martedì 16 giugno 2009

Thick clouds over linguistics

The technological pattern internationally imposed on research funding threatens linguistics as well as other domains of humanities


In the globalized world, the directions of research to be practiced in the future are determined – with the sole exception of strictly individual research— not by researchers and scientists themselves who design their working plans but by other entities. Most Big Research, in fact, both in hard sciences and elsewhere, depends on road maps worked out in the arcane cabinets of decision makers. Year by year or with other intervals, they decide which fields of investigation are to be encouraged by financial support and which, on the other hand, must be left to individual cultivation or to virtual extinction.

Historically, such a pitiable, schematic, even brutal, mentality, generated in the US after the II World War, percolated in the whole world so as to become the overarching attitude in the financial supporting of science. It started fromthose field (as physics, biology, engineering, etc.) which demanded and keep demanding huge capital investments and a strong political consensus. Subsequently, it gradually spread on virtually every domain, as far as public and private funding institutions are concerned.The associated mentality is perceived of, and presented as, modern, up to date, efficient, and so on. In reality it ends up through identifying every field of investigation with technology or, rather, it uses technology as a filter to set apart what deserves to be supported from what does not.

At a certain moment this attitude also affected humanities. It is well known that humanities at large form a multifaceted domain, where the common product is made not of easily storable solid things or of numbers and calculations or formulas – but just by words. Accordingly, they include without any clear-cut division really rich areas (as law, architecture, etc.), relatively rich others (archaeology, history of art) and really poor others (philology, philosophy, linguistics, history, literature, and so on).Now, in such an areait is not easy to impose an etero-directed administration as far as research is concerned. Due to the multifarious variety of specializations many factors intrinsically prevent it: the high ideological vibrancy of some of its fields (philosophy, history, anthropology, etc.), the difficulty for researchers to work in big-size coordinated groups, the peculiar nature of the research being done (which implies more reflection, hesitation and inspiration than efficiency, immediate productivity and demonstrability), etc. Ignoring or dismissing all such properties, however, the industrial-technological bias in research funding affected also humanities. Big foundations, national endowments for research, international organizations – all define which are the domains and sub-domains of humanities to be made eligible for funding.

An unavoidable consequence of such a policy is that among humanities just some privileged areas are liable to got funded: prima facie they are the ones most close to society at large, and to its major current troubles in particular – in sum, mainly topics having to do with social infelicity. In practice, the areas which may feel secure from the pattern just discussed includes a variety of legal subjects, a part of sociology, some psychological topics, and so on – but, as regards linguistics, almost nothing. Linguists, who may also be cunning, have invented as a response a couple of makeshift systems: they invest on endangered languages (they have to do with discrimination), typology (it has to do with people at risk) and other apparently Zeitgeist-inspired topics and fields. Another clever response is to insist on the computerization of language and linguistic analysis and in general on what the French call industrie de la langue. No matter if the objects brought about as a product of such research prove to be of no use (as many corpuses definitely are). What matters is the product to be concrete, solid, storable, saleable.

That’s almost all, however! If you are interested in abstract and unsaleable topics such as general theory of language, description of individual languages, language reconstruction, contacts between linguistics and philology and other poor disciplines, etc., you don’t have almost any hope to get anything whatsoever. Government does not need you!

Any country gradually accommodated to this system. The European Foundation of Science, for instance, publishes any two or three years a call for funding called Framework Program, which contains the list of the scientific domain which will be admitted to funding over the subsequent years. It is an interesting document indeed, since it testifies both the heavy dirigisme of those international organizations, and more in particular it reveals how largely language and the associated sciences are insignificant as regards their eligibility for funding. Italy, for its part, as a traditionally imitative country, has followed that model: the PRIN (acronym for research projects of national interest), which are expected to be financed, with an infuriating temporal irregularity, by the University and Research Ministry, reserve a ridiculously modest amount of money to humanities and to language & linguistics as such.

As a general consequence of such processes, linguistics is today definitely on the way to become a poor (financially, I mean) science. Its specific goals (describing languages, reconstructing old and fragmentary languages, formulating interpretive hypotheses on language) seem to be of lesser and lesser interest to public and private funding institutions. In International organizations a pretty cynical label is already available to describe those forms of scholarship and investigation which are practiced without any formal financial basis: they term them “curiosity-driven research”.

My own prediction is that, at this rate, linguistics will suffer from deep alterations, bound to affect even its inner nature. One form of this process may be its reduction to curiosity-driven research, another one its merging in, or its melting into, computer science.