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This editorial appeared in Volume 7 (3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Editorial: Semiotics On Line

by Paul Bouissac

What is a site? The static meaning of the term refers to a place or position occupied by some specified thing, usually a town or monument and its surroundings. But it also designates a plot intended or suitable for building purposes, and, more technically, a framework forming the basis of a piece of scaffolding. It is in these latter two senses, with all their exquisite potential for ambiguities, that The Semiotic Review of Books has become a web site.

From its inception in 1990, SRB has endeavored to build linkages across disciplines and to construct interfaces between minds of various specializations and persuasions. Recurring themes of the SRB editorials published to date bear witness to a vital obsession with epistemological networkings and integrative perspectives. Psychologists, linguists, philosophers, anthropologists, computer scientists, etc., have in turn put forward their arguments in favor of increased communication across the artificial boundaries of the twentieth century mapping of human knowledge. In so doing, SRB has taken a firm stand with respect to two tendencies found among contemporary semioticians: the opposite but equally self-destructive temptations of despondency and dogmatism. Some lament the fact that semiotics has not succeeded in establishing itself as a regular discipline. Some proclaim the end of the semiotic venture. But the fact that semiotics remains a vast construction site, haunted by nomads of the mind, should on the contrary be celebrated as the best possible omen for its future. Even if some models, which once were considered the beacons of a new era, lie on the ground like the discarded intellectual toys of another age, the fundamental questions which semiotics has been formulating all along this century have kept all their epistemological vigor and scientific urgency.

The golden age of semiotics does not lie in a more or less remote past but in the century ahead. As the process of globalization continues to bring the cultures and languages of the world into increasingly close contact, overarching models of communication and understanding will be more than ever necessary to provide the means to transcend cognitive boundaries. Actually, it could be claimed that semiotic literacy is a prerequisite for successfully negotiating and managing the tensions brought about by the local /global opposition. Semiotics does not carry the colonial stigmas of anthropology, nor the ideological conflicts as sociology and, perhaps to a lesser extent, psychology do. The construction of a global memory, based on a deeper past than the archives of the ever-warring nation-states, and the edification of a global philosophy, will require more encompassing perspectives than the narrow disciplines and subdisciplines of today can afford in spite of their achievements.

In this context, the relentless curiosity of semioticians, who never felt bound by disciplinary fences, remains a precious commodity of the human mind's quest for understanding and meaning. Most semioticians were wont to "surf" over epistemological boundaries well before the world wide web became affordable. Their multidisciplinary personal libraries and eclectic bibliographical references, their multiple cross-appointments in various academic territories, their sense of estrangement in any departmental enclosures, bear witness to this consubstantial affinity with a new mode of electronic interaction which ignores gatekeepers and protectionists in the monopolistic transmission, circulation and exchange of ideas. The sclerotic administration of knowledge, the bureaucratization of research and the intellectual confinement which often characterize modern institutions of higher learning may try to harness the resources of the electronic web by posting their complacent self-descriptions. But a click of the mouse can always send these spectres back to the carpeted offices where they have been bred over several centuries of obsessive domestication and discipline. Semiotics has grown on the wild side of the mind, in the interstices and margins of authority. The "web" frontier provides semiotics with an ideal medium to which the characteristics of its strategies of inquiry seems to be pre-adapted and in which it will undoubtedly thrive.

This is why The Semiotic Review of Books went on-line at the beginning of this year. This move was accompanied by the creation of a supplement, The Signpost, which endeavors to call the attention of our visitors to global resources such as symposia, seminars, congresses, research centers, publications, other nodes from which rich directions can be explored in the realm of serendipity. But SRB and The Signpost will continue to appear in print and to bring to theirreadership the booty, spoils and plunder that its team of editors and authors gather in the jungle of publications irrespectively of the disciplinary label with which publishers and librarians may have stamped them. We are sorely aware indeed fo the fact that many of those who would beneift the most from the flow of information which can be tapped on the web, cannot afford yet the basic expenses of a PC, a modem and, above all, the prohibitive rates that some national telephone companies still impose on their users, sometimes as a last effort to curb universal accessibility. There are, however, reasons to believe that this is a losing battle. At least for the three years to come, SRB will appear both in print and (partially) on line. An index for the last three years is already available. Links will allow immediate access to the selected articles. We are in the process of putting on line all the articles published in the past issues, arranged according to a thematic structure which will be easily explorable.

But there is more. The Semiotic Review of Books will launch this month (October 1996) the first Cyber Semiotic Institute. This virtual campus will be accessible by all, at any time of day and night, in any time zone. Its faculty members will put on line advanced courses on topics of semiotic interest. Each course will comprise a cycle of eight lectures at the rate of one lecture per month. Naturally, in cyber space, the concept of distribution over time is relative. The staggered delivery is a constraint pertaining to the source. This timing will give each lecturer the opportunity to ponder the feedback that will not fail to reach her/him through e-mail. There may also be some advantages in following the delivery in real time, thus allowing delays for readings, reflexion, anticipation, maturation, etc. But such concerns for temporal and pedagogical organization might be nothing but remnants from the pre-web era. Once lectures are on line (but can they still be called "lectures"?) nothing and, more importantly, nobody can impose agenda, order or delay on the users. The Cyber Semiotic Institute will have open "lecture halls", where lectures can be audited, "offices" where instructors can be met through e-mail, resource centers where a variety of references will be found, and a forum where the cyber students can interact. The cyber registrar will post announcements relating to the programs and their dates of inception, as well as preparatory reading lists for those who want to use this new resource as an opportunity for serious learning and reflecting as a challenging supplement to playful "surfing".

Some cyber students may indeed want to undertake works under the guidance of one or several of the cyber lecturers, who are all actively involved in research. In this case it will be a matter of person to person agreement. Through using e-mail, the minimal administrative structure of the Cyber Semiotic Institute can be happily by-passed. It can be anticipated that lecturers will need to determine under which conditions, if any, they will admit someone as a "cyber student". Like the philosophers of ancient Greece, or the Gurus of traditional India, it will entirely depend on them to select those they will admit to their inner e-circle and, possibly, to set criteria of admission and evaluation, and to assess the expenses for which they may want to be compensated. The certificate they may want to deliver to cyber students who will have completed successfully a cursus of study with them, will be worth as much as their own international reputation for scholarly and personal integrity. Some lecturers may find it desirable and possible to admit students through the extension or outreach programs of their own institutions, mainly at a time when an increasing number of universities go on-line.

With mirror sites on several continents and a Faculty distributed all over the world, putting on-line courses in many different languages, the Cyber Semiotic Institute is the first truly global campus, universally accessible. Its architecture may be virtual, but the interactions and dialogues it will foster are actual. Perhaps only semiotics could make such a utopian dream real.


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