CHWP A.12 Michelucci & Marteinson, "Paradigm Lost? Electronic Publishing and the Renewal of Research"

We have all seen coverage of the Internet in the popular media. Its portrayal there is easily summarized: the World Wide Web is huge, and fast, but most of all it is new, which is to say, "weird and wonderful". Yet it appears to us that this vision, like the Internet it portrays, is much more fluff than substance. Indeed, it is not the sheer volume and speed of the Internet's infrastructure that endows it with the capacity to change the way we use information, but rather the tremendous opportunity the medium offers to promote the written word in the face of a predominantly iconic culture. The traditional print media, largely unaware of the way in which this new communicational universe might herald their ultimate demise, have proven unable or unwilling to appreciate these changes, and instead focus merely on the technical aspects of the electronic medium, and especially on the purely visual and visceral dimensions of the World Wide Web (rampant examples are real-time video, virtual shopping malls where you can actually see what is for sale and, of course, electronic pornography).

1. New Beginnings

Yet today, some five hundred years after the Gutenberg Galaxy was born -- a birth which proved to be more to the advantage of the natural sciences, it seems, since the trivium was then all but abandoned -- literate culture may have at its fingertips the means, or more precisely a medium, through which to effect an impressive rejuvenation; and thus its virtues could, like the Phoenix, rise from their still-smoldering ashes. [1] Ours, however, is not to reason why literacy has waned (despite the appearance of strength its demographic statistics might conjure in the mind), but rather to look ahead and recognize that the conditions necessary for a new coming to life are assembling. Indeed, the Internet today offers the humanities [2] the same tremendous possibilities the affluent printers of Renaissance Venice, such as Aldus, offered Greek scholars fleeing Constantinople in the mid-fifteenth century, which led to an unprecedented influx of knowledge to western Europe, and along with it a new cultural affinity toward the print medium, with its capacity for wide distribution, in addition to the development of a society whose demand for printed products was matched only by people's eagerness to make their views known in the new medium. In the present day, the next ten to twenty years will be crucial for the humanities, which we feel must corner a niche on the Internet and ensure a strong presence in it -- before television strikes back, when cable companies bring video-on-demand to individual home computers, and interest in the Web, like a wilting love, becomes mere habituation, its potential for real change lost.

This, essentially, is the source of our motivation behind founding Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée as an academic publication which one might say puts all its eggs in the Web's basket. Of course, you are asking, it's all very well and good to call for one's chariot of fire in the name of the humanities, but why within so young and esoteric a field as semiotics?

2. Cultural Studies vs. Semiotics

It is reasonable to assert that there is a market-driven move towards emphasizing "culture" in North-American language departments, which pushes the study of literature and language toward fields that have no historical claims to it -- namely the political and social sciences -- and significantly waters down its inherent strengths; cultural studies see language as a mere medium, and literature as a by-product -- not worth studying per se. At best, it surfaces in the form of thematic studies, like feminist readings whose theoretical operations, according to Diane Elam, could be described as: "1. find the women in the text; 2. women are oppressed in fill-in-the-blank; 3. women find their voice in fill-in-the-blank" (Elam 1995: 91) [3].

Interdisciplinarity might seem a good thing, as venerable divisions between disciplines (whose walls were traditionally buttressed by the "finality" of printed academic books) are weakened by declining budgets and a renewed openness which seems quite reasonably to call for more cross-field work. This fancy for interdisciplinary work is evidenced nowadays by the appearance of the by-now hackneyed metaphors of "bridges" and "crossroads" in North-American books and colloquia. But the point is that cultural studies are trying to mix oil and water: there is no natural affinity between the methods or objects of sciences that study facts and those that study artefacts -- for this would be like wedding medicine to opera, as Hutcheon and Hutcheon humorously suggest (Hutcheon & Hutcheon 1995). It is therefore doubtful that the fruits of "cultural studies", although perhaps of interest, will be of any real relevance to scholars of either language or literature.

From the semiotic vantage point, on the other hand, better compromises might be arrived at, as disciplinary semiotics historically proceeds through and draws upon a whole gamut of investigation -- ranging from classical philosophy, linguistic structuralism, biology and social thought -- that shares a keen interest in language and sign processes. Indeed, semiotics has, during the last fifteen years, crossed still more frontiers: semiotic narrative research is being adopted by psychologists, and cognitive scientists are now finding interest in the processing and storage of information, which has led them to draw upon semiotics. Unlike the pervasive "theory" that serves to rationalize cultural studies, and which is defined by Culler as "works that are studied outside their proper disciplinary matrix: students of theory read Freud without enquiring whether later psychological research may have disputed his formulations [4]", semiotic theory has a historical coherence through the commonality of the objects studied by theorists.

And yet there is such an overgrowth of semiotic theories [5] that we can hardly wish to see them multiply, preferring instead to begin pruning with Ockham's "razor", his famous second principle. This accounts for AS/SA's mandate being conceived as applied, and not pure, or simply descriptive (Morris 1970: 9) [6]. Moreover, concrete applications, which tend to propagate thought relevant to various fields that have an interest in signs, appear to us as the natural path toward a harmonization of research and teaching in the future. So electronic semiotic publishing, by making research on communicative processes more readily available, and by providing a forum accessible even to the novice, might well constitute the ideal linking of research and teaching -- a linking currently felt by teachers to be a leap of faith, and by students to be a plain big leap. The programme in semiotics at Brown University [7] provides a case in point, showing that the difficulty of drawing students into pointed research is not insurmountable when it passes through discrete applications rather than pure theorization.

