The First Annual Conference on Semiotic Anthropology, April 4-5, 2014  


Conference Organizers

Asif Agha, University of Pennsylvania,
Paja Faudree, Brown University,
Becky Schulthies, Rutgers University,



08:30-9:00 am: Coffee and light breakfast

PANEL: Culture and Commerce


09:00-9:30 am

Greg Urban (Penn), Semiotic forces at a corporate boundary: A Harley-Davidson revitalization video

09:30-10:00 am

Paja Faudree (Brown), Magic plants: Botanical fetishes, semiotic ideologies, indigenous tourism and intellectual property in the global psychedelic trade

10:00-10:30 am

Kartikeya Saboo (Rutgers), The brutal, forceful REALITY of the Object

10:30-11:00 am

Robert E. Moore (Penn), Colors and the city: Conflict and qualia in the re-branding of Belfast

11:00-11:15 am

Discussant: Asif Agha (Penn)

11:15-11:30 am: Coffee Break

PANEL: Languages and Ideologies

11:30-12:00 pm

Alex Jones (Brown), Glossolalia and Pentecostal language ideologies in the Postcolony

12:00-12:30 pm

Nicholas Limerick (Penn), Alphabet debates and the politics of reading written Quichua texts in Ecuador

12:30-1:00 pm

Coleman Donaldson (Penn), Foundational language ideologies of the pan-Manding N’ko literacy movement of West Africa

1:00-1:15 pm

Discussant: Joseph Errington (Yale)

1:15-2:30 pm: Lunch Break

PANEL: Encounters and Identities

2:30-3:00 pm

Laura Kunreuther (Bard College), Seeing Face: Tactile Seeing and the mediation of presence

3:00-3:30 pm

Kathryn Hardy (Penn), Single screen subjects: Class, language and spatial categories in Mumbai

3:30-4:00 pm

Assaf Harel (Rutgers), Using the Kippah in the West Bank: On semiotic experimentation in ethnographic encounters

4:00-4:30 pm

Diego Arispe-Bazan (Penn), Positionality as data collection method: Semiotics of Reflexivity

4:30-4:45 pm

Discussant: Laura Ahearn (Rutgers)

6:30 pm: Dinner


08:30-9:00 Coffee and light breakfast

PANEL: State and Society

09:00-9:30 am

Thea Riofrancos (Penn), Extracting democracy

09:30-10:00 am

Maria Sidorkina (Yale), Public resonance and distinctive opinion: Contrasting chronotopes of collective belonging in Post-socialist Russia

10:00-10:30 am

Becky Schulthies (Rutgers) How to create modern Moroccan citizens through Turath television and re-registering rhymed prose

11:00-11:15 am

Discussant: Paul Kockelman (UT-Austin)

11:15-11:30 Coffee Break

PANEL: Artifacts and Cultures

11:30-12:00 pm

Joanne Baron (Penn), The writing on the wall: Integrating Maya archeology and epigraphy


12:00-12:30 pm

Kyle Olson (Penn), Material encounters with cultural activities: anthropomorphic figurines and figural semiosis in ancient Iran

12:30-1:00 pm

Alex Bauer (CUNY), The kula of long-term loans: material circulation, social relations, and the emergence of the postcolonial “universal” museum

1:00-1:15 pm

Discussant: Robert E. Moore (Penn)

1:15-2:30 pm Lunch Break

PANEL: Migration and Diaspora

2:30-3:00 pm

Hilary Dick, (Arcadia), The polity’s progress & the suffering woman: The pragmatics of scale in talk of migration & other troubles

3:00-3:30 pm

Andrew Carruthers (Yale), Shifting voices, contingent allegiances: The semiotics of mobility and belonging among Bugis transnational migrants

3:30-4:00 pm

Cecile Evers (Penn), Voicing the French perspective on newly arrived immigrants: The ‘Clando’ reanimated by diasporic youth (Marseille, France)

4:00-4:30 pm

Mariam Durrani (Penn), Homes and abroads: Transforming belonging through educational aspirations

4:30-4:45 pm

Discussant: Becky Schulthies (Rutgers)

