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?

4. The Peer-Review Process

Indeed it is not enough to attempt to make oneself the harbinger of an upsetting wave of editorial Darwinism ready to sweep over the scholarly world. Natural selection in the homo sapiens periodicalis species will not operate solely on the basis of medium. For it is the importance (both in stature and in number) of referees in the peer-review process that makes or breaks a journal through the institution of criteria for academic excellence, a process which is contingent on an operation of legitimization: the selection and promotion of scholars depends on peer-appreciation. Jean-Claude Guédon, editor of the pioneering French on-line periodical Surfaces writes: "For centuries, mechanisms have been developed for providing evidence, acceptable rhetorical codes of argumentation, unequivocal tokens of authority and prestige, which have been instrumental in creating a device of paramount importance in the conduct of research: legitimacy" (Guédon 1994) [9]. Periodicals should indeed keep this feature of standard academic research, through editorial boards, for the sake of integration within the existing system, rather than inventing entirely different research paradigms -- such as wayward publishing of the genus samizdat or da-zi-bao. Guédon's answer is AS/SA's too: "elements of the old system have to be maintained temporarily in the new medium to ensure that it takes root, and comes to full fruition" (Guédon 1994).

But an editorial board simply makes good sense: one need only recall that, during the Renaissance, the advent of the printed book brought about a considerable transfer of control, when specialized clerics handed over their highly exclusive domain to political censors with a social and commercial agenda. For the same reason, it is in a modern research discipline's interest to be at its own helm.

5. The Editing Process

And at that helm, the editors? That professional "editing" is not merely clerical is a truism, even though it has a particular relevance in today's electronic editing, but here we disagree with Guédon's statement that editors are the intellectual gatekeepers of a discipline. We would represent them rather as fussy gardeners trimming a bush here, weeding the grass there, deciding the forsythia will go opposite the magnolia.

Yet electronic periodicals such as AS/SA are well-positioned to stimulate evolution in the paradigm of research through a redefinition of the role of the editor. In our experience, through frequent interaction with authors and readers, editing moves far beyond the technical and theoretical strictures of the job. Indeed, we had to take the lead in the AS/SA endeavour somewhat and shape our editorial board, interact with potential collaborators (at first through the post office, and later almost entirely through e-mail), and readers. The final issue brought out by this is in fact, as it appears to us, the outcome of a synergy of effort and decisions -- not merely ours -- which all to a varying degree have shaped the final product. It is therefore a multiplicity of voices, not only those of single authors, whose tangible input has fashioned the periodical at the intellectual level, so that in fact AS/SA appears, to a considerable degree, to reflect the image of the intellectual community it aims to serve.

Even as we are now weighing the advantages of mandating specialized guest-editors for particular issues against the importance of having a publication agenda, we must bear in mind, too, that conference proceedings are an important source of relevant material for electronic periodicals -- especially in our field which, like linguistics, experiences widespread colloquia but little print publication --, for the latter, like the hard-bound German series Approaches to Semiotics published by Mouton de Gruyter, is often costly [10].

In the mid-term, beyond the phase of the necessary banalization of electronic periodicals, we assume that we will have to supply a forum for interested readers. The physical distance between scholars in a discipline like semiotics, which has a very strong European basis, has been alleviated by e-mail. It will soon be made even less a barrier by the arrival of so-called "chat" and phone applications (already integrated into Netscape 3). Indeed Guédon foresees a fluidification of scholarly documents, through discussion lists, forums, dialogues and on-line colloquia. This will herald the rebirth of a genre that has been waning since the late Middle Ages, along with disputation and controversy, which will ultimately again replace the urbane agreement sought by contemporary theory.

6. AS/SA, Incunabula

Since it is often said that technology, in true Tofflerian fashion, moves faster by the day, we find it appropriate to relate here the story of the genesis of AS/SA, so that those with little understanding of the intricacies of setting up an electronic periodical might obtain a better idea of what such an enterprise entails.

Although both well-versed in the use of computers, we were still, in November 1995, mere curious on-lookers of the Internet, and had little or no notion of the workings of home pages, HTML code or the software that went with it.

In fact, although we knew each other quite well, and both nursed somewhat secret desires to found an electronic academic journal, neither of us knew of the other's interest until, through a rather unlikely series of fortuitous peripateia, we found ourselves discussing the idea of working together. We almost immediately agreed on semiotics, and for reasons decribed above, on applied semiotics. So we soon found ourselves working together on two rather disparate aspects of the project.

