition of an element in
different media simultaneously underlines its medium-specific differences the audience not only understands the coherence of subtexts but the recurrence of a narrative
element simultaneously actualizes the medium-specific devices of the previous
representation(s). In this sense, the repetition is not mechanical but organic, underlining
both compatibility and polarity. This turns the readers attention not only to the repeated
element itself, but simultaneously to how the element is repeated, ultimately leading to
distinguishing between invariants and variations. Often, elements repeated in several
subparts of a text become understandable only through familiarity with a subsequent one,
which is precisely the case with the aforementioned mobile phone sound effects. These
repeated structural elements also facilitate the dialogue of different subtexts in the readers memory, where the subtexts do not exist in sequence but simultaneously as a new
whole. In the case of transmedia texts, the elements in question can be visual, auditory,
pertain to a colour schema, a particular composition of frame or anything else, both on
the narrated plane and the level of formal devices that lead the audience to recognize the

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text as part of the given transmedia whole. Any textual element accumulates meaning in
the process of repetition, becoming fuller and more complex.
In order to understand these processes in given textual instances, the shared elements
of transfer should be distinguished. Thus, in the context of transmedia storytelling as
well, we should cease to concentrate only on the differences or on what exactly each
medium does best, but also understand the similarities allowing the transfers and repetitions of meaning from one medium to another. Semiotic boundaries do not function
only as separators but also as connectors, as the sum of bilingual translatable filters
(Lotman, 2005 [1984]: 208), and as Lotman has stressed, it is in the area near the boundary where the processes of creolization prevail. Thus the boundaries of sign systems are
always interweaving. Even though every new language first starts by establishing its
difference, drawing boundaries that should separate it from previous ones, nevertheless,
at a certain point, in order to remain an active mediator in culture, communicative connections with other languages of culture have to be established and this is again the
activator of creolization or convergence. In actual culture these processes alternate, and
at certain periods certain languages dominate in the formation of others etc. (see also
Lotman etal., 2013: 77, thesis 9.0.3).
Among the lesson plans provided in Teacher Education Pack (Laccetti, 2008) downloadable from the Inanimate Alice website, one can first find themes of digital and multimedia literacies. For example, the lack of visual specificity of the characters of the story
could be seen as a device to accentuate Alices loneliness, but at the same time it also
supports the readers imagination, makes identifying with characters easier and calls for
expressing ones own perspectives on the problems dealt with in the narrative. Selfexpression is encouraged both in oral form during classroom dialogues as well as on the
digital storytelling platform Snappy. The latter calls on students to explore and acknowledge the affordances of each available sign system and multimedia tools in general, as
well as to find the most relevant sign systems and ways of combining them to tell ones
own story.
Besides the material oriented towards developing literacy skills, there are also guides
for situating Inanimate Alice in the context of cultural memory. For example, lesson
plan 4 is entitled as Exploring Character Development, Inanimate Alice as Kunstlerroman/
Bildungsroman (Laccetti, 2008: 224). Thus, we can not only locate in-textual repetition of motifs, but also repetition of wider cultural codes such as narrative genres which
directly influence the processes of reading and understanding. Besides the genre of
Bildungsroman, the character of a curious young girl named Alice is also easily recognized in western culture since the second half of the 19th century. Being the receiver of
the text, the audience in the autocommunicative system is at the same time the receiver
of oneself. Therefore, the text does not contain only new information from outside, but
simultaneously also the situation of stepping into dialogue with the culture itself. And the
latter is consequently renewed in the process of (re)reading. In this way, the text is not
only a mediator of information, but functions rather as the catalyst of the process of
acquiring (and creating) information, which actually means reconfiguring, reorganizing,
restructuring the information already contained in the memory of the recipient. This
process of repetition with variation in different cultural languages is the main way members of culture with different literacies participate in cultural communication. Repetition