4:45-5:15 pm  OPEN DISCUSSION


PANEL: Culture and Commerce


Greg Urban (Penn)

Semiotic Forces at a Corporate Boundary: A Harley-Davidson Revitalization Video

This paper analyzes an emotion evoking “symbol” — a motivational video created as part of the revitalization of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle manufacturing facility in York, Pennsylvania. The narrative and visuals summon powerful feelings in workers hard hit by job out-sourcing to other parts of the world. The video stresses the resourcefulness of Americans at Harley-Davidson in the face of global competition. With opening shots of York, a small manufacturing city of some 45,000 people about a two-hour drive from Philadelphia, the narrator describes the defeatist feelings of those who believe “we are destined to become a nation of paper shufflers, burger flippers, pixel pushers.” He then counters: “This is the story of some people who believe something different.” The narrative proceeds to evoke feelings about America, motorcycles, and freedom. Interviews with a range of individuals of diverse backgrounds, not directly involved with the company, however, reveal that, while some respond positively and identify with the corporate imagery and message, others fail to identify and, indeed, are actively repulsed. It is as if from the video emerged both attractive and repulsive forces, drawing people into its orbit or pushing them away, depending on their initial vantage point. As a semiotic device, therefore, the video (and, by analogy, other similar symbolic forms) helps to create a differentiated social space around the corporation.


Paja Faudree (Brown)

Magic plants: botanical fetishes, semiotic ideologies, indigenous tourism and intellectual property in the global psychedelic trade

In this paper, I discuss the semiotic underpinnings of the political economy surrounding global trade in psychedelic plants. I focus on two Mexican plants: salvia (Salvia divinorum), a species of hallucinogenic mint endemic only to the Sierra Mazateca region of Oaxaca state, which has recently become the target of global trade as well as pharmaceutical research; and psilocybin mushrooms found in the same area, which have been of consumer interest since the 1960s. Both have long been used locally in medicinal rituals, using practices and “semiotic exchanges” that valuate the plants in ways deeply at odds with how people outside the region construct the plants’ value. I elucidate these conflicting notions of value, based on contrasting semiotic ideologies and differential tendencies towards making the plants into fetishes of indigeneity. I show how for both plants, trade is marked by historically specific escalations of publicity as the circulation of representations about the plants enable new kinds of discursive engagement with it. At the same time, that trade is marked by systemic blockages — “seizure” points where practices do not “jump the synapses” between different social contexts. I suggest that far-flung commodity chains – as well as global legal-commercial regimes such as intellectual property rights — depend on such metabolic barriers to strip formerly ethnic objects-commodities of the signs that would otherwise hamper their global circulation. This allows the selective re-signification of commodities through the attachment of new signs that function like metabolic accelerants, speeding the immersion of re-contextualized “things” into new regimes of value.

Kartikeya Saboo (Rutgers)

The Brutal, Forceful, REALITY of the Object

In the Peircean triad of sign-object-interpretant, multiple directions are posited in the relation of the sign to its object. I explore the possibility of the sign being more active than, even creating its own object, at least for a given period of time. Critically for the empirical context examined here (the subprime bubble), I examine if the sign was successful in making the interpretant accord with its representation of the object, culminating in the creation of a subprime bubble. Human agents agree on the basis of some tacit beliefs (e.g. property prices go up, ratings are reliable) to make the sign and interpretant cohere (“This is a good investment”— “yes, I agree”). Eventually, the “Reality” of the object reasserted itself in the financial crisis, compelling a reformulation or repositioning of the sign and the interpretant in relation to itself. Keywords: sign, subprime bubble, representation.

Robert Moore (Penn)

Colors of the city: Conflict and qualia in the re-branding of Belfast

In 2007 Belfast City Council contracted with a London-based branding consultancy to develop a new brand identity for the city. The result was a new logo (a heart-shaped letter ‘B’), a bespoke typeface, and a set of brand guidelines designed to reflect “Belfast’s coming of age, the turning of a new page and the new shared enthusiasm which is palpable to all those who experience the city.” A key element of the rebranding was an official palette of 16 colors to be deployed in association with the logo. Non-primary hues with low saturation predominate in the new color scheme, which is overlaid upon a complex pre- existing system of vivid sectarian color contrasts that mark, among other things, the partitioning of space in a “divided city.” Drawing on recent work in the semiotic anthropology of branding, the paper shows that the re-branding of Belfast is part of a larger effort to frame recent histories of ethno-sectarian conflict in terms of ‘cultural’ diversity. Keywords: Semiotics, branding, urban geography, sectarian conflict, Northern Ireland.