First, we had to discuss prospective members of our Advisory Board, both in terms of our somewhat unorthodox disenchantment with rationalist theorizations which we saw as all-too-prevalent in semiotic literature, and not really very useful, and in terms of the novelty of the medium. We ended up inviting some forty-three scholars we felt were likely to share both our appreciation of applied semiotics and our conviction that the World Wide Web was not simply one more tool among many, but perhaps the first stage in a revolution, as it were, a new possiblity for the future of academic research itself. To our pleasant surprise, nearly all the scholars we invited accepted our proposition almost immediately.

Secondly, we had to address then-unknown technical issues. We decided to make our Internet home page, as a necessary first concrete step, into an autodidactic apprenticeship. After having learned the basics of HTML code, which is in fact similar to code-based applications such as WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS, and the basics of file transfer protocol, we put a home page together and posted it on our University's server. This was ready in a few short weeks, that is, by the first week in December 1995, by which time we felt ready to send our first call for papers to about eight hundred departments of literary interest around the world.

It took a couple more weeks to research and then data-enter the addresses of these departments. We sent the packages out on December 20.

The next stage was to design and implement a format for the first issue. This required answering a number of unclear questions. How would we integrate the academic essay with the World Wide Web? How can an electronic issue be given an intuitively logical structure? What Web-browsers would we take into account when designing our format and writing code designed to realize it? After some experimentation and much consideration, we decided it was most suitable to take a longer-term view of the project, and we decided that the emerging market leader, Netscape 2.0, would be the basis for formatting, at the expense of older text-only software and perhaps to the disapproval of potential readers who did not yet have the latest "multi-media" computers, modems and monitors. Fortunately, our partnership allowed us to work efficiently in English and French, as well as in the DOS, Windows, UNIX and Macintosh environments. We both know all of the above, but our strengths and preferences proved to be entirely complementary.

By mid-February 1996 we had a working sample which included graphics and text, including accented characters for French and foreign citations, and which divided each essay into several pages, an arbitrary choice given the medium, but one which we felt would facilitate citation of our articles, and retain the intuitive feel of academic publications. Meanwhile on the purely academic plane, we ended up with three suitable and approved essays. This was not as disappointing a figure as it might sound. Considering the novelty of the medium, and of the journal, we gradually began to qualify this as a degree of success. (This optimism has since been well-met, as we are now receiving unsolicited offers of papers and even of entire special issues devoted, for example, to the proceedings of prestigious colloquia.)

So the set-up and launch of the journal took only three months; then the articles, once approved and corrected, were typeset in HTML and posted on the server within three days, which we feel is a remarkably short delay. It was now early March, and we decided to announce a final date for the launch of the first issue, March 18, by which time we were confident we would overcome the last technical difficulty, the creation of a table of contents which would provide links to the editorial material and the articles in the launch issue.

We chose to marry accepted Web practice, following standards such as "page one of eight" for example, and a global pagination reflecting an imaginary structure for the issue as a whole. Finally, we invented a makeshift, yet effective, way of integrating standard bibliographical formats into HTML, which was not designed with such features in mind. Our solution was to define a formal table for each line of the bibliography, which allowed us to fix line length and specify indentation, so that the hanging indentation of the authors' names could be preserved no matter which browser was used, or how any individual copy was configured.

But there was still one aspect which left us less than satisfied. Each page took readers about two to three minutes to load, for users who were not directly connected to a University of Toronto node. First we attempted to remove any unnecessary code or repetitions of graphics. This did not help much, and today, the site is still slow enough for worldwide users that some individuals probably do not have the patience to consult our primary address. Fortunately, through friends in the private sector, we were able to post a mirror site on a considerably faster server enjoying wider band-width than our own system at Toronto. In practice, this means that only Toronto readers generally use the Toronto site, while others consult our mirror address on the Digital Alpha Server at Cyberplex Interactive Media of Toronto.

We now feel prepared to take AS/SA into the future, as a semi-annual periodical featuring regular issues as well as special ones which include the acts of colloquia. We are pleased to consider AS/SA an ongoing project which may constitute a very long-term collaboration between the two of us, and which we feel might contribute actively to a revolution, a new technological explosion, in academic publication. Indeed, the Internet is here to stay. We feel academia should exploit it fully, and in a small way, make it our own, and welcome the changes this may entail in what we have called the traditional academic "paradigm".

It is not our intention to argue that all members of the academic community should feel the need to rush to the office and set up an electronic periodical. It is feasible; but as we have attempted to illustrate in this brief paper, the problems behind electronic publishing are not only technical, but attitudinal and dependent on disciplines. It is therefore a matter of time for AS/SA, but we are convinced that from the cradle onward, its growth will be steady and long-lasting. The child is now in the hands of the institution. And that institution, we feel, must seize Opportunity by the forelock.


