Editorial

Editor's Note

By Paul Bouissac

In the guest column, Mihai Nadin challenges semioticians to engage issues and problems at the cutting edge of today's research rather than spending excessive time and energy mining the past and perpetuating sterile school debates. This is, of course, easier said than done given the fact that the policy makers and gatekeepers of current official semiotics overwhelmingly belong to the humanities (literary studies, language teaching and research, philosophy, education, music, art history, etc.). The social sciences are under-represented, and the natural and formal sciences have only a token presence, if any, in the various semiotics associations, national and international, whose membership figures are notoriously dwindling. In the sphere of higher education semiotics is receding: in 2004, for instance, a high profile undergraduate program was drastically scaled down in Canada (Toronto) and, in Germany (Berlin), a prominent doctoral program was discontinued. Semiotic research seminars attract only handfuls of students, if only because their prospect for future employment as semioticians is far from promising. Administrative persecution is not the best explanation for this state of affairs. A serious and honest assessment of the situation worldwide should be in order and, as it happens often in major professional organizations under efficient, proactive leadership, paths to redress this problem should be proposed and policy should be formulated, publicly discussed and forcefully implemented.

SemiotiX endeavors to keep track of these developments and also to report encouraging news such as the creation of new courses and programs as they are brought to the attention of the editors, such as the founding of a Chair in semiotics in Finland (Harri Veivo) or a new semiotic program at the University of Dortmund (Guido Ipsen). But signs of crisis must not be ignored. Presidential addresses and other public statements that complacently celebrate the success of semiotics in the epistemological landscape of the 21st century are simply in denial or pursue local agendas by producing tactical smokescreens.

This bleak picture, however, should be tempered by acknowledging the achievements of semiotics institutions over the last five decades or so. First, bridges have been built between some areas of research in the humanities by fostering abstract models which created common metalanguages. Some of these models have spilled over into the social sciences and have contributed to shattering some entrenched disciplinary isolationisms whereas some others have been trivialized or simply forgotten.

Secondly, the input of semiotic speculations has contributed to the renewal of theorizing in domains such as law, music, organization, communication, linguistics, literature and, to a lesser extent, in biochemistry, information theory, and mathematics. The journal on line SEED bears witness to the latter's productive interfacing with semiotics.

Thirdly, semiotics has facilitated the emergence of a reflexive discourse focusing on cultures both in the geopolitical and disciplinary senses. Semiotic terminologies from various schools, and the analytical methods they imply, have been "naturalized", so to speak, in some linguistic, pragmatic and philosophical paradigms although the word semiotics itself is usually held at bay undoubtedly because of the " [l]amentably woolly quality that continues to bedevil semiotic discourse …", as Thomas A. Sebeok noted in the introduction to an essay on "Signs, Bridges, Origins" in 1996.

This "semiotizing" process, however, has been mostly confined to a disciplinary culture characterized by the mores and standards of the contemporary humanities, a turn of events that was certainly not anticipated by the founders of semiotics. This is particularly obvious in editorial policies which do not fully adhere to the criteria that usually are strictly enforced in the sciences. Self-appointed fountainheads tend to expect that whatever they send to a journal, or an encyclopedia, should appear as is. And they are sometimes prepared to return the favor. Rejections or even requests for changes are often interpreted as hostile moves and trigger counter-measures in a conflict of egos. Many semiotic publications over the last few decades would have greatly benefited from serious peer-scrutiny. They would have gained in epistemological persuasive power beyond the inner circle of a handful of initiates if they had been confronted by collegial critical dialogue. Unbound prolixity would have been restrained. Bold speculations would have been made more credible, albeit probably less sweeping. Arguments would have been made more cogent. Unfounded assertions would have been corrected. Whoever has some familiarity with the peer-review process in the sciences knows that it is not uncommon for a submitted article to be critically assessed by five or more readers, and to be reassessed after revisions before it eventually goes to press…or on line.

Of course, it would be immature to idealize the disciplinary Other like a sort of epistemological exoticism. The two cultures have their own drawbacks but the important point is to be able to communicate about the conditions in which knowledge is advanced on both sides. Semiotics should not shy away from the ambitious mission dreamed by its founders to build the needed third culture that can bridge disciplines which tend to become increasingly alienated from one another. If today's semioticians have something to offer in this respect, they must clearly articulate their propositions in a way that reaches out to the disciplinary Others and thrives towards some form of consensus.