PANEL: Languages and Ideologies


Alex Jones (Brown)

Glossolalia and Pentecostal Language Ideologies in the Postcolony

For all the ethnographic attention recently given to world Pentecostalism, a key constituent element of charismatic practice, glossolalia, has not received the examination it would seem to warrant. In this paper I explore two Pentecostal language practices in urban Cameroonian churches: glossolalia and the ritualized translation of sermons between the country’s official languages, French and English. Officially bilingual, in practice Cameroon’s language division is a socially elaborated rupture that has been exploited since the return of multi-party elections by the ruling regime to perpetuate the conditions for authoritarian politics. Against this historical background it is notable that charismatic churches have emerged as sites of authentically bilingual public space. Situated in this context, I argue that we can better see the entailments of glossolalia as a practice and identify Pentecostal language ideology. In conclusion, I suggest a number of implications this study has for the place of Pentecostal language ideology and practice in postcolonial states. Keywords: Pentecostalism, Religious Speech, Language Ideology.

Nicholas Limerick (Penn)

Alphabet Debates and the Politics of Reading Written Quichua Texts in Ecuador

This paper considers the semiotics of orthographic conventions of writing in Quichua. In Ecuador, leaders of intercultural bilingual education have now worked in state offices of the Ministry of Education for more than 20 years. Leaders of Ecuador’s famed indigenous organizations, then, are now also state functionaries. This arrangement contributes to and is mediated by modern tensions between indigenous organizations and the state. Within this backdrop, notions of how one writes in a Unified register of Kichwa, especially with particular letters of the alphabet, demonstrate a lengthy history of how letters serve as social indexicals of in-group divisions. Common ideologies about letters come to index and resemble Indigenous leaders and their formal education and experience with bureaucratic work. Paradoxically, many leaders themselves struggle to read texts written according to the very Quichua orthographic conventions that mark them as elite readers and writers. Such social hierarchies contribute to difficulties in maintaining cohesive indigenous movements. Keywords: orthography, indexicality, Indigenous movements, Latin America.

Coleman Donaldson (Penn)

Foundational Language Ideologies of the pan-Manding N’ko literacy movement of West Africa

In the strictest sense the proper name N’ko refers to non-Latin-, non-Arabic- based script for invented in 1949 by the Guinean peasant intellectual, Sulemaana Kantè, to write the Manding varieties of West Africa. More broadly it refers to the grassroots literacy movement associated with the writing system. Yet viewing N’ko as instance of simple African vernacular literacy promotion misses the centrality of language and standardization to the movement’s founding and its continued success. In this presentation therefore I seek to lay out the foundational language ideologies of the N’ko movement as established by Kantè for the promotion and unity of the Manding language: N’ko as a phonemic & tonally-adapted orthography; N’ko as a historically baptized language; both of which are fused together by Kantè’s conception of grammar or kangbɛ which itself is a historically named lingua franca register. Keywords: orthography, standardization, language ideology, colonial linguistics, Manding.

PANEL: Encounters and Identities


Laura Kunreuther (Bard)