[*] A question posed in homage to Edgar Morin, a great scholar of the means of distribution of culture, whose book entitled Le paradigme perdu: la nature humaine underlines the importance of the challenges faced today by academia.

[**] Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée (AS/SA) is an on-line refereed periodical devoted to promoting research in semiotics.

[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).

[9] Quotations from this paper are translated by its authors. See also Unsworth 1995, Lancashire 1995, the less interesting Michon 1994, and the less relevant Cossette 1995.

[10] Books in Print lists Sebeok's standard Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics (2 vols.) at Mouton at some $475.00 US.


  • AS/SA (1998). "Sites of Significance for Semiotics", Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée, <http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/french/as-sa/EngSem1.html> (English) / <http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/french/as-sa/SemFran1.html> (French).
  • BARTHES, Roland (1994). "L'ancienne rhétorique", in Communications 16. Recherches rhétoriques, Paris: Seuil: 272-89.

  • BOUISSAC, Paul (1990). "L'institution de la sémiotique: stratégies et tactiques", Semiotica 79 (3/4): 217-33.

  • CARL UnCover (1998). <http://www-lib.iupui.edu/erefs/carl.html>.

  • COSSETTE, Claude (1995). "Internet va-t-il remplacer le professeur?", Colloque sur les applications pédagogiques des technologies de l'information (27 avril 1995), Québec: Université Laval, IkonQuébec; <http://www.ulaval.ca/ikon/finaux/5-ecrpol/INTVAT.HTML>.

  • CULLER, Johnathan (1982). On Deconstruction, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

  • CURTIUS, Ernst (1956). La littérature européenne et le Moyen Âge latin, translated by Jean Bréjoux, Paris: Presses Pocket: 83-147.

  • ELAM, Diane (1995). "Getting into Theory", in Kreiswirth and Carmichael.

  • GUÉDON, Jean-Claude (1994). "L'édition savante et l'autoroute électronique", Montréal: Centre de recherche en droit public de l'Université de Montréal, <http://www.droit.umontreal.ca/crdp/fr/equipes/technologie/conferences/ae/guedon.html>.

  • HUTCHEON, Linda & Michael HUTCHEON (1995). "Interdisciplinary Possibilities: Opera and Medicine?", in Kreiswirth and Carmichael: 137-47.

  • KREISWIRTH, Martin & Thomas CARMICHAEL, eds. (1995). Constructive Criticism. The Human Sciences in the Age of Theory, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

  • LANCASHIRE, Ian (1995). "The Electronic Highway in Teaching and Research in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences", Delivered at the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Conference of Deans of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (Toronto, May 15, 1995), <http://www.chass.utoronto.ca:8080/cch/essays/ccdahss.html>.

  • LANDOW, George P. (1998). Brown University's Storyspace Cluster, Brown University, <http://www.stg.brown.edu/projects/hypertext/landow/SSPCluster/Welcome.html>.

  • MELJAC, Claire & Gérard DELOCHE (1995). "Faut-il imiter Ptolémée? Le psychologue et ses modèles imaginaires", Texte 17/18: 269-80.

  • MICHON, Jacques (1994). "An International Conference Devoted to the Theme 'Publishing and the Power Structure'", Canadian Journal of Communication 19:2; <http://hoshi.cic.sfu.ca/calj/cjc/BackIssues/19.2/michon.html>.

  • MILLS, Sara (1995). Feminist Stylistics, London: Routledge.

  • MORIN, Edgar (1979). Le paradigme perdu: la nature humaine, Paris: Seuil.

  • MORRIS, Charles (1970 [1938]). Foundations of the Theory of Signs, Chicago: Chicago U P.

  • NÖTH, Winfried (1995). Handbook of Semiotics, Bloomington: Indiana U P.

  • RASTIER, François (1990). "La sémantique des textes et l'approche interprétative", Champs du signe 3: 181-7.

  • TODOROV, Tzvetan (1981). Mikhaïl Bakhtine. Le principe dialogique, Paris: Seuil.

  • UNSWORTH, John (1995). "Networked Scholarship: The Effects of Advanced Technology on Research in the Humanities", Charlottesville: I.A.T.H., University of Virginia in Charlottesville; <http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/~jmu2m/gateways.html>.

  • VICKERS, Brian (1988) "The Atrophy of Modern Rhetoric, Vico to De Man", Rhetorica Winter 6:1: 21-56.