Past Themes

2020-2021: “Making Authority, Multimodally”

We seek papers that examine how “authority”—an ideologically unitary configuration, often a figure or conjecture appearing to emerge autonomously from its ground—comes into being through the semiotic manipulation of mixed media. Where does the authoritative logic of valorized partitions of social space come from, for example? What convinces sincere believers-in-essences that essential characteristics are “truly” predicable of things? After all, “essences”—always already hybrids insofar as they mediate social worlds—have never been “pure”. The coherence and legitimacy of authority, in other words, are mediated perspectivally and multimodally. Where, then, within the semiotics of authority are the inevitable processes of hybridity and interdiscursivity? Why does it matter when they matter? How and for whom do they matter and materialize? Linguistic anthropologists have suggested a variety of modes of constructing authority, whether through ritual or baptismal moments, processes of rhematization, or connections among modes and models. Explicating these processes, then, involves attending to situated acts of comparison across semiotic/material modalities including but not limited to language. How are languages, registers, and ideologies made, and made coherent and authoritative, through assemblages of verbal and nonverbal imagery? We are interested in the gestures, sounds, orthographic and sartorial codes, electronic media, spatial structures, and other modes of regimentation that facilitate the emergence of qualia in a coherent texture. How does language make—and make peripheral—nonverbal things, and vice versa? Questions like these call for methodological retooling when face-to-face fieldwork might not be possible. In light of this concern, we also invite papers that theorize multimodal approaches to fieldwork, itself a hybrid poetics of bricolage, in a time of interruption. Students from any discipline are invited to submit papers that ethnographically discuss the multimodal making of authority.

2019-2020: “Revisiting Circulation: Poetics/Politics of Images”

A longstanding concern of linguistic anthropologists, circulation has been rigorously theorized through the concepts of interdiscursivity (Silverstein 2005; Silverstein 2013; Briggs and Bauman 1992) and entextualization (Silverstein and Urban 1996). Circulation is always an achievement of sameness and differences across contexts of encounter, regimented ideologically and metapragmatically (Gal 2016; Irvine and Gal 2000; Silverstein 2003; Silverstein 1979; Silverstein 1976). Yet, what happens when we turn our attention toward the question of what is made in circulation, and what is circulating (Gal 2018)? Such a refocusing requires further attention to metasemiotic processes, like the complex particulars of moments of enregisterment and the arenas they form (Gal 2018; cf. Agha 2011, Cody 2015), the interplay of citational practices (Nakassis 2016) and the emergence and movement of figural forms of embodied qualities, or qualia (cf. Chumley 2017; Chumley and Harkness 2013; Keane 2003)—that is to say, attention to what’s made in-and-by circulation requires attention to aesthetic textuality and precipitates thereof, image-texts (Nakassis 2019).As they have been recently (re)theorized in linguistic anthropology, image-texts are not only—or even primarily—about visual media or modalities. Rather, aesthetic textuality points to “emergent structures of qualia that co-textualize each other” (Nakassis 2019, 70). In this light, we seek papers that investigate the processes by which structures of embodied qualities come to formedness and move. How are image-texts produced and moved to new contexts and media, and with what effects? The entextualization of these structures of qualia across contexts and media implicates both the inextricable material aspects of semiosis (Hull 2012; Jamison 2016; Shankar and Cavanaugh 2017) and the fundamentally perspectival (i.e., ideological) work of scaling (Carr and Lempert 2016; Gal 2016; Irvine 2016). How are materials intertwined with image-texts, mediating their movement? What roles do the material aspects of signs play in entextualizing structures of qualia? What networks and infrastructures facilitate their movement? How and for whom do different dimensions and categories mediate the movement of image-texts across contexts and modalities? How and for whom do image-texts mediate the forging of models, categories, and measures? How might an attention to the circulation of image-texts inform current debates on the politics of representation, affect, and value? Students from any discipline are invited to submit papers that ethnographically discuss semiotic processes of images in circulation.

2018-2019: “The Semiotics of Sociocultural Categorization”

Semiotic analysis, categorization has typically been structured around either: 1) adherence to what has been termed an “Aristotelian” vision of categorical inclusion based upon uniform defining attributes of all members (Frege 1952), or 2) membership based upon polythetic “family resemblance” and even degrees of conformity to “stereotypy” (cf. Wittgenstein 1953 and Putnam 1975). In the 2018-2019 academic year, the Semiotics Workshop welcomes papers that ethnographically address the formation of categories in social life; especially but not limited to those categories that come to divide or unite people, institutions, or events emergent in social processes. What are the constructed divisions that occur between what appear to be self-contained or obvious categories amongst political communities, social groups, or events (Yurchak 2012; Silverstein & Lempert 2012)? What holds together members of a group, a place, or an age? And finally, how are categories implicated in the project of scale-making (Carr and Lempert 2016), or other projects of standardizing and normalizing social practices? Through this theme, we welcome papers that ethnographically attend to the topic of categories as emergent sociocultural facts, or as relations between and among the social practices of boundary-making. We also welcome reflections on and new renditions of the classical theme of categorization, whether property-based, prototypical, or polythetic. In support of this theme, some questions that may be considered include: what is the role of categorization and schemata that appear to be taken-for-granted in people’s conduct of social life, and that unite or oppose kinds of people, events, institutions? What are the ways in which different models of social differentiation work as instrumentalities and entailments of such models in social life (Gal 2018)? How do inhabitable categorical binaries and continua emerge with their expression in particular institutional sites?

