The Semiotics Workshop

Fall 2022 Schedule

All meetings are from 4:30–6 p.m. in Room 315 of Haskell Hall.

October 20 Rob Weller

Professor of Anthropology, Boston University

Silence, Noise, and Ritual

This draft chapter begins from the observation by Rodney Needham of a cross-cultural pattern where percussive noise tends to accompany moments of ritual transition. Noise, that is, creates a frame around ritual, marking it off as something separate from ordinary life. The chapter moves on to contrast ritual uses of noise (uninterpretable sound) and silence (uninterpretable quiet), for instance in a comparison of Pentecostal glossolalia and Quaker silence. If noise creates the frame, as Needham argued, silence often breaks through frames. Ethnographically, the primary cases are rural funerals in Taiwan, with side journeys that include John Cage’s and Lawrence Sterne’s uses of silence or empty space to force us momentarily out of the frames of a concert or of a novel to an awareness of the conventions of “music” and of the materiality of the page. The chapter argues that silence is generally rarer than noise in rituals, because silence is more both more fragile and more dangerous to the ritual frame.
October 27 Teri Silvio

Associate Research Fellow, Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica

The Self as Cartoon: Modeling Creative Industry Worker Subjectivity in Taiwan

  This paper looks at a new genre of cartoon character that has emerged along with the expansion of new media and the rise of creative industry and creative economy discourse. There are a surprising number of comics produced in Taiwan which not only represent the daily life of white-collar workers, but in which characters appear who clearly represent the artist creating the comic. These characters, some of the best known of which are the ones created by designers Wan Wan and Mark, often begin as a self-representation on designers’ personal blogs or as free-to-download stickers for messaging services before they become the protagonists in narrative comics, as well as logo characters reproduced on a wide assortment of products. The comics are critical of corporate logic (like Scott Adams’ Dilbert) while simultaneously promoting the values of hard work, entrepreneurship, and the continual reanimation of one’s “inner child,” sometimes through the citation of self-help discourse, but more through techniques of composition and visual style. They encourage multiple identifications with both characters and artists, and the transmedia platforms allow fans not only to keep the cartoon characters co-present in their daily lives, but also to use them as vehicles for self-expression. I argue that these licensed characters, with their combination of autobiographical aura and Everyman genericness, absorb “creativity” into a new model of the ideal neoliberal subject, and encourage fans to inhabit that subject by reframing all labor as animation.
November 2 (Wednesday!) Anna-Marie Sprenger

PhD Student, Linguistics, University of Chicago

Oh Yeah, That Was Super Sincere: Social Meanings of Congratulatory Speech Acts

  Sociolinguistics and pragmatics have taken different routes to answer the question of why people say things in the way they do. Recent work in sociopragmatics has sought to combine the two lines of thought and grapple with the difficulty long ago noted by Lavandera (1984) of studying discourse features that have denotational meanings. In this paper, I ask whether speech acts have social meanings in addition to their denotational meanings, and if so, how these social meanings might function differently from those attaching to typical sociolinguistic variables. I focus on congratulatory speech acts and treat the choice of producing a congratulatory or non-congratulatory utterance as a sociolinguistic variable, departing from Labov’s principle of accountability (Labov 1972). From the results of a matched-guise  experiment varying speaker gender, scenario, and response type, I find that speech acts, and the different ways of performing a speech act, do have social meanings, which are highly fluid and context-dependent like those attaching to sociophonetic variables. However, I argue that rather than starting at a pre-ideological nth order (Silverstein 2003) of association with a demographic category through spatiotemporal contiguity, speaker intuitions about denotation and felicity conditions shape how speech acts become linked with characterological attributes and interactional qualities. In the context of use, these attributes and qualities may eventually come to index figures of personhood.

November 17 Eman Elshaikh

PhD Candidate, Anthropology, University of Chicago

Arabic without Arabs: Golden Chronotopes and the Voice of the ‘Ummah in the Discourses of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf

  This paper examines the discourses of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, a prominent Muslim American leader, and their social entailments, arguing that Yusuf’s highly ideological conception of the Arabic language is mobilized to create powerful imaginaries of a “Golden Age” of Islamic history. It argues that Yusuf’s interdiscursive practices—specifically citations in the form of represented speech constructions and appeals to etymology—create possibilities for new imagined social space-times and images of personhood. It explores the ways in which the success of both of these moves relies on citational acts which not only presuppose a history but entail histories for Yusuf’s many supporters, creating spaces for novel “chronotopic alignments” (Perrino 2007) which create new possibilities for North American Muslim subjectivity. More broadly, it considers how citationality is central to the layering of chronotopes, which produces affordances for the making of historical consciousnesses and the subjects which are recruited into them.
December 8 Fadi Hakim

PhD Candidate, Anthropology, University of Chicago

“So That We Understand”: Churchly Speech and Cosmologies of Linguistic Authority in Kupang, Eastern Indonesia

  Although sociolinguistic studies of Indonesia have focused on shifting relationships between Indonesia’s multitude of local languages and standard Indonesian (a variety of Malay), this paper draws attention to the continuum of Malay varieties spoken in the port cities of eastern Indonesia, which have rapidly expanded since the 1950s. Kupang, one such port city, is known for a variety of Malay known as Bahasa Kupang. Bahasa Kupang however, is often seen by its own speakers as “damaged” or “chopped-up” Indonesian—in other words, not a “real language.” Furthermore, Bahasa Kupang is not ideologically linked to a particular ethnicity as other “local” Indonesian languages are—Bahasa Kupang is linked, rather, to the enactment of “mutual understanding” (mangarti) within Kupang’s multiethnic, cosmopolitan social fabric. Church sermons in Bahasa Kupang, for instance, have recently been praised as “simple” (sederhana) and “easy to understand” (mudah orang mangarti). In contrast, my interlocutors have devalued standard Indonesian as “boring” (membosankan) and “difficult to understand”—in other words, non-denotational. Thus, to analyze the semiotic ideologies that undergird Bahasa Kupang’s relationship to standard Indonesian, I will focus on the relationship between the standard Indonesian as bahasa tinggi (lit. “high language”) and Bahasa Kupang as bahasa sehari-hari (lit. “everyday language”) in the worship practices of one Kupang-area mainline Protestant church. I argue that churchly speech in Kupang invokes its authority not only from its ties to state-sponsored standard Indonesian, but also from how it indexes and co-produces local cosmologies of linguistic authority.