An Interview with Marcel Danesi
Marcel Danesi is Director of the Program in Semiotics and Communication Theory and Professor of Linguistic Anthropology at the University of Toronto, Canada. He is the author of many books, including Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things; X-Rated! The Power of Mythic Symbolism in Popular Culture; and The History of the Kiss: The Birth of Popular Culture. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1998, founded a research center (Center for Communication and Information Sciences), and is the Editor in Chief of Semiotica. Danesi's work has been featured in the New York Times, Toronto Star, and Psychology Today, among other print publications, and he has been a guest on broadcast outlets such as National Public Radio.
How do you think the study of the social sciences help us to understand the world around us - why are they important?
The social sciences took over from philosophy in the nineteenth century, emerging as objective methods for investigating the human condition and human nature, relegating philosophy to the humanistic domain. In my view, the advent of the social sciences has not replaced the power of philosophical dialogue, but rather has complemented it considerably. By focusing on specific aspects of behaviour or cognition, the social sciences can extract various principles of cognition, behaviour and agency that can then be related to the more philosophical ideas of humanists. In other words, I believe that the findings of social scientists are de facto transdisciplinary, whether or not the scientists themselves are aware of it or even interested in it, providing insights to other scientists and humanists. The fragmentation that once existed among the social sciences is slowing becoming a thing of the past as interdisciplinary tools are being used more and more within and across the contemporary cognitive and social sciences.
Why does anthropology particularly interest you?
Anthropology allows me great leeway to investigate virtually anything that is "interesting" in human life; youth culture, love and romance, and the role of the popular imagination in shaping spectacles, texts (such as comic books) and the like. I can then map my own investigations against those of other scholars and, more importantly, against the intuitions of my students.
What implications does your research have for others working in this field?
By describing and interpreting apparently simple signs of our humanity, like the romantic kiss, I hope others can come to realize that the quest for meaning to life manifests itself in simple acts, not only in complex models of reality.
How would you sum up your book in a few words?
It is my tribute to the power of the human spirit to liberate itself from social shackles that make no sense. It was women in the medieval ages that turned osculation into a romantic act, thus taking over control of their own bodies and needs. Women were literally bartered away in marriages at all levels of society, until the invention of the kiss--an event that then generated popular culture, from the stories of star-crossed lovers to the first true "love songs" of the troubadours. The world has not been the same since.
Who are your biggest influences and why?
My greatest influence is the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, who saw history as a cycle that brings back ancient wisdom, as encoded in the original myths, in order to correct social systems that may have become unbalanced--emphasizing rationality rather than the imagination.
What has the best part of the publishing process been for you? Were there any surprises?
Incredibly, for me the best part has been reading reviews of my manuscript, which led me to reconsider many of the silly things I had written down, and thus leading to a much more cohesive book. Also, getting feedback from Palgrave about the post-publication reviews has been a lot of fun, allowing me to gauge how my ideas are received more broadly.