Making Semiotics Sustainable

By Paul Bouissac and Christina Ljungberg

Is semiotics sustainable both as an epistemological project and as an international community of researchers? To be sustainable beyond the span-life of an intellectual fashion, semiotics must keep producing new knowledge that is relevant to the disciplines with which semioticians usually interact, or with which their interests overlap. Failing to do so would further isolate semiotics and lead this once diverse and promising paradigm to irrelevance. But doing so – that is, productively networking with other researchers – will require the creation of functional communication channels, and institutions that truly foster and stimulate such interactions. A necessary condition for meaningful dialogues and joint projects is a mutual understanding of the problems that each one endeavors to solve. This is more important than insisting, as some do, that shared theoretical and methodological assumptions be the basis of joint epistemological ventures. Furthermore, since most scientific disciplines are transnational, interactions must occur on an international scale and through a common language. Fine-grained interfaces must be developed in a more regular and consistent manner than is presently the case, if semiotics is to live up to the expectations of its modern founders and keep creating knowledge.

The Open Semiotics Resource Center will launch in 2008 a Virtual Laboratory designed to empower researchers worldwide with the capability of creating knowledge through constructing databases and using methods of inquiry able to deliver results according to the best scientific standards. It will be a challenge to semioticians who have cultivated a discourse that merely consists of opening exciting perspectives and outlining interesting projects before retreating into new speculations. It will also be a freely available tool for researchers who might lack such methodological resources as is all too often the case in under-funded research and academic institutions. The capacity to produce knowledge is traditionally restricted to privileged laboratories equipped with adequate technological means. But, today, a significant part of these means are portable in the form of software, and distance instruction can be delivered efficiently. As an Open Source endeavor, the Virtual Lab will be accessible to all. However, for technical reasons, the access to some sections may be subject to a particular instructor’s authorization because the use of some research tools sometimes demands a previously acquired specific competence.

There will be four basic departments: DATABASES, METHODS, PROJECTS, and REFERENCES.

DATABASES will include instructions on how to build a database that can be usable beyond the particular project for which it is built. Databases which are already available on the Internet will be linked to this section. New ones will be created. The databases will be the shared resource of the users of the Virtual Lab.

METHODS will include courses by specialists. Sound research cannot be conducted without a methodology and often, now more than ever, without appropriate software. It will include a wide array of both qualitative and quantitative methods from discourse analysis to computer simulation for instance. Supporting software will be made freely available whenever possible.

PROJECTS will be the section in which users describe their research projects, report on their progress or problems, and publish their results which will thus be open to an on-going peer review. It will also be the place where the users of the Virtual Lab interact and possibly pool their resources. It is expected that functional networks will emerge from these interactions.

REFERENCES will offer bibliographies and URLs, access to journals online in which articles resulting from the research done in the Virtual Lab can be submitted, and relevant directories, repertories and lists of potential data sources.

This project, as it is in the process of being developed, would greatly benefit from comments and suggestions that readers would care to send us. Volunteering existing databases and methodological resources would also be welcome. The virtual is a bridge between the utopian and the real.