Seeing Face: Tactile Seeing and the Mediation of Presence

In this paper, I explore the semiotic ideology behind the practice and discourse of ‘seeing face’ (mukh herne) in Kathmandu. Mukh herne is a short-hand terminology for a range of visual encounters that are characterized by the effect of presence: tactility and mutuality, moral and social inclusion, and a merging between those who exchange glances. The face of mukh herne is not an external expression or window onto a prior given self; instead, through the face a person recognizes who he or she is vis-à-vis others – i.e., as a wife, a husband, a national citizen, a subject of the king – while at the same time denying the processes of mediation that constitutes this self. Once the face is thought of as a medium, we can begin to explore more complexly the relations between the face and other mediating practices in which the face is implicated, such as photography, film, and ritual. These other media extend or enhance the semiotic ideology of ‘seeing face,’ often to enhance its political and intimate effects. ‘Seeing face’ practices thus complicate the common assumption that seeing is a modern sense based primarily on objectification and distance between observer and observed. Towards the end of the paper, I discuss the shared semiotic ideology of the face and certain invocations of voice, and how this semiotic ideology is being transformed as activists call upon a liberal notion of voice that assumes the voice is a direct expression of an already formed interior self. Different understandings of personhood, then, come to coexist alongside each other, sometimes without trouble and sometimes in uneasy ways. Keywords: semiotic ideology, presence, mediation, face, visuality.

Kathryn Hardy (Penn)

Single Screen Subjects: Class, Language, and Spatial Categories in Mumbai

Cinema halls induce complex interactions of urban space, infrastructural elements, filmic texts, and social interactions. They are not merely the technological and spatial staging grounds for semiotically dense cultural objects (that is, films themselves), but are semiotically dense cultural objects in their own right. This paper attends to the spatial and discursive practices associated with the single-screen cinema hall and its other, the multiplex cinema, in Mumbai, that assemble cinemagoers as certain classes of people. Discursive practices around theaters and cinemagoers laminate categories of class and language into recognizable enregistered social personae. In addition, the spatialized practices of the theater make certain interactions possible while preventing others. In this paper, I argue that both spatial practices and the discourses that animate them must be considered to understand how collectives such as “the audience” can be imagined. Keywords: India, audiences, cinema, space, language ideology.


Assaf Harel (Rutgers)

Using the Kippah in the West Bank: on Semiotic Experimentation in Ethnographic Encounters

The kippah – the Jewish head cover – is one of the most recognizable signs of Judaism. The covering of the head with the kippah is a religious act of humility and obedience as well as a social sign of belonging and difference. During fieldwork among Jewish settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank, I selectively put on and took off the kippah, using it instrumentally in an attempt to elicit desired responses from interlocutors. In interrogating my ethnographic use of the kippah, this paper calls attention to the significance of semiotic experimentation for the production of anthropological knowledge. Keywords: Fieldwork, Israel/Palestine, Judaism.


Diego Arispe-Bazán (Penn)

Positionality as Data Collection Method: Semiotics of Reflexivity

While the “reflexive turn” has had an impact on multiple areas and perspectives in anthropological research, understanding its utility as an anthropological conceit from a semiotic perspective can allow us to appreciate the depth of its value for ethnographic study. When conducting fieldwork, the researcher’s awareness of his or her positionality should not be viewed only as social or political stance, but also as a means of identifying and interpreting n+1 indexicals elicited from subjects in interaction. Using direct examples from my own experiences in both Spain and Peru, I hope to show how focusing on our role as active social actors does not obfuscate the processes we study through our interactions, but rather enriches the detail with which we can describe the social field we enter. In my recent experience, particular interactional frameworks were produced depending on whether others understood me as American, Peruvian, or even a Spaniard from the Canary Islands, in locations such as Lima, Madrid and the Spanish Basque Country. In this paper I explore how portrayal of self, as well as others’ uptake or reformulation of this portrayal, should not remain a naturalized assumption; rather, analyzing the researcher’s self-positioning from a semiotics perspective can expose reflexivity as both a useful tool and a significant scholarly perspective.


PANEL: State and Society


Thea Riofrancos (Penn)

Extracting Democracy

In Ecuador, contention over prior consultation–the collective right of communities to be consulted prior to extractive projects–is a democratic contention par excellence. In this dispute, both anti-mining activists and state officials invoke familiar figures in the democratic imaginary—the people, the majority, the citizen, the voter—and draw on its procedural repertoire and technologies of representation. That these actors justified their distinct political stances on mining in terms of visions of democratic rule demonstrates the flexibility of democracy talk and the wide range of concrete practices it is invoked to describe. In this chapter, I present ethnographic data on an unofficial community consultation organized by an anti-mining group in Victoria del Portete, attending to the planning, execution, and political afterlife of the event. I show that both anti-mining activists and pro- mining officials interwove multiple registers of democratic discourse, deploying the symbolic resources of populism, liberalism, and communitarianism to craft a multilayered democratic language and practice. This complexity, however, often gets simplified in subsequent characterizations, with the effect of projecting two mutually opposed visions of democracy linked to two mutually opposed positions on mining. Keywords: Democracy, liberalism, Latin America, mining, social movements.


