Lobbying for Semiotics

By Paul Bouissac

The art and trade of lobbying is a prime topic of investigation for semiotics. Lobbyists are not necessarily corruptors in disguise. There is a honest way of attempting to convince decision makers of the merits of a project, a product or an organization. Keeping an idea alive in the media, or on the forefront of a political or administrative agenda, requires both technical knowledge and the ability to convey informed conviction in a persuasive manner. It also demands efficient networking and sustainable persistence. A good understanding of sense-making devices and communication strategies is an asset. This is why successful lobbyists necessarily put semiotics, under any other name, in practice. Conversely, trained semioticians should be ipso facto good lobbyists.

However, there appears to be a lack of efficient lobbying on behalf of semiotics. After well over a century of semiotic achievements too many research agencies, academic administrators, and even colleagues from disciplines that could be expected to be sensitive by their very nature to the problems addressed by semioticians, profess ignorance and, at the same time, often aggressively dismiss the value of semiotics as a credible intellectual endeavor. This state of affairs probably arises from the fact that they have not been sufficiently informed. Or that their local and sporadic exposures to some questionable embodiments of semiotic discourse have not been corrected by a comprehensive and comprehensible introduction to the bigger picture.

The result of this lack of information is that it is rather common among semioticians (who in general also belong to a “regular” discipline) to apply for research grants without mentioning the word that could trigger a negative reaction on the part of the decision-makers. It has happened in several universities that semiotic programs, which had been built with great effort over long periods of time, have been cancelled fairly casually without encountering resistance. Fortunately, there are also sporadic success stories which seem to have been carried forward thanks to smart lobbying and favorable local circumstances. Perhaps, semioticians should devote more systematic and consistent efforts not only to monitor and record the history of their engagements on the institutional level, and to promote semiotics itself by lobbying decision-makers on behalf of semiotics. These two tasks are actually intimately related because the demonstration of the historical depth of an epistemological movement constitutes one of the arguments upon which lobbying can be built.

But this is not the only argument. For instance, Herbert Allen noted in SemiotiX 6 that students entering the university programs he oversees usually perform better when they have previously taken some semiotic courses. In this case, the evidence is impressionistic and anecdotal but gathering data on the long term effects of a semiotic training on the level of performance of advanced students and professionals is within reach as long as appropriate methods and resources are assigned to such a goal. Policy makers understand the language of statistics better than philosophical arguments. In other quarters, epistemological or psychological arguments may carry more weight. For instance, it is possible to emphasize the advantages for some students, irrespective of the discipline which they eventually choose, of being schooled early in the art of thinking in terms of abstract models such as the ones various brands of semiotic theories have developed.

Lobbying can take another, more tactical form when a program that is respected among the international semiotic community, comes under attack in the context of local budgetary or political pressures. International campaigns can be mounted to the effect that a large number of semioticians holding prestigious functions in well-known universities write letters of support for the threatened programs. In past cases, this approach has actually been successful, although it is not necessarily so. But it is well known that academic administrators have a tendency to target programs that they perceive as vulnerable because of their apparent marginality when they are themselves under pressure to eliminate some expenses. Strong letters of support from high-profile international colleagues can make them think twice and change their mind if there is a risk of jeopardizing the symbolic capital that international reputation represents for their institutions of higher learning.

The above are only some examples of the problems which researchers confront, and of the strategies that can be devised by the associations which have been formed to serve their professional and intellectual interests, and social functions. Semioticians are in need of such supports and should pressure their associations to live up to the mandates with which their executive boards have been entrusted.

Naturally, all major academic associations (such as the MLA or the AAAS in North America) devote resources to lobbying under any other name. Lobbying for semiotics would require that national and international associations of semiotics would foster a good understanding of the socio-cultural contexts within which their members operate, and endeavor to monitor situations as they develop and to engage in determined lobbying on behalf of their members.