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is consequently the source of both pleasure derived from the recurrence of previously
known motives and innovation stemming from texts reservoir of dynamism (Lotman,
2001 [1990]: 18) opened up when the text or its elements come into contact with new
contexts. A similar idea is echoed by Umberto Eco, who infers from his overview of various forms of iteration in mass media arts during the so-called era of repetition that these
forms are relevant for the entire history of human artistic creativity, which means that:
seriality and repetition are not opposed to innovation (1997 [1985]: 175). Ren Girard
goes even further in his essay about the history of the concepts of innovation and of repetition, stating that: the only short-cut to innovation is imitation (1990: 14).
Repetition functions as a catalyst of cultural memory, where everything exists in a
present form. More exactly, Lotman (2000) has claimed that cultural memory is not only
panchronic, but is opposed to time, preserving the past as the present. In other words,
everything contained in the actual memory of culture is directly or indirectly part of that
cultures synchrony (2001 [1990]: 127). In the Theses , the fact that during any historical period of culture new texts exist side by side with old texts and foreign texts is
underlined as a trait of cultural polyglotism (Lotman etal., 2013: 63, thesis 4.1.1). What
has once been contained in the memory is hardly ever completely forgotten. Instead, the
texts move to the periphery of cultural communication, still bearing the potential of
returning to actual communication by means of contact with new contexts. In the words
of a scholar of cultural memory, Aleida Assmann, concerning the text types most associated with the past: The canon stands for the active working memory of a society that
defines and supports the cultural identity of a group (2008: 106, italics added).
Besides encouraging technological and multimedia skills and self-expression in students, there is a social function or mission to the project as the lesson plans also lead to
dialogue on issues such as peer pressure, the benefits and perils of global citizenship,
environmental problems arising from certain human practices, etc. In sum, we can trace
the dialogue of pedagogical, technological and everyday entertainment and other languages and discourses in the communicative processes of this single polyglot yet coherent whole.

Conclusion
Characteristically, the developments of new media have been regarded as technological
expression of old cultural experience. Examples can be brought from evolutioning interpretation of montage principles in the theory of new media (temporal montage, spatial
montage, ontological montage, stylistic montage) (Manovich, 2001: 26973) that stress
the need to see temporal movements ever more as spatial and simultaneous. Implicit
attributes of 19th-century texts have become explicit parameters of 21st-century cultural
texts. Apprehending this relation supports a better understanding of contemporary cultures mechanisms of balance and consequently also the nature of the formation of
cultural experience and cultural memory. Cultural semiotics, with its interest in the correlation of different sign systems and the functioning of cultures self-descriptive languages, is a good mediator between old and new. It contributes to the understanding of
the underlying mechanisms of cultural autocommunication and the movement between
implicit and explicit transmediality. This means, however, that without understanding

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new cultural languages and the ontology of texts created in them, it will be difficult to
understand the functioning of autocommunication in todays culture. Semiotics of culture helps to increase cultures analysability in the situation where the pace of cultural
development is faster than the development of tools necessary for understanding culture.
And this is why the legacy of Juri Lotman deserves multiple re-readings.
Funding
This research was supported by the University of Tartu (PFLFI 13903) and the European Union
through the European Regional Development Fund (Center of Excellence in Cultural Theory
CECT).

Notes
1. An additional complex point in this line is the question of computer and internet. Are they
media or metamedia and what would each of these claims mean? The inherent interactivity of
a computer with an internet connection and its ability to represent or simulate almost all other
media, albeit abstracting them from their materiality, seems to position it as a meta-medium,
but at the same time they model the represented texts according to their own logics just like
any other medium. For example, an old video uploaded to YouTube looks the same, but can
be discussed, shared, be explicitly related to other videos, etc., and thus its textual ontology
is entirely different from its previous existence on TV music programmes. A discussion of
the complexities of the issue with references is also provided in an online debate on digital
aesthetics between Jay Bolter, Lev Manovich and others (Bolter etal., 2007: 1536).
2. See: www.inanimatealice.com.
3. Analogously, also the traditional boundary between teacher and students is blurring with the
help of contemporary pedagogic practices that see students not as passive acquirers of prepacked knowledge but rather as creators of knowledge and meaning themselves (cf. Lotman,
2001 [1990]: 345).

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Author biographies
Maarja Ojamaa is a PhD candidate of the Department of Semiotics at the University of Tartu,
Estonia. Her thesis discusses transmediality in the framework of the semiotics of culture. She has
been teaching semiotics-related subjects in different secondary and higher education institutions in
Estonia.
Peeter Torop is a professor of cultural semiotics in the Department of Semiotics at the University
of Tartu, Estonia. He is a co-editor of Sign Systems Studies and Tartu Semiotics Library. He has
published seven books and over 200 articles in cultural semiotics, translation studies, literary and
film studies, Russian studies (Dostoevsky) and methodology of humanities.

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