Maria Sidorkina (Yale)

Public Resonance and Distinctive Opinion: Contrasting Chronotopes of Collective Belonging in Postsocialist Russia

Unlike English, Russian has two different words for a public (obshchestvennost’) and the public (obshchestvo), and these can stand either in a contrasting or synecdochic relationship to one other. Each instance of drawing such a relationship in Russia today projects a chronotope of collective belonging that has its own genealogy, normative communicative paradigm, project of utopian transformation, and cynical reading. The two dominant chronotopic models – one historically linked to socialist ideas of mass participation in self-government, and the other to “intelligentsia” visions of mass enlightenment from above – compete on the same social domain of educated urban residents. This paper examines the elements representative of one set of these chronotopic conventions, focusing in particular on the use of evidential strategies and stance-taking for imagining collective belonging.


Becky Schulthies (Rutgers)

How to Create Modern Moroccan Citizens through Turath Television and Re-registering Rhymed Prose

This paper examines the process by which a Moroccan television producer re-vitalized a public market story-telling register (rhymed prose) associated with proverbs and the wisdom of old folks as a vehicle for modernist liberal messaging about civic personhood—and why the target audience may have missed the message. I explore the messaging process through analysis of media ideologies, language ideologies, register chronotopes, and media participation frameworks to suggest that we need to pay attention to both implicit and explicit media ideologies and the ways this complicates indexical selectivity of producers’ political projects. Keywords: state, enregisterment, civic personhood.


PANEL: Artifacts and Cultures


Joanne Baron (Penn)

The Writing on the Wall: Integrating Maya Archaeology and Epigraphy

The study of the Ancient Maya was revolutionized in the 1980s when epigraphers deciphered the hieroglyphic writing system. But archaeologists often view textual data as ideological in nature, and therefore of dubious reliability. Archaeological data, however, are often incomplete, fragmented, and subject to multiple interpretations. Attempts to integrate these datasets usually use archaeology merely to fill in the gaps or confirm the semantic content of texts. A better approach is to consider artifacts and hieroglyphic texts as part of a unified system of signs, allowing for a better understanding of Ancient Maya society. In this paper, I will present an example of this approach: Panel 1 from the site of La Corona, Guatemala presents a seemingly straightforward list of dates and associated events. But by analyzing the text alongside archaeological evidence, it is possible to move beyond questions of its truth or falsity and instead understand its multiple communicative effects. Keywords: Archaeology, Epigraphy, Text, History, Maya.


Kyle Olson (Penn)

Material encounters with cultural activities: anthropomorphic figurines and figural semiosis in ancient Iran

Semiotic theories have had a long history of application to archaeological interpretation, but with only a few notable exceptions, these have consisted of little more than imposition of Saussurian or Peircian terminology onto what ultimately remains entirely archaeological reasoning. Put differently, being satisfied with classifying different archaeological artifacts as signs, signifiers, objects, interpretants, icons, indexes, and symbols is not just insufficient but in fact unproductive. Instead, archaeology must incorporate theories of metasemiosis in order to take advantage of its unique potential to trace meaning-making across material encounters. This paper therefore explores possibilities for the applicability of higher order semiotic processes such as enregisterment to archaeological data. A unique corpus of anthropomorphic figurines from northeastern Iran is examined as a case study for demonstrating the potential of metasemiotic theories for the interpretation of archaeological materials. Keywords: Archaeology, Enregisterment, Tureng Tepe, Semiotic Encounters, Figurines.

