20.438 semiotics, humanities computing and all the rest

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sat, 3 Feb 2007 10:17:54 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 438.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Sat, 03 Feb 2007 10:10:56 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: semiotics, humanities computing and all the rest

In the current editorial in Semiotix 7 (January 2007,
www.semioticon.com/semiotix/semiotix7/sem-7-01.html), Paul Bouissac
considers "The Challenge of Teaching Semiotics", reviewing the fate
of several once vital centres (Indiana, Brown, Toronto). He asks the
hard question, "whether semiotics, as it stands now, can truly afford
the substantial and consistent curricula and research agenda it would
take in order to operate as a discipline". He concludes that
"Failures to succeed in doing so have been sufficiently numerous and
widespread to suggest that today's semiotics is probably not
epistemologically sustainable in the contemporary academic context
worldwide." But his "heuristic diagnosis" of the situation gives hope
-- and a plan that bridges the situation of semiotics to our own.

The once strong but now defunct centres, he argues, were the work of
influential semioticians who, having constructed theories or models
of the discipline, imposed them top-down onto the questions that
these theories and models were meant to answer. He writes,

>If teaching semiotics is implemented as a top-down process
>consisting of selectively spelling out one or the other of these
>theories and models as the basis from which meaning and
>communication in all their forms must be understood in isolation
>from the array of disciplines that map modern knowledge, such
>endeavors are bound to rely on dogmatism in order to sustain their
>epistemological and sociological survival. But this strategy can
>work only to a certain point. Limiting oneself to the problems that
>have been defined by a school of thought is quickly becoming an
>irrelevant exercise. Teaching cannot be founded on a mere doctrine.

Bouissac goes on to argue for a bottom-up approach, starting with "an
understanding of the problems as they were initially experienced and
formulated" so that "the various existing theories and models simply
appear as possible solutions to these problems, and can be evaluated
in terms of the contemporary state of knowledge in other
disciplines". Rather than download the teachings of great masters,
such as Peirce, Sassure, Jakobson et al, and then run them on
whatever comes to hand, it would be far better to pay attention
to the intellectual worlds where the problems occur. "Semiotics,
after all, can be first considered as a technique", he writes. "At a
time when students are swamped with open sources of information, it
may pay off just to look (and surf) around, confront real problems,
and work out solutions (both practical and theoretical) by
innovatively matching problems with available knowledge resources....
perhaps it should be taught in the way Rousseau wanted his student to
acquire knowledge: first discover the problems, then, try to solve them."

Semiotics is in much the same position as humanities computing, it
would seem. Both are "interdisciplines" (as I argue) whose basic
stuff belongs to others in the first instance, in the way that we
tend to construct our epistemic situation. For that first-instance
belonging, the imagery that I tend to favour these days -- as some
will know from Literary and Linguistic Computing 21.1 (2006): 1-13 --
is that of the "archipelago of disciplines" among the epistemic
islands of which we can be said to sail. In the second instance, once
belonging has ceased to be a question, I shift to the "wild acre"
(borrowed from David Malouf's "Jacko's Reach"), belonging to no one,
into which we all venture at our peril, for our enlightenment.

I wonder (to venture even further along those second lines) whether
being an interdiscipline isn't the epistemic state into which we are
all moving as we emerge, ever so slowly, from a way of thinking about
the world of learning as if it were like the 19C European
geopolitical scene. Consider, for example, philosophy as Ian Hacking does it.



Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |
Received on Sat Feb 03 2007 - 05:35:24 EST

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