This editorial appeared in Volume 1 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.
Editorial:The Lesson of Durkheim
by Paul Bouissac
Two main considerations prompted the Toronto Semiotic Circle to launch a new journal primarily devoted to the publication of review articles. Firstly, the sheer number of books appearing every year under the banner of semiotics makes it increasingly difficult to keep abreast of the developments in the field. Secondly, a still greater number of publications in many other disciplines have substantial content eminently relevant to the intellectual interests of semioticians; however, many of these important books may go unnoticed if no attempt is made to systematically monitor such publications.
Journals such as Semioteca, Zeitschrift für Semiotik, RSSI, The American Journal of Semiotics, and others regularly make commendable efforts in this direction, but their primary function is to publish the results of research in the form of original scholarly articles and, consequently, the space they can allot to reviews is necessarily limited. Their excellent review sections can cover only a very small portion of the semiotic literature appearing in any given year, let alone books published in other disciplines. However, the contents of many of these books make important, albeit often indirect, contributions to the science of signs.
In view of this general situation, the aim of The Semiotic Review of Books is twofold: to keep its readership informed of the state of the art in semiotics and to monitor the literature in a range of other disciplines which, at least in some respects, are important for the advancement of semiotics. It is also hoped that specialists in a variety of disciplines will benefit from the pluridisciplinary scope of this new journal.
Obviously, the focus on other disciplines is the most challenging part of this endeavour. It is also, probably, the most urgent. Many semioticians share the view that semiotics has reached a critical turn. Some speak of epistemological crisis, others wonder whether the theoretical innovativeness and pioneering spirit which marked the beginnings of modern semiotics have not petered out. The exclusive interest of some semioticians for the classical and medieval roots of the movement tend to defuse C.S. Pierce's and F. De Saussure's revolutionary thinking. On the other hand, those who treat their programmatic statements as axioms or dogmas run the risk of locking semiotics into a circuitous exegesis which blatantly belies the venturous thought of those who started the process of surveying -- from a distance -- this terra incognita.
Indeed, Peirce and Saussure wrote and said in many ways that they envisioned semiotics as a science to be; they were convinced of the novelty of their epistemological forays; but they were also aware of, and even at times discouraged by the immensity of the task they had undertaken. They both used the term "science" to characterize the program of research which they contemplated. In spite of the current nihilist temptations of anti-theoretical essayism and textual hedonism a great many semioticians today continue to strive to construct the Promethean discipline adumbrated a century ago.
A reflexion on the history of sociology may cast some light on the current position of semiotics. Almost a century elapsed between Auguste Comte's conception of sociology as the science of social phenomena and the paradigmatic institutionalization of French sociology during the first decade of the XXth century. In this process the role of Emile Durkheim and his group was crucial, in particular through the founding of L'Année sociologique in 1898. We must remember that when Durkheim began lecturing in "education and social science" at the Faculty of Letters of the University of Bordeaux in 1887, "there was no working institutional provision in France to foster scholarship in matters Auguste Comte had defined two generations earlier as the object of sociology" (Karady, 1983: 72). There existed an abundant sociological literature, mostly speculative, but none of those who shared an interest in the advent of a science of social phenomena was a professional sociologist. Their institutional anchorage was spread across the range of a variety of established disciplines: law, history of religion, history, economics, linguistics, education, art history, sinology, geography, music, etc. -- a situation familiar to modern semioticians. It is generally considered that the turning point was the creation of L'année sociologique (Clark, 1968; Karady, 1983). This yearly publication was at first largely, and eventually exclusively, devoted to reviewing, from a sociological perspective, the research published in all the other disciplines whose contents pertained to a would-be science of social phenomena. Durkheim's justification for this editorial strategy in the preface of the first issue contains a lesson whose pertinence goes beyond the situation to which the Durkheimians were confronted: "L'année sociologique has not as its only purpose, not even as its main purpose to present the current state of the art concerning the sociological literature proper. In our opinion, (researchers) have a pressing need to be regularly informed about the research that is done in the special sciences: history of law, of manners, of religion, statistics, economics, etc. because there lies the prima materia from which sociology must be built. Indeed, if a sociologist is not to waste his time in vain ulalectlcal exercises, he must acquire a vast and diversified knowledge and collect data which are so scattered that it is always possible to miss essential ones."
Durkheim goes on to criticize sociologists who dogmatize about law, ethos, religion, etc., using ad hoc examples or, still worse, doing away with data altogether, and exclusively relying on "natural philosophy", not noticing that considerable relevant materials have already been accumulated in the data-oriented disciplines. But Durkheim's plea for closer contacts between sociology and the disciplines he lists is not intended for the sole benefit of sociologists. According to Durkheim, the "special sciences" often operate within narrow conceptual frameworks and sociology could help them to widen their theoretical scope.
Durkheim's seven-page preface and the historical situation it describes may help semioticians to assess their own position in current academic structures. Some may even find the Durkheimians' strategy inspiring and they may wish to join the editorial team of SRB in attempting to create an organ through which the semiotic substance of the current "special sciences" can regularly be brought to the attention of the semiotic community. To Peirce and Saussure, the construction of "semeiotic" or "sémiologie" appeared as a colossal task in part because they were keenly aware of the vast areas of knowledge still waiting to be discovered. The stunning advances made on all the fronts of scientific research during the last hundred years have not made the task easier. More than ever scientific hyper-specializations with their cornucopia of data cry out for a theory which could provide a comprehensive model. In particular the disciplines which deal with some aspects of the ways in which organisms have developed the capacity to store, structure and share information, wittingly and unwittingly, both within the groups or societies they form and across generations, lack the theory which would not only help to integrate the various levels of complexities uncovered by the "special sciences", but also afford some degree of understanding of how those processes relate to more fundamental laws on the one side and to mental abstract constructs on the other.
Inspired by Durkheim's example, SRB will try to play its modest parts this process. But launching a new journal is always a challenge, particularly if it does not fill a "natural" slot, so to speak, in the disciplinary grid of the academic framework. Raising the small budget which made it possible to plan and sustain the first year's three issues has not been easy. SRB is meant to be a no-frills journal. Production costs have been kept to a minimum: no extravagant design, plain paper, no dead weight so that the postage can remain reasonable. There is no need to add that SRB will achieve its goals only with the support of a large, international constituency of subscribers and collaborators.
Clark, T. (1968) The Structure and Functions of a Research Institute: The Année Sociologique. Archives Européennes de Sociologie vol. 9.1 (72-91)
Karady, V. (1983) "The Durkheimians in Akademe. A reconsideration". In Besnard, P. (ed.) The Sociological Domain: The Durkheimians and the founding of French Sociology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, and Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de L'homme. (71-89)
Durkheim, E. (1898). Preface. L'année Sociologique. Première année, 1896-1897. Paris: Felix Alcan (I-VII)