Alex Bauer (CUNY). The kula of long-term loans: material circulation, social relations, and the emergence of the postcolonial “universal” museum

PANEL: Migration and Diaspora


Hilary Dick (Arcadia)

The polity’s progress and the suffering woman: the pragmatics of scale in talk of migration and other troubles

Scholars of migration often posit migrants as moving across given scalar relationships (between, say, the “local,” “national,” and “global”) without interrogating the actual salience of such relationships. Through the analysis of talk among working-class women from Uriangato, Mexico, this paper explores the imagination and deployment of the scalar relationships these women argue shape their socioeconomic position in Mexico, encouraging migration to the United States. In particular, I examine their engagements with a popular national imagining that poses the integration of religious “tradition” and socioeconomic “progress” as imperative for full membership in the Mexican polity. This imagining involves a paradoxical pragmatics of scaling, in which working-class people are to recruit themselves to upward mobility through the humbling practices of Catholicism. I reflect on one such practice—the voicing of a common image of Mexican womanhood: la mujer sufrida/the suffering woman. This paper illustrates that women use enactments of suffering to simultaneously make appeals for and critiques of the promises of vertical “progress” endorsed by state discourse in Mexico. Keywords: Mexican migration, scaling practices, voice, national imaginings, enactments of suffering.


Andrew Carruthers (Yale)

Shifting Voices, Contingent Allegiances: The Semiotics of Mobility and Belonging Among Bugis Transnational Migrants

This paper centers on Bugis migrants between Indonesia and Malaysia, assessing how their experiences of mobility and belonging are reflected and shaped through spoken communicative interaction. The Bugis are a mobile, seafaring ethnic group who call the Indonesian island of Sulawesi their home, but frequently migrate to neighboring Malaysia due to labor demands and perceived ethnolinguistic, religious, and cultural similarities there. In recent years,however, Malaysia has increased its surveillance and incarceration of suspected undocumented workers. Elicited and naturally-situated metapragmatic commentary suggests that this has drawn awareness to the sociopolitical entailments of everyday communicative interaction, signaling to Bugis migrants how they might interactionally calculate, contest, and calibrate competing social personae across shifting contexts. Drawing on fieldwork conducted among Bugis migrants in Malaysia and return migrants to Indonesia, I will discuss how signs of being in and out of place figure in everyday Bugis migrant sociality.


Cécile Evers (Penn)

Voicing the French perspective on newly arrived immigrants: The “Clando” reanimated by diasporic youth (Marseille, France)

This paper examines the voicing structure of a particular mocking routine—that of the “Clando” —as it is performed by secondary school-aged diasporic youth from a housing project (La Castellane) in Northern Marseille. At first blush, second-generation youth seemingly do little more than pander to their classmates’ desire for amusing imitations of how the first generation of immigrants who came to Marseille from North, West, and East Africa (their own parents and neighbors not least among them) speak and behave. Upon closer examination, the performable persona of the Clando (feminine: Clandotte) presupposes a more complex voicing structure, namely one deploying diasporic youth as Goffmanian animators but also the de souche (historically) French populace of Marseille as principals—with pejorative views on illegal immigrants to Marseille. Given the other-voiced status of this in-group persona, this presentation details the range of construals and reactions possible when youth reanimate the Clando/Clandotte. Keywords: Voicing Structure; Other-Voiced Speech; Youth Slang; Mocking Routines; Communities in Dynamic Contact.

Mariam Durrani (Penn)

Homes and Abroads: Transforming Belonging through Education Aspirations

In my dissertation research, I address the question of how transnational students coming from less developed economies, both intra-national and international, see their move between home and ‘abroad’ for higher education as part of an aspirational trajectory to become more economically and socially mobile. Through an investigation of the linguistic and cultural practices South Asian-origin youth produce and circulate in educational settings, I seek to understand how students from marginalized populations transform identity-based markers perceived as exclusionary into normative practices. I argue that students’ use of syncretic speech-forms and accompanying non-speech acts, in NYC and Lahore, are implicated in the neo-liberal subject narrative. I hope to discuss how these syncretic activities embody or demonstrate utopic visions of being ‘South Asian’ or demonstrating ‘cosmopolitanism’ in an urban job market, activities which can simultaneously distance youth from the very spaces they wish to join. I will present both linguistic and visual data gathered through fieldwork. Keywords: youth, migration, aspiration, higher education.