The Semiotics: Culture in Context Workshop is happy to announce our Autumn quarter theme:

Creativity and Contingency in Semiosis

We understand semiosis to be a profoundly creative phenomenon, productive of meaning in language and social life. But the semiotic-pragmaticist approach developed in recent decades in linguistic anthropology has also given us a framework for thinking and talking about creativity in semiosis. This creativity, while perhaps most readily observable in actors’ intentional
manipulations of signs, depends also on factors and forces that limit intentionality and agency: historical contingency, the indeterminacy of contextualization, institutional constraints. Borrowing Marx’s useful phrasing, we might say that sign users make their own meanings and communicative contexts, but they do not make them as they please.

This quarter the Semiotics Workshop will consider a series of papers, each of which calls our attention either to creativity in semiosis or to the semiotics of creativity. Some of these papers deal explicitly with “the creative process” or its products—the design and production of objects, film, magazines—while others highlight semiotic tensions between creative intentional action and the “given-ness” of context. Creativity in semiosis seems to us a rich problem area for thinking about perennial anthropological problems concerning the relationship between the individual and society—“structure” and “agency” in sociocultural causality, for example, or the presumptive “sharedness” of meaning. As we examine these papers, let us think about how a semiotic approach might lend technical and theoretical rigor to our handling of these very familiar problems. And as we reflect on the ethnographic and linguistic data our authors share with us, let us articulate and hone our approach itself.

October 6: Zebulon Dingley (Joint presentation with ASW)
PhD Student, Anthropology
University of Chicago

“Ambivalence and Ambiguity in Segeju Social Life”

Discussant: Amy McLachlan

October 20: Keith Murphy
Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology
University of California, Irvine

“Shaping Things to Come: Temporality and Transmodality in Swedish

November 3: Laura-Zoe Humphreys
PhD Candidate, Anthropology & Film Studies
University of Chicago

“Secret Texts: Socialist Allegory in Contemporary Cuban Cinema”

December 1: Elayne Oliphant (Joint presentation with AEW)
PhD Candidate, Anthropology
University of Chicago

“Institutions and Agency: Guided by the Spirit in a Critical Public

December 8: Britta Ingebretson
PhD Student, Anthropology
University of Chicago

“Subscriptions, Success, and the State: A Textual Analysis of Parenting Advice Columns in ‘Women of China’ Magazine”

The workshop welcomes participants from any discipline with an interest in engaging a semiotic framework for analysis. Papers are available by email request from our graduate student coordinators, Britta Ingebretson ( and Christopher Bloechl (

If you believe you may need special assistance in attending the workshop or you have other questions or concerns, please contact the graduate student coordinators, Britta Ingebretson ( and Chris Bloechl (

Refreshments will be served at the workshop.