That, briefly, is our account of the rationale behind the creation of a periodical devoted to semiotics on the Internet.

3. Publishing Today

Yet the academic journal, like the discipline to which it is usually adjunct, is also a time-honoured thing. Understanding this, and seeing a need to alleviate the widespread distrust and puzzlement felt toward the newest form assumed by periodicals -- electronic, ergo with the trappings of hard science -- and considering the difficulties of citing electronic text, by nature transient, unstable and intangible, we also had to ponder over the very role of the electronic periodical in the academic world.

In the context of declining institutional subscriptions to paper periodicals (the University of Toronto has some 3,000 today, worth $250,000 a year at a conservative estimate, as compared to 4,000 five years ago -- despite administrators' reassurance that such reductions will not continue in Mike Harris's Ontario), electronic periodicals might prove to be the long-awaited panacea to budgetary constraints, at least in the long term, after appropriate investment in hardware. But finances alone are not the only compelling criterion: paper periodicals are hard to search, despite CD-ROM databases and the MLA Bibliography. How can you be sure of not missing a paper in your field when over one million articles have been published in 12,000 periodicals since 1988? It is ironic that the only single place you can find the full text of all of them is neither the MLA database, nor Toronto's Robarts Library, nor the Widener nor even the Library of Congress, but an Internet site in Colorado which will fax or e-mail them to you upon request (CARL). Now with many academic editors considering going on-line, or already having done so [8], along with the creation of Internet-only periodicals, searches will be even easier, thanks to numerous powerful search engines with full indexation that also provide text access.

Yet there is resistance to technology, often in the guise of "concern", but a concern of a kind that translates neither into inquiry nor a search for solutions. Scholars often pretext lack of time to get acquainted with the medium and take their ignorance in the matter for granted -- as a fifty-something sociology professor once confessed to a lecture one of us was attending, "I'm an old geezer: I don't have e-mail." Indeed, it does take time to get acquainted with a new medium, and university administrations are not showing the way (either in the allocation of funds, or in recognizing that which escapes the prevalent paradigm of research for evaluation purposes). The University of Toronto's absence in the enormous Toronto multimedia convention of May 23, 1996 is telling -- especially when so-called "non-research" universities like Queen's and McMaster did have booths, and when public primary and high schools, more in touch with the pulse of society, are consistently moving toward computers.

Could it not be represented how much faster and more frequently databases can be accessed in the comfort of one's home, as compared with the use of the MLA CD-ROM in time slots of thirty minutes? Is knowledge not worth the investment of a month devoted to becoming functionally computer-literate? Is ordinary research so important that it cannot permit delay, even when finished papers take two to three years to be published?

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[1] The steady modern decline of liberal arts is foretold by the fall of its most transitive branch, rhetoric (see Curtius 1956: III & IV, 83-147; Vickers 1988), wedged between grammar and dialectic and reduced to a mere cosmetic function from the Renaissance onward. At that time the "agonistic" turn of teaching established in the years 800 (see Barthes 1994 and his fascinating standard) is replaced by another means of distributing knowledge -- the book -- whose increased factual accuracy is fostered by its wider distribution, requiring the institutionalization of other means of debate. The reduction of persuasive rhetoric to embellishing rhetoric is therefore merely a symptom, not a cause, of change.

[2] "The Humanities are sciences focusing on a human specificity, and not on a voiceless entity, not on natural phenomena. The human being as a human is always expressive (through speech), that is he creates a text (possibly potential). Wherever humans are studied out of text and independently from it, we are outside the field of the Humanities" (our translation). Bakhtin as quoted by Tzvetan Todorov (1981: 31-2). The whole argument of chapter two, "Epistemology of the Humanities" (27-48), is relevant to our position.

[3] The recent Feminist Stylistics is symptomatic in this respect: although Sara Mills starts out with a caveat, "We often view language simply as a tool or as a vehicle for ideas" (Mills 1995: 1), she unwittingly perpetuates the thought that there is such a thing as sexist language, as opposed to a sexist stance visible through language, throughout her analyses. The fact that there is no symmetry "in language" between men and women is not inscribed in language itself: even the most elementary semantics is chosen by its user who operates by it an act of prise en charge. In general, there is some doubt as to the feminist notion that language is an archive of oppression, although it is to some extent one of attitudes, and not only mirrors but enforces institutionalized inequality -- although some of its users do when using it for their own end.

[4] The same holds true for a great many thinkers, especially for much of the philosophical tradition. This leads to some amusing jumbles: a recent question on the French Internet discussion group, Balzac, inquired how Wittgenstein's expression "language game", in that instance wrongly attributed to French philosopher Lyotard, was to be translated into French.

[5] Winfried Nöth's (1995) Handbook of Semiotics is the handiest compendium from which an idea of the spectrum of semiotic questioning and semiotic theories can be formed. Also for a theoretical mise au point, François Rastier (1990). A dissenting view about the origins and directions of semiotics can be found in Paul Bouissac's (1990) seminal paper, "L'institution de la sémiotique: stratégies et tactiques" .

[6] Morris's distinction between pure, descriptive and applied semiotics is well-known, but it might also be applied to any science. It leads to methodologically harmful and counter-productive states of affairs as the one described by Claire Meljac and Gérard Deloche (1995) in psychology.

[7] Brown University's Storyspace Cluster by George P. Landow and his students is both a model and an inspiration for the Humanities (Landow 1998).

[8] Sites of Significance for Semiotics lists some 40 periodicals (AS/SA 1998).