2017–2018: “Modality, Value”

We seek papers that take semiotic approaches to “value” in its various instantiations across heterogeneous semantic and disciplinary fields: the reflexive enactment of (often group-specific) sociological in the plural; economic value as relative desirability or scarcity within a market; or (meta)linguistic value as “meaningful difference” (Graeber 2001:1–2) in a system of differences, to name a few of the more common social-theoretical uses. We also seek papers that engage “modality” within an equally heterogeneous field: semantico-grammaticalized expressions of possibility and necessity (linguistic modality); logical relations involved in statements of possibility and necessity (modal logic) (Hacking 1967), especially as these mediate expressions of epistemology, ontology, and metaphysics; or communication theories of “multimodality” in the multi-medial composition of “messages” (Kress and van Leeuwen 2001) across media life-cycles and afterlives (Collins, Durington, and Gill 2017), especially as these become salient in approaches to embodied or otherwise materialized communicative activity, such as sensory perception, gesture, writing, audiovisual processing, spatial aspects of language, and the like.Through this theme, we seek to attend to relations between and among linguistic codes; their sociopragmatic uses-in-(and -as)-context across variously-scaled discursive types (utterances, typified genres, registers); the kinds of relations expressed (and expressable); their by-degrees codifications (linguistically, legally, habitually); and the entailments of these relations in subsequent uptake in social life. When, how, and for whom do modalities become (de)valued? When, how, and for whom are ascriptions or expressions of possibility or necessity made valuable?

2016-2017: “Measure of Value and the Value of Measure”

Papers might ask how measurement involves processes such as “standardization,” “purification,” or “metapragmatic regimentation:” What does the work of measurement do for the work of “abduction” and “abstraction” that are always hybrid, always mediating, always connecting and drawing together what they separate and pull apart? We might also consider the sensory aspects of translation and projects of linguistic commensuration.On a methodological level, how do measurement and evidence contribute to empirical social scientific work, such as ethnography, corpus linguistics, or discourse analysis? How does evidence serve as an ethnographic object central to processes of reasoning for any “scientific intelligence” (Peirce CP 2.227)? Last, what is the mediating relationship between feelings, consciousnesses, or senses to processes of measurement: can we measure “messiness,” “particularity,” “specificity,” “heterogeneity,” “diversity,” “multiplicity” and “thickness” as phenomena to be at once both empirically encountered, and as objects of scientific and ethnographic inquiry and re-presentation?

2015-2016: “Language and Technology”

This year we are focused on the relation between technologies and language. We seek papers taking semiotic and linguistic anthropological approaches to media, be it  television, radio, film, or newer technologies of communication. Moving beyond these media, we are also interested in the emergent structures of machine-human interaction. What does attention to these microstructures reveal about larger scale processes? Another set of questions we hope to address is how language itself can serve as a kind of technology and how it can be deployed as a resource or as a kind of infrastructure. How do different modalities of linguistic representation, like graphic inscription, audio transcription, or translation between media, function as kinds of technologies? Finally, we are interested in how technologies work to regiment the material qualities of voice, sound, and noise.  In what ways can we bring a linguistic anthropological understanding of language and textuality together with studies of sound and soundscapes?

2014-2015: “Materiality and Mediation”

Moving beyond a construal of materiality as that which contrasts with the “ideational” or the “symbolic”, this year we seek papers that interrogate the concept of materiality. We are interested in how materiality comes to be actualized and through what reflexive processes something comes to be understood as material or immaterial. That is to say, how is (im)materiality mediated? These questions presuppose that materiality is not an inherent >property, but rather precipitates over time. Given materiality is not an inherent property, we seek papers addressing what counts as (im)material for different social groups. At stake is how qualia are embodied, socio-culturally organized, and shared, and, following that, how qualia are made to be similar or different through their materializations. Crucial here are the metrics, standards, and other mediating semiotic technologies of different regimes of practice and expertise. How are these technologies employed by the groups we study, but also within academia? Finally, we are interested in not only the construal of materiality, but also the movement from one kind of materiality to another. This question includes, but is not limited to, how practices of representation – like archiving, documentation, or even writing – negotiate issues of materiality.

2013-2014: “Absence, Presence”

In the Autumn Quarter, we will focus on the materiality and embodiment of signs, that is to say, those contexts in which semiotic form is seen as both distinct from and expressed in some material/cultural/physiological substratum. At stake, in the first place, is the poetic “bundling” of qualities as qualia, and so the opening of the sign to the caprice of material circumstance. In the second place, is the calling into question of the markedness of “media” which depend on fundamental displacements of the intensional practice so mediated. Paradigmatic of this displacement is the distinction drawn (temporal/spatial/ontological) between authors, principals, and animators. Building on the Autumn Quarter, Winter Quarter will focus on how contextually disjointed, displaced, and distanced forces are felt in immediate interactional contexts. Again, the question of mediation is at play, but this quarter we intend to focus on affective and pragmatic impacts from without the here-and-now, experienced by means of mediating technical, embodied, citational, and ritual practices. The distance bridged could be geographical, sociocultural, interpersonal, or along a ‘cosmic axis. In the Spring Quarter, we continue our attention to the bridging of disparate contexts, but focus on the particular challenges of theorizing the junction of scalar differences. On the one hand, we will attend to negotiations between micro and macro scales; between individuals and nations, states and groups, interactions and institutions. We are interested here in how these interactions are grounded across scale. On the other hand, we are here dealing with the question of transduction: on the appearance of sameness over scales, that is, over synecdochically-figurated contexts.